The Chip ‘n’ Chase: Sabres’ shakeup, Yakupov versus Eakins, Jocks versus Nerds, and more

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This is a new thing we’re trying. Every Wednesday, we’ll publish a little back-and-forth we have via email. We’re calling it the Chip ‘n’ Chase. Yes, it’s a terrible name. Enjoy.

Jason Brough: Hey buddy, so major changes today in Buffalo. Still trying to wrap my head around everything, but looking back on the past couple of seasons, it seems to me the Sabres went off the rails as soon as Terry Pegula came in with his blank checkbook. Which is kind of odd when you first think about it, since the best teams are typically the ones that spend right up to the salary cap. But on the other hand, it’s totally predictable. The Sabres actually remind me of a regular Joe who one day wins a massive lottery and has no idea what to do with all the cash. He buys a huge mansion with mismatching furniture; he starts investing in all his friends’ dumb business ideas; he basically loses all self-control when it comes to money. Which I suppose makes Ville Leino the unused jet ski in the Sabres’ driveway?

Mike Halford: What does that make Tyler Myers then — the 1,000-volume LaserDisc collection? “There’s no way these depreciate in value!” I agree things went off the rails when Pegula arrived with his bags of money, and call me skeptical that these latest moves will get things back on track. I mean, Nolan and LaFontaine aren’t exactly dialed in to the NHL anymore. Nolan has been coaching the Latvian national team for the last two years and LaFontaine wasn’t involved anywhere prior to taking a gig with the league last month. LaFontaine also said at today’s presser that he’s “not ready to be a GM because I lack experience,” which sort of stood out for me, given he’ll be the new GM’s boss.

JB: I’m a little more optimistic. Nolan was only hired on an interim basis, so if he doesn’t work out the Sabres can always choose a new coach in the summer. The key will be LaFontaine’s choice for GM. Whoever it is, he needs to — well, he needs to do a lot of things — but at the top of the list I’d put player development. Case in point, Mikhail Grigorenko. That kid is completely lost out there. He really shouldn’t be in the NHL. The Sabres have a ton of draft picks in 2014. Making the right selections is only the first step. They have to figure out a better way to bring them along.

Speaking of lost kids, did you see that Nail Yakupov media scrum yesterday in Edmonton? It was a bit…how-you-say-my-English-no-so-good…awkward. Listening to Yakupov, it really doesn’t sound like he’s on the same page with Dallas Eakins. Not sure who to blame for that. I guess I respect that the kid wants to play more and help his team win, but I tend to have sympathy for the coach when I see plays like this:

And Yakupov wonders why Eakins has trust issues with him. He wonders why he’s played “lower and lower minutes” in the past few games. Maybe next time put two hands on the stick when you take a pass in your own end and Steven Stamkos is on the ice.

MH: I know we’re focusing on Yakupov here, so I’ll ignore Devan Dubnyk getting beat on a long wrister. Actually, forget that — I wanna focus on Eakins. When he got hired, the words “master” and “communicator” were thrown around so much I thought he actually had a Masters of Communication from a fine online college. So, what happened? The Oilers now have Yakupov saying “I’m not talking about anything with Dallas” and Eakins saying “I won’t search him out, but my door is open.” There are broken pagers that do a better job of communicating than these two. On the subject of trust, do you have any that Eakins can turn this thing around?

source:  JB: Honestly, I don’t. In hindsight, if the Oilers were intent on firing Ralph Krueger, I think they might’ve been better off hiring an experienced NHL head coach to lead their inexperienced group of players, not a first-timer who got constantly talked up by the Toronto media because he was in, you know, Toronto. I don’t mean to discount Eakins’ success with the Marlies, because he definitely had some, but do you think he’d be the Oilers’ head coach today if he’d done the same things he did with the Marlies but he’d done them with, say, the Lake Erie Monsters? I feel like he wouldn’t have received as much positive press coverage in Cleveland. Whatever. He’s not going to get fired, so it’s not worth spending too much time dwelling on whether he should have been hired in the first place. You’re right about the “master communicator” stuff though. It’s pretty funny actually. The way Eakins was talking in June — e.g. “The way you coach players now is you get them one on one. You’ve got to know them inside out” — I figured the Oilers would be getting daily encouragement notes in their cubbyholes. Wait, do they have cubbyholes? Maybe they need some cubbyholes.

MH: I could see Nugent-Hopkins liking the cubbyhole idea. Give him a place to store his Pokemons. You know what’s crazy? We haven’t even mentioned Ilya Bryzgalov yet. That’s how many other issues the Oilers have. I don’t want to get into the whole “Mr. Universe” thing or how he’ll react to the Edmonton media… but I do want to talk about all the flawed logic and, frankly, blatant denial in that move. Bryz and his agent ripped the Flyers for having a weak defensive system, right? So now he’s going to Edmonton, which doesn’t exactly have an Iron Curtain on the blue line and is giving up a league-worst 3.90 goals per game. What’s more, the Oilers had to dump a pretty useful d-man in Ladislav Smid just to make room for Bryz’s contract! That might be best part in all of this, though I’m reserving judgment until reporters can ask about his “November months, minus-32!” remarks.

Okay, that’s enough about the Oilers. Let’s talk about tonight’s game between Toronto and Minnesota. I’m calling it Jocks versus Nerds. The Leafs, who are skeptical of advanced statistics, taking on the Wild, who apparently are not. All I know is this — whoever scores more Corsis is going to win.

source:  JB: I’m pretty pumped, too. Tonight may be the most talked-about jocks-nerds showdown since the Alpha Betas battled the Tri-Lambs in the Greek Games. Although I have to admit I’m having a bit of trouble picturing Dave Nonis in the cool fraternity. Or Chuck Fletcher drunkenly riding a tricycle. In all seriousness, I really don’t get the Leafs’ skepticism — if not downright disdain — for hockey’s new stats. Unless they’re playing coy, which I don’t think they are. Based on his comments, it seems like Nonis is searching for some magical statistic he can use to break the code, and until that magical stat is presented to him on a silver platter, everything else is useless. Is Corsi perfect? No, it’s not. A team can win games without having the puck more than its opponent. But here are the top five teams in that stat: Chicago, Los Angeles, St. Louis, San Jose and Minnesota. You’re telling me that’s a coincidence? Now here are the bottom five: Washington, Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto, and Buffalo. Hmmm. Maybe I get the Leafs’ problem with it now.

After surgery, Joe Thornton should be ready for 2017-18 (Wherever he plays)

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On Monday, we found out that Joe Thornton made the “courageous” (or … outrageous?) decision to fight through tears to his ACL and MCL and suit up for the playoffs.

(That still warrants a moment of reflection, because, wow.)

The San Jose Sharks sent out a positive update in that regard: after successful surgery yesterday, Thornton is expected to be ready to play by the start of the 2017-18 season.

So, that answers one big question. It doesn’t settle an even bigger one, though: where will Thornton play next year?

Patrick Marleau indicated that he believes he has “at least five good years” left, a fine thought that becomes trickier when you consider San Jose’s salary structure problems for 2018-19 and on. The impression is that Thornton wants to come back, too, but what if he – justifiably – seeks security in a longer term deal?

That situation is currently unclear, but at least it sounds like he’ll be healthy to start next season, whether he remains a member of the Sharks or joins a different roster.

Ovechkin on facing Crosby, Penguins: ‘You don’t have to be afraid’

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ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) Sidney Crosby is standing in Alex Ovechkin‘s way again. Of course.

Crosby’s Pittsburgh Penguins extinguished two of the Washington Capitals’ best Stanley Cup hopes in 2009 and 2016, going on to win the championship each time. Now as Ovechkin and the Capitals face a summer of change, it’s only fitting that perhaps their best chance to win it all means going through defending champion Pittsburgh in the second round.

Ovechkin knows the playoff history, the blowout loss at home in Game 7 in 2009 and the overtime loss on the road in Game 6 that ended last season. He brought them up unprompted Tuesday as if to try to bury them in the past.

“We play them twice in the playoffs and we don’t have success,” Ovechkin said. “We lost in Game 6 and Game 7. You just have to move forward. You don’t have to be afraid. You know you play against Stanley Cup champion and they are very good team, but so we are. This battle have to be done if we want to get success.”

In franchise history, the Capitals have only beaten the Penguins once in nine playoff meetings. That matters more to the respective fan bases than players, only a few of whom are still around from 2009.

This season brings a matchup of the top two teams in the regular season, put on a crash course to face off before the conference final by the NHL’s division playoff format. Crosby said, “You kind of expected we’d see each other at some point,” and the Capitals figure no better time than the present to tackle their biggest obstacle.

“You usually have to go through the best team to get to where you want to go,” said center Jay Beagle, who is going into his third Capitals-Penguins series. “It was either now or maybe in the third round. Let’s do it now.”

What better time for a renewal of Crosby versus Ovechkin, which to this point has been a lopsided rivalry? Crosby owns a 38-21 record in their meetings in the NHL regular season and playoffs, world junior championships, world championships, World Cup and Olympics.

Ovechkin, the No. 1 pick in the 2004 draft, and Crosby, the No. 1 pick in 2005, have been stars for more than a decade and have been compared to each other for longer than that. They spent some time together at the gathering of the NHL’s top 100 players during All-Star Weekend and their friendship has evolved over time.

“We respect each other,” Ovechkin said. “That battle between me and him, it’s great. I think me and him enjoy it, you guys enjoy it, fans enjoy it. But right now it’s not about me and him, it’s about Caps and Penguins.”

Crosby and Ovechkin are quick to deflect the spotlight to star teammates – Pittsburgh has Evgeni Malkin and Washington has Nicklas Backstrom – and shift the focus to team play. Over his three years as Capitals coach, Barry Trotz has seen Ovechkin grow up and his priorities change.

Trotz has seen Ovechkin celebrate teammates’ goals harder than his own and languish in losses all while putting up goals at a faster clip than anyone in this generation.

The only thing that has evaded the three-time Hart Trophy winner and six-time Rocket Richard Trophy winner is the Cup. Trotz said Ovechkin understands what he means to the team, the league and what’s left undone “before the sun sets on his career.”

Ovechkin is 31 and still has four years left on his contract. But with winger T.J. Oshie, defenseman Karl Alzner and others set to be unrestricted free agents – and the salary cap crunching the Capitals, too – there’s an urgency about winning this year.

That means trying to finally get over the second-round hump.

“It’s a big opportunity for us to beat the Stanley Cup champion and play the next team in the third round,” Ovechkin said. “Obviously we’ve never done it before. It’s a big opportunity for us to move forward and get success.”

NOTES: Capitals RW Tom Wilson left practice when he took a puck off the left ankle. Trotz called it a stinger and said he was fine. … Ovechkin missed the second half of practice after breaking a skate. … C Lars Eller didn’t skate, with the team calling it a maintenance day.

AP Sports Writer Will Graves in Pittsburgh contributed.

More AP NHL: https://www.apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SWhyno

Karlsson explains how Senators plan on getting to Lundqvist

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GREENBURGH, N.Y. (AP) After struggling through a subpar season by his standards, Henrik Lundqvist was at his best when the Rangers needed him in the first round.

The 35-year-old goalie will again have to be at the top of his game against Ottawa for New York to reach the Eastern Conference finals for the fourth time in six years.

“Hank has been through this before,” coach Alain Vigneault said Tuesday after the Rangers began preparing to face the Senators in the conference semifinals.

“I think he’s really thriving on the pressure and the opportunity. … He wants to be a difference-maker and he’s looking forward to this series.”

This season, Lundqvist had to deal with periods of inconsistency – highlighted by winning a season-high five straight starts Feb. 2-11 and then losing three of five from Feb. 26 to March 7 before a hip injury cost him nearly three weeks.

He then won just once in six starts (1-3-2) after returning in late March and finished the season 31-20-4 with a 2.74 goals-against average and a .910 save percentage – career worsts for the latter two.

However, since the playoffs started he has been sharp, getting his 10th career postseason shutout in the opener against Montreal and then finishing with a career-high 54 saves – regular season or playoffs – in an overtime loss in Game 2.

Lundqvist finished the first round with a 1.70 GAA and .947 save percentage – both the best among all goalies. He gave up just four goals on 88 shots while the Rangers won the last three games of the series after allowing seven goals on 87 shots in losses in Games 2 and 3.

“The guys played so hard with a lot of structure in front and made it so much easier for me to focus on my game and try to do my part,” said Lundqvist, who has 2.25 GAA and .923 save percentage in 122 postseason games.

“It was a great feeling to see the way we worked, especially the way we battled back the last couple games.”

He had a big save in the clinching Game 6 win against Montreal with the Rangers leading by one and less than two minutes remaining, making a lunging pad stop on Tomas Plekanec‘s backhand follow attempt in close.

“I knew I was in trouble because I wasn’t in good position on the first play and then he threw it at me,” Lundqvist said. “My first thought was `don’t knock it in,’ and then it ends up right on his stick. It was just a desperation save. Luckily he didn’t put it far corner.”

Now, he’ll be going up against an Ottawa team lead by former teammate Derick Brassard (two goals, six assists in first-round win against Boston), Bobby Ryan (four goals, three assists) and fellow Swede Erik Karlsson (six assists).

“They have some key players in their core group that play a big part for their team,” Lundqvist said. “When you watch them play, it’s a lot of tight game (and) strike when they get a chance.”

Lundqvist knows how tough his good friend Karlsson is to contain. The defenseman and team captain has topped 50 assists and 70 points in three of the past four seasons.

“You can stop him, you just got to be really good,” Lundqvist said. “You got to have a game plan and follow that. He’s definitely one of the best players in the game, and he plays a big part for them to have success. He’s a good skater, sees the game really well.”

Karlsson, in turn, believes the key to beating Lundqvist is to frustrate him.

“We’re going to have to make it hard on him,” Karlsson told The Canadian Press in Ottawa. “If he sees the puck he’s going to make most of the stops and we’re going to make it hard in front of him by putting a lot of traffic in there and throw a lot of pucks at him. The more shots we have the more opportunities we’re going to have for one to go in.”

Game 1 is Thursday night in Ottawa.

Follow Vin Cherwoo at http://www.twitter.com/VinCherwooAP

More AP hockey: https://www.apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

Ducks have better chance to slow McDavid with healthier defensemen

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Trying to stop – or at least inhibitConnor McDavid is likely to be a conundrum for opposing teams for, oh, the next decade or two. Still, it helps matters to at least be near 100 percent.

The Anaheim Ducks dispatched the Calgary Flames (a team with some serious firepower on the blueline and also magician-forward Johnny Gaudreau) in four games despite serious limitations on defense. It seems like they’re getting closer to being their full-fledged selves, as the team website revealed that Hampus Lindholm and Cam Fowler seem likely to play in Game 1. Also, Sami Vatanen is getting better.

Much has already been made about the Ducks matching up Ryan Kesler and Andrew Cogliano against McDavid, at least when they can.

“We’ll start looking at things and try to come up with some sort of plan,” Cogliano told the Los Angeles Times. “He’s dynamic. I think with how good he is sometimes you look [past Draisaitl]. Not that he flies under the radar, but he’s a player you have to keep an eye on, too.”

Still, Randy Carlyle faces some interesting choices as far as which blueliners to send out against McDavid.

Fowler is more known for his offensive skills, but his skating ability makes for an intriguing option, at least if he’s close to 100 percent. Lindholm might not get much press just yet, but he’s quietly building a resume as one of the league’s best defenders. It’s a little tricky with them being even somewhat slowed by injuries, though.

For what it’s worth, the Ducks had some success against McDavid in 2016-17, limiting him to zero goals, one assist and just two shots in three regular-season games.

It’s dangerous to put too much weight on such stats, especially considering the small sample size. The bottom line is that Carlyle gets the final change for Games 1 and 2, a potentially key advantage against McDavid and the Oilers.

You know, assuming there’s even an ideal matchup for Anaheim.