Vezina finalists Luongo and Thomas set to duel in Stanley Cup Final

After last year’s Stanley Cup Final, there were fans and pundits who claimed that goaltending wasn’t as important as it used to be. The Blackhawks thought Antti Niemi was replaceable after winning the Stanley Cup and the Philadelphia Flyers came within two games of a championship with a goaltender that ended up playing most of this season in the AHL. Its been five season since the last time a goaltender won the Conn Smythe (Cam Ward in 2006 with the Carolina Hurricanes). But take a look at the men between the pipes in the Final this year and it’s clear to see that good goaltending will always be in style.

Boston Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli understands that these things tend to be cyclical:

“History shows both sides of that. Sometimes teams try to copy the Stanley Cup finalists the following year, subsequent years. We’ve seen teams before without star goaltenders win Cups. Tim is a terrific goaltender and he’s a clutch goaltender. He’s won championships before. I wouldn’t call last year a fluke. I think you’ll probably see it again at some point. You’re going to be more certain to have a proven goaltender. I think history will show that also.”

Both Tim Thomas and Roberto Luongo had the type of seasons that every team wants from their starting goaltender. Luongo lead the league with 38 wins, 2nd in goals against average (2.11), and 3rd in save percentage (.928). Not bad, but Tim Thomas’ numbers were even more impressive. Thomas earned 35 wins and 9 shutouts (2nd in the NHL). He also beat Luongo with a league’s best 2.00 goals against average this season and .938 save percentage; both were among the best the NHL has ever seen. Each goaltender was good enough to earn a spot as finalist for the Vezina Trophy as the league’s best goaltender.

The spectacular play wasn’t limited to the regular season. Throughout the playoffs, their numbers have been incredibly similar. The both have a 2.29 goals against average, 12 wins, and a pair of shutouts. Thomas has a slightly better save percentage in the post season (.929 vs. .922). Both goaltenders have been called upon at various times to help steal games and have always kept their team in games when the 18 skaters in front of them are having a rough game. That’s all a team can ask from their goaltender: give them a chance to win.

Even though they’ve both been elite netminders since October, Roberto Luongo knows it’ll be a battle:

“Yeah, obviously we have different styles. Tim has had an unbelievable season, probably the best in the league. He’s given his team a chance to win every night.

It’s a good challenge for me, a good battle. There’s different battles. I focus more on their opposition players and what I have to do to be ready against them, but at the same time you want to look at the guy on the other side and try to go save for save.”

Everybody is comfortable with different styles. Obviously he’s a battler. He’ll never give up on a play. He’ll do whatever it takes to make a save, use any part of his body. You got to have a lot of respect for a guy like that. Sometimes you have no choice.

Even myself, included. There are certain things where there’s broken plays or the puck takes a weird bounce where you have no choice but to throw whatever piece of body you can in front of it.

I think I used to do a lot more of that earlier on in my career. As we move along and I get more experience, I think I’ve gotten to the point where I try not to be in those situations, but when they do, you have no choice.

For two teams that have such similarities, it should come as no surprise that they both have strong goaltending going into the final series of the season. The pressure surrounding Roberto Luongo is obvious—the city of Vancouver may burn the city down if they don’t win the Cup this season. But on the other side rink, the 37-year-old Thomas has taken the long road to reach this point in his career. He knows he may never have this opportunity again.

Let’s be realistic: it’s the Stanley Cup Final. Both goaltenders have a tremendous amount of pressure on their shoulders. But if they keep performing at the level they’ve set for the last eight months, fans will be in for a great duel.

Bruised Bruins get Bergeron and Backes back, at least

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On paper, a game against old chums the Vancouver Canucks would probably be an assumed W for the Boston Bruins.

It hasn’t been safe to assume much during an up-and-down start so far, and that goes straight down to injuries, as Bruins news seems to rotate with the bad and the good.

In the case of Thursday, the good and the bad seem to come in hour rotations rather than days. Earlier, the unfortunate news came: Tuukka Rask was diagnosed with a concussion, adding to the rough news about Ryan Spooner.

If Anton Khudobin struggles and the Bruins need to outscore their problems, at least they’re getting reinforcements in that regard, as both David Backes and Patrice Bergeron are back in action.

One would expect Bergeron to resume much of his puck-mastery tonight, or at least soon, even if he might take a while to improve after a 2016-17 season he wasn’t totally pleased with.

(Bergeron was probably in the minority there, what with winning the Selke Trophy and his line with Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak dominating opponents.)

Backes might be most interesting to watch. He reportedly lost 10 lbs. because of diverticulitis, so you wonder if he’ll be limited for a while. He’s trying to bounce back from 2016-17 in a more objective way than Bergeron, after all.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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Bruins turn to Khudobin after Rask diagnosed with concussion

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A bad start to the season officially got worse on Thursday as the Boston Bruins announced that Tuukka Rask has been diagnosed with a concussion.

The 30-year-old netminder collided with Anders Bjork during practice on Wednesday and needed to be helped off the ice. Anton Khudobin will start Thursday night against the Canucks and Zane MacIntyre will serve as his backup.

The Bruins are 2-3-0 on the season with a minus-4 goal differential. Rask has struggled as well with an ugly .887 even strength save percentage in four starts. With four games over the next 11 days, the hope is that either Khudobin or MacIntyre can right the ship as Rask heals.

“I feel good. Camp was good and everything is fine, and I’ve started better than last year,” said Khudobin via NBC Sports Boston. “My role is just day-to-day. Today is a game day and hopefully, you get a good result, and then tomorrow is another new day.”

As the Bruins get David Backes and possibly Patrice Bergeron back, they’ve watched as Rask and Ryan Spooner (4-6 weeks) leave the lineup with injury. Having a roster in flux while you’re trying to find some consistency will be a tough ask for head coach Bruce Cassidy and his players.

The 31-year-old Khudobin has played well in two appearances this season, stopping 32 of 33 shots faced and posting a .970 ESSV%.

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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.

Ric Flair replica robe awarded to Flyers game MVPs (Photo)

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NHL teams love handing out a player of the game awards to someone who played an important role in a victory. The tradition has been going on for years and the items have ranged from football helmets to camouflage jackets to championship belts to wolf heads to weenie hats.

The Philadelphia Flyers are one of those teams taking part in the post-game tradition and have chosen a very unique item to honor game MVPs this season.

In honor of one of wrestling’s greats, game MVPs will receive a Ric Flair replica robe.

Spend time inside Wells Fargo Center for a Flyers game and you’ll hear fans unleashing plenty of Flair’s famous “woo’s” — something that kind of pissed off the players as recent as last season..

“I hope it’s a short-lived fad,” said Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol last November.

“The first period they are [expletive] woo’ing. What are you, [expletive] 10-years old?,” opined Jakub Voracek.

Maybe the players had a change of heart and have embraced the “woo’s?” Now that the robe, which was designed by the daughter of equipment manager Derek Settlemyre, will be a regular thing, one can imagine an uptick in the “Nature Boy’s” famous call done by fans during games.

Flair, 68, was hospitalized in August as he entered the early stages of kidney failure and congestive heart failure. He was released last month after doctors removed part of his bowel and inserted a pacemaker. An ESPN documentary about his life and wrestling career will premier in November.

Stick-tap NBC Philadelphia

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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.

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The most important question to ask yourself in any fantasy hockey league

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In many cases, the most pressing questions you’ll ask yourself as a young fantasy hockey manager – when you have all that glorious time – is “How do I finally win this league?”

(Sometimes, you’ll be more specific, asking “How do I beat my best friend/colleague/frenemy/potential romantic partner/all of the above?”)

Time can change a lot of things, and sometimes life foists different priorities upon your mind. You might find yourself more interested in less glorious things like taking care of debts or aiming for promotions. This pivots, then, to what I believe is the most important question a potential fantasy GM must ask: “How much work do I really want to do in this league?”

Every week, PHT plans on running at least two fantasy-focused columns, and the beauty of these is that they can appeal to fantasy owners of all types. Joey Alfieri’s add/drops can be helpful to those who crunch spreadsheets like potato chips, but it can also be a one-stop guide for those who don’t have time to go deep on every Rotoworld column.

Speaking of Rotoworld, it’s a fantastic resource for fantasy hockey and other sports. Check out Gus Katsaros’ bit on struggling forwards such as Joe Thornton as just one great example.

This Thursday space is going to serve as an open-ended discussion of fantasy hockey: the narrow triumphs, crushing and seemingly arbitrary defeats, and tactics that may lie a little outside of the box.

In this specific case, here are a few suggestions if you possess the rare (but valuable) self-awareness to realize that you might not always be able to give your team(s) your maximum attention.

Lean on workhorse goalies

In many cases, it’s wise to fight the urge to take big name goalies in fantasy. Instead, you are often better off loading up on true difference-makers, whether they be the true high-scoring defensemen like Brent Burns or game-breaking forwards who still might be around in, say, rounds 3-5.

It’s a little different if you know you’re not going to monitor every goalie battle, or merely want to keep things simple.

A workhorse such as Braden Holtby shoots up your rankings in this case. On the other hand, someone facing a backup threat (say Steve Mason vs. Connor Hellebuyck) might not be worth the hassle.

Old over new

It’s exciting to identify the next breakthrough stars. Young players can be exciting because they have the chance to make those quantum leaps. The lockout that knocked out the 2004-05 season was memorable in that way:

Eric Staal in 2003-04: 31 points in 81 games

Eric Staal in 2005-06: 100 points in 81 games

Being able to forecast those leaps provides one of the most precious sensations in fantasy: feeling smart.

On the other hand, that takes its fair share of research, aside from instances where you’ve specifically keyed on prospects that interest you. Rookies can be big risks in fantasy drafts because of the threat of them only getting a “nine-game audition” before their teams avoid burning years off entry-level deals.

(Note: this might not apply to the Edmonton Oilers.)

If you know you don’t have time to make contingency plans and/or don’t want to study points per minute to try to find the next Viktor Arvidsson, you might just want to stick with more stable, established veterans.

Rotoworld Podcast: Can’t Stop Kucherov

Avoid the Gaboriks

Injuries can be random in sports, hockey included. Just ask Steven Stamkos, whose poor luck seems borderline freakish. Hockey history is dotted with painful “What if?” questions about icons like Bobby Orr and Mario Lemieux down to nice scorers such as Ales Hemsky and Marian Gaborik.

(Sami Salo, meanwhile, likely often asked “Why me?”)

Injuries can be especially deflating for less-hands-on types, so maybe shy away from, say, Kris Letang.

Find some quick references

Following PHT is a good start to stay abreast of some of the largest developments in the NHL.

If you’re trying to make quick decisions, Rotoworld’s injury page can provide a quick reference so you know if someone might come back soon versus a case that might be murkier.

There’s a solid chance of a future column discussing some resources that might help those in a bind in drafts or even setting lineups. Stay tuned.

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It’s possible to win your league even if you’re not making weekly tweaks like some of your more obsessive competitors.

The key is to be practical … and lucky. Yeah, luck is a pretty nice thing to have in fantasy, and life. Here’s to a fun 2017-18 from a fantasy perspective, regardless of your level of commitment.

(Although, don’t be that person who totally abandons a team, leaving a bunch of players with season-ending injuries in your starting lineup. That’s bad form.)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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