What’s the match-up that will help decide Game 7?

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The waiting is over and it’s the day of Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals. Tonight in Vancouver, heroes will be made and hearts will be broken. Champagne will be poured and tears of joy and sadness will both be shed. Tonight’s Game 7 obviously comes with tons of possibilities for how things will shake out, but there’s one match-up in particular that we’ll be drawn to watching tonight because it’s very likely that how both sides handle things will decide who gets to skate around with the Stanley Cup.

With Vancouver being at home and getting last change, the chances that we’ll see the Bruins be able to get their top defensive pairing of Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg out against the line of Henrik Sedin, Daniel Sedin, and Alex Burrows are minimal. While those two will still get their time against them when coach Claude Julien can work things with a quick line change, we’re more than likely going to see the pairing of Andrew Ference and Johnny Boychuk get the opportunity to be stoppers against the Sedin line.

While the Sedins haven’t had tremendous good fortune in getting points during the finals (Daniel has a goal and three assists while Henrik has just one goal) the bulk of their great scoring chances have come at home as coach Alain Vigneault has been able to get them out on the ice away from the top pair of Chara and Seidenberg. Daniel played huge in Game 2 along with Alex Burrows as those two conspired together to virtually beat the Bruins on their own as Burrows scored two goals and assisted on Daniel’s goal.

The kinds of play we’ve seen from the Sedins at home is more what we’re accustomed to from them. They’ve been able to establish their cycle, create chances offensively, and sustain pressure in Boston’s end. That kind of play will be needed tonight and while Tim Thomas has been brilliant all series and more than likely headed towards a Conn Smythe Trophy award win or lose tonight, that sort of pressure can break any goalie. So far in the finals we’ve yet to see Thomas have a bad game at all.

We’re not saying he’s due for one, mind you, but after his shaky play against Tampa Bay that saw him twice give up five goals in Florida getting the right match-ups against the top offensive talent is a big deal and it’s one of the reasons why this series has played out the way it has. Tonight, those defensive pairings and how they’re utilized will make all the difference between who goes home smiling and who goes home crying.

Blackhawks fire assistant coach Mike Kitchen

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Stan Bowman promised there’d be changes, and today those changes began.

The Chicago Blackhawks have fired longtime assistant coach Mike Kitchen. A member of Joel Quenneville’s staff since 2010, Kitchen spent seven seasons in Chicago, winning two championships along the way.

“We believe this decision is best for our organization moving forward,” said Bowman, the general manager. “Mike had an impact on two different Stanley Cup championship teams during his tenure in Chicago. We appreciate his many contributions and wish he and his family success in the future.”

Kitchen was in charge of the Blackhawks’ penalty kill, which finished 24th after a terrible start to the regular season.

Though the ‘Hawks only surrendered one power-play goal in four losses to the Predators, Quenneville’s staff was bound to change in the wake of such a disappointing postseason performance.

Quenneville’s other assistant, Kevin Dineen, is still on the staff.

Two days after elimination, Montreal’s focus turns to Price extension

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On Saturday, Carey Price‘s season came to an abrupt end with a Game 6 loss to the Rangers.

On Monday, Price’s offseason got underway.

During his end-of-year media availability, Montreal’s prized netminder was faced with questions about his contract status, foreshadowing what Price will likely be dealing with until pen is put to paper.

Here’s an excerpt of part of the exchange, from Hockey 360:

Q: What are your expectations about your contract situation?

Price: I don’t have any worries about it. I’m sure it’ll all take care of itself.

Q: Would you be open to talk about an extension for July 1?

Price: Yeah, of course. I love playing here. I’m sure we’ll figure something out.

Price, who turns 30 this August, is heading into the last of a six-year, $39 million deal with a $6.5M average annual cap hit. As mentioned, he’s eligible to sign an extension on the first of July, and there’s already been speculation as to what that deal would look like.

Armed with leverage at negotiating table — the 2015 Hart Trophy, nominated for the Vezina in two of the last three years — it’s feasible Price could command similar money to Henrik Lundqvist, currently the NHL’s highest-paid netminder (a seven-year, $59.5 million deal with an $8.5M cap hit).

But there are factors to consider.

The first, of course, is that Habs GM Marc Bergevin has other significant spending to do this summer. Alex Radulov, who finished second on the team in scoring during the regular season and led the Habs in the playoffs, is an unrestricted free agent. Per reports, he’s looking to cash in.

Alex Galchenyuk, the former 30-goal scorer and at one point the club’s No. 1 center of the future, is a pending RFA. That negotiation alone will be fascinating.

Price was asked about his negotiations, and how they might reflect the club’s need to be cost-effective in order to remain competitive. He dodged it artfully — “that’s a tough question to be asking me right now,” he said — but later acknowledged he understood the business side of things, and that the club is currently in its Stanley Cup window.

“I want to stay here,” he explained. “[I want to] figure out a way to make all the pieces fit, and bring a championship here.”

Five impressive stats from the first round

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.976Pekka Rinne‘s save percentage in four games against Chicago, all of them victories, two of them shutouts. Rinne only allowed three goals on 126 shots by the Blackhawks, who had all sorts of trouble generating quality scoring chances against the tight-checking Predators. Though Rinne may not have had the toughest saves to make, he kept the mistakes to a minimum, and he was a big reason for the sweep.

11 — Points for Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin, who had two goals and nine assists in five games against Columbus. Malkin is now just seven points shy of the 18 he registered in last year’s playoffs, and that took 23 games. His career high in the postseason is 36 points, which earned him the 2009 Conn Smythe Trophy.

29.4% — Washington’s power play in six games against the Maple Leafs. That’s not the highest success rate in these playoffs — Calgary’s was 37.5 percent, Pittsburgh’s 33.3 percent — but in a series that saw five games go to overtime, the Caps could’ve easily been eliminated if they hadn’t converted five times with the man advantage. Alex Ovechkin scored twice on the PP, while T.J. Oshie, Justin Williams, and John Carlson got the other three.

9 — Different goal-scorers for the Edmonton Oilers, who showed they can be more than just Connor McDavid in defeating the Sharks in six. True, McDavid led the Oilers with four points (2G, 2A). But it was bottom-six winger Zack Kassian who played the hero early on, with back-to-back winning goals in Games 2 and 3. Then David Desharnais notched the winner in Game 5, followed by Anton Slepyshev in Game 6.

5 — Points for Ducks rookie defenseman Shea Theodore (2G, 3A) in four games against the Flames. Only Erik Karlsson has more points (6) among d-men in these playoffs, and Karlsson played six games against the Bruins. Theodore downplayed his postseason production, telling reporters, “You get good bounces every once in a while.” But the 21-year-old put up piles of points in junior, and he did the same in the AHL. So really, we shouldn’t be all that surprised that he’s doing it in the NHL now.

Wild owner confirms Fletcher safe as GM

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After a disappointing first-round playoff exit, Minnesota Wild owner Craig Leipold has given GM Chuck Fletcher a vote of confidence.

Per the Star-Tribune, Leipold confirmed on Sunday that Fletcher’s job was safe, potentially to quiet speculation about the longtime GM’s job security in the wake of a disappointing finish.

But Leipold’s vote of confidence also provides an interesting backdrop for when Fletcher meets with the media this week.

There’s no denying that, after a 49-win and 106-point campaign, crashing out in five games to St. Louis — and to former head coach Mike Yeo — is unacceptable. But how Fletcher positions this will be telling. There’s a chance he could pin the Wild’s lack of success on the tremendous goaltending of Jake Allen, much like head coach Bruce Boudreau did. He could also argue Minnesota was, by nearly every metric, the better of the two teams over the course of the series, and chalk up the loss to a lack of puck luck.

But that won’t be easy.

This marks Minnesota’s second consecutive first-round exit, having been bounced in six games by Dallas last year. And it comes after Fletcher went big at the trade deadline, acquiring Martin Hanzal and Ryan White from Arizona in exchange for a bevy of draft picks.

“We’re just putting our chips in the middle of the table for this year,” Fletcher said at the time, per NHL.com. “We like our group and we think our players deserve the best chance possible to compete [and want to] see what we can do. Again, nothing’s promised and we know it will be tough, but I think our thought is we may as well take a swing and see how far we can go.”

More: Fletcher went all-in at the deadline, and now… this

At this stage, the GM has some serious questions to ask of his team. How much longer can things revolve around the aging core of captain Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter? All have been quality players during their time with the Wild, but two facts cannot be ignored: 1) Koivu just turned 34, while Parise and Suter turn 33 later this year, and 2) the trio has never made it past the second playoff round.

Interestingly, Leipold has suggested the current group might not be championship caliber. “I don’t know, they could surprise me,” he said in January. “But I don’t think we’ve got that type of team. We haven’t built it yet.”

And to be fair, the Wild do have building blocks in place for the future.

Four of Fletcher’s draftees starred on the international stage at the 2017 World Juniors — Kirill Kaprizov, Joel Eriksson-Ek, Jordan Greenway and Luke Kunin — and it has to be exciting that a pair of young skaters, Mikael Granlund and Nino Niederreiter, took significant leaps forward this season.

Granlund, 25, led the team in scoring with 69 points and emerged as one of the club’s most important players. Niederreiter, 24, posted career highs in points (57) and goals (25), suggesting he’s also ready to embrace a bigger role with more responsibility.

And to that end, Fletcher has huge decisions to make on both players, who are pending RFAs. The Wild don’t have a ton of financial flexibility, and it’s fair to suggest Granlund (who made $3M last season) and Niederreiter ($2.66M) will both need significant raises.

There’s a lot of work for Fletcher to do this summer.

But at least he’ll get a chance to do it.