Five Q’s: Bruins-Maple Leafs preview

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1) How will James Reimer handle the pressure of his first playoff series?

From Roberto Luongo to Miikka Kiprusoff, there have been rumors since last summer about the Toronto Maple Leafs’ interest in acquiring a goaltender that would likely take the number one gig away from 25-year-old netminder James Reimer. Those trade possibilities never materialized and Reimer ended up having a good season after dealing with concussion issues in his 2011-12 sophomore campaign. However, he has no playoff experience and is being asked to take center stage in front of an excited and hungry fanbase. Getting Reimer some postseason experience now should prove to be very beneficial for him in the long run, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s a big question mark heading into this series.

2) Does Boston have anything left in the tank?

Due to postponed contests, the Boston Bruins were forced to play six games in the final nine days of the regular season. On top of that, they were 2-5-2 in their final nine games. Fatigue could be a big factor for the Bruins in the early part of this series and might aide in Toronto’s efforts to at least split the first two contests in Boston. The Bruins’ lack of momentum already cost them the Northeast Division. A quick playoff exit would be a shock — especially at the hands of the Leafs — but the B’s don’t want to give their opponents any extra confidence.

3) Will Zdeno Chara shut down Phil Kessel?

Forward Phil Kessel is the Toronto Maple Leafs’ greatest weapon…except against his old team, the Boston Bruins. Kessel had no points and a minus-four rating against Boston this season, and those numbers don’t get much prettier when you look at his career stats versus the Bruins. So can he put all that behind him and be the difference in this series? On the flip side, what should we expect from Zdeno Chara? Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli admitted to CSN New England that the towering defenseman has been slipping lately and needs “to get his game back.”

4) Will Milan Lucic regain his scoring touch?

Speaking of struggling Boston Bruins’ players, forward Milan Lucic hasn’t exactly had a memorable season. He found the back of the net just seven times in 46 games and even ending up spending some time in the press box as a healthy scratch. At the same time, Lucic has three points and a fight in his last two games, so maybe he’s turned a corner. The Bruins have other offensive weapons, but if Lucic doesn’t perform, that will seriously hurt the potency of their top two lines.

5) Will Jaromir Jagr be a difference-maker?

Jaromir Jagr might be 41 years old, but he’s still finding ways to produce. He had 16 goals and 35 points in 45 contests this season and, most importantly, has shined even while most of his teammates have struggled. Additionally, the fact that Martin Brodeur is the only active player who has been in more postseason contests than Jagr has to be a benefit, even on a team with as much playoff experience as the Bruins. Jagr can’t carry the team, but he could certainly be one of its leaders. All the same, it’s concerning that he’s now played in 34 Czech League games on top of the NHL’s condensed schedule. The fatigue factor that might haunt the Bruins could hit him particularly hard.

For all the first-round playoff previews, click here.

No hearing scheduled for Wingels after Wilson headshot (Updated)

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Ottawa forward Tommy Wingels doesn’t have a disciplinary hearing scheduled for his late game headshot on Pittsburgh’s Scott Wilson, an NHL spokesman confirmed.

The incident occurred with seconds remaining in the Penguins’ 7-0 Game 5 win on Sunday afternoon. Wingels wasn’t penalized on the play, and Wilson exited the ice immediately without celebrating with teammates as the final horn sounded.

Pens head coach Mike Sullivan was asked about Wilson’s condition in his postgame presser, but didn’t have an update. The 25-year-old did not participate in today’s optional skate.

Update:

Wilson has appeared in 13 of Pittsburgh’s 17 games this postseason, and chipped in nicely. He’s scored two goals — including one in yesterday’s blowout win — and four points, while averaging just under 11 minutes per night.

Wingels has been less of a factor for Ottawa. He’s appeared in just nine of 17 games, going pointless while getting 9:53 TOI.

 

Report: Defenseman Viktor Antipin expected to join Sabres next week

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Earlier this month it was reported that defenseman Viktor Antipin was on the verge of joining the Buffalo Sabres after terminating his contract in the KHL.

Following the IIHF World Hockey Championships on Sunday, where Antipin was a key player for the Russian team that won the Bronze Medal, Antipin told a Russian news outlet (via the Buffalo News) that he will be leaving for Buffalo on May 29th so that he can join the Sabres.

The 24-year-old Antipin spent the past six years playing for Magnitogorsk Metallurg in the KHL.

In 59 games this past season he scored six goals and added 18 assists.

He had a really strong showing at the recent World Championship tournament, playing close to 18 minutes per game and recording four assists to go with a plus-five rating.

The Sabres defense was a major sore spot this season as the team took a pretty significant step backward in its ongoing rebuild, resulting in the firing of general manager Tim Murray and coach Dan Bylsma. As a team the Sabres allowed more than 34 shots on goal per game (the worst mark in the league) and 2.82 goals per game (20th in the league).

The only defensemen the Sabres have under contract for the 2017-18 season at the moment are Rasmus Ristolainen, Zach Bogosian, Josh Gorges, Jake McCabe and Justin Falk so Antipin should get a pretty good opportunity to get a significant role right from the start.

Blues owner gives Armstrong vote of confidence

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Given all the upheaval in St. Louis this season, it was fair to ask questions about GM Doug Armstrong’s job security.

So last week the Post-Dispatch did exactly that, posing the query to Blues owner Tom Stillman: Do you think Armstrong’s the right guy for the job?

“Yes, I do,” Stillman replied. “A lot of GMs, I think, are inclined to be focused on what’s going to keep my job next year and the year after. Some would perceive it as taking a risk to be looking farther down the road even though it might not lead to as many wins in the current year.

“That’s an important quality, looking long-term for the organization and not looking at your short-term survival. I think Doug knows that I am in tune with looking at things in that longer-term way.”

Speaking of term, Armstrong is heading into the last of a five-year deal signed back in 2013. At that time, the Blues were coming off an 109-point campaign and Armstrong was the reigning NHL GM of the Year.

In announcing the deal, Stillman was full of praise.

“First, [Armstrong’s] an outstanding general manager, so we want to make sure he’s with us for a longer period,” he said, per NHL.com. “And second, I think you have to give him time to do his work and develop the team he wants to develop.”

If he extends Armstrong, Stillman could probably use the same quote again.

Because the Blues are, again, sort of in a developmental phase.

First, there was the massive hockey operations overhaul. Over the last three months, Armstrong has given six coaches their walking papers: Ken Hitchcock, Jim Corsi, Ray Bennett, Steve Thomas, Rick Wilson and Ty Conklin.

Mike Yeo was inserted as the head coach, while Martin Brodeur temporarily added goalie coach to his assistant GM duties, before dropping the role at the end of the season.

(Brodeur will lead the charge to find a replacement, now that he’s back to being AGM and Conklin was let go.)

The coaching shakeup wasn’t the only significant change Armstrong oversaw.

The club’s younger prospects continued to push for bigger roles at the NHL level. At forward, the likes of Ivan Barbashev and Zach Sanford both worked their way into the mix, while Robby Fabbri was on pace for a career year before a season-ending ACL tear in early February.

The youth movement could continue into next season, too. Tage Thompson, the 6-foot-5 forward taken 26th overall last year, left Connecticut after his sophomore year to turn pro, and gained some valuable experience with AHL Chicago. Vince Dunn, a defenseman taken in the second round in 2015, had a great year with the Wolves and led all d-men in scoring.

So if there’s going to be an ongoing developmental phase in St. Louis, it makes sense that Stillman wants Armstrong to oversee it. He’s done a good job of it throughout his seven years on the job — he’s the NHL’s ninth longest-tenured active GM — and the club has been successful, with five consecutive playoff appearances.

It is worth noting, however, that “club policy” kept Stillman from talking about actually signing Armstrong to an extension.

Report: ‘Hawks could add Ulf Samuelsson to coaching staff

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The Chicago Blackhawks are searching for an assistant coach, and Ulf Samuelsson might just be their guy.

According to the Chris Kuc of the Chicago Tribune, Samuelsson is the “top candidate” to replace Mike Kitchen, who was fired after the ‘Hawks were swept by the Nashville Predators in the opening round the playoffs.

The obvious connection here, is that Samuelsson and head coach Joel Quenneville were teammates with the Hartford Whalers back in the 1980s.

Samuelsson, 53, was an associate coach with the Arizona Coyotes from 2006 to 2011 and he was an assistant with the New York Rangers from 2013 to 2016. Last season,  he served as the head coach of Carolina’s farm team, the Charlotte Checkers.

He led the Checkers to a 39-29-8 record during the 2016-17 AHL campaign.