Sami Salo sidelined with lower-body injury

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The Tampa Bay Lightning had to know they were rolling the injury dice by acquiring Sami Salo during the offseason. For 18 games, that gamble paid off, but the fragile defenseman got hurt during Tuesday’s match against the Buffalo Sabres.

Salo, 38, suffered a lower-body injury and won’t return, according to the team.

The hard-shooting blueliner’s ailment will probably draw plenty of “finally” and “who had Feb. 26 in their injury pool?” jokes, but it’s disappointing for Tampa Bay because he’s been such a good fit. Salo has eight points in those 18 games with an impressive +12 rating.

He’s not the only injury risk the Bolts have inherited from the Vancouver Canucks. Mattias Ohlund is also struggling with career-threatening knee problems.

Salo’s $3.75 million cap hit expires after the 2013-14 campaign.

Penguins redefining defense by committee

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When the Pittsburgh Penguins lost defenseman Kris Letang for the entire postseason it was thought be a crushing blow to their chances to repeat as Stanley Cup champions. Especially with a path that was likely to include two of the NHL’s best teams in the first two rounds of the playoffs.

Not only is Letang one of the best defensemen in the world, he is one of the most important cogs in the Penguins’ machine. During last year’s Stanley Cup run he played close to 29 minutes per game and did so at an incredibly high level. Losing that sort of workhorse is nearly impossible to replace.

But even with Letang’s absence (and even additional injuries to defensemen Trevor Daley and Justin Schultz) the Penguins find themselves one win away from returning to the Stanley Cup Final without really having a true No. 1 defenseman to turn to.

This is almost unheard of in today’s NHL.

Every team that goes on a deep run in the playoffs has a minute-eating defenseman that can be counted on to play a significant portion of the game. Letang. Drew Doughty. Duncan Keith. Erik Karlsson. Zdeno Chara. Players like that.

When it comes to the playoffs, teams tend to roll with their top-four defensemen the most and do their best to hide or shelter their third pairing by limiting their minutes as much as they can. The Penguins have not had that luxury without Letang.

That means everybody has had to step up and take on an expanded role. Just about everybody is playing more than they are used to while there is virtually no difference between each role.

First, consider that every team (22 of them) that has reached the Stanley Cup Final since the 2005-06 season has had at least one defensemen average more than 22 minutes of ice-time per game. Twenty-one of those 22 teams have had at least two players log more than 22 minutes, while 18 of them have had at least one player average more than 25 minutes of ice-time per game.

The 2016-17 Penguins currently have none.

Brian Dumoulin is currently their ice-time leader, playing just over 21 minutes per game.

Let’s take a look at what that looks like from a usage perspective.

The table here looks at this year’s Penguins, the remaining final four teams this season, and every Stanley Cup Finalist dating back to 2011-12 and what percentage of a 60-minute game each of their top-six defensemen played on an average night. This year’s Penguins should stick out as a massive outlier. 

 

Other than the 2014-15 Lightning and 2011-12 Devils every other team on here had a No. 1 defenseman that was on the ice for more than 40 percent of the game on a given night. And the Lightning and Devils were very close to it.

All of them had a No. 2 defenseman that played more than 36 percent of the game on a given night.

Again, the Penguins currently have nobody taking on that sort of a workload in either spot.

Every team on there was able to limit their playing time of their third pairing (some more than others) while there was a significant gap between the ice-time for their No. 1 and No. 6 defenseman.

For Pittsburgh, their third pairing plays almost as much as their second pairing, while there is minimal difference between the workload for their top pairing and their third pairing. Last year, as an example, Letang averaged more than 13 additional minutes per game than their No. 6 defenseman.

This year Dumoulin is only averaging three more minutes than their No. 6.

It really is a defense by committee approach and it has been kind of fascinating to watch.

They are clearly lacking the elite puck-moving presence that a player like Letang can provide, and at times their ability to smoothly and efficiently exit the defensive zone has been a struggle.

It is also a situation where a lot of players are being thrust into roles they are not used to playing.  This has at times led to extended zone time for their opponents and put them in a situation where they are giving up way more shots per game than they want. They are also fortunate to have two outstanding goalies in Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury that have been fantastic this postseason to keep pucks out of the net. But overall it is a unit that has seemingly taken on a whatever it takes approach to get the job done.

It runs counter to everything we have seen from contending teams in recent years when it comes to the makeup of a defense, but they have somehow found a way to make this patchwork unit work. Now here they are, just one win away from getting back to the Stanley Cup Final.

Gibson skates, could start as Ducks face elimination in Nashville

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John Gibson, who exited Game 5 of the Anaheim-Nashville series with a lower-body injury, could be back in the Ducks’ goal tonight for Game 6 at Bridgestone Arena.

Gibson participated in today’s morning skate, and was the first goalie to exit. Jonathan Bernier, who came on in relief on Saturday and allowed two goals on 18 shots, stayed out for extra work.

“When they skate, usually that leads you to believe that there is a great opportunity for him to play,” head coach Randy Carlyle said at Monday’s media availability. “But I haven’t talked to [Gibson]. We’ll wait until he is off the ice and has a conversation with the training staff.

“And then we’ll make a decision based off that.”

Gibson has been solid, if unspectacular, for the Ducks this postseason. His numbers (2.59 GAA, .918 save percentage) are somewhat pedestrian, but he’s been a calm, steadying influence for his team.

Bernier has also been good for the Ducks this year, though his playoff body of work is limited. Game 5 was just his third appearance of the postseason, and he’s never started a Stanley Cup playoff game before.

Report: Thornton knee injury mostly MCL, not ACL damage

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A fairly significant development regarding the health of veteran Sharks forward Joe Thornton, from NBC Sports California:

Thornton apparently dodged disaster in terms of his left knee, as multiple sources have told NBC Sports California that the brunt of the damage was to his MCL, not his ACL.

As long as he recovers fully, as expected, there’s reason to believe that Thornton could be better next season than he was in 2016-17.

Thornton, who turns 38 in July, suffered the tears on Apr. 2 against Vancouver. He sat out the final three games of the regular season and the first two of the playoffs before returning in Game 3 of the Oilers series. Playing through the pain, Thornton registered two points over four games while averaging just under 19 minutes per night.

“I’ve never seen a guy play with a torn MCL and ACL,” head coach Peter DeBoer said following the series. “It’s a courageous effort as I’ve ever seen.”

That gutsy performance further endeared Thornton to the Bay Area faithful, and he was pretty beloved to begin with. It also clearly made an impact on his head coach.

Those are just two of the many facets that promise to make up a compelling summer.

Thornton just wrapped the last of a three-year, $20.25 million deal with a $6.75M cap hit. He’s played exclusively on three-year contracts since coming to San Jose more than a decade ago, and TSN’s Pierre LeBrun reported in January the Thornton camp is looking for another.

From Sharks GM Doug Wilson’s perspective, he’ll have to factor in Thornton’s recovery and long-term health outlook to any potential extension. Wilson also has a timing issue at play, as it would behoove the Sharks to sign Thornton after June’s expansion draft, so they don’t have to protect him.

Finally, there’s the added factor of Thornton’s longtime running mate in San Jose, Patrick Marleau, also needing a new contract.

Thornton’s situation does appear the more complex one. Some will argue his down ’16-17 campaign — one in which he only scored seven goals and 50 points — was a sign of father time catching up.

Others will counter it was the byproduct of a brutally long ’15-16, one in which Thornton went all the way to the Stanley Cup Final (and had 21 points in 24 games, it should be noted), then had a short summer before joining Team Canada for the World Cup of Hockey.

Karlsson, Brassard and Ceci all good to go in Game 6 for Senators

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Trailing by five goals entering the third period on Sunday evening, Ottawa Senators coach Guy Boucher decided he was going to shorten his bench and protect some of his most important players from further injury. So defensemen Erik Karlsson and Cody Ceci, as well as forward Derick Brassard, were given the entire third period off (after the game Karlsson said he could have played if needed).

On Monday, Boucher confirmed that all three players will be ready to go for Tuesday’s Game 6 with the Senators facing elimination in the Eastern Conference Final.

Karlsson was playing through a fractured foot earlier this postseason and appeared to be shaken up late in the second period on Sunday when he awkwardly fell to the ice during a tie up along the boards. Brassard was shaken up following a hit coming through the neutral zone from Penguins forward Chris Kunitz.

Boucher also added that defenseman Mark Borowiecki, who has not played since Game 2 of their first-round series against the Boston Bruins, is “possible” to play on Tuesday while forward Alex Burrows is not as likely to play.

Before Game 5 Boucher said that Borowiecki was getting close to a return but was not quite ready yet on Sunday. He talked about what he could potentially bring to the lineup when he does get back.

“I mean, he’s the number one hitter in the League. He’s a heat-seeking missile, that’s what he is,” Boucher said. “So, you know, it usually puts the opponents on their heels. It’s better for the tough players to get some ice around him. He’s one of those guys that creates fear in the opponent. That’s what he did all year. I mean, we’re missing it, but at the same time we’re getting something else from other players.”

Sunday’s game, a 7-0 loss, was easily the Senators’ worst one of the postseason and on Monday Boucher seemed to attribute it to his team getting too excited and getting away from its game.

“We have to play to our strengths,” said Boucher on Monday. “Last game we tried to play run and gun with the best offensive team and we got slapped.”

Following the game on Sunday Boucher was asked if that type of game can leave a mark, a question that Boucher dismissed by citing the Senators’ blowout win over Pittsburgh in Game 3 and his team’s ability to rebound from tough losses earlier this postseason.

“Did it leave a mark on Pittsburgh when we did that to them at home? They won the next game,” said Boucher on Sunday. “In the playoffs, just like the season, your ability to rebound from a great game or a really bad game is necessary. We’ve done it all year. We’ve done it in the playoffs. After the fourth game against the Rangers, we were supposedly done, so, rebound, get ready for the next one.”

Game 6 is Tuesday night in Ottawa at 8 p.m. ET.