The biggest storylines in 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs

The 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs are set to begin, so settle in for two months of unpredictable chaos, madness and excitement. Some of the big stories worth watching include the Washington Capitals‘ pursuit of a repeat, Tampa Bay’s quest to finally get over the hump and Sergei Bobrovsky’s attempt to solve his postseason demons. All of these are among our 20 biggest storylines to watch in the 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs. 

Can the Capitals repeat?

Winning the Stanley Cup once is incredibly difficult. Winning it two years in a row is even harder. It is something that has been done only three times since 1990, and the Capitals are going to try to add to that list. They still have all of the superstars that made their 2018 championship possible and made some smart additions at the trade deadline to bring in Carl Hagelin and Nick Jensen to sure up the defense. They have all of the ingredients at their disposal to do it.

Will the Lightning finish it this season?

After experiencing repeated playoff heartbreak over the past four years, the Lightning are back and better than ever this season. They completed one of the best regular seasons in NHL history, and they enter the playoffs as the clear favorites to win the Stanley Cup. If they do not reach at least the Stanley Cup Final with this roster, it will be their biggest postseason disappointment yet.

The Golden Knights’ encore performance

So much to watch with the Golden Knights. Will they have their over-the-top pregame performances? Will they be able to make another run to the Stanley Cup Final? Can they actually win it all in Year 2? You have to like their chances not only because of the strength of their roster but also because their path through the Pacific Division bracket features two teams with significant question marks in goal. That is a good position to have an advantage in this time of year.

Joe Thornton’s last ride?

The only thing Thornton’s Hall of Fame career is missing is his name on the Stanley Cup, and this might be his last best shot to do it. He is not getting any younger, it is not known how much longer he is going to play in the NHL, and the San Jose Sharks went all in on this season to try to get a championship. They will need a healthy Erik Karlsson to get there and for Martin Jones to get his act together in net after a miserable regular season.

Will the Stanley Cup return to Canada?

A Canadian-0based NHL team has not won the Stanley Cup since the Montreal Canadiens did so all the way back in 1993. There are three Canadian teams that have a chance to do it this season with Calgary, Toronto and Winnipeg all punching their tickets to the playoffs. The Flames, having finished the year with the best record in the Western Conference, seem to be the team with the best chance to do it, but they have major questions in goal. The Maple Leafs have to get through their arch nemesis in Boston, while the Jets have been trending in the wrong direction down the stretch.

 

Can the Maple Leafs get out of the first round?

If they do not, there is going to be some intense scrutiny in Toronto. Not only do the Maple Leafs need to win as a team, but coach Mike Babcock also needs to advance for the sake of his own reputation. There have been 23 different coaches who have won a playoff series since a Babcock-coached team has, while he has made it out of the first round just once since 2010. That is not what you want from the highest-paid coach in the NHL

The Islanders return to the playoffs

Nobody expected the New York Islanders to be here. After missing the playoffs in each of the past two seasons and then losing John Tavares in free agency, expectations were as low as humanly possible for them at the start of the year. But they defied the odds all year and put together one of the most incredible one-year turnarounds in recent NHL history, going from the worst defensive team in the league a year ago to the best this season. How long can their goalies continue their great play and will they find enough offense? Those going to be the big questions for them.

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By: Adam Gretz

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)

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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.

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By: Greg Wyshynski

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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Every NHL team’s odds to win the Stanley Cup

Toronto Maple Leafs (13/2)

The pressure for the Toronto Maple Leafs to win this season is going to be immense. They were already a really good team with an embarrassment of riches at forward, and then they went out and signed John Tavares in one of the biggest free-agent moves in recent NHL history. For any team in any other NHL city, this would be pressure. In Toronto, where the Maple Leafs have not won a championship in the post-Original Six era and have not advanced beyond the first round since 2004, the expectation to do something is going to be sky-high. There will be no excuses to be had, either. They have a team willing to spend to the cap, with a couple of superstars, and the highest paid, highest regarded coach in hockey.

Tampa Bay Lightning (15/2)

This team is absolutely loaded on paper with a couple of Art Ross Trophy contenders (Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos) at forward, a Norris Trophy contender (Victor Hedman) on defense and a Vezina Trophy contender (Andrei Vasilevskiy) in goal, with a strong supporting cast around all of them. J.T. Miller, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Brayden Point, Ryan McDonagh, Anton Stralman, so on and so on. On paper this is one of the best teams in the league and has been in at least the Eastern Conference Final in three of the past four years. It is not a stretch to think the Lightening could be there again.

Winnipeg Jets (19/2)

They lost Paul Stastny to the team that beat them in the Western Conference Final, which is not ideal, but Stastny was always a luxury on this team. The Jets have one of the best collections of young forward talent in the league, and Patrik Laine could be on the verge of taking yet another step forward this season (50 goals?). The key to their success will be whether or not starting goalie, Connor Hellebuyck, repeats what he did a year ago for them.

Nashville Predators (11/1)

No team in the NHL has a defense that can match Nashville’s. The Predators also are incredibly deep at forward, and they have two goalies capable of starting and playing at a high level. There is no real, clear-cut weakness on this team, and even better, the entire core is locked in place on long-term, salary cap-friendly contracts. The Predators fell a little short in their quest to repeat as Western Conference champions, but they are not going away as Stanley Cup contenders anytime soon.

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In a Blow to the Islanders, John Tavares Joins the Maple Leafs

John Tavares, an Islander his entire nine-year career and the team captain the past five seasons, has decided to go home. He signed a seven-year, $77 million contract on Sunday with the Toronto Maple Leafs that will bolster that club but leave the Islanders without the longtime face of their franchise.

The 27-year-old Tavares was the first overall pick by the Islanders in 2009 and went on to lead the team in scoring seven times. His signature moment was the double-overtime goal scored against Florida in the 2016 playoffs, which clinched the series for the Islanders. It turned out to be the only postseason series that Tavares won in his near-decade with the team.

“I’m thrilled to be starting a new chapter of my career and life in Toronto,” Tavares said on his Twitter feed after agreeing to the deal with the Maple Leafs. “I feel very fortunate to come join a team with a great young core and play where I grew up learning and loving the game.’’

The Islanders missed the playoffs for the second straight year last season, and for the sixth time in Tavares’s Islanders tenure.

The Islanders made wholesale front-office changes after last season, hiring Lou Lamoriello as the president of hockey operations and then naming him general manager as well in place of Garth Snow. Lamoriello, in turn, hired Barry Trotz, who led the Washington Capitals to the Stanley Cup this past spring, to replace Doug Weight as coach.

But that wasn’t enough to convince Tavares to stick around, even with the Islanders’ majority owner, Jon Ledecky, and Snow repeatedly stating that they wanted Tavares to remain an Islander for his entire career.

“It was tough,” Tavares said on Sunday. “You’re in one place for so long, you get so embedded, your roots are so deep in there. You care so much about the people and the people that have cared about you.”

Tavares grew up a Maple Leafs fan in Mississauga, Ontario. In his Twitter statement, he said he was “thankful that I had the opportunity to be an Islander for as long as I did,” but added that it was “time to live my childhood dream here in Toronto.”

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By Allan Kreda

Caps Win Series Against Leafs, 4-2

Written by Nathan Sick at Russian Machine Never Breaks.com

Sunday night the Capitals beat the Toronto Maple Leafs for the last time this season, winning 2-1 in the fifth overtime of the series. All six games were won by one goal. Even though it would’ve been arrogant to completely dismiss the Leafs prior to this series, almost nobody thought it would be quite this tough (Peter and Ian excepted). Props to the Leafs, who showed that they can be a deep, tough, and structured opponent.

The heroics last night came mainly from Marcus Johansson, who got the OT winner and the late third period game-tying goal. Nate Schmidt was nearly injured by Leo Komarov (who we won’t miss), but hopefully he’ll be okay for the Caps’ upcoming matchup with the flightless birds.

Once again, shot attempts were nearly even at 63 to 62 in favor of the Caps at five-on-five, and scoring chances were 31-27. The Caps seized the “big moment” of OT and managed to put five shots on net to just one by the Leafs.

Key Stats

  • The depth players chipped in. Last year, we lamented the lack of production from almost everyone below the top line. That trend has been bucked a bit so far this postseason, with three goals from Tom Wilson, another three from Justin Williams, and two more from MoJo. Each of them has a “W” almost solely credited to their name. The only pointless players in the series were Jay Beagle, Brett Connolly, and Daniel Winnik. Still though, of the Caps’ 18 goals this round eight of them came from the top-line trio, which is both good and bad, depending on how you look at it.
  • Alex Ovechkin finally led Caps forwards in ice time. We’ve been clamoring for a few games for as much Ovi-time as possible, and last night our request was fulfilled. Ovi skated around 19.5 minutes at five-on-five and was plus-11 in shot attempts and plus-six in scoring chances during that time. The top line trio was a plus-four in shot attempts overall last night, just behind the third line at plus-five. Overall, Ovi was fifth on the team among forwards in ice time per game, with TJ Oshie leading the way in that statistic.

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Capitals Tie Series With Leafs, Bringing Series Home For Critical Game 5

Written by Pete Blackburn at FoxSports.com

The Capitals and Maple Leafs continue to duke it out in what is the best series of the Stanley Cup Playoffs so far.

After the Leafs took a 2-1 series lead with an overtime victory in Game 3 earlier this week, I wrote that the Capitals need to take advantage of their depth to overpower Toronto and climb back into the series. On Wednesday night, they were able to do that as they came away with a 5-4 victory on the road to even the series.

Not only did Washington get solid contributions from their heavy-hitters up front — especially Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie — but they also got a career-best performance from Tom Wilson

Not only did Wilson score twice — the first multi-goal game of his NHL career — but he also prevented a goal for Toronto with what might be the best save of the series.

On a wild sequence in the first period, Wilson made a diving stick save to prevent the puck from rolling across the goal line after it trickled through Caps’ netminder Braden Holtby, then immediately went down to the other end of the ice and scored a goal on a deflection in front of the Leafs’ net.

It was a hell of a swing for the Capitals, and one that ultimately made a huge difference in game decided by a single goal.

Wilson, who scored seven goals all regular season, went on to add a second tally on an odd-man rush later in the period.

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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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