San Jose Sharks v Vancouver Canucks

Poll: Who will win the Western Conference finals?

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While few hockey people saw a Tampa Bay Lightning-Boston Bruins Eastern Conference finals coming, this one was much more foreseeable. Despite the negative things written about both teams, the San Jose Sharks and Vancouver Canucks are the top two seeds from the West, after all.

The best part is – if you ask me – these really are the best two representatives from the Western Conference. Honestly, these might be the two best teams in the NHL. Each team won tough Game 7s after “blowing” 3-0 series leads, at least temporarily halting the masses from fitting them with ridiculous “choker” labels. The winner of this series might not have to deal with such talk much longer … but you really never know with knee-jerk reactions.

The Canucks enjoyed the all-world play of Ryan Kesler in the second round, but must hope for more production from the Sedin twins. Their defense might be the deepest the Sharks will face in the playoffs, even if they lack a Duncan Keith or Nicklas Lidstrom-type star. Roberto Luongo consistently finds himself on the verge of scapegoat status, even if he happens to be one of the best goalies in the world.

The Sharks boast a stout offensive attack, with the usual suspects (Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley) supplemented by burgeoning young players (Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture and Devin Setoguchi). They might not have the same depth on D as Vancouver, but Dan Boyle will likely be the best defenseman on the ice most nights. The team also employs a ghost from the Canucks’ playoff past in the form of goalie Antti Niemi. Niemi foiled the Canucks (and Sharks, by the way) last year on his way to Stanley Cup ring with Chicago. He might have the perfect attitude (or lack thereof) for this Sharks team.

Both teams are talented and some might say that each carries baggage into this game. It’s not an easy choice at all, but who do you expect to win this series … and in how many games?

Gretzky defends McDavid’s outburst after Manning incident

WINNIPEG, MANITOBA - OCTOBER 23: Wayne Gretzky (L) and Dale Hawerchuk drop the puck in a ceremonial face-off between Blake Wheeler #26 and Connor McDavid #97 during the 2016 Tim Hortons NHL Heritage Classic hockey game on October 23, 2016 at Investors Group Field in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. (Photo by Fred Greenslade /Getty Images)
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PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) As the primary target of opponents over his Hall of Fame career, Wayne Gretzky can certainly empathize with the frustration of Oilers star Connor McDavid.

McDavid and Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Brandon Manning jostled all evening long in a 6-5 Edmonton loss. McDavid denounced the tactics of his opponent after the game, claiming Manning intentionally injured him last season; McDavid missed 37 games with a broken collarbone.

“I guess we can put the whole ‘if he did it’ thing to rest because what he said out there kind of confirmed that,” said McDavid, who taunted Manning after scoring the second goal in the Oilers’ loss.

“I think anybody who knows me or who has played with or against me along the road here, knows that I am not that kind of player,” Manning said, according to a statement released by the Flyers. “I am not out there intentionally trying to hurt people. I’m a guy who plays the game hard and I take pride in that.”

Gretzky didn’t mind seeing that fire in McDavid, saying competitiveness is part of what makes the great ones great. And he said the targeting comes with the territory of being a superstar. It was something he and Mario Lemieux dealt with, too.

“And Connor, he’s going to get tested every night, but this is not new for him,” Gretzky said Friday at the NHL board of governors meetings. “He’s been tested since he was a kid and then playing junior hockey and now in the NHL and he’s always responded and done his part.”

Related: McDavid accuses ‘classless’ Manning of injuring him on purpose

Bishop trying not to let contract situation affect his play

TAMPA, FL - JUNE 06: Ben Bishop #30 of the Tampa Bay Lightning looks on 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 Scott Iskowitz/Getty Images)
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Ben Bishop was a Vezina Trophy finalist last season, and that makes it particularly striking to see his numbers a quarter of the way through 2016-17.

After 18 starts, Bishop is 8-10-1 with a .906 save percentage. He got the hook after two periods last night at Amalie Arena, where he surrendered four goals to the Vancouver Canucks in a 5-1 loss.

Last night marked the third time in his last five starts that he’d surrendered at least four goals, and one of the goals he allowed looked like this:

So, do things feel different this season?

“I feel fine,” Bishop said today, per Lightning Insider. “We go back and watch the games and technically it’s all there. There is really no difference from the way I’ve played the last couple of years to now. I don’t like saying this, but it’s been a strange season with goofy goals on tips and bounces, goals off your own players. So I think if you took some of those away, the numbers would be pretty similar to years past. I would like to get the wins a little higher.”

Bishop, of course, is a pending unrestricted free agent who is unlikely to re-sign with the Lightning. Andrei Vasilevskiy appears to be the goalie of the future in Tampa Bay. On July 1, the 22-year-old re-signed through 2019-20.

Vasilevskiy is also 6-2-1 with a .929 save percentage.

So in that regard, it’s a bit like the situation we’re seeing in New York, where Henrik Lundqvist is struggling and Antti Raanta is thriving.

The difference is Lundqvist isn’t going to be looking for a new team anytime soon. Remember that Bishop “was close” to being traded to Calgary in the offseason. He could still end up there in free agency, depending if Brian Elliott bounces back.

Bishop says he’s trying not to let his contract situation affect his state of mind; however, he admits he’d “be lying if I said I never thought about it.”

“It’s definitely there in the back of your head,” he said.

The Lightning host the Penguins on Saturday.

Expect Vasilevskiy to start that one.

Pre-game reading: Leonsis has Ovechkin’s back on Olympics

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— Up top, relive Carey Price‘s blocker attack on Kyle Palmieri, but this time in French!

— Not for the first time, Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis has said he’ll support Alex Ovechkin if Ovechkin goes to the Olympics, regardless of what the NHL decides about the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea. “Alex Ovechkin and his family and the Capitals and I are in it together. He’s given so much to our organization, and I would respect what he wanted to do and be very supportive of him. On this one matter I understand and I would support him.” Leonsis said essentially the same thing in 2013, before the deal to send NHLers to Sochi was struck. Granted, that was a bit different because the 2014 Games were in Russia and Ovechkin was going to be a big part of them, but Leonsis knows how badly his franchise player wants to win Olympic gold. (NHL.com)

— Wayne Gretzky, who recently rejoined the Edmonton Oilers in an executive capacity, has some thoughts on the Olympic debate: “From my point of view, we play for one thing and that’s a Stanley Cup. There’s nothing more exciting than the Stanley Cup. The one spectacle that’s really remarkable is the Olympic games. I’m a big believer in the Olympic games. I happen to love everything about the Olympic Games. I think since ’98 when we first went to Nagano, the NHL players, not only promote our sport but they do a really nice job of being around the other athletes. It helps every sport in our country. I think it’s a positive but I’m not the only guy who has say in this. I happen to love the Olympic Games, but that’s my opinion.”  (Yahoo Sports)

— Hockey is an expensive sport to play, and that means a lot of kids don’t get to enjoy it. Former NHLer Jamal Mayers is trying to change that in Chicago’s inner city. “I think it’s about kids here seeing that it’s actually possible. They’ve never seen a hockey stick before. It’s the same principles as any of the ‘ball’ sports, like soccer and basketball. You’re creating two on one’s all over the place. It’s important that we did this the right way. We can’t just put kids on the ice and say ‘Let’s play hockey.’ They have to get comfortable holding a stick.” (Rolling Stone)

— The Blue Jackets’ power play was bound to slow down. It’s still the NHL’s best, converting at 24.6 percent, but opponents have started to defend it differently. “What we’re doing is not revolutionary,” said assistant coach Brad Larsen. “But teams have made adjustments, and now we’ve had to make little tweaks here and there to answer what they’re doing.” The Jackets went 2-for-6 Monday against Arizona, but that was after four straight games without scoring a power-play goal. (Columbus Dispatch)

— The Toronto Maple Leafs drafted 11 players in 2016, but not all of them were 18 years old. Take Regina Pats center Adam Brooks, who went in the fourth round. He was 20, in his third year of draft eligibility, when he finally heard his name called in June. “It comes down to opportunity. I just didn’t have a chance to get a lot of ice time in my first couple of seasons.” Whether or not this strategy pans out for the Leafs remains to be seen, but general managers across the league will be watching. Brooks, by the way, has 47 points in just 21 games for the Pats this season. (Sportsnet)

Enjoy the games!

Goalie nods: With Lundqvist struggling, Raanta goes back-to-back

NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 29: Antti Raanta #32 and Henrik Lundqvist #30 of the New York Rangers celebrate the Rangers 2-1 victory against the Columbus Blue Jackets at Madison Square Garden on February 29, 2016 in New York City.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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No shortage of storylines at play when the Rangers take on the ‘Hawks at the United Center this evening.

First, the big one — Antti Raanta, fresh off stopping 17 of 18 shots in a win over Winnipeg last night, will get back-to-back starts in place of the struggling Henrik Lundqvist.

“Of course you want to play, but Antti’s playing well,” Lundqvist said, per NHL.com. “I know I need to raise my level a little bit.”

Lundqvist is 3-4-1 with a 3.05 GAA and .902 save percentage in his past eight starts and, as Brough wrote about this morning, admitted some “bad decisions” have been costing him.

Raanta, meanwhile, is 6-1-0 with a 2.05 GAA and .932 save percentage in his last eight starts.

From a personal perspective, there’s a big narrative at play for Raanta as well. This will mark the first time he’s faced Chicago since being traded to New York in 2015. The Finnish ‘tender made his NHL debut for the ‘Hawks and spent two seasons with the team, but was supplanted by Scott Darling as the club’s No. 2 behind Corey Crawford en route to the ’15 Stanley Cup win.

(Raanta’s time in Chicago ended oddly, you may recall. A Finnish-language publication ran a piece in which Raanta appeared to be critical of the ‘Hawks, followed by Raanta denying he said what was reported. The writer that conducted the interview said the quotes were legit, but needed context — and then, just to put a bow on it, Raanta’s name was left off the Stanley Cup. Chicago insisted that decision had nothing to do with his remarks, though.)

For the ‘Hawks, Darling gets the start.

Elsewhere…

Braden Holtby gets a night off, as the Caps will start Philipp Grubauer (for the first time since Nov. 25) in Buffalo. Robin Lehner goes for the Sabres.

— No surprises from Columbus, who will start the in-form Sergei Bobrovsky yet again. The host Red Wings have Jimmy Howard back in the fold but will continue to ride Petr Mrazek, who made 31 saves in a win over Winnipeg on Tuesday.

Cory Schneider played last night against Montreal, so Keith Kinkaid goes for the Devils. He’ll face off against Jake Allen and the Blues, who also played last night.

— After Jonas Gustavsson was beaten six times in last night’s loss in Philly, Cam Talbot is in for the Oilers. He’ll face off against Devan Dubnyk, who continues to play lights-out for the Wild.

Martin Jones will start for the Sharks in an all-California battle in Anaheim. The Ducks will give Jonathan Bernier a shot at redemption, as he’ll start for the first time since allowing eight goals in a loss to Calgary on Sunday.