NHL playoff primer: 5 intriguing matchups to watch in the 1st round

It’s playoff season once again.

Before you fill out your postseason bracket, we break down one key matchup across five first-round series that could make or break a team in their pursuit of the Stanley Cup.

Boston Bruins vs. Toronto Maple Leafs

Top-line takeover

It’s no secret – for the Leafs to trump the Bruins, they need to find an answer for the three-headed monster of David Pastrnak, Patrice Bergeron, and Brad Marchand.

The Leafs were tormented by the Bruins’ top line in their seven-game series last postseason. Bergeron and Co. controlled possession, posting a Corsi rating of 64.90, and dominated Toronto in high-danger scoring chances at five-on-five, 49-26. An encouraging note for the Leafs is that the Corsi number dropped to 54.84 when matched with Auston Matthews and shot up to 75 when going against Tomas Plekanec – suggesting the trio dominated much of the play against a veteran player who is no longer in the league.

Looking at the regular season, both Matthews and Bergeron were out of the lineup for two of the teams’ meetings this season, so we’ll have to see how the coaches choose to deploy their top talent with the pair back in the mix.

Pittsburgh Penguins vs. New York Islanders

Goaltending vs. star power

The Islanders claiming home-ice advantage was key, but perhaps their biggest edge sits between the pipes. Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss combined to capture the William M. Jennings Trophy this season, and their dominant play must continue for the team to be successful against the Penguins’ offensive arsenal.

Though neither netminder has a ton of playoff experience, the job will likely be Lehner’s to lose. Since returning from injury on March 19, the 27-year-old has posted a 5-2 record with a .942 save percentage.

Barry Trotz’s club allowed a league-low 191 goals on the campaign and posted a record of 38-2-2 when scoring at least three times in a game. Led by Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the Penguins boasted the fifth-best offense this year and rostered four players with 70-plus points.

Pittsburgh mustered 13 goals in four games against the Islanders during the regular season, with Crosby and Malkin combining for eight points.

Calgary Flames vs. Colorado Avalanche

Can ‘Johnny Hockey’ outperform MacKinnon?

Calgary’s Gaudreau and Colorado’s MacKinnon each notched a career-high 99 points this season. Though they play different positions up front, the two will be a joy to watch compete as they best embody the speed and skill that will be on display in this series.

The All-Stars have no problem facing the pressure of playoff hockey, either, as MacKinnon has tallied 16 points in 13 career contests, with Gaudreau posting 11 points in 15.

Both men know how to deliver when it matters most, too. “Johnny Hockey” racked up 39 points and 17 goals in the third period or overtime this season, while MacKinnon contributed 37 points and 15 goals in those clutch moments. When the game is on the line, look for one of these two studs to follow through.

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Columbus Blue Jackets

Stingy penalty kill vs. Electric man advantage

Special teams will heavily influence this matchup between one of the greatest regular-season teams ever and a franchise looking for its first playoff series victory.

The Lightning’s power play was lethal this season, clicking at a league-leading rate of 28.2 percent. The Blue Jackets, on the other hand, deploy the NHL’s top penalty kill.

The Lightning and Blue Jackets posted similar possession numbers with Corsi ratings of 51.59 and 50.21, respectively. The more even-strength hockey Columbus can play, the better its chances of pulling out the upset – in the regular season, the Lightning erupted for six power-play goals on 11 attempts in their three victories over the Jackets this year.

St. Louis Blues vs. Winnipeg Jets

Battle in the crease

This Central Division clash is about as even as any playoff series on the slate. The Jets won 47 regular-season games and sported a goal differential of plus-28, while the Blues won 45 contests and were plus-24. Both teams finished with 99 points, but what may ultimately separate the two in this series is the play in the crease.

The Blues netminder was one of the best stories of the season. In 32 appearances, Binnington posted a .927 save percentage and an unbelievable 1.89 goals-against average en route to setting a franchise record for wins by a rookie goaltender with 24. The 25-year-old has yet to face the Jets this season, perhaps to the Blues’ advantage.

Hellebuyck was a finalist for the Vezina Trophy last season but will need to regain his form in a hurry after taking a step backward this year. The 25-year-old won 10 fewer games and saw his goals against average spike from 2.36 to 2.90.

With two netminders trending in opposite directions, goaltending will be the deciding factor in this series.

By: Matt Teague

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2019 NHL All-Star rosters announced

The NHL has announced the four rosters for the 2019 All-Star Game today, scheduled to be held on January 26th in San Jose. Earlier today, Alex Ovechkin, who was elected captain of Metropolitan Division squad, told the league that he wouldn’t be attending and will accept the punishment of missing one game either before or after the break. Connor McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon, and Auston Matthews will represent the Pacific, Central and Atlantic respectively, as the other captains. A replacement captain for Ovechkin has yet to be named.

The full rosters are as follows:

Pacific Division

John Gibson (ANA)
Marc-Andre Fleury (VGK)

D Erik Karlsson (SJS)
Brent Burns (SJS)
Drew Doughty (LAK)

Connor McDavid (EDM)*
Johnny Gaudreau (CGY)
Joe Pavelski (SJS)
F Elias Pettersson (VAN)
F Clayton Keller (ARI)

Central Division

Pekka Rinne (NSH)
Devan Dubnyk (MIN)

D Roman Josi (NSH)
D Miro Heiskanen (DAL)

Nathan MacKinnon (COL)*
Mikko Rantanen (COL)
Blake Wheeler (WPG)
Patrick Kane (CHI)

Mark Scheifele (WPG)
F Ryan O’Reilly (STL)

Atlantic Division

Jimmy Howard (DET)
G Carey Price (MTL)

Keith Yandle (FLA)
D Thomas Chabot (OTT)

F Auston Matthews (TOR)*
F Nikita Kucherov (TBL)
F Steven Stamkos (TBL)
John Tavares (TOR)

F David Pastrnak (BOS)
F Jack Eichel (BUF)

Full List

By Zach Leach

Bridge contract likely for William Nylander

While the mutual preference of both the Maple Leafs and winger William Nylander would be to get a long-term deal done, Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston reports that this no longer appears to be an option. He notes that there isn’t an AAV that is high enough for Nylander’s liking that fits in with Toronto’s salary structure for 2019-20 and beyond.

With that in mind, the Leafs are basically down to two options – either sign him to a bridge contract or trade him and by all accounts, the latter route is something they have no interest in going at this point nor has Nylander requested a move.

Accordingly, the bigger question now is how long the bridge deal will be. Although the 22-year-old has gone through his entry-level contract, only two of those seasons qualified as counting towards UFA status as he failed to play in 40 games back in 2015-16. As a result, Nylander is still five years away from being able to become an unrestricted free agent. That gives Toronto the opportunity of pursuing a three-year bridge pact instead of the standard two while still leaving him with a couple of arbitration-eligible seasons at the end of the deal.  In doing so, they’d also have a much better idea of what they can afford long-term as by then, both winger Mitch Marner and center Auston Matthews will be locked up as well.

As most core players coming off of their entry-level deals sign long-term deals, there aren’t many comparable contracts in recent years to work with. One that would be close is Lightning winger Nikita Kucherov.  Following two straight seasons of over 60 points (same as Nylander), the Russian inked a three-year, $14.3M contract. That took up 6.53 percent of the salary cap at the time; that percentage of the current cap today would work out to an AAV of just over $5.19M which would seemingly represent the ceiling of a Nylander bridge deal. A contract like that could very well be back-loaded as well to yield a higher qualifying offer at its expiration.

Toronto GM Kyle Dubas has stated on many occasions that he believes that he can keep the core of the team together even after bringing in John Tavares this offseason. Given the state of where things are, it appears that he’ll have to settle for giving Nylander a short-term deal to make that happen.

Originally posted on Pro Hockey Rumors  |  By Brian La Rose

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Maple Leaf’s Youth Is Killing the Capitals Season

Written by James Mirtle at The Atlantic

“That line is a load,” Mike Babcock said.

If you watched the Maple Leafs play – and dominate the end of Game 3 – against the Washington Capitals on Monday night, you knew which line he meant. It was his three rookies, one of the youngest trios in the league, with a 19-year-old phenom in the middle of a 24-year-old former fifth round pick who spent four years in college and a 20-year-old converted centre.

They have been good all season, but they were great this night. They’ve been great all series, in fact.

So great the best team in the NHL doesn’t yet have an answer for them.

Zach Hyman, Auston Matthews and William Nylander were pointless in the first two games of this series, but a breakthrough on the score sheet felt inevitable. Whenever they were on the ice, they had the puck and were charging down the ice, unhindered. Capitals coach Barry Trotz’s countermeasures – the Karl Alzner and John Carlson D pair – were overmatched.

With Nylander on the ice, the Leafs had 53 per cent possession in Game 1 then 68 per cent in Game 2’s double overtime win.

Monday it went to another level. Alzner was hurt, and Nate Schmidt came in. But Babcock had last change, and he fed his “load” of a line some easier minutes, with plenty of shifts in the offensive zone and against Washington’s second, third and fourth lines.

So the Leafs’ Kid Line went to town.

They were all over the ice, holding the neutral zone and pushing the play down low. They out shot Washington 9-2 at even strength and out attempted them 23 shots to only five for the Caps.

The Leafs were at 67 per cent possession with Matthews on the ice. With Nylander, it was higher: 79 per cent.

“I just thought they were good all night,” Babcock said. “Today they were totally in control of the play. They had a lot of possession time. I thought they were dangerous. I thought they were skating. I think Matty’s been good right through. I thought this was Willy’s best game, and the best legs he’s had. Hyman’s just the same every day. It was just another day for him. But that line was good.”

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Auston Matthews Scores Four Goals In NHL Debut

Written Joel Petterson at New York Times

The N.H.L. started its regular season on Wednesday with a couple of big names set to miss their openers: Sidney Crosby, the Pittsburgh Penguins star, who is recovering from a concussion; and Jack Eichel of the Buffalo Sabres, the No. 2 draft pick last year, who injured his ankle on Wednesday.

But the 19-year-old Auston Matthews made sure no one noticed.

On Wednesday, Matthews, selected No. 1 in this year’s draft by the Toronto Maple Leafs, became the first player to score four goals in an N.H.L. debut — a feat he accomplished by the end of the second period in a game at Ottawa. The first three goals came on his first three shots as an N.H.L. player.

His first came 8 minutes 21 seconds into the game off a pass from Zach Hyman. He added another, unassisted, six minutes later, then helped the Maple Leafs to a one-goal lead at the end of second with two more in that period.

Somehow, the Maple Leafs still managed to lose, as the Senators’ Kyle Turris tied the score in the third period and again in the first minute of overtime to give Ottawa the win.

Matthews was just the fifth player to score three goals in an N.H.L. debut since the 1943-44 season, according to The Associated Press, and the first since the Rangers’ Derek Stepan did it in 2010.

“I couldn’t believe that was happening out there,” Matthews said after the game, according to the A.P.

The spectacular performance was met with near disbelief on social media (and on Wikipedia).

But those who have followed Matthews for the past several years were probably the least surprised by the sensational debut. Matthews grew up in the nontraditional hockey market of Arizona and was born just 15 months after the Coyotes moved to Arizona from Winnipeg.

He was born two days after the cutoff that would have made him eligible for the 2015 N.H.L. draft. As it became clear that professional hockey would be his goal, his family weighed the options and chose an unusual route for a young prospect: After high school, Matthews eschewed playing college hockey or joining a junior team, instead spending a year playing professionally for the Zurich Lions in Switzerland. The experience helped him grow as a player, he said — as well as in other areas (“The recycling here is intense,” he said in an interview with The New York Times last year.)

And in recent weeks, he earned a good share of the spotlight at the World Cup of Hockey as a member of Team North America, scoring two goals in three games as part of a line that included Connor McDavid, the 2015 No. 1 draft pick.

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Maple Leafs Select Auston Matthews #1

Written by Kevin Allen at USAToday.com

The changing face of the NHL was on display Friday night when the Toronto Maple Leafs made Arizona native Auston Matthews the No. 1 pick in the NHL draft.

Matthews became interested in hockey when he attended a Phoenix Coyotes game at the age of 3. Matthews’ mother was born in Mexico and his father grew up in California. He is the first No. 1 pick to be developed in a Sun Belt market.

“What is says is that Commissioner Gary Bettmandid an incredible job to keep that franchise there (in Arizona),” said Don Granato, who coached Matthews in the U.S. National Team Development Program. “Who knows, Auston could have been a baseball player. He has elite-level athleticism. He would have been successful in whatever sport he played.”

The Maple Leafs are not going to get caught up in comparisons or projections about how quickly Matthews will dominate.

“He can be Auston Matthews, a real good player who is going to be a dominant center for the Leafs playing with or without the puck,” Toronto coach Mike Babcock said. “He’ll be a championship-style center.”

Babcock said Matthews’ parents did an impressive job of raising him.

“Classy kid,” Babcock said. “His mom and dad are very impressive to say the least. There’s a lot of love in that family. It’s obvious. He’s comfortable in his own skin. When you’ve been as good for as long as he’s been good, you get used to the spotlight and you get used to delivering under pressure.”

At 18, Matthews was one of the top players in the Swiss National League this season, scoring 24 goals and registering 46 points (in 36 games) while playing for former NHL coach Marc Crawford in Zurich.

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