Jason Brough

A ‘no-brainer’ — Elliott will start Game 7 for Blues

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Ken Hitchcock slept on it, then made the obvious choice — Brian Elliott will start in goal tonight for the St. Louis Blues.

Elliott, of course, was pulled in Monday’s Game 6, after allowing three goals on just seven Stars shots. Jake Allen came in and didn’t let anything past him, but then, he only had to face seven shots himself. The Blues lost, 3-2, sending the series back to Dallas for Game 7.

Suffice to say, it would’ve been a massive surprise if Hitchcock had gone with Allen tonight. Elliott has been mostly excellent in these playoffs, compiling a .926 save percentage in 13 games. That’s why Game 6 was Allen’s first appearance of the postseason. The backup hasn’t been required yet.

Still, Hitchcock refused to commit right away to Elliott, and that meant the slimmest of a very slim chance that Allen could get the nod in one of the most important games in franchise history.

“I wanted to talk to Brian,” Hitchcock told reporters today, per the Post-Dispatch. “Brian showed up at the rink yesterday to stop pucks, which surprised everybody. He wanted to go on the ice. I think he earned the right to go at it. He had a tough start to the game like our team. He had the tough seven minutes and paid for it.

“But he’s given us a chance to get to the Game 7 again and I couldn’t think of a better opportunity for him or for us. Really, a no-brainer to be honest with you, but I wanted to talk to him and be sure he was feeling good about himself.”

So, it’ll be Elliott. The same goalie who stopped 31 of 33 shots in that nerve-wracking Game 7 win over Chicago. The same one who has a .942 save percentage in the three games the Blues have played in Dallas. The same one who’d been lauded for his poise prior to Game 6.

Now, that Hitchcock made the obvious choice doesn’t guarantee that Elliott will play well tonight, but for those who believe it should be Allen, speak now or forever hold your peace.

The Caps’ window has one more year, then all bets are off

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What should the Washington Capitals do now?

It’s a popular question today, for obvious reasons. Last night, the Caps fell painfully short of their postseason expectations, falling in the second round to Pittsburgh.

But if what Capitals GM Brian MacLellan said in February is to be believed, don’t expect massive changes to the roster.

“I view it as a two-year window,” MacLellan said. “We’re going for it this year, we’re going for it next year and then after that we’re evaluating where we’re at.”

Looking at their payroll, the Caps don’t have many expiring contracts. Marcus Johansson, Tom Wilson, and Dmitry Orlov are pending restricted free agents, while Jason Chimera, Mike Richards, and Mike Weber are unrestricted.

So there’s a bit of work for MacLellan to do this offseason, but nothing too drastic.

It’s the following summer that the tough decisions will need to be made. That’s when Evgeny Kuznetsov will need a big, new deal, and also when T.J. Oshie, Justin Williams, and Karl Alzner can become UFAs.

Now, this is not to say that MacLellan won’t try to tinker this summer. There are some who feel he should try and upgrade the blue line, that the Penguins exposed it with their speed. But then, even if the defense could stand to be improved, that’s no easy task, as it’s probably easier to list the teams that won’t be trying to upgrade their blue line this summer.

The real improvement may have to come from within. Kuznetsov, for instance, had a great regular season, but just two points in 12 playoff games. Andre Burakovsky is still only 21; he has room to grow. Wilson, 22, wasn’t drafted in the first round to be a career fourth-liner; do the Caps still expect more from him? On the back end, Orlov, 24, probably has the most upside.

So, the Caps window hasn’t closed yet. If they can get past this latest disappointment, they should be back for another legitimate shot next year.

After that, though, all bets are off.

Home-ice advantage hasn’t meant much in Blues-Stars series

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DALLAS — Home ice belongs to the Dallas Stars for Game 7 of their second-round playoff series against the St. Louis Blues.

The advantage? Well, the visiting team has dominated (4-2) so far.

“I have the benefit of the match at home,” Stars coach Lindy Ruff said. “I don’t know if that’s going to make any difference in the game, though.”

Dallas hosts Game 7 on Wednesday night (8 p.m. EDT, NBCSN) after avoiding elimination with a 3-2 win at St. Louis on Monday. The Stars led 3-0 in the first period and held on for the third consecutive victory in the series by the visiting team – and fourth overall.

“We’ve been able to put some good road games together, some simple road games together,” Blues right wing Troy Brouwer said.

The Blues, who finished only two points behind Dallas in the regular-season standings for the Western Conference’s top seed, are 4-2 on the road this postseason and have already played a seven-game series. St. Louis won its first-round clincher at home, when Brouwer scored the Game 7 winner against defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago.

“We obviously know the stage,” Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said. “It’s going to be a little different now that we’re on the road, but I think overall, we know what the pressure is, we know what it’s going to be.”

Brouwer is playing in his NHL-record eighth consecutive playoff series to go seven games. He also had Games 7s with Washington and Chicago the previous five seasons.

“Same mindset we had last series, going to take one more win to finish the series and it’s what we want to do,” Brouwer said.

The Blues won 4-1 in Game 5 at Dallas to go home with a chance to clinch the series. But now they need a third win this month at the American Airlines Center, which hadn’t even opened the last time the Stars hosted a Game 7 – on May 27, 2000, when St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock was still coaching the Stars, and they beat Colorado at Reunion Arena in the Western Conference final.

Dallas has played only one seven-game series since, losing at Vancouver in the first round of the 2007 playoffs. That was just weeks before the Stars used their fifth-round pick in the draft to select Jamie Benn, now their captain and with a NHL-high 15 points this postseason.

“I’m sure there’s going to be some nerves for the first couple shifts,” Benn said. “But after that, I think it’ll be fun.”

Ovechkin, Kuznetsov, and Orlov will play for Russia at worlds

SOCHI, RUSSIA - FEBRUARY 13: Alexander Ovechkin #8 of Russia shoots against Slovenia in the first period during the Men's Ice Hockey Preliminary Round Group A game on day six of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics at Bolshoy Ice Dome on February 13, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Dmitry Orlov have accepted the call to represent Russia at the world hockey championships.

The tournament, which is being held in Moscow and Saint Petersburg, got underway last week. The hosts have two wins and one loss in group play. They play Denmark tomorrow.

This will be the 12th time that Ovechkin has represented Russia at the worlds. Last night, his Washington Capitals failed once again to get past the second round of the NHL playoffs, losing in six games to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

“I’m proud of my team, I’m proud of my teammates,” Ovechkin told reporters. “We battled through. It doesn’t matter what happened, but in the end we lost in the second round, so it sucks.”

Related: Ovechkin-blaming is especially silly this time around

Crosby not satisfied with generating chances — ‘You definitely want to score more’

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(AP) – Sidney Crosby hovered in the left circle, waited for the pass from assistant coach Rick Tocchet before firing a laser into the far corner of the empty net.

Then the Penguins captain did it again. And again. And again, once rifling the puck with so much velocity it became lodged between the twine, a reminder that Crosby’s shot — when fully unleashed — remains one of the NHL’s best. The trick is finding the time, the room — and just as important, the initiative — to let it loose during a game.

It’s not happening with any great regularity for Crosby during his team’s hotly contested Eastern Conference semifinal against Washington. Through fifteen-plus periods and 133 shifts, Crosby has only 11 shots and none of them has found a way past Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby.

And while Pittsburgh’s depth has helped carry the Penguins to a 3-2 lead over the Presidents’ Trophy winners heading into Tuesday night’s Game 6, Crosby is well aware it will take more than the two assists he’s put up for the Penguins to advance to the East finals against Tampa Bay.

“You definitely want to score more,” Crosby said Monday. “I think you always want more but I think we’ve generated some decent chances. We’ve still got to find a way to produce more, whether it’s generate chances or execute when we do get them. I would say that’s how we view it. I think we can get better.”

It’s not that Crosby has been ineffective. His mere presence is enough to open up opportunities for teammates. Patric Hornqvist buried the overtime winner in Game 4 thanks in large part to Holtby being so focused on Crosby parked in front of the net the goaltender couldn’t make it across the crease in time to stop the shot from the right circle.

Yet neither Crosby nor Evgeni Malkin – who has a goal and an assist in the series – has been able to match the dynamic play of Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin, who set the tone early in Game 5 and scored a goal and an assist for the second time in three games as the Capitals fought off elimination.

Still, Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan is quick to defend the tandem that generates relentless defensive attention from opponents.

“These guys have had an impact on the game,” Sullivan said. “They may not have had the [offensive] production everybody grows accustomed to but they certainly have made an impact on the series.”

It’s telling that perhaps the series’ biggest subplot — the rapid maturation of 21-year-old Penguins goalie Matt Murray while filling in for Marc-Andre Fleury — has taken a backseat to Crosby and Malkin regaining their scoring touch. Sullivan, who has often remained coy about his personnel decisions, cut short any potential drama by naming Murray the starter for Game 6.

And he spent several minutes protecting his stars.

“They share a tremendous amount of responsibility for our group and they’re doing everything within their power to help our team win,” Sullivan said. “We know it, our players know it … (but) this team isn’t about any one or two players.”

Good thing, because the return of Washington defenseman Brooks Orpik following a three-game suspension for an illegal hit on Pittsburgh’s Olli Maatta gives the Capitals another big body to steer Malkin and Crosby out of the way. It’s a task Washington handled capably even with Orpik out of the lineup.

“I think we’ve just been keying in on him and trying to limit his space and his time,” Holtby said. “He’s still making some plays, but we’re doing a pretty good job of coming back as a five-man unit so that there’s not too many options open for him.”

Crosby becoming a little more selfish might help, too. From the day he arrived in December, Sullivan has preached the importance of getting the puck to the net rather than search for the perfect play, a trap both Crosby and Malkin have succumbed to at times during their careers in part because their talent and vision allow them to take risks others would not.

Sullivan calls it “playing the right way,” a mantra that’s been repeated so often over the last five months forward Eric Fehr joked “it’s something that’s a part of our everyday life now, making sure that we’re reminding ourselves that a shot is never a bad play.”

A creed Crosby insists is getting through even if the pucks – for now – are not.

“Over the course of the game there’s always times you could look back and say, ‘I could have shot that maybe,”‘ he said. “Our focus, our mentality has been to finish at the net and create chances there. A lot of the pucks at the net are from second, third chances. We have a feeling for that.”