Five things to watch for in tonight’s Game 7 between Boston and Tampa Bay

With Game 7 upon us in just a short amount of time now, it’s only right that we take a look ahead to what we very well may see shake loose in this evening’s game to decide on who goes to the Stanley Cup finals. With so much at stake for both teams including a date with Vancouver starting next week, there’s so many factors that can go into deciding how things go tonight.

Out of everything you could see tonight, we’ve picked out five fancy ones really worth zeroing in on for tonight’s tilt in Boston.

1. Very little referee involvement

After all the gamesmanship we’ve seen out of Guy Boucher and Claude Julien in the wake of  and lead up to Game 6, don’t expect tonight’s officials Dan O’Halloran and Stephen Walkom to go out of their way to help decide tonight’s game. The ticky-tack calls will go away and the pressure will be on both teams to settle it themselves. Of course, should infractions occur that eliminate an immediate scoring opportunity, the arms will go up and power plays will occur. For Boston that means a two minute long fight with themselves to do something with the man advantage while Tampa Bay will be looking to continue their hot play from Game 6 on the power play. If you’re hoping your team can rely on penalties occurring, you might be sorely disappointed.

2. Who will Zdeno Chara match up against?

The safe answer would be “everyone” as Chara is their main defensive stopper and through the first five games of the series he played between 26 and 28 minutes per game. In Game 6 he played over 30 minutes as he was also being used out in front of Dwayne Roloson on the power play, a tactic the Bruins started using in Game 5.

Defensively, however, the question is who will he see more ice time against? Chances are he’ll be out there against whoever Martin St. Louis is riding shotgun with be it Steve Stamkos or Vincent Lecavalier or both of them at the same time. St. Louis is the most dangerous man on the ice for Tampa Bay and he’s found room to score all series long. Chara’s going to have to be at his best to keep up.

3. Can Dwayne Roloson stay undefeated in elimination games?

As crazy as it sounds, Dwayne Roloson has been the lights out closer in his career in goal. The 41 year-old netminder is 7-0 in his career in elimination games including going 4-0 this season alone for the Lightning. He won three straight against Pittsburgh and he was the big winner in Game 6 on Wednesday night. Roloson has had a rough go of things against Boston in this series with a 4.33 goals against average and a .851 save percentage and he’ll need to be a lot better tonight because banking on Tim Thomas to give up five or more goals again is not a wise gamble to make.

4. Boston’s first line: Help or hindrance?

Which version of Boston’s top line with David Krejci, Milan Lucic, and Nathan Horton shows up tonight? If it’s the version from Game 6, the Bruins are in good shape as they saw Krejci net a hat trick while Lucic had a goal and an assist and Horton added two assists of his own. If the version that we saw in Game 1 that had a combined eight shots on goal and no points while seeing Lucic and Horton meltdown with penalties, the Bruins are in for some trouble. That top line has played better as the series has gone on but with how poor they played early on in the series, the worry about a relapse is there especially if things get chippy and the Bruins trail.

5. Does Guy Boucher have one more trick up his sleeve?

Tampa Bay coach Guy Boucher caught the Bruins by surprise in Game 1 by deviating away from the more relaxed version of the 1-3-1 defense that lulled Washington to sleep and instead stifled the Bruins with pressure and counterattacks that forced the Bruins defense to turn the puck over and create scoring chances for the Lightning on their way to a 5-2 win. While both teams have adjusted well to each other, you have to wonder if perhaps there’s an attack strategy left in Boucher’s bag of tricks to surprise the Bruins. When in doubt the Bruins will look to defend stronger and work counterattacks of their own, but Boucher’s a sharp coach and if there’s something he’s seen in tape as the series has gone on with the Bruins defense that he can have his team expose, he’ll go to it.

The Bruins will want to play tough, physical, and aggressive no matter what in this game and they’ll want to get better play from defensemen like Andrew Ference and Dennis Seidenberg to shore things up. If Boston can play what they call “Bruins hockey” and get rolling with that, Tampa will have a hard time countering that easily but the easiest way Tampa Bay can get the jump on Boston is to score first. If Boucher has a game plan worked out that can make life miserable for the Bruins, you’ll see it tonight.

Blackhawks bolster Central lead, shine harsh light on Penguins’ struggles

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Blame it on injuries if you want, or emphasize the Chicago Blackhawks’ overall hot finish to the season. Either way, Chicago scorched the Pittsburgh Penguins by a score of 5-1, a contest that felt more or less over by the time the first period ended 4-0 in the Blackhawks’ favor.

The Blackhawks scored by committee on Wednesday, with Artemi Panarin (goal, assist) and Patrick Kane (two assists) being the headliners. Meanwhile, former Penguin Marian Hossa has quietly climbed to 25 goals on the season.

Meanwhile, the Penguins limped through this one and have now lost four consecutive games.

With this result, the Blackhawks look like close to a lock to win the Central Division title. Meanwhile, the Metro crown is virtually unthinkable for Pittsburgh, and the Penguins might also need to accept the likelihood that they may not enjoy home-ice advantage in the first round.

They’d probably accept that more easily if they can get healthier and get back on track. Wednesday was a little worrisome in those regards.

Video: An early taste of the Tkachuk-inspired violence in Kings vs. Flames

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BREAKING: the Los Angeles Kings really don’t appreciate Calgary Flames rookie-pest-forward Matthew Tkachuk thanks to that elbow on Drew Doughty (and the fallout from all … that).

Tkachuk responded by critiquing Doughty for “complaining to the media,” so there was testiness from the start.

There was jawing before the game. Then Jake Muzzin rebuked Tkachuk’s kind offer for a fight. Finally, Keith’s son dropped the gloves with Brayden McNabb:

It wasn’t the only bout of the opening frame, and there could be more blood to come beyond this Jarome IginlaDeryk Engelland feud:

Players from both teams better keep their heads up (and on a swivel) tonight. The Flames have to hope that this doesn’t result in injuries, judging from what happened to Johnny Gaudreau.

Avalanche sign Toews-like first-rounder Tyson Jost

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Things have been pretty bleak for the Colorado Avalanche this season, but at least they can look to a high pick in the next draft … and maybe dream about how their top pick from 2016 may pan out.

The Avs signed Tyson Jost, the 10th pick of the 2016 NHL Draft, to an entry-level contract on Wednesday. Colorado notes that he’ll jump right into some NHL action to close out this season.

It’s a nice sneak preview, as NHL insider Bob McKenzie noted on an NBCSN appearance (see above) that doing so will not burn the first year of Jost’s entry-level contract. Nice.

Even nicer? McKenzie also compares Jost favorably to … (drum-roll, though the headline spoiled it) Jonathan Toews.

Most obviously, the two both starred at the University of North Dakota. For the sake of fun, here are their numbers in their final years in the NCAA:

Jost: 16 goals, 35 points in 33 games, +17 rating (2016-17)
Toews: 18 goals, 46 points in 34 games (2006-07)

Naturally, Toews enthusiasts in particular will tell you that points aren’t everything … but maybe there are some shades of the two-way Blackhawks center there?

The Hockey News’ Ryan Kennedy raved that Jost has “man-strength already” back around the 2016 NHL Draft, as you can see in this profile.

“Jost oozes confidence and already looks like NHL captain material for the future.”

Hey, that does sound at least somewhat Toews-like, doesn’t it?

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In other signing news, the Buffalo News’ Mike Harrington reports that the Buffalo Sabres signed UMass-Lowell’s CJ Smith. More on that below.

Video: This Kane-to-Panarin goal is all sorts of ridiculous

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When people were arguing against Artemi Panarin‘s Calder case, they often discounted his work because of Patrick Kane‘s brilliance (at least when they weren’t focusing on age questions).

It always felt a little unfair to Panarin.

Do we blame a great wide receiver playing with an adept quarterback? Sure, it’s an interesting discussion to have, but it seems fairly clear that there’s a symbiotic relationship between Panarin and Kane.

One could see that plainly in a 1-0 goal for the Chicago Blackhawks against the Pittsburgh Penguins that … admittedly was driven by Kane’s almost audacious creativity and skill.

But still, Panarin has 26 goals this season because he’s really good, too. This season has been a nice showcase for such thoughts, and a reminder that – like most great combinations – they make each other better.

(Seriously though, Kane was out of his mind there.)