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Around the rink – Saturday, December 18th

A busy day and night lies ahead in the NHL with one matinee game kicking things off in style in Philadelphia as the Flyers play their first game without Chris Pronger. Getting the gutsy Rangers first should make for an interesting test. As for the rest of the night, our eyes are peeled in Boston as the Capitals come calling again and in Nashville where the red hot Predators deal with the Kings. Oh yeah, and Ilya Kovalchuk makes his less-than-triumphant return to Atlanta. Does he get booed or laughed at? All times are Eastern.

1:00 pm

NY Rangers @ Philadelphia

No Pronger for Philly and Oskars Bartulis gets to replace him. No pressure there we’re sure. Meanwhile, the Flyers are on a four game win streak while the Rangers come in winners of three straight. It’s got all the makings of a rivalry classic in Philly. The Rangers are winning the tough close games while the Flyers have found the offense to put teams away more effectively.

7:00 pm

Washington @ Boston

Something’s got to give here. Two teams that are trending in bad ways. The Caps are losers of seven in a row while the Bruins have dropped their last three. Boston’s played tough in their last two but have come out on the short end of things while the Caps have been temperamental alternating between poor efforts with worse results to playing great and getting no breaks. This is the fourth and final time these two teams meet up this season and the Bruins own a 2-1-0 edge on the Caps. Washington will be without Alexander Semin who didn’t travel with the team to Boston because of a lower body injury. The flu bug that’s gone through the entire Caps locker room is bothering defensemen Scott Hannan and Tyler Sloan. There’s one great eight the Caps don’t want to see by the end of the night and that’s an eighth straight loss. Captain Ovechkin will have shoulder the load against the tough Bruins.

New Jersey @ Atlanta

How’s this for a turn of events? Ilya Kovalchuk gets dealt to New Jersey after years of playing for losing teams in Atlanta. Now he returns to Atlanta for the first time this season and the Thrashers are in the thick of the playoff hunt while the Devils are mired in second-to-last place in the Eastern Conference. We know that Kovalchuk will hear boos but we can’t help but wonder if a chorus of “Ha-Ha’s” a la Nelson Muntz from “The Simpsons” might be more fitting. The Devils are coming off another bad loss last night, this time to Nashville, meanwhile Atlanta has dropped two in a row in the shootout.

Phoenix @ NY Islanders

Well hey look, the Islanders are on fire. All right, so one win doesn’t necessarily mean you’re on fire but it’s close enough for the woeful Isles. Getting to match up with a Coyotes team that isn’t fairing too well on the east coast trip could help keep themselves motivated. Phoenix has dropped two in a row and are coming off a shootout loss to the Rangers that stung worse because they blew a 3-1 lead in that one.

Anaheim @ Carolina

A grumpy Ducks team rolls into Raleigh after suffering the ignominy of losing to the Islanders. Carolina, on the other hand, have won three straight including two in the shootout. The Hurricanes are getting some great play from Brandon Sutter of late and having him pick things up helps keep the pressure off of rookie Jeff Skinner. The Ducks, meanwhile, need to get some production from lines aside from the first one. Bobby Ryan, Ryan Getzlaf, and Corey Perry can’t do the heavy lifting every night.

Dallas @ Columbus

Columbus sure seemed to miss Kristian Huselius. Without Huselius’ hat trick against Edmonton on Thursday night the Blue Jackets 6-3 loss would’ve looked even uglier than it actually was. As it is, the Jackets would kill to get some efficiency out of goalie Steve Mason. Mason over the last four weeks has been nothing short of miserable and now that backup goalie Mathieu Garon has returned to earth after a hot start of his own, the defensive deficiencies of Columbus are really starting to show through. Going up against a Dallas team that’s got Brad Richards and James Neal playing great won’t help matters there very much. After going on a five game win streak, the Blue Jackets have won just two of their next 11 games. The Stars would like to just regain some consistency as they’ve alternated between wins and losses over their last four games.

Toronto @ Vancouver

An odd early start out on the west coast for this one, but for Leafs fans across Canada, they get to see their team in prime time on Hockey Night in Canada. The Leafs will be without Jean-Sebastien Giguere as he’s out indefinitely with another groin injury.  If the Leafs continue to play defense the way they did in a 5-2 loss to Calgary it won’t matter who’s in goal for them because they will lose. Vancouver has won three of their last four games and appear to be snapping out of their mental funk that’s kept them playing inconsistent this year winning seven of their last nine games.

7:30 pm

Buffalo @ Tampa Bay

After laying an egg last night against Florida, the Sabres hope to find their stride again. After they got a big win over Boston earlier this week, that could’ve been the turnaround they were looking for. A 6-2 loss to Florida says they’re back to square one. Tampa Bay meanwhile has Vincent Lecavalier back in the lineup and they’re winners of two in a row. If they can get their goaltending right, they’ll be able to start scaring some teams.

8:00 pm

San Jose @ St. Louis

The Blues will be hoping to continue their assault against California teams. They’re coming off a big win over Los Angeles and now dealing with a Sharks team that’s playing like they’re on a roller coaster, catching them on the right night means getting a win. With the Sharks you just never know what you’re going to get. One night it’s the offensive juggernaut, on others it’s a fight with bad goaltending, and on others it’s the team decked out in v-neck sweaters singing fractured Christmas carols.

Los Angeles @ Nashville

Life is good for Nashville of late. They’re missing a bunch of guys up front and their starting goalie and it just doesn’t matter. They keep winning. They’ve won eight of their last nine games and have trimmed the distance between themselves and the Red Wings in the Central. Now they face off with a Kings team eager to put their failure in St. Louis behind them. For the Kings it’s the first of two brutal back-to-back games as they’ll head to Chicago for a game on Sunday following this tough one with the Predators. If the Kings are going to show what they’re made of, getting a win in Nashville would be huge.

10:00 pm

Minnesota @ Calgary

Hockey Night in Canada’s nightcap game doesn’t really give us the warm fuzzies, but when these two get together you’re either guaranteed a huge game from Jarome Iginla or the Wild opening up the floodgates on the Flames. This time around, we’re praying for both things to happen to keep us going into the late night hours. The Wild come in losers of two in a row while the Flames have won two straight.

PHT Morning Skate: Predicting the 2016 Stanley Cup Final

San Jose Sharks center Joe Pavelski celebrates after scoring a goal against the Minnesota Wild duyring the third period of an NHL hockey game Saturday, Jan. 23, 2016, in San Jose, Calif. San Jose won 4-3. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
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PHT’s Morning Skate takes a look around the world of hockey to see what’s happening and what we’ll be talking about around the NHL world and beyond.

Among the 21 NHL.com and NHL Network experts offering their prediction for the Stanley Cup Final, 17 of them are choosing the San Jose Sharks. (NHL.com)

The majority of ESPN’s experts are also picking the Sharks. (ESPN.com)

For CBS Sports, Adam Gretz and Chris Peters are split on the outcome. (CBS Sports)

Tickets for the first Stanley Cup Final in San Jose appear to be going for significantly more than their Pittsburgh Penguins counterparts. (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

Inspired by John Scott‘s comments, here’s the start of a World Cup All-Snubs’ team. (TSN)

Peter DeBoer said that then New Jersey Devils GM Lou Lamoriello fired him from the Devils’ head coaching job late at night on Christmas. The news then broke on Dec. 26. (Tom Gulitti)

Vegas tabs Joe Pavelski as Conn Smythe frontrunner

SAN JOSE, CA - MAY 21:  Joe Pavelski #8 of the San Jose Sharks awaits a face off against the St. Louis Blues in game four of the Western Conference Finals during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at HP Pavilion on May 21, 2016 in San Jose, California.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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The Pittsburgh Penguins are Vegas favorites to win the 2016 Stanley Cup, but the odds lean toward a San Jose Sharks player capturing the Conn Smythe.

Bovada released a variety of odds on Sunday after others surfaced on Friday.

Joe Pavelski is pegged as a +400 favorite as a winner, edging some other top candidates such as Sidney Crosby, Phil Kessel and Matt Murray.

Here’s the full list:

Pavelski +400
Crosby +500
Kessel +500
Murray +500
Logan Couture +500
Martin Jones +600
Brent Burns +700
Joe Thornton +900
Evgeni Malkin +900
Kris Letang +1400

Bovada also released prop bets, including how long the series might last. Check that out here.

Penguins, Sharks discuss bumpy road to Stanley Cup Final

PITTSBURGH, PA - MAY 29: Joe Thornton #19 of the San Jose Sharks addresses the media during the NHL Stanley Cup Final Media Day at Consol Energy Center on May 29, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
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PITTSBURGH (AP) It wasn’t supposed to take the San Jose Sharks this long to reach their first Stanley Cup Final. It wasn’t supposed to take this long for Sidney Crosby to guide the Pittsburgh Penguins back to a destination many figured they’d become a fixture at after winning it all in 2009.

Not that either side is complaining.

Certainly not the Sharks, whose nearly quarter-century wait to play on the NHL’s biggest stage will finally end Monday night when the puck drops for Game 1. Certainly not Crosby, who raised the Cup after beating Detroit seven years ago but has spent a significant portion of the interim dealing with concussions that threatened to derail his career and fending off criticism as the thoughtful captain of a team whose explosiveness during the regular season too often failed to translate into regular mid-June parade through the heart of the city.

Maybe the Penguins should have returned to the Cup Final before now. The fact they didn’t makes the bumpy path the franchise and its superstar captain took to get here seem worth it.

“I think I appreciated it prior to going through some of those things,” Crosby said. “I think now having gone through those things I definitely appreciate it more. I think I realize how tough it is to get to this point.”

It’s a sentiment not lost on the Sharks, who became one of the NHL’s most consistent winners shortly after coming into the league in 1991. Yet spring after spring, optimism would morph into disappointment. The nadir came in 2014, when a 3-0 lead over Los Angeles in the first round somehow turned into a 4-3 loss. The collapse sent the Sharks into a spiral that took a full year to recover from, one that in some ways sowed the seeds for a breakthrough more than two decades in the making.

General manager Doug Wilson tweaked the roster around fixtures Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton, who remained hopeful San Jose’s window for success hadn’t shut completely even as the postseason meltdowns piled up.

“I always believed that next year was going to be the year, I really did,” Thornton said. “I always thought we were a couple pieces away. Even last year not making the playoffs, I honestly thought we were a couple pieces away, and here we are.”

The Penguins, like the Sharks, are a study in near instant alchemy. General manager Jim Rutherford rebuilt the team on the fly after taking over in June, 2014 and with the team sleepwalking last December, fired respected-but-hardly-charismatic Mike Johnston and replaced him with the decidedly harder-edged Mike Sullivan. The results were nearly instantaneous.

Freed to play to its strengths instead of guarding against its weaknesses, Pittsburgh rocketed through the second half of the season and showed the resilience it has sometimes lacked during Crosby’s tenure by rallying from a 3-2 deficit against Tampa Bay in the Eastern Conference finals, dominating Games 6 and 7 to finally earn a shot at bookending the Cup that was supposed to give birth to a dynasty but instead led to years of frustration.

True catharsis for one side is four wins away. Some things to look for over the next two weeks of what promises to be an entertaining final.

FRESH FACES: When the season began, Matt Murray was in the minor leagues. Now the 22-year-old who was supposed to be Pittsburgh’s goalie of the future is now very much the goalie of the present. Pressed into action when veteran Marc-Andre Fleury suffered a concussion on March 31, Murray held onto the job even after Fleury returned by playing with the steady hand of a guy in his 10th postseason, not his first. San Jose counterpart Martin Jones served as Jonathan Quick‘s backup when the Kings won it all in 2014 and has thrived while playing behind a defense that sometimes doesn’t give him much to do. Jones has faced over 30 shots just four times during the playoffs.

“HBK” IS H-O-T: Pittsburgh’s best line during the playoffs isn’t the one centered by Crosby or Malkin but Nick Bonino, who has teamed with Phil Kessel and Carl Hagelin to produce 17 goals and 28 assists in 18 games. Put together when Malkin missed six weeks with an elbow injury, the trio has given the Penguins the balance they desperately needed after years of being too reliant on their stars for production.

POWERFUL SHARKS: San Jose’s brilliant run to the Finals has been spearheaded by a power play that is converting on 27 percent (17 of 63) of its chances during the playoffs. The Sharks are 9-2 when they score with the man advantage and just 3-4 when it does not.

OLD MEN AND THE C(UP): Both teams have relied heavily on players who began their NHL careers in another millennium. Pittsburgh center Matt Cullen, who turns 40 in November, has four goals during the playoffs. Thornton and Marleau, both 36, were taken with the top two picks in the 1997 draft that was held in Pittsburgh while 37-year-old Dainius Zubrus draws stares from younger teammates when he tells them he used to play against Hall of Famer (and current Penguins owner) Mario Lemieux.

“When I say ‘Twenty years ago I was playing against Lemieux, they say ‘I was 2-years-old,'” Zubrus said.

Top prospects Tkachuk, Mitchell power London to 2016 Memorial Cup

RED DEER, AB - MAY 29:  JJ Piccinich #84 of the London Knights (OHL) collides with Jean-Christophe Beaudin #16 of the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies (QMJHL) during the Memorial Cup Final on May 29, 2016 at the Enmax Centrium in Red Deer, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images)
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The London Knights feature a line full of players with interesting NHL futures, and all three of those forwards came up big on Sunday.

Matthew Tkachuk, Mitch Marner and Christian Dvorak combined forces to pull London to a 3-2 overtime win against the Rouyn-Naranda Huskies, winning the 2016 Memorial Cup.

Things looked pretty shaky for London; its winning streak looked like it was in danger with Rouyn-Naranda taking a late 2-1 lead. The Knights failed on what seemed like a golden 5-on-3 opportunity, but they didn’t let that deter them.

Tkachuk scored two goals, Dvorak generated a goal and an assist and Marner was named tournament MVP as the Knights’ 17th consecutive win wrapped up the Memorial Cup for that special group.

Tkachuk (a high-end prospect for the upcoming draft) and Marner (the fourth pick to Toronto back in 2015) are the bigger names, but Dvorak – the 58th pick back in 2014 – came up big, too.