Martin St. Louis

PHT Morning Skate: Rangers battle to return to Stanley Cup Final

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It was less than a week ago that the Chicago Blackhawks had a 1-0 series lead in the Western Conference Final and were up 2-0 against Los Angeles late in the second period of Game 2. The Kings overcame that deficit with six unanswered goals and haven’t looked back since.

With a 5-2 victory last night, the Kings have a commanding 3-1 series lead for the first time in the playoffs.

We’ve seen them excel with their backs against the wall during their 2014 postseason run. The question now is if Chicago will be able to give them a taste of their own medicine or if the Kings will eliminate the defending Stanley Cup champions just one year after Chicago did the same thing to them.

While the Kings and Blackhawks get ready for a critical Game 5, the Rangers and Canadiens will play in a key contest of their own.

Game 5: Montreal Canadiens vs. New York Rangers [Rangers lead series 3-1] (8:00 p.m. ET — NBCSN)

When Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price was eliminated from the series after just one game, it was fair to wonder if Montreal’s chances of advancing to the Stanley Cup Final were going with him. In desperation they turned to Dustin Tokarski, a 24-year-old with just 10 games worth of NHL experience, in the hopes that he could at least hold his own against a world-class netminder like New York’s Henrik Lundqvist.

Tokarski has risen to the challenge, but as it turns out, that alone might not be enough to save the Canadiens’ season.

Following the Rangers’ 7-2 blowout victory in Game 1, each game has been decided by two or fewer goals and the last two contests have gone to overtime. However, the fact that the Rangers have been winning by the skin of their teeth doesn’t make the situation any less dire for Montreal.

Martin St. Louis, the overtime hero in Game 4, has been superb and former Canadiens draft pick Ryan McDonagh has frustrated Montreal. Even Rick Nash has finally been clicking finally ended his goal scoring drought earlier in the series.

With the Rangers’ best looking sharp, the stage seems to be set for them to reach the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1994. At the same time, they know how little it would take for everything they’ve built to fall apart.

“This is far from over,” Rangers forward Brad Richards said after Game 4. “I remember sitting in here down 3-1 against Pittsburgh. They will feel bad tonight, but tomorrow they will wake up in front of their home crowd and once that game starts, 3-1, you throw that out the window and it is back in the battle again.

“We have to realize the longer it goes the more life and more belief they get, so it’s going to be a very important start to the next game.”

We’ve seen so many remarkable comebacks already in the 2014 playoffs. Montreal would certainly like to give us another.

Sabres welcome back oft-injured Kulikov, who has missed 26 games

CALGARY, AB - OCTOBER 18: Dmitry Kulikov #77 of the Buffalo Sabres in action against the Calgary Flames during an NHL game at Scotiabank Saddledome on October 18, 2016 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images)
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Dmitry Kulikov‘s first year in Buffalo has largely been defined by his lingering back injury, but he’ll set about changing that narrative when he returns to the lineup tonight in Nashville.

Today, Sabres head coach Dan Bylsma confirmed Kulikov would play for the first time since Dec. 27, having missed nearly a month with his lingering ailment.

Kulikov also missed 13 games earlier in the year with the same back problem.

Acquired at last year’s draft in a deal that sent Mark Pysyk to Florida — along with picks being exchanged — Kulikov was expected to play a big role in Buffalo this season, and projected to play on the club’s top defensive pairing with Rasmus Ristolainen.

“You watch Florida when they go on the PK; he was the first guy on the ice, when they needed a goal on the playoffs he was on the ice, when they needed to protect a lead late in the game he was on the ice,” Sabres GM Tim Murray said at the time of the trade, per NHL.com. “So we certainly liked what we saw.”

All told, the 26-year-old Russian’s appeared in just 20 games this year, registering a single point. He has averaged over 22 minutes per, though — meaning head coach Dan Bylsma has used Kulikov quite a bit, when available.

Kulikov didn’t take this morning’s skate, so no clear indication on who he’ll pair with this evening.

Coyotes’ Holland fined for punching Palat

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Arizona’s Peter Holland has been fined $3,611.11, the maximum allowable under CBA, for punching Tampa Bay’s Ondrej Palat during Saturday’s Coyotes-Lightning game in Glendale.

Holland threw the punch halfway through the second period after getting taken out along the boards by Palat. Holland didn’t like the hit, so he got up, dropped his gloves, and leveled the unsuspecting Palat with a bare fist to the face.

Holland received four minutes for roughing, but the Lightning failed to capitalize with the man advantage.

The Coyotes would go on to win, 5-3.

Ladd back for Isles, who are playing well lately

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 26:  Andrew Ladd #16 of the New York Islanders skates against the Montreal Canadiens at the Barclays Center on October 26, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. The Canadiens defeated the Islanders 3-2.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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The streaking New York Islanders will get a key piece back on Tuesday, as Andrew Ladd returns from a four-game absence to face the visiting Blue Jackets.

Ladd has been out of the lineup since Jan. 16 with an upper-body injury.

“I just wanted to be a part of the way we’ve been playing the last little bit, last five games and have put ourselves back in the position where we can get into the playoff race,” Ladd said, per the Isles’ website. “You try to inject some energy, some emotion into getting back in the lineup and just want to be a part of winning some hockey games. I’m excited to get back in there.”

As mentioned, the Isles are on a bit of a roll. They’re 4-1-1 in their last six and have points in four straight games, all of which came under interim bench boss Doug Weight. Weight, of course, took over from Jack Capuano after the longtime head coach was fired from his post last week.

Ladd’s largely been a disappointment this season after signing a monster seven-year, $38.5 million deal in free agency. He has just eight goals and 12 points through 41 games, but did have a decent stretch of production prior to getting hurt.

The biggest reason for New York’s improved play lately has been Thomas Greiss. Now firmly locked into the starting gig — after Jaroslav Halak cleared waivers and sent to the minors — Greiss has gone 2-0-1 in his last three starts with a 0.98 GAA, and .971 save percentage.

Unsurprisingly, Greiss will get the nod against Columbus this evening.

If the Isles can get another result tonight, they could draw closer to the idle Flyers in the wild card chase. New York currently sits just five back of Philly for the final spot, but needs to leapfrog five teams — Boston, Florida, Carolina, New Jersey and Detroit — to get there.

 

 

Elliott has cooled off, and so have the Flames

EDMONTON, AB - OCTOBER 12:  Goalie Brian Elliott #1 of the Calgary Flames covers up the puck while playing against the Edmonton Oilers on October 12, 2016 at Rogers Place in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images)
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It looked for a while like Brian Elliott had regained his form. From Dec. 14 to Jan. 5, he went 5-0-0 with a .922 save percentage.

Alas, things have gone sideways again. From Jan. 6 onward, Elliott has gone 0-3-1 with an .872 save percentage. Last night, he allowed four goals on 28 shots as his Calgary Flames fell, 4-0, in Toronto.

“I think the difference tonight was they capitalized on some chances that they had and we had some really good looks that we didn’t capitalize,” said Flames captain Mark Giordano, per the Calgary Herald. “That’s the end of the story — it’s a 4-0 game. You have to score at least a few goals to win games in this league.”

Indeed, it’s hard to blame the goalie when he doesn’t get a single goal of support. The Leafs’ first goal, the winning goal, certainly wasn’t Elliott’s fault.

But the second goal could’ve been stopped…

…and the third was the back-breaker, coming with his team on the power play.

The Flames didn’t put up much of a fight after that. The loss was their third in a row, and tonight they have to play in Montreal.

Expect Chad Johnson to get the nod against the Canadiens. He hasn’t been too good lately either. In fact, he only lasted 5:58 of his last start, before he was pulled after allowing three goals on four shots in an eventual 7-3 loss to Edmonton.

Read more: ‘It’s embarrassing,’ says Gulutzan after lopsided loss to Oilers

The Flames are still in a playoff spot, thanks in large part to the struggles of the Kings and Jets. But for a team that thought its goaltending problems had been solved by the addition of Elliott, it has to be frustrating that the position remains a weak spot.

Both Elliott and Johnson are pending unrestricted free agents.

Related: An interesting goalie market awaits in the summer