Playoffs Tonight: Blues challenge defending Stanley Cup champion Kings

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The playoffs start tonight and if we learned one thing from last year, it’s that any team can win, regardless of their seed.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at tonight’s action:

Game 1: The Chicago Blackhawks host the Minnesota Wild (8:00 p.m. ET, NBCSN)

Chicago got off to a historic 21-0-3 start this season and never really hit a major rough patch. The Wild did manage to eke out a shootout victory against the Blackhawks on Jan. 30, but Chicago won the other two matches.

The Blackhawks’ depth is incredible, but 28-year-old goaltender Corey Crawford still has a lot to prove when it comes to postseason hockey. Plus, the Minnesota Wild can use their status as the clear underdogs to their advantage.

“I think now that they’re in the playoffs, they feel they have nothing to lose and they can relax and play their game,” Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson told CSN Chicago.

Game 1: The St. Louis Blues host the Los Angeles Kings (8:00 p.m. ET, CNBC)

We haven’t seen a team win the Stanley Cup in back-to-back campaigns since the 1997 and 1998 Detroit Red Wings. Can the Los Angeles Kings defy the odds and win it all again?

It’s hard to bet against the Kings given how spectacularly they cruised through the playoffs last season. Along the way they swept the Blues in the Western Conference semifinals and they were also perfect against St. Louis in the 2013 regular season.

All the same, St. Louis has a lot of offensive weapons, a stellar defense, and an incredibly hot goaltender in Brian Elliott. Regardless of what the Kings have done to them in the past, this isn’t a team that can be taken lightly.

Game 1: The Anaheim Ducks host the Detroit Red Wings (10:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN)

Detroit won four straight games to get into the playoffs while Anaheim has a mediocre 8-9-2 record in its last 19 games. So which Anaheim Ducks will show up for this series and will Detroit’s edge in momentum be the difference in Game 1?

33-year-old forward Johan Franzen wasn’t able to be a major player in Detroit’s last two postseason runs, but he averaged a point-per-game in April. He’s a big X-Factor in this series and so is 30-year-old netminder Viktor Fasth. It’s not even clear if Fasth will be the Ducks’ starter in Game 1, but can he continue his remarkable and unusual rookie season if he’s called upon?

‘Many teams’ interested in Leafs prospect Toninato, who could go UFA

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Here’s a name to keep an eye on as this summer progresses: Dominic Toninato.

Toninato, 23, was Toronto’s fifth-round pick way back in 2012. From there, he went the collegiate route and put together a strong four years at Minnesota-Duluth. His NCAA career culminated with a senior season in which he served as team captain, set a personal high in points and led the Bulldogs to the Frozen Four final.

Though his rights are currently owned by the Leafs, Toninato would become an unrestricted free agent on Aug. 16 if he and the club don’t reach an agreement. You’d think, based on his body of work, Toninato would be a major priority for GM Lou Lamoriello, but it’s not that simple. Thanks to years of stockpiling draft picks, Toronto has a ton of prospects — but can only have 50 players under contract at the NHL level.

Adding to the complexity? There are other teams lined up to make Toninato an offer.

“Dom’s a good player. Will teams be interested? Yes. There will be many teams interested in him,” agent Neil Sheehy told the Star. “The process right now is working with the Leafs. They hold his rights till Aug. 16.

“They have a lot of things that they’re trying to figure out.”

Reading between the lines, it doesn’t sound especially promising in Toronto. The club offered Toninato a deal last summer, which he turned down to return to school. They could offer him an AHL contract — there’s no limit on those — but Sheehy said his client isn’t interested in that.

Sheehy said he hopes to have more clarity in late June, following the expansion and entry drafts.

 

 

Expansion draft will force Ducks to make some big decisions

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Bob Murray managed to keep the Anaheim Ducks together for a shot at the Stanley Cup.

But after losing to Nashville in the Western Conference Final, Anaheim’s general manager will now have to make some big decisions — especially with the expansion draft looming.

If the Ducks decide to protect seven forwards and three defensemen, the blue line will definitely be worth watching. Hampus Lindholm will be protected for sure, and Shea Theodore and Brandon Montour are each exempt. But that only leaves two spots for Sami Vatanen, Kevin Bieksa, Cam Fowler, and Josh Manson.

Bieksa, 35, has a no-movement clause, so unless the Ducks find a way to get around that, they’ll need to protect him. (Chances are, they’ll seek a way around it, either via trade or buyout or just convincing him to waive.)

Fowler, meanwhile, only has one year left on his contract before he can become an unrestricted free agent. And after the season he just had, with 39 points in 80 games, the 25-year-old won’t be cheap to re-sign. For that reason, it’s possible Murray may choose to shop Fowler instead. Or perhaps it’s Vatanen that goes on the block.

Yes, there is the option to protect four defensemen and four forwards. But Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, and Ryan Kesler all have NMCs, and the Ducks won’t want to expose Rickard Rakell or Jakob Silfverberg.

In goal, the Ducks have John Gibson under club control for years to come, but they’ll need to choose a backup. Jonathan Bernier is an unrestricted free agent, and even though he played well during the regular season, his performance against the Predators wasn’t great. Murray may want to at least consider his options there.

Related: Fowler surprised he wasn’t traded

Carlyle says Ducks were dealt ‘tough hand’ by schedule-makers

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Call it sour grapes if you wish, but Randy Carlyle thinks the Anaheim Ducks got screwed by the NHL’s schedule-maker.

The head coach launched his complaint last night after his Ducks fell to the Nashville Predators in Game 6 of the Western Conference Final.

“I don’t think we played poorly in the series,” said Carlyle. “I think that the toughest part I have about the whole thing is that this was our seventh game in 13 days.

“Now, there’s various reasons for that, but I think there’s got to be some consideration in the scheduling in the future between series. We finished on a Wednesday and had to open again on Friday, whereas other teams had to open on Saturday. An extra day would have given us a chance to recover. And we know how tough these games are. And that was a tough hand that was dealt to us.”

The “other” team to which Carlyle was referring is Pittsburgh. The Penguins beat Washington in Game 7 of the second round on May 10, then opened against Ottawa on May 13.

The Ducks, on the other hand, knocked out Edmonton in Game 7, also on May 10, then had to start against Nashville on May 12.

Fatigue may, indeed, have been a factor early in the series against Nashville. In Game 1, the Ducks were badly outshot, 46-29, and lost, 3-2, in overtime.

Carlyle said afterwards that the extra rest had made a difference for the Preds, who’d eliminated the Blues in six and gone four days without a game.

Ducks forward Sorensen signs in Swedish League

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Nick Sorensen, the forward taken 45th overall by Anaheim in 2013, has opted to return to Europe and sign a two-year pact with SHL club Linkoping, the team announced on Tuesday.

Sorensen, 22, returned to North America this season after spending ’14-15 and ’15-16 in Sweden (the latter with Linkoping, so this is a homecoming of sorts).

A former Quebec League standout, Sorensen impressed during training camp and made the Ducks’ opening-night roster, appearing in five games before being dispatched to AHL San Diego.

“Every game, every practice, every day for me, it’s a look to try to stay here,” Sorensen said back in October, per the Daily News. “Even if I play zero, one, five or 20 games, I’m not going to get comfortable up here. It’s the best league in the world.

“I’m just going to try to prove to them every day I want to be here.”

With the Gulls, Sorensen had 10 goals and 22 points in 48 games. He also chipped in with another four in eight playoff contests, but did suffer an injury during the postseason.

Sorensen was a pending RFA, having just wrapped the last year of his entry-level deal.