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Five Q’s: Blackhawks-Kings preview

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How important is home ice?

In this series? It’s massive. The Kings are a perfect 7-0 at Staples in the playoffs and, dating back to the regular season, are riding a 14-game winning streak at home.

(Fun fact: L.A. hasn’t lost at Staples since Mar. 28.)

Chicago’s been nearly as good — 6-1 at the United Center in the playoffs, 18-3-3 during the regular season — and hold the all-important home ice advantage by finishing first in the Western Conference.

The question will be: Can L.A. get a result on the road?

The Kings are just 1-5 away from Staples in the playoffs and their lone win came in overtime in the opening around against St. Louis.

Will L.A. shadow Jonathan Toews?

Detroit showed that a good way to slow down Chicago is by slowing down the captain.

Henrik Zetterberg drew the majority of that assignment in Round 2, holding Toews goalless through the first four games, in which Detroit built a 3-1 series lead. Frustrated, Toews finished that four-game stretch with more penalties (three) than points (one).

When Toews finally broke out, Chicago’s fortunes turned — he had three points over the final three games of the series, all wins.

Los Angeles has two options for the Toews shadow. One is Anze Kopitar, who teammates championed as a legit shut-down guy and potential Selke candidate; the other is Mike Richards, a Selke finalist from 2009.

(And yes, Toews himself is a Selke candidate this year.)

How can Chicago beat Jonathan Quick?

With traffic, according to Joel Quenneville.

“Traffic is something we talked about,” the ‘Hawks head coach said on Friday. “Pucks at the net, second opportunities are the ones you’re going to beat them with.”

Easier said than done, though.

Quick has been as good as he was during last year’s Conn Smythe-winning performance, posting a 1.50 GAA and .948 save percentage thus far.

“There’s certain situations where you go to do special things to beat him because he’s so effective in certain areas,” Quenneville admitted. “He’s had a special couple years in the playoffs. He’s a different kind of goalie the way he moves so quick in the crease, or even above it.”

Will Jarret Stoll return to the lineup?

The veteran missed nearly the entire San Jose series — he played just 10:25 in Game 1 before getting KOed by Raffi Torres — but practiced Friday on the third line with Dwight King and Trevor Lewis.

If he gets back in, it’s a significant addition of the Kings. Stoll’s a playoff veteran (62 career games, two Stanley Cup finals) that’s one of the best third-line centers in the game.

He won draws at a 56 percent clip during the regular season and gives L.A. tremendous depth down the middle behind Kopitar and Richards — a big reason why Sutter has said his centers were “the strongest part of our team.”

Can the ‘Hawks keep killing penalties?

One of the less ballyhooed parts of Chicago’s run has been its penalty kill — just one goal allowed in 41 attempts, a league-best 97.6 percent PK.

(That’s actually five percentage points better than L.A.’s PK of last postseason, which they rode to the first-ever Stanley Cup in franchise history.)

Killing penalties will be important against a Kings power play that got hot in Round 2.

L.A. went 5-for-17 against San Jose — 29.4 percent — with almost everybody chipping in, as 12 different Kings recorded at least one power-play point in the series.

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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.