Jonathan Quick

Ducks, Kings face off in the rivalry’s biggest game

Tonight’s game between the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks is easily the biggest game in the 18-year-old rivalry. With 95 points, the Ducks are fighting for their playoff lives and can clinch a spot in the playoffs with a win against the I-5 rivals. On the other side of the rink, the Kings are trying to earn home-ice advantage in the 1st round of the playoffs for the first time since the 1991-92 season.

A win in tonight’s game by either team would go a long way towards each team reaching their goals.

People around the league, as well as in Southern California, have said the Kings/Ducks match-up would never truly reach its full potential until they were both good at the same time. The fact of matter is that there has never been a year when both the Ducks and Kings made the playoffs in the same season—let alone faced each other in the playoffs. But starting tonight, the teams will be playing in a game that has playoff implications for both. As Teemu Selanne noted to the LA Times, both teams being successful is good for hockey in the area:

“It has been unbelievable. We know the situation and so the last two games are going to be huge. It’s going to be fun. It’s like a mini-playoffs against them now.

“They clinched the playoffs and that’s awesome. That’s good for hockey here, so hopefully we both can be in there first time.”

 

Selanne is right: The home-and-home series to end the season is like a mini-playoff to finish out the year—but the games are far more important to the Ducks than they are to the Kings. The Kings have already punched their ticket to the dance and they’re just looking for a better dance partner. The Ducks still have work to get done if they want to make the dance as well. The easiest way to make the playoffs is simple: win. If the Ducks win either of their last two games against the Kings they’re in the playoffs. They can also make the playoffs if the Stars were to lose either of their final two games. They could even make the playoffs if they were to lose their final two games and the Stars win out—that is, if the Blackhawks were to lose their final two games in regulation against the Red Wings. There are plenty of scenarios, but everything can be simplified with this: win and they’re in.

Obviously, Anaheim is cutting it close with their playoff spot hanging in the balance in the last weekend of the season. But for hockey fans in California, this is what they’ve been waiting for. Bobby Ryan knows it:

“You always want to be a little more solidified going into the last two. But if there are any games to get ready for the playoffs, it’s certainly against the Kings. They bring out the best of us and I think we do likewise for them. It’s going to be a fun weekend.”

 

For the Kings, the stressful part of the stretch run was put to rest when they clinched their playoff spot against the Coyotes on Wednesday night. They can still finish anywhere from 4th – 8th place in the West—but at least they know they’ll be in the playoffs. One might expect the Kings to take their foot off the gas pedal now that they can relax, but each of the players said they are focused on the 4th seed and home-ice advantage. A pair of wins against the Ducks tonight and Saturday night would guarantee home-ice advantage for the first time in almost two decades. Currently sitting with 46 wins and 98 points, the Kings are one win away from setting a franchise record. The a win would also guarantee at least the 6th seed and would give the Kings their second consecutive 100-point season.

It’s not just the organization that has had a tough time earning the extra game at home. Ryan Smyth has never had home-ice advantage at any point in his eleven playoff appearances and is looking for the 4th seed:

“Any time you can get home ice in the playoffs, it’s crucial. That’s what you play the whole season for. It’s a big stepping stone for this hockey club. I think it dates back to when Gretz was there. That’s the last time they had home ice here, and I’ve never personally had home-ice advantage, so it would be nice to have that. That’s what you play the season for, and then after that you find out who you will play.”

 

Both teams have been doing everything they can to secure a playoff spot as of late. Lead by Hart Trophy candidate Corey Perry, the Ducks have gone 10-4 over their last 14 games and have five overtime wins over the last month. The Kings have fared slightly better with a 10-3-1 record over the same stretch of games even though they’ve lost their top two scorers during the run. Unfortunately for the Ducks, Ray Emery and his questionable status for tonight’s game means both teams could be dealing with injury concerns.

When speaking of the rivalry, Corey Perry called it, “two teams who don’t like each other during the regular season.” Well, the game tonight should have a little extra fuel on the fire as it’s the biggest game in the history of the rivalry. Then again, depending on how the game plays out tonight, tomorrow’s game could top it as the biggest game in the history of the rivalry.

Thank you schedule makers.

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    Desjardins: Horvat is ‘fine’ after taking a slap shot to the head

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    Before the celebration of Henrik Sedin reaching 1,000 career points, there was plenty of concern for one of the Canucks’ top young players.

    Late in the first period, Bo Horvat was skating behind the Florida net when he was struck in the back of the head by a Nikita Tryamkin slap shot. Horvat immediately hit the ice. He was down for a brief period, but did skate off under his own power.

    The good news: He returned to the game after missing a brief time.

    On Saturday, the Canucks sent out a photo showing the damage Horvat suffered — a fairly large cut to the back of his head, which required several stitches.

    “I would assume he was forced out by the spotter,” said coach Willie Desjardins following Vancouver’s win on Friday. “Whenever you see something like that, you’ll probably check it out, especially if he was bleeding.”

    “They took a look at him and he’s fine.”

    More good news for the Canucks.

    In his third NHL season, Horvat is emerging as a critical component of this team. He’s 21 years old, is tied with Henrik for the team lead in points, with 30 in 47 games, and is on his way to next weekend’s NHL All-Star event. Further to that, the Canucks are in a transition, with a younger core expected to eventually take over from the lasting members of the current core, most notably Daniel and Henrik Sedin, who are both 36 years old.

    The Canucks are also in a fight for a playoff spot, and injury to one of their top centers, which Horvat is, would certainly make the hunt for the post-season that much more difficult.

    Sitting one point out of the second wild card spot in the West, the Canucks begin a three-game road trip by facing the Chicago Blackhawks on Sunday.

    Conor Sheary seems to have found a home on Sidney Crosby’s line

    MONTREAL, QC - JANUARY 18:  Conor Sheary #43 of the Pittsburgh Penguins skates the puck against Shea Weber #6 of the Montreal Canadiens during the NHL game at the Bell Centre on January 18, 2017 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.  (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)
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    Listed at only 5-7, 175 pounds, Pittsburgh Penguins forward Conor Sheary is the type of player that would have had a difficult time getting a real opportunity in the NHL a decade or two ago. Heck, even today as smaller, speedier, and more skilled forwards become more common throughout the league, there are still probably a handful of teams that would look at him and immediately decide he is too small and not physical enough to get a real shot, no matter how productive he has been at every level he has played at.

    After getting a call-up to the Penguins in the middle of the 2015-16 season and playing his way into a regular spot in the lineup, Sheary has become one of the most productive players on the Penguins roster this season, while also appearing to be a perfect match alongside Sidney Crosby on the team’s top line.

    Finding linemates for Crosby has always been a topic of discussion when it comes to the Penguins, and there always seems to be a similar recipe for what type of player works best: North-south, straight line players that can play with speed. For a few years Pascal Dupuis was a perfect match for what seemed to work best on Crosby’s wing, and you can see a lot of those same elements in Sheary’s game, especially when it comes to the speed and quickness flying up the wing.

    It is showing up in the numbers.

    When on the ice together this season the Penguins have outscored teams by a 15-6 margin when Crosby and Sheary are on the ice together and controlled more than 55 percent of the total shot attempts during 5-on-5 play. In recent games the Penguins have had Crosby skating between Sheary and Bryan Rust, a trio that has already scored 11 goals in only 164 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey this season (that is more than four goals per 60 minutes. Via Puckalytics).

    After Sheary’s two-goal performance on Friday night in a 7-1 blowout win over the Carolina Hurricanes, he is now up to 31 points (15 goals, 16 assists) in 38 games for the Penguins this season. Among the team’s forwards, that puts him in fourth in total points (ahead of notable forwards like Patrick Hornqvist, Carl Hagelin and Nick Bonino) even though he has missed seven games due to injury and is scoring at a rate that would be a 67-point pace over 82 games. Even more than the overall production is the consistency that has come with it as he has gone more than two consecutive games without recording a point just two times this season (more than three games only once; never more than four games).

    Crosby is obviously a big part of this equation, but it would also be unfair to overlook Sheary’s contributions, especially when he has been just as productive this season averaging more than three points per 60 minutes (in an admittedly smaller sample size) in his 5-on-5 minutes without Crosby centering his line. He’s not just a good player for being undersized. He’s not just a good player because he is playing alongside Sidney Crosby. He is just … good.

    For years the Penguins were a top-heavy team that relied entirely on the core players (Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang) to almost single handedly carry them as far as they could. They lacked the younger, complementary players that could provide the type of depth needed to be a true Stanley Cup contender. That all started to change last season with a couple of key in-season trades (Hagelin, specifically) and a number of call-ups from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

    Sheary, once an undrafted free agent that was passed over by every team in the league (including the Penguins) multiple times that has now found a home on the team’s top-line next to the league’s best player, has turned out to be one of the most important.

    Fischer to become seventh Coyotes prospect to make NHL debut this season

    SUNRISE, FL - JUNE 27:  Christian Fischer smiles after being selected 32nd overall by the Arizona Coyotes during the 2015 NHL Draft at BB&T Center on June 27, 2015 in Sunrise, Florida.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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    The Arizona Coyotes are in the middle of a full-scale rebuild under first-year general manager John Chayka, and that means plenty of new faces and young players making their way into the lineup over the course of the season.

    Entering play on Saturday night against the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Coyotes have already used nine players this season age 21 or younger, with six of them making their NHL debuts.

    That list includes Dylan Strome, Lawson Crouse, Jakob Chychrun, Brandon Perlini, Anthony DeAngelo, and Christian Dvorak.

    On Saturday night against the Lightning, they will be adding yet another name to that list when Christian Fischer, the team’s second-round pick (No. 32 overall) in 2015, makes his NHL debut.

    He talked about his debut on Saturday before the game, via Sarah McLellan of the Arizona Republic.

    “It’s obviously a dream come true,” Fischer said. “I think that’s what everyone says, but this is what you’ve been working for ever since you were a little kid. It’s honestly just a dream. That’s pretty cool to make it a reality today. Just gotta make the most of it but for sure going to enjoy it. It’s been a long time coming, a lot of hard work. I couldn’t be more excited.”

    According to the team he is going to begin on the third line alongside Jamie McGinn and Alexander Burmistrov.

    Before Saturday Fischer has spent the entire season playing for Tuscon Roadrunners in the American Hockey League where he was averaging more than a point per game (32 points in 31 games) and was second on the team in scoring even though he is still only 19 years old and playing in his first year of pro hockey. That performance so far has earned him an opportunity with the big club.

    With such a young roster there have been some major growing pains for the Coyotes this season, entering Saturday’s game with the second worst record in the NHL and at times being overmatched. But given how much talent has been added to the organization over the past couple of years, specifically as it relates to Max Domi, Strome, Dvorak and Chychrun, there is a ton of potential on this roster and some real hope for the future.

    Goalie nods: Bishop looks to continue strong play for Lightning

    TAMPA, FL - JUNE 06:  Ben Bishop #30 of the Tampa Bay Lightning tends goal against the Chicago Blackhawks during Game Two of the 2015 NHL Stanley Cup Final at Amalie Arena on June 6, 2015 in Tampa, Florida.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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    After finishing as the runner up for the Vezina Trophy a year ago as the NHL’s top goalie it has been a tough year for Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Ben Bishop.

    A slow start combined with an injury that sidelined him for nearly a month have all contributed to a disappointing season for the Lightning that has them in their current spot on the outside of the Eastern Conference playoff picture. But since returning from that injury earlier this month, Bishop has started to resemble the goalie we saw the past couple of years when he helped backstop the Lightning to the NHL’s final four in 2015 and 2016.

    In his past three starts since returning the Lightning have recorded five out of a possible six points with Bishop in the lineup, while he has posted a .936 save percentage by stopping 74 of the 79 shots he has faced.

    The timing could not be better for the Lightning.

    Given their spot in the standings (five points behind Boston for third place in the Atlantic Division and three points behind Toronto for the second wild card spot, with Toronto still having four games in hand) they are going to need a massive second half run to get back in the playoffs. A healthy Bishop playing up to his potential would be a good way to help achieve that.

    Bishop is expected to be in the lineup again on Saturday night against Mike Smith and the Arizona Coyotes.

    Elsewhere…

    — The St. Louis Blues turned to Pheonix Copley on Saturday afternoon with Jake Allen struggling. He went against Ondrej Pavelec for the Winnipeg Jets.

    Sergei Bobrovsky goes for the Columbus Blue Jackets as they look to maintain their lead in the Metropolitan Division. After giving up seven goals on Friday night against Pittsburgh the Hurricanes might give Cam Ward the night off, but have made no official announcement yet.

    — The Philadelphia Flyers return from their bye week on Saturday night by taking on the New Jersey Devils. They are going with Michal Neuvirth in net. Look for Cory Schneider to go for the Devils.

    Thomas Greiss gets the night off for the New York Islanders as Jean-Francois Berube gets the start against the Los Angeles King. Peter Budaj makes yet another start for the Kings as he continues to be the team’s starter in Jonathan Quick‘s absence.

    Carey Price get another chance to break out of his month-long slump when he goes against the Buffalo Sabres. Price has managed only an .881 save percentage in January and has been playing at a sub-.900 level since the start of December. Look for Robin Lehner to get the start for Buffalo after Anders Nilsson played on Friday in its win over the Detroit Red Wings.

    — The battle of Ontario will feature Frederik Andersen going for the Toronto Maple Leafs while Mike Condon goes for the Ottawa Senators.

    — Phillip Grubauer goes for the Washington Capitals when they visit the Dallas Stars. He will oppose Kari Lehtonen at the other end of the ice.

    — The Minnesota Wild have earned at least a point in 19 of Devan Dubnyk‘s past 21 starts (including 17 wins) and they look to continue that hot streak on Saturday night against the Anaheim Ducks. The Ducks counter with John Gibson.

    — After starting 43 of the Edmonton Oilers’ first 48 games Cam Talbot gets a much-needed night off against the Calgary Flames on Saturday night. It will be Laurent Brossoit going against Chad Johnson.

    — Spencer Martin will be making his NHL debut for the Colorado Avalanche on Saturday night when he goes against the defending Western Conference Champion San Jose Sharks. The Sharks are starting Martin Jones.