Jamie Benn, Jonas Hiller, Ryan Getzlaf

PHT Morning Skate: Two top scoring duos collide in Ducks vs. Stars

Now that the playoffs are underway, the morning skate will focus on previewing each night’s playoff matches. The 2014 postseason is set to begin and there are so many teams with a legitimate shot of emerging as the Stanley Cup champions.

In his exit speech, former Nashville Predators coach Barry Trotz, said that the first round is the scariest and hardest for NHL teams. So let’s take a look at what these guys fear:

Editor’s Note: Pro Hockey Talk’s partner FanDuel is hosting a $750 Fantasy Hockey league for Wednesday’s NHL games. It’s $10 to join and first prize is $250. Starts Wednesday at 7:00 p.m. ET. Here’s the FanDuel link.

Game 1: Tampa Bay Lightning host Montreal Canadiens (7:00 p.m. ET, CNBC)

The big difference between the 2013 Lightning and this season’s squad is goaltender Ben Bishop. He has emerged as one of the league’s best netminders and helped keep the team afloat during Steve Stamkos’ absence with a broken leg and as the team adjusted when former captain Martin St. Louis demanded and received a trade.

So the fact that Bishop won’t be available for Game 1 has to be a major concern for the squad. His replacement, Anders Lindback, wasn’t nearly as good in the regular season, although he did finish the campaign on a high note.

Meanwhile, Montreal is going into this as Canada’s sole representative.

The Canadiens finished second in the Eastern Conference standings last season, but fell apart in the first round, so they’ll be eager to put that behind them. That’s especially true for goaltender Carey Price, who had a particularly troubling showing in the 2013 playoffs and has a career 2.90 GAA in 30 postseason games.

Game 1: Pittsburgh Penguins host Columbus Blue Jackets (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN)

The Blue Jackets are going into this series as the prototypical little guys. Coming out of this with their first playoff win as a franchise would be seen as a big step forward.

Although Columbus will certainly try to do far more than that, it’s fair to say expectations are much higher in Pittsburgh. The Penguins, at least on paper, have enough star power to be a dynasty. Early on in the Evgeni Malkin/Sidney Crosby-era they were on that course with back-to-back appearances in the Stanley Cup Final and a championship just four seasons into Crosby’s career.

However, injuries and playoff collapses have derailed the Penguins and they haven’t appeared in a Stanley Cup Final game since.

Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury has been at the heart of Pittsburgh’s shortcomings as he has significantly underperformed in recent playoff runs. It got to the point where Tomas Vokoun took the starting job from him during the 2013 postseason. He was solid in the regular season, but that hasn’t always translated to playoff success in the past.

Game 1: Anaheim Ducks host Dallas Stars (10:00 p.m. ET, NBCSN)

Teemu Selanne’s last playoff run will start tonight.

The 43-year-old future Hall of Famer saw his role with the Ducks significantly reduced in 2013-14, but perhaps he will be asked to do more now that the real season is beginning. It’s worth noting that Selanne was the 2014 Winter Olympics MVP, so he has shown that he can still be leaned upon when circumstances call for it.

Either way, this series will feature two of the most explosive offensive duos in the league. On the Ducks side there’s Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, who finished second and fifth in the league’s scoring race respectively. The Stars will counter with 22-year-old Tyler Seguin and 24-year-old Jamie Benn, who ranked fourth and 10th in the points leaderboard.

They are the only two teams that featured two players in the top-10, so the fact that they’re playing against each other should make things fun.

Anaheim is heavily favored to win this series, but they also had the second seed in 2013 and still lost in the first round, so they still have a lot to prove. It doesn’t help that starting goaltender Jonas Hiller has lost his confidence and might not even play tonight.

Kovalev, Brodeur would’ve killed it at All-Star Game’s ‘Four Line Challenge’

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - DECEMBER 06:  Martin Brodeur #30 of the New Jersey Devils makes a stick save as Alex Kovalev #27 of the Montreal Canadiens looks on during their game at the Continental Airlines Arena on December 6, 2006 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.  (Photo by Andy Marlin/Getty Images)
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It’s reasonable to bemoan the death of the Breakaway Challenge heading into the 2017 NHL All-Star Game, but we should also give its replacement “The Four Line Challenge” a shot.

Puck Daddy’s Greg Wyshynski provides a nice breakdown of some of the ways the event might be great and also why it may not work, stated well here:

This could also be the new “passing pucks into mini-nets,” as these players frustratingly miss shot after shot after reaching a certain distance and the crowd slips slowly into a coma.

Indeed. The event itself is kind of a brain-full to explain in words, so luckily the NHL laid it all out in this video:

Yeah, that’s a lot to digest.

After sorting things out a bit, it does kind of make you miss the sublime skill of Alex Kovalev, who probably would get a fairer shake these days. One of his old mix tapes is basically an argument for this event:

Martin Brodeur also would have been a game-changer, what with goalies getting bonus points later in the competition:

It almost makes you yearn for old-timers to get an invite to the festivities, eh?

Then again, the beauty of competitions like these is we get to find out which All-Stars boast the same freakish skills. There won’t be systems or opponents to get in the way of those displays, either.

Of course, as Wyshynski notes, it also opens the door for silent crowds and players frustratingly missing targets … but there’s a segment of the audience that will love that part the most.

Flames put Gaudreau back with Monahan, life makes a little more sense

CALGARY, AB - JANUARY 7: Johnny Gaudreau #13 (L) of the Calgary Flames confers with his teammate Sean Monahan #23 during a break in play against the Detroit Red Wings during an NHL game at Scotiabank Saddledome on January 7, 2015 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images)
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Look, it totally makes sense for teams to strive for scoring depth. Just look at what spreading the wealth did for the Pittsburgh Penguins during their Stanley Cup run.

Even so, in these uncertain times, there’s also some comfort to seeing dynamic duos reunite, and the Calgary Herald indicates that will be the case for the Calgary Flames, as Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau are back together.

The wider consensus is that Monahan generally benefits the most from being with Gaudreau, something you can see plainly in “WOWY” stats.

This specific instance presents an interesting wrinkle, however, as it’s Monahan who has the hot hand.

He’s currently riding a five-game goal streak, and he’s also sprinkled in two assists for good measure. You can tell he’s confident even by looking at shots on goal; Monahan’s fired an impressive 25 on net during the past six games.

“I think I’m getting a lot of chances right now,” Monahan said, via the Calgary Herald. “When you’re getting chances, that means you’re doing things right. When you’re getting those chances, if you’re not putting the puck in the net, it can be frustrating. Right now, I’m getting some lucky bounces.”

(Hey, he might be on a hot streak, but he’s still, well, not a great quote.)

Gaudreau, meanwhile, has one goal in 2017. He has just three points in his last 12 games.

Some of that is failing to get the bounces Monahan mentioned, but maybe Gaudreau’s better off with his partner-in-crime, too? It can’t hurt for the Flames to experiment, especially considering the fact that they have something special in the “MMM Line” of Mikael Backlund, Matthew Tkachuk and Michael Frolik.

Really, the bigger question is probably still: who will ultimately fit with Gaudreau and Monahan? For now, the answer is Alex Chiasson, but the Flames are still searching for a better solution.

Gaudreau, Monahan and the rest of the Flames face an interesting test in the Toronto Maple Leafs tonight.

Sens sign Smith to four-year, $13 million extension

Pittsburgh Penguins v Ottawa Senators
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Two weeks ago, we passed along word that Ottawa and Zack Smith had engaged in preliminary extension talks.

On Monday, the two sides wrapped ’em up.

Smith and the Sens have agreed to a four-year deal worth $13 million — an average annual cap hit of $3.25 million, as announced this afternoon. It’s a pretty nice pay bump for the 28-year-old, who’s in the final year of a deal that pays $1.88M.

Smith had a breakout performance last year, scoring a career-high 25 goals while averaging a healthy 15:24 TOI per night. This year he’s been equally effective offensively — 11 goals and 22 points in 43 games — and has thrived at times playing on a line with Derick Brassard and Mark Stone.

Smith also earned the praise of his coaching staff, particularly assistant bench boss Marc Crawford.

“He is so strong on the puck and he has got a very good shot,” Crawford explained, per the Citizen. “He’s fearless and he goes to the net.”

This new extension kicks in next season, and will keep Smith in the Canadian capital through 2021. The only players on the current roster locked in for that long are Dion Phaneuf and Bobby Ryan.

 

Pre-game reading: Remembering the ’74-75 Caps, who were just terrible

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— Up top, Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh recalls his high-school hockey days in Minnesota, where he won a state championship with Cretin-Derham Hall and received the 2007 Minnesota Mr. Hockey award.

— An enjoyable look back at the NHL’s worst-ever team, the 1974-75 Washington Capitals. “To date, no team has played at least 70 games while posting fewer points (21), wins (8) or road wins (1) than the 1974-75 Capitals. Nor has any mustered a lower points percentage (.131), allowed more total goals (446), or dropped more contests consecutively (17).” The expansion Caps lost 67 games that season, including ones by scores of 10-4, 11-1, 12-1, 10-0, 10-3, 12-1, and 10-2. Click here to see their entire season. (Sports Illustrated)

— Speaking of expansion teams, Sportsnet recently caught up with Vegas president Kerry Bubolz, who had the following to say about the Golden Knights’ unique market: “We are setting aside some of our ticket inventory for that convention or leisure traveler, but the vast majority of our inventory is going to be sold locally. The local who happens to be from another market, maybe their hometown is Philadelphia or Boston or Chicago… we’re going to be embracing the fact that they may be fans of another team. But we’re going to encourage them to join our team as well. You can only play those other teams once a year.” (Sportsnet)

— A touching tribute from Paul Holmgren to his late brother, Dave, who gave him a gift he’ll never forget. All these years later, Holmgren only wishes he’d made more of an effort to say thanks. “I don’t remember thanking him, even though my father had specifically told me to. And even if I did, I’m convinced that I didn’t thank him enough.” (Player’s Tribune)

— The Boston Globe remembers the last Bruins team to make the playoffs. “Tuukka Rask was doing his thing. Zdeno Chara and Dougie Hamilton formed an excellent top defensive pairing. Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand were emerging as the best 200-foot tandem in the league with Reilly Smith riding shotgun. Musclemen Milan Lucic and Jarome Iginla flanked David Krejci. Carl Soderberg and Loui Eriksson were chewing up bottom-six forwards and third pairings as third-line partners.” Indeed, it’s a different-looking group today, and management must accept much of the responsibility for what’s gone wrong. That doesn’t mean Claude Julien’s job is safe, but the Globe’s analysis is worth a read. (Boston Globe)

— The NHL has hired an artist to paint 100 portraits of the league’s 100 top players. It’s quite an undertaking for one artist, but for Tony Harris, it’s also “maybe the greatest job I could ever get.” (NHL.com)

Enjoy the games!