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]

Ben Bishop is (quietly) off to promising start for Stars

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Even after winning their last two games by matching 3-1 scores, the Dallas Stars are still off to a modest 3-3-0 start in 2017-18.

Such a record might cause some consternation, and possibly some criticism for the likes of Ken Hitchcock and Ben Bishop. Especially since Hitchcock has developed a reputation for providing the defensive structures that nurture strong numbers from a wide variety of netminders.

You might have missed this in part because Bishop was briefly sidelined by another weird failing of his goalie mask (check out his gross wound here, if that sort of stuff doesn’t turn your stomach).

Bishop is now 3-1-0 with a splendid .944 save percentage and a 1.49 GAA that might elicit fuzzy memories of Marty Turco’s prime for many Stars fans. Bishop’s been sharp since coming back from injury, including stopping 49 of 51 shots on goal during the last two games.

(Things haven’t been going quite as well for Kari Lehtonen, though.)

A valuable confidence-builder

When you look at the 30-year-old’s impressive .919 career save percentage, you might be surprised to learn that many still believe that Bishop has something to prove.

Some of that comes down to taste; NHL teams seek big bodies in net like those of Bishop, but his more “blocking” style leaves many less-than-impressed. There might be a small subset of observers who will pivot from crediting the Lightning’s system for blustering his numbers straight to giving Hitchcock the credit if Bishop continues his strong play.

(Note: Bishop’s almost certain to finish the season with a lower save percentage, unless he enjoys the sort of season we haven’t seen often since Tim Thomas was playing in Claude Julien’s system with vintage Zdeno Chara and Patrice Bergeron hogging the puck.)

The thing is, you can see why the 2016-17 season might have shaken Bishop’s confidence.

For one thing, his numbers were down; his .910 save percentage between his final Lightning days and brief stint with the Kings is the lowest mark he’s sported since a .909 mark in 2011-12 (when he received spot duty with Ottawa).

Beyond the numbers, Bishop was traded by the team he helped lead deep into the postseason. It’s reasonable that Tampa Bay went with a younger goalie in Andrei Vasilevskiy, but much like Marc-Andre Fleury with Pittsburgh, you have to think that the season hurt Bishop’s pride to some degree.

So, yeah, it probably means quite a bit to Bishop to start strong.

Truer tests await

It’s good that Bishop shook off some cobwebs, because the Stars face stormier weather soon. They play one road game, one home game, and then go on a five-game road trip during the next seven contests. With only one back-to-back set, it’s feasible that the Stars will turn to Bishop for the bulk of those challenges.

(For more on the Stars’ schedule, check here.)

***

During an 82-game season, workhorse goalies are going to see peaks and valleys. Right now, Steve Mason is looking like a 1B at best in Winnipeg, but that could very well change. Carey Price probably won’t struggle through November, let alone all of 2017-18.

Ben Bishop will probably face some tough times. Judging by that schedule note above, it might not be long before his confidence is tested.

Still, it’s worth noting that he’s passing his early tests with flying colors.

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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Reports: Matt Duchene still wants trade from Avalanche

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Winning might fix a lot of things, but can it repair a bridge that has been burned?

In the case of Matt Duchene and the Colorado Avalanche, the answer may very well be “No.”

On Monday, Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston declared as much during an intermission interview with Jeff Marek (no video or audio available at this time). Elliotte Friedman backed up such sentiments in his latest “31 Thoughts” piece for Sportsnet, deeming it “unlikely” that winning would patch things up.

The most promising element might be that the Avs seem to be a little more open-minded when it comes to the sort of return they’re expecting for the speedy forward:

I do think they are doing work on non-NHL prospects of potential trade partners — especially left-handed defenders. That might be a way to break the trade stalemate, providing Colorado’s scouts like what they see.

Getting NHL teams to shake loose quality defensemen who are already on their rosters is easier said than done, but it’s easier to sell management and fans on guys who haven’t made an impact yet.

(Although that’s not always true, of course, as sometimes people tend to inflate a prospect’s chances when their work lives largely in their imaginations.)

Really, whatever it takes to get Duchene out of his misery, what with sad-looking photo shoots and comments from Peter Forsberg/other childhood heroes.

Other NHL teams – not to mention Avs GM/other Duchene hero Joe Sakic himself – should take this as another reminder to be careful how they handle players, even if they’re shopping them. Whether it comes down to official statements or allowing things to “leak,” you can really damage a relationship if you lack a certain level of finesse.

History repeating?

Allow a digression: it’s difficult not to think of how the Avalanche had a falling out with Ryan O'Reilly when considering the Duchene situation. There’s the possibility that it provides a window into Duchene’s thinking.

Back in 2015, PHT looked at resurfacing reports about tension between the two forwards toward the end of ROR’s time with Colorado. Duchene explained that O’Reilly was a great teammate “at the rink” and seemed irritated that the two-way forward was trying to break through what seemed like a $6M ceiling in Colorado.

So, in Duchene’s mind, he might have taken less money than he could have in accepting $6M per year.

Imagine, then, the frustration he felt in being a team player and then seeing his team dragging his name through the mud. Even if his take wasn’t that dramatic, the treatment came across as harsh.

Would a few early wins really smooth all of that over?

Either way, even that narrative is fading out, as the Avalanche are on a two-game losing streak to fall to a more modest 4-3-0 so far in 2017-18. That’s still a quantum leap from the historic lows they hit last season, but Duchene can be excused if he doesn’t believe that putting the team before his feelings will open the door for some deep run.

***

Look, it’s understandable that the Avalanche want to get a great return for Duchene. Sports are littered with quarter-on-the-dollar trade where contenders give up junk for struggling teams’ best players.

On the other hand, every now and then, the planets align for fair NHL trades. Ryan Johansen goes for Seth Jones. Brandon Saad and Artemi Panarin meet specific needs for their respective new (old-new) squads. Even Dany Heatley for Marian Hossa was pretty reasonable, considering the circumstances the then-Atlanta Thrashers were facing.

Still, trades are fun, and it’s tough not to feel a little jealous of the NBA’s frenzy, where super teams aligned and realigned seemingly on a weekly basis.

It would just be straight-up fun to see Duchene try to take the Columbus Blue Jackets to another level or make the Nashville Predators seem downright scary. One might even change Duchene’s soundtrack from Simon & Garfunkel to the theme for Dawson’s Creek in rapt anticipation.

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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One thing that won’t fade for Vegas Golden Knights this season

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Plenty of smart writers and number-crunchers have tackled the subject of “How good are the Vegas Golden Knights?” or “How long will this last?” Today’s Morning Skate collected some of the best. 

Allow this hot take: while the wins and points are likely to dry up – to at least some extent – there’s one thing that shouldn’t go away for this edition of the Vegas Golden Knights: motivation. For better or worse, we’ve rarely seen an NHL team brimming with so many players fighting for careers, reputations, and millions of dollars.

If the bottom falls out as far as the standings go, it will still be interesting to follow these situations. Contending teams may feel the same way during the trade deadline, at least when it comes to Vegas’ many expiring contracts.

With that in mind, let’s break down this roster to examine the not-so-quiet desperation in Vegas.

Contract years

If you want a quick look at how open-ended the Golden Knights’ future is at the moment, consider their spending this season vs. in the future.

By Cap Friendly’s numbers, the Golden Knights are committed to a $70.87 million cap hit in 2017-18; that number goes down to $36.92M to 14 players in 2018-19 as of this moment.

James Neal: Coming into this season, the narrative felt like a solid power forward who gets a raw deal. Early on in this franchise’s young life, he’s turned into a hero.

He has little reason to stop pushing, at least considering this fork in the road. There are millions on the table for Neal, making him a great source for bad gambling metaphors (if you’re into that kind of thing).

David Perron: In many ways, he’s a lower-profile version of Neal. They both have shown dynamic scoring ability, though sometimes they’ve been frustrating. Each forward has a lot to prove and has also been around the league quite a bit. They’ve even both been traded by the Pittsburgh Penguins. They both face crucial contract years where they can turn heads with strong seasons.

And, hey, Perron had his own hero moment for the Golden Knights last night:

Jonathan Marchessault – Currently injured, but also in a prominent spot where his next contract could vary wildly.

A slew of defensemen – The Golden Knights’ logjam on D isn’t necessarily going to last long. There are only three notable blueliners – and as you likely know, Vegas has a ton of them – with more than one year on their deals: Nate Schmidt, Griffin Reinhart, and Brad Hunt.

The likes of Jason Garrison and Luca Sbisa have seen better days. Even so, maybe the fear of a dull free agent market and/or getting benched for one of Gerard Gallant’s many other options will push their “compete levels” to new heights?

Something to prove

Speaking of Gallant, there’s little doubt that he likely has a chip on his shoulder stemming from the way things ended with the Florida Panthers.

He has quite the opportunity on his hands: a relatively competent roster for an expansion team, yet he’s also graded on a curve because this is an expansion team. Has Gallant already locked up at least some top-five Jack Adams votes?

Goalies Marc-Andre Fleury and Malcolm Subban – Both being on two-year deals provides some inherent motivation, but even considering their very different careers up to this point (“MAF” has more Stanley Cup rings [3] than Subban has NHL wins [2]), they each likely have some fire in their bellies.

“The Flower” handled the end of his Pittsburgh Penguins days with incredible grace. You have to think that he wants to prove that they made the wrong choice, or at least that he still “has it.”

Subban’s inspiration is even more obvious, as the former first-rounder aims to prove that he’s a true NHL goalie. While his development did slip in the Bruins organization, it’s not as if he was downright awful in the AHL.

Vadim Shipachyov – He didn’t just have to wait until age 30 for his first crack at the NHL. Due to the multitude of defensemen, “The Ship” also had to wait to make an impression in Vegas. Expect him to make up for lost time.

Reilly Smith – There are players who were claimed with things to prove even with relative comfort in Vegas; Cody Eakin probably feels insulted by the Stars exposing him to the expansion draft.

Smith is a rare case of a quality everyday NHL player who was just given away in a trade. The Panthers didn’t need to give up both Smith and Marchessault, but they did. That should give him at least a short-term boost, right?

The weird mascot: You think that “Chance” the Gila Monster hasn’t seen your disparaging tweets?

(Kidding. And also afraid.)

***

Look, ignore the hot takes. Most professional athletes care deeply and work hard. Sidney Crosby‘s future has been set since day one, and yet look at how he attacks a meaningless training moment with Brad Marchand:

Still, human nature plays a role in these things, and you will see many players in “survival mode” in Vegas.

That might not be great for tanking purposes, but it sets the stage for a fascinating season for the Golden Knights.

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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Jamie Benn’s promised goal caps off memorable day for car crash survivor

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When Jamie Benn met Kendall Murray after Saturday’s morning skate, he left her with the promise that he would score that night against the Colorado Avalanche.

Eight months ago, the idea of Murray standing there as the Stars captain made that promise seemed unbelievable.

***

On Feb. 10, Murray, 16, was the sole survivor of a car accident in Plano, Texas that killed two of her friends, Lilly Davis and Sam Sacks. She was burned on 25 percent of her body, and some of her injuries included two broken arms, a broken pelvis and a skull fracture.

Two months later, as Murray lay in her hospital bed at Medical City Plano still unable to walk, Benn and Tyler Seguin, her two favorite players, made a surprise visit. The news about the accident had reached the Stars organization and the players jumped at the opportunity to stop by and say hello.

The smile on her face as she saw who was walking into her room was one that those inside will never forget. The running joke throughout the 45-minute visit was that everyone could tell when Murray was getting excited because her heart-rate monitor would spike.

“When those two walked in, it just shot up to 170,” Murray told Pro Hockey Talk Tuesday afternoon with a laugh.

Before Benn and Seguin said their goodbyes, they told Murray they wanted to see her at American Airlines Center this season once she was back on her feet and walking again. The day before that visit she had started the process of learning to walk again, a she would ultimately accomplish.

Not long before Benn made his promise, Murray fulfilled hers by walking around arena during Saturday’s morning skate. There she saw Seguin again and got to chat with Stars general manager Jim Nill. She later would meet up with Benn when her told her his plans for the game.

“I’ll score for you. I’ll make sure it’s for you.”

In the opening minute of the second period, Benn delivered on his promise, with Murray’s other favorite Star playing a role in the game’s first goal. After an Avalanche turnover in the neutral zone, Seguin fired a pass off the side boards which was picked by Benn at center ice leading to a 2-on-1. Avalanche defenseman Erik Johnson gave the captain enough space for him to then fire a wrist shot blocker side on Semyon Varlamov.

Murray, wearing her dad’s Neal Broten Minnesota North Stars jersey, watched in disbelief.

“I was like ‘Oh my God, he did it,’” Murray said, “That’s actually for me and I knew that it was for me. It was so crazy. It was the first goal, too. It made the Stars be ahead in the game which was awesome.”

To top off an already memorable day, Seguin would score at the end of the second period to give the Stars a 2-0 lead. He would later complete a Gordie Howe Hat Trick after scrapping with Patrik Nemeth in the third period. The pucks from both goals were retrieved and given to Murray as a gift from the players after the game.

“That was just icing on the cake. Great to have both of them score and have Tyler get in his first NHL fight,” Murray said. “Quite a game to watch.”

The Murray family attends a handful of Stars games every season and will also be in attendance for a December game in Minnesota against the Wild while in town visiting family. Given that Benn is 100 percent in goal promises, he may have to make a few more to Kendall this season. Or at least Seguin could get in on the fun, too.

***

Eight months after the accident, Murray is doing well. A junior in high school, she’s back in regular classes with her friends and even attended homecoming last month. Twice a week she’s in occupational therapy and physical therapy and seeing progress. The tear in her carotid artery is fully healed and nerve damage in her hand is slowly improving. At the end of October she’ll be discharged from PT, marking another milestone on her journey to full recovery.

“I’m coming down to the end of it all which is nice so I can get back to my normal high school life,” she said.

————

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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