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Trading places: New goaltenders with pressure to perform next season

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The offseason has been like a giant game of musical chairs for goaltenders around the NHL. There are midseason acquisitions who will be asked to carry the mail from the beginning of the season like Craig Anderson in Ottawa and Dwayne Roloson in Tampa Bay. There were plenty of netminders like J.S. Giguere, Brian Elliott, Mathieu Garon, Brian Boucher, Peter Budaj, and Jeff Deslauriers who found new homes in free agency that are expected to provide adequate back-up goaltending when the starters needs a break. Even Ondrej Pavelec will be trying to impress a new city and fanbase and he’s on the same team. Thank you True North.

Most importantly, there are teams who have handed the keys to the net to newcomers. Sure, there were teams that strengthened their goaltending depth, but there are a few teams that are depending on new goaltenders to carry them to success on a nightly basis next season. Their new teams’ success heavily depends on their ability to adjust to a new city, new fans, new system, and increased expectations.

Each goaltender faces a different set of circumstances that will contribute to the pressure in their new locales. Maybe the team expects to step up and be a playoff contender. Maybe their new team paid a king’s ransom to acquire them in the offseason. Maybe their new team expects the Stanley Cup and nothing less. Each will walk into a different situation—but they all face demands to succeed.

Here are five of the goaltenders who face the most pressure to perform for their new teams next season.

Ilya Bryzgalov (Philadelphia Flyers): Any discussion regarding pressure for goaltenders begins in Philadelphia with Ilya Bryzgalov. By signing the 31-year goaltender to a 9-year, $51 million deal (and other smaller decisions), the team was forced to part ways with Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, and even Kris Versteeg. The team that went to Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final two years ago and was the second best team in the Eastern Conference last season basically blew up the team to build around their new goaltender. The result: the Flyers have more new faces than Bobby Knight in a postgame press conference and there’s great anticipation for Bryzgalov between the pipes next season.

“I want to be the guy who can carry this team. I don’t know what else to say. I want to help this team win the Stanley Cup because people in Philadelphia and the organization have waited long enough.”

At least he understands the expectations in Philly. In Phoenix, a great regular season and a playoff appearance were enough for to keep most fans happy. Next season, fans will expect a great regular season, a playoff berth, and much more.

Semyon Varlamov (Colorado Avalanche): Varlamov has a completely different set of expectations than Bryzgalov—yet still faces plenty of pressure. When the Avalanche gave up both a first and second round pick for the talented former 1st round pick, they loudly stated that they expected him to be the goaltender of the future for their rebuilding team. He’ll need to prove to the fans that he was worth the huge price GM Greg Sherman paid for him at July 1st or the jokes will be coming faster than you can say Phil Kessel. If Varlamov is only an average goaltender and the Avs struggle again next season, the Avalanche could have traded away one of the top picks of next year’s draft. It’ll be Varlamov’s job to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Tomas Vokoun (Washington Capitals): The Washington Capitals have been the best regular season team in the Eastern Conference over the last two seasons—including a Presidents’ Trophy as best regular season team in the NHL. Yet in both years, the team fell apart in the postseason and only managed one series win combined. One of the big question marks surrounding the team (rightfully or wrongly) has been the absence of a veteran goaltender that could carry the Caps deep into the playoffs. Jose Theodore played all of two playoff games in 2008-09 and the rest have been started by guys under the age of 23. When Vokoun fell into Washington’s lap on July 2, he wasn’t expressly given the starting job—but it certainly sounds like it’s his to lose. Over the majority of his career in Nashville and Florida, Vokoun has proven that he’s one of the most underrated goaltenders in the NHL. If he can perform at the highest level next season with the Caps, everyone will know his name.

Mike Smith (Phoenix Coyotes): Smith may have the most thankless job ahead of him this season. One of the least known people on this list, he’ll be faced with the challenge of replacing one of the best goaltenders over the last two years (Bryzgalov) on a team that has made the playoffs in consecutive years. The consensus opinion is that without elite goaltending by Bryzgalov, Phoenix would have struggled to make the playoffs in either season. This year, fans will find out exactly how important he was to the team—and if Smith is able to fill the large void left by the new Flyers goaltender. Smith knows people will measure him against his predecessor:

“The main thing is I know I’m capable of playing really well. I know ‘Bryz’ did some outstanding things in Phoenix and has had a great career so far and will probably continue to do so in Philly, but I’m not going there with the expectation of surpassing him… I’m just going to go there and take it one game at a time, play up to my capability, and if I do that, good things are going to happen for me.”

Sports cliché’s aside, Smith has the perfect outlook going into his new gig. He’ll just have to go into Phoenix and take advantage of his opportunity as the team’s starter. If Smith can recapture the spark that intrigued the Lightning enough to include him in the Brad Richards trade, the Coyotes may have a guy who could help ease the pain of losing their franchise goaltender.

Jose Theodore (Florida Panthers): The Florida Panthers have certainly made a splash this offseason as Dale Tallon has worked to transform the team from one with potential and prospects to a team with plenty of proven NHL players. As part of his rebuilding plan, he hoped to re-sign Tomas Vokoun to go with all of the new faces. When it was apparent that Vokoun was looking for more money than the Panthers were willing to offer, he quickly moved to Plan B and picked up free agent Jose Theodore. Last season, Theodore had a .916 save percentage and 2.71 goals against average for a poor Minnesota Wild team; this year, he’ll fight with Scott Clemmensen for the starter’s role. The team went out and made plenty of acquisitions this year and expects to fight for the playoffs—but if the goaltending falls apart, there’s no way their team will be able to take the next step from cellar-dweller to playoff team. Theodore’s performance will have a lot to do with the Panthers’ success next season.

Hitch: ‘I see the devastation in our locker room’

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Despite a late comeback attempt, the 2015-16 season came to an end for the St. Louis Blues, as they lost the Western Conference Final in six games to the San Jose Sharks.

And with Wednesday’s loss, the off-season will settle upon the Blues. It will be an intriguing one in St. Louis, starting with their head coach Ken Hitchcock. He’s on a one-year deal and he has already outlined that he’s fine with taking short-term contracts. But is an appearance in the conference final enough to solidify his place behind the St. Louis bench for next year?

The Blues have, according to General Fanager, five pending unrestricted free agent forwards, including Scottie Upshall, Kyle Brodziak, Steve Ott, and most notably Troy Brouwer and David Backes.

Backes, 32, is the team’s captain and coming off a 21-goal, 45-point regular season, which is a decline from the numbers — 26 goals and 58 points — he posted the year before. Brouwer, 30, enjoyed the best post-season of his career, with eight goals and 13 points in 20 games, and he could potentially cash in on that this summer.

However, while there are questions ahead for the Blues, the emotional toll this loss took was clear.

“I see the devastation in our locker room right now. Guys aren’t even able to speak. I’m more worried about our guys right now, to be honest with you. We got some guys that are pretty shook up right now,” said Hitchcock to reporters.

“I’m not going to talk to them for a day or two. They need their space with each other. They’ve bonded together here better than any team I’ve coached in the last 10 years. They need their time together. They don’t need me interrupting them right now. We’ll talk at an appropriate time. But right now they need to be with each other.”

 

Video: So, Joe Thornton is pretty stoked about playing in the Stanley Cup Final

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‘Jumbo’ Joe Thornton is off to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in his career. The San Jose Sharks are off to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in franchise history.

And yeah, the 36-year-old Thornton, a veteran of 1,367 regular season games with 1,341 career regular season points, is pretty excited for both himself and his team when it comes to this feat.

It hasn’t been easy in San Jose. It hasn’t been easy for the franchise, for the fans, for the players, for Thornton or for Patrick Marleau, who is also 36 years old and has played his entire career (1,411 regular season games) in San Jose.

There have been playoff failures and a regular season disappointment last year. There has been a coaching change and harsh words exchanged between Thornton and management — more specifically, GM Doug Wilson — and an organizational decision to remove the captaincy from Thornton.

After all that, however, the Sharks are four wins away from hoisting the Stanley Cup.

Did we mention Joe Thornton is excited about the final?

Franchise history: The Sharks are off to the Stanley Cup Final

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For the first time in franchise history, the San Jose Sharks are off to the Stanley Cup Final.

This, after a monumental and historical collapse in the first round to the L.A. Kings two years ago. This, after they failed to make the playoffs a year ago, resulting in a coaching change. There have been other post-season disappointments along the way before that, too.

Those difficult times may never be forgotten. But the Sharks have rebounded, and it culminated with a 5-2 victory over the visiting St. Louis Blues in Game 6 of the Western Conference Final on Wednesday. Fans at SAP Center could feel it, too, especially after Joel Ward scored his second goal of the night, giving San Jose a three-goal lead early in the third period.

The Blues attempted a furious comeback but couldn’t quite complete it.

The Sharks this year have eliminated the Kings, Nashville Predators and now the Blues in that order. They await the winner of the Eastern Conference Final between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Pittsburgh Penguins.

 

The Sharks got off to the perfect start in the series clincher versus St. Louis. Joe Pavelski recorded his 13th goal, which leads all players in this post-season, and the Sharks continued to roll from there.

Ward increased the lead in the second period and again in the third. His second of the night proved to be the winner. Joonas Donskoi‘s goal, making it 4-0 San Jose before the midway point of the third period, proved critical as the Blues tried to spark a desperation comeback.

The Blues’ leading scorer Vladimir Tarasenko (40 goals, 74 points in the regular season) was held off the score sheet through the first five games of this series, before finally striking for both St. Louis goals in Game 6.

Penguins, Lightning prepare for the ‘roller coaster’ of Game 7

TAMPA, FL - MAY 24:  Ryan Callahan #24 of the Tampa Bay Lightning checks Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game Six of the Eastern Conference Final during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Amalie Arena on May 24, 2016 in Tampa, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images)
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PITTSBURGH (AP) Sidney Crosby is in no mood to get caught up in his own personal narrative, the one eager to attach whatever happens to the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals on Thursday against Tampa Bay to the superstar’s legacy.

Forget that Crosby has the game-winning goal in each of Pittsburgh’s victories in its entertaining back-and-forth with the resilient Lightning. Forget that he hasn’t been on the winning side of a post-series handshake line this deep into the playoffs since his glorious night in Detroit seven years ago, which ended with him hoisting the Penguins’ third Stanley Cup.

Yes, he’s playing well. Yes, his dazzling, imminently GIF-able sprint through the Tampa Bay zone late in the second period of Game 6 added another signature moment to a career full of them. Yet lifting Pittsburgh back to the Cup final for the first time since 2009 does not rely solely on him so much as the collective effort of all 20 guys in his team’s retro black and Vegas gold uniforms.

Related: Vasilevskiy ‘is the big reason we’re in Game 7,’ says Bolts coach Cooper

Depth has carried the Penguins this far. Crosby insists Game 7 will be about the team, not him.

“You give yourself the best chance of winning by keeping it simple and not putting too much emphasis on kind of the story line around it,” Crosby said.

Even if it’s easy to get lost in those story lines. The Lightning are on the verge of a second straight berth in the final despite playing the entire postseason without captain Steven Stamkos and losing Vezina Trophy finalist Ben Bishop in the first period of the conference finals when he twisted his left leg awkwardly while scrambling to get into position.

Yet Tampa Bay has stuck around, ceding the ice to the Penguins for significant stretches but using their speed to counterattack brilliantly while relying on 21-year-old goaltender Andrei Vasilevski. The Lightning are hardly intimidated by having to go on the road in a series decider. They did it a year ago in the Eastern final against New York, beating the Rangers 2-0 in Madison Square Garden.

“You’ve got to go back to a tough environment, just like the Garden was last year,” Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said. “And you’ve got to have your A-game.”

The Lightning hoped to avoid revisiting this spot. They could have closed out Pittsburgh at home but fell behind by three goals and didn’t recover, fitting for a series that appears to be a coin flip as a whole but not so much night to night. The team that’s scored first is 5-1 and there’s only been a single lead change in 18-plus periods spread out over nearly two weeks: Tyler Johnson‘s deflection in overtime that gave Tampa Bay Game 5.

“You always want to play with the lead, and always the first goal is big,” said Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman, who is 7-0 in Game 7s. “But, again, we were down 2-0 in Game 5 and came back from that. So it’s not cut in stone, the outcome of the game, no matter if you’re down a goal or two.”

Maybe, but it’d be cutting it pretty close. Tampa Bay’s rally in Game 5 was Pittsburgh’s first loss when leading after two periods all year. The Penguins responded by going back to rookie goaltender Matt Murray – who turned 22 on Wednesday – and putting together perhaps their finest hockey of the postseason. Their stars played like stars while Murray performed like a guy a decade older with his name already etched on the Cup a few times.

The Penguins will need to rely on Murray’s precocious maturity if it wants to buck a curious trend that started well before Murray was born. Pittsburgh hasn’t won a Game 7 on home ice since Mario Lemieux and company beat New Jersey in the opening round of the 1991 playoffs to escape from a 3-2 series deficit and propel the Penguins to their first championship. The Penguins have dropped five straight winner-take-all matchups since then, including a loss to Tampa Bay in the first round in 2011, a series Pittsburgh played without either Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, who sat out with injuries.

They’re healthy now and showing extended flashes of the form that seemed to have the Penguins on the brink of a dynasty when they toppled Detroit. And the Lightning, who are 5-1 in Game 7s, are hardly comfortable but hardly intimidated as they play on the road.

“I think it’s a roller coaster,” Cooper said. “But Game 7 is Game 7. There’s no two better words than that.”