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Five Q’s: Penguins-Islanders series preview

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1. When will Sidney Crosby return?

This question will linger over this series until No. 87 is on the lineup card.

Crosby has been out of action since Mar. 30 — when he suffered a broken jaw against the Islanders, ironically enough — and the dynamic of this matchup depends largely on his availability.

Why? Crosby’s scoring exploits against the Isles, mostly.

In 41 career games, Sid the Kid’s racked up 75 points against New York — the most he’s scored against any NHL club.

He also has a history of making big returns against the Isles. In Nov. 2011, he triumphantly returned from a concussion by scoring four points (2G, 2A) in a 5-0 whitewashing — his first game back after a 10-month layoff.

Update: Crosby has officially been ruled out for Game 1.

2. Is it Tavares’ time?

The second major subplot in this series will be the playoff debut of John Tavares, the 22-year-old phenom that led the Isles in scoring this year and has garnered serious Hart Trophy consideration.

This has been the most successful campaign of Tavares’ four-year career. He dominated the Swiss League during the lockout and was a point-a-game player in Team Canada’s Spengler Cup win.

When NHL play resumed, he continued that point-per-game clip and finished as the league’s third-leading goalscorer (28), pushing the Isles to their first playoff appearance since 2007.

All that said, this is Tavares’ first postseason. It’ll be interesting to see how he adjusts to the increased physical play and (presumably) being shadowed for the entirety of the series.

3. Can Iginla and Morrow be difference-makers?

Pens GM Ray Shero was the undisputed power broker at April’s trade deadline, bringing in a quartet of veterans: Jussi Jokinen, Douglas Murray, Brenden Morrow and Jarome Iginla.

It’s the latter two that will draw the most attention.

Morrow, 34, and Iginla, 35, are both looking for their first Stanley Cups, but will be counted on to play different roles than they did in Dallas and Calgary, respectively.

They used to be captains and front-line players. Now, they’re being asked to provide veteran experience and compliment a forward group featuring young stars like Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and James Neal.

That’s not to say there aren’t big expectations.

Iginla has 49 points in 54 career playoff games and led the Flames to the 2004 Cup final, scoring 13 times.

Morrow’s last playoff run saw him notch 15 points in 18 games as he led the Stars to the Western Conference finals.

4. Will Fleury bounce back?

There are two Marc-Andre Fleurys.

The first is the acrobatic, flair-for-the-dramatic guy that backstopped the Pens to the 2009 Stanley Cup.

The other is the shaky, erratic guy that finished last postseason with a 4.63 GAA and .834 save percentage.

If Pittsburgh has any hopes of hoisting Lord Stanley’s Mug, the first Fleury will need to show up.

The 28-year-old acknowledged as much in speaking with NHL.com.

“That [’09 Cup] was a lot more fun than last year, that’s for sure,” he explained. “But you just learn from it. You learn from what happened in the past and try to use it to improve and be ready for these playoffs coming up.”

5. Can the Isles steal one (or more) on the road?

The top-seeded Penguins have home ice advantage, which might suit New York just fine.

The Isles have been road warriors this year, posting a 14-6-4 record away from Nassau — the third best road mark in the Eastern Conference.

The No. 8 seed knows that in order to capture this series, it’ll need to win at least one game at Consol Energy Center, where the Penguins are a stellar 18-6-0 this year.

It’s a challenge head coach Jack Capuano recognizes, and is ready to take on.

“[Pittsburgh] is ranked where they are for a reason. They’ve got some of the best players in the world,” Capuano told CBS New York. “But your ultimate goal is to win the Stanley Cup.

“If you’re going to get to the Stanley Cup you’ve got to beat the best teams.”

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

For Frederik Andersen, the spotlight’s on

LAS VEGAS, NV - JUNE 21:  Frederik Andersen of the Toronto Maple Leafs speaks with the media during a press availability on June 21, 2016 at the Encore Ballroom in Las Vegas, Nevada. The 2016 NHL Award Ceremony will by held on June 22 at the Encore Theater at Wynn Las Vegas.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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This post is part of Toronto Maple Leafs day at PHT…

James Reimer, Jonathan Bernier, Ben Scrivens and Jonas Gustavsson.

Over the last half decade, those four were tasked with the responsibility of being Toronto’s No. 1 goalie. Reimer was the lead dog, with 153 starts over five years, followed by Bernier (140 over three), Gustavsson (96 over three) and Scrivens (28 over two).

As the figures suggest, those four had plenty in common. They each spent multiple years in Toronto, and had a shot at the No. 1 gig.

Now they have something else in common, too.

None of ’em play in Toronto anymore.

It’s been a revolving door — one pushed by fans and media, some would argue — and the Leafs tried to halt it this summer, striking a bold move to finally solidify their goaltending position.

Frederik Andersen, the lanky Dane that rose to prominence in Anaheim, was acquired for a pair of high picks, then quickly signed to a lucrative five-year, $25 million deal.

That trade was profound, and so was the payday. The contract nearly quintupled what Andersen made on his previous pact, and made him one of the highest-paid players on the active roster.

The Leafs insisted it was money well spent.

“Whenever you have the opportunity to acquire a goaltender who has proven to have success in the playoffs, is at the prime age, has the reputation on and off the ice that he has, and the players love playing in front of him — I don’t know how you cannot try to acquire a goaltender like this,” GM Lou Lamoriello said upon acquiring Andersen. “We’ve acquired a 6-foot-4 goaltender who has athleticism.

“Right now we’re extremely comfortable with our goaltending.”

And it’s true — Andersen has all the attributes of a quality No. 1. He’s shouldered a heavy workload before, making 53 starts during the ’14-15 campaign, followed by another 16 in the playoffs as Anaheim advanced to Game 7 of the Western Conference Final.

He’s also in the “sweet spot” as far as development goes. Andersen had plenty of seasoning in Europe and the American League before making his NHL debut at 24.

Now he’s a veteran of three full campaigns, with 125 regular season and nearly 30 playoff games on his resume.

And he only turns 27 this October.

Those are the positives.

How about some negatives?

For starters, he’s going from a pretty good team (the Ducks finished sixth in the NHL last year) to a pretty bad one (the Leafs, as you might’ve heard, finished dead last). He’s also going from a relatively laid back market to one of the most frenzied in the league.

Canadian cities can be tough on goalies, something that Reimer, Bernier, Gustavsson and Scrivens all experienced to some degree during their times in Toronto.

It happens elsewhere, too.

“It takes a certain temperament to play in Canada,” former NHL goalie and current TSN analyst Jamie McLennan told the National Post. “Roberto Luongo was a star in Florida, goes to Vancouver and stars there and then the fans turn on him because he doesn’t deliver a Cup and then leaves and it’s like, ‘Oh geez, we lost a really good goalie.'”

So, how will Andersen adjust to the spotlight? The Leafs did well to take some pressure off by inking veteran Jhonas Enroth to be the backup, but Enroth is exactly that — a backup.

Toronto fans will see how Andersen deals with increased attention this September, as he projects to be Team Europe’s No. 1 for the World Cup of Hockey — which, of course, will be played in Andersen’s new home rink, the ACC.

It’ll be like a dress rehearsal prior to the live show.

But for Andersen, the stakes might feel a little bit higher.

Poll: Will the Leafs have a captain this year?

Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock stands on the bench during the first period of the team's NHL hockey game against the New Jersey Devils on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2016, in Toronto. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP)
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This post is part of Toronto Maple Leafs day at PHT…

There are six teams currently without a captain — Carolina, Edmonton, Florida, Nashville, Winnipeg and Toronto — and of the six, it’s the latter that seems furthest from filling the role.

Back in April, head coach Mike Babcock said he didn’t expect the Leafs to have a captain this season. That news hardly came as a surprise — Toronto had just wrapped a difficult first year of what figures to be a lengthy rebuild, and didn’t seem to have any leading candidates to inherit the “C” from Dion Phaneuf, who was traded to Ottawa in February.

Of course, things have changed since then.

The biggest, by far, was Toronto landing phenom Auston Matthew with the first overall pick at the draft. GM Lou Lamoriello also locked in two of the club’s better young players — Nazem Kadri and Morgan Rielly — to matching six-year deals, and added a physical veteran presence in free agency by signing former Islander Matt Martin.

All of this makes for a different dynamic in the dressing room, but will it impact the captaincy?

Hard to say.

At first glance, the Leafs still seem to lack a leading candidate, at least for the present. If Lamoriello and team president Brendan Shanahan wanted to go the veteran route, they could anoint Brooks Laich or Matt Hunwick as a placeholder, though neither projects to play a significant role on the team beyond this year and into the future.

Rielly could be the guy but, at 22, he’d be awfully young.

The same can be said of Matthews, though many do expect him to eventually captain the Leafs. But asking him to shoulder that responsibility now — as an 18-year-old rookie — would be the most anti-Lamoriello move of all time, so you can rule that out.

Anyway, here’s how this will work. The poll will be a straight yes-no and, if you vote yes, put your pick for captain in the comments section.

Welcome back: Flames sign Higgins to camp PTO

Chris Higgins
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Chris Higgins is back in Cowtown.

On Tuesday, the Flames announced that Higgins would be attending training camp on a professional tryout, bringing him back to the organization he played part of the 2009-10 campaign with.

Higgins, 33, had spent the last six years in Vancouver. His stint with the Canucks included some quality highs — a trip to the ’11 Stanley Cup Final, and an 18-goal, 43-point season the year following — but ended on a sour note last spring when, after GM Jim Benning failed to orchestrate a trade, Higgins was placed on waivers and spent time in AHL Utica.

All told, Higgins finished the campaign with three goals and four points in 33 contests.

In June, the Canucks bought out the last of his four-year, $10 million deal.

Higgins has played in Calgary before — as mentioned above — but that’s not his only connection to the organization. The Flames’ new head coach, Glen Gulutzan, was the assistant in Vancouver for the last three years and worked closely with Higgins (who had a good season in Gulutzan’s first year with the Canucks, scoring 17 goals and 39 points).

 

 

Under Pressure: Auston Matthews

BUFFALO, NY - JUNE 24: (l-r) Lou Lamoriello and  Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs attend round one of the 2016 NHL Draft on June 24, 2016 in Buffalo, New York.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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It’s the collective, really.

There’s no single reason why Auston Matthews was our clear cut choice for today’s “Under Pressure” post.

No single reason, because there are so many reasons.

There was the pre-draft hype, which was off the charts. There was Toronto tanking to get the No. 1 overall pick — or, as team president Brendan Shanahan put it, earning the pick “the hard way.”

There were the names, too.

Matthews is now linked to Patrick Kane, after becoming the first American to go No. 1 overall since Chicago took Kane nine years ago. Matthew is also now forever linked to Leafs legend Wendel Clark — Toronto’s last No. 1 overall pick, taken all the way back in 1985.

Then, there’s his pedigree.

And with that pedigree comes privilege.

Before he ever played a second of NHL hockey, Matthews was named to Team North America for the World Cup of Hockey — ahead of the likes of Max Domi, Boone Jenner and Alex Galchenyuk, the latter a 30-goal scorer and already a veteran of nearly 300 NHL contests.

Pundits have already slotted Matthews into a top-two center role in Toronto, one that will come with all the requisite power play time befitting a special offensive talent. As a result, expectations for this year are sky high. A recent NHL.com projection said the 60-point plateau should be within reach, and think pieces about how other rookies won’t just concede the Calder.

Smartly, but perhaps futilely, Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello is trying to shield Matthew from some of pressure that comes along with being, y’know, the savior of a team in one of the league’s most storied markets.

“I don’t think there’s any player that’s going to be the face of this franchise,” Lamoriello said at the draft, when asked if Matthews would be exactly that. “The logo will be the face of the franchise.”

Lamoriello went on to say that when “you’re taking an 18-year-old and expect him to do wonders, it’s not fair.”

No, it’s not fair.

But it is the reality.