Toews believes Blackhawks ‘have that feeling again’ heading into playoffs

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The Chicago Blackhawks have been here so many times before. They’re 16 postseason wins away from a fourth Stanley Cup title in eight years, and their veteran core knows it has the talent and the experience to survive the two-month playoff grind.

Nobody else in the Western Conference playoff picture can say any of that.

None of the other seven teams has won a recent Stanley Cup. In fact, only three of those franchises have raised the Cup at all, and only two players were in their current uniform for it: Anaheim’s Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, who won their rings a decade ago.

So is it Chicago’s conference crown to lose when postseason play gets underway Wednesday?

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The top-seeded Blackhawks have been around for too long to believe anything matters except Game 1 on Thursday night against Nashville.

“I think that energy, that ambition and motivation is back,” Chicago captain Jonathan Toews said. “We have that feeling again, that every single moment and every single game matters. It’s a lot of fun to play at this time of the year. It’s why we work all year to get to this point, and as we have said in the past, the real season begins. Obviously, we want to see what we are made of, and I think we are all pretty confident what we are able to do.”

The rest of the West is about to find out if it measures up.

Here’s what to watch in the four first-round series beginning this week:

BLACKHAWKS vs PREDATORS

Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Marian Hossa are just part of the veteran group that propelled the Blackhawks down the stretch to the West’s top record and the NHL’s third-best performance since New Year’s Day (58 points).

Yet these Blackhawks have been refreshed by an infusion of youngsters hoping for their first taste of Stanley Cup glory, most notably Artemi Panarin. The high-scoring Russian is in only his second NHL season, and his first postseason run ended abruptly last year with Chicago’s first-round loss to St. Louis.

The Predators were Chicago’s first-round postseason opponents before the Blackhawks’ Stanley Cup title runs in 2010 and 2015. Nashville’s record (41-29-12) was nearly identical to last season’s mark, but the Predators have made one big change: P.K. Subban replaced Shea Weber as their top defenseman this season, headlining a blue-line corps including Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis in front of goalie Pekka Rinne.

Chicago knows that if Rinne plays at his all-world best, even the Blackhawks could have trouble scoring enough to win.

WILD vs BLUES

Minnesota was cruising toward the Central Division title before a late-season slump, while the Blues surged into the postseason after firing coach Ken Hitchcock and trading top defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk.

Both teams are regular playoff qualifiers, but both are hoping for a breakthrough this spring after years of disappointment. Keep an eye on Minnesota goalie Devan Dubnyk, whose proficiency against Vladimir Tarasenko and the Blues’ scorers could determine this series.

DUCKS vs FLAMES

Anybody who is aware of the Flames’ 25-game regular-season losing streak at Honda Center could be excused for thinking the Ducks have an astonishing home-ice advantage in this matchup of the five-time defending Pacific Division champions and the West’s top wild card.

The Flames are loaded with young talent, but this series rests heavily on Getzlaf, Perry, Ryan Kesler and the rest of Anaheim’s veteran core, which simply hasn’t been able to finish: The Ducks have lost a Game 7 at home in each of the last four postseasons.

The Ducks streaked into the postseason on an 11-0-3 roll, and they have more talent and experience. But after Anaheim’s first-round flop against Nashville last season, the Flames realize they might be facing some sitting Ducks in their quest for a playoff breakthrough.

OILERS vs SHARKS

Connor McDavid will make his Stanley Cup playoff debut at Rogers Place’s first postseason game on Wednesday night, and the hockey world can’t wait to see what he does next.

McDavid already won the NHL scoring title and led Edmonton back to the postseason after a 10-year absence. The Oilers even finished above the Sharks, who have much the same team that won the West last season.

San Jose might be far from full strength: Centers Joe Thornton and Logan Couture are out with injuries, and it’s unclear when they’ll return. But Brent Burns and Joe Pavelski are ready to apply their full range of playoff knowledge against the upstart Oilers and McDavid, who might be at the start of the best chapter yet in his remarkable story.

More AP NHL: apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

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Looking to make the leap: Zach Aston-Reese

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This post is part of Penguins Day on PHT…

With a number of departures from a roster that won back-to-back Stanley Cups, it’s imperative that the Pittsburgh Penguins get a push from some of their prospects in 2017-18.

One of the top candidates to earn a regular spot is forward Zach Aston-Reese, a 23-year-old who just wrapped up an impressive career at Northeastern University.

Aston-Reese signed with the Pens in March, hoping to follow in the footsteps of fellow undrafted NCAA products Chris Kunitz and Conor Sheary.

In a twist, Kunitz is one of those departed players that Aston-Reese may help replace.

“He was a college free agent, too, and kind of a goal scorer his last couple years in college,” Aston-Reese said of Kunitz, per NHL.com. “Just made a career for himself playing with good guys and being able to put the puck in the back of the net.”

Aston-Reese scored 31 goals in 38 games for the Huskies last season, making him a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award.

But despite all the accolades, he knows he’s still just a prospect, with a lot left to learn, and a lot left to prove.

“Whether we start up top or down in Wilkes-Barre, I think it’s important to be in the same mindset that, you’re trying to get better every day you show up to the rink,” he said, per the Post-Gazette. “If we do get that opportunity, we need to have a good mindset, produce and do what they ask of us.”

Poll: Who will the Penguins miss the most?

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This post is part of Penguins Day on PHT…

After winning back-to-back Stanley Cups, the Pittsburgh Penguins have been forced into making some changes to their roster.

It’s only normal that championship teams won’t be able to bring all their players back, especially in a salary cap world.

This offseason, the Penguins lost Marc-Andre Fleury in the expansion draft and Chris Kunitz, Nick Bonino, Trevor Daley, Ron Hainsey, and Matt Cullen in free agency. Each one of those players played an important role in at least one of the two title runs.

Fleury may not have been between the pipes when the Penguins hoisted the Stanley Cup in each of the last two seasons, but he played a crucial part in each victory. On top of playing 38 games during the regular season, he also compiled a 9-6 record with a 2.56 goals-against-average and a .924 save percentage during the 2017 postseason.

Without Fleury on the roster, the pressure will fall squarely on Matt Murray‘s shoulders. Murray may own two rings, but he has yet to go through the challenges of an 82-game season plus playoffs. New backup Antti Niemi probably won’t be capable of filling in as well as Fleury did.

One of the major reasons the Pens were able to go on two championship runs was because of the depth they had accumulated at center. Any team would love to have one of Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, but Pittsburgh is fortunate enough to have both. The Penguins’ depth didn’t stop there. They also had Nick Bonino on their third line and Matt Cullen on their fourth, which is pretty impressive.

Both Bonino and Cullen will play in the Western Conference next year. Finding competent players to play on the third and fourth line isn’t as difficult as getting top line talent, but those two losses will probably hurt them pretty badly.

Bonino had 18 goals and 37 points during the 2016-17 regular season and he added a modest seven points in 21 games during the postseason before being ruled out with a lower-body injury. Last year, he put up less points in the regular season (29), but he had an impressive 18 points in 24 games during the playoffs. He was also capable of playing a solid two-way game.

Cullen, who signed with Minnesota yesterday, also found a way to contribute, despite playing a bottom-six role on such a deep team. The 40-year-old scored 32 and 31 points in his two years with the Penguins and he also added six and nine points during the playoff runs. He also won plenty of key faceoffs and played well without the puck.

Trevor Daley was unable to finish the 2016 playoffs because of an ankle injury, but he also played a vital role during Pittsburgh’s impressive accomplishment. Daley, who is now with the Red Wings, was able to hold down the fort while Kris Letang was out. He averaged over 20 minutes of ice time during the regular season and 19 more in the spring.

Ron Hainsey was a smart, underrated trade deadline acquisition by GM Jim Rutherford. The veteran stepped into the lineup and played 21 minutes per night for his new team. He also chipped in with eight points in 25 games. He got himself a nice contract with the Maple Leafs on July 1st.

Chris Kunitz had been a big contributor for the team, but his production fell off dramatically. After scoring 35 goals during the 2013-14 season, he added 17, 17 and nine during his last three years in Pittsburgh. It became pretty clear that he wasn’t able to play at the same level he had been in previous years, so it wasn’t surprising to see him go elsewhere (Tampa Bay) when free agency opened.

It’s your turn to vote. Make sure you make a selection in the poll below and feel free to leave your opinion in the comments section.

It’s Pittsburgh Penguins day at PHT

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The Pittsburgh Penguins became the first team since the 1997-98 and 1998-99 Detroit Red Wings to repeat as Stanley Cup champions last season.

After a summer of painful (if necessary) losses, the Penguins now aim to become the first NHL team to “three-peat” since the New York Islanders rattled off a dizzying four consecutive championships from 1980-83.

Just yesterday, Matt Cullen became the latest omission from the Penguins’ mix, but he was far from the only noteworthy loss. Marc-Andre Fleury headlines a list of exits that also includes Nick Bonino, Chris Kunitz, Trevor Daley, and Ron Hainsey.

Their additions have been a mix of small (Matt Hunwick) and polarizing (giving up a first-rounder for Ryan Reaves), so overall this team saw some minuses this summer.

That said, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that the Penguins navigated the choppy waters of the postseason despite plenty of bruises, especially with Kris Letang out for the entire 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs. One could argue that a healthy Letang cancels out most of the Penguins’ losses.

(You know, not that this franchise isn’t accustomed to seeing Letang, Sidney Crosby, and Evgeni Malkin miss significant time almost every year.)

It’s been a remarkable run, as the Penguins have been on fire ever since Mike Sullivan took over. Phil Kessel‘s been a brilliant addition, even with the hot dog jokes and surprising trade rumors.

Matt Murray‘s also been a revelation, although the 2017-18 season presents an intriguing test for a goalie who has enjoyed a Ken Dryden-like start to his career. With “The Flower” out of town, more rests on Murray, a goalie who’s passed all of his tests with flying colors so far, but hasn’t ever carried a franchise netminder’s workload.

There’s a lot to like when it comes to the Penguins next season, who even with some tough losses, retain the vast majority of their key contributors. Will they run out of gas after two championship runs, not to mention some key players getting older? Can they continue to generate great results in a challenging Metropolitan Division?

PHT explores the defending champions’ burning questions today.

Draisaitl on signing with Oilers: ‘We have something really special’

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As a restricted free agent, Leon Draisaitl only had so much say regarding his future with the Edmonton Oilers, especially since teams rarely send offer sheets around in the NHL.

Even so, Draisaitl could have opted for a “bridge” deal; instead, he signed for the maximum of eight years for a whopping $68 million on Wednesday.

Some would probably grumble but understand if Draisaitl explained his rational by pointing at one of those big checks or at a calculator. Instead, the promising young forward explained that he believes that the Oilers have a bright future, and he wants to be a part of it.

In case you’re wondering, additional details have surfaced regarding the year-to-year breakdown of Draisaitl’s deal. TVA’s Renaud Lavoie also reports that Draisaitl has a no-movement clause, thus making it that much more likely that he’ll get his wish to stick with the Oilers:

Of course, with Draisaitl and Connor McDavid combining for a $21M cap hit beginning in 2018-19, the bigger question is not whether they will stay, but who the Oilers will manage to keep in the fold.

Still, that’s for GM Peter Chiarelli & Co. to decide. For Draisaitl, this is a great moment, and he might even be able to back up that big contract with big results on the ice.