The Morning Skate from NBC: A TV primer

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For the first time in 68 years, the Stanley Cup champions from the four most recent seasons (Los Angeles Kings, 2012; Boston Bruins, 2011; Chicago Blackhawks, 2010; Pittsburgh Penguins, 2009) are the last four teams standing. Today, they will play Game 1 of their respective best-of-seven conference finals. (Which you can watch live online here.)

The last time the four most recent Stanley Cup champions (Montreal Canadiens, 1944; Detroit Red Wings, 1943; Toronto Maple Leafs, 1942; Boston Bruins, 1941) met in Game 1 of semifinal series, on March 20, 1945, Maurice Richard had just become the first NHL player to score 50 goals in 50 games, the Battle of Iwo Jima was being fought by American and Japanese armed forces, and the “Curse of the Billy Goat” lamenting the Chicago Cubs’ World Series title drought was six months from entering someone’s mind.

Game 1: #5 Los Angeles Kings at #1 Chicago Blackhawks, 5 p.m. ET (on NBCSN and live online)

Season series: Blackhawks 2-1-0

  • January 19 “Banner Raising”: Chicago 5, at Los Angeles 2 ( Marian Hossa, CHI, 2 goals, assist)
  • February 17: at Chicago 3, Los Angeles 2 ( Brent Seabrook, CHI, goal, assist, 2 hits)
  • March 25: Los Angeles 5, at Chicago 4 ( Dustin Brown, LAK, goal, 5 shots, 6 hits)

Coming off tense seven-game series, the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Blackhawks and defending Stanley Cup champion Kings are back at it, as they meet in Game 1 of the Western Conference Final at the United Center. Chicago rebounded from a three-games-to-one deficit, defeating their Original Six rivals, Detroit, 2-1 in overtime in Game 7, on a goal by defenseman Brent Seabrook. Meanwhile, Los Angeles maintained their perfect 7-0 home record this postseason by ousting San Jose, also 2-1, on two goals by winger Justin Williams.

The Blackhawks won the regular season series, 2-1-0, outscoring the Kings 12-9. All of the top Hawks players contributed, in particular Jonathan Toews (three goals, three assists), Patrick Kane (two goals, assist), and Marian Hossa (two goals, assist in season opener). Even Michael Frolik chipped in with three goals. On the flipside, three key Kings players compiled forgettable statistics: goaltender Jonathan Quick (1-2-0, 4.05 GAA, .857 save %) and second-line skaters Mike Richards (two goals, -7) and Jeff Carter (0 points, -3).

DID YOU KNOW?

11 of the Kings’ first 13 games this postseason have been decided by one goal. That’s as many one-goal playoff games as they had played in their previous 31, from Game 2 of the 2010 Western Conference Quarterfinals through their 2012 Cup run.

WHO ON EARTH IS … NIKLAS HJALMARSSON?

Stephen Walkom wasn’t really focused on it, but the rest of the hockey world was, when Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson [pronounced /YAHL-mahr-sohn/] rifled a slapshot past Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard with 1:47 left in a deadlocked Game 7 on May 29. Not only did the controversial disallowing of the goal prevent Chicago from taking a 2-1 lead, and subsequently get Twitter chirping loudly from Madison Street to Hjalmarsson’s native Småland (Sweden) province; it also extended his personal postseason goal drought to 42 games (since April 24, 2010).

With veteran blueliners Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook on the team, it’s easy for Hjalmarsson to get overlooked, even though he is an integral part of the Blackhawks’ top penalty-kill unit that is an NHL-best 40-for-41 (97.6%) this postseason. That’s efficiency that even IKEA can’t match.

Game 1: #4 Boston Bruins at #1 Pittsburgh Penguins, 8 p.m. ET (on NBC and live online)

Season series: Penguins 3-0-0 … Pens have won five straight meetings since Feb. 4, 2012

  • March 12: at Pittsburgh 3, Boston 2 ( Brandon Sutter, PIT: 2 goals, 3 shots)
  • March 17: at Pittsburgh 2, Boston 1 ( Tomas Vokoun, PIT: 31 saves)
  • April 20: Pittsburgh 3, at Boston 2 ( Tomas Vokoun, PIT: 38 saves)

The top-seeded Penguins and fourth-seeded Bruins will hit the ice for their first competitive games in a week when they meet in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final at the Consol Energy Center. Pittsburgh scored 13 of their league-leading 47 goals in Games 4 & 5 to close out the Senators in five games, while Boston played solidly on both ends of the ice to eliminate the Rangers, also in five.

The Penguins swept the season series, 3-0-0, and have won five consecutive meetings vs. the Bruins since February 4, 2012. This season, in the absence of second-line center Evgeni Malkin for all three games (upper-body injury), seven different Penguins skaters lit the lamp, led by Brandon Sutter (two goals on March 12). Tomas Vokoun, then the back-up behind Marc-Andre Fleury, won two starts, posting a 1.50 GAA and .958 save%. Three of the Bruins’ five goals came off the stick of Tyler Seguin, while the line of Milan Lucic – David Krejci – Nathan Horton combined for zero points. Although he lost two of the starts, Tuukka Rask (2.54 GAA) played fairly well against the NHL’s most-explosive attack.

For viewers – live or on television – it will be a challenge distinguishing “oohs” from boos throughout this series. For all the cheering fans at Consol and TD Garden will do in support of their goalies – Vokoun and [Tuukka] Rask, respectively – there will be equal parts jeering when Jaromir Jagr returns to Pittsburgh as a Bruin, and Matt Cooke or Jarome Iginla suit up for the Pens in Boston. Jagr won Stanley Cups in his first two of 11 seasons in the “Steel City” (1991 & 1992), but after leaving the NHL for three seasons, chose to sign with the archrival Philadelphia Flyers in 2011. Cooke became a Boston antagonist after (likely) ending the career of Bruins forward Marc Savard after a hit to the head in 2010. Iginla went from potential Bruins fan favorite to enemy after a trade from Calgary to Boston fell through and he joined Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh.

DID YOU KNOW?

The streak of nine distinct Stanley Cup champions (2003-12) will end this season. In North American professional sports, MLB has the record for the longest stint of distinct champions, at 10 (1978-1987).

PHT Morning Skate: What’s holding the Islanders back?

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• University of Alabama hockey player Jon Lovorn is dedicating this season to the victims of Sandy Hook Elementary School. (SECCountry.com)

• It’s time for the NHL to give all 31 teams an outdoor game next season. (Vice Sports)

• Philly.com takes a look at Sean Couturier‘s “well-balanced” life and how it got him to the NHL. (Philly.com)

• A strong end to 2017 could help the Predators land home ice advantage in the playoffs (Predlines)

• If/when Seattle makes it to the NHL, there might be too many teams in the Pacific Division. How would realignment look? (Five for Howling)

• One of the reasons the Oilers have struggled for so long is because of their inability to select solid players late in drafts. (OilersNation.com)

• The only thing that appears to be holding the Islanders back is goaltending. (The Hockey News)

• The Hershey Bears released their 2018 Outdoor Classic Jersey for their game against Lehigh Valley next month. (RussianMachineNeverBreaks.com)

• The Rangers’ recent struggles prove that they need to be sellers before the trade deadline. (NY Post)

• The Devils and Coyotes swapped minor-league forwards yesterday. New Jersey got Michael Latta while the Coyotes got Ryan Kujawinski. (NHL.com/Coyotes)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

The Buzzer: Saros, streaks, shutouts

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Player of the Night: Juuse Saros, Nashville Predators

You can criticize the Edmonton Oilers for taking too many perimeter shots and/or having their defensemen fire the puck far too often, and you’d probably have a point.

Still, on nights like these, you also have to acknowledge that the Oilers have also run into some tough luck and even tougher goalies. When it came to Thursday, Saros was that tough goalie, and he reminded the NHL that’s he capable of being more than “just a backup.”

The Finnish goalie set a new Predators record by making 46 saves for a shutout, collecting the second goose egg of his blossoming career.

The Predators (specifically Kyle Turris‘ new second line, which might need to be called a 1B line at this rate) are on a roll, beating Edmonton 4-0 to grab at least one point (7-1-2) in nine of their last 10 games.

Highlights of the Night

Nice play finished by Patrick Kane, as the Blackhawks cooled the Jets:

Jakub Vrana‘s goal was pretty sweet, and a taste of the Capitals’ recent dominance of the Bruins.

Josh Bailey‘s hat trick is worth watching here, even if it wasn’t enough to propel the Islanders to a win against the Blue Jackets.

Scary moment

Here’s hoping that Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Ryan Callahan are OK:

The Lightning kept their hot streak going with a W over the Coyotes.

Factoids

Brayden Point gets the Lightning their … well, you probably know. Their points.

The Wild are picking it up, and it’s not just the power of Bruce Boudreau. Probably.

The Flyers are weird, and so is hockey.

Scores

Capitals 5, Bruins 3
Flyers 2, Sabres 1
Blue Jackets 6, Islanders 4
Canadiens 2, Devils 1 (OT)
Ducks 3, Blues 1
Wild 2, Maple Leafs 0
Blackhawks 5, Jets 1
Avalanche 2, Panthers 1
Sharks 3, Flames 2
Predators 4, Oilers 0
Lightning 4, Coyotes 1
Golden Knights 2, Penguins 1

Fleury gets revenge against Penguins, Vegas grabs 20th win

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If you’re the fussy type, you might object to the word “revenge” in the headline.

It feels wrong to say that Marc-Andre Fleury got “the last laugh” against the Pittsburgh Penguins, being that this game happened in mid-December. So feel free to soften the verbiage; maybe you’d prefer to say that Fleury and the Vegas Golden Knights merely “got the best” of the Penguins.

Either way, round one goes to “MAF.”

The instinct might be to ding this game because it came in Vegas instead of Pittsburgh, but you could say that there was a healthy offering of Penguins fans tonight:

Whatever way you slice it, there was reportedly a fascinating atmosphere in Vegas, even if the game was a bit “low-event” at times, at least when you consider sheer pucks on net; Fleury stopped 24 out of 25 shots on goal while Murray gave up two goals on 26.

This odd-angle goal by Ian Cole was the only puck to beat Fleury, who was lights out in a second straight victory since returning from concussion issues that … we thought might have been the end of the Golden Knights’ hot start.

If the scene wasn’t nostalgia-laced enough, consider that Fleury evoked the save he made against Nicklas Lidstrom in Game 7 of the 2009 Stanley Cup Final:

Sheesh, some of this stuff almost seems on the nose, doesn’t it?

Remarkably, the Golden Knights improve to 20-9-2 while the Penguins fell to 16-14-3. Writing that almost made me pass out from the unlikelihood of it all; honestly, if someone told Golden Knights management that their record could be 16-14-3, they’d probably take it, right?

In case you’re wondering, yes, this marks another record.

So, the Golden Knights are 12-2-1 in Vegas so far. This doesn’t guarantee that there’s some sort of … sickness that comes from playing a team located in Sin City, yet it doesn’t exactly slam the door shut on such a conversation, either.

Now, Marc-Andre Fleury? He’s done quite a commendable job of shutting the door so far for the Golden Knights. His old buddies found out the hard way tonight.

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.

Now Flyers are on a five-game winning streak

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It wasn’t pretty, but every NHL coach prefers the aesthetic value of a “W” over an “L.”

After a bewildering 10-game losing streak, the Philadelphia Flyers are now on a very different run, as a 2-1 victory against the Buffalo Sabres makes it five straight wins. Fans probably aren’t calling for Dave Hakstol’s head right now, not with his team a mere two points out of a playoff spot.

Interestingly, it seems like the Flyers may be approaching things in a way that would make Bill Parcells nod in approval: lifting themselves up when down (see GM Ron Hextall’s optimism during the losing streak) while keeping heads straight amid success.

Really, it might just come down to Thursday’s win being “no frills,” as the rest of their five-game run has been pretty impressive:

Dec. 4: 5-2 win at  Calgary
Dec. 6: 4-2 win at Edmonton
Dec. 7: 4-1 win at Vancouver
Dec 12: 4-2 home win vs Toronto
Tonight: 2-1 home win against Buffalo

A three-game road trip through Western Canada can sometimes be deadly; instead, the Flyers buckled up and turned things around, including winning games on back-to-back nights (and three victories in four evenings).

To some extent, the players who’ve been performing well all season are showing up during this winning streak. There have been strong outputs from Sean Couturier, Wayne Simmonds, Jakub Voracek, and others who we’ve come to expect to produce.

The most interesting hot streak might be that of Brian Elliott.

Elliott is responsible for all five of the Flyers wins during this run, allowing eight goals in five contests. Early on, he had to put on a show at times (stopping 43 shots against the Flames), yet he’s only needed to turn aside 39 of 42 shots for his last two wins.

Overall, it’s been an up-and-down first season in Philly for Elliott, a goalie who teams seem almost strangely eager to give up on.

Last season, Elliott played a huge role in the Calgary Flames turning their season around to make the playoffs, including generating 10 wins in the month of March. Ultimately, the team saw enough between a tough start and some postseason struggles to cast the veteran netminder aside.

Perhaps Elliott is a lot like his still-new team in the Flyers: best when people leave you for dead.

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.