Joe Thornton challenged Ryan Kesler to a fight during opening faceoff of Game 1

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During the 2009 playoffs, I was lucky enough to watch Game 6 of the Anaheim Ducks-San Jose Sharks first round series with Battle of California‘s Earl Sleek. It didn’t take long for that game to provide a lasting memory, either. In a truly rare sight, Joe Thornton started a fight with Ryan Getzlaf right after the puck was dropped for the first time.

The Ducks ended up winning 4-1 to close out the Sharks in that series, but it was still pretty stunning to watch two big-name (and over-sized) centers drop the gloves like that. Maybe it was an expression of Thornton’s frustrations from a hard-luck series, but it showed (to me at least) that he wasn’t just gliding through defeat.

While that moment remains a statistical anomaly, it seems like Thornton might just enjoy starting big games with a little tussle. You may have noticed that Thornton was thrown out of the faceoff circle to start his team’s Game 1 match against the Vancouver Canucks. Apparently Thornton wasn’t kicked out of the circle for typical infractions alone; the large center admitted that he challenged Vancouver Canucks center Ryan Kesler to fight during that opening draw.

Unlike Getzlaf, Kesler decided not to fight Thornton, though.*

“Why not?” Thornton said Tuesday, confirming he made the invitation to Kesler. “Let’s fight. Let’s start the series off with a bang.”

The Sharks ended up losing 3-2 in Game 1, but Thornton was able to start off the game pretty well nonetheless. As you may remember, he jumped on an atrocious Roberto Luongo pass to make it 1-0 early in the first period. Sure, it wasn’t enough to win the game, but Jumbo Joe was clearly keyed in to start off that contest.

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During his days with the Boston Bruins, Thornton was a player who entered the penalty box almost as often as he lit up the scoreboard. It’s possible that the Sharks asked him to tone things down a bit, with the simple logic that they’d rather have their best player on the ice rather than in the box.

In previous years, much of the frustration with Thornton’s (mostly overblown) playoff struggles probably came from his body language and perceived lack of assertiveness. I think a lot of his improved play stems from some lucky bounces (just look at that goal video), but there’s a sense that he’s imposing his will much more. This story adds another layer to that building perception.

So it’s clear Thornton is getting excited for the playoffs, especially to start games. Yet the question remains: will Thornton and the Sharks show that same fight to close out the Canucks in future games?

* To be fair to Kesler, Thornton is much larger than him. Thornton and Getzlaf are much more comparable, size-wise.

Penguins lose to Flyers and lose another key player to injury

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PITTSBURGH — Even with a ridiculously long injured list that would be the foundation of a pretty good hockey team, the Pittsburgh Penguins still found a way to go 8-1-3 in their previous 12 games entering Sunday’s contest against the Philadelphia Flyers.

The injuries finally seemed to start catching up to them on Sunday in a 6-2 loss, extending their current losing streak to three games, matching their season long.

While the loss certainly impacts their pursuit of the top spot in the Metropolitan Division (they remain three points back of the Washington Capitals), and even their quest for home ice advantage in the first round, it is still not the worst thing to come out of Sunday’s game.

The worst thing for them would be the fact the Penguins lost yet another key player to an injury when forward Conor Sheary had to leave the game mid-way through the first period.

Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said after the game that Sheary is dealing with a lower body injury and that right now he is considered to be day-to-day. It was initially believed that Sheary was injured blocking a shot, but Sullivan insisted that was not the case and that it happened in the offensive zone at some point in the first period.

With Jake Guentzel still sidelined due a concussion he suffered in a recent game against the Buffalo Sabres, that means two-thirds of the team’s recently assembled top line (Sidney Crosby-Sheary-Guentzel) is now sidelined due to injury. Sheary’s injury is especially concerning given how good he has been on Crosby’s wing dating back to the 2016 playoffs. Entering play on Sunday Sheary was averaging nearly a point per game (50 points in 54 games) with almost all of that production coming at even-strength.

They had yet another scare in the third period on Sunday when defenseman Brian Dumoulin had to briefly leave the game and head to the locker room after he was elbowed in the side of the head by Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds.

On Sunday, all of the injuries finally seemed to be too much with the Flyers pretty much dominating the game over the final two periods.

The Flyers received goals from six different players (Jordan Weal, Valtteri Filppula, Dale Weise, Jakob Voracek, Radko Gudas and Shayne Gostisbehere) in the win and outshot the Penguins by a 24-15 margin over the final 40 minutes.

“That wasn’t a good effort and at this point of the season we can’t afford to have those,” said Penguins forward Matt Cullen after the game. “I don’t think that was a typical effort for us. I don’t think we had a lot of life, to be honest.”

Even more than winning games the rest of the way the biggest concern for the Penguins has to be getting their list of injured players healthy and finding a way to avoid adding to it, something that has proven to be difficult in recent weeks.

At this point, whether they win the Metropolitan Division or not, they know their path through the Eastern Conference playoffs is very likely going to have to go through both Washington and Columbus, and they are going to need their full complement of players to do it.

One of the biggest factors in winning a Stanley Cup is having all of your key players in the lineup come playoff time.

A year ago the Penguins did.

Right now they are not even close to having that.

Video: Dumoulin shakes off Simmonds’ elbow, but Sheary’s out for Penguins

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Barring a major comeback, the Pittsburgh Penguins look like they’re going to lose to the Philadelphia Flyers on Sunday. Their injury losses might be just as big.

On the bright side, it seems like Brian Dumoulin was able to shake off an elbow from Wayne Simmonds. You can watch the hit, which didn’t draw a penalty, in the video above.

Meanwhile, Conor Sheary has been missing since the first period with what might be a lower-body injury.

The Penguins’ list of injuries is already pretty ridiculous, so if one or both of these players miss significant time, tonight will sting deeper than a setback on the scoreboard.

Report: U.S. men’s hockey players may join boycott with women’s team

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Octagon Hockey agent Allan Walsh announced that there’s “word circulating” that potential members of the men’s U.S. hockey team might join the women’s national team in a boycott of the world championships with USA Hockey.

HNIC’s Cassie Campbell reports that she discussed as much with men’s players during the last few weeks about this subject, backing up Walsh.

This update comes on the heels of reports that USA Hockey has been struggling to find players to replace those who are boycotting the world championships. (Puck Daddy provides deep background on that subject.)

The NHLPA has already spoken out in support of the boycott earlier this week. The U.S. women’s national hockey team also released the following statement:

Fight video: Flyers’ Manning vs. Penguins’ Gaunce

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Breaking: the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers don’t like each other.

The stakes might be higher for the Penguins than the Flyers – aside from those who still believe Philly has a shot at a playoff run – their rivalry rarely subsides.

With that in mind, it’s no surprise that Sunday featured at least one fight, with Cameron Gaunce squaring off against Brandon Manning in a pretty spirited bout.

Manning isn’t shy about fighting, by the way; this was his seventh bout of the season, according to Hockey Fights.

Higher on the radar for the Penguins is the situation for Conor Sheary, who has been absent from the ice since about midway through the first period. PHT will keep an eye out for updates on what could be yet another injury for the health-challenged Pens.