Race for the Conn Smythe Trophy

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Now that we’re down to the Conference finals in the East and West, it’s time to get serious about breaking down the race for the other postseason trophy to be handed out at the conclusion of the Stanley Cup finals.

The Conn Smythe Trophy goes out to the most valuable player during the Stanley Cup playoffs and with just four teams to choose from, we’ve got some good cases being made from each of them. We’ll take a look at each team and who the leader and the dark horse candidates are. Think a case needs to be made for someone else? You can always shout at us in the comments.

Boston Bruins

Front runner: Boston is all about the stellar work from Tim Thomas in goal. With a 2.03 goals against average and a .934 save percentage through 11 games in the postseason, Thomas is, statistically speaking, the second best goalie in the playoffs. He’s been rock solid the way he has been all year long in goal for the Bruins as he appears headed for another Vezina Trophy.

When things have gotten too wild around the Bruins goal, Thomas has been cool and collected shutting down opponents. Considering the Bruins haven’t been lights out with the offense, you have to look to the defense and goaltending to find the guys carrying the load and Thomas has been their man.

Dark horse pick: This might be more about betting on the future, but let’s take a look at David Krejci. Through the entire first series against Montreal, Krejci was invisible scoring just one goal. Against Philadelphia, however, Krejci piled up four goals and five assists and now with team playoff points leader Patrice Bergeron, Krejci’s importance is even higher to the team to lead the way at center.

San Jose Sharks

Front runner: Ryane Clowe is the guy we’re eyeballing as the favorite here. With 13 points he’s the team leader and he’s been instrumental to energizing the team throughout the playoffs. It’s no mistake that the Red Wings played their best game of the playoffs against San Jose in Game 6 with Clowe out of the lineup. Clowe plays physical, plays an offensive game that’s more grimy than it is pretty, and finds ways to upset opposing teams routinely. He should have a lot of chirping targets against Vancouver.

Dark horse: Joe Pavelski. Pavelski has just five goals and two assists through the playoffs but name a goal he’s scored that hasn’t been absolutely huge. Pavelski was a bit quiet during the Detroit series with two goals and an assist, but if Pavelski picks up on his heroics against Vancouver and gets the Sharks into their first Stanley Cup final, the legend of Joe Pavelski will only grow larger.

Tampa Bay Lightning

Front runner: Dwayne Roloson is the man. I know the first name that comes to mind is Martin St. Louis and for good reason as he’s got 13 points tying him for second in the playoffs. Roloson, however, has been out of his mind good. Roloson leads all goalies in the playoffs in goals against average (2.01), save percentage (.941), shots against and saves (389, 366). Without Roloson playing as well as he has, the Lightning are toast in the playoffs and likely booted in the first round by Pittsburgh. His work in frustrating the Caps was just as admirable. When you’re as good as he’s been in the playoffs, it’s hard not to pick him as the favorite.

Dark horse: Take your pick between Sean Bergenheim and Steve Downie here. Bergenheim is tied for the lead in goals scored in the playoffs with seven while Downie has shaken off his agitator reputation to put up 12 points. Virtual no-name guys rising to the occasion make for a great story but the truth is, Tampa is loaded with guys who could be in the running.

Vancouver Canucks

Front runner: Ryan Kesler is the runaway favorite here for Vancouver. Kesler’s work against Chicago was quiet but helpful earning four assists. Against Nashville, however, he was a holy terror on ice racking up five goals and six assists. Kesler’s 15 points tie him with the ousted Pavel Datsyuk for the NHL playoff lead in points. While the Sedin twins haven’t exactly been other-worldly the way they ought to be, Kesler’s been dynamic all around.

Dark horse: It’s not really a dark horse pick, but Roberto Luongo has to be up there. He’s earned a shutout in each round of the playoffs, his numbers were unreal against Nashville (1.63 GAA, .933 SV%), and now that he’s past the bogeymen from Chicago, another round or two of putting up big numbers like that could help him steal the trophy from his teammate if the Canucks win the Stanley Cup.

Perreault bemoans “stupid” slash, Gudas offered in-person hearing

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WINNIPEG — Mathieu Perreault didn’t shy away from expressing his feelings after nearly being decapitated on Thursday night by Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Radko Gudas.

“It was kind of stupid by him,” Perreault said after receiving a vicious two-hand chop to the back of his neck in the first period of a 3-2 shootout win for his Winnipeg Jets.

The play, reminiscent of an executioner in Medieval times striking an unlucky soul with an axe at the gallows, came after Perreault and Gudas were jockeying for position in the corner in Philadelphia’s zone. The result was a two-minute minor for high-sticking, assessed to Perreault, and a five-minute major and a game misconduct for Gudas, who is no stranger to getting a phone call from the NHL’s Department of Player Safety.

On Friday morning, the NHL offered the 27-year-old an in-person hearing with a date and time to be determined if Gudas chooses to accept.

Gudas was most recently suspended six games in October of 2016 for a cheap shot to the head of Boston Bruins forward Austin Czarnik.

It’s important to note that the offer of an in-person hearing means the suspension Gudas is facing could sail far north of five games. Given the Czech Republic native’s history, there’s little reason to think the head of player safety, George Parros, won’t throw a very hard book at Gudas.

Perreault, meanwhile, said he dodged a bullet on the play.

“He got the meaty part of the neck. It could have been worse if he got me in the side of the face or in the skull or bone,” Perreault said. “(Gudas) apologized in the penalty box, but when you look at the replay, it looks like he did it on purpose. It wasn’t an accident. He’s been known for doing stuff like that, so I certainly don’t appreciate it. I’m sure the league will take care of it.”

It certainly could have been much worse, as Perreault alluded to in his post-game comments, and more so given that the 29-year-old only returned to the Jets lineup on Thursday after a 12-game spell on the sidelines with a lower-body ailment.

Gudas’s rap sheet in the NHL is long. Here are some of his notable transgressions:

– Dec. 2, 2015 – Gudas is suspended three games for a needless headshot to then-Ottawa Senators forward Mika Zibanejed.

– February 2016 – Gudas receives three separate game misconducts in a span of sixteen days, the last coming on Feb. 16 for yet another head shot on New Jersey Devils forward Bobby Farnham.

– Oct. 3, 2016 – Another ejection, this time for boarding. A head was spared, this time.

– Oct. 8, 2016 – Ah, but not for long. Gudas’s latest run-in with the league prior to Thursday night came last season with another targeted shot to the head, this time at the expense of Boston Bruins forward Austin Czarnik. He was suspended six games.

– Oct. 26, 2016 – Another game misconduct for — you guessed it — an illegal shot to the head.

– Nov. 16, 2017 – Gudas makes like a lumberjack and tries to take Winnipeg Jets forward Mathieu Perreault’s head off.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck.

Rick Tocchet on Coyotes’ struggles, Clayton Keller, staying patient (PHT Q&A)

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The Arizona Coyotes have won just three of their first 21 games, which obviously wasn’t part of the plan going into the year. Still, things aren’t always as bad as they seem.

On Thursday morning, Pro Hockey Talk had an opportunity to catch up with Coyotes head coach Rick Tocchet. We chatted about the rough start to the season, Clayton Keller‘s incredible rookie season, the positives he’s seen in his team’s game, and much more.

Enjoy.

PHT: Coach, you came from an environment where you won back-to-back Stanley Cups with the Penguins. You’ve come to Arizona and you’re now coaching a team that’s trying to find themselves. What’s been the most difficult part for you mentally?

TOCCHET: “You want instant success. Obviously, the last couple of years have been unbelievable for me, so you come to this and you want the same thing to happen, but it doesn’t happen that way. It’s a process. That’s the one thing I like about the organization, we’re not going to accelerate to win short term. They’re willing to take hits now for the process of it. That’s something I’ve gotten better at in the last two or three weeks. I know it hurts to lose.

“I still don’t think we’re a two-win team. I think, with some solid goaltending early in the season, we’d have four or five wins by now. Saying that, I think it’s just a process we have to stick with.”

How far do you think this team is from being a playoff team?

“I don’t know. I could tell you it’s three years or two years, but I don’t know. All I know is that I want these young kids to improve. I feel certain guys are playing better. I think some guys are starting to get it.

“The biggest challenge for us is to keep doing the right things when you lose. Because when you lose, you change your game sometimes, you try different things that you shouldn’t try. And that’s the biggest challenge for me, is to make sure that these kids do the right things and that this team does the right things because eventually it’s going to help.”

I know two wins in your first 20 games isn’t how you drew it up, but what are some of the improvements you’ve seen in your team since the start of the season?

“Well, some of the top teams we’ve played (against), where it’s 2-2 with five minutes left. We look at the scoresheet at the end of the game and they had 15 chances, we had 15. So we’re playing even up for 45-50 minutes, but it’s that 10 minutes where we lose the game because of consistency or the other team just has great players, too. It’s something that we have to learn to play 60 minutes. It’s hard to win in this league and it’s hard to play the right way for 60 minutes, and that’s what we have to learn here. It’s about mindset.”

I think everyone knew Clayton Keller was a skilled player, but how surprised are you to you to see him play close to a point-per-game pace 20 games into the season?

“Yea, he’s been really good. What marvels me is that he’s a 19-year-old kid. He’s only going to get stronger, and he’s going against top players against other teams and how he’s coming out of the corners with pucks. He’s got the puck on his stick and he’s making plays. That’s what’s really been surprising to me.

“I didn’t know he was going to be this good this quick. The arrow is just pointing (up), he’s only going to get better. The only thing I keep teaching him is don’t get frustrated. Because when you lose and you’re not getting points-the last couple of games he hasn’t gotten points- you get frustrated, and I don’t what that frustration to affect his game.”

Everyone sees the offensive ability in his game, but is there something he does that flies under-the-radar a little bit?

His poise in the corners. As a small guy, sometimes you think ‘ah, he’s not a good corner guy,’ but when he gets in the corners somehow he has elusiveness. Like, he gets out of the corners with the puck, he doesn’t just throw pucks away, he’s not scared. He’s been going in the corners with some really good defensemen and I think he’s done a nice job coming out of it, making a play. He doesn’t throw pucks away.

“Usually, young guys when they first come up they get the puck, they throw it away. They don’t realize how much more time they have sometimes. I think he’s exceeded that for me.”

How have you changed from when you were the head coach in Tampa Bay (2008-2010)?

“I think I’m more decisive. You have to tweak your lineup, you have to tweak certain concepts, but I’m totally different. I know the way I want to play, I’m not going to change (it), I know it’s successful. I know the certain players that I want and the team I want to become.

“In Tampa, I think I listened outside too much to other people. Obviously, you have to listen to the people in your organization, but I know this is the way I want to play and I’m very decisive about it.”

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

PHT Morning Skate: Blind hockey is ‘the greatest thing ever’

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

–Marissa Brandt was born in South Korea, but she was adopted by an American family when she was just four years old. Now, she’ll be representing South Korea at the upcoming winter Olympics What a journey! (Sports Illustrated)

–Offensive numbers have increased this season, but there isn’t a clear reason for that. The Sporting News’ Andrew Berkshire believes it could have something to do with defensive systems reaching their limit. (Sporting News)

–It wasn’t easy for Lightning fans to see the team trade Ben Bishop away last season. It clearly ended up being the right choice because Andrei Vasilevskiy has been nothing short of remarkable. (Tampa Times)

Jaden Schwartz is one of the funny guys in the Blues locker room, but he’s also dealt with his share of tragedies. A few years ago, his sister, Mandi, died, and that was obviously a difficult time in his life. Schwartz thinks of her every day and he continues to live out their hockey dream. (ESPN)

–The Coyotes have been the worst team in the NHL this season. As if that’s not enough, now they’re being accused of not paying employees enough, spying on their workers, and firing people for bringing up concerns over their pay. (AZCentral.com)

–Now that the three-way trade between the Sens, Preds and Avs is nearly two weeks old, Adam Gretz looks at the impact each part of the deal has had an on their respective club. (Fanragsports.com)

–Canucksarmy.com has had enough of the “stats vs. eye test” debate. “The thing is, hockey analytics is an evidence-based endeavour, and by definition, that means that there is plenty of evidence out there to back up its claims. How often do you see people that denounce the predictability of hockey analytics back up their claims with evidence?” (Canucksarmy.com)

–Blueseatblogs.com explains why yelling “shoot the puck” isn’t always the best solution. After all, passes that cross the slot line have a much higher chance of going into the net. (Blueseatblogs.com)

–You’re probably familiar with the term “putting money on the board”. If you’re not, it basically means that players or coaches offer money to teammate(s) if they win a game against a former team. It could be one reason why the Golden Knights have been so good this year. (Sinbin.Vegas)

–Here’s a nice story out of Connecticut, where hockey for the blind has arrived. “In the 13 years since I’ve been blind, it’s the most freedom I’ve felt,” Jim Sadecki said. (Fox61.com)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

The Buzzer: Red-hot lines, Murray’s tremendous save

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Lines of the Night: With combinations of forwards running wild in many cases, it might be best to break things down by the lines that dominated Thursday.

Let’s start with the painfully obvious one.

Vladislav NamestnikovSteven StamkosNikita Kucherov

Will the Lightning’s top line ever cool down? Probably, but right now they’re basically unstoppable; they didn’t even take it easy on Ben Bishop as he made his return to Tampa Bay. Instead, the Lightning beat the Stars 6-1 thanks to that top trio.

Stamkos scored two goals and two assists to boost his points total to 35 (!) in 19 games, while Nikita Kucherov scored his league-leading 17th tally and also produced two assists. Names grabbed an assist and apparently fought Dan Hamhuis.

Gabriel LandeskogNathan MacKinnonMikko Rantanen

Some Colorado fans might have uttered “Matt WHO-chene?” for at least one night, as this top trio was ridiculous. Landeskog recorded his first career hat trick, Rantanen collected four points (1G, 3A), and MacKinnon generated one goal and four helpers.

This might just be the breakout season people were hoping to see with MacKinnon, as he has 20 points in 17 games.

It was a landslide from Avalanche captain Landeskog, if you will.

Brayden Schenn continues to ride high for the Blues, as he collected two goals and an assist. His point streak is honestly a little ridiculous:

Eric Staal (1G, 2A) had the better night, but his linemate Jason Zucker is on a tear of his own:

To keep this from getting unwieldy, we’ll leave it at that, but there are worth honorable mentions, such as top scorers for the Golden Knights (who just keep winning).

Highlight of the night: Matt Murray‘s save

There were some other great stops, goals, and hard hits on Thursday, but wow, Murray.

More factoids:

The Maple Leafs make a little history in their 1-0 OT win, which was their fifth straight W.

Roberto Luongo shuts out the Sharks for the first time in his career. You’d think San Jose would have been a victim of one of the previous 73 goose eggs …

And some relief:

More on that Coyotes win here and the Habs’ angry reactions here.

Scores

Leafs 1, Devils 0 (OT)

Islanders 6, Hurricanes 4

Coyotes 5, Canadiens 4

Penguins 3, Senators 1

Lightning 6, Stars 1

Wild 6, Predators 4

Jets 3, Flyers 2 (SO)

Avalanche 6, Capitals 2

Golden Knights 5, Canucks 2

Blues 4, Oilers 1

Bruins 2, Kings 1

Panthers 2, Sharks 0

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.