For just the second time since the turn of the century, the NHL champion reigns for a second consecutive season. The Tampa Bay Lightning defeated the Montreal Canadiens 1-0 in Game 5 at home on Wednesday night, cementing their back-to-back champion status after taking home the Stanley Cup in 2020 as well. Young Ross Colton scored the only goal of the game early in the second period, and his teammates played tough defense to keep Montreal off the board for a shutout win to seal it.
The 2020-21 season was far different for Tampa Bay, though. In 2019-20, the Lightning were a wire-to-wire favorite, leading the league in goals for and finishing second in goal differential, which earned them a share of the third-best record in the league. This year, the Lightning had their fair share of issues along the way, finishing only third in their own division and eighth overall in the league, falling to eighth in scoring and seventh in differential. Yet, in the postseason they were even better this time around than they were last year. In the 2020 playoffs, the Bolts recorded 3.08 goals for per game and 2.28 goals against per game, finished fifth in power-play and penalty-kill efficiency and required extra time to win seven games. This year, Tampa Bay notched 3.26 goals for per game and led the postseason with 1.96 goals against per game, finished third and fourth, respectively, on the power play and penalty kill, and did not need overtime to win a single game.
As the 2020-21 Stanley Cup playoffs get closer we are starting to get a sense for which teams are capable of seriously competing for a championship (the contenders), and which teams are not (the pretenders). Today we are going to take a look at each team that still has a realistic chance of making the Stanley Cup Playoffs and examining which category they fit in to. The criteria is simple: To be a contender you have to be a team that looks to have a legitimate chance to win a championship. Star power, depth, getting results with a strong process to back it up, having a manageable path through the playoffs with the right matchups. All of that is taken into account. See where your team sits.
This is an easy call. The defending Stanley Cup champions have the same core of players that won it all a year ago and have been the best team in the league for over six seasons now.
They have one of the best records in the league three-quarters of the way through the season, have great forward depth, an outstanding defense, and the best goalie in the league playing some of the best hockey of his career.
If that is not enough they added David Savard to their defense at the trade deadline and have yet to get a single game from their best offensive player, Nikita Kucherov, this season. He will be back for the playoffs. Easy contender. Definitely one of the top two or three contenders.
This is one of the best rosters in the league from top to bottom. They have three superstars at the top (Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, Gabriel Landeskog), really good secondary scoring, and a young defense that has already become the NHL’s best. It is only going to get better.
The big question for the Avalanche will be whether or not the goaltending perhaps up to par. Starting goalie Philipp Grubauer is currently on the COVID list, meaning Devan Dubnyk and Jonas Johansson will have to take over the starting job in the short term. How Grubauer plays when he returns will be a big factor for the Avalanche. This is still an extremely impressive roster that is set to compete for the Stanley Cup for the foreseeable future.
Simply one of the most consistent organizations in the NHL. Always at the top of their division, always near the top of the league standings. Adding Anthony Mantha at the trade deadline is a significant move to add another big, strong, skilled forward to a lineup that is already full of them. The big question will be the goaltending where Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek have been solid but at times a little inconsistent. The fact they are as good as they are with that level of goaltending should worry every team they encounter. If they get goaltending, look out.
The Hurricanes have been building something special for a couple of years now and are one of the league’s best teams. They have top-line star power at forward with Sebastian Aho, Andrei Svechnikov, and Teuvo Teravainen, an outstanding defense led by Dougie Hamilton and Jaccob Slavin, and they even have the goaltending this season.
That has always been a struggle in Carolina, but Alex Nedeljkovic and Petr Mrazek have done a great job playing the crease this season. Together, they have one of the top-five team save percentages in hockey.
It remains remarkable that the Vegas Golden Knights have been a Stanley Cup contender from Day One of the organization’s existence. They are now in year four and might have their best team yet. Mark Stone is an MVP candidate at forward, they have two fantastic defensemen in Alex Pietrangelo and Shea Theodore to lead their blue line, and Marc-Andre Fleury and Robin Lehner give them the best goaltending duo in the league.
They are every bit as dominant this season as Colorado at the top of the league. The problem: One of them is guaranteed to be eliminated by at least the second round given the divisional playoff format. The winner of that series might end up being THE Stanley Cup favorite.
Throughout the playoffs, the 16th-seeded Nashville Predators have gained admirers due to their next-man-up mentality and suffocating brand of defense.
Although the Predators lost Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on Monday night, they showed how effective their possession-positive play can be against the mighty Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Predators quickly fell behind by three goals after P.K. Subban’s apparent series-opening goal was wiped off the board due to a contentious offsides review. Nashville carried the play for the opening 11 minutes, but mentally unraveled after the goal was taken off the board.
The visitors lost focus and fell into the trap of taking several ill-advised penalties, including James Neal being whistled for a mindless cross-checking penalty that set up a Penguins 5-on-3 advantage. In addition, there was times when Neal needlessly had his stick in the air and not on the ice, a repeated failure to provide a target for his defensemen to advance the puck. It was an awful night for No. 18 in white. He’s got to screw his head on straight for Game 2 on Wednesday.
Despite the nightmarish first period, the Predators charged back, gaining the lion’s share of the momentum in the second as they played keep away with the puck. Those who thought the own goal off Mattias Ekholm’s knee late in the first was going to finish Nashville obviously don’t much about this group’s ability to respond when the chips are down.
Nashville did an outstanding job of minimizing Pittsburgh’s home ice advantage for much of the night. Led by criminally underrated defenseman Roman Josi, the Predators limited the high-octane Penguins to just 12 total shots on goal in Game 1. There was plenty of excellent backchecking and denying of offensive zone entries by head coach Peter Laviolette’s players. PPG Paints Arena drifted into a tense and muted atmosphere as the game progressed.
It took more than four periods of hockey — and a whole lot of attempts on Craig Anderson — Thursday night in Game 7 against an Eastern Conference underdog, but the Pittsburgh Penguins are headed back to the Stanley Cup Final.
Two games after being pulled twice from a 7-0 blowout loss, Anderson nearly had his second straight 40-save night in the net for the Ottawa Senators, pushing the favored Pens and defending title winners into double overtime after falling behind on two occasions.
But the Pens, with a relentless offensive attack, got the winning goal from Chris Kunitz to lock up a return trip to the Final and a chance to repeat as Stanley Cup champions with a 3-2 decision.
A game after the Pens unloaded 46 shots against Anderson, neither team was overly successful in replicating action in front of the net, at least early on. Pittsburgh managed just six shots on goal in the first period, while Ottawa had just five shots at Matt Murray.
The defensive back-and-forth continued after a second-period strike from Kunitz put Pittsburgh up 1-0 — and an immediate Senators response in the form of a Mark Stone goal just 20 seconds later. And while Guy Boucher’s physical team failed to convert on a pair of power-play tries, an all-too-familiar issue for the Sens this postseason, it also kept up against Sidney Crosby and the speedy Pens, excelling in efforts to halt second- and third-chance shots in front of Anderson.
Ottawa’s resiliency was the highlight of a thrilling third period, too.
Officiating went in both directions over the course of the Eastern Conference finals, with some Pens fans arguing that a goalie interference call from Tuesday’s Game 6 ruined Pittsburgh’s shot at putting away the Sens. And penalties resurfaced to play a role in the final period of regulation Thursday, this time benefiting the defending Stanley Cup champs on an interference call against Dion Phaneuf, whose flagged tussle with Phil Kessel was more the result of a dive onto the ice by the latter than any kind of blatant roughness.
The Nashville Predators are going to their first Stanley Cup Final in franchise history following a 6-3 victory over the Anaheim Ducks in the Western Conference Final on Monday night in Bridgestone Arena.
Colton Sissons registered a hat trick to propel the Predators’ attack, while Pekka Rinne made 38 saves, offsetting a 41-18 edge in shots in favor of Anaheim.
Not even half of the opening period had elapsed by the time the Predators took a two-goal lead.
Austin Watson opened the scoring 1:21 into the game. Watson received an assist from Brandon Montour, who deflected the puck into the net with his left skate. The NHL shared a replay of the goal:
While Nashville couldn’t have envisaged a better start, the Predators’ momentum didn’t carry over much longer. The absences of Mike Fisher and Ryan Johansen loomed large as Nashville’s attack dried up and the team went into a defensive shell.
Taking advantage of the gun-shy Predators, the Ducks halved the deficit at the 4:45 mark of the second period. Ryan Getzlaf delivered a perfect pass to Ondrej Kase in front of goal, and the 21-year-old forward didn’t miss with his close-range effort.
The Orange County Register‘s Eric Stephens was impressed by what he saw from Kase on the ice:
Ondrej Kase really showing himself in this game. Can be a nice productive winger for Ducks in future.
One more win and the Nashville Predators are in the Stanley Cup Final.
With Pekka Rinne turning in maybe his best outing of the postseason and the blue line clamping down after a go-ahead strike from Pontus Aberg, Nashville took a 3-2 lead in the Western Conference finals with a 3-1 decision over the Anaheim Ducks on Saturday night.
Two days after edging the Preds in a 3-2 overtime clash, Anaheim did enough early in Game 5 to take a 1-0 lead, staying even with Nashville in terms of first-period shots and faceoffs, then scoring on Rinne thanks to a putback from Corey Wagner. And the Ducks ultimately put more shots on the Predators net over the course of the evening, looking to take advantage of a Ryan Johansen-less unit.
But it was Music City’s postseason heroes that finished strong, finally converting on a power-play try with Aberg’s goal — his first ever in the playoffs — 11:01 into the third, when Filip Forsberg and Mattias Ekholm refused to back down in front of John Gibson.
Rinne and the defense then tightened up to follow up Aberg’s milestone score, allowing just one shot from Anaheim in a span of just about six minutes and shutting down a threatening attempt from Brandon Montour right near the net.
An unassisted Austin Watson goal sealed the deal for the Preds in the game’s final minute.
And Nashville, even with a big-name defenseman sidelined in Johansen, has pulled within striking distance of a historic trip to the Stanley Cup Final, in large part due to the top-line blue-line play that drove the Preds past the Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues.
With Game 6 slated for a return to Nashville, the Ducks are officially on life alert, even if their slate of comebacks this postseason suggests otherwise.
The Pittsburgh Penguins torched the Ottawa Senators in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Final on Sunday afternoon and moved to within a win of advancing back to the Stanley Cup Final to defend their crown.
Matt Murray made 21 saves for the shutout in his second start in these playoffs, while seven different Penguins scored in the 7-0 thrashing.
It began with a blitz in the first period as the Penguins scored four goals on 15 shots, quickly putting the game out of reach like the Senators had with their own offensive explosion back in Game 3.
Olli Maatta opened the scoring, launching a mammoth blast from the point on a quick counter created off a horrible turnover near the blue line by Mike Hoffman.
After Sidney Crosby struck in a third consecutive game to double the lead four minutes later with a tip on the power play, the Senators’ teetering defensive-zone coverage completely collapsed. The Penguins hemmed them in their own end for more than two minutes before another atrocious failed exit led to Nick Bonino winding up in a dangerous area. His shot caught the inside of Bryan Rust’s leg and evaded Craig Anderson, briefly sending the netminder to the chair at the end of Ottawa’s bench.
Mike Condon came out to replace Anderson, and made one save before Guy Boucher surprised by returning his starter returned during a stoppage. It backfired almost instantaneously, as Scott Wilson shovelled a rebound back toward the front of the net, which bounced in off Anderson, who was late to seal his post, to make it 4-0.
He finished the period, but was replaced for good to start the second.
Corey Perry’s goal 10 minutes, 25 seconds into overtime gave the Anaheim Ducks a 3-2 win in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals on Thursday, evening the best-of-seven series against the Nashville Predators at two games apiece.
Perry’s second overtime winner in two weeks was originally credited to Nate Thompson. But a review showed that Perry’s centering pass actually went in off the stick of Predators defenseman P.K. Subban.
Nashville forced overtime with two late goals, including Filip Forsberg’s tying marker with 35 seconds remaining in regulation and Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne on the bench.
How it happened: Nashville trailed 2-0 after Rickard Rakell and Nick Ritchie scored on long shots that eluded Rinne to the short side. But the Predators found new life late when Subban scored 13:33 into the third period. It appeared the comeback attempt would fall short after Nashville failed to register a shot on a late five-on-three advantage lasting 1:31. But Forsberg’s finish off a mad scramble tied the score and completed an uncharacteristic collapse by a Ducks team that entered the game with a 5-1 postseason record when leading after 40 minutes.
Changing assignments: The Ducks’ more efficient offense early in the game was facilitated in part by Ryan Kesler no longer being required to shadow Nashville’s leading playoff scorer, Ryan Johansen. With Nashville enjoying the advantage of last change, the Predators’ top line was matched up primarily against a Ducks first line centered by captain Ryan Getzlaf. Getting a break from harassing Johansen, Kesler was able to take on a more offensive role, leading all players with five shots through two periods. During that span, Johansen’s entire line, which included Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson, combined for only four shots.
Of course, Forsberg and Arvidsson, who assisted on both Nashville goals, pushed through toward the end.
Written by Jason Mackey at Pittsburgh Post Gazette.com
Marc-Andre Fleury played the part of easy target after the Penguins’ 5-1 loss to the Senators in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference final on Wednesday at Canadian Tire Centre, allowing four goals on the first nine shots he faced.
Accurate? Yeah, right. Just ask Matt Cullen, who was fairly steaming after this one.
“We played like [expletive],” Cullen said. “No excuses. That’s the bottom line. We didn’t battle. We didn’t work as hard as we needed to. It’s the conference finals. To have that kind of effort is pretty tough to stomach.”
The effort Cullen mentioned prohibited the Penguins from penetrating the Senators’ defensive structure enough to generate more than 26 shots on goal and make goaltender Craig Anderson’s life miserable.
Another playoff game, more missing offense. The Penguins have now scored two or fewer goals in seven of their past eight.
“Flower has carried us here,” Cullen said. “He’s played so well for us. That makes it even worse that we kind of hung him out to dry. Bottom line is we didn’t play well. We have to figure it out here as a group. We have to understand that it’s not going to be easy. We have to put our best effort out there. We have to win battles. We have to fight a little bit. We didn’t tonight.”
Four of the Penguins’ top-six forwards have struggled to score of late.
Sidney Crosby’s third period goal snapped a seven-game goal-less stretch for him. An encouraging sign but not enough. Conor Sheary hasn’t scored in 14, Chris Kunitz 10 and Jake Guentzel four. Hardly ideal production from four of your top six forwards.
From the outside, Bridgestone Arena in downtown Nashville is a handsome, if oversized, building surrounded by office towers, a parking lot and the Country Music Hall of Fame.
In other words, nothing special.
But on the inside it’s a magical place, one bathed in yellow and often louder than a jumbo jet at full throttle. On Tuesday that helped the Predators pull a little more sleight of hand, scoring a pair of third-period goals to down the Ducks 2-1 and take a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven Western Conference finals.
Game 4 is Thursday.
“We love playing here,” Nashville forward James Neal said. “From the second we skate on the ice, it’s an amazing building to play in. Everyone says their fans are great. But this is a whole different level of support.
“The city, it’s on fire.”
So are the Predators, whose victory Tuesday left them 6-0 at home this postseason. It was also their 10th straight home playoff win over the past two seasons, the longest such streak in the NHL in 20 years.
Nashville wasn’t even in the league 20 years ago.
“You always try to establish your home building, [make it a] tough place to play. And I think we’ve been doing that,” said goalie Pekka Rinne, who turned back 19 shots. “Even in the regular season, we like to play at home.”
The goals Tuesday were scored by Filip Forsberg, who has one in each of the three games in the series, and Roman Josi, whose game-winner came with 2:43 left in regulation. Both came off fortunate rebounds and they stood up after Nashville had twice as many shots on goal and had two potential tiebreaking goals disallowed in an eight-second span of the third period, both because of goaltender interference.
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