PHT Morning Skate: Rangers get second chance to eliminate Montreal

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Like the Montreal Canadiens before them, the Chicago Blackhawks were able to stave off elimination last night when faced with a 3-1 series deficit. They certainly didn’t make it look easy as the Los Angeles Kings pushed them to the bitter end in the double-overtime contest, but the Blackhawks have lived to fight another day.

The series switch off again today, which means that we’re back to the Eastern Conference Final.

Game 6: Montreal Canadiens vs. New York Rangers [New York leads 3-2] (8:00 p.m. ET — NBCSN)

New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist squandered his first opportunity to reach the Stanley Cup Final, but his strong effort earlier in the series has afforded him two more chances.

Lundqvist was yanked just 28:58 minutes into Tuesday’s contest after allowing four goals on 19 shots. With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, it would have been interesting to see if Lundqvist could have shrugged off his rough start as the Rangers rallied back from a 4-1 deficit after he left the game, but backup Cam Talbot couldn’t hold onto the lead.

“I pulled [Lundqvist] because I thought at that time we needed a little momentum shift, and I thought it might catch everybody’s attention,” Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said. “It did for a while. Obviously, it didn’t work out.”

At the same time, yanking him prevented the situation from getting out of hand and potentially hurting his confidence. Now Lundqvist can come back tonight fresh and refocused. He’s not the only Rangers player that needs to do that.

“We didn’t give [Lundqvist] too much help,” Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi acknowledged.

For Montreal, all eyes will be on Max Pacioretty, who scored 39 goals in the regular season, but has been on-and-off in the playoffs. He struggled in Game 4 and called on himself to bounce back for Game 5. He did just that by scoring a goal and an assist, but the Canadiens need sustained production out of him.

Montreal doesn’t have any margin for error left and can’t count on another seven-goal outing led by a hat trick from an unlikely hero like Rene Bourque. Ultimately, the Canadiens top players will probably make or break them and that puts the pressure on Pacioretty.

Montreal’s defense needs to step up too, which had a nasty breakdown midway through Game 5 when the Rangers scored three unanswered goals in less than five minutes. That kind of stretch would have sunk the team on another night.

Even if Carey Price had been healthy, he wouldn’t have been able to bail out his teammates entirely during that stretch, but it’s not like rookie goalie Dustin Tokarski was blameless. He certainly has made some great saves along the way and deserves a lot of credit for coming into a high pressure situation and holding his own despite his lack of NHL experience. Still, Tokarski will have his hands full tonight if Lundqvist and the Rangers defense bounce back.

After ‘breakout’ year in AHL, Fleury ready to crack ‘Canes lineup

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If it feels like we’ve written about Haydn Fleury being ready to make the leap before… well, it’s because we have.

Quite a few times.

There are reasons for this, of course. Fleury was the second defenseman off the board at the 2014 draft, taken six spots behind No. 1 overall selection Aaron Ekblad. He’s just one of two top-15 picks from his draft year yet to play in the NHL — the fifth overall selection, Isles prospect Michael Dal Colle, is also waiting to make the leap — and he’s already two years behind fellow ‘Canes blueliner Noah Hanifin, who was taken in the ’15 draft and just wrapped his sophomore NHL campaign.

Progress has been a slow process. But now, it finally sounds like Fleury’s ready to break through.

“He’s had, in my opinion, a breakout year,” AHL Charlotte coach Ulf Samuelsson said this week, per the Observer. “He’s been one of our most consistent players. He’s taken a step maybe each month and the last month has made the biggest step because he’s now using his size.

“He’s hard to play against. He’s always been good joining the rush, jumping up, but he has turned into a really good two-way defenseman.”

After a lengthy junior career in Red Deer, Fleury played his first season of pro hockey in Charlotte this season, and acquitted himself nicely. He raced up seven goals and 26 points in 69 games and, as per Samuelsson’s above quote, has used his 6-foot-3, 207-pound frame to his advantage.

Some might look at Fleury’s slow progression to the pro game, and consider him a draft bust. That doesn’t appear to be the case.

‘Canes GM Ron Francis has taken a more deliberate approach with Fleury, 20, and another promising blueliner, 21-year-old Roland McKeown. Both were knocking on the door of making the Carolina roster to start the year, but Francis opted to send them back to Charlotte for more seasoning.

One might wonder why Francis opted to slow play these two, when Hanifin was fast-tracked to the NHL at 18. The answer might not lie with Fleury and McKeown, but rather the group as a whole — Carolina had one of the youngest bluelines in the league this year, featuring Hanifin (20), Jaccob Slavin (22), Brett Pesce (22), Ryan Murphy (24) and Justin Faulk (25).

Murphy, however, could be lost to Las Vegas in the upcoming expansion draft, resulting in an open roster spot. And journeyman Matt Tennyson, who appeared in 45 games on defense for the ‘Canes this season, is a pending UFA.

All this points to Fleury making his long-awaited NHL debut in the fall.

‘We took two steps forward, maybe three’: Kekalainen excited about Blue Jackets’ future

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COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) Despite an early exit from the playoffs, Columbus Blue Jackets executives like the team’s development and defensive depth.

However they won’t rule out a trade this summer that would bring another standout goal-scorer to town.

The Blue Jackets, picked by many to finish near the bottom of the stout Metropolitan Division, won a franchise-record 50 games and 108 points on the way to a third-place finish in the division behind Washington and Pittsburgh.

That’s 16 more wins and 32 points better than 2015-16. They were at the center of the hockey world at midseason when they had a 16-game winning streak, the second-longest streak in NHL history.

But the playoffs were a big disappointment. Columbus lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins in five games in the first round.

Goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky struggled to get saves at critical times as he had done all season.

“Last year sitting here you probably felt we had taken a step backward, and this year we can feel that we took two steps forward, maybe three,” general manager Jarmo Kekalainen told reporters Monday.

“Obviously, we’re disappointed with the 4-1 exit from the playoffs,” he said. “(But) four out of five games we thought we were right there, neck to neck with the defending Stanley Cup champions.

“(We) out-chanced them, outshot them, didn’t get the result we wanted. We always try to look behind the results. There were games in that series where we played very well.”

Kekalainen said the organization will stick with its patient strategy of developing players from within. But also possible, he acknowledged, is a big trade or free-agent signing for another scorer who could get them over the hump.

“Do we look for somebody from the outside? Absolutely,” he said. “But we’re going to try to build it with the process in mind that we’ve talked about all along. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s make sure that everything makes sense in the long term as much as it does in the short term.”

Kekalainen and team president John Davidson said the team that lost to Pittsburgh in five games this season was better than the one eliminated by the Penguins 4-2 in 2014.

“I firmly believe in this group going forward,” Davidson said. “We’ve got a good base here, but we’ve gone through a lot of the transition of trying to build your own from within through the draft. I’m pretty positive about this.”

The players are disappointed but also optimistic about the future in Columbus. Everyone finished generally healthy, except for defenseman Markus Nutivaara, who needs hip surgery and four months of recovery.

Nineteen-year-old defenseman Zach Werenski, who took a puck in the face that fractured his cheekbone in a playoff game, is recovering and not expected to suffer any long-term effects.

“We’ve really just been a team that’s just trying to get to the playoffs,” captain Nick Foligno said Saturday when the team gathered for the last time.

“Now the mindset is how are we going to stay, how are we going to do well, how are we going to win? That’s what I’m most excited about is the growth and the mentality.”

Kekalainen is not worried about Bobrovsky, who had a .882 save percentage and a 3.88 goals-against average in the five playoff games after finishing the regular season among the league’s best with a .931 save percentage and 2.06 goals-against average. He’s a finalist for the Vezina Trophy.

“He knows he needs to be better in the playoffs,” Kekalainen said. “He will be better, I’m convinced. He’s that driven, he’s always looking for ways to get better.”

Nobody wants to get started with another season more than the 28-year-old Russian.

“It’s a tough way to finish the season,” he said. “It’s disappointing. But you have either success or experience. So this time, with this playoff, I had experience and I will learn from it and move on.”

PHT Morning Skate: Is it too early for the Caps and Pens to be meeting?

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–Here are NHL.com’s 10 storylines to keep an eye on in the second round of the playoffs. Obviously, Crosby vs. Ovechkin is up there, but so is a matchup between Jake Allen and Pekka Rinne (who would’ve thought). Both goalies were incredible in the first round.  (NHL.com)

–The Edmonton Oilers were able to knock off one team from California in the first round, and they’ll look to do the same in round two against Anaheim. The Edmonton Journal looks at eight positive and eight negatives for the Oilers going into the series. The Ducks are a little banged up right now, and the Oilers did pretty well against them during the regular season. On the downside, Anaheim is a deeper team, and they’re fully capable of playing a nasty brand of hockey. (Edmonton Journal)

–Former NHL goalie Corey Hirsch breaks down the five different types of playoff beards. No surprise that Joe Thornton and Brent Burns‘ beards find themselves in the “jumbo” category. (The Score)

–Everyone is looking forward to the series between the Pens and Caps, but is it too early for them to be playing each other? Washington Post writer Dan Steinberg isn’t impressed with the way the playoff format works. Steinberg writes: “The Caps and Penguins-the first- and second-best teams in the NHL- both won in the first round, and will face each other this week, starting Thursday night. Seven other teams finished with at least 100 points; four have been eliminated. And so the second-round matchups have all the logical consistency of a third-grader’s Pynchon plot diagram.” (Washington Post)

Mark Scheifele had some interesting things to say during a Q&A with Sportsnet. One of the things he touched on was the NHL deciding not to go to the Olympics. It’s safe to say he’s not a fan of the decision. “I look at it as it’s misrepresenting our sport. I think [Jonathan] Toews said that. The Olympics is a big honor, and for us to turn that honor down is junky.” (Sportsnet)

–The Hockey News’ roundtable looks at the four teams that should be most disappointed by their first-round exit from the playoffs. After finishing at the top of their respective divisions during the regular season, the Blackhawks and Canadiens being bounced early has to be incredibly difficult for each of those two markets. (The Hockey News)

It doesn’t sound promising for Matt Murray

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Matt Murray wasn’t available for the Pittsburgh Penguins against the Columbus Blue Jackets. If he ends up being an option vs. the Washington Capitals, it might not be for a while.

The Penguins provided a less-than-promising update on Monday: he hasn’t yet resumed skating.

Now, there is some time for him to even get ready by Game 1, as their second-round series doesn’t begin until Thursday.

Considering Washington’s firepower, it would be nice for the Penguins to have two championship goalies to choose from in case things get ugly, but at the moment it seems like it’s Marc-Andre Fleury or bust.

“MAF” has his critics, but his overall work was strong vs. Columbus.

He won four of five games, generating a fantastic .933 save percentage. That’s a promising start to the playoffs, providing some hope despite a shaky .907 career playoff save percentage and a middling regular season (18-10-7, .909 save percentage and 3.02 GAA).

The less-than-positive aspects of Fleury’s numbers make Murray’s continued injury issues more unsettling, but Pittsburgh will just need to hope for improvements.

Or for Fleury to remain at the top of his game.