Jay Harrison,Jay Beagle

Around the Rink – Friday, March 11th

The horrifying earthquake in Japan is yet another reminder that calling any sports game “important” is a matter of semantics. Obviously, there are much bigger thing in life than how the East and West playoff bubbles play out. We wish anyone affected by that scary seismic situation the absolute best. Hopefully they’ve already braved the worst parts of that disaster.

OK, let’s get back to the escapism and joy of hockey, shall we? All start times are according to Eastern Standard Time (ET).

7:00 pm

Boston @ NY Islanders

If the Bruins win this game, they’ll take the league lead in road wins so far this season with 23. Even if they end up taking the Northeast Division title, that’s still the kind of stat that must make them feel good about their playoff hopes.

(What, were you expecting more Zdeno Chara discussion? Take a break.)

Los Angeles @ Columbus

There was a time when these two teams were separated by a point or two (probably a few times, actually), but now there is a considerable distance. Eight points to be exact, as the Kings are in eighth place while the Blue Jackets are sprawling out of contention with six straight losses. They should be a hungry group, but Los Angeles has plenty to play for too, so this should be interesting to follow.

Carolina @ Washington

The Capitals have been red-hot lately, which doesn’t exactly bode well for the desperate Hurricanes. Carolina could capitalize on a struggling Rangers team if they win this game as the East playoff race intensifies. Washington is on a six game winning streak, so it won’t come easily.

7:30 pm

Ottawa @ Tampa Bay

On its face, this seems like a great situation for the Lightning to tie up the top spot in the Southeast. The Capitals play against a higher ranked and desperate team in the Hurricanes while the Lightning host the seemingly lowly Senators. The problem is that Washington is on that aforementioned tear while Ottawa is tougher than their record right now. We’ll see how it works out.

Edmonton @ Detroit

The Red Wings’ hopes of catching the Canucks for the top spot in the West have more or less been neutralized thanks to a four-game losing streak, but they shouldn’t need to worry about the surging Blackhawks unless they really fall flat. Beating up on soft teams such as the Oilers would help that avoid that fate.

New Jersey @ Atlanta

It seems a bit much to say that every game between the Devils and a bubble team like the Thrashers is “big.” Especially because both squads could go irrelevant with just a few more losses. Still, one side will feel much better about their odds after this match than the other. New Jersey is trending up while Atlanta is sliding, but the Thrashers are still above them right now, which just says how different their starts were.

8:30 pm

Minnesota @ Dallas

When you consider how fluid professional sports rosters can be, it’s tough to imagine that the Wild players are particularly aware of the fact that they are playing the ex-North Stars. Maybe they know, but it’s hard to fathom that this game means as much to them as it might to some Wild fans.

On the bright side, both teams need this for playoff reasons, so each side will play with plenty of gusto anyway.

9:00 pm

Anaheim @ Colorado

Amazingly, the Avalanche have fallen so far that they’re now the third worst team in the NHL from a standings perspective. The Ducks really need to take advantage of this wounded Colorado gang.

On his third team in three years, Bonino has ‘found a home for sure’ in Pittsburgh

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PITTSBURGH — In Anaheim, Nick Bonino was good, but not quite good enough to be the Ducks’ second-line center. So two summers ago he was traded to Vancouver as part of a package for Ryan Kesler.

In Vancouver, Bonino had one decent enough season, but the Canucks ultimately decided he wasn’t the kind of “foundation piece” they were looking for. So last summer he was traded to Pittsburgh as part of a package for Brandon Sutter.

In Pittsburgh though?

In Pittsburgh, Nick Bonino is a playoff hero, verging on folk hero. The 28-year-old scored the winning goal in the final minutes of Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final. The chemistry he’s developed with linemates Phil Kessel and Carl Hagelin has helped take the pressure off Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. It’s given the Penguins what they’ve needed for so many years.

“He’s had some huge goals in the playoffs, come up really big,” said teammate Matt Cullen. “Obviously playing in the middle of that line, he’s been huge for us all playoffs. It just brings another element of depth to our team.”

And if you think Cullen had nice things to say about Bonino, that was nothing compared to head coach Mike Sullivan.

“I think he’s a terrific player in every aspect of the game,” said Sullivan. “We use him in so many key situations, both offensively and defensively. I think he’s a guy that has a real high hockey IQ, sees the ice really well. He has real good hands. His awareness defensively I think, the use of his stick to take passing lanes away, it’s impressive.

“He’s brave. He blocks shots. He’s one of our better shot-blockers. He’s a good faceoff guy. He’s done so much for this team to help us get to this point. I don’t know what other praise I can shower on him right now. We think he’s a terrific player.”

Signed through next season, after which he can become an unrestricted free agent, Bonino was asked if he’s finally found a long-term home in Pittsburgh.

“I don’t know about long-term, you never know. Especially me, the last few summers,” he said.

“[But] I think I found a home for sure. I enjoy the guys, enjoy the team. Organization is first class. Definitely feels nice to be in the Cup final playing with these two guys. It’s been a lot of fun for me.”

Despite rough start, the Sharks ‘know we’re going to get better’

PITTSBURGH, PA - MAY 30:  Nick Bonino #13 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates after scoring a third period goal against Martin Jones #31 of the San Jose Sharks in Game One of the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Final at Consol Energy Center on May 30, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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PITTSBURGH — It’s only been one game of the Stanley Cup Final and the San Jose Sharks are already tired of hearing about the Pittsburgh Penguins’ speed.

“It’s an NHL team,” said defenseman Brent Burns. “They’re fast. So is St. Louis. It’s not like St. Louis has got boots on.”

“They’re a good rush team, they’ve got some speed, they make some plays,” captain Joe Pavelski grudgingly conceded. “I don’t know, those teams we’ve played before are pretty good. I think Nashville was probably one of the better rush teams that we saw.”

In other words, the Penguins’ speed was no big deal. Nothing new. Nothing to panic about. The Sharks can play better than they showed in Game 1, a 3-2 loss that wasn’t decided until the final few minutes.

“They definitely came out with some speed and were skating, created some chances,” said Pavelski. “But we helped that out along the way, too.”

After getting outshot 15-4 and outscored 2-0 in the first period, the Sharks fought back in the second. They cut down the turnovers, outshot the Penguins 13-8, and tied the game.

“They carried the first, obviously. We carried the second I think, and then the third was two good teams going at it,” said Burns, calling the opening 20 minutes a “Holy [expletive] we’re here” experience for a San Jose group that has never been this far in the playoffs.

“You make the Stanley Cup finals, you dream about it for a long time,” he said. “You probably used more energy the last couple of days thinking about it than playing in a game. … I think we’ll be better second game.”

Head coach Pete DeBoer agreed.

“They’re a fast team,” he said. “They dictated play in the first. I thought when we played our game in the second, they had trouble with us. It’s the first game of the series. It reminds me a lot of St. Louis Game 1. I know we’re going to get better. Our execution’s got to get better. Part of it was some of the pressure they put on, but part of it was self-inflicted.”

He added, “There’s nothing that I saw tonight that I’m going out of here thinking that we can’t come out and compete and play much better on our end.”

Sullivan calls it a ‘blindside hit to the head,’ but Marleau doesn’t think suspension’s coming

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PITTSBURGH — It didn’t take long for the first controversial incident of the Stanley Cup Final.

Patrick Marleau‘s illegal check to the head on Bryan Rust — one that earned Marleau a minor penalty, and forced Rust to exit the game — left Rust day-to-day with an upper-body injury, per Pens head coach Mike Sullivan.

When asked what he thought of the hit, Sullivan was blunt.

“It’s a blindside hit to the head,” he said. “[Marleau] gets a penalty and I’m sure the league will look at it.”

Marleau wasn’t saying much about the incident following the game, but did suggest he wasn’t expecting supplemental discipline:

“I just tried to keep everything down,” Marleau added. “I didn’t want to get too high on him.”

It’ll be interesting to see what transpires. There hasn’t been a suspension in the Stanley Cup Final since Vancouver’s Aaron Rome was given a four-game ban for his massive hit on Boston forward Nathan Horton.

Marleau has no history with the NHL’s Department of Player Safety.

It should be mentioned the DoPS has been fairly active this spring, handing down five suspensions, including a pair of three-gamers to Brooks Orpik and Brayden Schenn.

Bonino scores late, role guys star again as Pens take Game 1

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PITTSBURGH — If this playoff run has proven anything, it’s that the Penguins are more than Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

Tonight only reaffirmed it.

Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary and Nick Bonino did all the scoring on Monday, with Bonino’s late marker the winner as Pittsburgh defeated San Jose 3-2 in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final.

Bonino’s goal, his fourth of the playoffs, came with just over two minutes remaining, capping off a quality opener in which both teams carried play for long stretches.

Rust and Sheary punctuated a dominant opening period for the Penguins — they out-shot the Sharks 15-4 — but the Sharks replied with a stellar second frame, equalizing on goals from Tomas Hertl and Patrick Marleau.

That set the stage for a dramatic third, and the Bonino goal.

That he, Rust and Sheary did the scoring for Pittsburgh was fitting. There’d been plenty of talk heading into this series about role players coming up large, to the point where the American Hockey League sent out a press release noting that 23 of 25 Penguins that’ve played in the playoffs thus far came through the AHL, highlighting the “big four” from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton: Rust, Sheary, Tom Kuhnhackl and Matt Murray.

Rust etched himself into Pittsburgh lore in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final, scoring both goals in a 2-1 win over the Lightning.

Murray’s exploits are pretty well-known. The 22-year-old was remarkably solid after regaining the starter’s net from Marc-Andre Fleury in Game 6 of the ECF, stopping 44 of 47 shots over the final two games of the series.

He was good again on Monday, with 24 saves on 26 shots.

Sheary, the diminutive speedster, scored his third goal of the playoffs tonight. Kuhnhackl tied a team high with five hits.

As such, Pittsburgh has to be thrilled about how tonight went. They held up home ice and got contributions from across the board — the only downer has to be the health of Rust, who twice exited the contest after taking a hit to the head from Marleau.

As for the Sharks… well, this one will sting a bit. The club did remarkably well to rally from a two-goal deficit and carried play in the second period, but can’t be pleased.

They were beaten in the possession game and out-shot badly (41-26), things head coach Peter DeBoer wanted to control against Pittsburgh, a team he considers the fastest in the league.

That said, there are positives moving forward. Martin Jones was outstanding in his Stanley Cup Final debut, with 38 saves on 41 shots, and there’s still a chance to get the split on Wednesday night.

Of course, to do that, the Sharks will have to figure out how to slow down Pittsburgh’s role players.