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?

Ducks deny rally, end Penguins’ winning streak

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When Ondrej Kase cashed in on another breakaway opportunity for the Ducks to make it 4-1 in the second period, it looked like that goal would be icing on the cake for Anaheim. Even if it would be especially pretty frosting.

Instead, that stylish goal ended up being critical, as the Pittsburgh Penguins nearly rallied in the third period to at least send Wednesday’s game to overtime. John Gibson ended up holding down the fort, and with an empty-netter in the dying seconds, the Ducks ended up beating the Penguins 5-3.

You could call it a game of periods and close calls.

The Penguins entered the first intermission thanks to a 1-0 Evgeni Malkin goal, but the Ducks dominated the middle frame with their first four-goal period of 2017-18. The Penguins’ prolific power play helped them stay in the game (2-for-4, with both goals coming during that third-period comeback bid), but the rally fell short. Pittsburgh’s winning streak ended at four victories.

Some bounces went both ways, as Antoine Vermette nearly scored for the Ducks while Carl Hagelin suffered a near-miss. So maybe those missed opportunities cancel each other out?

From the Ducks’ perspective, this is the latest argument in favor of this team being a threat now that key pieces have returned to the lineup. This win begins what they hope is a successful five-game homestand, as Anaheim still needs to battle for its own playoff hopes.

The Penguins can’t ruminate on this loss for very long. They head to Los Angeles to face what must be a frustrated Kings team (four straight defeats, only two wins in their last eight games) on Thursday, with little reason to expect any mercy.

This last stretch of wins improved the Penguins’ outlook, but dropping games in back-to-back nights could make things tense again in a hurry. You can check out that Penguins – Kings game on NBCSN Thursday.

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.

Willie O’Ree celebrates 60th anniversary of debut with Bruins

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BOSTON (AP) Hockey pioneer Willie O’Ree was honored in Boston on Wednesday on the 60th anniversary of the Bruins forward breaking the NHL’s color barrier.

At a news conference at the TD Garden before the Bruins game against the Montreal Canadiens, Mayor Marty Walsh declared Jan. 18, 2018 to be “Willie O’Ree Day”. O’Ree made his debut in 1958 during a 3-0 victory against the Canadiens at the Forum in Montreal.

Walsh called O’Ree a Boston legend who changed the city for the better and thanked him for his courage. As part of the celebration, the city dedicated a new street hockey rink in the Allston-Brighton neighborhood to be known as Willie O’Ree Rink.

A native of Canada, O’Ree, 82, had four goals and 10 assists in 45 games over parts of two NHL seasons. He spent a total of 21 years in pro hockey.

For the past two decades, O’Ree has served as the NHL’s Diversity Ambassador, spreading the message that hockey is for everyone.

More AP NHL hockey at https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

Bruins cruise vs. Canadiens in Julien’s return to Boston

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Don’t blame Claude Julien if Wednesday made him think of better times, and not just because it was his welcome back night in Boston.

Coming into this one, it was a tale of two teams going in opposite directions, and the teams stuck to their scripts. The Boston Bruins remain red-hot with a 4-1 win, while the Montreal Canadiens are mired in mediocrity .. or worse?

When you’re as disappointing as the Canadiens have been, plenty of things are going wrong. It was a weak start even with a 1-0 lead and 1-1 first period in mind, and it obviously didn’t get any better.

Nights like these have to sting for Julien, a coach known for his sophisticated systems and eye for defensive detail.

There are questions about Max Pacioretty possibly being trade bait. People wonder if Jonathan Drouin or Alex Galchenyuk fit as centers, or if neither work that way. Yet, these performances make you realize that as exasperated as management must be, they may also appreciate more specific distractions.

Because, frankly, this was a team … non-effort.

Then again, the Bruins are a red-hot squad, so maybe they shine an especially harsh light on the Habs’ haplessness?

Boston generated a 32-22 shots on goal advantage in this one, with multiple contributors stepping up. Big guns came through (Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak were among the goal scorers, Patrice Bergeron collected two assists), while David Backes and others added to the fun.

It was the kind of effort Julien would have been very happy with, if it didn’t come at his expense.

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.

WATCH LIVE: Pittsburgh Penguins at Anaheim Ducks

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PROJECTED LINEUPS

Pittsburgh Penguins

Dominik SimonSidney Crosby — Daniel Sprong

Carl HagelinEvgeni MalkinPatric Hornqvist

Conor ShearyJake GuentzelPhil Kessel

Tom KuhnhacklRiley SheahanRyan Reaves

Brian DumoulinKris Letang

Olli MaattaJustin Schultz

Matt HunwickJamie Oleksiak

Starting goalie: Tristan Jarry

[NHL on NBCSN doubleheader: Canadiens vs. Bruins; Penguins vs. Ducks]

Ducks

Rickard RakellRyan GetzlafCorey Perry

Derek GrantRyan KeslerJakob Silfverberg

Nick RitchieAdam HenriqueOndrej Kase

Chris WagnerAntoine VermetteJ.T. Brown

Cam FowlerKevin Bieksa

Hampus LindholmJosh Manson

Francois BeaucheminBrandon Montour

Starting goalie: John Gibson