2010 Stanley Cup finals: Tough defense, not fatigue, slows Mike Richards and Jonathan Toews

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prongervtoews.jpgIt’s natural to throw a quality player under the bus when he’s hit a brick wall. The thing is, sometimes people stumble when they try to identify what, exactly, that brick wall is.

Take, for instance, the case of the teams’ two floundering captains. Both Jonathan Toews and Mike Richards were playing incredible hockey through the first three rounds of these playoffs. Toews had an amazing 26 points during that period while Richards wasn’t far behind with 21. Conversely, through three contentious Stanley Cup final contests, both players only have one assist each.

So what, exactly, is bugging the two team leaders? Steve Simmons of the Toronto Sun proposes the time-honored excuse of fatigue.

At times, it has been his lack of determination, which has been the polar opposite of his calling card as a hockey player. Richards cleanly lost a faceoff in Game 3 to John Madden, which resulted in a Chicago score. Two former players indicated that Richards’ inability to bear down at times is likely due to “exhaustion.”

Said one former player: “At times, it looks like he wants to do something but his body just won’t allow him to do it. It looks to me like he’s physically worn down.”

Some are wondering the same of Toews, who has had a little more jump than Richards, his Team Canada linemate and fellow captain, but Toews has the difficulty of playing most of his shifts in the series against Chris Pronger. That, by itself, is difficult. But when Ben Eager has more points three games in than the Blackhawks’ leading scorer, it means even the captain is asking questions of himself.

Now, it’s not completely crazy to blame the two players’ struggles on “being out of gas” (especially considering the Olympics), but I fail to see the reason why they didn’t suffer from the same ailments in the first three rounds of the playoffs. It reminds me of Eric Staal puttering out in the Stanley Cup finals after dominating the playoffs before that point; the question wasn’t “What are the Oilers doing that no one else could?” but rather “Is Staal injured?”

Oddly enough, the same player charged with shutting down Staal is also giving Toews and Patrick Kane fits: Chris Pronger. Let’s not forget, also, that the Chicago Blackhawks trot out a Norris Trophy nominee in Duncan Keith and Dave Bolland, the checking center who hampered high-scorers Joe Thornton and the Sedin twins to the point of frustration.

It’s not as “sexy” or interesting to blame a slump on a tough matchup. Many sports writers would like to assume that any mountain could be climbed by determination or stick-to-itiveness. Yet, my guess is that the real reason the two captains struggle is because they’ve met their matches.

Then again, this series is still young, with plenty more hockey to come. You know, just like those supposedly exhausted players.

Here’s your TV schedule for the Stanley Cup Final on NBC Sports

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 01:  The Stanley Cup trophy sits on a table during a ceremony before the Chicago Blackhawks tsake on the Washington Capitals at the United Center on October 1, 2013 in Chicago, Illinois. The Blackhawks defeated the Capitals 6-4.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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NEW YORK (AP) NBC Sports is switching up its broadcast schedule for the Stanley Cup Final.

In recent years, Games 1 and 2 had been on NBC, with Games 3 and 4 on cable partner NBCSN. If necessary, the final three games returned to NBC.

This season, Monday’s Game 1 will air on NBC, but Wednesday’s Game 2 will be on NBCSN. NBC Sports announced Friday that if the series between Pittsburgh and San Jose is tied 1-1, Game 3 will be on NBC, putting that pivotal matchup on the main network. Game 4 would be on NBCSN.

But if one team leads 2-0, Game 3 will air on NBCSN, with a possible championship-clinching Game 4 on NBC. The potential final three games will remain on NBC.

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The Canucks preached patience, then made a ‘right now’ trade for Gudbranson

2015 NHL Draft - Round One
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A few months ago, when the Vancouver Canucks’ miserable season was drawing to a merciful close, club president Trevor Linden went on the radio and said, “When we look at getting ourselves out of this situation, it’s about drafting and developing, and that’s where our focus lies.”

Linden’s remarks were music to the ears of a large segment of the fan base that felt the Canucks had been too impatient, too focused on trying to make the playoffs with an aging roster that was in dire need of a rebuild.

“What we really need is patience,” Linden said at a season-ticket holders event. “It’s going to require some patience from our fan base and some patience from us.”

And so Canucks fans entered the offseason expecting the Canucks to be patient.

And then, on Wednesday, GM Jim Benning traded one of his top forward prospects in 20-year-old Jared McCannplus he threw in the 33rd overall draft pick this summer — for a 24-year-old, stay-at-home defenseman in Erik Gudbranson.

And how did Benning justify that move?

“I come from a scouting background, so to trade second-round picks away, it kills me,” he told Sportsnet’s Hockey Central (audio). “But where we’re at right now, I think we owe it to our fans to try to field the most competitive team that we can right now.”

You’ll note how Benning twice used the phrase “right now.”

And the Canucks wonder why their fans are confused.

To be fair, the Canucks are probably a better team with Gudbranson on it. They had a glaring hole on the right side of their defense, and Benning was determined to fill it. Also, it’s not like Gudbranson is old.

The worry, though, is that the Canucks are trying to serve two masters, the present and the future, and as a result, serving neither master particularly well.

A lot of people in Vancouver — not everyone, mind you, but a lot of people — see what they’re doing in Toronto, and they want the Canucks to do that. Trade veterans. Acquire picks. Lose now to win later, while accepting that there will be some “pain.”

What they don’t want is to travel down the same road the Maple Leafs had to travel — the years and years of mediocrity, or worse — before they finally tore everything down and started again.

In response to that line of thinking, the Canucks have used the Edmonton Oilers as the cautionary, tanking tale. Once a team accepts losing, it can be hard to get that winning culture back, or so the theory goes.

That’s why Benning acquired Brandon Sutter last offseason, and Gudbranson on Wednesday. To him — maybe not to others, but to him — those are “foundation” players, established enough to contribute in the present, while also young enough to be part of the future.

“Once we get the pieces in place from a team-building perspective, we’re going to hold on to those draft picks,” Benning promised.

We shall see.

Currently, Vancouver has just six selections in this summer’s draft, and only two of them are in the first four rounds.

Toronto, on the other hand, has 12 picks, including two in the first round, two in the second, two in the third, and two in the fourth.

Related: McCann’s frustrations illustrate ‘fine line’ Canucks are trying to walk

Need for speed: Sharks, Pens brace for ‘fast hockey’ in Stanley Cup Final

PITTSBURGH, PA - MARCH 29: Brenden Dillon #4 of the San Jose Sharks skates with the puck against the Pittsburgh Penguins at Consol Energy Center on March 29, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Matt Kincaid/Getty Images)
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It will be speed vs. speed in the Stanley Cup final between the San Jose Sharks and Pittsburgh Penguins.

San Jose got through the Western Conference the same way Pittsburgh got through the East: with plenty of depth and speed to kill. The final will feature the three top playoff scorers in the Sharks’ Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski and Brent Burns against Penguins stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

“It’s going to be fast hockey,” Crosby said after the Penguins beat the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7 of the East final Thursday night. “Two teams that want to play the exact same way, that want to get their D involved (and) their power play is really dangerous. … It’s going to be quite the series.”

The Sharks are in the Cup final for the first time in their 24-season franchise history and in Peter DeBoer’s first year as coach. The Penguins are back for the first time since winning it all in 2009 and made it after Mike Sullivan replaced Mike Johnston as coach in December.

In his first meeting with them, Sullivan challenged his players to be great and told them that’s how they win in the NHL. They’ve won in the playoffs on the strength of scoring from Crosby and speedy wingers Phil Kessel, Carl Hagelin and Game 7 hero Bryan Rust, not to mention the goaltending of 22-year-old rookie Matt Murray.

Kessel is Pittsburgh’s leading scorer with 18 points on nine goals and nine assists after coming over from the Toronto Maple Leafs in a trade last summer.

“I don’t think you could dream about that. You never could expect this,” Kessel said. “This is a huge moment in my career and my life.”

San Jose is also rolling along thanks to a summer pickup in goaltender Martin Jones, who was the Los Angeles Kings’ backup when they won the Cup in 2014. Couture, Pavelski and Burns are piling up the points, but this run is about aging veterans Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau finally breaking through.

Thornton and Marleau, the top two picks in the 1997 draft, made the playoffs together with the Sharks in nine of 10 previous seasons but had yet to make the Cup final until now.

Crosby and Malkin made it twice, losing in 2008 to the Detroit Red Wings before winning the following season. At the time, it looked like the young core that also featured defenseman Kris Letang would challenge for the Cup every year.

Now they have a chance to add to their legacy, but it won’t be easy even with home-ice advantage in the series that starts Monday night in Pittsburgh. The Sharks are the Penguins’ deepest opponent yet.

“The Penguins should expect a team that’s deeper, quicker than Tampa, and a team that’s playing with a lot of confidence,” NBC Sports analyst Ed Olczyk said.

Confidence isn’t lacking for either team. The Sharks knocked off the Los Angeles Kings, Nashville Predators and St. Louis Blues to get here, while the Penguins beat the New York Rangers, Presidents’ Trophy-winning Capitals and defending East-champion Lightning.

Devils sign star French d-man Auvitu

PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC - MAY 05:  Rapahel Herburger (R) of Austria and Yohann Auvitu (L) of France battle for the puck during the IIHF World Championship group A match between Austria and France at o2 Arena on May 5, 2015 in Prague, Czech Republic.  (Photo by Martin Rose/Getty Images)
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New Jersey has won the Yohann Auvitu sweepstakes.

On Friday, the Devils announced they’ve signed Auvitu to a one-year, two-way, entry-level contract for the upcoming campaign. The 26-year-old Frenchman had previously garnered widespread NHL interest, largely due to a ’15-16 campaign in which he won the Pekka Rautakallio Trophy for the best defenseman in the SM-Liiga — an award that’s previously gone to the likes of Sami Vatanen and Brian Rafalski.

Auvitu had six goals and 15 assists in 48 games, then six goals and seven assists in 18 playoff games.

There were only three French-born players were in the NHL this season: Philadelphia’s Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Detroit’s Xavier Ouellet, and Dallas’ Antoine Roussel. It’ll be interesting to see if Auvitu can make it a quartet. He recently played alongside Bellemare for France at the Worlds, scoring three points in seven games.