Matt Calvert

PHT Morning Skate: Blues, Avs, Ducks look to go up 3-0

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Four series head into Game 3 tonight and three of those see teams looking to take a 3-0 series lead.

The St. Louis Blues, Colorado Avalanche, and Anaheim Ducks all hit the road looking to put a stranglehold on their respective series but with the Chicago Blackhawks, Minnesota Wild, and Dallas Stars playing at home, they’ll have the opportunity to get back into the thick of things with wins of their own.

The night gets started in Columbus where the Blue Jackets host the Pittsburgh Penguins after earning a 4-3 double-overtime win in Game 2 to even up that series. Expect a raucous crowd at Nationwide Arena where there hasn’t been a playoff game played there in five years.

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Game 3: Columbus Blue Jackets vs. Pittsburgh Penguins [series tied 1-1] (7:00 p.m. ET — NBCSN)

The Blue Jackets’ Game 2 victory helped make this series look a bit more accurate in the standings when you consider how evenly played it’s been. Columbus has hung tough with the Penguins through both games and have made life miserable for Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby. Brandon Dubinsky’s work to pester them has paid off and Columbus’ role players have stayed strong.

Now the question is how the Penguins will respond to playing on the road after a tough loss. The playoffs can be about facing adversity and the Jackets are giving the Pens a fair amount of that. With Matt Calvert and Jack Johnson providing the offense, if nothing else, this series is providing a spotlight for both teams’ supporting casts.

Game 3: Minnesota Wild vs. Colorado Avalanche [Colorado leads series 2-0] (7:00 p.m. ET — NHL Network)

The Wild have their hands full in dealing with the Avalanche. After blowing a two-goal lead in Game 1, the Wild were thoroughly outplayed in Game 2 and they had no answers for how to contain the Avs’ top line. That has to change with the series now in St. Paul and it’s time for the Wild’s top line to get a piece of their own action.

While Mikko Koivu and Zach Parise have two assists through two games, they’re getting blown away by Paul Stastny and Nathan MacKinnon who have seven points a piece. The Wild could also stand to see Ilya Bryzgalov play a lot better in goal as he has a .822 save percentage through two games.

Game 3: Chicago Blackhawks vs. St. Louis Blues [St. Louis leads series 2-0] (8:30 p.m. ET — CNBC)

The defending champs haven’t had to face this sort of adversity in the postseason in a while. In both games the Blues have tied the game with a late third period goal and gone on to win in overtime. The Blackhawks are close with the Blues, but St. Louis is finding ways to claw out victories.

Chicago will have to make do without Brent Seabrook for the next three games because of his hit on David Backes. Meanwhile, Backes’ status is still unknown for Game 3. The Blues have gotten support on all their lines as Alex Steen, Vladimir Tarasenko, Chris Porter, and Adam Cracknell have played key roles in scoring. Going without Backes will hurt, but for how they’ve played as a team, it’s (large) bump in the road.

The Blackhawks have to find better ways to resist the Blues onslaught when they get rolling. We’ve seen the ‘Hawks look like the usual band of world beaters at times, but the Blues ability to push back has been stronger. That has to change in Chicago if the ‘Hawks are going to get back in this series.

Game 3: Dallas Stars vs. Anaheim Ducks [Anaheim leads series 2-0] (9:30 p.m. ET — NBCSN)

If there’s something the Stars can take pride in after dropping the first two games against the Ducks, it’s that they’ve gotten progressively better as the series has progressed. The timing of that could work great now that the series moves to Dallas. The Stars have lost two one-goal games and while Anaheim looked dominant in Game 1, the Stars made things a lot more interesting in Game 2.

It’s been a while since the Stars have hosted a playoff game (six years) and the fans there will be ready to go crazy to see Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin try to put one over on the Ducks.

The Stars will have to find ways to wrangle the Ducks’ top line, however, as they  have run rampant over Dallas through two games. Ryan Getzlaf leads the way with two goals and two assists and Matt Beleskey and Corey Perry each have a goal and an assist. If Dallas can’t find a way to slow them down, they could be in for more disappointment.

Looking to make the leap: Nikita Zaitsev

BUFFALO, NY - DECEMBER 26: Defenseman Nikita Zaitsev #2 of Russia dumps the puck in as forward Cody Eakin #21 of Canada tries to block the puck during the 2011 IIHF World U20 Championship Group B game between Canada and Russia on December 26, 2010 at HSBC Arena in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
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This post is part of Toronto Maple Leafs day at PHT…

“I think he’s going to surprise a lot of people. The physical part of the game will be different for him in the NHL, but the way he moves the puck and skates and how defensive you now have to be to play, it just really makes you think he can be really successful for the Leafs.”

That quote was from former NHL defenseman Ryan Whitney, speaking in May about newly minted Toronto defenseman Nikita Zaitsev, who went up against Whitney in the KHL.

So needless to say, expectations for Zaitsev this season are fairly high.

And they’re high for reason. At 24, the undrafted blueliner has a wealth of professional experience — seven full campaigns, split between Novosibirsk and CSKA Moscow — and really came into his own over the last few years. He routinely led CSKA in d-man scoring, and was named a KHL first-team all-star in ’14-15.

That pedigree should translate into plenty of opportunities in Toronto.

And hey, Toronto has plenty of opportunities to offer.

It’s likely one of the big reasons Zaitsev chose the Leafs over other interested suitors like Calgary, Vancouver, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh (per Sportsnet). The Leafs are still in the early stages of their rebuild, and it shows on defense — based on current projections, Zaitsev could open as a top-four guy alongside Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner and Matt Hunwick, leapfrogging the likes of Martin Maricin, Roman Polak and Connor Carrick in the process.

The great unknown, of course, is how his success in the KHL will translate into North America. Every NHL club is hoping to land the next Artemi Panarin, but it’s important to remember that 1) Panarin is a forward, and 2) jumped onto a line next to Patrick Kane.

The transition for defenders has generally been tougher, something folks in Philly saw last year with the failed Evgeny Medvedev experience.

Of course, Zaitsev has a few more things going for him than his fellow Russian. He’s younger than Medvedev by nearly a decade, and is a coveted right-handed shot (Medvedev’s a lefty).

And like most players coming over from the KHL, Zaitsev’s on a one-year, performance bonus-laden contract that amounts to a “prove it” deal in the NHL.

That should be enough motivation to help him make the leap.

And if it’s not, there’s always the leap back to Russia.

‘Canes extend GM Francis, who’s ‘rebuilt our organization the right way’

Ron Francis
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The Carolina Hurricanes locked in a key part — arguably the most key part — of their rebuild on Tuesday, signing GM Rom Francis to a contract extension through the 2018-19 campaign.

“Ron has rebuilt our organization the right way, stocking our team and system with young players who will help this franchise compete for the Stanley Cup year in and year out,” club owner Peter Karmanos said in a release. “I’m thrilled that he will continue to see the job through.

“The future is very bright for the Hurricanes in Carolina.”

Francis, 53, has been on the job in Carolina for the past two years, and has done a terrific job of stockpiling young talent through the draft and via trade: Noah Hanifin, Teuvo Teravainen, Sebastian Aho, Haydn Fleury, Jake Bean and Julien Gauthier, to name a few.

Francis was also instrumental in hiring head coach Bill Peters. At the time of the hire, Peters was something of an unknown — an under-the-radar assistant with no NHL head coaching experience — but has since developed into one of the game’s more respected bench bosses.

Peters was named the bench boss for Team Canada at the most recent world championship, and led the country to gold.

This fall, he’ll reprise his role as Mike Babcock’s assistant for Canada at the World Cup of Hockey.

“When you go back a couple years ago, there were a lot of questions about who we had hired,” Francis explained in July, when he extended Peters’ contract through 2019. “[Peters] wasn’t really well known, but in the two years he’s been here, he’s done a tremendous job.”

For all the praise Francis has received during his short time on the job in Carolina, there is one area of concern — goaltending. This summer, Francis made the curious move of bringing Cam Ward back on a two-year deal, resurrecting the Ward-Eddie Lack tandem that struggled at times last season.

It’ll be interesting to see how that move plays out.

It’s Toronto Maple Leafs day at PHT

BUFFALO, NY - JUNE 24:  Auston Matthews poses for a portrait after being selected first overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs in round one during the 2016 NHL Draft on June 24, 2016 in Buffalo, New York.  (Photo by Jeffrey T. Barnes/Getty Images)
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In a lot of ways, the 2015-16 season represented more of the same for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The results were nearly identical to 2014-15, right down to finishing in the basement of the East (69 points last season, 68 the one the year before).

Indeed, Brendan Shanahan is probably correct in saying that the Maple Leafs earned the No. 1 pick “the hard way,” or at least “earned” the higher draft lottery odds that helped them land Auston Matthews.

The big question, really, is how long will fans be patient with the Maple Leafs taking baby steps in the right direction?

Off-season

Naturally, the team tried to make more a leap forward in seeking Steven Stamkos and, to a less dramatic extent, Jimmy Vesey.

They fell short in those regards, but that doesn’t mean that management merely idled while hoping for improvements from in-house development.

The Maple Leafs made bold changes in net, ending the Jonathan Bernier era while betting big on Frederik Andersen and also bringing in a promising backup in Jhonas Enroth.

Beyond those big moves in net, the Maple Leafs made some minor adjustments. They handed surprising money and term to Matt Martin while taking short-term fliers on veterans Milan Michalek and Roman Polak.

On paper, this team still looks quite a few steps away from being a playoff contender, but perhaps we’ll start to see things come together?

A lot of that rides on the work of Matthews, Morgan Rielly and other young players (William Nylander, Mitch Marner) who may or may not make a lasting impact on the regular season roster.

Will the rebuilding plan start to pay dividends? PHT explores the iconic franchise on Tuesday.

Keep your head up: Hurricanes reportedly hand Raffi Torres a PTO

VANCOUVER, CANADA - MAY 3:  Raffi Torres #13 of the San Jose Sharks celebrates after scoring the game-winning goal against the Vancouver Canucks for a 3-2 victory in overtime in Game Two of the Western Conference Quarterfinals of the 2013 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs, May 03, 2013 at Rogers Arena in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.  (Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images)
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From opting against fighting the NHL’s 41-game suspension to seeing his season derailed by knee issues, there was the feeling that the league had seen the last of controversial forward Raffi Torres.

Perhaps not.

The Carolina Hurricanes reportedly handed the 34-year-old a PTO, according to former Hurricanes defenseman Aaron Ward.

It’s something the Raleigh News & Observer’s Chip Alexander also mentioned on Monday.

With Bryan Bickell added to the mix during this off-season, the Hurricanes seem interesting in adding some beef. It’s unclear if Torres is really in the sort of condition to make a mark, but Carolina’s going to at least take a look at him.

Beware, pre-season opponents and training camp teammates.