Tampa Bay Lightning v Boston Bruins - Game Five

Coyotes discuss Mike Smith’s tough task: replacing Ilya Bryzgalov

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Few teams have leaned on their top goalies more than the Phoenix Coyotes did with Ilya Bryzgalov after they acquired him from the Anaheim Ducks. The Russian goalie was in the top 10 in shots faced and saves for four straight seasons, with the 2010-11 season providing his heaviest workload of all. (He ranked third in shots against [2,125] and saves [1,957].)

Some might give head coach Dave Tippett and general manager Don Maloney plenty of credit for guiding the Coyotes to two straight playoff berths amid franchise foibles – and they deserve much of it – but Bryzgalov was far and away the team’s most valuable player. He’ll face a different kind of pressure in Philadelphia, but Bryzgalov should be used to having a heavy burden on his shoulders, if nothing else.

With that workload in mind, we’ll find out an answer to a tough question for Tippett, Maloney and Coyotes goalie coach (and former NHL netminder) Sean Burke coming into next season: can they keep this overachieving run going without that star goalie? Burke admits it won’t be easy.

“Bryz is not exactly replaceable. We know that,” Burke, Phoenix’s goaltending coach, told NHL.com. “So for us, this offseason was about trying to search for the type of goaltending that gives the opportunity to win every night.”

The Coyotes brain trust committed to former Dallas Stars and Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Mike Smith being that man this off-season, giving him a two-year, $4 million contract. Burke, for one, thinks he might have what it takes.

“I think we get a guy that has a lot of upside, but he also has a fair amount of experience and a lot of confidence,” Burke said. “Basically, I think we’re getting the perfect guy at the perfect time.”

(snip)

Consistency hasn’t exactly defined Smith’s career — he’s posted season save percentages of .916 and .912 to go along with two of .899 and .893 — but Burke believes the Coyotes’ new netminder is ready to take his game to the next level.

“With age comes maturity,” Burke said of Smith, who is 29. “He just got married and just had a child. I think there comes a time when a lot of players are ready to take the next step and everything has to come together for you. I think he’s at that stage right now.”

Burke also pumps up Smith’s three games of playoff experience, but let’s face it: that bullet point stretches the boundaries of credibility a bit too much. That being said, Smith has at least two tangible assets going for him: he’s big and can move the puck very well. That second element might be a particular perk for Tippett, whose best coaching years in Dallas came when Marty Turco was at the height of his puck moving and goaltending powers.

Of course, Tippett coached Smith as a backup in Dallas too, so it’s reasonable to think that he was whispering in Maloney’s ear about Smith’s potential as a starter. Ultimately, the Coyotes are betting that Smith will play better than his career averages; a .906 save percentage and 2.71 GAA probably won’t cut it in the brutal Pacific Division. Especially if the low-scoring Coyotes cannot improve their average of 36.2 shots allowed per game from last season, the third worst total in the NHL.

As you can see, the deck might be stacked against Smith and the Coyotes franchise. Then  again, Phoenix have been beating the odds for two straight seasons, so who’s to say they cannot pull off another underdog act in 2011-12?

Khudobin delivered an encouraging performance for the Bruins

Boston Bruins right wing David Pastrnak (88) and left wing Brad Marchand (63) celebrate with goalie Anton Khudobin after he blocked a shot by Carolina Hurricanes left wing Jeff Skinner to win the game, 2-1, in a shootout during an NHL hockey game, Thursday, Dec. 1, 2016, in Boston. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
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Anton Khudobin gave the Boston Bruins a much-needed win last night.

He also gave Tuukka Rask a much-welcomed night off.

The Bruins beat the Hurricanes, 2-1, in a shootout at TD Garden. Khudobin made 29 saves, plus two more in the shootout, including the game-decider on Jeff Skinner.

It was an encouraging performance by Khudobin, who returned to the Bruins net after a conditioning stint in the AHL. It was the first time this season that a Boston goalie other than Rask was credited with a win.

“Very good,” head coach Claude Julien said of Khudobin’s play. “He deserves a lot of accolades tonight, for the way he played, the way he responded after being out such a long time. I think the fact that he went to Providence and played some games there really helped him get back on track. Tonight, he showed that he was ready to play.”

Julien added, “No doubt, there’s a lot of confidence that grew in that dressing room by watching his play and knowing that we’ve got two goaltenders that can play extremely well for us.”

The Bruins did not feel they had good enough backup goaltending the past two seasons, both of which ended outside the playoff picture. And so they bid adieu to Niklas Svedberg and Jonas Gustavsson, bringing Khudobin back into the fold on a two-year contract.

Granted, one win isn’t enough to conclude that Khudobin will be fine. He’s now 1-3-0 with a .902 save percentage, and those numbers could still be much better.

But he’ll be back in there soon enough. The Bruins have 15 more games in December, and Rask isn’t going to play them all.

Blues ‘need more’ from Lehtera, who could be healthy scratched

Jori Lehtera
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Jori Lehtera received one of his lowest ice times of the season in Thursday’s win over Tampa Bay — just 11:21 — and was demoted to the fourth line at Friday’s practice.

If that didn’t send a message, Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock delivered it shortly thereafter.

“We’re going to need more from him,” Hitchcock said, per NHL.com’s Lou Korac. “The position we have him in, we need more from that position.”

Lehtera was signed to a three-year, $14.1 million extension after a solid ’14-15 campaign, in which he scored 14 goals and 44 points in 75 games. His offensive production sagged a bit last year (nine goals, 34 points in 79 games) and he’s gone through some difficult stretches this year.

The 28-year-old Finn had just three points through his first 15 games of the year, but did look as though he’d turned the corner recently. Prior to the Bolts game he had four points in four contests, including his first multi-goal effort of the season (potting a pair in a 4-2 win over Boston).

Clearly, though, Hitchcock thinks there’s more to give.

Per the Post-Dispatch, Hitch said he’s unsure if Lehtera will play on Saturday, when the Blues host the Jets. Nail Yakupov and Ty Rattie both sat out against Tampa Bay, and either one could draw into the lineup.

The Lehtera development comes with the Blues playing some of their best hockey of the year. They’ve won seven of their last eight, and are just four points back of Chicago for top spot in the Western Conference.

Pre-game reading: Some advice for Nolan Patrick

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— Up top, Mike Milbury and Keith Jones discuss the Penguins’ two-goalie situation, which GM Jim Rutherford recently admitted was not working as well as he’d hoped.

Nolan Patrick, the likely first overall pick in the 2017 NHL draft, is currently out with an injury. Tyler Benson, a top draft prospect last year who battled injuries, has some advice for Patrick: “I don’t think he should be worrying about the draft. People know what kind of player he can be. He’s played two years in this league already and he’s dominated. I think he should worry about making sure he’s 100 per cent when he comes back.” Benson was eventually selected 32nd overall by the Oilers. (The Province)

— A couple of weeks ago, Senators owner Eugene Melnyk got mad at the Ottawa Citizen newspaper after an editorial called on him to push for an outdoor game at TD Place. Yada, yada, yada, Melynk is now pushing for an outdoor game at TD Place. (Ottawa Sun)

Hampus Lindholm has been good defensively in his return to the Anaheim Ducks, but with only two assists in his first 11 games, you have to think he’ll want to start contributing more to the offense soon. Lindholm is now the highest-paid defenseman on his team, with a cap hit just over $5 million. And if the Ducks have to trade Cam Fowler at any point, they’ll need Lindholm’s offense even more. That’s just the pressure that comes with a big contract. We’ll see how he fares. (OC Register)

— In 2015-16, no Canadian teams made the NHL playoffs for the first time since 1969-70. So, how are things looking this season? Long story short, quite a bit better. Three of the seven Canadian teams are currently in a playoff spot, and the other four aren’t out of it yet. (TSN)

— What a surprise, the Winnipeg Jets hurt themselves with too many penalties last night against Edmonton. “Those early penalties and how much time we spent in the box early on killed us,” said Bryan Little. “Our PK couldn’t get it done.” This has been a problem for way too long now. Over the last three seasons combined, the Jets have gone shorthanded 686 times, the most in the NHL. Clearly, they aren’t good enough to play with such poor discipline, so perhaps they should figure it out. (Winnipeg Sun)

Enjoy the games!

Goalie nods: It’s Chad Johnson’s net in Calgary

CALGARY, AB - OCTOBER 18: Chad Johnson #31 of the Calgary Flames in action against the Buffalo Sabres during an NHL game at Scotiabank Saddledome on October 18, 2016 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images)
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Chad Johnson, the Flames’ goalie of record in eight of their last 10 games, will once again be in goal when Calgary hosts Minnesota on Friday night.

Johnson, as we’ve written about on numerous occasions, was terrific for the Flames in November, going 7-3-0 with a 1.80 GAA and .939 save percentage. He essentially wrestled the No. 1 gig away from Brian Elliott, and closed out the month in style by posting a 39-save shutout against Toronto on Wednesday.

As a result, Calgary has clawed back from a disappointing start to draw within one point of Nashville for the final wild card spot in the Western Conference (granted, the Flames have played four more games than the Preds).

For the Wild, Devan Dubnyk‘s in goal.

Elsewhere…

— Just one other game this evening, as Montreal takes on the Sharks in San Jose. It promises to be a quality matchup as both teams are rolling with their No. 1s: Carey Price for the Habs, Martin Jones for the Sharks.