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Penguins and Blue Jackets on track for what could be epic first round matchup

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PITTSBURGH — It is not one of the NHL’s biggest rivalries, but every time the Pittsburgh Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets get together it becomes increasingly clear that the two teams simply do not like each other very much. Or at all.  This is especially true when it comes to forwards Sidney Crosby and Brandon Dubinsky because there always seems to be something that happens in their games.

That was the case again on Friday night in Pittsburgh where the Penguins were 4-3 overtime winners against the Blue Jackets — after letting a two-goal third period lead slip away — thanks to a two-goal night from Phil Kessel, including the winner.

For the Penguins, it was a big response following the first meeting of the season when they were blown out in Columbus when the Blue Jackets were on their way to 16-game winning streak.

Penguins forward Patric Hornqvist admitted that game was on their mind a little bit heading into Friday.

“For sure.” Hornqvist said. “That does not feel good to lose 7-1 to one of your big rivals, and they have been playing really well. It was a big test for us but I think we came out really strong tonight, stuck with it the whole game and got the two points.”

They still have two more meetings during the regular season (including one in two weeks) and remain on track to meet in the first round of the playoffs. After Friday’s game they remain solidly positioned in the second and third spots in the Metropolitan Division.

When asked after the game if he wants to play the Blue Jackets in the playoffs, Hornqvist simply responded by saying, “Oh, we probably will.”

Indeed. With both teams at least four points ahead of the Rangers for the fourth spot in the division (with each having a game in hand), and both being a few points back of the Washington Capitals for the top spot this seems to be a matchup that is destined to happen.

Given the way recent games have unfolded, it would be one heck of a series.

Even though Friday’s game only featured one power play between the two teams (Columbus’ Cam Atkinson was called for hooking in overtime to set up Kessel’s second goal of the game) it at times resembled a law-less society on the ice where pretty much anything went.

Extra shots away from the puck. Chris Kunitz and Boone Jenner trying to fight at center ice after a whistle. Whatever-it-takes defense. Yet another altercation between Dubinsky and Crosby.

Ever since Dubinsky joined the Blue Jackets a few years ago that has been the preferred matchup for them in games against the Penguins, and it almost always seems to result in things reaching a boiling point, whether it was that fight fight a year ago, Dubinsky getting suspended for repeatedly cross-checking Crosby in the neck in front of the net, or just random physical play.

It happened again on Friday when in the second period the two forwards became tied up in the middle of the ice. After Crosby fell to the ice, Dubinsky gave him another shove to the back.

After the game Dubinsky was asked if he felt Crosby was trying to buy a call on the play, to which he replied, “I’m sure everybody else can make their own decision on that one.”

Dubinsky ended up playing a significant role in the game beyond that by scoring a goal and adding an assist, while also being guilty of a turnover at the blue line in overtime (at the hands of Crosby) that resulted in Atkinson’s hooking penalty to set up the winning Pittsburgh goal. If these two teams do end up meeting in the playoffs, it will be one of the individual matchups that gets the most attention.

“Crosby is one of the best players in the game, and I think Dubi, people that have been around Dubi know how he is. He is so competitive and so wants the challenge, he just thrives in that,” Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella said after the game.

“He makes mistakes, but I live with more of his mistakes because they are always effort mistakes. It is never a lazy play. It is never an in-between play. I thought him and his line were outstanding.”

Along with the obvious dislike between the two teams the other factor that would make a first-round matchup so appealing is the simple fact these are, quite literally, two of the four best teams in hockey right now and are separated by just two points in the standings.

Because of the NHL’s divisional playoff format, and because nobody in the Metropolitan Division ever seems to lose this season with three of the top-four teams in the division all residing in the division, we could be guaranteed to see one of the top teams in the NHL be finished after the first round.

In a surprise, Blues name Steve Ott assistant coach

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Pretty wild last few days for St. Louis on the coaching front.

After gutting Mike Yeo’s staff of four assistants, then hiring hiring Darryl Sydor, the Blues went totally off the grid on Friday by announcing longtime NHLer Steve Ott would become Yeo’s new assistant.

“Steve was a competitor on the ice as a player and I expect him to bring that energy in this role,” Yeo said in a release. “He was highly respected as a player and a person among his teammates and I believe he will be a huge asset to our staff.”

The decision caught many off guard given Ott, 34, has no prior coaching experience and was playing as recently as last month, suiting up for Montreal in its opening-round playoff loss to the Rangers.

Ott is familiar with the Blues organization, having played there for three seasons.

“I am very proud of my playing career and will devote the same work ethic to my coaching career,” said Ott. “The Blues organization is very special to me and my family and I’m excited to take the next step in my hockey career with this franchise.”

Blues GM Doug Armstrong signed Ott to a three-year deal. It’s fitting that Armstrong was the one to engineer this move, as he’s been behind unorthodox coaching moves in the past. Last summer, he defied convention by hiring Yeo as Ken Hitchcock’s assistant, with the understanding that Yeo would inherit the head man position next season.

It didn’t go exactly to plan. Armstrong fired Hitchcock in February, accelerating Yeo’s ascension.

Kesler calls Game 6 loss to Nashville the ‘toughest’ of his career

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Ryan Kesler has lost some big games in his career.

He was on the United States team that lost to Canada in the gold-medal game of the 2010 Winter Olympics.

He was on the Vancouver Canucks team that lost to the Boston Bruins in Game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final.

But apparently neither of those losses were as bad as the one his Anaheim Ducks experienced on Monday.

“This was the toughest loss of my career,” Kesler said of losing Game 6 of the Western Conference Final to Nashville. “This stings. It still stings. We left everything out there.”

Kesler had a particularly tough game, finishing minus-4 in the 6-3 loss. In the series, he only had one assist, failing to score on any of his 19 shots.

At 32 years old, Kesler is running out of time to win his first Stanley Cup.

And perhaps that’s why this latest loss was especially tough for him. The Ducks had a great chance to eliminate the Predators once Ryan Johansen was lost for the series, and then they would’ve faced either Pittsburgh minus Kris Letang or the underdog Ottawa Senators.

That’s gonna sting every time.

Related: Johansen wishes he was there to shake Kesler’s hand after Predators won

Fisher returns to Preds practice, but still not cleared

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Given the injuries Nashville’s sustained at center this postseason, Mike Fisher‘s presence at today’s practice was a welcome sight — regardless of his availability for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final.

“I feel pretty good,” Fisher told NHL.com after practicing for the first time since May 18. “I skated a few days here. Still not cleared, but it felt good to get out there with the guys.”

Fisher was knocked out of the Western Conference Final in Game 4, after taking a Josh Manson knee to the head. That, combined with the loss of Ryan Johansen to season-ending thigh surgery, whittled Nashville’s center depth down to Calle Jarnkrok, Colton Sissions, Vern Fiddler and Frederick Gaudreau.

Even though Fisher is pointless through 14 playoff games, his return would still be massive. In addition to serving as team captain, he was averaging just under 17 minutes per night prior to getting hurt, while winning 52 percent of his faceoffs.

He said his undisclosed injury feels “a lot better than it was a few days ago,” adding that his goal is to return for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on Monday.

Fisher took minimal contact at today’s skate, and worked on a line with James Neal and Harry Zolnierczyk.

Swedes have shown well in the Stanley Cup Playoffs

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Filip Forsberg is having quite the spring for the Nashville Predators, setting franchise records with his eight goals and 15 points. He’s tied the team mark with at least a point in seven straight games.

Pontus Aberg scored the game-winning goal to put Nashville up 3-2 in the Western Conference finals, while defenseman Mattias Ekholm, has been smothering top lines all postseason. Viktor Arvidsson has 10 points, and his plus-13 rating ties him with Anaheim’s Rickard Rakell for second-best this postseason — behind Forsberg (plus-17).

All five of these players are Swedish. It has been a sweet postseason for players from a nation whose players once were derided for being soft and not able to handle the rigors of the NHL. In all, general manager David Poile has six Swedes on Nashville’s playoff roster as the Predators reached the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in their 19-year history.

“I must admit we haven’t gone out of the way necessarily to get them to this point, but I’m thinking maybe we should,” Poile said. “They’ve certainly been key parts of our team.”

The Predators have lots of company in mining Sweden for talent. Defenseman Erik Karlsson is one of four Swedes playing for Ottawa in the Eastern Conference finals, while former Nashville forward Patric Hornqvist is one of three for the Pittsburgh Penguins. A check of NHL rosters shows 79 skaters and 10 goalies from Sweden played during the regular season, with 40 appearing in at least one playoff game.

Anaheim coach Randy Carlyle said Sweden has become a hockey power for a small country. Teammates with Borje Salming and Inge Hammarstrom in 1976 in Toronto, Carlyle saw the abuse directed at both.

“That was a little bit more barbaric or archaic times of hockey,” Carlyle said. “But that’s how much the game has grown, and it has become a world-class game. And these players are world-class players and now you’re looking at their contribution and the numbers that are in the NHL, it’s all a tribute back to those two players.”

Because of the time zone difference, Rakell said, it was pretty tough to watch NHL games when he was growing up. The best chance to watch hockey stars came during national team tournaments in Europe. Rakell, now 24, started watching more of the NHL when he got to junior hockey, though he also had a favorite.

“I was growing up in the same hometown as Mats Sundin, and he was pretty big in that small town I grew up in,” Rakell said of the 13-year NHL center. “So he was one of the guys I was looking up to and watching highlight videos.”

Pittsburgh forward Carl Hagelin said Thursday that it’s a very good time to be a Swedish hockey player, noting Sweden beat Canada 2-1 in a shootout Monday for the world hockey championship . Each NHL team seems have two or three Swedes on the roster.

Yes, they do keep track of their countrymen during the regular season. In the playoffs, all friendships are put aside.

“In the playoffs, you just play to win games,” Hagelin said.

Hagelin estimated a third of Sweden watched the world championship. Thanks to the internet and social media, it’s much easier to watch the NHL these days.

“There’s a lot of people watching us back home,” Aberg said.

Penguins forward Oskar Sundqvist agreed: “I know a lot of my friends stay up basically the whole night and watch games. I think it’s growing every day in Sweden, and it’s just getting bigger and bigger.”

Swedish hockey has become so strong that Carlyle said NHL scouts are visiting the country regularly. Making the jump to playing in North America has its challenges for young players. Pittsburgh drafted Sundqvist in 2012 when he was 19, and he stayed in Sweden for two full seasons before making his NHL debut last season. He spent much of this season at the Penguins’ AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and now is 23.

“It’s not like you’ve got a one-hour car drive and get home with mom and dad,” Sundqvist said. “I have a lot to thank Pittsburgh for letting me stay in Sweden one more year and prepare to get ready for everything that is over here.”

A Swedish teammate means being able to relax and talk with each other in the same language. It’s also a little easier to get tips on what to do and not do to ensure a long stay in the NHL.

“Everybody wants to play here and everybody wants to make the best out of it if you ever get the chance,” Rakell said.