The Morning Skate: Defending champs in familiar spot

A quick look at the Western Conference finals and notes from Boston’s resounding win against Pittsburgh.

Game 3: #1 Chicago Blackhawks at #5 Los Angeles Kings, 9 p.m. ET (on NBCSN and live online) – Blackhawks lead series, 2-0

Up two-games-to-none and riding a five-game win streak since May 25, the Blackhawks will play their first game at Staples Center since Opening Day (January 19), when they spoiled the Kings’ Stanley Cup banner-raising event with a 5-2 win. The Hawks used that dominating performance as a springboard for a 24-game streak without a regulation loss (an NHL record).

The defending champion Kings are in a familiar position. In Round 1 of these playoffs, they returned home down two-games-to-none to the St. Louis Blues. Then, they rattled off four straight wins, beginning with a 1-0 shutout in Game 3, to advance. This postseason, they remain a perfect record at home (7-0), and have outscored their opponents 18-8 in those games.

If the Kings are to avoid dropping into a 3-0 hole, they will need more output from their star forwards. Neither Anze Kopitar (3 shots on goal) nor Dustin Brown (one shot) has registered a point this series. Mike Richards, who was scratched after warmups in Game 2 with an upper-body injury caused by a hit by the Hawks’ Dave Bolland near the end of Game 1, will be a game-time decision. He is the team’s leading scorer this postseason, with 10 points.

Jonathan Quick, who was pulled in Game 2 for only the second time in 47 postseason appearances after allowing four goals in less than two periods, will return between the pipes for the Kings, opposite the Blackhawks’ Corey Crawford. The Blackhawks are not expected to make any lineup changes. So far this series, the Hawks have gotten points from 12 of their 18 skaters, led by Patrick Sharp (one goal, two assists).

DID YOU KNOW?

Only 10 different Kings players have scored a goal this postseason. That is tied with the San Jose Sharks for the fewest number among all teams that advanced to at least the conference semifinals. Among the other conference finalists, the Bruins and Penguins have gotten goals from 15 different players, the Blackhawks from 12.

WHO ON EARTH IS … TYLER TOFFOLI?

Only five players who have suited up for the Kings this postseason do not have their names etched on the Stanley Cup: defensemen Robyn Regehr, Jake Muzzin and Keaton Ellerby, and forwards Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli. Of that quintet, only the 21-year-old rookie Toffoli has scored a goal. In Game 2, the Scarborough, Ontario native took over the left wing spot on the Kings’ second line next to Jeff Carter and Dustin Penner, due to the upper-body injury to center Mike Richards, and he tallied his second goal of the playoffs and assisted on Carter’s goal.

The Kings’ second round pick (47th overall) in the 2010 draft, Toffoli made his NHL debut in March, and scored his first-career NHL goal in his second game, vs. Phoenix. Earlier this season, he scored 28 goals and 20 assists in 55 games with the Kings’ American Hockey League affiliate, the Manchester Monarchs. His performance helped earn him the Dudley “Red” Garrett Memorial Award as the AHL’s outstanding rookie, the same award his current coach, Darryl Sutter, won in 1980 as a member of the New Brunswick Hawks.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Boston 6, Pittsburgh 1 – Bruins lead series, 2-0

Brad Marchand scored on a breakaway 28 seconds into the game – the fastest goal scored thus far this postseason – and the Bruins scored on their final three shots of the first period (Nathan Horton, David Krejci, Marchand) on Penguins goaltenders Tomas Vokoun and Marc-Andre Fleury, as the B’s raced away with a dominating 6-1 win in Game 2 and a two-games-to-none series lead.

Horton, who moved into second place in the NHL postseason scoring race (17 points, three behind his linemate Krejci), had a goal and an assist, his fifth multi-point game of the postseason – all on the road. During the regular season, he had four. Coach Claude Julien (50th career playoff win) and Patrice Bergeron (50th and 51st career playoff points) also hit milestone marks.

The Penguins, who were the NHL’s top-scoring team in the regular season and playoffs, have now been outscored 9-1 in the series, their one goal by Brandon Sutter in Game 2. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have each been held without a point and are -3 on the ice in the two games. The Penguins lost two consecutive at Consol Energy Center for the first time since January 23 and 29, their first two home games of the season. Game 3 is in Boston on Wednesday evening, on NBCSN.

DID YOU KNOW?

The Bruins were the first team this postseason to score a goal in the first minute of play and win in regulation.

GOALS IN FIRST MINUTE OF GAME (ordered by time)

Goal-scorer Team Game, Time Opponent Goaltender Outcome
Brad Marchand Bruins ECF, Game 2, 0:28 Penguins Tomas Vokoun Won
Evgeni Malkin Penguins ECQF, Game 2, 0:43 Islanders Evgeni Nabokov Lost
Justin Abdelkader Red Wings WCQF, Game 2, 0:48 Ducks Jonas Hiller Won (OT)
Brian Boyle Rangers ECQF, Game 5, 0:53 Capitals Braden Holtby Lost (OT)

ECF = Eastern Conference Final      ECQF = Eastern Conference Quarterfinals    WCQF = Western Conference Quarterfinals

LINKS

  • Anze Kopitar and his line are not making points [L.A. Times]
  • Bryan Bickell’s big playoffs may force offseason exit [Chicago Sun-Times]
  • Michal Handzus carving unlikely niche for Blackhawks [CSN Chicago]
  • Penguins stars to blame for current predicament [CBC]
  • Goalie decision crucial for Pens in Game 3 [Pittsburgh Tribune]
  • Tuukka Rask enjoys limited challenge from Penguins [Boston Herald]

Smith could re-up with Rangers, agent expects Gorton meeting soon

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Earlier this month, we wrote about how pending UFA d-man Brendan Smith impressed his Rangers teammates with his strong postseason play.

It was clear the Rangers wanted to keep Smith, a trade deadline pickup, in the fold. And now it sounds like the interest is mutual.

“He’s more than open to coming back,” agent Anton Thun told the New York Post. ““I’m sure I’ll be speaking to Jeff [Gorton, Rangers GM] in the next week or so and we’ll see if we can work something out.”

Smith, 28, just wrapped a two-year, $5.5 million deal with a $2.75M average annual cap hit. His stock certainly rose following the move from Detroit to New York, thanks in large part to a playoff in which he had four points through 12 games, and averaged just under 20 minutes per night.

Add it all up, and a raise is in the cards.

Helping Smith’s cause is a relatively weak crop of free-agent defensemen this summer. Kevin Shattenkirk will be the top dog, while the second tier includes under-30s like Smith, Karl Alzner and Michael Stone.

The Post estimated a $4M AAV could be on the horizon for Smith, which makes sense. Thun didn’t talk specific numbers, but did suggest the Rangers weren’t going to get any sort of discount.

“To pass up free agency,” he explained, “Brendan’s going to need a contract that reflects market value.”

 

 

Penguins redefining defense by committee

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When the Pittsburgh Penguins lost defenseman Kris Letang for the entire postseason it was thought be a crushing blow to their chances to repeat as Stanley Cup champions. Especially with a path that was likely to include two of the NHL’s best teams in the first two rounds of the playoffs.

Not only is Letang one of the best defensemen in the world, he is one of the most important cogs in the Penguins’ machine. During last year’s Stanley Cup run he played close to 29 minutes per game and did so at an incredibly high level. Losing that sort of workhorse is nearly impossible to replace.

But even with Letang’s absence (and even additional injuries to defensemen Trevor Daley and Justin Schultz) the Penguins find themselves one win away from returning to the Stanley Cup Final without really having a true No. 1 defenseman to turn to.

This is almost unheard of in today’s NHL.

Every team that goes on a deep run in the playoffs has a minute-eating defenseman that can be counted on to play a significant portion of the game. Letang. Drew Doughty. Duncan Keith. Erik Karlsson. Zdeno Chara. Players like that.

When it comes to the playoffs, teams tend to roll with their top-four defensemen the most and do their best to hide or shelter their third pairing by limiting their minutes as much as they can. The Penguins have not had that luxury without Letang.

That means everybody has had to step up and take on an expanded role. Just about everybody is playing more than they are used to while there is virtually no difference between each role.

First, consider that every team (22 of them) that has reached the Stanley Cup Final since the 2005-06 season has had at least one defensemen average more than 22 minutes of ice-time per game. Twenty-one of those 22 teams have had at least two players log more than 22 minutes, while 18 of them have had at least one player average more than 25 minutes of ice-time per game.

The 2016-17 Penguins currently have none.

Brian Dumoulin is currently their ice-time leader, playing just over 21 minutes per game.

Let’s take a look at what that looks like from a usage perspective.

The table here looks at this year’s Penguins, the remaining final four teams this season, and every Stanley Cup Finalist dating back to 2011-12 and what percentage of a 60-minute game each of their top-six defensemen played on an average night. This year’s Penguins should stick out as a massive outlier.

 

Other than the 2014-15 Lightning and 2011-12 Devils every other team on here had a No. 1 defenseman that was on the ice for more than 40 percent of the game on a given night. And the Lightning and Devils were very close to it.

All of them had a No. 2 defenseman that played more than 36 percent of the game on a given night.

Again, the Penguins currently have nobody taking on that sort of a workload in either spot.

Every team on there was able to limit their playing time of their third pairing (some more than others) while there was a significant gap between the ice-time for their No. 1 and No. 6 defenseman.

For Pittsburgh, their third pairing plays almost as much as their second pairing, while there is minimal difference between the workload for their top pairing and their third pairing. Last year, as an example, Letang averaged more than 13 additional minutes per game than their No. 6 defenseman.

This year Dumoulin is only averaging three more minutes than their No. 6.

It really is a defense by committee approach and it has been kind of fascinating to watch.

They are clearly lacking the elite puck-moving presence that a player like Letang can provide, and at times their ability to smoothly and efficiently exit the defensive zone has been a struggle.

It is also a situation where a lot of players are being thrust into roles they are not used to playing.  This has at times led to extended zone time for their opponents and put them in a situation where they are giving up way more shots per game than they want. They are also fortunate to have two outstanding goalies in Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury that have been fantastic this postseason to keep pucks out of the net. But overall it is a unit that has seemingly taken on a whatever it takes approach to get the job done.

It runs counter to everything we have seen from contending teams in recent years when it comes to the makeup of a defense, but they have somehow found a way to make this patchwork unit work. Now here they are, just one win away from getting back to the Stanley Cup Final.

Gibson skates, could start as Ducks face elimination in Nashville

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John Gibson, who exited Game 5 of the Anaheim-Nashville series with a lower-body injury, could be back in the Ducks’ goal tonight for Game 6 at Bridgestone Arena.

Gibson participated in today’s morning skate, and was the first goalie to exit. Jonathan Bernier, who came on in relief on Saturday and allowed two goals on 18 shots, stayed out for extra work.

“When they skate, usually that leads you to believe that there is a great opportunity for him to play,” head coach Randy Carlyle said at Monday’s media availability. “But I haven’t talked to [Gibson]. We’ll wait until he is off the ice and has a conversation with the training staff.

“And then we’ll make a decision based off that.”

Gibson has been solid, if unspectacular, for the Ducks this postseason. His numbers (2.59 GAA, .918 save percentage) are somewhat pedestrian, but he’s been a calm, steadying influence for his team.

Bernier has also been good for the Ducks this year, though his playoff body of work is limited. Game 5 was just his third appearance of the postseason, and he’s never started a Stanley Cup playoff game before.

Report: Thornton knee injury mostly MCL, not ACL damage

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A fairly significant development regarding the health of veteran Sharks forward Joe Thornton, from NBC Sports California:

Thornton apparently dodged disaster in terms of his left knee, as multiple sources have told NBC Sports California that the brunt of the damage was to his MCL, not his ACL.

As long as he recovers fully, as expected, there’s reason to believe that Thornton could be better next season than he was in 2016-17.

Thornton, who turns 38 in July, suffered the tears on Apr. 2 against Vancouver. He sat out the final three games of the regular season and the first two of the playoffs before returning in Game 3 of the Oilers series. Playing through the pain, Thornton registered two points over four games while averaging just under 19 minutes per night.

“I’ve never seen a guy play with a torn MCL and ACL,” head coach Peter DeBoer said following the series. “It’s a courageous effort as I’ve ever seen.”

That gutsy performance further endeared Thornton to the Bay Area faithful, and he was pretty beloved to begin with. It also clearly made an impact on his head coach.

Those are just two of the many facets that promise to make up a compelling summer.

Thornton just wrapped the last of a three-year, $20.25 million deal with a $6.75M cap hit. He’s played exclusively on three-year contracts since coming to San Jose more than a decade ago, and TSN’s Pierre LeBrun reported in January the Thornton camp is looking for another.

From Sharks GM Doug Wilson’s perspective, he’ll have to factor in Thornton’s recovery and long-term health outlook to any potential extension. Wilson also has a timing issue at play, as it would behoove the Sharks to sign Thornton after June’s expansion draft, so they don’t have to protect him.

Finally, there’s the added factor of Thornton’s longtime running mate in San Jose, Patrick Marleau, also needing a new contract.

Thornton’s situation does appear the more complex one. Some will argue his down ’16-17 campaign — one in which he only scored seven goals and 50 points — was a sign of father time catching up.

Others will counter it was the byproduct of a brutally long ’15-16, one in which Thornton went all the way to the Stanley Cup Final (and had 21 points in 24 games, it should be noted), then had a short summer before joining Team Canada for the World Cup of Hockey.