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

NHL Power Rankings: Standout rookies for all 31 teams

Youth continues to be served in the NHL, as almost every team has a first-year player making an impact. For this week’s ESPN NHL Power Rankings — voted on as always by ESPN’s panel of experts — we take a look at some of its best freshmen (or, in some cases, middle schoolers waiting to get the call-up to the big school) of the 2018-19 season thus far.

1. Nashville Predators

Previous ranking: 1

Eeli Tolvanen. There was a time when this talented Finnish winger was being chatted up as a potential Calder Trophy contender, before being demoted to the AHL in the preseason. So far, he has eight points in 14 games with Milwaukee, with four of his seven assists coming on the power play.

2. Tampa Bay Lightning

Previous ranking: 2

Anthony Cirelli. The Lightning forward has four points in 15 games, skating 13:50 per night, with a minus-4 goal differential at 5-on-5.

3. Toronto Maple Leafs

Previous ranking: 5

Igor Ozhiganov. The 25-year-old KHL import doesn’t have a point in 12 games while skating 13:50 per night. As Kevin McGran of the Toronto Star wrote: “He hasn’t done anything particularly noteworthy — no big goals, or memorable passes. But he hasn’t done anything wrong, and that in itself is often praise-worthy of a defenseman.” So, congrats on not being noteworthy, Igor.

4. Colorado Avalanche

Previous ranking: 3

Vladislav Kamenev. Acquired from the Predators as part of the Matt Duchene trade, Kamenev had his arm broken by defenseman Brooks Orpik last season, limiting him to just three games. He’s played nine games this season with a goal and an assist, skating just 9:05 per game as a fourth-line center.

5. San Jose Sharks

Previous ranking: 6

Antti Suomela. The 24-year-old Finnish center has two goals and three assists in 14 games. His 1.91 points per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 is third best on the Sharks this season.

6. Boston Bruins

Previous ranking: 7

Ryan Donato. One of the most surprising demotions of the season thus far. Donato had one goal in 11 games and was sent down to AHL Providence to work on his offensive game. That’s after his incredible nine points in 12 games debut for the Bruins in 2017-18.

7. Winnipeg Jets

Previous ranking: 8

Brendan Lemieux. The most notable accomplishment for the spawn of Claude Lemieux this season has been a two-game suspension for an illegal check to the head of Vincent Trocheck. Otherwise, he’s averaged 5:32 per game and is a minus-17 in shot attempts at 5-on-5.

8. Washington Capitals

Previous ranking: 10

Travis Boyd. The depth forward, 25, was injured in the preseason and returned on Nov. 5 with two assists against the Oilers.

9. Pittsburgh Penguins

Previous ranking: 4

Juuso Riikola. Injuries on defense for the Penguins gave the 24-year-old Finn some early-season chances. He’s been a bit overwhelmed, to the tune of minus-39 in shot attempts, worst among Pittsburgh defensemen. Yes, including Jack Johnson.

10. Minnesota Wild

Previous ranking: 9

Jordan Greenway. The promising winger was sent down to the AHL after a rough start, playing a couple of games for Iowa. He returned with a rediscovered confidence, and has a goal and two assists in his last four games.

11. Calgary Flames

Previous ranking: 15

Juuso Valimaki. Another Finn! Valimaki, a first-rounder for the Flames in 2017, is skating 14:46 per game. He’s on the plus side of possession but has a minus-5 in goal differential.

12. Vancouver Canucks

Previous ranking: 24

Elias Pettersson. The Canucks star rookie became the first player to record 16-plus points through his first 10 career NHL games since 1992-93, when Dimitri Kvartalnov and Nikolai Borschevsky accomplished the feat. You heard it here first: Elias Pettersson, the new Nikolai Borschevsky.

13. New York Islanders

Previous ranking: 16

Josh Ho-Sang. As usual, interesting things are happening around Josh Ho-Sang. He was on fire for the AHL Bridgeport Sound Tigers, including a 12 points in 12 games run. At the same time, he had to apologize for comments he gave to the New York Post about his lack of premium ice time.

14. Montreal Canadiens

Previous ranking: 14

Jesperi Kotkaniemi. He’s 18 years old, the No. 3 overall pick in June, and has seven points in his first 15 NHL games for the resurgent Habs.

15. Columbus Blue Jackets

Previous ranking: 17

Calvin Thurkauf. He’s missed a bit with an undisclosed injury, but the former Swiss world junior team captain had 24 points in 75 games with Cleveland last season. He’s got some upside, and the Jackets will have an eye on the AHL to see what the winger does in his second pro season.

Full List

By: Greg Wyshynski

Preds Pursuing Matt Duchene Before Trade Deadline

Written by Pierre LeBrun at ESPN.com

If we’ve learned one thing over the past 13 months, it is to keep an eye on Nashville Predators general manager David Poile, a cagey veteran who seems ready to dial up a blockbuster at a moment’s notice.

From the Seth Jones-for-Ryan Johansen deal in January 2016 to the Shea Weber-P.K. Subban swap heard around the world in June, Poile has been making aggressive moves in an effort to get his team to the promised land — the Stanley Cup finals — for the first time in franchise history.

(All of which has triggered my Spidey senses when it comes to auctioning offMatt Duchene in Colorado, but more on that later.)

First, I caught up with Poile after the board of governors’ meeting on Saturday in Los Angeles to gauge his frame of mind ahead of the March 1 trade deadline. His team began the post-All-Star break sitting in a playoff spot, four points clear of the danger zone. So, are the Predators going to be an aggressive buyer at the deadline?

“We’ve had our pro meetings and we’re organized in terms of what we think we might need or want, and looked at certain teams that might be traders,” Poile said. “But I don’t know. Two weeks ago, I might have had a bit more of an aggressive answer, but in the last two weeks we’ve played a lot better and won some games. We seem to be jelling as a team more than we’ve had at any point in the season.”

Poile is wary of altering his team’s chemistry. That’s interesting because it’s exactly what Washington Capitals GM Brian MacLellan alluded to last week when we chatted about his team’s trade deadline approach. He expressed concern that any big move might alter the tremendous chemistry the Caps have going.

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Marleau Scores Four In Win Over Avalanche

Written by Rick Sadowski at NHL.com

Patrick Marleau had the first four-goal game of his NHL career, scoring them on four shots in the third period, to help the San Jose Sharks to a 5-2 win against the Colorado Avalanche at Pepsi Center on Monday.

San Jose (30-16-2) won its season-high fifth game in a row to remain one point behind the first-place Anaheim Ducks in the Pacific Division.

Marleau is the 12th player in NHL history to score four goals in a period, and the first since former Pittsburgh Penguins center Mario Lemieux on Jan. 26, 1997 against the Montreal Canadiens.

“It was a good period to have,” said Marleau, who had gone seven games without a goal and has 16 this season and 497 in his NHL career.

Defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic set up Marleau for his first goal, which came on a tip at 2:53 to break a 1-1 tie, and his fourth on a breakaway at 16:23 for a 5-2 lead.

Marleau said he started thinking about a hat trick after he scored his second goal at 5:57 on a wraparound, jamming the puck between the left post and goalie Spencer Martin’s skate to give the Sharks a 3-1 lead.

“[Sharks forward Logan Couture] said something to me on the bench, ‘Let’s go get that third one,'” Marleau said. “That’s when you’re thinking about it and guys are rooting for you, so it makes it fun.”

Marleau completed his hat trick at 10:35 shortly after serving a hooking penalty, converting Joe Pavelski’s pass on a 2-on-1 rush to make it 4-1.

“Great player,” Sharks coach Peter DeBoer said. “Still a lot of gas left in the tank, a lot of juice left in those legs. Considering our schedule and his age (37), to play a game like that, that’s an exceptional feat. It’s an exceptional feat when you’re 22, never mind 37 in the middle of seven games in 11 nights. He’s a great player. It was great to be part of it.”

Colorado (13-30-2), which lost its sixth consecutive game (0-5-1), was short one forward after center Matt Duchene was scratched because of illness shortly before the opening faceoff.

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Colorado Avalanche Trade Cody McLeod for Felix Girard


Written Pierre LaBrun at ESPN.com

The sell-off began in Colorado on Friday with the last-place Avalanche dealing veteran forward Cody McLeod to the Nashville Predators in exchange for prospect Felix Girard.

A source told ESPN that the Avalanche retained 40 percent of McLeod’s remaining salary and cap hit. The 32-year-old has another year left on his deal after this season at a $1.33 million cap hit.

McLeod has played in 28 games for Colorado this season and has recorded one goal and 52 penalty minutes. He has 1,359 penalty minutes, 66 goals and 51 games in 659 career games over 10 NHL seasons.

His eight fighting majors this season are the fourth-highest total in the league. McLeod had a league-high 12 fighting majors in 2015-16.

In an interview with ESPN on Thursday, Avalanche general manager Joe Sakic signaled that the retooling of the last-place franchise would commence.

“We’ve got all of our guys signed. We start getting flexibility next year to bring in more of our younger players who we’re happy with playing in [AHL] San Antonio and give them an opportunity next year,” Sakic told ESPN.

“But we do know going forward that we’ve got to get younger and faster,” he added. “We’ve had conversations [with other teams] about our players. I want to do what’s best for the organization long term. And that’s going to be my focus moving forward.”

So the first move was a minor one in dealing away McLeod, but much bigger moves are possible as the March 1 trade deadline looms as well as what shapes up to be a busy offseason for the Avs.

Girard, 22, was a fourth-round pick, 95th overall, by the Predators in 2013. He had eight points in 35 games for AHL Milwaukee this season.

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Flyers Win Ten Straight


Written by Sam Carchidi at Philly.com

Colorado had, in effect, a two-man advantage because it had pulled its goalie and one of the Flyers, Wayne Simmonds, was playing without a stick and valiantly trying to block shots with his body.
In a bizarre sequence, defenseman Andrew MacDonald broke his stick, and center Pierre-Edouard Bellemare handed him his stick. And then Simmonds passed along hisstick to Bellemare.
After the stick exchange, “it was kind of a rodeo after that,” Simmonds said after the Flyers registered their 10th straight win, a 4-3 escape over the Avalanche.
The Flyers were literally huffing and puffing. They were unable to clear the puck – Bellemare failed on one attempt, primarily because he had a borrowed stick that was curved the wrong way (for him) – and drained from the high altitude that victimizes lots of opposing teams that play at the Pepsi Center.
But goalie Steve Mason made some key saves, and when the final horn sounded, the Flyers had their longest winning streak since 1985.
“Just an all-out battle,” said Mason, who survived a 14-shot barrage in the final period. “. . . It was a heck of a way to close out the game.”
“The guys did a great job of blocking shots and tying up sticks,” defenseman Michael Del Zotto said. “Mase stood on his head again and it was a big character win for us.”
Simmonds said that if the Flyers could redo the last five minutes, they would play differently.
“We kind of sat back,” he said. “. . . That’s not what we want to do.”
During the streak, the Flyers have had more grit than grace, and they have won games in every way imaginable, whether it was brilliant goaltending by Mason or Anthony Stolarz, offensive eruptions by their big four – Simmonds, Claude Giroux, Jake Voracek, and Brayden Schenn – or clutch contributions by their less-heralded players, such as Bellemare, Michael Raffl, or Roman Lyubimov.

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Ovechkin, Toews Suspended for Missing All-Star Game

Written by Adam Gretz at CBSsports.com

Washington Capitals winger Alex Ovechkin and Chicago Blackhawks center Jonathan Toews are two of the biggest stars in the NHL and were selected to play in the 2016 All-Star game in Nashville this weekend.

Both players have decided to opt out of the game (Ovechkin to injury; Toews to illness) and as a result will have to miss their team’s first game back after the All-Star break.

The league not only announced on Thursday they will be replaced on the roster by Evgeny Kuznetsov and James Neal, but that Ovechkin and Toews have also been suspended for one game for missing the All-Star game.

Per league rules, any player that is voted into the game or named to the roster and does not play in the game for any reason receives a mandatory one-game suspension that must be served their team’s game immediately preceding or following the All-Star game.

Ovechkin will miss the Capitals’ Feb. 2 game against the Florida Panthers, while Toews will miss the Blackhawks’ game against the Colorado Avalanche the same night.

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