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.

Calgary Hitmen fans make 24K stuffed animals fly during Teddy Bear Toss (Video)

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Congratulations, Vladislav Yeryomenko, you were this year’s Teddy Bear Toss goal scorer for the Western Hockey League’s Calgary Hitmen.

Yeryomenko’s goal at 9:36 of the first period during their game Sunday vs. the Moose Jaw Warriors was the sign for Hitmen fans to launch their teddy bears inside the Saddledome. Boy, it sure did rain plenty of fur.

Here’s what it looked like:

And here’s a fan’s eye view:

After a clean up delay of approximately 40 minutes , the game resumed but the Hitmen would fall to the Warriors 6-3. The counting, as you would imagine, took some time, but when they were finished it was announced that an astounding 24,605 stuffed animals were collected, which will go to 60 local charities.

“It’s an unforgettable moment,” Yeryomenko said via the Hitmen website. “It’s possible it can only happen once in your life and it happened to me. I enjoyed the moment of it all.”

There were 23,924 stuffed animals tossed during last year’s game, and the Hitmen hold the record of 28,815 bears, which was set in 2015.

The Hitmen have been holding this event since 1995 and are their fans are the true leaders in tossing those bears. Including this Sunday’s total, the team has collected 347,948 stuffed animals for local charities. Just last weekend the American Hockey League’s Hershey Bears held their Toss event and fans there set a team record with an impressive 25,017 stuffed animals hitting the ice.

This once again proves that the Teddy Bear Toss is the greatest promotion in all of sports.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Brayden Schenn scoring at will as domination continues

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What’s the limit for Brayden Schenn?

Curious and inquiring minds, like PHT’s own James O’Brien, want to know. 

Add Schenn’s opposition to the list of people looking for answers. They surely want the madness to end.

But Schenn appears disinterested in letting cooler heads prevail. He is, of course, red hot at the moment. And he’s quickly turning into a fearsome goal scorer that is increasingly harder to contain.

Schenn buried his 16th of the season on Sunday night against the Buffalo Sabres some 40 seconds into the game. The goal, which can be seen below, was Schenn’s sixth in his past four games and a marker than extended his goal-scoring streak to four games.

Some wondered how Schenn would cope with the loss of Jaden Schwartz, who is out for at least six weeks because of an ankle injury. 

He answered that in under a minute.

Coming into Sunday’s game, Schenn was on pace for 41 goals and 98 points. He’d crush his previous career highs if his torrid play continues.

For the time being, Schenn is the leading candidate for the top off-season acquisition in the NHL.

How bad is Ron Hextall kicking himself at the moment? A few months ago he had Schenn and didn’t have Jori Lehtera.

The cringe faces must be excellent. Surely.


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

Marc-Andre Fleury set for return after getting taken off IR

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The Vegas Golden Knights have their starting goaltender back.

After nearly two months and 25 missed games, Marc-Andre Fleury is expected to make his return to the lineup on Tuesday after being pulled off injured reserve on Sunday.

Fleury hasn’t played since Oct. 13 when Detroit Red Wings forward Anthony Mantha collided with the 33-year-old as he drove to the net. Fleury was shaken up on the play but saw it through, picking up his first loss of the season after allowing six goals on 27 shots.

Fleury was solid in the crease in the four games he figured into, going 3-1-0 with a .925 save percentage and a 2.48 goals-against average.

Since he went down, the Golden Knights have had four other netminders see the crease after injuries ran rampant through their goaltending stable.

Their combined record, despite a clear lacking of NHL experience, has been remarkable:

  • Malcolm Subban – 10 GP, 7-2-0, .924 save percentage
  • Maxime Lagace – 14 GP, 6-6-1, .872 save percentage
  • Oscar Dansk – 4 GP, 3-0-0, .946 save percentage
  • Dylan Ferguson – 1 GP, 0-0-0, .500 save percentage

Remember when Subban was claimed off waivers on the eve of the start of the regular season? Quite the steal.

That adds up to a 16-8-1 record with Fleury out of the lineup, which is incredible given how banged up Vegas got between the pipes.

The Golden Knights are on a four-game heater at the moment, and with Subban playing admirably — winning his past three starts — it remains to be seen if Fleury takes the crease on Tuesday.

If not Tuesday, Fleury is surely a lock to get the start against his former team. The Pittsburgh Penguins come to town on Thursday.


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

Jaden Schwartz’s ankle injury derails career-year pace

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Jaden Schwartz was on pace to flirt with a triple-digit point total this season.

‘Was’ is the keyword here because, for the second time in three years, Schwartz will miss a significant chunk of time with an ankle injury.

How long he will be on the shelf this time around is undetermined, but Schwartz won’t be evaluated for six weeks after blocking a shot off his right ankle in a 6-1 rout of the Detroit Red Wings on Saturday.

The injury bug hasn’t been kind to Schwartz’s ankles. During the 2015-16 season, he was limited to just 33 games after sustaining a broken ankle in practice.

The fresh diagnosis is a frustrating blow for Schwartz and the Blues, who have watched his line with Brayden Schenn and Alexander Steen turn into one of the top trios in the NHL this season.

Through 30 games, the 25-year-old had 14 goals and 35 points, placing him second on the Blues, behind Schenn, and ninth in league-wide scoring, tied with Connor McDavid.

At his current pace, Schwartz, playing roughly 20 minutes a night, would have hit 98 points. And a little lucky bounce or two here and there might have propelled him above the century mark, setting career highs along the way.

For the Blues, dealing with devastating injuries is all-to-familiar this season.

But what’s probably most impressive about how successful the Blues have been this season is how they’ve been able to exceed all reasonable expectations despite dealing with a hefty number of major ailments.

The injury bug has been more akin to a foul beast in the Gateway to the West. From Robby Fabbri gone for the season with a torn ACL and Zach Sanford sidelined for months with a shoulder problem to Jay Bouwmeester missing 20 games to start the year and Steen missing the first six.

Not many predicted the Blues to be where they are in mid-December: second place the Western Conference standings with 42 points, just two back of top spot in the league.

And now the Blues, in the midst of a three-game winning streak, will have to navigate another injury to a key piece of their lineup.

They’ve shown the ability to overcome injury adversity before, but losing a key piece of your top six and a top scorer is never easy.

If anyone has the formula down, however, it’s the Bluenotes.


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