Staying Alive: Red Wings roar back in third, beat Sharks 4-3 to force Game 6

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When the Sharks got out to a 3-0 series lead on the Red Wings, they hoped for a sweep. Hoping and doing it are two different things and the Wings went out and won Game 4 for pride’s sake. The Sharks hoped they’d recreate last year’s formula for making the Western Conference finals by beating Detroit in Game 5 at home and ending the series to prepare for either Nashville or Vancouver.

Turns out that plan didn’t work out well either as the Red Wings stormed back from a 3-1 deficit in the third period to beat the Sharks 4-3 and force a Game 6 on Tuesday night in Detroit.

The game played out similarly to others in this series. San Jose dominated the first 40 minutes of the game getting stellar, pressure-filled play from everyone. The Sharks forced the Wings into mistakes and capitalized on any and all errors getting out to a 2-0 lead thanks to goals from Devin Setoguchi in the first period and Joe Pavelski with a great tally in the second. Just a minute after Pavelski seemed to start putting the stake in the Wings’ heart, Niklas Kronwall would strike back.

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With the Sharks up 2-1 going into the third, Logan Couture would make it 3-1 less than a minute into the final period. That goal was not the start the Wings were looking for when trying to get back into the game. After all, this goal was the example of the Wings being slow to react on defense and Couture taking advantage of that.

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For San Jose, however, that would be the last bit of good news they’d get the rest of the period. Jimmy Howard stood tall all game long saving 39 shots and outdueled Antti Niemi (18 saves). The Wings turned up the pressure down by two goals and the Sharks seemed resigned to sit on the lead. Against Detroit, that’s a very bad move.

Less than three minutes after Couture’s goal, Jonathan Ericsson jumped into the play and stuffed home a rebound to make it 3-2. A minute and a half after that, Dan Cleary would battle at the side of the net and squeeze one through Niemi to tie the game at 3-3. With the Sharks officially on the ropes, the Wings controlled the pace of the game. With just over six minutes to play, Pavel Datsyuk (three assists) and Nicklas Lidstrom made their presence felt connecting with Tomas Holmstrom to put Detroit in the lead.

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With Detroit in the lead for the first time, San Jose would pressure back but come up empty. For the Sharks, their effort at the end of the game was non-existent and while they played outstanding for two periods, one awful third period ruined the game for them. As we’ve seen in other games in this series, not playing a complete game will cost you. That kind of effort is alarming because it’s unlike what we’ve seen from the Sharks for most of the series and given their proclivity to psychological downers, you have to wonder what happens to the Sharks should they get down early against the Wings in Game 6 in Detroit.

For Detroit, despite all their errors and getting grossly outshot in the game it was their stars that stepped up for them along with their role players. Datsyuk playing with a sore wrist gets three assists. Niklas Kronwall who’s been outstanding throughout the playoffs comes up with a goal and an assist as well as a big hit on Ryane Clowe. Getting a goal from Ericsson on a night where he was playing abysmal on defense is a great way to make up for some poor play in his own end. Those kinds of plays make differences for the team. Expect Detroit to be even more invigorated heading home with a chance to tie the series and force a Game 7 where all bets are off.

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Zacha should be ready for big step forward for Devils

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This post is a part of Devils day at PHT…

Ever since Ray Shero took over as the team’s general manager the New Jersey Devils have tried to add a lot of offensive punch to their lineup. They have traded for Taylor Hall, Kyle Palmieri and Marcus Johansson. They signed Brian Boyle this summer. They drafted Nico Hischier with the No. 1 overall pick this summer and are hoping that 2015 third-round pick Blake Speers can make the leap to the NHL on a full-time basis this season.

But their top pick in that 2015 class might be one of the most important players on the roster this season when it comes to whether or not the Devils can show significant signs of improvement in their rebuild. That pick, of course, was No. 6 overall selection Pavel Zacha.

After spending all but one game of his draft year back in the Ontario Hockey League playing for the Sarnia Sting, Zacha got his first full-time look in the NHL during the 2016-17 season and it was a bit of a mixed bag, something that is to be expected for a 19-year-old, especially one that bounced around between two different position — seeing time at both center and wing — and started the season recovering from a hip injury.

With just seven points in his first 37 games it was looking like his rookie season was going to be a bit of a disappointment.

He was able to salvage it in the second half, however, with a strong finish that saw him record a very respectable 17 points over the final 33 games. He also seemed to fit in more comfortably on the wing and took more of a shoot-first mentality with the puck, getting more shots on net as the season progressed. All of that is a good indication that he was starting to figure it out at the NHL level and could be poised for a big step forward in year two. He spent the offseason training in New Jersey working firsthand with the team’s trainers and coaches to help get there.

The Devils are going to need him to for a couple of reasons.

Not only because he is a top draft pick from just two years ago, making him a central part of the team’s ongoing rebuild, but also because of the injury suffered by Travis Zajac that is going to sideline him for at least four-to-six months. That is a pretty massive blow to an already thin Devils lineup. It’s not yet known where the Devils see Zacha on a full-time basis, but the center position was kind of turned upside down over the past couple of months with the additions of Marcus Johansson and Brian Boyle along with the injury to Zajac. He played his best hockey last season on the wing, but they might have a need down the middle. No matter where he fits in the lineup if the Devils are going to become a better offensive team both now and in the future players like Zacha are going to have to play a key role in it.

Kings seem to have no interest in adding Jagr

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The Los Angeles Kings are in need of offense, and Jaromir Jagr, the No. 2 scorer in NHL history, is still in need of a new team for the 2017-18 season. Despite that potential match the Kings have no interest in adding the 45-year-old future Hall of Famer to their roster for this upcoming season.

General manager Rob Blake said as much during a question and answer session with Kings fans this past week, via Lisa Dillman of NHL.com.

Here is Blake talking about the possibility of adding Jagr…

“Obviously [Jagr] is a tremendous player, been a tremendous player for a number of years, a [future] Hall of Famer,” Kings general manager Rob Blake said during a Q&A session with season ticket holders on Thursday. “When you get to a certain age, you have to be a certain fit on a team.

“We’ve looked at lot of different free agents in the summer and where it fits in in our projections. … There was also the equation of the salary cap and how things fit in. We didn’t go in the direction of Jagr this year. But again, he’s a tremendous player and I’m sure he’ll surface somewhere.”

Goal scoring was a major issue for the Kings in 2016-17 (they were 25th in the NHL) and in recent years they have not been afraid to add older, veteran players to their roster. They still have 35-year-old Marian Gaborik, they added 35-year-old Mike Cammalleri this summer on a one-year deal and even traded for Jarome Iginla late last season. Still, Jagr doesn’t seem to be the “certain fit” the Kings are looking given his age.

Jagr didn’t look quite as good as he had in recent year this past season but he was still able to finish with 46 points (16 goals, 30 assists) while playing in all 82 games.

Even though Jagr has remained in peak physical shape and has maintained a high level of production, he is still going to turn 46 this season, and while he has remained durable enough to play in at least 77 games in every season after turning 40 he has shown signs of really starting to slow down as each season has progressed. He can still be a useful asset on the power play and he still has the hands to make plays and contribute offensively. The best scenario for him might be on a team that paces out his workload over the course of the season with occasional nights off (like in back-to-back situations) and limits his minutes to where he can really excel offensively. But that doesn’t seem to be the sort of thing Jagr would be interested in. So it might take him a little longer to find a team that is willing to give him the salary, and playing time, that he desires.

Under Pressure: Cory Schneider

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This post is a part of Devils day at PHT…

During his first three years with the New Jersey Devils starting goalie Cory Schneider was one of the few bright spots on the team.

At times, he was the only bright spot.

He was one of the best goalies in the league and probably the only thing that kept them even reasonably competitive at times. He never had a save percentage lower than .920 in any of the three seasons and finished in the top-six two different times.

Had he played on a better team that could have given him more offensive support he probably would have been given more consideration for the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goalie (and even without that offensive support he probably should have been given more consideration for it).

But this past season everything sort of fell apart for him, and by extension, the Devils.

He ended up finishing with a .908 save percentage, a mark that was not only the worst of his career, but also one of the worst in the NHL. For a Devils team that was dependent on its goaltending due to a lack of offense and a shaky defense his down year was pretty much the worst possible scenario and it helped result in one of the NHL’s worst records and a fifth consecutive non-playoff season.

Given Schneider’s track record in the NHL it is pretty clear that the 2016-17 season was a massive outlier when it comes to his performance. He has consistently been one of the best goalies in the league. But if the Devils are going to show any sign of meaningful improvement in 2017 they can not have a repeat performance from Schneider. Even with the addition of Marcus Johansson and the drafting of Nico Hischier with the No. 1 overall pick the Devils are still going to be a team that struggles to score goals (even if they improve), especially with Travis Zajac being sidelined for the next four-to-six months. He is also playing behind a defense that surrendered close to 32 shots on goal per game this past season and did not undergo any significant changes.

Given that expected workload and will almost certainly be another year without much goal support the Devils won’t have a chance if Schneider doesn’t return to his previous form.

It would also be beneficial for the Devils given that they still have $30 million committed to him over the next five seasons. He is their best player, their highest paid player, and their most important player. His overall body of work would seem to indicate he is capable of bouncing back, and he very likely will. If he doesn’t, it is going to be another long season for the Devils.

Looking to make the leap: Blake Speers

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This post is a part of Devils at PHT…

It already seems like a given that top pick Nico Hischier is going to have a spot on the New Jersey Devils’ roster this season, so let’s focus a little bit on another Devils prospect that will be looking to make a full-time leap to the NHL after spending almost all of the 2016-17 season still playing for his junior team.

That would be 2015 third-round pick Blake Speers, who was able to get a brief three-game look with the team early in the season and received some high praise from the coaching staff before being sent back to the Ontario Hockey League.

Speers impressed at the Devils’ development camp this summer and said he is on a mission to make the roster this season. There are certainly plenty of openings for a team that is looking to rebuild its offense. General manager Ray Shero has done a pretty decent job adding talent to the forward group over the past couple of seasons adding Taylor Hall, Kyle Palmieri and  Marcus Johansson, then getting the good fortune of winning the draft lottery this offseason to add Hischier into the mix.

During the team’s development camp coach John Hynes talked about Speers and his relentless style of play and the way he “attacks everything he does.” Over the past three years he has been one of the most productive players for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, averaging more than a point per game in each season. If he can successfully make the jump to the NHL this season and translate his game to the next level it would be another great add for a Devils team that has been one of the worst offensive — and least exciting — teams in the league for several years now.

Shero has already added some potential impact players, and getting a No. 1 overall pick is the type of good fortune that can help turn a franchise around, but teams also need to hit on the occasional mid-round pick like Speers to build a complete, balanched team from top-to-bottom.