Joe Thornton

What a difference a year makes for the California three

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NHL history was made last season as the California-based teams — the San Jose Sharks, L.A. Kings and Anaheim Ducks — all made the playoffs. It was the first time the three qualified for the postseason in the same year and, given how strongly they finished (each had at least 46 wins and 98 points), it looked like the start of a compelling three-way postseason rivalry.

But now, less than a year later, things couldn’t be more different.

The Ducks and Kings both fired their head coaches before Dec. 15 and are in a dogfight for eighth place. The Sharks, meanwhile, have blown their lead in the Pacific Division and face the sobering reality that, halfway through a season-high nine-game road trip, they too are in a playoff battle.

“All of us realize what we’re in for right now,” Joe Thornton told the Mercury News after a 6-3 loss to Columbus. “We’ve pretty much hit bottom now and hopefully we can dig our way out of it because we’re definitely in a race now to get into the playoffs.”

The Columbus loss moved San Jose to 1-4-1 on its nine-game trek and essentially wiped out its division lead. Phoenix is now tied with San Jose on 69 points while Dallas, once thought to be out of the running, is just five points back.

Sharks head coach Todd McLellan says he’s concerned about the current swoon.

“I don’t know if some guys really understand where we are at this point in the season and how the season is dwindling quickly,” McLellan said. “You can’t just come to the rink and wear a jersey. You have to find a way to contribute. There’s been a few that haven’t lately and that’ll be my job tomorrow. We’ll address it in one-on-ones.”

It’s unlikely that none of the California teams will make the playoffs this year, but the possibility is there. If Phoenix overtakes top spot in the Pacific, the Sharks (69 points) would find themselves in the mix for spots seven and eight with L.A. (66), Calgary (65), Dallas (64) and Colorado (62). Anaheim (60) has been hot of late but still has plenty of ground to make up and teams to leapfrog, including the Minnesota Wild (61).

PHT Morning Skate: Shea Weber’s shot has injured a lot of people

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–Blue Jackets assistant coach Brad Shaw took a risk by leaving the Blues organization after 10 years, but it appears to have paid off. He and the rest of the staff have found a way to make the Jackets a competitive team in 2016-17.(Ottawa Citizen

–The San Jose Sharks are giving away “Chia Jumbo Joe Thornton” on Saturday, and they made a pretty cheesy/funny commercial to promote the occasion. (Top)

–Canadiens goalie Al Montoya is the first player of Cuban heritage to play in an NHL game. He’s hoping that his journey to the NHL will inspire others like him to make the leap to the pro ranks. “To play this game from where I came from and my background, it’s who I am and what I’m made of,” said Montoya. “Without the sacrifices my family made to get to the United States and put me in hockey, I wouldn’t be here. The Cuban background is a huge part of what I am.” (NHL.com)

Ryan O'Reilly sat down for a Q&A with ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun. They discussed his new beard, what it was like to play with one of his favorite players, Joe Thornton and why he thinks the Sabres haven’t been very good this season. With Buffalo currently in last place in the East, O’Reilly admits that he could do a better job as one of the leaders on the team. (ESPN)

Shea Weber has one of the heaviest slap shots in the NHL and as you’d imagine, he’s caused a few injuries over the years. According to this list, Weber’s shot has injured 11 people since 2009, including his former GM David Poile and current teammate Max Pacioretty (twice). (BarDown)

–Sportsnet has a “ref cam” on some of their hockey broadcasts. It gives fans a different view of the game, which is pretty cool. Here’s a look at some of the best “ref cam” moments from Wednesday’s game between the Habs and Penguins.

Hitchcock believes Blues’ Allen is ‘locked up mentally’

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 08: Jake Allen #34 of the St. Louis Blues makes the third period save against the New York Islanders at the Barclays Center on December 8, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Things were already rough for the St. Louis Blues and their goalies (particularly still-pretty-newly crowned No. 1 Jake Allen) heading into Thursday, but the Washington Capitals really highlighted those issues in a 7-3 thrashing.

Blues fans and management must be wondering, then: what’s wrong with their goalies, especially with Allen? Head coach Ken Hitchcock seems resigned to allowing him to fight through it, if nothing else.

“There’s a lot going on right now. … He’s kind of locked up mentally and he’s going to have to fight through this,” Hitchock said, according to Lou Korac of NHL.com. “What we see at practice, we like. That’s why we put him in quite frankly.”

Alex Pietrangelo did the typical deflecting thing, nothing that this is a “team” and that there are “no individuals.”

Still, Hitchcock’s longer press conference makes you wonder how much trust there is in Allen and Carter Hutton.

From Hitch’s perspective, it sure sounds like he believes that the Blues are over-correcting to try to limit “goals, shots.” By trying to do too much, they might be putting themselves in bad positions. And that might stem from a lack of confidence in the guys in net, or in the team’s work in their own zone overall.

Let’s be honest. As much as we can play chicken-or-the-egg as far as a defense’s impact on a goalie, it’s tough to explain away save percentages under .900 in the modern NHL. At some point, your team needs more stops.

With the races for the lower spots in the Western Conference’s playoff picture seemingly tightening up, the Blues don’t have a ton of time to figure this out.

Capitals shine glaring light on Blues’ goalie woes

ST LOUIS, MO - MAY 23:  Jake Allen #34 of the St. Louis Blues makes a save during the first period against the San Jose Sharks in Game Five of the Western Conference Final during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Scottrade Center on May 23, 2016 in St Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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If you’re reaction to the headline “Something is off about the St. Louis Blues” was “Yeah, their goaltending,” then Thursday only emboldened that opinion.

It wasn’t just that the Washington Capitals bombarded the Blues by a score of 7-3. It’s that they really didn’t need to fire a whole lot of shots on goal to get to seven.

Here’s a harsh rule of thumb: when both of your goalies play in a game and each one barely makes more saves than goals allowed, that’s an awful night. Take a look at what Jake Allen and Carter Hutton went through:

Allen: six saves, four goals allowed in 25:11 time on ice
Hutton: five saves, three goals allowed in 35:49

Allen got pulled from the contest twice, by the way. He’s been pulled from four games since Dec. 30. Woof.

Even before these horrendous performances, the Blues goalies have been shaky. Hutton came into tonight with an ugly .898 save percentage; Allen wasn’t much better with a .900 mark.

Those are the type of numbers that would make Dallas Stars fans cringe, or at least experience some uncomfortable familiarity.

Now, is it all on Hutton and Allen? Much like with the Stars’ embattled goalies, much of the struggles probably come down to a team struggling in front of them.

Even so, if you assign more of the blame to Allen and Hutton, nights like this Capitals thrashing definitely strengthen your argument. Yikes.

Rangers overwhelm Leafs, make life pretty easy for Lundqvist in win

TORONTO, ON - JANUARY 19:  Henrik Lundqvist #30 of the New York Rangers faces a shot in the warm-up prior to play against the Toronto Maple Leafs in an NHL game at the Air Canada Centre on January 19, 2017 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
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Heading into Thursday, many were wondering how the New York Rangers will handle Henrik Lundqvist‘s struggles. Instead, the focus shifted to the Toronto Maple Leafs’ difficulties, perhaps specifically in dealing with Morgan Rielly‘s absence.

The Rangers handily won this one 5-2, at least giving Lundqvist the win. He wasn’t especially busy, stopping 23 out of 25 shots, so you can probably file his story under “To be continued.”

Lundqvist wasn’t oblivious to his team’s impressive overall play.

Really, it was all about the waves of attackers the Rangers can send at opponents and the trouble that caused for the Maple Leafs. It wasn’t the easiest night for Frank Corrado, in particular, who took a couple costly penalties.

The Rangers’ next two games come in a road contest vs. the Red Wings on Sunday and a home game against the Kings on Monday. Perhaps those matches will serve as a better barometer for where Lundqvist’s really at, as he passed tonight’s test … but it wasn’t a particularly difficult one.