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The Morning Skate: Will Kings capitalize on no Keith?

A quick look at the Western Conference finals and notes from the amazing double-OT win by the Bruins last night.

Game 4: #1 Chicago Blackhawks at #5 Los Angeles Kings, 9 p.m. ET (on NBCSN and live online) – Blackhawks lead series, 2-1

The Kings will look to knot the Western Conference Final at two games apiece and maintain their home-ice perfection this postseason (8-0) when they host the Blackhawks in Game 4 at Staples Center tonight.

The Blackhawks will be without 2010 Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith, who was suspended for Game 4 for high-sticking the Kings’ Jeff Carter in the face. Keith will miss his first-career postseason game. The replacement for the solid, two-way defenseman has not been determined, but it figures to be the defensive-oriented Sheldon Brookbank or the puck-moving rookie, Ryan Stanton. The loss will be felt for a team that only got 20 shots on goal – and a single goal (Bryan Bickell) – in their 3-1 loss in Game 3.

Jonathan Quick, who stopped 19 shots in the Kings’ in Game 3, has been spectacular at home this postseason. He has a 1.13 goals-against average, with a .957 save percentage (201-of-210) and three shutouts, even better than the marks he put up at Staples Center during his Conn Smythe Trophy postseason of a year ago: 1.34 GAA, .945 save% (206-of-218) and two shutouts.

Mike Richards skated with the extras on Wednesday, and remains day-to-day with an upper-body injury (concussion). Carter will play after getting 20 stitches on the inside and outside of his mouth, a chipped tooth and a couple of cracked teeth in the meeting with Keith’s stick.

SUSPENSIONS, THIS POSTSEASON

Player Team Suspension Replacement(s) Result(s)
Andrew Ference Bruins ECQF, Gm 2 (check to head) Dougie Hamilton Lost G2
Eric Gryba Senators ECQF, Gms 2&3 (check to head) Andre Benoit Lost G2, won G3
Justin Abdelkader Red Wings WCQF, Gms 4&5 (charging) Mikael Samuelsson Won G4, lost G5
Raffi Torres Sharks entire WCSF (hit to the head) several players Lost series in 7
Duncan Keith Blackhawks WCF, Gm 4 (high sticking) TBD TBD

ECQF = Eastern Conference Quarterfinals                    WCQF/WCSF/WCF = Western Conference Quarterfinals/Semifinals/Final

WHO ON EARTH IS … MARCUS KRÜGER?

In his third NHL postseason, Marcus Krüger has two goals, but the fourth-line center’s true value has been recognized with key shifts on the Blackhawks’ penalty kill that has a league-leading 96.2% (51-for-53) success rate. In 15 games, Krüger has played a total of 50:21 with the man-disadvantage, the second-most in the league, behind only teammate Niklas Hjalmarsson.

This week, Krüger is of one of two regional cover athletes for the June 10 issue of Sports Illustrated. (Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask is the other.)  The cover shows the Stockholm, Sweden native upending the Kings rookie Tyler Toffoli, one of his eight hits this postseason. Rather than concern himself with the “SI Cover Jinx,” though, the 22-year-old pivot should try to work on his faceoff skills. He is only 46-for-128 (35.9%) at the dot, worst among all skaters with at least 120 attempts, including 18-for-63 (28.6%) when the Hawks are short-handed. In Game 1 of the Western Conference Semifinal series vs. the Red Wings, he went zero-for-11, the worst “oh-fer” since the Red Wings’ Igor Larionov went zero-for-12 in 2000.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Boston 2, Pittsburgh 1, 2OT – Bruins lead series, 3-0

Player Teams Points Games Cups
Wayne Gretzky Oilers/Kings/Blues/Rangers 382 208 4
Mark Messier Oilers/Rangers 295 236 6
Jari Kurri Oilers/Kings/Rangers/Ducks/Avalanche 233 233 5
Glenn Anderson Oilers/Leafs/Rangers/Blues 214 225 6
Paul Coffey Oilers/Penguins/Kings/Wings/Flyers/Canes 196 194 4
Jaromir Jagr Penguins/Capitals/Rangers/Flyers/Bruins 196 195 2

According to an ESPN report, Bruins fourth-line center Gregory Campbell suffered a broken right leg while blocking a Evgeni Malkin slapshot in the second period, and will miss the remainder of the season.

The Bruins can close out the series sweep in Boston on Friday evening, on NBCSN.

DID YOU KNOW?

The Penguins haven’t been swept in a best-of-seven series since 1979, when the Bruins eliminated them in the NHL quarterfinals. On the Pens’ roster was Colin Campbell, father of the Bruins’ Gregory Campbell.

LINKS

Desjardins rejects notion the Canucks are playing a ‘passive’ structure

Anaheim Ducks' Ryan Kesler, left, is checked to the ice by Vancouver Canucks' Erik Gudbranson (44) in front of goalie Ryan Miller as Luca Sbisa, right, of Italy, defends during the second period of an NHL hockey game Thursday, Dec. 1, 2016, in Vancouver, British Columba. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP)
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The Vancouver Canucks have played 24 games this season. They’ve opened the scoring just six times.

So in 75 percent of their games they’ve trailed 1-0.

That’s a lot.

In fact, of all 30 teams in the NHL, no team has trailed 1-0 in a higher percentage of its games. Colorado (73%) and Ottawa (71%) are close, but Vancouver leads the way. And that’s not a category any team wants to lead.

So what’s the problem? Why all the slow starts? One theory — beyond the simple explanation that the Canucks just aren’t very good — involves their much-ballyhooed defensive structure. Is it possible it’s too defensive? Too passive? Too much waiting for the other team to make a mistake, and not enough getting after it?

Because in last night’s 3-1 loss to Anaheim, the Canucks didn’t register their first shot until halfway through the first period. The Ducks didn’t open the scoring until the second, but they had their chances. The Canucks had practically none, until they were losing that is.

After the game, head coach Willie Desjardins refused to blame the structure for the slow start.

“There’s nothing passive about our defense,” he said. “I don’t think we moved the puck great. I don’t think we were transitioning it real well. Our team has to be a transition team. We’ve got to turn pucks over, we’ve got to transition, and we’ve got to get to the net.”

The Canucks, to be fair, were missing two of their best defensemen in Alex Edler and Chris Tanev, and that meant bigger minutes for the likes of Luca Sbisa, who was charged with three giveaways on the night.

So Desjardins wasn’t wrong in his assessment. The Canucks did have all sorts of trouble breaking through the Ducks’ forecheck, especially in the first period.

“They took charge of that game. They had segments of the game when they were in our end,” said the coach. “The one thing that will happen if a team’s in your end, they’ll wear you down, so every time you come out you’re changing, and then you’re in a bad cycle.”

For the Canucks, the first period was one long, bad cycle.

Sbisa, for his part, couldn’t say why the Canucks came out of the gates so tentatively, but he did concede it was a “very disappointing” loss.

“I don’t know what it was,” he said. “We didn’t have that jump, that intensity that you need, especially against the Ducks, a big, heavy team. You’ve got to be ready to battle.”

The Canucks better be a lot more ready to battle Saturday when the Toronto Maple Leafs pay a visit to Rogers Arena. The Leafs smoked them, 6-3, in their last meeting on Nov. 5 at Air Canada Centre.

“Our focus is on our effort and it has to be better tomorrow than it was last night,” Desjardins said this morning. “I’m not worried about if we’ll be ready.”

Related: Gudbranson threatened Martin in a ‘fit of rage,’ didn’t really mean what he said

Boudreau: Flames made ‘mountain out of a molehill’ over Gaudreau slash

ST PAUL, MN - OCTOBER 15: Head coach Bruce Boudreau of the Minnesota Wild looks on during the game against Winnipeg Jets on October 15, 2016 at Xcel Energy Center in St Paul, Minnesota. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
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Calgary will face Minnesota tonight, for the first time since losing Johnny Gaudreau to a broken finger in a 1-0 win over the Wild on Nov. 15.

Much has transpired since.

The Flames were pretty upset about all the slashes Gaudreau took that night, and spoke candidly (and often!) about it. That, in turn, led to Bruce Boudreau offering up the following on Friday:

According to Calgary GM Brad Treliving, a third-period slash by Eric Staal was the one that did the damage, breaking Gaudreau’s finger and leading to corrective surgery, which sidelined him for six weeks.

The Slashgate conversation lasted for a while. Treliving acknowledged he later spoke with NHL Director of Officiating Stephen Walkom about the club’s frustration regarding the incident.

“When you look at that game, it wasn’t the first one,” he said, per the Calgary Sun. “This wasn’t a unicorn that popped up in the middle of a period. By our count there were 11 chops on (Gaudreau) in the game.

“Two, three, four, I got it, but maybe at nine we dial it in a bit.”

In related news, the Wild have recalled 6-foot-4, 211-pound tough guy Kurtis Gabriel for tonight’s game, and it looks as though he could be making his season debut.

What has happened to the Dallas Stars?

Pittsburgh Penguins' Patric Hornqvist (72) can't get to a rebound off Dallas Stars goalie Antti Niemi with Julius Honka (6) defending during the second period of an NHL hockey game in Pittsburgh, Thursday, Dec. 1, 2016. (AP Photo/Gene Puskar)
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The Dallas Stars are the worst defensive team in the NHL.

That’s just a fact. The Stars are surrendering 3.40 goals per game, and no team has a higher goals-against than that. Philadelphia’s next at 3.20, followed by Arizona at 3.14. The best is San Jose at 2.08.

Last night, the Stars fell 6-2 in Pittsburgh. With the loss, their record dropped to 9-10-6. They are now one point back of Nashville for the final wild-card spot, and the Predators have three games in hand.

What has happened to last year’s Stars?

Well, it would be easy to point at Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen and blame the goalies for everything. Those two haven’t been great this season, and that’s an understatement. Niemi has a .902 save percentage; Lehtonen’s is .885. For all the good work Jim Nill has done as general manager, he has botched the one position a GM absolutely cannot botch.

But outside of Dallas, far too little attention has been paid to the big changes in another part of the Stars’ lineup. This offseason, Alex Goligoski left for Arizona and Jason Demers signed in Florida. Those two veteran defensemen played the first- and fourth-most minutes for the Stars last season, and a team does not lose a pair of top-four defenseman and just keep going like nothing happened.

The Stars did sign Dan Hamhuis in free agency, but he’s struggled in a new setting. John Klingberg, their top defender, has also had a tough start.

Last night, with Johnny Oduya out injured, the Stars were forced to play the defending Stanley Cup champs with three rookies on defense: Stephen Johns, Esa Lindell, and Julius HonkaThe other three were Klingberg, Hamhuis, and Jamie Oleksiak, the latter of whom has played fewer than 100 NHL games. Patrik Nemeth was a healthy scratch. He’s inexperienced too. 

“We all take pride in here, and that’s just not good enough. It’s frustrating,” said forward Tyler Seguin., per the Stars’ website. “We have to dig deep. We’re not digging deep enough right now. From our best players to everybody, we have to dig deeper, especially in those big moments and find ways to win hockey games.”

Seguin is still producing on offense, with 25 points in 25 games. But he was a minus-2 against the Penguins, and he’s a minus-11 overall. Meanwhile, the Stars’ other top center, Jason Spezza, is a team-worst minus-15; Klingberg is minus-10; captain Jamie Benn is minus-7; and so is Patrick Sharp.

Now, plus-minus can be a misleading stat. On bad teams, good players often have big negatives.

But that’s the thing. It happens on bad teams, and the Stars are not supposed to be a bad team. They are supposed to be Stanley Cup contenders.

So far this season, everything about them says bad team. Bad defensive numbers. Bad goaltending. Bad penalty killing. Bottom third of the league in score-adjusted Corsi, so it’s not bad luck.

Yes, they’ve had injuries. So have lots of teams. The Stars will still have major questions in goal and on the back end when they get healthy.

The big question right now is whether they can recover and still make the playoffs. Because they’re starting to dig a hole, and if it gets much deeper, they’re going to get buried.

Speaking of digging holes, the Stars play the Colorado Avalanche on Saturday.

Two bad teams, going at it.

Bad, until they prove otherwise.

Related: Colorado’s core is under heavy scrutiny, yet again

Colorado’s core is under heavy scrutiny, yet again

BUFFALO, NY - JUNE 25: (l-r) Joe Sakic and Alan Hepple of the Colorado Avalanche attend the 2016 NHL Draft on June 25, 2016 in Buffalo, New York.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Prior to Thursday’s loss to Columbus, Colorado GM Joe Sakic was asked how his core players have performed during an ugly 9-12-1 start to the year — “inconsistent,” he said — and was then asked he had any intention of breaking the core up.

“Not right now, no,” Sakic said, per the Denver Post. “It’s early in the year.

“I have faith in them, but to me, the start is not a core thing — it’s a team thing.”

Not long after Sakic said that, the Avs lost their fourth straight game, putting them on 19 points — tied with Arizona for the fewest in the NHL.

And then, in his first real bit of message-sending, head coach Jared Bednar took the core to task.

“I’m going to say this,” Bednar said in his postgame media availability. “Tonight, I thought our supporting cast did a real good job up front. I didn’t love some of our top guys tonight. Not that they didn’t work hard, but I didn’t love their game as a whole.”

The controversy surrounding Colorado’s core guys dates back to the Patrick Roy era. After missing the playoffs for a second straight year — which he called “unacceptable” — Roy unloaded on his top players in an April radio interview, saying “the core needs to show more leadership.”

“It was like this when I played for Montreal, it was like this when I played for the Avs,” Roy continued. “The core are the ones that have to carry the team. They’re the ones where, when you lose a game, it has to hurt from the inside. You should want more.”

At this point, it’s probably prudent to identify exactly who comprises the Avs’ core. The Post says it’s “generally considered to be six players, now all tied up to long-term contracts.” Six of the longest-term contracts on Colorado’s books belong to Nathan MacKinnon (signed through 2023), Erik Johnson (2023), Gabriel Landeskog (2021), Tyson Barrie (2020), Matt Duchene (2019) and Semyon Varlamov (2019).

Carl Soderberg, signed through 2020, could be seen as the potential seventh member.

Roy clearly wanted to move on from at least some of these guys, and the fact Sakic didn’t was a major reason why Roy abruptly resigned in August. But it wasn’t that Sakic just keep the core intact — he actually strengthened his commitment to it by giving Barrie a four-year extension this summer, at a time when many figured the puck-moving blueliner would be dealt.

In light of that, it’s not really surprising that Sakic came out yesterday and publicly defended his core guys.

He’s sticking to his guns.

For now, anyway.