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.

NHL’s participation in 2018 Olympics still undecided, but World Cup expected to return in 2020

TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 29:  Sidney Crosby #87 of Team Canada carries the World Cup of Hockey Trophy after Canada defeated Europe 2-1 during Game Two of the World Cup of Hockey final series at the Air Canada Centre on September 29, 2016 in Toronto, Canada.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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TORONTO (AP) The World Cup of Hockey will return, without a doubt, and avoid another 12-year break.

NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly and NHLPA Executive Director Don Fehr both confirmed for The Associated Press on Friday that they expect the next World Cup of Hockey to be in 2020.

It is much less certain whether the best players will go to South Korea to participate in the 2018 Olympics.

International Ice Hockey Federation President Rene Fasel told the AP on Tuesday the odds of NHL players going to the Pyeongchang Games were 50-50, a slight upgrade from his forecast in May.

Later the same day, Daly said he felt more “negative,” about the chances the league’s players will be in a sixth straight Olympics due to the International Olympic Committee’s decision to not pay for NHL players’ travel and insurance as it has in the past.

Fehr, who represents players who have made it clear they want to be in the Olympics, said he’s more optimistic than pessimistic a deal will get done.

Related:

Daly: NHL could skip 2018 Olympics and return in 2022

Alex Ovechkin again says he plans to play in 2018 Olympics even if NHL doesn’t participate

The union head insisted he isn’t concerned about the IOC’s stance.

“Everybody understands that nobody’s going to risk their career and future earnings and all the rest of it in return for no compensation and no coverage,” Fehr told the AP. “No one will do that. They understand that. That’s been a given for a long, long time. If it plays out that way, which I do not expect it to play out that way, we’ll deal with it.”

The IOC isn’t buying the banter.

“I think both sides are playing poker,” president of the International Ski federation Gian Franco Kasper, who represents winter sports on the IOC executive board, said Friday in an interview with the AP.

The IOC does not want to continue its past practice of paying for NHL players’ travel and insurance because it doesn’t want to have to do the same for athletes in other sports.

Fasel said it is his job to raise the money needed, which he estimates to be about $10 million. Fasel said he plans to “beg,” for the funds from national Olympic committees and hockey federations. He acknowledged using some of the $40 million the IOC gives the IIHF to fund its programs, including development opportunities for boys and girls, could be used to bring the best hockey players to South Korea.

Daly said the NHL would like a final decision to be made by the end of the year so that it can set the 2017-18 schedule with or without a break midway through the slate for the Olympics.

The World Cup of Hockey, which the NHL and NHLPA teamed up to bring back for the first time since 2004, does not conflict with the league’s schedule because the games were played during training camp and early preseason games.

Playing hockey in late September, however, is not an ideal time to draw TV viewers in the U.S. in part because of interest in the NFL, college football and baseball.

Game 1 with Canada and Team Europe in the World Cup finals on Tuesday night – without direct competition from football – drew just 494,000 viewers on ESPN. A mere 297,000 people tuned in to watch Sweden face Europe in the semifinals on Sunday afternoon on the cable network. With a potentially interesting matchup with Canada and Russia, just 353,000 were watching hockey on ESPN.

Daly acknowledged it was a “challenge,” to engage Americans enough to watch the event. It did not help that the U.S. and North American Under 23-teams didn’t make it to the semifinals of the eight-team tournament.

It was also, surprisingly, difficult to fill seats at the home of the Toronto Maple Leafs despite being in hockey hotbed even though the league said ticket sales went very well. It seemed many more people were interested in attending Toronto Blue Jays games when world-class hockey matchups and playoff-push baseball games were played at the same time.

The level of hockey, at times, was impressive. And, the atmosphere was electric when Canada rallied from a one-goal deficit in the final few minutes Thursday night to beat Europe 2-1.

During many stretches of play, however, the World Cup of Hockey didn’t do enough to fire up fans in attendance.

Days before Canada beat Europe 2-0 in the best-of-three series to win the World Cup, Canadian coach Mike Babcock seemed to sum up the situation best.

“The World Cup is great. It’s not the Olympics,” Babcock said in an unsolicited comparison of the two events. “Let’s not get confused.”

Report: Ehrhoff headed to Bruins on a PTO

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The Boston Bruins were under some serious pressure this summer to improve their group of defensemen.

That didn’t happen.

With training camp and the preseason now in full swing, it appears the Bruins are bringing in a veteran blue liner — at least on a professional tryout.

On Friday, TSN’s Bob McKenzie reported that unrestricted free agent blue liner Christian Ehrhoff is about to join Boston on a PTO following his showing at the World Cup of Hockey.

In six games with Team Europe, Ehrhoff had three assists — all at even strength — and nine shots on goal.

Ehrhoff is now 34 years old, and the Bruins already have a pair of seasoned defenders in Zdeno Chara (39 years old) and John-Michael Liles (35 years old) on their roster. Adam McQuaid turns 30 years old in October.

Ehrhoff played last season on a one-year, $1.5 million contract, and was placed on waivers in February while with the L.A. Kings, before he was traded to Chicago. Age and injuries have caught up to him, and he never did fit with the Kings’ style under Darryl Sutter.

He was most productive during two seasons in Vancouver, a puck-moving defenseman that could effectively skate the puck out of trouble and move the attack that way if need be. But that was from 2009 to 2011. His production has dipped, especially over the last three years.

He was also pivotal to Vancouver’s power play, especially in 2011 when the Canucks won the Presidents’ Trophy and made it to the Stanley Cup Final — against Boston.

Again, that was five years ago.

Lehner (forearm contusion) to miss preseason game versus Maple Leafs

Matt Puempel, Alex Chiasson, Robin Lehner
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The Buffalo Sabres will not have goalie Robin Lehner in their lineup Friday versus the Toronto Maple Leafs.

As per the Sabres, Lehner is dealing with a forearm contusion and will not dress for this preseason game. Jason Kasdorf will start in net for Buffalo.

Members of the media in Buffalo have noted that if this were a regular season game, Lehner would be able to play.

Lehner had ankle surgery in March, ending his 2015-16 season. His ankle issues dated even further back, to the beginning of last season when he suffered a high-ankle sprain.

The Sabres have some exciting young players on their roster, especially up front, but they need Lehner to be healthy if they are to take a run at a playoff spot this season.

Behind him sit Linus Ullmark, Anders Nilsson and Kasdorf, who have a combined 73 games of NHL experience between them all.

Matthews to sit out preseason tilt versus Sabres, as Maple Leafs give him ‘a little break’

BUFFALO, NY - JUNE 24:  Auston Matthews poses for a portrait after being selected first overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs in round one during the 2016 NHL Draft on June 24, 2016 in Buffalo, New York.  (Photo by Jeffrey T. Barnes/Getty Images)
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The Toronto Maple Leafs play the Buffalo Sabres on Friday. But No. 1 overall pick Auston Matthews won’t be in the lineup, according to multiple reports.

“Sooner or later, he’s going to get in, but not tonight,” said assistant coach Jim Hiller, as per the Toronto Sun.

“The lineups are day by day. They (World Cup players such as Matthews, Milan Michalek, Leo Komarov and James van Riemsdyk) went through a solid three weeks. It’s a little break, a little down time. There are tons of games coming. They’ll get a lot of ice time. They’ll get in shortly.”

(The report also notes that Matthews is not dealing with a health issue, which is obviously good news for the Leafs.)

On a night when the No. 2 overall selection Patrik Laine is slated to make his preseason debut for the Winnipeg Jets, fans wishing to see Matthews don a Maple Leafs jersey in his anticipated debut will have to wait.

Matthews played for Team North America at the World Cup held in Toronto. He had two goals and three points in three round robin games, but the young North American team was unable to advance to the semifinal round.

The Maple Leafs play the Montreal Canadiens at home on Sunday.