A buzzer beater, a team playing with only nine forwards, some controversial hits and a player reuniting with a very good pup. Wednesday in the NHL ran a gamut of emotions. Thursday surely won’t let up, as we get a pivotal Game 3 in the Western Conference Finals between the Vegas Golden Knights and Dallas Stars.
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Game 3: No. 1 Vegas Golden Knights vs. No. 3 Dallas Stars (tied 1-1) | 8 p.m.
The Stars won a tight, structured Game 1 as Vegas looked lethargic. The script was totally flipped in Game 2. Vegas was clinical in a 3-0 win on Monday, as Dallas couldn’t find its game. This series has the potential to go anywhere. “I think we’re very similar teams,” Dallas GM Jim Nill said on Wednesday. “You look at the [regular-season] standings, they’re four points ahead of us and we had two games in hand, so very close in the standings. We’re both big, heavy teams. We both support the puck well and we both get great goaltending, so I think what you’ve seen is what you’re going to get.” Captain Jamie Benn said the Stars needed more from their power play, which has gone 0-for-4 in the series (while the Golden Knights have killed off 18 straight, dating back to the series against Vancouver).
Vegas is looking for another hot start, and coach Peter DeBoer typically gets the tone going by starting his fourth line in every game. “I don’t think it’s an accident we started those guys,” DeBoer said. “They’re ready to play an hour before the puck drops, and when the puck drops, you’re just opening the gate and they’re going. That was the initial thought when we did it, and we’ve had success with it.”
Question of the Day: Who is the biggest star left in the playoffs?
The NHL’s final four are all terrific teams, but their results have been predicated on just that: team-oriented success. The league’s biggest household names — Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon, Alex Ovechkin — have all been eliminated. Of the four remaining teams, there’s no player who rises to the widespread name recognition of those four players, though 2019 Hart Trophy Winner Nikita Kucherov probably comes closest.
We posed this issue to longtime NHL coach Bruce Boudreau in his appearance on the “ESPN on Ice” podcast on Wednesday — and added another layer. Of players on the Stars, Golden Knights, Lightning and Islanders, who would he most like to build a team around?
“Oh, that’s a tough question,” Boudreau said. “To me, I’m looking for a younger guy that’s going to be just a stud. Brayden Point would be the guy, to me, that I would build a team around. He has exceeded everyone’s expectations, and keeps getting better. You say, ‘We got to stop him,’ and he doesn’t seem to stop. His inner drive — and I don’t know the man at all — seems so high that he won’t let anything beat him. He would probably be the guy I would start with. Or if you looked at a defenseman, I coached Shea Theodore for a while, and I think he just brings so much to that Vegas team. So he might be a guy.”
Point left Wednesday’s game with injury, and missed most of the final two periods. Lightning coach Jon Cooper didn’t have an update on his health after the game.
About last night …
Tampa Bay Lightning 2, New York Islanders 1 (TB leads 2-0)
The Lightning had no business winning this game. Jon Cooper was sticking to his 11-forward, seven-defensemen lineup, which nearly backfired. Tampa Bay lost Alex Killorn (game misconduct) in the first period, then Brayden Point (injury) early in the second. That’s only nine forwards for most of the game. The Isles had 10:22 of power-play time, including a 5-on-3 late in the third. And remind you, Killorn is one of the team’s best penalty killers and Point has been their most productive player so far. The Isles re-established their defensive structure. Tampa Bay was limited to just 14 shots through the first 50 minutes.
But then with 8.8 seconds remaining, Nikita Kucherov scored on a bang-bang play and the Lightning, improbably, left with a win. Cooper kept calling his team’s performance “gutty” after the game. The Isles are trying not to sulk too much; after outplaying Tampa Bay for most of Game 2, they know they can hang in this series. “We had our energy, we had our game today, and we just didn’t get the result,” coach Barry Trotz said. “I liked a lot about our game, other than probably the last 30 seconds.” The Department of Player Safety will take a good look at the Killorn hit on Brock Nelson in the first period; a hearing is possible. Full recap.
Nikita Kucherov, RW, Tampa Bay Lightning
Not only did Kucherov score the winning goal with 8.8 seconds left — the latest go-ahead goal in a regulation conference finals game since Eric Lindros against the Rangers in 1997 — but the winger had a monster game. He led the Lightning forwards corps with 22:25 of ice time.
“He was all over the ice,” Victor Hedman said. “When you have your most skilled player do that, it rubs off on everyone else. Our forwards showed a lot of resiliency today and made a big play at the end obviously.”
Andrei Vasilevskiy, G, Tampa Bay Lightning
It’s not getting a lot of attention, but Vasilevskiy is having an terrific postseason. After turning away 27 of 28 shots in Game 2, his playoff save percentage improved to .932. He also has 12 wins, three more than any other goalie in the bubble.
Matt Martin, LW, New York Islanders
Heading into unrestricted free agency, the 31-year-old Martin is having himself a tournament. On Wednesday he scored his fifth goal of the playoffs — and it was a tone-setter, just 1:24 into the game.
Social post of the day
They really should have allowed dogs in the bubble.
Oskar Lindblom and his dog Tage reuniting for the first time since leaving for the NHL bubble 🥺 pic.twitter.com/z9j0pg18Ya
— Brooke Destra (@BrookeNBCS) September 9, 2020
Reaction of the day
Coach Cooper celebrating @86Kucherov‘s last minute game-winner is perfection 🙌 #StanleyCup pic.twitter.com/E2YAt5CF6u
— NHL GIFs (@NHLGIFs) September 10, 2020
Jon Cooper postgame, when asked about his reaction: “I think I blacked out at that point.”
NHL Awards Watch
On Wednesday, Bruce Cassidy was given the Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s coach of the year, as voted on by the NHL broadcasters association. Cassidy — who led the Bruins to the Presidents’ Trophy, as the only team to hit 100 points before the pause — beat out other finalists Alain Vigneault of Philadelphia and John Tortorella of Columbus.
Cassidy is the fourth Bruins coach to win the award, had quite a journey to get here. A first-round pick of the Blackhawks in 1983, Cassidy’s NHL playing career was derailed by three knee surgeries. He was named coach of the Capitals in 2002 after six years coaching the minors, but clearly wasn’t ready, getting fired after two seasons (the Caps were so bad in Cassidy’s final season, they won the draft lottery and selected Alex Ovechkin). Cassidy then spent 10 more years coaching in the minors, improving as a coach, hopeful he would get another shot at the NHL.
He thanked the Bruins ownership for the opportunity with the Bruins, his coaching staff and operations staff who are “in the trenches every day” and the players — “the ones who get it done on the ice.”
But, first Cassidy had a more personal message: “I can’t thank my wife Julie and the kids enough for all their unconditional love and support for all the ups and downs that this profession brings.”
Up next: On Thursday, the NHL will reveal the winner of the Selke Trophy, given “to the forward who best excels in the defensive aspects of the game.” The finalists are: Patrice Bergeron of the Boston Bruins, Sean Couturier of the Philadelphia Flyers and Ryan O’Reilly of the St. Louis Blues.