Pittsburgh Penguins v Chicago Blackhawks

Jonathan Toews’ red-hot run generates Hart Trophy attention

When Jonathan Toews was on top of the hockey world upon hoisting the Stanley Cup and receiving the Conn Smythe Trophy, I couldn’t help but temper the “best player in the world” talk ever so slightly.

People often take anything but boisterous praise as a statement that Player X isn’t any good, but that wasn’t the point at all. For one thing, it was difficult for me to accept the idea that Toews was on the highest rung of NHL players when his career high for points was 69. Beyond that, the Chicago Blackhawks also amassed an outrageously rich supporting cast that made it possible for Toews to simply play his world-class game without having to carry the team’s offense every night. Sure he was great, but probably not on the absolute highest level right then.

Ultimately, I ended with this point: we’ll see how great he is this season, when every team is gunning for his team and the salary cap dilutes that once-staggering depth.

For a while, it seemed like he finally met his match. The team was struggling to the point that a playoff berth was looking questionable at best (not to say they’re guaranteed to land one today) and his offensive numbers weren’t at an all-world level early on. It’s not fair to put all the blame on one player, but as the team captain, the spotlight shined the brightest on Toews.

Toews is on fire when his team needs him the most.

Yet now it appears that Toews is earning every bit of the somewhat-hasty plaudits he received last year. From his rookie year on, he’s exhibited a stunningly versatile game for such a young player, but his offensive output has never been better. After peaking at 69 points in his previous three seasons, Toews is producing his first point-per-game campaign in the NHL. He already has 28 goals and 40 assists for 68 points in 66 games so far in 2010-11.

The best part – though by no means the most surprising one – is that Toews is producing his greatest work when his team needs him the most. He scored a staggering nine goals and nine assists for 18 points in his last 11 games. The only time he didn’t score a point during that span was on March 8th, when the Florida Panthers beat the Hawks 3-2. He also received the league’s player of the month award for February, scoring 21 points in the shortest month of the year.

Toews forces himself into the Hart Trophy discussion.

Toews currently ranks ninth in the NHL with those 68 total points, but it’s that aforementioned all-around play and his lead-by-example mentality that causes many to consider him a worthy Hart Trophy candidate. (It probably doesn’t hurt that Toews has the best plus/minus rating among the league’s top 10 scorers, with an impressive +24 mark.)

One of the most underrated parts of his game is his work in the faceoff circle, by the way. He leads the league with 758 faceoffs won and also has an outstanding 57.4 winning percentage this season. That’s not an ability that will get you on highlight reels, but it’s one of those hard work/attention to detail areas that reveal Toews’ do-everything mentality.

So who knows if Toews will ever make it easy for Hart Trophy voters by putting up 100-point seasons and piling up Art Ross Trophy wins, but he’s the NHL’s answer to a “five-tool player” in baseball. He can score highlight reel goals, provide plenty of assists, displays responsible defensive positioning, is willing to apply the elbow grease necessary to score “dirty” goals in the playoffs and wins more than his far share of draws.

Despite losing the likes of Dustin Byfuglien to free agency, this Chicago team still sports plenty of firepower. Yet it seems like their fate is tied to the work of “Captain Serious.”

Toews is responding by pulling his team – and his already sterling reputation – into the upper echelon of the league’s elite.

Kucherov continues to be clutch for the Bolts this postseason

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 03:  Nikita Kucherov #86 of the Tampa Bay Lightning skates against the New York Islanders in Game Three of the Eastern Conference Second Round during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Barclays Center on May 03, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. The Lightning defeated the Islanders 5-4 in overtime.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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TAMPA, Fla. (AP) The bigger the playoff moment, the more Nikita Kucherov shines.

The young Russian has a knack for scoring when Tampa Bay needs it most, which is one of the reasons the Lightning are within one victory of reaching the Stanley Cup final for the second straight year.

Kucherov has found the back of the net a NHL-leading 11 times in 15 games this postseason, seven of them in situations in which he’s either tied the score or given his team a lead.

The 22-year-old’s latest addition to his impressive playoff resume he began compiling last year was a late goal Sunday to force overtime against Pittsburgh in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals. He also notched an assist on Tyler Johnson‘s winner less than a minute into the extra period.

The 4-3 victory on the road gave Tampa Bay a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series. Game 6 in Tuesday night at Amalie Arena.

“When you’re a rising star in this league, as he is … every team’s got one of those guys at some point,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “It just seems the bigger the moment, the bigger they rise to the occasion. He is proving that last year wasn’t a fluke. He’s just a gifted, skilled, determined player. He’s really a pleasure to coach.”

Kucherov had 10 goals in 26 playoff games a year ago, including a pair of overtime winners that helped the Lightning to the Stanley Cup final, where they lost to the Chicago Blackhawks in six games. One more victory and Tampa Bay will become the first team to make consecutive trips to the championship round since the Penguins and Detroit Red Wings did it in 2008 and 2009.

“He keeps climbing the ladder, and he keeps getting better. But what has really been remarkable for me this year in watching him is the timeliness of his game. He’s not scoring one goal in a 6-1 loss or the sixth goal in a 6-1 win,” Cooper said Monday.

“He’s getting the game-tier, game-winner; sets up the biggest of the biggest goals, and that says a little bit about the type of player you are,” the coach added. “When you need him, he’s the one ultimately, more often than not, that’s there for you. I think that’s the one thing that’s remarkable about him.”

Pittsburgh has gone from a 2-1 series lead to facing elimination for the first time this postseason after losing consecutively for the first time since January.

Coach Mike Sullivan said he won’t make a decision on a starting goaltender for Game 6 until Tuesday morning. Marc-Andre Fleury made his first start in nearly two months in Game 5, and was unable to protect leads of 2-0 and 3-2.

Rookie Matt Murray started the first four games of this series and is 9-4 with a 2.33 goals-against-average and .923 save percentage.

“I thought Marc made some big saves for us, especially early in the game,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said, adding it was difficult to gauge how much the long layoff impacted Fleury’s performance.

“It’s a tough circumstance. We believe in the guys we have. We think we have quality people, but it’s an imperfect situation,” Sullivan said before the team flew south to Florida on Monday. “All things considered, we’re trying to make the best decisions we can.”

The Penguins are confident than can rebound Tuesday night and take the series back home for a seventh game.

“I believe in my team. I believe in myself, and we can come back to Pittsburgh for sure,” Penguins star Evgeni Malkin said.

“Every game you shake off, win or lose,” Penguins left wing Chris Kunitz said.

“This group has done a terrific job all year of just staying in the moment and not dwelling on the past, not getting ahead of itself, and just trying to focus on that one game in hand,” Sullivan said, “and that’s what we’re going to have to do.”

Tampa Bay plans to approach it the same way.

The Lightning beat the New York Rangers on the road to take a 3-2 lead in last year’s conference finals. They returned home and were trounced 7-3 in Game 6.

“You can’t sit here and dictate or guarantee what the result’s going to be, but our mindset going into the game has got to be a heck of a lot different,” Cooper said. “And our group is well aware of that.”

 

PHT Morning Skate: Nobody is better at predicting the Stanley Cup playoffs than actor Will Arnett

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–Will Arnett knows a thing or two about making good Stanley Cup predictions. (Top)

–Some concept jerseys for the Las Vegas Aces. (BarDown)

–Sharks center Joe Thornton really is a nice guy. (ESPN)

–Watch the highlights from last night’s game between the Sharks and Blues:

–The IIHF’s updated world rankings. (IIHF.com)

Marc-Edouard Vlasic has done a good job against Vladimir Tarasenko.

–Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine put together some solid performances at the worlds. (NHL.com)

Datsyuk ‘wants to make sure the Wings have options,’ says his agent

TAMPA, FL - APRIL 21:  Pavel Datsyuk #13 of the Detroit Red Wings checks his stick before a face-off against the Tampa Bay Lightning during the second period in Game Five of the Eastern Conference First Round during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Amalie Arena on April 21, 2016 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images)
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Pavel Datsyuk‘s future with the Detroit Red Wings and in the National Hockey League has been up in the air for a while now, as he’s linked to rumors of a return to Russia and the KHL.

His agent, Dan Milstein, recently explained to the Detroit Free Press that Datsyuk’s future should become clear in mid-June after meeting with Red Wings general manager Ken Holland.

As per General Fanager, Datsyuk has one more year left on his current deal, which comes with a cap hit of $7.5 million.

From the Detroit Free Press:

“He would like to leave, but at the same time, he wants to make sure the Wings have options,” Milstein said. “He wants to help the team any way he can with the salary cap issue.”

Wings general manager Ken Holland has said there are no loopholes. Because Datsyuk signed his last contract after he turned 35, his $7.5 million salary cap hit remains in tact even if Datsyuk departs. The Wings’ only option is to trade his contract to a team such as Arizona or Carolina that could use the hefty cap hit in order to be above the salary cap minimum.

At the age of 37, his career in the league started in 2001-02, and has spanned 953 regular season games in which he’s accrued 918 points.

He’s had a highly decorated career, with two Stanley Cup championships with the Red Wings, three Selke and four Lady Byng trophies.

Allen or Elliott? Another goalie decision looms for Hitchcock

ST LOUIS, MO - MAY 23:  Jake Allen #34 of the St. Louis Blues tends goal against Nick Spaling #16 of the San Jose Sharks during the third period in Game Five of the Western Conference Final during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Scottrade Center on May 23, 2016 in St Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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The St. Louis Blues need to win Game 6 on Wednesday, or their season is over. Who they decide to turn to in net is likely to be a talking point — heated debate, maybe? — leading up to that contest.

Do they go back to Jake Allen for a third consecutive start, despite the fact he allowed four goals on 25 shots in Monday’s Game 5 loss to the San Jose Sharks? Or, will head coach Ken Hitchcock turn once again to Brian Elliott, who started every single game from the series opener of the first round versus Chicago to Game 3 of the Western Conference Final.

Hitchcock at least felt that going with Allen over Elliott in Game 4 provided the necessary spark for his team, as the Blues evened the series.

But on Monday, the Sharks, on the strength of two Joe Pavelski goals, eventually overpowered the Blues for the win, moving San Jose one victory away from the Stanley Cup Final.

“I thought he was fine. I don’t know, those are decisions we make in a day or so. But I thought he was fine today. He stopped some point-blank shots, especially early, three times early,” Hitchcock told reporters.

“I don’t know. That’s stuff we’ll talk about tomorrow.”