Roberto Luongo

Five players with most to prove in Western Conference finals

With the Western Conference finals kicking off tonight at 8 p.m. ET on Versus from Vancouver, there’s pressure on both teams to get over the hump and get their teams into the Stanley Cup finals. For the Canucks, they’re looking to get back there for the first time since Trevor Linden, Pavel Bure, and Kirk McLean did so in 1994. San Jose is looking for their first Stanley Cup finals appearance in team history.

With great expectations comes great pressure and there are five players in this series who will be feeling the pressure a bit more than the others to get their team into position to win it all. We’ve got a list of five players who will come under the most scrutiny during the Western Conference finals.

1. Roberto Luongo – Vancouver Canucks

He’s won a gold medal for Canada but he’s never taken any team this far into the playoffs before. The Canucks are the top team in the NHL and his team is deep and loaded and on the precipice of getting the team into the Stanley Cup finals for the first time in 17 years. While Luongo was very nearly the goat in the first round against Chicago, he was lights out against Nashville which leads us to wonder just which Luongo we’ll see against San Jose. With those sorts of doubts in mind still, despite his pedigree in the league, it makes him a prime candidate for the playoff pressure cooker.

2. Joe Thornton – San Jose Sharks

Speaking of guys with a bad rap in the playoffs, it’s the Sharks captain Joe Thornton. When he was traded by Boston back in 2005 to San Jose he was labeled as a playoff choker who could never show up when it counted. All he’s ever done is be one of the best point producing centers in the NHL with a penchant for not appearing on the score sheet when the games got really important. Now this year he’s been solid on both sides of the puck scoring two goals and adding nine assists while drawing the assignment of shadowing the opponents top centers. Will he deal with Ryan Kesler or the Sedin line? It’ll be curious to see how that goes, but the one thing he’s got to do is keep putting points up and helping the Sharks win games lest that choker label still find a way to live on.

3 & 4. Henrik Sedin and Daniel Sedin – Vancouver Canucks

I know, you’re thinking this is a cop out for the list by picking both guys but it’d be easier if the twins didn’t put up essentially identical numbers. Daniel Sedin has six goals and four assists while Henrik Sedin has one goal and eight assists. Both guys have put up identical plus/minus ratings of -8 and struggled against Nashville to generate any offense. They should, ideally, get better chances against the Sharks but all eyes are on them now. With Henrik being last year’s MVP and Daniel up for the award this year, they rightfully have a lot to live up to. The Canucks have been a great team with them taking care of their top line and now it’s time for their most important games of the season and they have to get it done or else the criticisms will be many.

5. Patrick Marleau – San Jose Sharks

You were probably expecting this pick right off the bat and while we can thank Jeremy Roenick for a lot of that focus after Marleau’s bumpy series against Detroit, there’s more to it than just that. Marleau was the Sharks’ leading scorer this season and in the playoffs he’s been virtually absent thanks to just scoring one goal against Detroit in their seven game series. Marleau had 37 goals and 36 assists during the regular season but in the playoffs he’s got three goals and three assists. He’s perhaps the team’s best scorer and they’ll need him to provide nightmares for Roberto Luongo by stepping up and having a monster series. Marleau was able to be huge against Chicago in last year’s Western Conference finals and similar production to that this time around would make him a hero.

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.