Paul Gaustad, Andrew Ference

Trendy Sabres vs. defending champion Bruins: Who’s the favorite in the Northeast?

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When it comes to making playoff predictions or choosing players in fantasy hockey, it’s just so much more fun to side with a trendy pick. Sure, it was probably the right move to select Ray Rice in the first round in fantasy football, but it didn’t provide the visceral thrill of a riskier move.

Many hockey pundits are locked in debates regarding the Northeast Division favorite: is it wiser to side with the defending champion Boston Bruins or the Buffalo Sabres (the champions of splashy off-season moves)? From what I gathered, a startling amount are going chic with the Sabres. (A few might even lean toward the Montreal Canadiens, which is batty if you consider their defense but intriguing when you ponder their easier schedule.)

It’s tough to figure out why people are discounting the Bruins after they won the 2011 Stanley Cup. Maybe it’s because the focus of that championship round shifted toward Roberto Luongo’s meltdowns rather than Tim Thomas’ brilliance. Perhaps the problem is that the Bruins were good during the 2010-11 season, but they weren’t overwhelming favorites like the last three champions. The Bruins’ biggest stars are a huge defenseman and an unorthodox goalie, so maybe the hunger for marquee offensive talent has something to do with it.

Either way, it is a tough race to call.

The case for the champs

The Bruins feature the best defenseman in Zdeno Chara. You can generate hours of debate about which team has the better American star in net, but the Bruins’ combined duo gets the nod because Tuukka Rask is more proven than Jhonas Enroth. Boston’s group of centers is impressive even with Marc Savard hurtling toward retirement; one assumes that the hockey world will give Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci more respect sooner or later. Derek Roy should be outstanding if he is 100 percent, but the Sabres’ pivots don’t seem quite as sturdy – especially if Ville Leino ends up being their second line center, as many expect. (That’s not to say that Tyler Ennis and Nathan Gerbe lack talent if they’re in center spots this season – it’s just that they’re likely to get pushed around defensively.)

Depth is the key in Buffalo

That’s not to say that Buffalo goes into this battle without any weapons, though. Their advantage can be summarized with one word: depth. Their defense is much more versatile now that they added Christian Ehrhoff and Robyn Regehr. Leino complements an offense that has a plethora of dangerous wingers, from Thomas Vanek to Jason Pominville and Drew Stafford.

The depth argument does make some sense in the regular season, but it’s still surprising to see so many people brush off the Bruins’ hardware – mainly because people usually follow champions like lemmings.

In a way, this is battle between change and stability. The Sabres seem radically different while the Bruins only made minor alterations to a team that won three seven-game series and their first Cup since the days of Bobby Orr. Picking Boston isn’t as fun as siding with Buffalo, but if you ask me, it’s the best bet.

Sadly, Crosby praise still comes at Ovechkin’s expense

TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 24: Alex Ovechkin #8 and Sidney Crosby #87 shake hands following Team Canada's  5-3 victory to move on to the finals during the World Cup of Hockey at the semifinal game during the World Cup of Hockey tournament at Air Canada Centre on September 24, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  (Photo by Dennis Pajot/Getty Images)
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Here’s a homework assignment for you: praise Sidney Crosby‘s incredible work without downgrading Alex Ovechkin.

Yes, it’s not easy.

ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun presented an interesting column that spotlighted an admittedly “tired narrative” while still ultimately pumping up Crosby at Ovechkin’s expense.

LeBrun quoted anonymous executives who, yes, trotted out tired narratives. One executive did the baseball thing in making it Crosby (“five-tool guy”) vs. Ovechkin (“home run hitter”) while another equated it to a full-court player vs. a “half-court” player.

It’s all … well, tiresome.

Ovechkin may not have had the greatest game of his life on Saturday, but watching that game, was the takeaway really that he let Russia down? That the difference between the two teams was, in any way, about Crosby over Ovechkin?

You can throw out all sorts of stats or lean on the eye test to note how over-matched Russia really was in that game. Or you can consider the defensemen Russia dressed in a best-on-best clash:

Dmitry Kulikov, Dmitry Orlov, Nikita Zaitsev, Alexey Marchenko, Alexei Emelin, Andrei Markov and Nikita Nesterov.

Yikes.

Search your soul for a second and ask: how uneasy would an NHL team feel about that group of blueliners? Such a collection would struggle against one of the league’s 30 squads, let alone against a virtual All-Star team.

Is Crosby better than Ovechkin? There’s a strong chance that is the case, because of the whole “Crosby probably being the best player of his generation” thing.

How about this for a daring idea, though: why not enjoy the work of both players?

Ovechkin is easily the best sniper of his generation, and with 82 points in 84 career playoff games, sure seems like a strong big-game player. As we all know, hockey is a team sport, yet the blame falls on Ovechkin again and again.

Instead, let’s give Crosby and the rest of his brilliant teammates our attention, as we’ve seen here, here and here.

Datsyuk made some magic in North American ‘final act’

MOSCOW, RUSSIA - MAY 19: Pavel Datsyuk #13 of Russia skates against Germany at Ice Palace on May 19, 2016 in Moscow, Russia. (Photo by Anna Sergeeva/Getty Images)
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TORONTO (AP) Pavel Datsyuk’s North American magic show had one final act.

Months after deciding to leave the NHL and go home to Russia, the Detroit Red Wings great showed off his fanciful skillset one last time on this side of the ocean at the World Cup of Hockey. A lower-body injury may have cut his tournament short but not before another remarkable performance against players 15 to 20 years younger.

Datsyuk’s legs aren’t what they used to be at age 38, but he was a difference maker killing penalties and keeping up with the pace of a lightning-fast end-to-end victory against Team North America that helped Russia advance. He missed Russia’s round-robin finale Thursday against Finland and was scratched again from the lineup Saturday night against Canada.

Datsyuk left a lasting memory on the NHL, especially to his peers who appreciate his play the most from watching him up close.

“Oh, he’s unbelievable,” said Russian star Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins. “You do not see much what he (can) do because he’s so professional. He’s (the) most professional I’ve ever seen.”

Datsyuk had 314 goals and 604 assists in 953 games for the Red Wings over 14 seasons. But his play with the puck is more memorable than the points he scored with it, so much so that Apple’s virtual assistant, Siri, used to recognize Datsyuk as “the magic man.”

Mike Babcock, who coached Datsyuk in Detroit before joining the Toronto Maple Leafs, said the Russian was a pleasure to be around and someone he learned a lot from. Babcock, who’s coaching Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews with Canada for a third time, knows Datsyuk wasn’t as prodigious as those stars who were elite as teenagers but said he made a major impact when he entered the NHL at age 21.

“His span, I don’t know how many years it was, in my opinion he was the best forward in hockey in that time,” Babcock said Thursday. “Lots of people would say somebody else scored more points. He was the best player in hockey up front for a period of time with and without the puck.”

Datsyuk made it look as if he had the puck on a string and was among the best at knocking it away from opponents. Four times he won the Lady Byng Trophy awarded to the player who exemplifies sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of ability.

That standard hasn’t faded. Russia coach Oleg Znarok said in Datsyuk’s case, “age doesn’t matter.”

“He is responsible for a lot of roles on our team like penalty kill,” he said through an interpreter. “Definitely one of the best players.”

Datsyuk signed with SKA St. Petersburg to finish his playing career in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League. He has great respect from the game’s top players, and those who played with him understand that the most.

“Talking with guys on (the U.S.) team and guys that I’ve come across, (they know) just how good he is with the puck and his takeaways,” former Red Wings teammate Justin Abdelkader said. “He practices every day. A lot of people don’t see, but he’s always playing after games, small-area games or 1-on-1 with players. It just shows his commitment and how good he is.”

As exciting as watching Datsyuk in games has been for fans for over a decade, Abdelkader isn’t the only player in awe of his practice habits. Russian teammate Vladislav Namestnikov called Datsyuk “unreal” and figures he’ll get better just from soaking in how his elder prepares for games in the gym and after practice.

Injuries have hampered Datsyuk and he was traded at the draft – to the Arizona Coyotes to give Detroit cap relief. He’s on the Coyotes’ roster this season despite playing in the KHL, where he already has seven points in six games.

Datsyuk leaving with one year left on his contract may have rubbed some people the wrong way, but Babcock points out it happened for the right reason.

“Age catches up to all of us,” Babcock said. “But he’s still an effective player and he’s chosen to go home to be around his family and that’s good for Pavel.”

Follow Stephen Whyno on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SWhyno .

The Crosby-Marchand Duo is dominating the World Cup

TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 24: Brad Marchand #63 of Team Canada is congratulated by his teammates Sidney Crosby #87, Drew Doughty #8, Patrice Bergeron #37 and Alex Pietrangelo #27 after scoring a second period goal at the semifinal game during the World Cup of Hockey tournament at Air Canada Centre on September 24, 2016 in Toronto, Canada.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Canada has been, by far, the most dominant team at the 2016 World Cup, and thanks to their 5-3 win over Russia on Saturday night they are on their way to the championship round.

Leading the way for them has been the line of Sidney Crosby, Brad Marchand, and Patrice Bergeron. It has been, by far, the best line in the tournament, and they put on an especially dominant show on Saturday.

While Bergeron has been his usual rock-solid self, playing shut down defense and just playing great two-way hockey all over the ice, the Crosby-Marchand connection has been especially dominant for Canada on the scoreboard. Of the 19 goals scored by Canada through Saturday, one of those two players has had a hand in seven of them, including three on Saturday.

Crosby started everything with this individual effort to force a turnover and then beat Sergei Bobrovsky.

Later, he set up Marchand to tie the game at two after Russia had briefly taken the lead.

It should be no surprise that Crosby is putting on a show because, well, that is what he does. When you put him with a pair of great two-way players like Bergeron and Marchand and it should be a great fit.

But let’s talk about Marchand for a second, because he is really starting to make a name for himself as a top-line scorer. This tournament, even if it is a small four-game sampling at this point, has helped continue his transformation from always being considered nothing more than a pest that was also a pretty good hockey player to a legitimate top-line goal-producing force. This performance is no accident. Just remember that he scored 37 goals during the 2015-16 season (the sixth most in the NHL) and did not experience a significant jump in his shooting percentage (he actually shot slightly lower than his career shooting percentage), indicating that it may not have been a fluke performance. He simply took on a bigger role in the Bruins offense by receiving an extra two minutes of ice-time per game and being counted on to be a bigger part of the offense. He finally had a chance to shine offensively, and he took advantage of it.

The other thing that makes the obvious chemistry between Crosby and Marchand fascinating at this point is that it has already started the rumor mill for a potential reunion of the duo in Pittsburgh at some point given Marchand’s contract situation. Given the salary cap situations that is probably getting a little too far ahead, but it is at the very least an interesting “what if” discussion to be had.

Marchand is currently entering the final year of his contract and has not yet been re-signed by the Bruins.

No matter where he ends up signing, whether it is with Boston or another team, his next contract is probably going to be an impressive one.

Canada advances to World Cup final with 5-3 win over Russia

TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 24: Corey Perry #24 of Team Canada is congratulated by his teammate Shea Weber #6 after scoring a third period goal against Team Russia at the semifinal game during the World Cup of Hockey tournament at Air Canada Centre on September 24, 2016 in Toronto, Canada.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Through two periods on Saturday night it looked as if Sergei Bobrovsky was going to give Russia a real chance to steal their World Cup semifinal game against Canada.

At that point he was still almost single handedly holding off a relentless Canadian offensive zone push and keeping his team in the game.

And then Canada finally kicked the door down in the third period on their way to a 5-3 win to advance to the World Cup final.

Canada will now play the winner of Sunday’s Sweden-Team Europe game in a best-of-three championship series to determine the winner of the tournament. That series will begin on Tuesday night.

Even though the score was tied through two periods on Saturday and the outcome of the game was still very much in doubt, this was still a pretty dominant performance from Canada from start to finish.

They completely shut down the Russian power play (which was abysmal throughout the entire tournament) and spent most of the night playing in the Russian end of the rink. They ended up finishing the game with a commanding 47-34 edge on the shot chart, and had it not been for a spectacular goaltending performance from Bobrovsky this game could have easily been even more lopsided on the scoreboard. Don’t let the five goals against fool you when it comes to Bobrovsky’s performance, either. He really was great.

The final score is simply a testament to just how good this Canadian team is, and how good it was on Saturday in all phases of the game.

They were great defensively, while the top line of Sidney Crosby, Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron combined for three more goals in the win, including a highlight reel individual effort from Crosby in the first period to open the scoring.

Corey Perry and John Tavares also added goals for Canada to help them build a 5-2 lead before Artemi Panarin added a goal in the closing seconds for Russia to help make the score look a little closer than the game actually was.

Nikita Kucherov and Evgeny Kuznetsov also scored for Russia.

Since the start of the 2014 Olympics, Team Canada is now 10-0 in best-on-best tournaments and has outscored its opponents by a 36-9 margin in those games.

It is going to take an incredible effort from either Sweden or Team Europe to beat them two times over the next week.