James O'Brien

I am a contributing editor/writer/troublemaker for NBC's Pro Hockey Talk blog.

Backes’ ugly goal gives Blues overtime Game 1 win against Blackhawks


At minimum, the St. Louis Blues are glad for one, big night that they kept the David Backes when there were trade questions looming.

This bruising, brutal and tight game likely left the Blues’ captain feeling very much in his element, and his game-winning-goal was fittingly ugly.

Backes’ shot bounced off of Trevor van Riemsdyk and went by Corey Crawford, giving the Blues a 1-0 win in overtime.

The Blackhawks carried chunks of the play, yet Brian Elliott was perfect and the Blues managed a bend-but-don’t-break win. They can also move past the refrain of “What if the Blues lose with Duncan Keith out of the lineup?”

St. Louis’ grizzled crew likely knows that the Blackhawks aren’t a team that really gets down whether they’ve lost one, two or three games in a series. But, hey, it’s better to start off up rather than down, even if bigger challenges likely lie ahead.

The Blackhawks realize that it probably won’t be easy for either side.

Naturally, bruising Blackhawks – Blues game goes to overtime


The Lightning and Red Wings teased it, but it took the third game of the first night of the 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs to get that beloved, anxiety-racked blessing know as playoff overtime.

It really fits this rugged Chicago Blackhawks – St. Louis Blues game, too.

The first goal of this Game 1 will be the only goal, as both Brian Elliott (28 saves) and Corey Crawford (16 stops) have been perfect through regulation.

The other thing that stands out is that the Blues are aiming to bruise their rivals, generating a 41-19 hit advantage. One can quibble about how much of an advantage that really might be – usually, when you’re delivering checks, you’re also chasing the puck – but it fits with the Blues’ MO.

One bounce, one mistake, one brilliant play could be all it takes for the Blackhawks or Blues to go up 1-0 in this series.

It’s beautiful and unnerving, isn’t it?

Penguins don’t miss a beat despite net questions, top Rangers in Game 1


Goaltending questions persist for the Pittsburgh Penguins, at least in broader terms, but they reminded many of the best solution for such problems: just play really well and see what happens.

In the case of Game 1 against the New York Rangers, a lot happened, including a 5-2 win for the Penguins.

Most obviously, the Rangers now reach into their goaltending depth chart, as Henrik Lundqvist was injured thanks to an errant Marc Staal stick. That moment whittled things down to Antti Raanta vs. Jeff Zatkoff for at least Game 1.

Who knows how many games may feature such a “Battle of the Backups,” but consider Game 1 a huge victory for Zatkoff.

The Rangers generated plenty of chances, yet only Derek Stepan could solve Zatkoff with two goals. The sequence of special teams opportunities that helped Stepan score his first goal wasn’t even successful in the grand scheme of things, either, as the Penguins scored a shorthanded goal via a nice finish by amusingly named Tom Kuhnhackl.

Beyond a brilliant showing by Zatkoff, the Penguins also rode a hat trick from Patric Hornqvist and this beauty by Sidney Crosby:

The Penguins grabbed the second seed in the Metropolitan Division thanks to a blistering finish to their 2015-16 season. Questions in net didn’t keep them from taking a 1-0 series lead, and so it appears as though the hot streak continues.

Of course, even with this promising win, Pittsburgh has a long way to go to dispatch a Rangers team that eliminated them from the playoffs in 2015 and 2014.

First strike: Lightning take Game 1 from Red Wings


The Tampa Bay Lightning faced some lineup questions heading into Game 1 against the Detroit Red Wings, yet every decision and healthy return ended up helping them win 3-2.

Tyler Johnson was a game-time decision heading in, and guys like Victor Hedman and Nikita Kucherov weren’t necessarily guarantees to play either. Johnson grabbed two assists, Kucherov scored two goals and grabbed a helper while Hedman had an electric would-be goal that was nullified by a video review.

From the “drama” category: plenty of eyes were on Jonathan Drouin, and the prodigal prospect impressed many with his assertive play.

So, the Lightning enjoyed big contributions from guys who may not have been healthy enough to play and one guy who seemed like he’d played his last game for the organization back in late December.

A strange way to do it, you might say, but Tampa Bay played well and now hold a 1-0 series lead against the Red Wings.

If the rough stuff and tight play are any indication, this could be quite a dramatic series.

No Kidding: Andrew Ladd will play for Blackhawks in Game 1


There was some concern that Andrew Ladd would need to miss Game 1 as his wife seemed ready to have a baby, but apparently that situation is, uh, hour-to-hour.

With that in mind, Ladd managed to get to St. Louis in time to suit up for the Chicago Blackhawks against the Blues on Wednesday.

Keep this goofy situation in mind if Ladd ends up being a difference-maker in this contest, which is absolutely a possibility.