Bruins and Canucks most likely to become villains in the 2011 Stanley Cup finals

Back in simpler times, the difference between “bad” and “good” was clear and undeniable. Antagonists wore suspicious mustaches and tied damsels in distress to train tracks while heroes shined like Superman. Blame it on “Generation X” or any other catalyst of cynicism, but most modern rivalries come down to shades of gray rather than obvious black-and-white battles. (Seriously, if professional wrestling catches on to the concept of anti-heroes, you know that simpler times are going away.)

When it comes to professional sports, a player can be a hero at home and receive boos whenever they touch the puck on the road. How often have you heard some variation of the phrase: “You hate the guy until he ends up on your team,” after all?

The 2011 Stanley Cup finals feature two physical teams who carried themselves this far based on plenty of factors, with their overall talent levels probably ranking the highest. That being said, they made some enemies along the way. Here are our picks for the players most likely to earn “villain” status in opposing venues during this best-of-seven championship series.

Vancouver Villains

Ryan Kesler – The one thing more infuriating than a talented opponent is an opponent who is fully aware of his talent. Kesler came into the NHL as a full-time chirper with some undeniable talent brimming within. Now he’s almost the opposite: a world-class two-way forward who can still get under opponents’ skin. Kesler became a true villain in Nashville by dominating the Predators and hamming it up in the process. The Bruins’ defense is pretty thin after their dynamic top duo, so if Claude Julien sics Zdeno Chara on the Sedin twins, Kesler could secure himself a golden opportunity to win the Conn Smythe Trophy.

Raffi Torres – Torres always struck me as the type of guy who owned the face of a villain, but he justified that instinctive assumption through three rounds of the playoffs. His most infamous hits remain the two checks that left Brent Seabrook reeling in the first round, but Torres continues to land thunderous blows that won’t endear him to the opposition.

Kevin Bieksa – He’s a gritty blueliner who has been on a scoring tear lately. Bieksa managed four goals and five points in Vancouver’s five games versus the San Jose Sharks, including that wacky double-OT goal that ended the series. His rough style makes him unpopular with other teams already, but recording heart-breaking tallies pushes him over the top.

Boston Baddies

Brad Marchand/Andrew Ference – Here are two players who received negative attention for their questionable goal celebrations. Marchand made that ill-fated golf swing gesture (that ended up ultimately being accurate) toward the Toronto Maple Leafs late in the regular season while Ference flipped off the Montreal Canadiens crowd in the first round. Marchand’s scoring skills and pest-like tendencies make him a stronger choice for villainy, but it makes sense to monitor both of them.

Nathan Horton – Speaking of questionable gestures toward the opposing crowd, what are the chances that Vancouver’s Green Men will come up with an absurd comedy bit regarding Horton’s water bottle incident? Is it 95, 98 or 99.99 percent? Maybe Horton will be more of a source of mockery than villainous anger, though.

Zdeno Chara – He might be a relatively even-keeled fellow for a man of his stature, but he is a physical force nonetheless. Tim Thomas is an equal obstacle in Vancouver’s path to a first Cup, but Chara’s size and defensive assignment might make him easier for Canucks fans to hate. Fair or not, that notorious hit on Max Pacioretty makes him a candidate for villain status for at least a little bit longer too, doesn’t it?

Milan Lucic – Could the Vancouver-born behemoth come back to haunt his former hometown? Chances are high that Cam Neely comparisons will make Canucks fans queasy either way.

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Ultimately, just about anyone can become a villain in the framework of a championship series. All it takes is an unfortunate hit, questionable comment to the press or an overly boisterous goal celebration to become the object of disaffection. Feel free to speculate in the comments regarding which Bruins and Canucks are likely to earn villain status in the 2011 Stanley Cup finals.

Nasty hits, fights, and a blowout in Maple Leafs vs. Canadiens

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First, the Edmonton Oilers fell 6-3 to the Dallas Stars. Next: the Toronto Maple Leafs absolutely throttled the fledgling Montreal Canadiens in a game that was ugly even beyond the 6-0 score.

It’s been a bad day for embattled GMs of teams who’ve made polarizing moves in hopes of solidifying Stanley Cup contenders. The Oilers (7-11-2) and Canadiens (8-11-2) even finish the night with nearly identical records, just to really hammer home their parallel pains.

You almost wonder if something is in the air this week (spoilers: not love), as nastiness has really ratcheted up since the Calgary Flames – Detroit Red Wings line brawl. The Canadiens and Maple Leafs boast one of the NHL’s richest and bitterest rivalries, and it showed on Saturday.

As you can see from the video above this post’s headline, Nazem Kadri played a major role in one of the most explosive moments, taking his frustrations out on Shea Weber. Weber and Jordie Benn wasted no time in going after Kadri.

(Criticisms of the hit are totally fair, but it seems strange to go too heavy on “turtling.” Who would be able to stand up to both Weber and Benn? In the heat of the moment, I’d wager most people would go with flight over fight.)

That was the most bombastic moment, but there was also this seemingly unlikely bout between Nikita Zaitsev and Paul Byron:

This absolute dismantling comes after Claude Julien was steaming mad from a 5-4 loss to the Arizona Coyotes. It’s tough not to read all of this as an indictment of the moves Marc Bergevin has made, especially considering the fact that their rivals dominated them for their sixth win in a row. If you’re the type to draw big conclusions from about a month of a season, you’d look at it as how to build a contender vs. how to waste Carey Price‘s prime.

That’s a little harsh … but either way, these are tough times for Bergevin.

ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski passed along an interesting take from Julien, who wishes he could bag skate his bumbling players. OK, then.

Auston Matthews was definitely part of the fun for Toronto in his return from injury, including scoring this goal:

(You almost wonder if Mike Babcock was rolling the dice even having his star players out there amid all that carnage, but that goal was a sweet reward.)

[MORE: Why Toronto needs Matthews back for a tough stretch]

Yes, this is an 82-game season, and we’re only at about the first-quarter-mark. Still, teams like the Oilers and Canadiens came into 2017-18 with big expectations and big questions, and so far fans and management can’t like the answers.

By the way, asking for a well-dressed GM: what’s the opposite of, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?”

Yikes.

Ovechkin returns after being badly bloodied by puck to face

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It’s still relatively early on Saturday night, and both the Chicago Blackhawks and Washington Capitals could eventually provide further updates that derail this optimism.

With that out of the way, at the moment, the theme of the night might just be teams dodging big injury bullets, even if the star players in question can’t dodge actual damage.

In the case of Corey Crawford, he bounced back for the Blackhawks after Evgeni Malkin‘s thigh area clipped him in the head. Maybe it looked worse than it was?

Now, any time you see people scrape blood off the ice, you get a reminder of how dangerous – and yeah, occasionally strange – hockey can be. That only becomes more disturbing when that blood is coming from a player as important as Alex Ovechkin:

Remarkably, Ovechkin is returning for the third period of the Capitals’ game against the Minnesota Wild.

So:

  • This is a reminder that Ovechkin is tough, in case you foolishly think he isn’t because … his teams have lost in big games or something? Considering how recklessly he often throws his body around, and how infrequently he misses games due to to injury, you’d think that debate would have died a long time ago. Moments like this make it seem that much sillier.
  • Ovechkin must really want to help the struggling Capitals turn things around.
  • Maybe he wants to hang an L on his old boss Bruce Boudreau?

Anyway, PHT will keep an eye on these situations. Sometimes there are more answers the night of events, and sometimes it takes a little longer.

Right now, it’s reasonable for Capitals fans and Blackhawks fans to feel some relative, even if it’s only in the interim.

Update: The Capitals ended up winning 3-1, thanks in large part to Braden Holtby‘s strong night.

Ovechkin logged 8:18 TOI in the third period, so it seems like he’s OK. This post will be updated if he shares a nasty battle scar.

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.

Crawford avoids injury, helps Blackhawks beat Penguins

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The Chicago Blackhawks have been up-and-down so far in 2017-18, but Corey Crawford has been brilliant almost every night he’s been in net. It’s to the point that he might be a little underrated, as people assume that Chicago will keep finding ways to win, possibly missing how big a part he’s playing in its successes.

Crawford’s been able to clean up a lot of messes, so Saturday brought a scare, as he seemed to take head contact from Pittsburgh Penguins star Evgeni Malkin.

You can see the contact in the video above. It seemed like quite a collision, as part of Malkin (thigh? middle-boy) seemed to connect with Crawford at a fairly high speed.

The penalty call drew at least some complaints from Penguins fans, but the important thing either way is that the Blackhawks took a look at Crawford before allowing him to return to the game.

Now, we’ve seen players return to action only to miss games in the future, so it’s still worth monitoring Crawford. Considering how important he is to the Blackhawks, they have to hope that it was one of those plays that looked more painful than it actually was.

Also, with some justifiable complaints about players not going through concussion protocol lately, a lot of people are pleased with Chicago for at least assessing Crawford. We’ll see if anything changes, but right now, this seems like a dodged bullet (but not a dodged Malkin).

Update: Not only did Crawford stick with it, he made a big difference in the Blackhawks beating the Penguins 2-1, including making this save:

Chicago sure seems to have an edge on Pittsburgh lately, by the way:

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.

Coyotes are (gasp) on a winning streak

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As of this writing, the Arizona Coyotes have the least standings points in the NHL (11) despite playing a league-leading 22 games.

Things could change for this young team, but for now, it’s about small victories, which makes actual wins that much bigger. Perhaps what they really needed was this road trip through Canada?

After losing to the Jets in Winnipeg 4-1 on Nov. 14 (no real shame, really, as everyone’s losing to the Jets lately … just ask the Devils), the Coyotes left Claude Julien and the Montreal Canadiens fuming by getting their first regulation win of 2017-18 by a score of 5-4.

Arizona couldn’t make it consecutive wins in regulation, but when Anthony Duclair completed a hat trick with the overtime game-winner, they did something rare: the Coyotes won back-to-back games. Yes, gang, those scrappy kids now have their very own winning streak after today’s 3-2 OT win against the Ottawa Senators.

They wrap up this run of Canadian games by facing the Maple Leafs in Toronto on Monday.

Just like any self-respecting sports team, the Coyotes get to participate in a ceremony after wins.

One would guess that Zac Rinaldo got the “championship belt” stemming from the rough stuff between the Coyotes and Canadiens, which included a Rinaldo fight (no surprise) and Tomas Plekanec‘s first NHL bout (in his 941st career game).

The Coyotes want to bounce back from their bad start, while Duclair hopes to shed the weight of a lousy 2016-17 season.

At 4-15-3, Arizona might already be in too big of a hole to make any waves. Even so, they can gain some respect, and show that they’re not as bad as their record indicates. Heck, a win in Toronto would give them an undeniably successful road trip, something that’s not always a layup even for established, contending teams.

Now, now, all of that aside … it might be a little too early to take them seriously.

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.