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Pittsburgh Penguins 2018-2019 Season Preview

 Pittsburgh Penguins

47-29-6, 100 points, second in the Metropolitan Division

Lost in Second Round to Washington, 4-2

Additions: F Matt Cullen, D Stefan Elliott, C Derek Grant, RW Jimmy Hayes, D Jack Johnson, G John Muse, D Juuso Riikola

Subtractions: D Lukas Bengtsson (signed with Linköpings, SHL), C Vincent Dunn (signed with Orlando, ECHL), D Matt Hunwick (traded to BUF), C Josh Jooris (signed with TOR), W Tom Kuhnhackl (signed with NYI), D Andrey Pedan (signed with Ak Bars Kazan, KHL), F Carter Rowney (signed with ANA), LW Tom Sestito (retired), W Conor Sheary (traded to BUF), D Jarred Tinordi (signed with NSH)

Offseason Analysis: Almost every season during C Sidney Crosby and F Evgeni Malkin‘s tenure has started with the goal of hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup.

However, this campaign is a little bit different than any before it.

Pittsburgh entered last season as the reigning back-to-back champion. The Pens had their ups and downs during the regular season, but after a six-game victory over intrastate rival Philadelphia in the First Round set up yet another conference semifinals meeting with Washington, fate seemed to be in the black-and-gold’s corner once again.

After all, the Penguins almost always beat the Capitals in the playoffs.

That modifier proved to be important, as the Caps defeated the battle-worn Penguins 2-1 in overtime in Game 6 to eliminate them for only the second time in 11 postseason meetings.

With Washington going on to win its first championship in franchise history, it put the onus on Head Coach Mike Sullivan‘s squad to win this year – not only to reclaim one of the most coveted trophies in the world from a division rival, but also to stake claim to the title of the NHL’s 10th dynasty and first since the 1983-1990 Oilers.

The league officially declares a club a dynasty if it claims at least three championships in the span of four years. With two titles in the past three seasons, this is a make-or-break season for Pittsburgh if Crosby and co. want to add that impressive listing to their resumes.

Offensively, Pittsburgh’s biggest addition for the 2018-2019 season actually occurred at the 2018 trade deadline when it completed a three-way trade for C Derick Brassard. It didn’t help that Brassard suffered a lower-body injury so close the regular season, but Pittsburgh is hoping it will see an improvement from the 4-8-12 totals the former Senator posted in 26 regular season and playoff games after he had a full summer to rest, recuperate and learn Sullivan’s system.

Brassard is just about as close to a lock for the third line’s center position as possible.

After a year of service to the Wild, soon-to-be 42-year-old Cullen was also added back into the mix and will surely assume fourth-line center duties, forcing F Riley Sheahan to the wing. With his immense experience at center, Sheahan will be a valuable commodity capable of playing on either the third or fourth line to serve as the backup face-off man should Brassard or Cullen get kicked out of the dot.

Any other changes to the Pens’ attack will come from within the organization. The clamor around the Steel City for RW Daniel Sprong is deafening (he posted 32-33-65 totals in 65 games played last year in the AHL), but his 2-1-3 effort in eight NHL games last season was not enough to convince Sullivan that he should stay with the senior team full time. He still has one more year left on his contract after this season, but the limited minutes awarded a former second-rounder gives many – including myself – the indication that Penguins coaches and management are running out of patience with the youngster’s growth.

In the same turn, F Dominik Simon and F Zach Aston-Reese earned their first Stanley Cup Playoff minutes last season, but only registered respective three and one assists in their eight or nine postseason outings (Simon managed 4-8-12 totals in 33 NHL regular season games last season, while Aston-Reese posted 4-2-6 marks in his 16 regular season showings).

None are locks for the roster, especially with the signings of Grant (12-12-24 totals in 66 games played with Buffalo last season) – another center that could transition to the wing – and Hayes (3-6-9 in 33 appearances with the Devils). General Manager Jim Rutherford is going to have to be very decisive with who makes the squad and who doesn’t, as he will not want to risk losing any of his talented youths to the waiver wire if he’s forced to make a move during the regular season.

The Penguins were even more quiet on the defensive front this summer, but there is two signings along the blue line worth talking about. While a defensive corps that includes Brian Dumoulin, new hire Johnson, Kris Letang, Olli Maatta, Jamie Oleksiak and Justin Schultz looks like it’d be more than solid enough to keep life easy for G Matt Murray, Pittsburgh could be in line for an upgrade if Riikola continues to impress even more than he already has.

The 24-year-old (he’ll turn 25 on November 9) from Joensuu, Finland has played a majority of the last six seasons playing in SM-Liiga  (Finland’s top professional league) with KalPa – including playing exclusively with the senior team since 2015-2016 – and he’s been reported to be adjusting to the North American game very quickly and is garnering a lot of attention early in the Pens’ training camp.

Now, that’s not to say Riikola (yes, pronounced like the cough drop company) will avoid Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and automatically make the team. With Pittsburgh’s top six defensemen locked into contracts through next season (seventh-man Chad Ruhwedel will be a UFA next summer), it’s hard to find him a spot on the roster as things stand currently.

However, should the organization decide he’s the real deal (for what it’s worth, he’s been practicing with both Dumoulin, a left-handed shot, and Letang, a right-handed shot), I wouldn’t be surprised to see Rutherford begin fielding trade offers for one of his defensemen in efforts to create a spot for Riikola and improve his bottom-six offensive depth.

Offseason Grade: B

It’s hard to say the Penguins had an A-class offseason considering their overall inactivity, but I’d also argue that there was less to fix than a second round elimination at the hands of the eventual champs would indicate. The real work for this roster will be done when deciding to go with youth or experience, as the core of this group is still certainly capable of winning the Stanley Cup once again.

Columbus Blue Jackets 2018-19 Season Preview

Columbus Blue Jackets

45-30-7, 97 points, fourth in the Metropolitan Division

First Wild Card in the East, lost in First Round to Washington (4-2)

Additions: G Jean-Francois Berube, D Adam Clendening, D Tommy Cross, LW Anthony Duclair, C Liam Foudy (’18 1st round pick, signed ELC), C Ryan MacInnis, C Riley Nash, D Dillon Simpson

Subtractions: LW Matt Calvert (signed with COL), D Taylor Chorney (signed with HC Lugano), D Ian Cole (signed with COL), D Cameron Gaunce (signed with TB), D Jack Johnson (signed with PIT), C Mark Letestu (unsigned UFA), RW Thomas Vanek (signed with DET)

Re-signed: RW Oliver Bjorkstrand (3-year, $2.5M), LW Boone Jenner (4-year, $3.75M), D Ryan Murray (1 year, $2.825M)

Offseason Analysis: The Jackets enjoyed a successful, if not slightly underwhelming ’17-’18 campaign, where all-time high hopes were somewhat cooled by some notable underachieving seasons from players like Boone Jenner, Brandon Dubinsky and even captain Nick Foligno. Fortunately these were offset somewhat by terrific years from players like rookie standout Pierre-Luc Dubois, emerging Norris Trophy candidate Seth Jones, and superstar Artemi Panarin. They’d close out the regular season on a 15-4-2 run over their final 21 games to lose out to Philadelphia for the final Metropolitan Division spot by a single point, instead drawing the first Wild Card spot and a date with the Washington Capitals.

The Jackets shocked everyone by taking Games 1 and 2 of the series in Washington, both in thrilling overtime fashion, to head back home with a 2-0 hold on the series. Then came “The Promise”. Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin told the media they’d be back in Washington for Game 5 with the series tied. They did just that, and rode the momentum on through the Blue Jackets, and everyone else in their way as they went on to grab the first Stanley Cup in franchise history. This was no consolation prize in the minds of Jackets fans, though, as losing to the eventual Stanley Cup champions is sort of a calling card in Columbus’ recent history. *throws another dart at a poster of Sidney Crosby*

Now, with another disappointing playoff performance on their record, a list of notable pending free agents on their plate, and the ever-looming Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin contract situations on their hands, the Columbus brass faced a rather trying offseason. But, as has been his MO over the years, GM Jarmo Kekalainen wasn’t about to panic. Or really show any sort of human emotion of any kind. I think that’s just a Finnish thing.

First came the NHL draft, where once again ‘J.K.’ and his staff went a bit off the board for their first round pick, drafting speedster Liam Foudy 18th overall. Generally projected as a very-late first or early second round pick, Foudy caught the eye of the CBJ scouting staff for his ability to inject speed into their lineup, something it could definitely use. While likely to spend at least another year in Juniors, Foudy did ink his entry level contract over the summer.

When free agency opened, the Jackets very quickly lost longtime roster stalwarts Jack Johnson (fans weren’t that upset) and Matt Calvert (fans held memorial services), along with rentals Thomas Vanek, Ian Cole, and Mark Letestu. Kekalainen quickly nabbed penalty-killing specialist Riley Nash to replace Letestu’s bottom-six depth. Initially his $2.75 million cap hit over the next three years seemed slightly steep for a guy who projects as a third-line center at best, but with the raised cap and resulting numbers we saw on some other signings/re-signings over the summer, the deal has aged fairly well. A few days later the Jackets would pick up troubled youngster Anthony Duclair on a league-minimum $650 thousand, one-year deal. Likened to the ‘show me’ contract given to Sam Gagner by the Jackets a few years ago that paid dividends, Columbus is hedging bets on Duclair’s willingness to shed some of the baggage he’s accumulated over the past few seasons and work hard to get back to being the player that scored 20 goals and 44 points as a 20-year-old. If he can, he’s an absolute steal. If he can’t, he’s barely even a blip on the salary cap radar, and could be placed on waivers without much concern.

Kekalainen decided to let his organizational depth fill the rest of the vacancies in the roster (which has definitely created one of the more intriguing training camps to watch). Instead, he invested a good portion of his time and effort over the summer into attempting to secure the future services of Artemi Panarin and, to a lesser extent, Sergei Bobrovsky. Bobrovsky only recently broke his silence about his situation, revealing that management knows his plans after his contract expires next summer, but declined to make public that information.

Cryptic.

The Panarin situation was much more public, and highlighted by Kekalainen flying to France to visit with Panarin and his agent while the dynamic winger was on vacation. No real progress was made on a contract extension, as Panarin seems likely to either test the waters of free agency or possibly even return to Russia after this season. Some reports indicated he’d prefer to play in a larger market than Columbus, or perhaps at least a market with a beach (he did spend the last month or so of the offseason training with friends Nikita Kucherov and Andrei Vasilevskiy in Tampa), but no solid proof of any of this ever emerged.

The prospects of a future in Columbus that include neither their most potent offensive weapon nor their multi-time Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender are not fun to consider for the fanbase, but they do appear to be looming. In net, the Jackets do at least boast one of the strongest goaltending prospect pools in the league, but that’s far from a sure thing. Apart from possibly young Vitaly Abramov, they certainly don’t have anyone currently in the pipeline that could replace Panarin’s offensive production.

Getting away from the doom and gloom, let’s circle back to the earlier claim of a very interesting training camp.

The Jackets’ camp roster includes over 60 players, and there are some very tight battles for more than a few roster spots. The race for bottom-six wing minutes is hotly contested. Players with Blue Jackets tenure like Sonny Milano, Markus Hannikainen, and Lukas Sedlak now find themselves being challenged by newcomer Duclair, along with a serious pool of prospects like Sam Vigneault, Kevin Stenlund, Eric Robinson, Jonathan Davidsson, Paul Bittner and even 2018 draft picks Foudy and Traverse City tournament standout Trey Fix-Wolansky.

While I don’t see the 2018 picks making the roster (more time in Juniors would serve their development better than limited fourth-line NHL minutes), the rest are interesting. Duclair obviously adds an element of offense and speed, but has also shown he’s not afraid to play with an edge as well. Vigneault and Stenlund are both every bit of 6-foot-5 and well over 200 pounds, but lack some speed and are both natural centers, a position that should be filled on the roster. Bittner is a superior skater to either of the ‘Twin Towers’, still comes in at 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds, and is a natural wing, but has struggled to adapt his offensive game to the pro level to this point. Robinson played one game with the Jackets last year coming in as a free agent after captaining the Princeton Tigers in his senior year where he put up 31 points in 36 games. His pro game has yet to really be seen, so training camp and preseason will be important for him. To me, the most interesting name at forward is the Swedish RW Davidsson. An effortless skater, he brings plenty of speed and agility to the lineup, and has shown to be an extremely intelligent playmaker, but he’s definitely not a physical presence nor a defensive stalwart, so not who you’d normally have in a bottom-six role. He could probably use another year in either the SHL or AHL to continue his physical and defensive development, but if he impresses in camp he could at least get a look.

My projected forward lines are:
Panarin – Dubois – Atkinson
Jenner – Wennberg – Bjorkstrand
Milano – Dubinsky – Foligno
Sedlak – Nash – Anderson
Extra forwards Hannikainen and Duclair

On defense, Columbus has the luxury of one of the best top pairs in the league, with Seth Jones alongside blueline sniper Zach Werenski. Werenski set the franchise record for goals as a defenseman last year while playing basically the entire year with a destroyed shoulder. Offseason surgery will keep him slightly limited in camp and likely out of all preseason games, but he’s projected to be 100 percent ready to go for the beginning of the season. After the top pair, though, things are pretty fluid, with approximately seven players vying for the four remaining spots. Three of the four (David Savard, Ryan Murray and Markus Nutivaara) are pretty well locked into the lineup, just more a question of where exactly they’ll sit on the depth chart. But the competition for the No. 6 spot and final roster spot as the seventh man is tight. Dean Kukan and Scott Harrington both saw limited NHL action with the Jackets last year, with Kukan putting up a respectable 4 points in 11 games and Harrington proving to be a reliable No. 6 down the stretch run. Adam Clendening only saw five games with Arizona last year, and has bounced between the leagues a lot in the past few seasons, but his last full season in the AHL saw him put up 59 points in 74 games. He’s not always the most defensively reliable guy, but he’s the best puck mover of the contenders. My personal pick for not only the Jackets roster but also for the No. 6 slot is 6-foot-5 Gabriel Carlsson. While still working to put some bulk on his lanky frame, Carlsson has already adapted well to the North American game, being a steady presence on the Cleveland blueline last year in the AHL. While certainly not an offensive producer, he’s very poised with the puck and is a confident passer. He skates well and uses his lengthy reach to make sure he’s always in good position. He’s also capable of playing either side of the ice.

I have the defense shaping up like this:
Werenski – Jones
Murray – Savard
Carlsson – Nuutivaara
Extra defenseman Harrington

In net, things are unlikely to look any different than last year. While J.F. Berube was brought in to challenge for the backup position after Joonas Korpisalo had a bit of regression last year, he’ll likely head to Cleveland as Korpi’s deal is one-way. Elvis Merzilikins and Daniil Tarasov are both top goaltending prospects, but they’ll continue their development overseas for the time being.

Offseason Grade: C+

Though there seems to be a general sense that more should have been done to improve the team over the summer, the handful of moves made were smart. The big thing here is that there is a lot of potential turmoil brewing heading towards next year. Kekalainen was likely smart not to hedge any knee-jerk bets on this season and instead rely upon his strong organizational depth to improve the team.

If the youngsters make an impact, and you get a rebound season from a vet or two, suddenly even the prospect of losing your two Russian dynamos seems less daunting. Panarin is definitely trade bait for a big return before the deadline if you need to go that route, and if the team gets better from within, that leaves big chunks of cap space to bring in other pieces if necessary.

While they’ll obviously look to improve their fortunes (particularly in the playoffs) this year, it will really be next offseason where the brass will have to earn those shiny new contracts they received this month.

St. Louis Blues 2018-2019 Season Preview

St. Louis Blues

44-32-6, 94 points, fifth in the Central Division

Additions: C Tyler Bozak, F Brian Flynn, G Chad Johnson, D Joey LaLeggia, LW Patrick Maroon, D Niko Mikkola, F Jordan Nolan, F Ryan O’Reilly, W David Perron, D Tyler Wotherspoon

Subtractions: RW Beau Bennett (signed with Dinamo Minsk, KHL), F Patrik Berglund (traded to BUF), C Kyle Brodziak (signed with EDM), G Carter Hutton (signed with BUF), D Petteri Lindbohm (signed with Lausanne, NL), C Wade Megan (signed with DET), F Vladimir Sobotka (traded to BUF), F Tage Thompson (traded to BUF)

Offseason Analysis: The best metaphor for the Blues’ offseason just might be a fishing analogy.

While there was certainly a big fish to be caught (for those still in the dark, Toronto signing C John Tavares is by far the catch of the summer), General Manager Doug Armstrong won the volume competition, as he cast a wide net and brought in at least four offensive additions that should see significant playing time this season.

And that’s not to say Armstrong simply acquired anyone willing to move to the Gateway to the West. To continue our fishing analogy, Armstrong’s nets had large holes to grab only the biggest of names available this summer.

Bozak and Perron represent St. Louis’ primary signings from the summer’s free agency frenzy. Bozak, a player coming off posting 11-32-43 totals in Toronto last season, and Perron, who scored 16-50-66 marks (by far a career-high in assists) with the Western Conference champion Vegas Golden Knights, were both signed on July 1 and would have represented an excellent offseason simply between themselves.

Maroon, who has posted more than 40 points in both of his last two seasons, was signed nine days later to a one-year deal, but it was really the July 1 trade with the Sabres for O’Reilly that set the Blues apart and set such high expectations. For the price of two bottom-nine forwards, a prospect, and two draft picks (a first in 2019 and a second in 2021), the Blues added a legitimate top-six center that has posted at least 55 points in six of his last seven seasons (an injury limited his action to only 29 games in 2012-13).

Fifty-five points, with his best being a 64-point effort in 2013-14? Aren’t expectations a little high that he’ll be the one to propel the Notes back into the playoffs?

We need to remember that O’Reilly has only played for Colorado (2009-2015) and Buffalo (2015-2018) during his career – neither of which I would say were exactly abounding in talent during his tenures. Should he earn the role of starting center (as many expect he will) over F Brayden Schenn, he’ll be playing alongside one of the best right wings in the league in Vladimir Tarasenko and up-and-coming 26-year-old F Jaden Schwartz, who posted 14-21-35 totals in 30 games to open the season before suffering a lower-body injury that sidelined him for more than a month.

If we’re looking for something that smells fishy, I’d sooner look to St. Louis’ goaltending situation. Far and away, the Notes’ best netminder last season was Hutton with his 17-7-3 record on a .931 save percentage and 2.09 GAA. Instead of resigning him, Armstrong allowed him to take his talents to the Queen City, leading to former Sabres goalie Johnson making his way to the Gateway City.

With no new starter in sight (23-year-old G Ville Husso still needs more time in the AHL to develop), that means G Jake Allen (who just yesterday was reported to be struggling with back spasms that will keep him off the ice for much of training camp) will regain his starting job even though he managed only a 27-25-3 record on an abysmal .906 save percentage and 2.75 GAA last season.

For at least the last two campaigns, Allen has made a horrendous habit of falling into cold streaks that extend longer than a month. In 19 appearances between December 12 and March 8 last season, Allen managed a terrible 2-14-0 record on a .897 save percentage and 3.17 GAA.

For a team with aspirations as high as the Blues’, I’m surprised this issue was not given more attention to result in a better acquisition than Johnson. While the goalie free agent market was fairly lean, Armstrong showed he was willing to make a blockbuster trade when he made the O’Reilly deal. Instead, this entire season rests firmly on Allen’s shoulders, as his incredible defense (the Blues’ 29.7 shots allowed last season was best in the Western Conference) can do only so much before he has to make a save.

Offseason Grade: B+

There’s no doubt the Blues were unhappy missing the playoffs last season. However, while they certainly did more than enough to improve an attack that already boasted three 20-goal scorers (Tarasenko, Schenn and Schwartz), I have major concerns with Allen getting handed the reins after being arguably the biggest problem last season. If he can’t rise to the challenge and return to his 2015-2016 form that led the Notes to second in the Central Division (remember, G Brian Elliott was in net when that team went all the way to the Western Finals), all this offseason work was for naught.


As a bonus interesting note, Perron has never signed a contract with any club other than the St. Louis Blues, even though he’s worn four other crests in his career and is embarking upon his third stint with the organization.

I don’t know how important that is, but now you’ll have an answer if you’re ever posed with that trivia question at your local watering hole.

2018 Offseason Preview: Columbus Blue Jackets

Our offseason previews for all 31 National Hockey League teams continues with the Columbus Blue Jackets and their outlook for the summer.

The Jackets finished the 2017-18 season with a record of 45-30-7, capping a strong (albeit inconsistent) campaign with 97 points, earning them fourth place in the Metropolitan Division and a playoff birth as the first wild card in the East.

After taking two dramatic overtime victories in Washington to start the playoffs, the soldiers in Union Blue fell on their bayonets by dropping four-straight games (including three within the friendly confines of Nationwide Arena) to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Washington Capitals and were once again eliminated from contention in the opening round of the playoffs.

I mean, would they really be the Blue Jackets if they didn’t get your hopes up before firing them out of that cannon?

Though the core of a solid-if-not-spectacular team is likely to remain through the summer, the front office is now feeling the pressure of raising a team that they drug out of the trenches by the bootstraps to the next level. The fanbase will no longer accept ‘just making the playoffs’, and though there’s still plenty of promising youth onboard, some key players like captain Nick Foligno are sliding into the back half of their careers. This is a team that needs to win, and needs to do it soon.

How can they do that? I’m glad you asked. (If you didn’t actually ask, I’m still going to tell you.)

2018 NHL Entry Draft

The Jackets are decently well-stocked to try and score some talent in this year’s draft, with a pick in each of the first three rounds, along with another in both the sixth and seventh. It will be those early-round picks that are likely to mean the most to GM Jarmo Kekalainen and his staff, as this year’s extremely deep draft class means that you’re likely to nab some serious quality (or perhaps have a bigger bargaining chip should you decide to trade picks for another asset) deeper in than usual.

It’s not overly likely that the CBJ will look to acquire further picks, though they could perhaps look to trade up from their 18th spot in line. With Jack Johnson a pending UFA who looks very likely to be on the move (his recent time in Columbus has been tumultuous, and a change of scenery could be the spark he needs to reignite his career) come July 1, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that we could see a deal made to send his negotiating rights and that 18th pick to a team further up the draft order.

As for likely selections with whatever first round pick they happen to have (we’ll pretend that if they trade up, it will be a small swing, maybe in the 12-15 position at most), a few names stand out to me as filling potential needs.

Serron Noel, a 6-foot-5, 205-pound right winger out of the OHL (Oshawa Generals) could be a fit on a team with few natural right wingers. A solid, if not outstanding scorer in juniors, Noel is still filling out his large frame and is likely to continue improving his burgeoning offensive game, drawing comparisons to power forwards like Wayne Simmonds. An eventual perhaps third-and-fourth line RW tandem of Noel and Josh Anderson would be a lot of meat to throw at opposing defenses.

Bode Wilde, a 6-foot-2, 196-pound right shooting defenseman from the United States National Team Development Program, is a very good possibility. Regarded as one of the better all-round defenders in a draft that is not lacking them, Wilde could eventually complete a defense corps that boasts himself along with David Savard and Seth Jones down the right side. Not a bad lineup there. In particular, his booming slap shot would be a welcome addition on a power play unit that hasn’t had a true cannon since James Wisniewski‘s departure. Also, he has a sick hockey name.

My personal pick for the most likely selection comes in the form of Swedish Elite League center Isac Lundestrom. At 6-feet and 185 pounds, he’s not far off from good NHL size, and with the additional polish his defensive game could use, he’d likely have plenty of time to hit the weight room before reaching the Jackets lineup. But his elite offensive capabilities and, in particular, blinding speed address two of the club’s biggest shortcomings. He also provides versatility, having proven himself capable of playing the left wing well. Regarded by some scouts as having potentially the highest ceiling of any center in the draft, he could be a mid-round steal for Columbus.

Pending Free Agents

The UFA list for Columbus isn’t huge, but it does contain a few potentially interesting names. NHL regulars Johnson (who’s possible fate has already been discussed, so we’ll skip over him in this section), Thomas Vanek, Matt Calvert, Ian Cole, and Mark Letestu are the most notable names (no offense to Jeff Zatkoff, Taylor Chorney, Andre Benoit, Cameron Gaunce, and Alex Broadhurst).

Vanek’s stint in Columbus started off very well, gelling quickly with linemates Alexander Wennberg and Boone Jenner to put up great numbers in early games following his acquisition at the deadline. But the magic wore off and he was all-but-invisible during the playoffs, often looking far too slow to keep up with the game. Acquired for an absolute steal (Jussi Jokinen, a waiver wire pickup, and Tyler Motte, a throw-in on the Artemi Panarin trade that had bounced around between the AHL and the Jackets’ fourth line all year), it doesn’t hurt the organization at all to simply let him walk.

Calvert was protected from the expansion draft in place of 2017-18 40-goal scorer William Karlsson. That isn’t necessarily relevant information, but I enjoy pain. Anyway, Calvert enjoyed a so-so year, producing nine goals and a career-high (tied) 24 points in 69 (nice) games played. A solid contributor on the penalty kill, and a constant spark plug on the fourth line, his never-quit playing style has endeared him to Columbus fans, but he may have to take a hometown discount if he wants to stay.

Cole played extremely well down the stretch for Columbus after his acquisition from Pitt…Otta…it was weird, but you get the point. He basically made Jack Johnson expendable, and he has said many times that he absolutely loves the city and his new teammates. It’s of course always a matter of numbers, but don’t be surprised to see Cole back in Union Blue next year.

Letestu loves Columbus, lives in Columbus (his family never left when he went to Edmonton), and has said he would like to finish his career there. Still a more-than-serviceable fourth line center that can help your special teams units, it’s likely he’ll take a hometown discount and remain with the organization.

The RFA list is smaller, but contains three major names in Jenner, Oliver Bjorkstrand, and Ryan Murray.

Jenner is a fan favorite, and one of the hardest-working 30-goal scorers you’ll ever find. But after a breakout 30-goal, 49-point 2015-16 campaign, he’s tallied just 31 goals and 65 points in 157 games since. If not for a late-season hot streak when paired with Wennberg and Vanek this season, his numbers would have been significantly lower. At times the game just seems too fast for his skating abilities, and even at just 24 years of age you wonder if he can improve it enough to stay useful. I’d expect him to get a bridge extension on a pay level similar to his current $2.9M, but Boone has a lot to prove going forward.

Bjorkstrand is coming off of his entry level contract, and I’d expect a bridge-style deal similar to what I listed for Jenner. Posting 11 goals and 29 assists for 40 points this season, ‘Olli’ showed flashes of his potential, but still needs to get a little more confident in himself, and particularly in his laser beam wrist shot.

Murray is a very intriguing topic. Though ever-dependable, the former WHL standout and second-overall pick has never really hit the stride he was projected to, particularly in the offensive department. Derailed time and time again by injuries (often to his legs, which are probably the silky-smooth skating defender’s greatest weapons), Murray has played all 82 games just once in 5 NHL seasons, and has missed no less than 19 games in any other campaign.

At 24-years-old, he’s definitely still young enough to sell as ‘Still coming into his own’ and his potential ceiling should be alluring to many teams. With other good young left handed defenders waiting in the wings (Markus Nutivaara, Gabriel Carlsson, Dean Kukan, Vladislav Gavrikov), the time could be right to try and swing a sign-and-trade type of deal to send Murray out in exchange for some offensive power. The Senators come to mind as a potential trade partner, as a spoil of offensive firepower up front is countered by a defense corps that is suspect at best, especially with the likely departure of Erik Karlsson. Mike Hoffman‘s name was already tied to Columbus around the trade deadline last year, but former Ohio State standout Ryan Dzingel could be a potential fit, as well.

I don’t expect a particularly busy or flashy offseason in Columbus, but Kekalainen and company can’t just rest on their laurels, either. They have a very good group that really needs just a few things to get them over the hump. Add another solid offensive threat or two to compliment the dynamic Panarin/Pierre-Luc Dubois line, sprinkle in a reliable veteran depth blueliner, and hinge your bets on a new goaltending coach for Sergei Bobrovsky (longtime man Ian Clark is departing the team this summer) helping him get past his playoff struggles, and you might be on to something.

Oh, and you may want to figure out what to do with that abysmal Brandon Dubinsky contract…

2018 Offseason Preview: Buffalo Sabres

With the most coveted trophy in sports being handed out Thursday night in Sin City, the 2017-18 season came to a bittersweet end. However, before the Washington Capitals had even finished taking their victory laps around T-Mobile Arena, Down the Frozen River was already taking a look ahead at all the exciting possibilities this summer.

Welcome to the 2018 NHL offseason.

Stay tuned to DtFR for the next 10 days, as we’ll be breaking down each and every team’s needs, wants, holes and excesses and how they might address them before training camps commence in September.

We’ll be tackling this series in the same order as the 2018 NHL Entry Draft, so that means the Buffalo Sabres are first up!

2018 NHL Entry Draft

Forgive me for making too many assumptions, but I think this might be the most clear-cut decision of the offseason for any of the 31 clubs in the NHL. The first round of the 2018 NHL Entry Draft is scheduled for June 22, and it might as well start with D Rasmus Dahlin standing next to Commissioner Gary Bettman already wearing blue and gold.

Whether or not the 18-year-old Swede will be able to play the high-level defense demanded of this league right out of the gate is irrelevant, as Dahlin is clearly the most talented option available in this year’s crop of prospects.

Assuming they select him like everyone believes they will, the Sabres are hoping Dahlin develops into the two-way defenseman of any coach’s dreams: one cut from the same mold as Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson, but potentially even better.

If the 2017-18 season in his domestic league is any indicator, Dahlin will only continue to impress. His 19:02 time on ice per game was third on his team (Frölunda HC in the SHL) behind two players at least nine years his senior, and his .49 points per game was 13th-best in the league among all defensemen that played at least 35 games (another group in which every other player was at least four years older than him).

Of course, what truly sets Dahlin apart is his scoring touch. In only 41 games played this season, the young blueliner buried seven goals for .17 goals per game. Among defensemen that played at least eight games, that was second-best in the SHL.

Seven goals may not sound like a lot, but the number grows much more impressive when we acknowledge that he managed one more marker than the Sabres’ current No. 1 defenseman, Rasmus Ristolainen, who had the benefit of 32 more games played this season.

In other words, Dahlin should slot in nicely as a bottom-four defenseman for Buffalo in his debut season.

Pending free agents

With a touch over $19 million in projected cap space, the Sabres – who finished the season with a league-worst 25-45-12 record – have only nine NHL contracts that expired when the campaign came to a close, split as evenly as possible among the three positions and between the restricted and unrestricted varieties.

F Jordan Nolan and LW Benoit Pouliot are Buffalo’s only forwards that could become UFAs come July 1, and it has rights to F Sam Reinhart and F Scott Wilson due to them being RFAs since they are under 27-years-old.

Of those, 22-year-old Reinhart is clearly the most valuable, as his (t)team-leading 25 goals and .61 points per game from the 2017-18 season easily dwarf the efforts of Wilson (six goals, .29 point per game), Pouliot (13 goals, .26 points per game) and Nolan (four goals, .12 points per game).

It would certainly not be unexpected for General Manager Jason Botterill and Reinhart to hammer out a four-year deal that saw the forward receive an increase in pay from the $3.5 million per year he’s been receiving from his entry-level contract, as a signing of that length would allow the player to test free agency at its completion. I’d estimate a pay increase to at least $4 million per year, likely more.

There is always the possibility that Buffalo could trade the natural center, who spent a lot of the season on the wing due to the Sabres’ plethora of talent at that position, but I’m led to believe the rumors that F Ryan O’Reilly could be on the move sooner than Reinhart, who has yet post a season worse than the one before it. That would free up $7.5 million and a center position for Reinhart, which would allow W Alexander Nylander to compete for a full-time roster spot of his own.

Defensively, D Victor Antipin is Buffalo’s only RFA, while both D Justin Falk and D Josh Gorges are slated to test free agency. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Falk in new colors come September, but the Sabres would be silly not to keep Antipin – who averaged .21 points per game in 47 showings this season, the fourth-best of any Buffalo defenseman with at least 38 appearances – in the organization.

Oh, he said he’s going to head back to the KHL next season? Dang… Well, the league’s (t)ninth-worst defense in terms of shots against just took another step back. All eyes are truly on you Dahlin, though D Brendan Guhle – Buffalo’s second-round pick in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft – will likely have intentions of earning a full-time role with the Sabres instead of the Rochester Americans.

Where things are undoubtedly going to look different in the 2018-19 season for Buffalo is its goaltending depth chart, as G Jonas Johansson and G Linus Ullmark are the only two netminders with contracts in the Sabres’ system. Botterill has indicated that Ullmark will be one of Buffalo’s two goalies, which doesn’t look good for 31-year-old UFA G Chad Johnson‘s chances of returning to Upstate New York.

Sporting a .908 save percentage in 50 starts this season, RFA G Robin Lehner is also unlikely to get much attention from the Sabres this offseason. Since he made $4 million this season, Buffalo would have to offer him another one-year contract at the same price unless it took him to arbitration, which would only bring the deal down to $3.4 million. Instead of the club going through all that, I think Botterill will try to attract the services of a free agent from outside the organization or package Lehner’s rights in a deal for a more established netminder.

If free agency is the route the Sabres elect to take, one of the most attractive free agent goaltenders this summer is going to be G Carter Hutton. Though he is 32-years-old, it’s hard to knock Hutton’s .931 save percentage and 17-7-3 record in a season that saw him take home only $1 million. Hutton will likely earn himself a pay raise on what should be his last major contract, but he will likely still fall within Botterill’s budget.

Vasilevskiy makes ECF a best-of-three series

 

By winning Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals 4-2 at Capital One Arena, the Tampa Bay Lightning have reclaimed home-ice advantage from the Washington Capitals by leveling the series at two victories apiece.

With Washington out-shooting the visiting Lightning 38-20, no Bolt deserves more credit for the victory than First Star of the Game G Andrei Vasilevskiy. After allowing the first goal of the game to D Dmitry Orlov (F T.J. Oshie and D Matt Niskanen) only 4:28 into the contest, Vasilevskiy proceeded to post a 36-for-38 effort (.947 save percentage) despite facing no fewer than nine shots against per frame. In particular, Vasilevskiy stood extremely tall when taking on Washington’s four power plays, as he saved all nine shots faced while his club was shorthanded.

Meanwhile, G Braden Holtby only wishes his play looked anywhere near as good as Vasilevskiy’s. His 16-for-19 performance (.842 save percentage) was borderline disastrous, especially given the incredible help his offense was providing him.

Wait, offense?

Yes, it was not the Capitals’ defense, but their offense that truly kept Holtby’s workload light. Not only did they more than double Tampa’s shots on goal in both the first and second periods (15-7 and 14-6, respectively), but the Caps also held extended possessions in their offensive zone. Pair that with Oshie’s two takeaways and W Devante Smith-Pelly‘s six hits, and you find a team that made life so easy on its goaltender that he just might have grown complacent.

That’s not to say the goals he allowed were soft. In fact, it was quite the opposite.

Take for example Second Star F Brayden Point‘s (F Yanni Gourde and F Tyler Johnson) tic-tac-goal only 1:10 after Orlov’s that tied the game at one-all. Holtby was forced to shade towards his left post when he saw Gourde – who scored 25 goals this season, the fourth-most among all rookies – all by himself inside the near face-off circle, but some deft passing across the slot to Point was all the second line needed to take advantage of a sloppy pass by D Michal Kempny.

Similarly, it’s hard to blame Holtby for his second goal allowed in the first period, registered only 2:54 after Point’s. This time, he was tasked with keeping Tampa’s lethal power play off the scoreboard thanks to C Lars Eller‘s holding penalty against RW Nikita Kucherov 1:05 before.

A power play that had scored at least once in eight previous contests is obviously in a groove, and that groove continued at the 8:32 mark of the game when C Steven Stamkos (Point and F J.T. Miller) set the score at 2-1 with a one-timer from the slot.

For those keeping track at home, the Lightning now sport a 30.8 percent power play conversion rate that is tops among the four teams still competing for the Stanley Cup, trailing only Boston – their opponent in the previous round – for the mark of best power play in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Though the score never changed, the remaining 11:28 of the first period was far from uneventful. However, the previously mentioned shots on goal were not the only activity as even the missed shots drew many a Capitals fan to his or her feet. In particular, W Alex Ovechkin had more than his fair share of salivating shots on net – both in this frame as well as the entire game – but many of those whizzed past the wrong side of the post and harmlessly crashed into the endboards.

Just when it seemed like Vasilevskiy was going to be unbreakable for the remainder of the tilt, Third Star F Evgeny Kuznetsov (Ovechkin and RW Tom Wilson) sprung hope anew in Washington with his wrist shot 5:18 into the second period.

With the exception of Kuznetsov’s path taking him along the left boards instead of between the face-off circles, this goal was eerily reminiscent of the marker that eliminated Pittsburgh from the playoffs for the first time since April 2015. A long pass from Ovechkin sprung his countryman for a breakaway opportunity against the goaltender (who, by happenstance, is also a fellow Russian), who he beat five-hole.

Thanks to some incredible defense played by both clubs (RW Ryan Callahan matched Smith-Pelly’s six hits and D Ryan McDonagh blocked a game-high four shots), that 2-2 tie lasted 26:39 before Tampa third-liner F Alex Killorn (W Ondrej Palat and D Mikhail Sergachev) provided the game-winning goal.

Struck six seconds after Eller was released from the penalty box (his second foul of the night, this time for hooking the eventual goalscorer), Killorn showed some impressive puck-handling skills inside the crease to convert a forehanded shot that would likely be stopped by Holtby’s left leg into a backhand that sneaked between the netminder’s wickets.

With 2:09 remaining in regulation, Head Coach Barry Trotz was forced to pull his goaltender for the second consecutive game. Tampa Bay was unable to convert on the empty net in Game 3, but rookie C Anthony Cirelli bested that effort with 62 seconds remaining to cement the Bolts’ series-evening victory.

Now that they’ve given up the home-ice advantage they worked so desperately to win in Florida, the Capitals must now find a way to win at least one more game at Amalie Arena. A good first step towards doing that – especially for Eller – will be to avoid the penalty box, as the Caps’ 73.7 percent successful penalty kill is the worst remaining in the playoffs.

Saturday is the day for the Eastern Conference Finals’ all-important Game 5. Puck drop is scheduled for 7:15 p.m. Eastern (right after the Preakness Stakes) and may be viewed on CBC, NBC and TVAS.

Victor’s Bolts “Heded” in right direction after Game 3 win

 

On a dark and stormy night in the District of Columbia, the Tampa Bay Lightning pulled off the Eastern Conference Finals’ third-straight road victory by beating the Washington Capitals 4-2 at Capital One Arena in Game 3.

Just like Game 2 was all about the Capitals’ offense, the same can be said about Tampa’s in Game 3. In particular, the Bolts’ power play was cruising early, as it provided two of Tampa’s goals en route to a 3-0 advantage.

Taking advantage of G Braden Holtby‘s trip against F Yanni Gourde (RW Alex Chiasson served the penalty) with 7:03 remaining in the first period, C Steven Stamkos (Second Star of the Game D Victor Hedman and F Brayden Point) ripped a Little Einsteins (Americans with the privilege of hearing Pierre McGuire’s analysis should know what I’m talking about) slap shot past Holtby to give Tampa the lead only 56 seconds after Chiasson took his seat.

Considering the score only read 1-0 in the first intermission, Washington seemed like it had kept things under control in the opening 20 minutes. After all, the Capitals fired a game-high 14 shots on goal in the first period – all of which were saved by First Star G Andrei Vasilevskiy.

However, that hypothesis was torn to shreds only 1:50 into the second frame, thanks in large part to C Lars Eller‘s unwise penalty for closing his hand on the puck. After only 16 seconds of five-on-four play later, Third Star RW Nikita Kucherov (Hedman and Stamkos) set the Bolts’ lead at 2-0 with a clapper from the right face-off dot.

An easy snap shot is all Hedman (Kucherov and W Ondrej Palat) needed to find his first goal of the 2018 postseason. With Holtby shading towards Kucherov in the right face-off circle, a quick pass allowed Hedman to capitalize on the gaping net and set the score at 3-0 only 1:47 after the Bolts’ first brace.

Keeping the offense going, Washington finally got on the board with 9:29 remaining in the second period. Taking advantage of Hedman’s failed clear, F Chandler Stephenson dished to W Brett Connolly (Stephenson and D Matt Niskanen) to set him up for a solid one-touch snap shot that beat Vasilevskiy stick side.

However, any positive energy caused by that goal was quickly nullified 5:32 later when Point (F Tyler Johnson and D Braydon Coburn) squeaked a wrist shot past Holtby’s right pad to set the score at 4-1.

With the Caps entering the third period trailing by three goals, logic would lead us to believe they would be firing as many shots on goal as possible to try and shrink that gap. Unfortunately for them, Tampa’s defense was not interested in the slightest in allowing many scoring opportunities.

Due in large part to Tampa Bay’s 18 blocks over the course of the entire game, Washington managed only 13 shots on goal in the final 20 minutes. D Ryan McDonagh played a large role in that effort with his game-high four blocks in the match.

Of course, the Lightning’s solid defense was at its best during five-on-five play. Once Head Coach Barry Trotz upped the ante a bit by pulling Holtby for the extra attacker, the playoff’s best offense finally found its second goal of the game when F Evgeny Kuznetsov (F T.J. Oshie and Eller) scored a wrister with 3:02 remaining in regulation. However, the 4-2 score held until the end of the contest, securing the Bolts’ first Conference Finals victory since May 22, 2016.

The biggest takeaway from this game is that the Tampa Bay team that many pegged to win the Stanley Cup last summer is still well and alive in this tournament. The Lightning’s offense finally found its footing against Holtby and Washington’s defense, and it was paired by a solid defense that stood tall when the Caps’ offense put the pedal to the metal. If Tampa is allowed to dominate Game 4 like it did Game 3, the Capitals will spoil their solid work at Amalie Arena just like Columbus did against them in the First Round.

Speaking of that Game 4, the Bolts’ opportunity to level the Eastern Finals at 2-2 is scheduled for Thursday at 8 p.m. Eastern. The contest will be broadcast on CBC, NBCSN, SN and TVAS.

Caps’ attack too much for Bolts; win Game 1 4-2

 

After a 4-2 victory at Amalie Arena over the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 1, home ice in the Eastern Conference Finals now belongs to the Washington Capitals.

Between the actual 2-0 score and the fact that the Caps led 9-2 in shots on goal, we get a rather accurate impression of how the first 20 minutes went down.

The Caps almost exclusively dominated possession from the opening draw to the first TV timeout. They might have managed only two shots on goal in that time (which still exceeded Tampa’s zero), but the fact that they kept the puck in their offensive zone did a lot to wear out the Bolts’ defensemen early.

That pressure paid off in spades at the 7:28 mark when Washington drew first blood in the Eastern Finals. D Michal Kempny (Second Star of the Game F Evgeny Kuznetsov and D John Carlson) did the dirty work with a wrist shot from the blue line, his first-ever North American postseason marker.

Of course, the best weapon against possession is a stellar counterattack. RW Nikita Kucherov and the Lightning though they had done just that with seven seconds remaining before the first intermission, but it was ruled Tampa Bay had too many men on the ice, negating the goal and awarding a power play to Washington.

Entering the game with the best power play in the postseason (converting 30.9 percent of man-advantages into goals), the Caps completed their stellar command of the first frame by burying a man-advantage tally with only six seconds remaining in the frame.

Who else to score that power play goal than First Star W Alex Ovechkin (Kuznetsov and F T.J. Oshie)? Almost unexpectedly, Ovechkin departed from his usual spot in the left face-off circle and scored his patented one-touch slap shot from the blue line on a set play from Oshie’s face-off victory.

Washington picked up right where it left off 2:40 into the second period. Third Star F Jay Beagle (W Brett Connolly and D Dmitry Orlov) beat G Andrei Vasilevskiy five-hole from the slot, receiving an unintentional assist from D Braydon Coburn after Connolly’s centering pass bounced off his skate.

4:02 later, the score read 4-0 when C Lars Eller (Oshie and Ovechkin) converted a Kucherov roughing penalty into yet another power play goal – Washington’s final tally of the game.

What started as a 2-0 shot differential early in the first period became a 25-10 domination by the second intermission. It could be argued that LW Jakub Vrana‘s game-high five shots on goal is a major part of that, but I would instead point to Oshie’s two takeaways over the course of the game, as well as both Kucherov and FJ.T. Miller yielding two giveaways by the end of regulation.

Additionally, Washington was also excellent at blocking shots, as it managed 19 before retreating to its hotel that evening. Co-led by Carlson and D Matt Niskanen‘s three blocks apiece, the Caps’ blue line was a major reason for Tampa’s struggle to establish anything close to an offensive presence in the opening 40 minutes.

However, all that turned on its head in the third period when Head Coach Jon Cooper elected to bench Vasilevskiy, who saved 21-of-25 shots faced for a .84 save percentage, in favor of G Louis Domingue.

While Vasilevskiy could have certainly been better in this game, he didn’t give up any blatantly soft goals (looking at you, G Pekka Rinne). Instead, his benching was intended to be a message for his team, and the Lightning certainly responded just as Cooper wished.

It took 43:45 of play and RW Alex Chiasson sitting in the penalty box for slashing F Alex Killorn, but Tampa Bay finally got on the scoreboard when C Steven Stamkos (Kucherov and D Victor Hedman) did his best Ovechkin impression and scored a clapper from the left face-off circle, pulling the score to 4-1.

That was certainly more than enough to get the positive energy surging in the arena. Tampa out-shot the Capitals 11-7 in the third period, proving just how much of the game was  played in its attacking zone.

Keeping hope alive, another goal trickled by with 6:57 remaining in regulation when W Ondrej Palat (F Tyler Johnson and D Anton Stralman) beat G Braden Holtby short side with a wrister from the slot.

However, hope ran short in that remaining time due in large part to the solid effort of Holtby. Though it wasn’t his best game of the season, Holtby posed an imposing challenge even after the Bolts pulled Domingue for the extra attacker. In all, he saved his last four shots faced in the game, posting an 19-for-21 (.905 save percentage) overall performance.

If the Lightning learned one thing from this game, it is that they cannot continue committing penalties like they have been in these playoffs. Washington’s power play, which converted 50 percent tonight, is just too potent for the Bolts to continue serving the 14:41 penalty minutes per game that they’ve managed through the first two rounds.

Tampa’s first opportunity to resolve that issue is in Game 2, which is right back at Amalie Arena and scheduled for 8 p.m. Eastern this Sunday. Fans unable to make it to Western Florida can catch the live broadcasts on CBC, NBCSN, SN and TVAS.

A (forked) Tale of 3 Periods: Devils drop Game 2 to Lightning, but can build on strong play.

 

Often times, hockey games can be looked at as stories. Three separate periods of play strung together as a single narrative, often carrying a common theme among them.

Then, there are games like this one. Games where each 20 minute segment is entirely its own, almost entirely unrelated to one another. In a way, Game 2 could be considered a short story compilation.

Chapter 1: The Slow Start

After dropping Game 1, the Devils and young goaltender Keith Kinkaid (who had not lost back-to-back starts since February) were hungry for redemption, knowing a win before heading back to home ice for Games 3 and 4 could swing momentum greatly in the underdogs’ favor.

With some bad blood boiling over at the end of the first contest, it wasn’t surprising to see the two teams again start their fourth lines, and it didn’t take long for the action to pick up, as Tampa’s Cedric Paquette and Jersey’s Stefan Noesen had a coming-together at the end of an energetic first shift. Unfortunately, the tensions stalled out as when the first set of line changes were made, one of the Lightning bench doors suffered a broken latch and play had to be halted for about five minutes for a repair. When play resumed, Dan Girardi (apparently not a fan of the tempered tone) laid a booming hit on Miles Wood around three minutes in to get the crowd back in it.

A few minutes later it would be Girardi’s former-turned-current teammate Ryan McDonagh firing a wrister in from the point that took a dramatic change of direction right in front of Kinkaid, who somehow managed to stretch out his left pad to deny J.T. Miller‘s bid, having had the deflected shot come right to his tape for a prime scoring opportunity.

This seemed to briefly turn things in the Devils’ favor, as they’d kill off a Tampa power play shortly after, and have two quality chances in quick succession. First it would be Taylor Hall taking a hail mary pass for a partial breakaway, then John Moore stepping up to intercept an attempted clear to walk in and make a strong backhanded bid on the following shift. Unfortunately for the Devils, Andrei Vasilevskiy was equal to the task on both occasions.

After the Vasilevskiy save on Moore, the puck would make it’s way to center ice, where Ondrej Palat would corral the bouncer in traffic and feed a quick pass to Brayden Point breaking in on the right wing. Point walked in and patiently waited for Kinkaid to go down in the butterfly before shelving a quick shot crossbar – left post – and in to put the Lightning on top 12:15 into the period.

Jersey would quickly turn things back in their favor though, first with a quality chance for Travis Zajac on an oddman rush with Blake Coleman. Coleman would take an extra whack at Vasilevskiy as he covered the puck, causing Victor Hedman to come over and have a few words with the young Devils forward.

On the next shift, just 1:23 after the Point goal, a dominant shift by the New Jersey top line would be capped off by Nico Hischier scoring his first career playoff goal, gathering up the rebound of a Damon Severson shot and burying it over top of a sprawled Vasilevskiy.

The two teams would grind out the final 6 minutes and head to the first intermission tied at 1-1. New Jersey limited Tampa to just six shots, firing 10 of their own at the Lightning goal.

Chapter 2: The Wheels On The Bus Are Falling Off

After going 1-for-1 in Game 1, the Tampa power play was held shotless on their only first period opportunity in this one. In the second period, however, they went off.

First it was a Steven Stamkos one-timer ripping just wide of the cage, bouncing off the end boards directly to the tape of Nikita Kucherov on the opposite wing, and #86 would quickly fire a pass to Alex Killorn waiting in the slot to tip home the 2-1 goal at 3:14, moving Tampa’s power play to two-for-three in the series.

The Bolts’ fourth line followed up the power play with a strong shift that would see Ryan Callahan ring a shot off the goalpost to Kinkaid’s right, narrowly missing the 3-1 goal. However on the next shift it would be the dominant second line making up for Callahan’s miss when Tyler Johnson slipped into the high slot to perfectly redirect a McDonagh point shot past Kinkaid at 4:35.

Hall would attempt to negate some momentum on the following shift, flying in and using a Tampa defender as a partial screen to rip a wicked wrister at Vasilevskiy, who flashed the left leg and stopped the puck with the toe of his skate, before having to cover up when the rebound careened dangerously off the stick of teammate Anton Stralman.

Hall’s efforts were rendered all-for-not when again on the very next shift it would be Kucherov dangling Sami Vatanen at the blueline, retrieving the puck and throwing it at the front of the net, where the chasing Vatanen would accidentally kick the puck past Kinkaid into his own net, putting the Lightning up 4-1 with 13:59 still to play in the second. Ironically, this goal did not count as a shot on net, giving the Bolts four goals on 10 shots.

The Lightning then turned their focus to physical play, first with Miller leveling Ben Lovejoy twice in a sub-10 second span, then Ondrej Palat throwing a big hit on Moore on the shift after.

With 6:48 to play in the second, Killorn would tally his second power play goal of the period (third goal in two games after scoring two in the final 15 of the regular season), again after a Kucherov feed, this time fighting off multiple checkers to lift it over a scrambling Kinkaid. John Hynes had seen enough and pulled his young netminder in favor of Cory Schneider.

Whether it was the Lightning slowing down, or the Devils being reignited by the goaltending change, it was at that coaching decision where the tide began to turn. The final six minutes and change saw Tampa held without another shot, as New Jersey began to pour it on.

Finally with just 25 seconds left, Vatanen would rip home a beautiful wrist shot from the high slot after leading the rush himself. It was a solid redemption shift for Vatanen, who made up for his earlier gaffe by leveling Callahan (who would not return to the game after the hit) to create the turnover that eventually led to his goal.

Outscored 3-1 in the period, New Jersey still managed to widen their advantage on the shot clock to 25-17 after their dominant final six minutes.

Chapter 3: Off The Schneid

The third period was all-out domination by New Jersey at both ends of the ice.

Early in the frame it was Schneider showing spectacular form (and likely laying claim to the starting job from here on out) by first stopping a beautiful tip play orchestrated by Stralman and executed by Kucherov, then making a pair of spectacular stops a few minutes later on a Chris Kunitz redirect and follow-up attempt by a driving Paquette.

Then it was basically an uninterrupted offensive assault by the Devils for the final 15 minutes.

Wood found a goalpost at one point, and lost the puck on a breakaway forehand-backhand move at another. Vasilevskiy made a handful of sparkling saves on a Jersey power play. Maroon and Hall linked up on a two-on-one that was denied, followed up shortly after by a great redirect from Pavel Zacha on a Will Butcher slap shot which was again gobbled up by the big Tampa netminder.

Zacha got another golden opportunity with 8:45 to play but was handcuffed by a cross-ice pass that had him staring at a yawning cage. Luckily for both him and his team, later in that same shift it would be Blake Coleman finally beating Vasilevskiy with a laser of a one-timer from the top of the left circle to make the score 5-3 with just over eight minutes remaining.

After the third goal the attack only strengthened for New Jersey. Hischier rang one off the post at the four minute mark, and Miles Wood thought he scored on the very next shift, but video review showed no conclusive evidence of the puck (tangled in the gear of Vasilevskiy) ever crossing the line.

Pat Maroon made a great save on a Stamkos bid for the open net right after Schneider made his way to the bench, keeping hope alive for the Devils, but they just couldn’t solved #88 in net.

Things got scrappy with nine seconds left when everyone piled on Taylor Hall after he took an aggressive charge at the net when Vasilevskiy stopped a Vatanen blast, and it took a few minutes to get things settled down before the final nine seconds could pass without incident.

So, to review:

A closely-contested, grind-it-out first period where both teams looked very evenly matched.

Tampa blows the doors open in the second until the goaltending change turns the momentum.

Schneider lays claim to his net and New Jersey shows that Tampa is very mortal in the third.

The Lightning may lead this series 2-0 on two multi-goal difference victories, but there’s much more to this story. If Schneider plays the way he did in this one, and the Devils can get a boost from their home crowd, they have a lot to build on after this game. This could definitely be a series to watch going forward.

For those wondering, Game 3 will be Monday at 7:30 p.m. Eastern, and @kephartc will have our recap coverage for you.

Deal(t) with the Devil: Tampa fends off scrappy New Jersey to take Game 1

 

Funny thing, hockey.

In one corner we have the Atlantic Division champion Tampa Bay Lightning, a team that for long stretches of the year looked nigh-on immortal, and made ritual of beating basically everyone who dared stand in their path.

In the other corner stands a New Jersey squad that just squeaked into the playoffs in a wild card spot, have a roster with almost as many ‘misfit toys’ as the upstart Golden Knights, and… went undefeated against the Lightning in the regular season?

Well. Color me interested.

The Devils made a season of being the eternal underdogs. Apart from Hart Trophy favorite Taylor Hall, they really don’t possess much in the way of name value. Goaltender Cory Schneider spent much of the year hurt, and struggled upon his return. But career-backup Keith Kinkaid won 26 games this year (he’d won just 23 in four previous seasons combined) and stole the starting job heading into the playoffs.

New Jersey headed into Amalie Arena as perhaps the biggest underdogs in all the playoffs, and for good reason. Tampa Bay is as deadly a hockey team as you’ll find in the NHL today, boasting four stellar lines, six quality defensemen, and a Vezina candidate goaltender. For the first half of this game, the script went just as the numbers suggested it should.

Lightning coach Jon Cooper elected to start the game with his fourth line, and John Hynes elected to follow suit. It gave the start of the game some energy, and showed that neither coach is afraid to try something a bit off-the-beaten-path.

Apart from a follow-through on an attempted shot by Miles Wood treating Bolts defenseman Mikhail Sergachev to a bloody nose, the first few minutes passed without many notable incidents or quality chances, but saw Tampa controlling a good portion of the play. As the clock neared halfway point of the period, Tampa began to settle in and the chances started coming.

First it was Yanni Gourde chipping a loose puck past a pinching defender to create a two-on-one. The winger streaked into the zone and put Kinkaid out into about the fourth row of seats with a beautiful move, but just couldn’t quite direct the puck into the yawning cage as it rolled off the end of his stick. He wouldn’t need to wait long for another chance, as on his line’s next shift he corralled a loose puck out of a netfront scramble, but Kinkaid was able to track it through the mess of sticks and skates to shut the door on #37.

The very next faceoff saw a bouncing puck lure Kinkaid out of the blue paint while attempting to cover up, and the puck ended up coming right to – you guessed it – Gourde who wasn’t quite able to control it and get a shot away.

Finally at the 15:00 mark it would be Tampa’s second line going to work down low in the zone and Tyler Johnson would feed Ondrej Palat from below the goal line, and after a quick set of dekes the 2016 playoffs standout lifted a backhand shot over the pad of Kinkaid to put the Lightning up 1-0.

Still, the Bolts kept coming. Anthony Cirelli nearly scored on a wraparound with 2:30 to play, but the toe of Kinkaid was equal to the task.

Finally New Jersey got a quality chance, as Vasilevskiy turned the puck over attempting to play it behind his net, but was able to recover in time to cover up as everyone crashed the net and a scrum ensued.

With 28 seconds left to play, it would be Tampa’s second line again making plays deep in the offensive zone, this time with Palat and Brayden Point forcing a turnover, and Palat sending a perfect pass to the tape of a driving Johnson who made no mistakes and buried it over the glove of Kinkaid.

Shot clock only read a two-shot advantage (13-11) to Tampa at the end of one, but the quality chances were all on one end of the ice.

The momentum would continue in Tampa’s favor at the beginning of the second period, as an early power play opportunity presented itself and they made sure to cash in. Gourde, on what by my count was about his 42nd quality scoring chance of the game, hammered home a slam-dunk after a ridiculous kick-pass across the netmouth by Palat to put the home team up by three.

The very next shift is when things began to change, as Michael Grabner and Pat Maroon would combine for about three legitimate bids in quick succession, but Vasilevskiy was able to turn them all aside. Later in the frame it would be New Jersey with a power play opportunity, where they’d get three or four high-quality chances that Vasilevskiy had the answers to.

Finally with just over six minutes to play in the second, Hall (because who else?) would crack the goose egg and get his team on the board, pouncing on an egregious defensive zone turnover by Palat and burying the opportunity before Vasilevskiy could get set.

The Devils didn’t let up, nearly scoring again with just over a minute remaining on a big-time deflection (chest height to the ice in the blink of an eye) on a Mirco Mueller point shot that Vasilevskiy somehow managed to track and react to, kicking out the right pad in a flash and gobbling up the rebound to prevent further chaos.

Capitalizing on the big momentum shift, New Jersey heavily outshot the boys in blue to lead on the shot clock 26-20 after 40 minutes, hoping to carry it into the third and try to close down the two-goal margin.

Carry it into the third they did not. The Bolts would tally the first seven shots of the period, and at one point briefly thought they had scored when Alex Killorn tipped a shot at the side of the net that Kinkaid just barely managed to keep out (Killorn even momentarily raised his arms in celebration). The third line kept the Devils hemmed in their own zone after the near-miss, and finally a dominating shift came to an end when Gourde (obviously) took a cross-ice pass from Cirelli off of a turnover and ripped a one-time blast just over the crossbar and out of play. New Jersey would not register a single shot until nearly 9:30 into the third period.

But, at 9:35 of the third, Jersey’s second shot of the period was a power play goal by Travis Zajac (one of only two players on either roster to have played the last time these two teams met in the playoffs 11 years ago*) who deflected a beautifully-sold shot-pass by Hall just over the glove of Vasilevskiy to drag the visitors to within one.

*The other was Andy Greene

Now Tampa is on the back foot. New Jersey is charging. Can they complete the comeback? How will the Lightning survive the onslaught?

Oh hey look, it’s that Killorn-Cirelli-Gourde line again.

Yes, the unstoppable force known as Tampa’s third line did it again, this time with Gourde forcing a turnover by Maroon at the blueline, then leading his linemates on a three-on-two rush up the ice, eventually feeding it to the trailer Killorn in the high slot. Cirelli drove the net to create the diversion, but Kinkaid was never catching up to this one anyhow. PING goes the crossbar, an absolute laser by the Harvard grad restores the two-goal lead just under two minutes after it had been erased.

Tampa followed their goal with a solid fourth-line shift, capped off by a thundering check on Hall by the playoffs’ only four-time Cup winner Chris Kunitz, and the Devils star would be slow to his feet, though he would finish the game.

Kinkaid retreated to the bench with 2:30 to play, but it would be all-for-not, as with 1:12 left Nikita Kucherov (who had been mostly silent until that point) dangled a Devils defender and waltzed in to bury the dagger.

At the final horn, a good deal of pushing and shoving came about, with the Devils hoping to set a tone heading into Game 2 (which I’ll just so happen to be covering, as well) on Saturday afternoon.

The story of this game was really a tale of two major plots.

First was simply the unbridled speed of Tampa Bay. New Jersey is arguably one of maybe two teams in the league that have a legitimate shot at keeping up with Tampa’s pace, and in this one they were totally outclassed. If they can’t find a way to clog things up and slow the Bolts down, they are going to be in trouble.

Second, and probably the even more daunting challenge, is the sheer depth of the Lightning lineup. The Devils did a spectacular job of silencing Tampa’s lethal #1 line of J.T. Miller – Steven Stamkos – Kucherov, but the Devils simply don’t have the same top-to-bottom quality that the Bolts depth chart possesses.

Palat-Point-Johnson is a top line on probably a third of other NHL squads.

Killorn-Cirelli-Gourde is an impossible speed/skill matchup for nearly any other third line.

Kunitz-Paquette-Callahan will forecheck whatever is left of you into the ground.

Tack on one of the best one-through-six defense corps in the league, and it’s borderline impossible for any club to gain a matchup advantage, especially on the road where the home team gets last change.

Nothing is impossible in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but New Jersey is going to need some help from the hockey gods from the looks of things.