Keith Ballard;  Brad Marchand

Brad Marchand finds right balance between agitation and offense

When people discuss pests or agitators, most of those players count as “double-edged swords” for their teams.

Just look at the roller coaster career of New York Rangers nuisance Sean Avery, the most notorious character for reasons that rarely have much to do with his on-ice play. Avery’s big mouth and nefarious attitude often find him in the penalty box and sometimes provides competition with unwanted motivation. That being said, he can also be an impact player when his head is on straight and the bounces go his way.

The problem is, when you take that pestering aspect out of Avery’s game, he seems like a cat without claws. Simply put, he hasn’t found the proper balance between annoyance and productivity.

The 2011 Stanley Cup finals feature some of the league’s greatest examples of how to strike the right compromise. Ryan Kesler and Alexandre Burrows might be infuriating at times, but they frequently benefit the Vancouver Canucks without taking a whole lot from the table.

Of course, those two Canucks skaters have had plenty of time to iron out the kinks in their pestering games. Boston Bruins’ pest Brad Marchand might be the most impressive example in this series; he’s already excelling at walking that difficult tight rope even though this is his rookie year in the NHL.

Sure, he’s had his regrettable moments like any other player of his ilk. Late in the regular season, he motivated the Toronto Maple Leafs with an immature (if ultimately correct) golf swing motion that ultimately backfired when the Leafs came back. He also had a less than great moment in Game 4 against Vancouver.

One of those things happened as he was skating away from the melee late in Game 4. As he coasted past the Vancouver bench with an official serving as a guide, Marchand wiped his hands in an exaggerated fashion — not a taunt with which the Canucks players found much pleasure.

“That’s something I shouldn’t have done,” Marchand said. “It was a little childish. They were yelling at me from the bench and that was just how I reacted. I kind of wish I didn’t do it.”

That being said, the motion didn’t light a fire in the dejected Canucks nor did it earn Marchand a trip to the penalty box. Perhaps riding that line involves a bit of luck, but it doesn’t hurt when you’re a legitimate NHL player. Marchand boldly claimed he would score 20 goals this season and seemed like he would be far off that pace with five goals midway through the season. Bruins coach Claude Julien reminded him of his claim and perhaps that pumped him up because he scored 16 in his last 39 games to hit 21 for the regular season.

He hasn’t slowed down in the playoffs, either. A great Game 4 performance propelled him into the scoring lead among postseason rookies, with his 15 points giving him a one-point edge on San Jose Sharks standout Logan Couture.

If you told the Bruins a rookie would be a key facet to their playoff run, they’d probably expect it to be Tyler Seguin. Yet while Seguin struggles to earn Julien’s trust and score with regularity, Marchand has become a fixture on the Bruins’ solid second line. His teammates have taken notice, too.

Marchand has already tied the rookie record for most goals by a Boston player in one playoff year; one more goal would move him into the top 20 in franchise history for a single postseason.

“He’s not a pest to his teammates, that’s for sure,” goaltender Tim Thomas said. “I think he’s a great player who brings energy and effort every night, basically — and that helps the team. The last two games, Game 3 and Game 4, he had huge goals for us, beautiful goals for us that were skill goals. On top of that energy and effort that he brings every night, he has skill.”

Despite all of these positive thoughts, Marchand is still working to harness his game. That means there will be steps forward and backward as his career marches on. We’ll see if he – and his team – take another step in the right direction in Game 5 tonight.

Lonnie Cameron, hockey-tough linesman, shakes off puck to head (Video)

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Talking about hockey toughness is pretty much a trope at this point, yet there are still moments that impress even the cynical among us.

Linesman Lonnie Cameron accomplished that for many on Tuesday, as he returned to the Nashville Predators – Vancouver Canucks game despite taking a puck to the head in a scary moment.

Judging by the Twitter feed of Brooks Bratten from the Predators’ website, Cameron missed mere minutes of time.

So, yeah, it seems like Cameron qualifies as “hockey tough.”

As far as the game itself went, the Canucks beat the Predators 1-0 thanks to Henrik Sedin‘s goal (his 999th point) and Ryan Miller‘s 30-save shutout.

Is this more than just a slump for Henrik Lundqvist?

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People have been wondering for years if Henrik Lundqvist would finally fall off track and, you know, look human. After the New York Rangers’ zany 7-6 loss to the Dallas Stars, those rumblings are probably getting a little louder.

Don’t expect the Rangers to throw their star goalie under the bus, though, especially after a wide-open game like Tuesday’s goal-filled game at Madison Square Garden.

In fact, Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault is already penciling Lundqvist in for Thursday’s game against the rising Toronto Maple Leafs.

“He’s going to play, he’s going to try real hard, and we’re going to try to play better in front of him,” Vigneault said, according to the New York Post’s Brett Cyrgalis. “This is a team.”

Lundqvist, meanwhile, said about what you’d expect:

Naturally, Lundqvist and plenty of other Rangers threw the word embarrassing around quite a bit to describe this game, or at least the first 40 minutes. It’s just that no one’s really raking Lundqvist over the coals.

Is this time different?

Again, Lundqvist is no stranger to struggles, even if he struggles less often than just about any franchise goalie in recent memory.

Still, the sample size is getting large enough for this stretch to be a concern for the 34-year-old netminder.

While goal support and stretches of good play open the door for a respectable 18-12-1 record, Lundqvist’s allowing almost three goals per game (2.89 GAA) and has a backup-level .902 save percentage this season. And that’s over 32 games.

Things get even uglier if you focus on more recent events.

He’s allowed 20 goals in his past four starts, including allowing 12 tallies over four periods during the past two games. Lundqvist has a putrid .841 save percentage in January after producing great work in November (.925 save percenate in 11 games) and nice numbers in December (.915 in eight games).

Lundqvist has given up four goals or more on nine different occasions since Nov. 23.

In other words, there are a lot of different ways in which he’s struggling:

Is this a matter of Lundqvist regaining his focus or is “The King” finally abdicating his throne?

The Rangers are going to let him try to work through this. Otherwise, they might just need to hope that this is an off-year and *gulp* at least consider how far (an eventually healthy?) Antti Raanta could take them.

Supporting cast rallies Blackhawks in win against Avalanche

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For much of the season, the Colorado Avalanche’s biggest names have let them down while many believe that the Chicago Blackhawks are getting it done despite a mediocre supporting cast.

On Tuesday, the script was essentially flipped. The Avs’ stars were productive, yet so were lesser-known Chicago forwards like Tanner Kero and Vinne Hinostroza.

The most important narrative stayed the same, however, as the Blackhawks found a way to get by the Avalanche in a 6-4 decision.

The Blackhawks took a 2-1 lead into the second period, but the Avs put together one of their best stretches of this lousy season. Blake Comeau tied it up, Matt Nieto scored his first goal with Colorado and then Matt Duchene answered Chicago’s only goal of the second period (by Kero) to give the Avalanche a 4-3 edge.

The Avalanche doubled Chicago’s shots on goal in the second period, generating an 8-4 edge. It felt like a rare moment where Colorado’s talent actually flexed its collective muscles.

Then the Blackhawks turned it on in the third, generating a 12-5 shot edge of their own and finding a way to win.

Hinostroza ended up making the biggest difference, scoring the tying and game-winning goals before Kero iced it with an empty-netter thanks to an unselfish pass by Jonathan Toews.

(It’s not to say that Chicago’s big names outright slept through this game, either. Toews got that assist and Marian Hossa made a bunch of plays to help make life easier for Hinostroza and Kero.)

This wasn’t always pretty, but the Blackhawks are doing enough to get points night after night. On some nights, that’s the real difference between a contender like Chicago and a languishing squad like Colorado.

Blue Jackets move back to first in Metro, NHL after beating Hurricanes

COLUMBUS, OH - JANUARY 7:  Sergei Bobrovsky #72 of the Columbus Blue Jackets warms up prior to the start of the game against the New York Rangers on January 7, 2017 at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)
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After stumbling for a bit, Tuesday was a reassuring night for the Columbus Blue Jackets.

With a 4-1 win against the Carolina Hurricanes, Columbus moved back to the top of the Metropolitan Division (and thus, the NHL) because they now match the Washington Capitals’ 64 points but have more wins (30 to 29) and hold a game in hand.

Also comforting for Columbus: Sergei Bobrovsky returned to the Blue Jackets net, allowing one goal on 25 shots.

They were probably also happy to see Brandon Dubinsky enjoy a strong night (two goals) and Boone Jenner collect an assist and this absolute beauty of a goal:

The Hurricanes actually did hold a 1-0 lead in this game, but it lasted all of 11 seconds, as that Jenner goal erased that advantage.

The Blue Jackets face the Senators in Columbus on Thursday and then host the Hurricanes once again on Saturday. They follow that up with five straight road games and six of seven away from home beginning on Jan. 22. Columbus will pass another big test if they can stick with the Capitals and the rest of the NHL’s best through that stretch.