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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).

Under pressure: Brian Elliott and the Flames’ goalies

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 12: Brian Elliott #1 of the St. Louis Blues tends net against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on November 12, 2015 in New York City. The Rangers defeated the Blues 6-3.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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This is part of Calgary Flames day at PHT…

The Calgary Flames had their share of flaws during the 2015-16 season. None were more damaging than a goaltending situation that produced the worst team save percentage in the entire league.

That, perhaps more than anything else, contributed to the team giving up the most goals in the NHL and going from a team that was in the second round of the playoffs the year before, to a team that finished with the fifth worst record in the league.

To help address that glaring weakness the Flames completely overhauled their goaltending over the summer by acquiring Brian Elliott from the St. Louis Blues and signing Chad Johnson in free agency.

The Elliott move is obviously, the big one, but the pressure is going to be on both of them to solidify a position that was one of the worst in the NHL a year ago.

For Elliott, it is going to be a huge opportunity because he is finally going to be the No. 1 guy without having somebody else constantly looking over his shoulder. During his time in St. Louis he consistently put up great numbers, including a .925 save percentage that was among best league between 2011 and 2016. But even with that strong play the Blues never seemed willing to fully trust him to be their top guy and and were always going out of their way to take playing time away from him, whether it was with Jaroslav Halak, Jake Allen, or acquiring Ryan Miller in a deadline trade.

That is not going to be an issue for him going into Calgary.

That also means a little added pressure. Because he’s almost always been a part of a goaltending platoon during his career (he played more than 38 games one time in five years in St. Louis), and because he spent the past few years playing behind a Ken Hitchcock coached defensive team, he is going to have to prove that he is not only capable of sustaining that level of play as a full-time starter, but also that his success in St. Louis wasn’t the product of a system.

If he can do both and come even close to performing the way he did in St. Louis it is going to go a long way toward helping the Flames erase the memory what was pretty much a lost 2015-16 season and get back closer to the postseason in 2016-17.

Looking to make the leap: Matthew Tkachuk

BUFFALO, NY - JUNE 24:  Matthew Tkachuk celebrates with the Calgary Flames after being selected sixth overall during 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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This is part of Calgary Flames day at PHT…

Even though the 2015-16 season was a disappointing one for the Calgary Flames, they still have a great young core of young forward talent. They added to that group at the 2016 NHL draft when they selected Matthew Tkachuk with the No. 6 overall pick, immediately making him one of the team’s top prospects.

The 18-year-old forward is coming off of a monster season for the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League that saw him score 30 goals and add 77 assists in only 57 games.

When you combine his skill, size and strength he has the potential to add a power forward dimension to the Flames lineup that none of their young forwards currently possess. That could make him an intriguing candidate to make the NHL roster as early as this season, and even though he did not skate at the team’s prospect evaluation camp (something the Flames were OK with given how much hockey he played last year) he is entering camp with the mindset that he is going to make the team right away.

Because of his age he is not yet eligible to play in the American Hockey League, and as he showed last season during his time with an incredible London team he doesn’t really have much left to prove at the junior level after putting up absolutely massive numbers as a 17-year-old.

If nothing else a nine-game look in the NHL to start the season seems like a very real possibility.

It’s not like the Flames are opposed to giving recent draft picks an early look in the NHL if they show they belong. Sean Monahan made the immediate jump to the NHL after being selected in 2013, while Sam Bennett played a role in the 2014-2015 playoffs after he was selected with the No. 4 overall pick that year. There is no reason to think that Tkachuk can’t do the same. Especially when Brian Burke has already referred to his style of play as “kind of a pain in the ass” and that the Flames don’t have enough guys that are like that.

With Monahan, Bennett and Johnny Gaudreu already in place the Flames have an exciting young group of forwards that have already shown they can be top-line players in the NHL.

It is not going to be long before Tkachuk joins them.

It’s Calgary Flames day at PHT

PHILADELPHIA, PA - FEBRUARY 29: Sean Monahan #23 of the Calgary Flames celebrates his goal with teammates against the Philadelphia Flyers during the first period at Wells Fargo Center on February 29, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.(Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
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If you want to boil the Calgary Flames’ past two seasons down simply, you could do worse than this:

In 2014-15: Bob Hartley won the Jack Adams Award.

In 2015-16: The Flames fired Bob Hartley.

The Flames finished this past season with 77 standings points, missing the playoffs for the sixth time in the last seven years.

While Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan survived the sophomore curse, the Flames couldn’t survive in their own end. No team allowed more goals than the 260 Calgary surrendered last season. It cost people some jobs, most notably that of Hartley.

Off-season

Naturally, the first big change in Calgary comes with Glen Gulutzan replacing Hartley behind the bench.

Much like the team he’s coaching, Gulutzan needs to get over some past failures (he failed to make the playoffs during his two seasons coaching the Dallas Stars) but is young enough (45) to argue that the best days are ahead.

To little surprise, the Flames decided that Karri Ramo, Jonas Hiller and Joni Ortio isn’t necessarily the group of goalies to get things done. The Flames brought in two-time All-Star Brian Elliott to try to right the ship.

The Flames didn’t stop there, adding Chad Johnson as Elliott’s backup. With a .917 career save percentage, Johnson could very well keep Elliott on his toes.

Aside from big improvements behind the bench and in the net, the Flames’ most noteworthy work came in extending Sean Monahan,* picking up Troy Brouwer and landing Matthew Tkachuk in the draft.

Calgary is making a lot of strong moves, but did they make enough to climb back into the postseason in 2016-17? PHT will explore these factors on Saturday.

* – Naturally, the biggest move needs to come soon: also handing an extension to Gaudreau.

Avalanche’s new head coach Bednar is at least saying the right things

jaredbednaravalanche
via Colorado Avalanche
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Look, there are exceptions, but new head coach press conferences feature the same basic terms and buzzwords.

After witnessing the high-octane Pittsburgh Penguins skate opponents ragged on their way to the 2016 Stanley Cup, any reasonable coach would throw “speed” into their phrasing.

Still, the Colorado Avalanche have been so deeply buried by even the most basic of modern measurements that you had to wonder: would they learn from Patrick Roy’s struggles? Can someone come in and at least attempt to keep up with the pack?

We won’t know for sure anytime soon, but hey, at least Jared Bednar seems to be saying the right things as he transitions from the AHL to the Avalanche’s head coaching gig.

When discussing his hire with NHL Network, Bednar seemed confident that his style in the AHL – “Up-tempo, aggressive style in all three zones of the rink” – will translate well in Colorado.

That interview hits the beats you’d expect from job interviews beyond hockey. There’s even a “detail-oriented” bit.

(If you space out, you might just assume there’s a mention of thinking outside the box, like every corporate interview in human history.)

Still, it’s OK to settle for baby steps, especially considering the tough situation Patrick Roy created in abruptly skipping town. For many, it might just be comforting to note that Bednar doesn’t outright dismissive “analytics” or “fancy stats.”

Mile High Hockey brings up a great point: if nothing else, the spotlight will shift from the Avalanche’s flamboyant head coach to the talented core of young players.

So, not only is Colorado bringing in a coach who is as savvy with spreadsheets as he is with the wipe-off board, but he’s going to allow the players to crawl out from under Roy and finally earn their own accomplishments. This is every bit as important as fixing the breakout play or eliminating the Collapse-O-Rama™ defensive system.

(Collapse-O-Rama, huh? Can we stash that term for future use regarding another coach or two?)

Bednar isn’t a retread, so we only know so much about what to expect.

There are positive early signs. Roll your eyes all you want, we have seen more than a few successful transitions from AHL glory (Bednar just won the Calder Cup) to the NHL.

He’s not necessarily anti-information and seems at least interested in implementing modern, attacking systems. Attacking systems that, theoretically, would best suit the talents of a gifted-but-flawed group.

It all feels a little vague, but then again, it’s not even September yet. So far, so good.