NHL Playoffs, Blackhawks vs. Sharks, Game 4: Blackhawks sweep Sharks, headed to Stanley Cup finals

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Blackhawks.jpgChicago Blackhawks 4, San Jose Sharks 2

Blackhawks win series 4-0

This moment has been a very long time coming for the Chicago
Blackhawks and their boisterous, enthusiastic fans. Before 2008, the
Blackhawks had not won a playoff series since 1996 and had missed the
playoffs altogether nine times between 1997 and 2008. Even in 1995,
after a strike-shortened season, the deep run was a disappointment with
the team just a few years removed from being swept in the Stanley Cup
finals by the Pittsburgh Penguins.

That 1992 team, the last time that the Chicago Blackhawks made it
this far, featured Jeremy Roenick, Steve Larmer, Brent Sutter, Chris
Chelios and Ed Belfour. This was the last truly great Blackhawks team,
nearly two decades ago, and in between nothing but bad ownership,
extreme disappointment, poor television coverage and dwindling crowds.

After Rocky Wirtz took ownership of the team and the likes of Dale
Tallon and Rick Dudley worked their magic on the roster, it’s taken just
two seasons for the Blackhawks to go from being out of the playoffs and
into the Stanley Cup finals. This isn’t a fluke postseason run, either,
where a low-seeded team gets hot at the right time. This was a
calculated season where the Blackhawks dominated all year long with one
goal and one goal only on their minds: the Stanley Cup.

That the Chicago Blackhawks clinched the Western Conference finals at
home, after a convincing sweep of the San Jose Sharks, was fitting.
These Hawks fans, who had been driven away by years of poor ownership
and management, have returned in droves to threaten to give Chicago the
best home-ice advantage in the NHL. It’s obvious how this team thrives
off the energy of the fans, how gracious they were for their support as
they skated around the ice with sticks held high as they celebrated a
tremendous victory.

Don’t let the sweep of the Sharks fool anyone; this was a hard fought
series that provided the big test that the Chicago Blackhawks needed to
prove they’re finally worthy of a Stanley Cup. They completely
overmatched the Nashville Predators and used pure emotion and grit to
take care of a deep and talented Vancouver team. Against the Sharks, a
team with which they almost little history with, they were challenged by
a team that proved just as capable as themselves to put together an
incredible amount of offensive pressure in a very short amount of time.

Several times throughout the series the Sharks were the better team,
controlling play and taking leads in three of the four games. Each time
the Blackhawks battled back, never panicking and showing an innate
ability to ramp up their play to the next level. In Game 4, with the
Sharks controlling play through the first period and most of the second
and then taking a two-goal lead, the Hawks responded with an incredible
counter attack that put the Sharks immediately back on their heals.

This wasn’t about the San Jose Sharks choking away a 2-0 lead, this
as about the Blackhawks responding and taking the game to a lever that
the Sharks just couldn’t compete at. Sometimes, a team is just better
than their opponent and in this series that was the Blackhawks, both
physically and mentally.

The Chicago Blackhawks may not have lost a game in this series to the
Sharks, but the series was much closer than the 4-0 outcome shows. In
tightly contested games and series between two extremely talented teams,
whichever side is able to find any sort of edge over the other is the
one that advances. The Blackhawks used inspired play by Antti Niemi and
Jonathan Toews, as well as incredibly timely goal scoring by the
surprising Dustin Byfuglien, to give themselves the edge to win three
very close games and all of which were decided in the late stages of the
third period or overtime.

It may have been a sweep, but it wasn’t
easy.

The Sharks played at times like a team scared of losing. The
Blackhawks played like a team that knew they were going to win.

For
Antti Niemi, it’s validation that the Blackhawks made the right
decision heading into the postseason as he proved in this series just
how great he can really be. There were times of trepidation in Game 4 as
Niemi looked to have reverted to the shaky goaltending of the regular
season. The team in front of him picked it up instead, limiting the
Sharks to just three shots on goal in the third period. Overall, it was a
magical series for Niemi as he was by far the most important player on
the ice for the Blackhawks against the Sharks.

For all the Patrick
Kane’s, Patrick Sharp’s, Marian Hossa’s and Duncan Ketih’s this team
may have, there has been none more surprising than that of Dustin
Byfuglien. He has scored in five straight games for the Hawks, while
netting the game-winning goal in three of the four games. Not
coincidentally, those three game-winning goals came in the games that
were decided by just one goal and were the tightest contested of all.

The
Chicago Blackhawks of 2010 are a complete team, that just just one
question mark heading into the postseason. With Antti Niemi stepping up,
the Blackhawks are firing on all cylinders and are boasting an
incredible amount of scoring depth. It should be no surprise they’ve
made it this far, and are entering the Stanley Cup finals young, hungry
and supremely confident.

You wonder if the Eastern Conference
champion will even stand a chance.

Kings’ Dustin Brown earns hearing for boarding Justin Schultz (Video)

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Dustin Brown of the Los Angeles Kings will speak with the NHL’s Department of Player Safety on Friday following his game misconduct for boarding Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Justin Schultz.

The hit occurred midway through the third period of the Penguins’ 3-1 win Thursday night. Brown was handed a major for boarding and ejected from the game.

“I’m going to close on him. He stumbles, toe picks. I don’t drive him into the wall or anything,” Brown said afterward via LA Kings Insider. “Also, closing on the play, at the most it’s probably a two, I think. I mean, who knows because of the protocol and all that, but it’s one of those plays where I’m going to close and he’s in an unfortunate spot.”

Schultz did not return to the game but head coach Mike Sullivan said he was in the locker room afterward and it seemed like he was going to be fine.

Brown sees Schultz is on his knees by the boards and it isn’t like the Kings forward’s momentum takes him into the Penguins defender. He gets his hands raised as he cross-checks Schultz into the boards. As Jim Fox said during the broadcast, the DoPS wants players to avoid or minimize contact along the boards. This hit was completely avoidable.

“I fell, I’m facing the wall and then all of a sudden my face gets driven into the dasher there,” Schultz said via the Post-Gazette. “I don’t know why. There was plenty of time to not do that.”

The NHL has suspended Brown only once in his career, so he’s not considered a repeat offender here. Still, he’s going to be sitting for at least one game, possibly two, beginning Friday night in Anaheim.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Surgery for Shattenkirk after playing with pain for Rangers

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Now we might know why Kevin Shattenkirk‘s had such a disappointing debut season for the New York Rangers.

After playing with pain for months, Shattenkirk decided to undergo knee surgery, sidelining the defenseman indefinitely. To be specific, Rangers GM Jeff Gorton explained that Shattenkirk, 28, was dealing with a meniscus tear.

As you can see in this dour press conference, Shattenkirk said that he’s been dealing with knee issues all season.

While Shattenkirk has his critics even on his best day, it truly seemed like something dynamic was missing for the high-scoring blueliner. That’s been especially true lately; Shattenkirk was mired in a seven-game pointless streak heading into the surgery, and had just one assist in his past 13 contests. Even with those limitations, Shattenkirk managed a point every other game overall this season (23 points in 46 games).

It’s only natural to wonder how much more effective he might have been if not addled by injury. His possession stats took a big hit, and even if some of that might come from the Rangers’ counterpunching system, it’s reasonable to project better numbers if he was healthy.

One could definitely second-guess the Rangers for not pushing Shattenkirk to take care of the problem sooner instead of later, yet knee issues can often be tough to judge. No doubt about it, management likely wanted an immediate return on their considerable investment in Shattenkirk, too.

Shattenkirk’s absence opens the door for another polarizing offensive defenseman in Anthony Deangelo, not to mention other Rangers likely getting more reps on the power play and other situations.

It will be interesting to see if this injury loss represents that extra push for the Rangers to lean more toward being sellers at the trade deadline, as that was already being rumored lately by Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman, TSN’s Frank Seravalli, and others.

This is a real bummer either way for Shattenkirk, who certainly would have preferred to make a better first impression for a team he dreamed of playing for. Hopefully he’ll be more “himself” when he returns, whether that means late in 2017-18 or in 2018-19.

After holding off the Sabres for a win last night, the Rangers are on a small upward trend and currently hold the first wild-card spot in the East. That said, it’s a skin-tight race with Metropolitan Division rivals nipping at the Rangers’ heels, so they don’t have a lot of room for error.

Maybe the Rangers will be better off playing without a hampered Shattenkirk, but they’ll need to hit the ground running without him. It’s the latest bump in the road for what’s been a challenging season for New York.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Senators GM: ‘Priority’ to re-sign Erik Karlsson, ‘no rash decisions’ coming

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As he stood at the podium on Thursday with the Ottawa Senators’ bye week over, general manager Pierre Dorion said he still had hope for the playoffs.

He also laid out the scenarios for the second half that would potentially get the Senators into the postseason. In looking at the last four seasons and the point totals of the teams that grabbed the final spot in the East, Ottawa would need 57 points in their final 39 games to hit that number of 95 points.

That’s a tall ask for this Senators team. Dorion noted they would have to go 28-11-1, 27-10-3, 26-9-5 or 25-8-7 to have a shot. But then it hit him. “We have to be patient, and I can tell you that no rash decisions will be made,” he said. “We have to be realistic and understand our situation. If we don’t make the playoffs we have to start planning for the future, and that might me to take one step backwards to take two steps forward.”

Do you see this Senators team getting 57 points from 39 games when they’ve only managed 39 points in their first 43 games? They’re a negative possession team that is bottom-five on both the power play and penalty kill and their goaltenders have combined for a .907 even strength save percentage. Doing a complete 180-degree turn would be a monstrous accomplishment. It’s time to look forward.

Mark Stone and Cody Ceci are restricted free agents this summer, and there are a couple of players making big money who will be looking for a raise in 2019 — Matt Duchene, Derick Brassard and, of course, Erik Karlsson.

[Karlsson deserves every penny he can get, and he knows it]

Brassard’s name has been out there and flipping Duchene a few months after trading away Kyle Turris for him would be an interesting development. The big one will be Karlsson, who’s already stated publicly that he’s going to get what he feels he’s worth in his next contract. That’s something that could prove tricky for a Senators franchise whose owner isn’t known for shelling out the big bucks for players.

“Our first priority with Erik is to sign him. He’s a special player, but Wayne Gretzky got traded,” Dorion said. “If a team offers you an offer you can’t turn down, you listen. But our first priority is to sign Erik Karlsson and Erik Karlsson to be a Senator for life.”

After coming within a goal of reaching the Stanley Cup Final last season, it’s all come crashing down hard for the Senators. If the slide continues and Dorion starts selling off assets with an eye toward the future, how Will Karlsson feel about that? He won’t want to be a part of a sinking ship, not at 27, and not with a monster contract coming his way within a year’s time.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

NHL on NBCSN: Kings look to end losing streak vs. Ducks

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2017-18 NHL season continues on Friday night, as the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks meet at Honda Center at 10 p.m. ET. You can stream the game by clicking here.

A five-game losing streak has knocked the Kings out of the Western Conference playoff picture. Currently, they sit just on the outside of a wild card spot due to a tiebreaker and one point behind the Calgary Flames for the third spot in the Pacific Division. The Ducks are not far behind with 51 points as they prepare for the second game of a five-game homestand.

Back tonight for the Ducks will be Andrew Cogliano, who was suspended two games for a hit on Adrian Kempe when the teams met on Saturday night. The ban ended Cogliano’s consecutive games streak at 830. As expected, it was a feisty evening, with three fights in the first period.

[WATCH KINGS-DUCKS LIVE AT 10PM ET]

Friday night will be Adam Henrique’s 22nd game with the Ducks, and he’s familiar with the rivalry theme having been a part of many games between the New Jersey Devils and New York Rangers.

“Those games, they always have a little extra,” Henrique said via the Orange County Register. “You circle them on the calendar. It’s that playoff-type atmosphere from the fans, on the ice. And it’s always ramped up to another level. It’s always something you got to be prepared for but it’s always the fun games to play in.”

The game is a big for LA, who has not only lost five straight but seven of their last nine games. Penalties did them in in Thursday night’s 3-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins, but head coach John Stevens felt his team took a big step toward getting out of this current funk. One question will be whether Dustin Brown will play after his game misconduct for boarding Justin Schultz in the third period. The Department of Player Safety could see it as that was punishment enough. (UPDATE: Brown will have a hearing on Friday.)

Whether Brown plays or watches from the press box, he tried to get a message across to his teammates postgame.

“If you’re not frustrated, there’s something wrong with you,” Brown said via the LA Times. “But we’re just trying to channel that frustration into positive energy that you can use to win games, because there’s going to be ups and downs, and you’ve got to find a way to dig yourself out.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.