Hockey Day Preview: Top 5 underrated players who will play in Sunday’s games

One of the great things about Hockey Day in America is how it’s going to shine the spotlight on the greatest game on ice for a day. Just take a quick look at the four games lined up and hockey fans will see visions of superstars taking on superstars. You see Alexander Ovechkin cutting to the middle of the ice and firing a shot towards Ryan Miller. Maybe you think of Claude Giroux and Danny Briere coming down on a 2-on-1 against Marc Staal and Henrik Lundqvist. You think of Pavel Datsyuk dangling on Brent Burns in front of a crazy crowd in the State of Hockey. You may picture Duncan Keith trying to escape an intense forecheck from Jordan Staal. Pick a game and there’s plenty of star-power.

But for all the stars that will be in the spotlight on Sunday, there will be plenty of unsung heroes who will play in the shadowst. We’re talking about the guys who are valuable to their team on a nightly basis; the types of players fans passionately love, and opponents hate to deal with. Because for every Patrick Kane or Chris Pronger on a team, there’s a Dave Bolland or Ville Leino helping their team become a successful team.

Here are 5 players to keep an eye on during Hockey Day in America. They may not be the superstars who get all of the publicity, but they’re the guys every team needs if they want to win:

Niklas Hjalmarsson

The Blackhawks rode an absolutely stacked blueline to the Stanley Cup last year and Hjalmarsson was a huge part of it. Sure, there are guys like defending Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith, $7 million man Brian Campbell, and pending free agent Brent Seabrook, but Hjalmarsson is the guy in the top 4 who manages to fly under the radar with many fans outside of Chicago.

Don’t forget, Sharks GM Doug Wilson knew how good he was when the Blackhawks ousted his team from the playoffs last year. He wasted no time signing Hjalmarsson to an offer-sheet forcing the Hawks to choose between him and the goaltender who helped them win their first Stanley Cup in 49 years. Let’s put it this way: Antti Niemi is wearing teal now and Hjalmarsson is in the first year of a deal that will pay him $14 million.

Drew Stafford

One of the best Americans playing on Hockey Day in America, Stafford has started to fulfill the potential that made him the Sabres’ first round pick in the 2004 entry draft. In fact, on the day America celebrates the sport, the former University of North Dakota standout is 3rd among American born players in goals scored. Last weekend he scored his 4th hat trick of the season. FOURTH. Not bad for a guy who averaged about 15 goals per season before this year.

Ryan Callahan

Ryan’s the two-way type player that every team wishes they had on their team. He’d be much higher on the league’s scoring list if it weren’t for a broken hand that caused him to miss 6 weeks of action. Extrapolate his scoring pace and he’d be right up there with his Rangers partner-in-crime Brandon Dubinsky had he been healthy all season (we are contractually obligated to mention Dubinsky whenever Callahan is referenced). His 30 points in 39 games is just a tip of what he can do though. Like Dubinsky, the two-way play and energy he brings to each shift makes him one of the more exciting players to watch. He’s a restricted free agent at the end of the season—so it won’t be long until Glen Sather and the Rangers management show how they really feel about him.

Todd Bertuzzi

It might be weird to see a player with such an infamous past on this list, but somewhere between the Steve Moore incident and Hockeytown, fans may have forgotten that he’s a good hockey player. Since the ugly incident that clearly taints his name every time it’s mentioned, he’s reengineered his game to be a completely different player. Gone are the days when he was flying high with Brendan Morrison andMarkus N aslund as an elite power forward. Instead, he’s become a valuable piece to the Detroit Red Wings machine. He doesn’t score a point-per-game anymore (it’s about half of that), but he still brings much needed grit and hands to an immensely talented team. If the Red Wings want to compete for a Stanley Cup, odds are Todd Bertuzzi will have to be a productive player in his new role.

Nick Schultz

Nick Schultz isn’t going to have the type of stats that jump off the page at you. He has 3 goals, 11 assists, 32 PIMs, and a +1 rating. So what? A guy like that is a dime-a-dozen, right? Wrong.

Watch him play a few games, and each time you’ll notice him more and more. He’s big and he’s nasty—both of which are compliments for a shutdown defenseman. He’s out there against the opponent’s best players—his job is to not screw things up. It’s not a sexy job, but his success this season is one of the big reasons the Minnesota Wild are competing for a playoff spot and not looking to sell off spare parts at the deadline.

Honorary Mentions: Caps forward Brooks Laich, Wild Captain Mikko Koivu, Blackhawks center Dave Bolland, and Flyers defenseman Andrej Meszaros

In case you haven’t committed it to memory, here’s NBC’s schedule for Hockey Day In America.

After surgery, Joe Thornton should be ready for 2017-18 (Wherever he plays)

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On Monday, we found out that Joe Thornton made the “courageous” (or … outrageous?) decision to fight through tears to his ACL and MCL and suit up for the playoffs.

(That still warrants a moment of reflection, because, wow.)

The San Jose Sharks sent out a positive update in that regard: after successful surgery yesterday, Thornton is expected to be ready to play by the start of the 2017-18 season.

So, that answers one big question. It doesn’t settle an even bigger one, though: where will Thornton play next year?

Patrick Marleau indicated that he believes he has “at least five good years” left, a fine thought that becomes trickier when you consider San Jose’s salary structure problems for 2018-19 and on. The impression is that Thornton wants to come back, too, but what if he – justifiably – seeks security in a longer term deal?

That situation is currently unclear, but at least it sounds like he’ll be healthy to start next season, whether he remains a member of the Sharks or joins a different roster.

Ovechkin on facing Crosby, Penguins: ‘You don’t have to be afraid’

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ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) Sidney Crosby is standing in Alex Ovechkin‘s way again. Of course.

Crosby’s Pittsburgh Penguins extinguished two of the Washington Capitals’ best Stanley Cup hopes in 2009 and 2016, going on to win the championship each time. Now as Ovechkin and the Capitals face a summer of change, it’s only fitting that perhaps their best chance to win it all means going through defending champion Pittsburgh in the second round.

Ovechkin knows the playoff history, the blowout loss at home in Game 7 in 2009 and the overtime loss on the road in Game 6 that ended last season. He brought them up unprompted Tuesday as if to try to bury them in the past.

“We play them twice in the playoffs and we don’t have success,” Ovechkin said. “We lost in Game 6 and Game 7. You just have to move forward. You don’t have to be afraid. You know you play against Stanley Cup champion and they are very good team, but so we are. This battle have to be done if we want to get success.”

In franchise history, the Capitals have only beaten the Penguins once in nine playoff meetings. That matters more to the respective fan bases than players, only a few of whom are still around from 2009.

This season brings a matchup of the top two teams in the regular season, put on a crash course to face off before the conference final by the NHL’s division playoff format. Crosby said, “You kind of expected we’d see each other at some point,” and the Capitals figure no better time than the present to tackle their biggest obstacle.

“You usually have to go through the best team to get to where you want to go,” said center Jay Beagle, who is going into his third Capitals-Penguins series. “It was either now or maybe in the third round. Let’s do it now.”

What better time for a renewal of Crosby versus Ovechkin, which to this point has been a lopsided rivalry? Crosby owns a 38-21 record in their meetings in the NHL regular season and playoffs, world junior championships, world championships, World Cup and Olympics.

Ovechkin, the No. 1 pick in the 2004 draft, and Crosby, the No. 1 pick in 2005, have been stars for more than a decade and have been compared to each other for longer than that. They spent some time together at the gathering of the NHL’s top 100 players during All-Star Weekend and their friendship has evolved over time.

“We respect each other,” Ovechkin said. “That battle between me and him, it’s great. I think me and him enjoy it, you guys enjoy it, fans enjoy it. But right now it’s not about me and him, it’s about Caps and Penguins.”

Crosby and Ovechkin are quick to deflect the spotlight to star teammates – Pittsburgh has Evgeni Malkin and Washington has Nicklas Backstrom – and shift the focus to team play. Over his three years as Capitals coach, Barry Trotz has seen Ovechkin grow up and his priorities change.

Trotz has seen Ovechkin celebrate teammates’ goals harder than his own and languish in losses all while putting up goals at a faster clip than anyone in this generation.

The only thing that has evaded the three-time Hart Trophy winner and six-time Rocket Richard Trophy winner is the Cup. Trotz said Ovechkin understands what he means to the team, the league and what’s left undone “before the sun sets on his career.”

Ovechkin is 31 and still has four years left on his contract. But with winger T.J. Oshie, defenseman Karl Alzner and others set to be unrestricted free agents – and the salary cap crunching the Capitals, too – there’s an urgency about winning this year.

That means trying to finally get over the second-round hump.

“It’s a big opportunity for us to beat the Stanley Cup champion and play the next team in the third round,” Ovechkin said. “Obviously we’ve never done it before. It’s a big opportunity for us to move forward and get success.”

NOTES: Capitals RW Tom Wilson left practice when he took a puck off the left ankle. Trotz called it a stinger and said he was fine. … Ovechkin missed the second half of practice after breaking a skate. … C Lars Eller didn’t skate, with the team calling it a maintenance day.

AP Sports Writer Will Graves in Pittsburgh contributed.

More AP NHL: https://www.apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SWhyno

Karlsson explains how Senators plan on getting to Lundqvist

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GREENBURGH, N.Y. (AP) After struggling through a subpar season by his standards, Henrik Lundqvist was at his best when the Rangers needed him in the first round.

The 35-year-old goalie will again have to be at the top of his game against Ottawa for New York to reach the Eastern Conference finals for the fourth time in six years.

“Hank has been through this before,” coach Alain Vigneault said Tuesday after the Rangers began preparing to face the Senators in the conference semifinals.

“I think he’s really thriving on the pressure and the opportunity. … He wants to be a difference-maker and he’s looking forward to this series.”

This season, Lundqvist had to deal with periods of inconsistency – highlighted by winning a season-high five straight starts Feb. 2-11 and then losing three of five from Feb. 26 to March 7 before a hip injury cost him nearly three weeks.

He then won just once in six starts (1-3-2) after returning in late March and finished the season 31-20-4 with a 2.74 goals-against average and a .910 save percentage – career worsts for the latter two.

However, since the playoffs started he has been sharp, getting his 10th career postseason shutout in the opener against Montreal and then finishing with a career-high 54 saves – regular season or playoffs – in an overtime loss in Game 2.

Lundqvist finished the first round with a 1.70 GAA and .947 save percentage – both the best among all goalies. He gave up just four goals on 88 shots while the Rangers won the last three games of the series after allowing seven goals on 87 shots in losses in Games 2 and 3.

“The guys played so hard with a lot of structure in front and made it so much easier for me to focus on my game and try to do my part,” said Lundqvist, who has 2.25 GAA and .923 save percentage in 122 postseason games.

“It was a great feeling to see the way we worked, especially the way we battled back the last couple games.”

He had a big save in the clinching Game 6 win against Montreal with the Rangers leading by one and less than two minutes remaining, making a lunging pad stop on Tomas Plekanec‘s backhand follow attempt in close.

“I knew I was in trouble because I wasn’t in good position on the first play and then he threw it at me,” Lundqvist said. “My first thought was `don’t knock it in,’ and then it ends up right on his stick. It was just a desperation save. Luckily he didn’t put it far corner.”

Now, he’ll be going up against an Ottawa team lead by former teammate Derick Brassard (two goals, six assists in first-round win against Boston), Bobby Ryan (four goals, three assists) and fellow Swede Erik Karlsson (six assists).

“They have some key players in their core group that play a big part for their team,” Lundqvist said. “When you watch them play, it’s a lot of tight game (and) strike when they get a chance.”

Lundqvist knows how tough his good friend Karlsson is to contain. The defenseman and team captain has topped 50 assists and 70 points in three of the past four seasons.

“You can stop him, you just got to be really good,” Lundqvist said. “You got to have a game plan and follow that. He’s definitely one of the best players in the game, and he plays a big part for them to have success. He’s a good skater, sees the game really well.”

Karlsson, in turn, believes the key to beating Lundqvist is to frustrate him.

“We’re going to have to make it hard on him,” Karlsson told The Canadian Press in Ottawa. “If he sees the puck he’s going to make most of the stops and we’re going to make it hard in front of him by putting a lot of traffic in there and throw a lot of pucks at him. The more shots we have the more opportunities we’re going to have for one to go in.”

Game 1 is Thursday night in Ottawa.

Follow Vin Cherwoo at http://www.twitter.com/VinCherwooAP

More AP hockey: https://www.apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

Ducks have better chance to slow McDavid with healthier defensemen

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Trying to stop – or at least inhibitConnor McDavid is likely to be a conundrum for opposing teams for, oh, the next decade or two. Still, it helps matters to at least be near 100 percent.

The Anaheim Ducks dispatched the Calgary Flames (a team with some serious firepower on the blueline and also magician-forward Johnny Gaudreau) in four games despite serious limitations on defense. It seems like they’re getting closer to being their full-fledged selves, as the team website revealed that Hampus Lindholm and Cam Fowler seem likely to play in Game 1. Also, Sami Vatanen is getting better.

Much has already been made about the Ducks matching up Ryan Kesler and Andrew Cogliano against McDavid, at least when they can.

“We’ll start looking at things and try to come up with some sort of plan,” Cogliano told the Los Angeles Times. “He’s dynamic. I think with how good he is sometimes you look [past Draisaitl]. Not that he flies under the radar, but he’s a player you have to keep an eye on, too.”

Still, Randy Carlyle faces some interesting choices as far as which blueliners to send out against McDavid.

Fowler is more known for his offensive skills, but his skating ability makes for an intriguing option, at least if he’s close to 100 percent. Lindholm might not get much press just yet, but he’s quietly building a resume as one of the league’s best defenders. It’s a little tricky with them being even somewhat slowed by injuries, though.

For what it’s worth, the Ducks had some success against McDavid in 2016-17, limiting him to zero goals, one assist and just two shots in three regular-season games.

It’s dangerous to put too much weight on such stats, especially considering the small sample size. The bottom line is that Carlyle gets the final change for Games 1 and 2, a potentially key advantage against McDavid and the Oilers.

You know, assuming there’s even an ideal matchup for Anaheim.