Frozen Four preview

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When last we left you two weeks ago, we were wondering how East Region #4 seed RIT  managed to blow through to the semis like it was no big deal while the other three top seeds (Boston College, Wisconsin, and Miami) powered through their regions to reach the Frozen Four at Ford Field in Detroit.

If the guys at RIT thought that they saw tough competition from Denver Unive2010frozenfour.jpgrsity and New Hampshire in the East, they’d be liars for the most part, but they haven’t seen anything yet like what they’ll see against Wisconsin (5:00 pm ET). Coach Wayne Wilson’s team is the hands-down Cinderella of this tournament and they’ll being playing the same role that Butler did in the NCAA Basketball Final Four trying to take down all the big dogs. They’ve already knocked off one #1 seed in Denver and if they’re going to do the unthinkable and win the National Championship (in just their third year of tournament eligibility) they’ll have to beat two more to do it. 

That’s a bit of a tall order but if there’s anything the RIT Tigers have proven in this tournament is that they will not be cheated in any game and they will take advantage of all opportunities presented to them. The main man for RIT has been goaltender Jared DeMichiel who stopped 39 shots against Denver and 24 against UNH to help carry the Tigers into the semis.

As for Wisconsin, they powered through the West Region beating on game Vermont and St. Cloud State teams but make no mistake about it, head coach Mike Eaves brings the most talented team into the Frozen Four.  Hobey Baker finalist Blake Geoffrion leads the headlines but stars like Brendan Smith, Derek Stepan and Michael Davies are studs and big time scorers for the Badgers. Containing the Badgers offensively may be tricky for RIT but one area the Tigers may be able to get through is against goaltender Scott Gudmandson. Gudmandson comes in with a 2.32 goals against average with a .915 save percentage while playing in the very defensive-minded Wisconsin system. If you choose to read that as “the trap” you can give yourself a pat on the back. 

If Gudmandson is a little bit shaky, the reliance of Wisconsin’s stars to come up bigger than normal may be required. RIT has shown a great resilience in this tournament and nothing short of blowing them away will keep them down.  If you wanted to call this a “David v. Goliath” match up you wouldn’t be using a strong enough metaphor to describe it.

In the other semifinal, a couple of old tournament foes get to be reacquainted, this time on a much larger stage.  Miami University and Boston College (8:30 pm ET) are more than familiar with each other when it comes to the tournament and if the past is reflective of anything, things don’t bode well for Miami.  In 2006, 2007 and 2008 BC and Miami met in the tournament with each loss more painful than the one before it for Miami. A 5-0 defeat in in the first round in 2006, and back to back Regional Final losses (4-0 in 2007, 4-3 in OT in 2008). 

Of course, all this comes on the heels of Miami’s stunning defeat in last year’s National Championship game at the hands of Boston University. Not to get overdramatic here, but the seniors on this Miami team, including top scorer Jarod Palmer, have seen enough of Boston teams ending their seasons in gut-wrenching fashion you’d have to think that maybe, just maybe, this would be the time to step up and take one back in the name of the Redhawks… Right? Exorcising the BC demons would go a long way towards helping them out psychologically and perhaps keep head coach Enrico Blasi from checking into an asylum.

Boston College head coach Jerry York will have a lot to say about that as he’s one of college hockey’s legends and true masters on the bench and his Eagles have been playing tough, inspired hockey for the better part of a month and a half now.  Cam Atkinson and John Gibbons are red hot in this tournament and junior goaltender John Muse already has a National Championship under his belt as he backstopped Boston College’s 2008 title team.  BC is a confident team and plays a fast, intense game and they’ll need all of that against Miami.

If BC is going to have issues with Miami it’s going to be along their own blueline as BC had a hard time keeping Yale off the board in the Northeast Regional Final (a 9-7 BC win).  Miami can score with the best of them though as Palmer, Pat Cannone, Tommy Wingels, Andy Miele, and Carter Camper all have 14+ goals this season. Miami also rolls into the tournament with a two-headed monster in goal with Cody Reichard and Conor Knapp splitting time all season long beautifully for the Redhawks.

Burns continued to build Hart argument in Sharks win last night

NEWARK, NJ - FEBRUARY 12:  San Jose Sharks defenseman Brent Burns #88 celebrates his goal against the New Jersey Devils during their game at the Prudential Center on February 12, 2017 in Newark, New Jersey.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
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GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) The San Jose Sharks were facing a team that had been playing well in an arena buzzing with energy following a pregame ceremony.

Once they handled the initial onrush, the Sharks struck first to subdue the crowd and their opponent.

Brent Burns scored two goals, Aaron Dell had a career-high 36 saves and the Sharks beat the Arizona Coyotes for the first time this season, 4-1 on Saturday night.

“We kind of weathered their storm early; there was a lot of energy in the building,” Sharks center Joe Pavelski said. “We got to (Coyotes goalie Mike Smith) in the first period. When you get one or two on him early, it kind of breaks them down a little bit and play from behind. That was a big key.”

The Sharks bounced back from a slow start in their last game by scoring two goals in the first period and another early in the second to quiet a crowd energized by a ceremony honoring the first Coyotes team in the desert. Dell was sharp in his 11th start of the season, and the Pacific Division-leading Sharks were good in front of him to avoid a season sweep (1-3-1) by the last-place Coyotes.

Melker Karlsson had a goal and two assists, and Micheal Haley had a goal and an assist for San Jose.

Burns, of course, was at the center of the offense from the blue line.

The NHL’s third-leading scorer, he had a goal in the first period and his 27th of the season in the third to match the team record for goals by a defenseman that he set in 2015-16. It was his third two-goal game of the season and second in the last three games.

“He’s having an MVP season. He’s been that good for us all year and it’s every night,” Sharks coach Peter DeBoer said. “I don’t know what else to say. In my mind, he’s the best player in the league right now.”

The Coyotes could not capitalize on a rowdy, sellout crowd. Arizona peppered Dell with 29 shots in the first two periods but didn’t score until Martin Hanzal punched in a rebound in the third, when they were down 3-0.

Hanzal scored his fifth goal in five games and Smith stopped 29 shots for Arizona.

“We were pretty good in the period and I don’t want to say they were lucky goals, but they scored first and after that, it’s hard to chase a team like the Sharks,” Hanzal said.

The Sharks trailed 3-1 in the first period and 6-3 in the third before rallying for a point against Florida on Wednesday. On Saturday, they took an early lead when Burns fired a shot through traffic to beat Smith to the stick side.

Karlsson made it 2-0 late in the period, keeping the puck on a 2-on-1 and wristing one past Smith on the stick side again.

San Jose kept the pressure up early in the second, making it a three-goal lead when Haley scored on a one-timer from between the circles for his first of the season.

Burns stopped Arizona’s momentum late in the period, wristing a shot that slipped through Smith’s pads on a power play.

“That wasn’t my best game. I thought our team did a good job tonight to give ourselves a chance to win,” Smith said. “They were opportunistic in the first period and we couldn’t capitalize on our chances and when that happens, you usually lose.”

NOTES: Along with honoring their 1996-97 team – the first after the franchise moved from Winnipeg – in a ceremony before the game, Arizona also announced its all-time starting six, which included current players Smith, Oliver Ekman-Larsson and captain Shane Doan. … Haley’s goal was his first since March 5, 2016 against Vancouver. … Hanzal moved past Pat Elynuik for 13th on the franchise list with his 116th career goal.

UP NEXT

San Jose hosts Boston on Sunday before getting a five-day break from all hockey-related activities.

Arizona hosts Anaheim on Monday before playing five of its next six games on the road.

NBC and NBCSN have you covered for Hockey Day in America

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With two games on NBC and then two more on NBCSN, your Sunday should be jam-packed with Hockey Day in America action. A look at the hockey hotbed of Warroad, Minnesota adds a delectable cherry on top, too.

If you need a guide to this party of pucks and patriotism, look no further than this post.

Washington Capitals at New York Rangers, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC

John Carlson, T.J. Oshie and the dominant Capitals take on Ryan McDonagh and the Blueshirts. The Metropolitan Division represents some of the NHL’s upper crust, so don’t be fooled by the Rangers being the first wild card while the Caps are tops in the East; both of these teams can go. Kenny Albert and Brian Boucher will be there to call the action.

MORE: For Oshie, ties to Warroad run deep

Detroit Red Wings at Pittsburgh Penguins, 3:30 p.m. ET on NBC

Mike “Doc” Emrick and Eddie Olczyk will be in the booth for this battle between teams that met in back-to-back Stanley Cup Final series in 2008 and 2009. Along with usual suspects like Sidney Crosby and Henrik Zetterberg, these teams feature American scorers such as Dylan Larkin and, of course, Phil Kessel.

Chicago Blackhawks at Buffalo Sabres, 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN

The action shifts to NBCSN as Patrick Kane and the Blackhawks hope to teach Jack Eichel and the upstart Sabres a lesson or two. The Blackhawks are in playoff position, as usual, while Buffalo is rallying to try to make a push of its own. Gord Miller and Joe Micheletti will be your guides.

MORE: Islanders forward Brock Nelson’s journey from Warroad to the NHL

Boston Bruins at San Jose Sharks, 8:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN

Hockey Day in America’s coverage closes off with this matchup between David Backes‘ Bruins and Joe Pavelski‘s Sharks. Randy Hahn, Andy Brickley and Bret Hedican will take you through this match between the Pacific Division’s top team and a Bruins team fighting to stick in the East playoff picture.

Barkov’s beautiful goal pushes Panthers into playoff position

SUNRISE, FL - NOVEMBER 26: Aleksander Barkov #16 of the Florida Panthers circles the net with the puck against the Columbus Blue Jackets at the BB&T Center on November 26, 2016 in Sunrise, Florida. The Panthers defeated the Blue Jackets 2-1 in a shoot out. (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)
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The Florida Panthers just won’t be denied as they end the night in the East’s top eight.

It’s fitting, then, that Aleksander Barkov wouldn’t be denied on his game-winner against Los Angeles on Saturday.

Barkov bursts beyond multiple Kings, fights off what would have been an obstruction penalty and then beats Peter Budaj by the narrowest of margins to give the Panthers a 3-2 lead 15 seconds into the third period. They would never relinquish that edge to Los Angeles, winning their fourth game in a row.

In the process, the Panthers – a team that seemed to be fledgling when it fired Gerard Gallant – now find themselves in the East’s top eight. Heck, they’re actually above the wild card fray by a hair.

Before we get to that … just bask in the glow of this Barkov goal:

Again, it was such a small window to beat Budaj, too:

(If the Panthers’ place in the standings doesn’t sway you into taking them seriously, maybe note plays like that and the fact that Barkov has 20 points in his last 17 games.)

OK, so with this win, the Panthers did some serious leapfrogging. They now rank third in the Atlantic Division (thanks to a game in hand on Boston) and have more points than Toronto as far as wild card concerns go, anyway.

Atlantic Division rankings

1. Canadiens – 70 points in 59 games
2. Senators – 68 points in 56 games
3. Panthers – 64 points in 57 games

Bruins – 64 in 58
Maple Leafs – 63 in 47
Sabres – 62 in 59
Lightning – 58 in 57
Red Wings – 56 in 58

From a wild card perspective

Third in Atlantic – Panthers – 64 points in 57 games
Second wild card – Bruins – 64 in 58

Maple Leafs – 63 in 47
Islanders – 62 in 57
Sabres – 62 in 59
Flyers – 61 in 58
Devils – 60 in 58
Lightning – 58 in 57
Hurricanes – 56 in 54
Red Wings – 56 in 58

Everything’s so close that the Panthers can’t pop champagne bottles, but they’re also very much in control over their hopes. While it never hurts to see your competitors stumble, the Panthers can take care of business. They “control their own destiny,” to use silly sports parlance.

And considering how they’ve been playing lately, they might be as tough to handle in the playoffs as Barkov was to stop on that outstanding 3-2 goal.

Stars made Dave Strader’s return to the booth special

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It was a special night as the Dallas Stars beat the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-3 in overtime, but the most memorable moment wasn’t the win or Antoine Roussel‘s hat trick.

Instead, it was how the team embraced Dave Strader’s return to the broadcasting booth as he continues to fight cancer.

Don’t be ashamed if his comments to the Dallas Morning News leave you emotional:

“This is the first time, to be honest with you, that for four hours I didn’t feel like I was sick at all,” Strader said after the game. “Maybe it was the adrenaline high, but I really, really feel great right now.”

Again, the team really did some great things to welcome him back, but the highlight was saluting him after the game. Incredible stuff.

“What a gesture by the boys … meant so much to me and my wife! Thank you.” Strader tweeted after the game.

As this post notes, Strader is expected to do play-by-play for four more Stars games.