Michael Leighton, Steve Miller

NHL pulls linesman out of playoff rotation as rumors swirl about missing Cup-winning puck

While eight teams fight to see who will collect the 2011 Stanley Cup winning goal, the intrigue regarding the whereabouts of last year’s winning puck is heating up.

In case you need a refresher, Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane sent an odd-angle shot through Philadelphia Flyers Michael Leighton. The seemingly uncertain nature of the goal meant little to Kane, who was one of the few who realized he just won the Cup. Amid the chaos of that celebration, the championship-winning puck was lost in the shuffle.

The search for a guilty party (and the puck) heats up

Chris Pronger was the first suspect in The Case of the Missing Puck due to past offenses, but it eventually became clear that “The Puck Burglar” was innocent for once. Chicago-based restaurant Harry Caray’s offered a $50,000 reward for the absent piece of rubber. The search reached its most absurd level when Chicago-area FBI agents volunteered their services (off the clock, naturally) to solve this riddle.

Now it seems like one major culprit has emerged: 11-year NHL linesman Steve Miller. As Wayne Drehs of ESPN points out, Philadelphia sports blogger Kyle Scott pieced together a case against Miller for his site Crossing Broad. While Drehs’ Outside the Lines report surfaced on April 20, Miller hasn’t officiated a game since April 17, according to TSN’s Bob McKenzie. Various sources indicate that Miller wasn’t listed among the linesmen who will appear in the league’s second round of games, a strong sign that he’ll be a “healthy scratch” on at least a temporary basis.

The NHL responds

It’s tough to contend with the notion that such a move emboldens the rumor mill, but Drehs shares this quote from the NHL’s senior VP of public relations, Gary Meagher.

“There are lots of questions out there and to have any potential distraction while our playoffs are going on is not fair,” Meagher said.

(snip)

“We’d love to find the answers but I don’t know if we’ll ever get the answers,” he said. “We’re asking the questions. We want to find out. But the bottom line is we just don’t know. And Steve doesn’t know.

“At the end of the day you either believe someone or you don’t believe them. We’ve talked to [Steve] as a league and talked to various people and we stand behind him. He absolutely doesn’t recall getting the puck or doing anything with the puck.”

Drehs also reports that the aforementioned FBI volunteers deemed it a “100 percent certainty” that Miller picked up that puck after watching the video. To be fair to Miller, that doesn’t guarantee that he still possesses the puck or knows where it ended up, even if he did actually snatch it.

Obviously, it’s pretty tough to avoid the suspicion that Miller knows a bit more than he leads on, especially since there’s some evidence that he came into contact with that historic puck. (This post’s main image features Miller, Leighton, that net and that puck, after all.)

Logic behind the oddness

At this point, you might be wondering: is one piece of vulcanized rubber really worth all of this controversy? After all, it became important by means of coincidence more than anything else.

Yet if you have even a vague understanding of the money generated by sports memorabilia – not to mention how much the Hockey Hall of Fame would love to display that puck – the puck’s ceremonial value comes into focus.

This story has been entertaining for most of us, but remains potentially damaging for Miller’s career as an NHL linesman. It’ll be interesting to see if the league reinstates him once the headlines simmer down. After all, if you’re an official during the Stanley Cup finals, chances are high that you’re considered one of the top guys at the job.

We’ll let you know when this wacky little saga twists and turns once again.

Amid trade rumblings, Gionta wants to ‘continue the job’ in Buffalo

COLUMBUS, OH - APRIL 10:  Brian Gionta #12 of the Buffalo Sabres fires the puck into the zone during the game against the Columbus Blue Jackets on April 10, 2015 at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. Columbus defeated Buffalo 4-2. (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)
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There’s an interesting dynamic at play with Buffalo captain Brian Gionta.

Gionta, who turned 38 last week, is in the midst of a quality campaign. With 10 goals through 46 games, he’s flirting with 20 for the season — a mark he hasn’t hit since the ’10-11 campaign in Montreal.

He’s also on pace for 39 points, which would be his high since signing with the Sabres three years ago.

For a playoff team, this kind of production and veteran presence is invaluable. More to the point, a playoff team wouldn’t part with it.

But the Sabres are right on that playoff bubble — five points back of Boston for third in the Atlantic, and five back of Philly for the final wild card — and, should they fall out of contention, the Gionta conversation becomes quite different.

At that point, he’d be a pending UFA (last of a three-year, $12.75 million deal with a $4.25M cap hit) armed with a limited no-trade clause, as opposed to the full NTC he had in years one and two.

Gionta would also figure to be a fairly intriguing addition at the deadline. In addition to his experience and leadership qualities, he’s appeared in over 100 Stanley Cup playoff games, winning it all with New Jersey in 2003.

He knows it might be time to move on. But he also knows he wants to stay.

“That’s out of your control,” Gionta said of trade talks, per the Buffalo News. “The only thing you can control is on the ice, and I’ve had it before throughout my career where your contract’s up.

“I want to continue what’s here. I want to continue the job I thought I’d be a part of.”

The Gionta situation in Buffalo will certainly be one to watch as we get closer to the Mar. 1 deadline.

Detroit loses Vanek, Larkin ahead of key tilt against B’s

DETROIT, MI - NOVEMBER 15:  Dylan Larkin #71 of the Detroit Red Wings looks on while playing the Tampa Bay Lightning at Joe Louis Arena on November 15, 2016 in Detroit, Michigan. Tampa Bay won the game 4-3. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
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It’s been an injury-plagued campaign in the Motor City, and now that bug has carried over to two of the club’s top forwards.

Thomas Vanek — the team’s leading scorer this season, with 31 points — and speedy sophomore Dylan Larkin will both miss tomorrow’s crucial game in Boston with their respective injuries, per NHL.com.

Larkin, 20, is out for the next two games with an upper-body ailment suffered in Sunday’s 1-0 OT loss to the Rangers. Though he’s struggled in his second professional season — just 18 points in 47 games — he had shown signs of coming on lately.

In fact, Larkin starred in last week’s wild 6-5 comeback win against the Bruins, scoring his 12th goal of the year while recording his first multi-point effort since October.

As for Vanek, he also suffered an injury on Sunday — of the lower-body variety — that will temporarily derail what’s been a solid bounce-back campaign (Vanek is day-to-day, per GM Ken Holland).

The 33-year-old has shown well in Detroit after getting bought out by Minnesota last summer — as mentioned above, he’s tied with Henrik Zetterberg for the club lead in scoring and it’s fair to suggest he’s been Detroit’s best player this season, even though injuries have limited him to just 36 games played.

The Wings head into tomorrow’s action four points back of Boston for third in the Atlantic Division, and four back of Philly for the final wild card spot. If they’re going to extend their historic playoff appearance streak, every game matters — yes, even ones now, in late January.

NHL on NBCSN: Sharks look to complete home-and-home sweep of Avalanche

SAN JOSE, CA - JANUARY 21:  David Schlemko #5 and Kevin Labanc #62 of the San Jose Sharks celebrate after Schlemko scored the game-winning goal in overtime on Spencer Martin #30 of the Colorado Avalanche at SAP Center on January 21, 2017 in San Jose, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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NBCSN will continue its coverage of the 2016-17 campaign tonight when the Colorado Avalanche host the San Jose Sharks at 9:00 p.m. ET. If you want to watch the game online, you can do so here.

Tonight’s game between the Avalanche and Sharks will be the second time they go head-to-head in three nights.

On Saturday, Colorado came back from 1-0 and 2-1 deficits, but they eventually fell in overtime, as Sharks defenseman David Schlemko scored the game-winner just 1:18 into the extra frame.

Despite the loss and the horrific record they own, Avs coach Jared Bednar has felt good about the way his team’s been playing of late.

“We are coming on,” Bednar said on Saturday, per the Denver Post. “It’s discouraging at times because you don’t get the results. It’s those one or two mistakes. You have to find a way to cure, to eliminate them as much as you possibly can, make sure you’re not making the same mistakes over and over. But we’re playing real good hockey against real good teams right now and we’re fighting and in all the games.”

When you’re 13-29-2 overall, you try to find small victories in every battle, and improved overall play during losses has to be considered a small win every time.

Over their last 11 games, the Avalanche have come away with just a single win (2-1 in OT over the Isles on Jan. 6). With the OT loss to the Sharks on Saturday night, Colorado has picked up three of a possible 22 points during that stretch of 11 games.

As you may have expected, scoring has been a huge issue for them. If we look back at their last 10 games, they’ve managed to score more than two goals just once, and that came in a 6-4 loss to Chicago on Jan. 17.

As for the Sharks, things couldn’t be going much better right now.

Since their 4-0 loss to the St. Louis Blues on Jan. 14, they’ve rattled off four straight wins over Winnipeg, Los Angeles, Tampa Bay and Colorado.

So yea, these two teams couldn’t be headed in more opposite directions. San Jose won as many games last week as the Avalanche have since Dec. 8.

Saturday’s game against the Avs was the Sharks’ fifth game in eight days and at times, they looked fatigued. Even though they ended up pulling out a win, they weren’t satisfied with their overall play.

“When we’re on our game, we’re making it tough with grind time and traffic at the net, some chances,” Joe Pavelski told CSN Bay Area on Saturday. “Tonight we didn’t have as many as we could have had. We’ll try to find a little bit more for next game.”

PHT Morning Skate: Matthew Tkachuk’s parents hate the way he chews on his mouthpiece

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–After playing in over 1,400 NHL games and being a disciplined professional athlete, Teemu Selanne is finally able to enjoy his free time and his family. “The greatest thing is there is no schedule. Over 30 years with a certain schedule, and now I don’t have it. One thing also people don’t realize is how disciplined a life you have to live or you want to live when you play. When it comes to eating and resting, in many ways it’s a selfish life too if you have family,” said Selanne. (NHL.com)

–Leafs forward James van Riemsdyk does everything he can to get an edge over the competition. From taking plenty of vitamins to quirky pre-game routines, van Riemsdyk will stop at nothing to improve his game. “I think always growing up I was always really a freak,” said van Riemsdyk. “When you take care of things like that and you’re trying to find an edge in that way too, you feel better game in and game out and you’re able to play better game in and game out.” (Canadian Press)

–Enforcer Eric Boulton is the last player from the 1994 draft class with an NHL contract. His unlikely journey to the NHL included many stints in the minors, plenty of punches and even digesting raw potatoes. (The Hockey News)

J.T. Miller scored the overtime goal in Sunday’s 1-0 win over the Detroit Red Wings. You can watch the highlights by clicking the video at the top of the page.

–Even though his father, Keith, suffered a severe jaw injury during his NHL career, Flames rookie Matthew Tkachuk refuses to stop chewing on his mouthpiece, and it drives his parents crazy. “They’ve seen me do it for all these years, and I guess they try to tell me to stop, but it’s just a habit,” said Tkachuk. “I did it in junior, too. I remember my dad’s injury, but I don’t know if a mouth guard would have stopped him from losing teeth there. It was a pretty hard slap shot.” (Postmedia)

Mike Condon has done a lot of traveling over the last year. He was put on waivers by Montreal, he was traded from Pittsburgh to Ottawa, but now, he seems to have found a home with the Senators. Even though he’s playing well, Condon isn’t willing to look too far ahead. “It’s basically just about staying in the moment,” Condon told SI.com. “It’s not looking too far ahead. The past is in the past and the future, you have no control over. For me it’s about being in the moment and being where I am right now, it keeps things a lot simpler.” (Sports Illustrated)

–The creator of the “Peanuts” cartoon strips, Charles M. Schulz, was a big hockey fan, who owned his own arena in California. Sometimes, he also incorporated hockey in his classic cartoons. (BarDown)