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.

Mario Lemieux is ‘fine’ with Josh Ho-Sang wearing number 66

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Believe it or not, many people have an issue with Islanders rookie Josh Ho-Sang wearing number 66, but it sounds like former Penguins great Mario Lemieux isn’t one of them.

On Thursday, Lemieux made it clear that Ho-Sang using his number wasn’t an issue.

“I’m fine with it,” Lemieux said via a spokesperson, per the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “It’s just a number. Number 4 and number 9 were worn by great players (Bobby Orr and Gordie Howe, respectively), and they are not retired forever. Players can choose whatever number they want.”

 Unlike the number 99, the NHL hasn’t retired 66, which means any player can still use it.

Some see it as a sign of disrespect, but Ho-Sang has made it clear that that’s the last thing on his mind when he decided he wanted to wear Lemieux’s old number.

“It’s honoring [Lemieux] and just, I think a lot more people remember who he is now because they’re yelling at me about wearing the number, right? I think that’s cool too,” he told Newsday earlier this month. “There’s a lot of light being shined on an amazing player. By no means am I trying to be better than or trying to prove anything. For me, it’s definitely a tribute to a great player. If he asked me not to wear it, I’d definitely consider it, but I haven’t gotten any phone calls or anything. So for now I’m gonna wear it.”

Even though Lemieux has now given his blessing, don’t be surprised if Penguins fan are all over Ho-Sang during Friday’s game between the two teams at PPG Paints Arena.

PHT Morning Skate: Matt Duchene helps fan land a prom date

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Matt Duchene may be having a tough season, but he picked up a terrific assist on Thursday night, as he flipped a puck to a fan and helped her get a prom date in the process. (Top)

–Sportsnet breaks down the five longest individual playoff streaks. Henrik Zetteberg has the longest active streak, but that’s about to come to an end in the next few weeks. After the Red Wings are officially eliminated from the playoffs, Sharks defenseman Paul Martin will own the longest streak. (Sportsnet)

–As you may have seen, yesterday was National Puppy Day. Several NHL players shared pictures of themselves with their dogs. BarDown has accumulated some of the best ones. (BarDown)

–The Hockey News’ Ken Campbell thinks the NHL could improve the World Cup by taking some ideas from the World Baseball Classic. Campbell writes: “Not only was the World Cup in one country, heck it was in one city, in one arena. The World Baseball Classic, on the other hand, was played in four countries – South Korea, Japan, Mexico and USA, with three different American cities hosting games. If you want to capitalize on the unique passion that many European fans have for the game, you have to bring it to them and make them feel a part of the experience.” (The Hockey News)

Al Montoya is the first Cuban-American player to make it to the NHL, and he spoke to the Montreal Gazette’s Stu Cowan about his heritage. “I’m a first-generation Cuban-American. You don’t really hear that a lot. A lot of these (Cuban) people have been here for a while, so it’s something that’s special to me. Where my grandparents came from … they passed away a few years ago, but for me it was always a sense of pride the way that my grandparents carried themselves. The traditions that we had during the holidays … whatever it might be. (Montreal Gazette)

–The Vegas Golden Knights and Cirque du Soleil have become strategic entertainment partners. This partnership should make in-game entertainment pretty interesting. “Cirque du Soleil has had a significant presence in Las Vegas since 1992 and continues to be one of the most popular entertainment options in town. We are always looking for creative ways to enhance the overall fan experience at our home games and this partnership certainly helps advance that objective.” (NHL.com/GoldenKnights)

A big night for the rookies and a big win for the Maple Leafs

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William Nylander helped get Toronto started on Thursday, extending his point streak to 10 games — a new Maple Leafs franchise record for a rookie.

Connor Brown finished it with his 17th goal of the season, securing a 4-2 win for the Maple Leafs over the New Jersey Devils.

Toronto has won three in a row and moves three points clear of Boston for third in the Atlantic Division, with a game in hand, which further helps the Maple Leafs’ playoff chances with nine games remaining on their schedule.

Just another big night for Toronto’s impressive crop of rookies.

Auston Matthews had a pair of assists.

— Nylander had a goal and an assist. He set one and tied another franchise rookie record on Thursday.

Mitch Marner had an assist, giving him 40 helpers this season, which ties the franchise rookie record set in 1943-44.

“They’re good players,” said coach Mike Babcock, per the Toronto Star. “I didn’t know Marner would make the team. I knew Matthews and Nylander were good players. I knew Brown and (Zach) Hyman were relentless. I had no idea (Nikita) Zaitsev was as close to how good he is.

“We have lots of good players.”

In May of 2015, Babcock predicted at his introductory press conference that the Maple Leafs would, during their massive rebuild, endure “pain.” This was, he said, to be a long process — a “massive, massive challenge.”

Approaching the two-year anniversary of that event — after all the losing that franchise and its fan base has gone through, which obviously helped them with the Matthews lottery last year — the Maple Leafs are poised to make the playoffs with a nucleus of young players that present even more promise for the future.

“We just want to get in to the playoffs, and give ourselves a chance,” continued Babcock. “We’re playing well, and finding a way to win games. That’s what we have to continue to do.”

Capitals defeat Blue Jackets in clash of Metropolitan Division powers

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WASHINGTON (AP) T.J. Oshie scored the shootout winner as the Washington Capitals overcame a stellar performance from Columbus goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky to beat the Blue Jackets 2-1 Thursday night.

Despite 44 saves from Bobrovsky, the Capitals reached 104 points and extended their lead atop the Metropolitan Division and NHL standings. Oshie engendered memories of his Sochi Olympic shootout performance by again beating Bobrovsky, the goalie he scored on four times in six chances that day.

Dmitry Orlov finally cracked Bobrovsky early in the third period on Washington’s 35th shot of the game. Orlov’s goal tied the score after Seth Jones beat Braden Holtby on a wild scramble early in the third for his first goal since Feb. 7.

Holtby had 29 saves in regulation and overtime and three more in the shootout to pick up his 38th victory of the season, one shy of Bobrovsky for the league lead.

A showdown between two of the top three teams in the league jockeying for position atop the Metropolitan Division lacked a playoff feel. But the matchup of two likely Vezina Trophy finalists lived up to that billing as Bobrovsky and Holtby went back and forth with big saves.

Bobrovsky entered the night first in wins, goals-against average and save percentage with Holtby second, second and third in those categories. The 2013 Vezina winner could also be an MVP contender this season given his value to Columbus’ third playoff berth in franchise history.

“When he’s in his game it’s very hard to score on him,” said Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin, who had eight shots stopped by one of his Russian national teammates. “He likes the big moments, he likes pressure. His worth ethic is unbelievable. … In my opinion he’s one of the best goalies in the league right now.”