PHT Morning Skate: First round ends tonight with three Games 7

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You don’t need to be told anything to need motivation to watch hockey tonight. Three series will come to an end in three separate Games 7 and each of them has their own tale of success and woe in store for the participants.

Having three games to run with was made possible when the Philadelphia Flyers beat the New York Rangers in Game 6 last night. Thanks to their proximity to each other and the fact that the first round has to be done today, they’re lucky enough to play on back-to-back nights.

Editor’s Note: Pro Hockey Talk’s partner FanDuel is hosting a $1,250 Fantasy Hockey league for Wednesday’s NHL games. It’s $10 to join and first prize is $250. Starts Wednesday at 7pm ETHere’s the FanDuel link.

Game 7: New York Rangers vs. Philadelphia Flyers [Series tied 3-3] (7:00 p.m. ET — NBCSN)

The Rangers had a chance of ending things last night, but Wayne Simmonds and Steve Mason thought otherwise. Simmonds’ hat trick and Mason’s out-of-this-world play kept the Rangers (mostly) off the board as the Flyers rolled 5-2. While you might want to think momentum is on the Flyers’ side, the Rangers having home-ice advantage is a difference-maker.

The Rangers are 5-0 in Game 7 at Madison Square Garden and you could probably ask the Washington Capitals how fun it is to deal with them in those situations. New York has been a different team on home ice in this series, but they’re not infallible. Perhaps the smoothest move Alain Vigneault made was pulling Henrik Lundqvist after two periods in Game 6 to let him prepare for tonight.

Simmonds was a man on a mission last night. Do the Rangers have someone to play that kind of role in Game 7? Do the Flyers?

Game 7: Colorado Avalanche vs. Minnesota Wild [Series tied 3-3] (9:30 p.m. ET — CNBC)

The Wild were a team that would not be denied in Game 6. Zach Parise’s four-point night was the kind of game Minnesota fans envisioned when he signed with the team as a free agent two summers ago. The other guy they landed that year, Ryan Suter, has quietly had a strong series as well as the Avalanche haven’t had the same scoring fortune when he’s out there as opposed to when he’s not.

Look for Patrick Roy to try and take advantage of the 30 or so minutes when Suter isn’t on the ice to try and get Nathan MacKinnon or Paul Stastny out there. The “X” factor for Colorado has to be Matt Duchene. His return in Game 6 was a welcome one for the Avs, and if he can get his legs back on home ice, look out.

It’s incredible to think the Wild are this close to moving onto the Central Division Final while using their third or fourth string goalie in Darcy Kuemper. The fact that he’s going head-to-head with Vezina Trophy finalist Semyon Varlamov and could beat him makes Kuemper’s story a fascinating one.

Game 7: San Jose Sharks vs. Los Angeles Kings [Series tied 3-3] (10:00 p.m. ET — NBCSN)

The Kings are just the ninth team in NHL history to force a Game 7 after being down 3-0 in a series. That alone has made their run against the Sharks one for the history books, but they can go down as legends, so to speak, if they can win one more game.

Not since the 2010 Flyers has a team come all the way back from a 3-0 hole to win and that team went all the way to the Stanley Cup Final. The Kings are a good enough team to have the same sort of run, but the Sharks would like to not have this sort of miraculous tale told at their expense.

The biggest question for San Jose is who they will start in goal. Antti Niemi is their No. 1 guy, but Todd McLellan went with Alex Stalock in Game 6 after pulling Niemi in Games 4 and 5. The Sharks are painted into a corner now where if Stalock starts and wins, they’ll have more controversy following them to the next round. If they leave Niemi on the bench and lose, the questions about giving up on the top guy will linger all summer and into next season.

It’s not an envious position for McLellan to be in. One way or another a great team is going home tonight and that’s perhaps the biggest disappointment out of this series.

Nasty hits, fights, and a blowout in Maple Leafs vs. Canadiens

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First, the Edmonton Oilers fell 6-3 to the Dallas Stars. Next: the Toronto Maple Leafs absolutely throttled the fledgling Montreal Canadiens in a game that was ugly even beyond the 6-0 score.

It’s been a bad day for embattled GMs of teams who’ve made polarizing moves in hopes of solidifying Stanley Cup contenders. The Oilers (7-11-2) and Canadiens (8-11-2) even finish the night with nearly identical records, just to really hammer home their parallel pains.

You almost wonder if something is in the air this week (spoilers: not love), as nastiness has really ratcheted up since the Calgary Flames – Detroit Red Wings line brawl. The Canadiens and Maple Leafs boast one of the NHL’s richest and bitterest rivalries, and it showed on Saturday.

As you can see from the video above this post’s headline, Nazem Kadri played a major role in one of the most explosive moments, taking his frustrations out on Shea Weber. Weber and Jordie Benn wasted no time in going after Kadri.

(Criticisms of the hit are totally fair, but it seems strange to go too heavy on “turtling.” Who would be able to stand up to both Weber and Benn? In the heat of the moment, I’d wager most people would go with flight over fight.)

That was the most bombastic moment, but there was also this seemingly unlikely bout between Nikita Zaitsev and Paul Byron:

This absolute dismantling comes after Claude Julien was steaming mad from a 5-4 loss to the Arizona Coyotes. It’s tough not to read all of this as an indictment of the moves Marc Bergevin has made, especially considering the fact that their rivals dominated them for their sixth win in a row. If you’re the type to draw big conclusions from about a month of a season, you’d look at it as how to build a contender vs. how to waste Carey Price‘s prime.

That’s a little harsh … but either way, these are tough times for Bergevin.

ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski passed along an interesting take from Julien, who wishes he could bag skate his bumbling players. OK, then.

Auston Matthews was definitely part of the fun for Toronto in his return from injury, including scoring this goal:

(You almost wonder if Mike Babcock was rolling the dice even having his star players out there amid all that carnage, but that goal was a sweet reward.)

[MORE: Why Toronto needs Matthews back for a tough stretch]

Yes, this is an 82-game season, and we’re only at about the first-quarter-mark. Still, teams like the Oilers and Canadiens came into 2017-18 with big expectations and big questions, and so far fans and management can’t like the answers.

By the way, asking for a well-dressed GM: what’s the opposite of, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?”

Yikes.

Ovechkin returns after being badly bloodied by puck to face

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It’s still relatively early on Saturday night, and both the Chicago Blackhawks and Washington Capitals could eventually provide further updates that derail this optimism.

With that out of the way, at the moment, the theme of the night might just be teams dodging big injury bullets, even if the star players in question can’t dodge actual damage.

In the case of Corey Crawford, he bounced back for the Blackhawks after Evgeni Malkin‘s thigh area clipped him in the head. Maybe it looked worse than it was?

Now, any time you see people scrape blood off the ice, you get a reminder of how dangerous – and yeah, occasionally strange – hockey can be. That only becomes more disturbing when that blood is coming from a player as important as Alex Ovechkin:

Remarkably, Ovechkin is returning for the third period of the Capitals’ game against the Minnesota Wild.

So:

  • This is a reminder that Ovechkin is tough, in case you foolishly think he isn’t because … his teams have lost in big games or something? Considering how recklessly he often throws his body around, and how infrequently he misses games due to to injury, you’d think that debate would have died a long time ago. Moments like this make it seem that much sillier.
  • Ovechkin must really want to help the struggling Capitals turn things around.
  • Maybe he wants to hang an L on his old boss Bruce Boudreau?

Anyway, PHT will keep an eye on these situations. Sometimes there are more answers the night of events, and sometimes it takes a little longer.

Right now, it’s reasonable for Capitals fans and Blackhawks fans to feel some relative, even if it’s only in the interim.

Update: The Capitals ended up winning 3-1, thanks in large part to Braden Holtby‘s strong night.

Ovechkin logged 8:18 TOI in the third period, so it seems like he’s OK. This post will be updated if he shares a nasty battle scar.

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.

Crawford avoids injury, helps Blackhawks beat Penguins

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The Chicago Blackhawks have been up-and-down so far in 2017-18, but Corey Crawford has been brilliant almost every night he’s been in net. It’s to the point that he might be a little underrated, as people assume that Chicago will keep finding ways to win, possibly missing how big a part he’s playing in its successes.

Crawford’s been able to clean up a lot of messes, so Saturday brought a scare, as he seemed to take head contact from Pittsburgh Penguins star Evgeni Malkin.

You can see the contact in the video above. It seemed like quite a collision, as part of Malkin (thigh? middle-boy) seemed to connect with Crawford at a fairly high speed.

The penalty call drew at least some complaints from Penguins fans, but the important thing either way is that the Blackhawks took a look at Crawford before allowing him to return to the game.

Now, we’ve seen players return to action only to miss games in the future, so it’s still worth monitoring Crawford. Considering how important he is to the Blackhawks, they have to hope that it was one of those plays that looked more painful than it actually was.

Also, with some justifiable complaints about players not going through concussion protocol lately, a lot of people are pleased with Chicago for at least assessing Crawford. We’ll see if anything changes, but right now, this seems like a dodged bullet (but not a dodged Malkin).

Update: Not only did Crawford stick with it, he made a big difference in the Blackhawks beating the Penguins 2-1, including making this save:

Chicago sure seems to have an edge on Pittsburgh lately, by the way:

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.

Coyotes are (gasp) on a winning streak

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As of this writing, the Arizona Coyotes have the least standings points in the NHL (11) despite playing a league-leading 22 games.

Things could change for this young team, but for now, it’s about small victories, which makes actual wins that much bigger. Perhaps what they really needed was this road trip through Canada?

After losing to the Jets in Winnipeg 4-1 on Nov. 14 (no real shame, really, as everyone’s losing to the Jets lately … just ask the Devils), the Coyotes left Claude Julien and the Montreal Canadiens fuming by getting their first regulation win of 2017-18 by a score of 5-4.

Arizona couldn’t make it consecutive wins in regulation, but when Anthony Duclair completed a hat trick with the overtime game-winner, they did something rare: the Coyotes won back-to-back games. Yes, gang, those scrappy kids now have their very own winning streak after today’s 3-2 OT win against the Ottawa Senators.

They wrap up this run of Canadian games by facing the Maple Leafs in Toronto on Monday.

Just like any self-respecting sports team, the Coyotes get to participate in a ceremony after wins.

One would guess that Zac Rinaldo got the “championship belt” stemming from the rough stuff between the Coyotes and Canadiens, which included a Rinaldo fight (no surprise) and Tomas Plekanec‘s first NHL bout (in his 941st career game).

The Coyotes want to bounce back from their bad start, while Duclair hopes to shed the weight of a lousy 2016-17 season.

At 4-15-3, Arizona might already be in too big of a hole to make any waves. Even so, they can gain some respect, and show that they’re not as bad as their record indicates. Heck, a win in Toronto would give them an undeniably successful road trip, something that’s not always a layup even for established, contending teams.

Now, now, all of that aside … it might be a little too early to take them seriously.

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.