‘Hawks GM: Goaltending was “not our strength this year”

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Stan Bowman admitted the obvious today when the Blackhawks’ general manager met with reporters to discuss his team’s second straight first-round elimination.

“Our goaltending in general was not our strength this year,” Bowman said, as reported by the Chicago Tribune. “I don’t think it’s fair to lay the blame on [Corey Crawford]. You win as a team and you lose as a team. We need to be stronger defensively and that includes our team commitment to defense, not simply the goaltender and not simply the defensemen. It’s really a team concept.

“Individually, [Crawford] has to be better. He would agree on that. As a team we have to make a stronger commitment to playing fundamentally sound hockey without giving up on the offensive side.”

What Bowman plans to do about the goaltending is the big question. The Blackhawks have Crawford under contract through 2013-14 and they just re-signed backup Ray Emery for next season.

That said, both goalies account for less than $4 million in cap space, so there’s flexibility to make moves. Hey, we hear Roberto Luongo is available, and wouldn’t that be something. (Yeah, that’s not happening.)

Some other topics Bowman addressed:

—- Unlike Eddie Olczyk, he’s fine with Patrick Kane playing second-line center and doesn’t understand why there’s been so much talk about the position. “Not only did our team play well when he was in the middle, he played well.”

—- The power play (26th, 15.2%) has to get a lot better. “The results speak for themselves. A huge disappointment this year. The power play was unacceptable to have the caliber of players we do and not have it work.”

—- In a possibly related story, Bowman denied his relationship with coach Joel Quenneville was strained: “Obviously there was a challenge when we had the long losing streak — if anything we came together as a unit.” Bowman didn’t say this, but assuming Quenneville sticks around,  it’s extremely possible the guy in charge of the power play, assistant coach Mike Kitchen, won’t.

—- The Blackhawks haven’t decided which unrestricted free agents they’re going to bring back. All Bowman would say is, “We’re not going to bring everybody back.” Pending UFAs include Andrew Brunette, Brendon Morrison, Jamal Mayers and Johnny Oduya, the latter of which Bowman is “very interested in continuing to talk to his group about where he fits in with our team next year.”

Mario Lemieux is ‘fine’ with Josh Ho-Sang wearing number 66

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Believe it or not, many people have an issue with Islanders rookie Josh Ho-Sang wearing number 66, but it sounds like former Penguins great Mario Lemieux isn’t one of them.

On Thursday, Lemieux made it clear that Ho-Sang using his number wasn’t an issue.

“I’m fine with it,” Lemieux said via a spokesperson, per the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “It’s just a number. Number 4 and number 9 were worn by great players (Bobby Orr and Gordie Howe, respectively), and they are not retired forever. Players can choose whatever number they want.”

 Unlike the number 99, the NHL hasn’t retired 66, which means any player can still use it.

Some see it as a sign of disrespect, but Ho-Sang has made it clear that that’s the last thing on his mind when he decided he wanted to wear Lemieux’s old number.

“It’s honoring [Lemieux] and just, I think a lot more people remember who he is now because they’re yelling at me about wearing the number, right? I think that’s cool too,” he told Newsday earlier this month. “There’s a lot of light being shined on an amazing player. By no means am I trying to be better than or trying to prove anything. For me, it’s definitely a tribute to a great player. If he asked me not to wear it, I’d definitely consider it, but I haven’t gotten any phone calls or anything. So for now I’m gonna wear it.”

Even though Lemieux has now given his blessing, don’t be surprised if Penguins fan are all over Ho-Sang during Friday’s game between the two teams at PPG Paints Arena.

PHT Morning Skate: Matt Duchene helps fan land a prom date

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Matt Duchene may be having a tough season, but he picked up a terrific assist on Thursday night, as he flipped a puck to a fan and helped her get a prom date in the process. (Top)

–Sportsnet breaks down the five longest individual playoff streaks. Henrik Zetteberg has the longest active streak, but that’s about to come to an end in the next few weeks. After the Red Wings are officially eliminated from the playoffs, Sharks defenseman Paul Martin will own the longest streak. (Sportsnet)

–As you may have seen, yesterday was National Puppy Day. Several NHL players shared pictures of themselves with their dogs. BarDown has accumulated some of the best ones. (BarDown)

–The Hockey News’ Ken Campbell thinks the NHL could improve the World Cup by taking some ideas from the World Baseball Classic. Campbell writes: “Not only was the World Cup in one country, heck it was in one city, in one arena. The World Baseball Classic, on the other hand, was played in four countries – South Korea, Japan, Mexico and USA, with three different American cities hosting games. If you want to capitalize on the unique passion that many European fans have for the game, you have to bring it to them and make them feel a part of the experience.” (The Hockey News)

Al Montoya is the first Cuban-American player to make it to the NHL, and he spoke to the Montreal Gazette’s Stu Cowan about his heritage. “I’m a first-generation Cuban-American. You don’t really hear that a lot. A lot of these (Cuban) people have been here for a while, so it’s something that’s special to me. Where my grandparents came from … they passed away a few years ago, but for me it was always a sense of pride the way that my grandparents carried themselves. The traditions that we had during the holidays … whatever it might be. (Montreal Gazette)

–The Vegas Golden Knights and Cirque du Soleil have become strategic entertainment partners. This partnership should make in-game entertainment pretty interesting. “Cirque du Soleil has had a significant presence in Las Vegas since 1992 and continues to be one of the most popular entertainment options in town. We are always looking for creative ways to enhance the overall fan experience at our home games and this partnership certainly helps advance that objective.” (NHL.com/GoldenKnights)

A big night for the rookies and a big win for the Maple Leafs

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William Nylander helped get Toronto started on Thursday, extending his point streak to 10 games — a new Maple Leafs franchise record for a rookie.

Connor Brown finished it with his 17th goal of the season, securing a 4-2 win for the Maple Leafs over the New Jersey Devils.

Toronto has won three in a row and moves three points clear of Boston for third in the Atlantic Division, with a game in hand, which further helps the Maple Leafs’ playoff chances with nine games remaining on their schedule.

Just another big night for Toronto’s impressive crop of rookies.

Auston Matthews had a pair of assists.

— Nylander had a goal and an assist. He set one and tied another franchise rookie record on Thursday.

Mitch Marner had an assist, giving him 40 helpers this season, which ties the franchise rookie record set in 1943-44.

“They’re good players,” said coach Mike Babcock, per the Toronto Star. “I didn’t know Marner would make the team. I knew Matthews and Nylander were good players. I knew Brown and (Zach) Hyman were relentless. I had no idea (Nikita) Zaitsev was as close to how good he is.

“We have lots of good players.”

In May of 2015, Babcock predicted at his introductory press conference that the Maple Leafs would, during their massive rebuild, endure “pain.” This was, he said, to be a long process — a “massive, massive challenge.”

Approaching the two-year anniversary of that event — after all the losing that franchise and its fan base has gone through, which obviously helped them with the Matthews lottery last year — the Maple Leafs are poised to make the playoffs with a nucleus of young players that present even more promise for the future.

“We just want to get in to the playoffs, and give ourselves a chance,” continued Babcock. “We’re playing well, and finding a way to win games. That’s what we have to continue to do.”

Capitals defeat Blue Jackets in clash of Metropolitan Division powers

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WASHINGTON (AP) T.J. Oshie scored the shootout winner as the Washington Capitals overcame a stellar performance from Columbus goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky to beat the Blue Jackets 2-1 Thursday night.

Despite 44 saves from Bobrovsky, the Capitals reached 104 points and extended their lead atop the Metropolitan Division and NHL standings. Oshie engendered memories of his Sochi Olympic shootout performance by again beating Bobrovsky, the goalie he scored on four times in six chances that day.

Dmitry Orlov finally cracked Bobrovsky early in the third period on Washington’s 35th shot of the game. Orlov’s goal tied the score after Seth Jones beat Braden Holtby on a wild scramble early in the third for his first goal since Feb. 7.

Holtby had 29 saves in regulation and overtime and three more in the shootout to pick up his 38th victory of the season, one shy of Bobrovsky for the league lead.

A showdown between two of the top three teams in the league jockeying for position atop the Metropolitan Division lacked a playoff feel. But the matchup of two likely Vezina Trophy finalists lived up to that billing as Bobrovsky and Holtby went back and forth with big saves.

Bobrovsky entered the night first in wins, goals-against average and save percentage with Holtby second, second and third in those categories. The 2013 Vezina winner could also be an MVP contender this season given his value to Columbus’ third playoff berth in franchise history.

“When he’s in his game it’s very hard to score on him,” said Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin, who had eight shots stopped by one of his Russian national teammates. “He likes the big moments, he likes pressure. His worth ethic is unbelievable. … In my opinion he’s one of the best goalies in the league right now.”