Five Q’s: Canadiens-Senators preview

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1. Can Carey Price pull it together?

Price got off to a fantastic start this season, but has been on the decline ever since. Among goaltenders that got at least eight starts in April, only two finished with worse GAA’s than Price’s 3.49. No team can get particularly far in the playoffs without good goaltending — just ask the 2012 Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers — and Montreal isn’t above that. On the plus side, no playoff team scored fewer goals in the regular season than the Sens, and Price was strong against them in the regular season. Perhaps this series is just what he needs to bounce back.

2. What should we expect from Erik Karlsson?

Karlsson playing just two months after cutting his Achilles tendon was surprising, but the fact that he logged over 27 minutes in all three of his games since his return was miraculous. The Sens’ defenseman had four assists over that span. It’s worth noting that New Jersey Devils center Travis Zajac, who suffered a similar injury, urged Karlsson not to return so soon while another player that’s been through the same thing, Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Sami Salo, predicted that Karlsson would come back stronger than ever. Either way, the Senators aren’t putting any meaningful limits on his playing time and they’re a far more dangerous team now that he’s back.

3. Will Ottawa need Craig Anderson to be brilliant?

Even with the return of Karlsson, the Senators aren’t a team that can win a lot of high-scoring affairs. The Senators were an anemic 27th in the NHL when it came to goals scored per game. Still, if Anderson plays anything like he did in the regular season, that might not be an issue. He missed 18 games in the middle of the season due to a sprained ankle, but stayed strong in his return, finishing first among netminders with a 1.69 GAA and .941 save percentage. The wild card in all of this is goaltender Robin Lehner. The ideal for the Senators would be for the 21-year-old rookie to just observe this series from the bench, but Lehner has been great this season and if Anderson falters, he should be seen as a viable Plan B.

4. Montreal PP or Ottawa PK?

The Ottawa Senators are one of the most undisciplined teams in the NHL, but they could get away with that in the regular season because they also killed penalties better than any other team. When they play Montreal though, they might pay for those mistakes. The Canadiens have gone from one of the worst power-play teams in 2011-12 to the fifth best this season. Getting defenseman Andrei Markov back for a full season after battling knee problems was a huge boost. Markov and fellow Canadiens blueliner P.K. Subban have been two of the league’s most successful players with the man advantage.

5. Will the Sens actually get an advantage at home?

When the Senators hosted the Toronto Maple Leafs on April 20, Senators coach Paul MacLean joked that his goal was to “take the crowd out of it” early, according to The Globe and Mail. The Senators have long struggled to keep fans of opposing loyalties out of their stadium for home games. Given the relative proximity of Montreal, you can bet there will be plenty of Habs fans invading Scotiabank Place to cheer passionately for the visitors.

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

Bruised Bruins get Bergeron and Backes back, at least

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On paper, a game against old chums the Vancouver Canucks would probably be an assumed W for the Boston Bruins.

It hasn’t been safe to assume much during an up-and-down start so far, and that goes straight down to injuries, as Bruins news seems to rotate with the bad and the good.

In the case of Thursday, the good and the bad seem to come in hour rotations rather than days. Earlier, the unfortunate news came: Tuukka Rask was diagnosed with a concussion, adding to the rough news about Ryan Spooner.

If Anton Khudobin struggles and the Bruins need to outscore their problems, at least they’re getting reinforcements in that regard, as both David Backes and Patrice Bergeron are back in action.

One would expect Bergeron to resume much of his puck-mastery tonight, or at least soon, even if he might take a while to improve after a 2016-17 season he wasn’t totally pleased with.

(Bergeron was probably in the minority there, what with winning the Selke Trophy and his line with Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak dominating opponents.)

Backes might be most interesting to watch. He reportedly lost 10 lbs. because of diverticulitis, so you wonder if he’ll be limited for a while. He’s trying to bounce back from 2016-17 in a more objective way than Bergeron, after all.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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Bruins turn to Khudobin after Rask diagnosed with concussion

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A bad start to the season officially got worse on Thursday as the Boston Bruins announced that Tuukka Rask has been diagnosed with a concussion.

The 30-year-old netminder collided with Anders Bjork during practice on Wednesday and needed to be helped off the ice. Anton Khudobin will start Thursday night against the Canucks and Zane MacIntyre will serve as his backup.

The Bruins are 2-3-0 on the season with a minus-4 goal differential. Rask has struggled as well with an ugly .887 even strength save percentage in four starts. With four games over the next 11 days, the hope is that either Khudobin or MacIntyre can right the ship as Rask heals.

“I feel good. Camp was good and everything is fine, and I’ve started better than last year,” said Khudobin via NBC Sports Boston. “My role is just day-to-day. Today is a game day and hopefully, you get a good result, and then tomorrow is another new day.”

As the Bruins get David Backes and possibly Patrice Bergeron back, they’ve watched as Rask and Ryan Spooner (4-6 weeks) leave the lineup with injury. Having a roster in flux while you’re trying to find some consistency will be a tough ask for head coach Bruce Cassidy and his players.

The 31-year-old Khudobin has played well in two appearances this season, stopping 32 of 33 shots faced and posting a .970 ESSV%.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Ric Flair replica robe awarded to Flyers game MVPs (Photo)

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NHL teams love handing out a player of the game awards to someone who played an important role in a victory. The tradition has been going on for years and the items have ranged from football helmets to camouflage jackets to championship belts to wolf heads to weenie hats.

The Philadelphia Flyers are one of those teams taking part in the post-game tradition and have chosen a very unique item to honor game MVPs this season.

In honor of one of wrestling’s greats, game MVPs will receive a Ric Flair replica robe.

Spend time inside Wells Fargo Center for a Flyers game and you’ll hear fans unleashing plenty of Flair’s famous “woo’s” — something that kind of pissed off the players as recent as last season..

“I hope it’s a short-lived fad,” said Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol last November.

“The first period they are [expletive] woo’ing. What are you, [expletive] 10-years old?,” opined Jakub Voracek.

Maybe the players had a change of heart and have embraced the “woo’s?” Now that the robe, which was designed by the daughter of equipment manager Derek Settlemyre, will be a regular thing, one can imagine an uptick in the “Nature Boy’s” famous call done by fans during games.

Flair, 68, was hospitalized in August as he entered the early stages of kidney failure and congestive heart failure. He was released last month after doctors removed part of his bowel and inserted a pacemaker. An ESPN documentary about his life and wrestling career will premier in November.

Stick-tap NBC Philadelphia

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

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The most important question to ask yourself in any fantasy hockey league

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In many cases, the most pressing questions you’ll ask yourself as a young fantasy hockey manager – when you have all that glorious time – is “How do I finally win this league?”

(Sometimes, you’ll be more specific, asking “How do I beat my best friend/colleague/frenemy/potential romantic partner/all of the above?”)

Time can change a lot of things, and sometimes life foists different priorities upon your mind. You might find yourself more interested in less glorious things like taking care of debts or aiming for promotions. This pivots, then, to what I believe is the most important question a potential fantasy GM must ask: “How much work do I really want to do in this league?”

Every week, PHT plans on running at least two fantasy-focused columns, and the beauty of these is that they can appeal to fantasy owners of all types. Joey Alfieri’s add/drops can be helpful to those who crunch spreadsheets like potato chips, but it can also be a one-stop guide for those who don’t have time to go deep on every Rotoworld column.

Speaking of Rotoworld, it’s a fantastic resource for fantasy hockey and other sports. Check out Gus Katsaros’ bit on struggling forwards such as Joe Thornton as just one great example.

This Thursday space is going to serve as an open-ended discussion of fantasy hockey: the narrow triumphs, crushing and seemingly arbitrary defeats, and tactics that may lie a little outside of the box.

In this specific case, here are a few suggestions if you possess the rare (but valuable) self-awareness to realize that you might not always be able to give your team(s) your maximum attention.

Lean on workhorse goalies

In many cases, it’s wise to fight the urge to take big name goalies in fantasy. Instead, you are often better off loading up on true difference-makers, whether they be the true high-scoring defensemen like Brent Burns or game-breaking forwards who still might be around in, say, rounds 3-5.

It’s a little different if you know you’re not going to monitor every goalie battle, or merely want to keep things simple.

A workhorse such as Braden Holtby shoots up your rankings in this case. On the other hand, someone facing a backup threat (say Steve Mason vs. Connor Hellebuyck) might not be worth the hassle.

Old over new

It’s exciting to identify the next breakthrough stars. Young players can be exciting because they have the chance to make those quantum leaps. The lockout that knocked out the 2004-05 season was memorable in that way:

Eric Staal in 2003-04: 31 points in 81 games

Eric Staal in 2005-06: 100 points in 81 games

Being able to forecast those leaps provides one of the most precious sensations in fantasy: feeling smart.

On the other hand, that takes its fair share of research, aside from instances where you’ve specifically keyed on prospects that interest you. Rookies can be big risks in fantasy drafts because of the threat of them only getting a “nine-game audition” before their teams avoid burning years off entry-level deals.

(Note: this might not apply to the Edmonton Oilers.)

If you know you don’t have time to make contingency plans and/or don’t want to study points per minute to try to find the next Viktor Arvidsson, you might just want to stick with more stable, established veterans.

Rotoworld Podcast: Can’t Stop Kucherov

Avoid the Gaboriks

Injuries can be random in sports, hockey included. Just ask Steven Stamkos, whose poor luck seems borderline freakish. Hockey history is dotted with painful “What if?” questions about icons like Bobby Orr and Mario Lemieux down to nice scorers such as Ales Hemsky and Marian Gaborik.

(Sami Salo, meanwhile, likely often asked “Why me?”)

Injuries can be especially deflating for less-hands-on types, so maybe shy away from, say, Kris Letang.

Find some quick references

Following PHT is a good start to stay abreast of some of the largest developments in the NHL.

If you’re trying to make quick decisions, Rotoworld’s injury page can provide a quick reference so you know if someone might come back soon versus a case that might be murkier.

There’s a solid chance of a future column discussing some resources that might help those in a bind in drafts or even setting lineups. Stay tuned.

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It’s possible to win your league even if you’re not making weekly tweaks like some of your more obsessive competitors.

The key is to be practical … and lucky. Yeah, luck is a pretty nice thing to have in fantasy, and life. Here’s to a fun 2017-18 from a fantasy perspective, regardless of your level of commitment.

(Although, don’t be that person who totally abandons a team, leaving a bunch of players with season-ending injuries in your starting lineup. That’s bad form.)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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