Around the rink – Thursday, December 16th

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The Habs and Bruins get to renew acquaintances in Montreal tonight in an Original Six throw down of the ages. It wouldn’t be any fun without a little controversy though, wouldn’t it? Elsewhere, Dion Phaneuf returns to Calgary, the Isles try to win anything, and the Rangers look to roll on against the Coyotes. All times are Eastern.

7:00 pm

Anaheim @ NY Islanders

The Islanders look to snap out of yet another funk and they’ll have Radek Martinek and Milan Jurcina back on the blue line to make it happen. They’ll need it to shut down Anaheim’s top line of Bobby Ryan, Ryan Getzlaf, and Corey Perry. Those three have been carrying the offensive load for the Ducks of late. Disappointingly, Teemu Selanne is likely out of the lineup again as he makes perhaps his final East Coast swing in his career.

Phoenix @ NY Rangers

The Rangers look to continue Phoenix’s misery hangover and build off of a big win over Pittsburgh last night. Phoenix was shutout by New Jersey last night 3-0 and they’ll need a more complete effort tonight against a Rangers team playing without Ryan Callahan who’s out at least six weeks with a broken hand.

Carolina @ Atlanta

Carolina avoided disaster against Florida last night, but if they pull the same “get down 3-0 and work back” routine against Atlanta, they could be in for a long night. Oddly enough, this is the first time these two divisional foes have met this season. Can the Thrashers handle rookie sensation Jeff Skinner? What can Carolina do to rein in defenseman Dustin Byfuglien? One thing helping Carolina tonight, they won’t have to face Ondrej Pavelec as Chris Mason gets the start.

Boston @ Montreal

These two hated rivals square off once again in an Original Six battle in Quebec. The Habs got a win over Boston in Beantown already this year winning 3-1 thanks to Carey Price. Price and Tim Thomas get to face each other again tonight and this time, the Bruins roll into town angry after a tough loss to Buffalo. The Habs, meanwhile, look to shake their tough 5-3 loss to Philly out of their minds. Expect goals to be at a premium between these two.

8:00 pm

Los Angeles @ St. Louis

The Kings roll into St. Louis and won’t have to deal with dueling Johnsons. Erik Johnson will be out of the lineup for the Blues to face off against fellow American Jack Johnson. The Kings are hoping their 5-0 win over Detroit on Monday is a sign that things are returning to normal for them. After an extended cold streak, Jonathan Quick tossed up a 51-save shutout to keep the high-powered Wings off the board while the offense blew up for five goals. If they build off that, it doesn’t bode well for the Blues who were humbled by Detroit last night 5-2.

Ottawa @ Minnesota

When these two met up in Ottawa last year, the Wild’s equipment trailers caught fire and destroyed everything they had. So far everything is safe for the Senators on their return trip. Instead, the Sens are floundering and tonight they’ll reward local boy Brian Lee with his first start in over 20 games so he can play in front of his family. It’s a nice touch and an opportunity for the Sens to showcase Lee for a potential trade.

8:30 pm

San Jose @ Dallas

Dallas gets Kari Lehtonen back in goal tonight and both teams are looking to get hot. San Jose dropped a tough one in Nashville last night, and two in a row going back to their shootout loss to Dallas on Monday night. The Sharks have lost three of their last four and they could sure use Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski getting back to normal. Logan Couture has been doing the bulk of the heavy lifting of late for the Sharks. Yeah, he’s a rookie. Dallas may be leading the Pacific Division but the Sharks are just three points behind them.

9:30 pm

Toronto @ Calgary

Dion Phaneuf makes his return to Calgary tonight. After spending almost five seasons there, count on Phaneuf getting a mixed response from Flames fans who have seen their team’s fortunes turn as ugly as they have for the Leafs of late. Perhaps everyone goes home unhappy after this one? Toronto is looking to keep it going after beating Edmonton soundly the other night. Calgary is hoping to build off their overtime win over Columbus. Keeping Jarome Iginla scoring would do a lot to help that out.

Columbus @ Edmonton

Speaking of Edmonton and Columbus, these two meet up hoping to put their previous losses behind them and for Edmonton the inconsistency is almost expected out of them. For Columbus on the other hand, it’s a bit more frustrating for them as they go from looking like one of the tougher teams in the West to complete pushovers. Which Jackets team shows up against the youthful Oilers? Rick Nash will have a say in how that goes.

Nicholle Anderson, wife of Senators goalie Craig Anderson, declares she is cancer-free

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Their Stanley Cup playoff run is over, but the entire Ottawa Senators organization has received great — and far more important — news away from the ice.

Nicholle Anderson, wife of Senators goalie Craig Anderson, has declared that she is cancer-free after battling a rare form of throat cancer, nasopharyngeal carcinoma, since October.

Anderson shared an update on her own personal blog, including a plan for follow-up tests over the next few years:

On May 25, 2017, I went to the doctors to hear the results of the pet scan.  He informed the scans were clear, however, they saw activity on C1 and C2 (cervical spine).  He was confident it wasn’t cancer/tumor, and ordered a STAT MRI on Friday to confirm the findings.  The MRI showed it is a side effect to radiation in my soft tissue around the c-spine.

Now we are sending my scans and reports to Sloane Kettering to get a second opinion.  Nothing better than hearing CANCER FREE two times!  I will be continuously monitored for the next couple of years with followed-up pet scans, ENT visits, and tests.  We pray this beast doesn’t return.

I truly believe hockey helped me through all of this with the playoff run.  I couldn’t have asked for a better year and memories.  My advice to everyone, everyday we are given, we are blessed. Don’t put off what you can do today!  Live life to the fullest because in a blink of an eye it can and will change.

Craig Anderson, who took personal leave on more than one occasion this season to be with his wife while she went through treatment, also shared the news on Saturday, two days after the Senators were defeated in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

“It was a huge relief,” Anderson told Postmedia. “It was just weight off the shoulders knowing things are going in the right direction. The message (from Nicholle) was just go out there, play and have fun.”

Revisiting the Patric Hornqvist-James Neal trade three years later

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When Jim Rutherford took over the Pittsburgh Penguins in the summer of 2014 he was inheriting a team that was coming off of one of its more disappointing postseason exits, having blown a 3-1 series lead to the New York Rangers in the second-round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.

Even though the roster contained a trio of superstars in Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang, it was still a badly flawed team that was short on depth (it had absolutely none), had little salary cap room to maneuver with, and had a lot of work to do before it could again be a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.

To begin re-tooling his roster Rutherford’s first major trade was to ship James Neal to the Nashville Predators in exchange for Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling.

With the Penguins and Predators meeting in the Stanley Cup Final beginning on Monday, and with Hornqvist and Neal still playing prominent roles on their respective teams, we should take a quick look back at that trade to see how it has all shaped out.

I want to start with this: I will be the first to admit that when the trade was initially completed I thought the Penguins were going to come out on the short end of it because the return just didn’t seem to make a ton of sense. But hey, we all make mistakes.

It wasn’t that Hornqvist wasn’t any good or didn’t have any value, it just didn’t seem to be the type of return that was going to change much. Not only was Neal one of the NHL’s elite goal-scorers at the time (his 0.49 goals per game average in his three full seasons with Pittsburgh was tied with Evgeni Malkin for third best in the NHL during that stretch) but the return itself did not really seem to fix any of their issues. They were not getting any meaningful salary cap savings (it actually cost them more money after Spaling’s contract extension), they were not getting any younger, they were not doing anything to increase their depth. It just seemed like they should have been able to get more, or at least accomplish more, given the type of player they were trading. Goal scorers like Neal had proven to be during his time in Pittsburgh are not exactly easy to find.

It simply seemed to be a trade that was going to be, at best, a lateral move for a different type of player.

Hornqvist is a human wrecking ball that does most of his work around the front of the net, while Neal is a pure sniper with one of the NHL’s most lethal shots that is capable of scoring from anywhere in the offensive zone.

When you look at their production since the trade, there is almost no difference in what they have done for their new teams in both the regular season and playoffs.

Offensively, they have been virtually the same player. Neal has been a slightly better goal scoring (which is to be expected given the skill set of the two players)

But sometimes a “lateral” move for a different type of player is exactly what a team needs.

In this case, both teams.

From a Pittsburgh perspective, Hornqvist has given them the type of net-front presence they previously lacked before the trade. Even though his style of play is loathed by opposing goaltenders and fans, it is more of an organized, controlled chaos. He is not prone to taking the type of retaliatory nonsense that used to plague the Penguins toward the end of the Dan Bylsma era, making almost any game they were losing devolve into madness. Neal could at times be lured into that sort of game by opponents. That trade, and several of the roster changes (as well as the promotion of Mike Sullivan and his “just play” mantra) that followed over the past two years have all but eliminated that from their game. It has helped. A lot.

But that isn’t to say that Nashville didn’t get a lot out of this, too. While Pittsburgh ended up getting a Holmstrom-like presence to cause havoc around the net, the Predators were able to pick up the type of top-line goal-scoring threat they had been lacking for years. Before acquiring Neal the Predators had only ever had four different players top 30-goals in a single season. Only one scored more than 31. Remember, this trade was before Filip Forsberg turned into the goal-scoring force that he is now. While Neal’s goal-scoring has dropped a bit since the move away from Pittsburgh he is still scoring goals at close to a 30-goal pace over an 82-game season. His 0.35 goals per game average with the Predators is still among the top-25 players in the league and that is nothing to overlook.

When looking at it strictly from a numbers perspective neither team really comes out that far ahead three years later. It has turned out to be a deal that for different reasons has benefited each team equally.

Sometimes that is all you are looking for in a trade.

Laviolette, Sullivan meet in 1st all-US coaches Cup Final

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Hockey history will be made for American coaches in the Stanley Cup Final.

The Cup has been handed out 89 times to the champion of the NHL since 1927. For the first time, two American coaches will face off in the final as the Nashville Predators’ Peter Laviolette goes up against the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Mike Sullivan.

It’s just the seventh time the Cup will be won by a U.S.-born coach.

“Having two American coaches lead their team in the Stanley Cup Final highlights the continued growth and evolution of the sport in our country,” USA Hockey executive director Dave Ogrean said. “We have more coaches in our country than ever before, and two of our very best are in the final.”

Laviolette and Sullivan are among six U.S.-born current coaches in the NHL, along with the Blue Jackets’ John Tortorella, Red Wings’ Jeff Blashill, Devils’ John Hynes and Islanders’ Doug Weight.

The pair is already on the exclusive list of U.S. coaches to win the Cup: Bill Stewart with the Blackhawks in 1938, “Badger” Bob Johnson with the Penguins in 1991, Tortorella with the Lightning in 2004, Laviolette with the Hurricanes in 2006, Dan Bylsma with the Penguins in 2009 and Sullivan with the Penguins last year.

All of the other Cup-winning coaches are Canadian.

It took until 2012 for two U.S. captains to meet in the final when the Kings’ Dustin Brown faced the Devils’ Zach Parise. Brown, who raised it in 2012 and 2014, is one of just two U.S. captains to win it after the Stars’ Derian Hatcher in 1999.

Brown and Parise embraced the significance of their meeting in the final five years ago. Laviolette and Sullivan might still, but the Predators’ hyper-focused coach isn’t thinking about it as a special occasion while preparing for Game 1 in Pittsburgh on Monday night.

“Not really,” said Laviolette, one of just four coaches to take three different teams to the final. “Sully’s a good coach. I know him, but it’s not about that. It’s about the Stanley Cup. It’s about two teams playing.”

Laviolette, from Franklin, Massachusetts, and Sullivan, from Marshfield, Massachusetts, grew up about an hour apart and are three hours apart in age. Each coached the American Hockey League’s Providence Bruins, served on Boston’s staff briefly and won the Cup in his second NHL coaching stint.

Asked about joining Dick Irvin, Scotty Bowman and Mike Keenan as the only coaches to take three different teams to the final, the 52-year-old Laviolette quipped, “Probably means that I got fired a lot.” As recently as November, an online sportsbook had him listed at 13-2 odds as the first coach fired this season when the Predators lost eight of their first 11 games.

Now he and Sullivan are facing off for hockey’s biggest prize, starting the best-of-seven series on Monday at Pittsburgh.

“It’s fun to see,” Ogrean said. “The only unfortunate thing is that only one of them can win.”

 

The Predators built the NHL’s best defense, and it is going to be around for a while

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The Nashville Predators are preparing to play in their first Stanley Cup Final after marching through the Western Conference playoffs.

Their appearance in this year’s Final is being looked at as a little bit of a surprise because of their place in the standings among the NHL’s playoff teams (16th out of 16 during the regular season) but this was still a team that was looked at before the season as a legitimate contender. They had a disappointing first half that kind poured some cold water on the preseason hype, but since starting 17-16-7 the Predators have put together a rather dominating 36-17-5 stretch (playoffs included) since the first week of January.

They have a defensive unit that rivals any other in the NHL to thank for a lot of that success.

The addition of P.K. Subban over the summer to a group that already included Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm has given the Predators one of the most dominant top-four groupings in the league, and they all perfectly fit the modern NHL game.

They can call skate at a high level, they can all move the puck, they can all contribute offensively. And they can all play major minutes.

Through the first three rounds of the playoffs coach Peter Laviolette has leaned heavily on that quartet, giving each of them an average of 23 minutes of ice-time per game, meaning that just about every time you look at the TV one of those four players is going to be patrolling the ice. Last week I looked at the ice-time distribution of Nashville’s Stanley Cup final opponent, the Pittsburgh Penguins, and how injuries (specifically the one to Kris Letang) has forced coach Mike Sullivan to take a defense by committee approach where all six defenders on a given night are getting almost the exact same ice-time. Each one plays roughly 30-35 percent of the game in what is a rather unconventional approach for a Stanley Cup Finalist.

In Nashville, it is a little different with each of the top-four playing more than 40 percent of the game, while the bottom pairing of Yannick Weber and Matt Irwin (two solid defensemen in their own right) are only playing about 20 percent of the game … or an average of about 11 minutes per game.

Following their Game 7 win against the Ottawa Senators, Penguins forward Chris Kunitz referred to Nashville’s defense as having “four Erik Karlssons,” and while that might be a little bit of an exaggeration (Karlsson is the NHL’s best defenseman and there probably are not four other defensemen in the league even close to him) it is at least telling as to how much respect this unit has around the league and how good they are.

But what should be a terrifying thought for the rest of the Western Conference is that this unit is going to be around for quite a while and still in the prime of their careers

When looking at the top-four, Subban is the “old man” of the group currently at age 28. They are also all signed for at least two more seasons beyond this one at a combined cap hit of just a little over $19 million per season.

That is a group that contains two of the top-six offensive defensemen in the league (Subban and Josi) over the past three seasons and two of the best shot suppression defensemen (Ekholm and Ellis) over the same stretch (out of more than 250 defensemen to play at least 1,000 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey since 2014-15, Ekholm is seventh in shot attempts against per 60 minutes; Ellis is 45th).

When you combine their ability with the fact that quartet has an average age of just 26.7 years old it is an incredible bargain against the salary cap.

They are backbone of this team, and a big reason why no matter what happens over the next weeks on the ice the Predators should be a formidable contender in the Western Conference for the foreseeable future.