Mike Halford

Video: Backes proves his worth to Blues

The St. Louis Blues are the only team David Backes has ever known.

And now, in what could be his final season with the club, he’s marking arguably the biggest impact of his career.

Backes, who has spent all 10 of his NHL seasons with the Blues — and the last five as team captain — is enjoying a terrific postseason and scoring at an unprecedented clip. The 32-year-old leads St. Louis with 13 points through 16 games and has three game-winning goals, putting him on par with Joe Pavelski for the playoff lead.

The way Backes has scored his goals has become a story.

At 6-foot-3 and 221 pounds, he has the ideal frame to be an effective net-front presence… which is exactly what he’s done. Backes has done most of his damage atop the blue paint, tipping point shots and banging in rebounds.

It’s something his head coach, Ken Hitchcock, has come to admire.

“First of all, he’s a baseball player, [so his] hand-eye coordination is a little bit different than other people,” Hitchcock told Sports Illustrated. “He’’s good at it. As he said to us, it’s like taking batting practice. That’s what he did as a kid. He was obviously a good ballplayer. He feels that the more he does that, the more confident he is.

“I think the other thing [is]…I haven’t coached many players that hang in there on the shot. Most of them jump out of the way.”

The Blues could certainly use some of Backes’ goalscoring at the moment. They’ve been shut out in consecutive games by the Sharks, and now trail the two games to one in the Western Conference Final.

If this is Backes’ last season in St. Louis, he’ll want a better ending than this.

Which means he might need to rediscover those baseball skills once again.

U.S., Canada, Russia, Finland advance to worlds semis

MOSCOW, RUSSIA - MAY 19:  Alexander Ovechkin #8 of Russia celebrates his third period goal against Germany with teammates Yevgeni Kuznetsov # 92 and Roman Lyubimov #23 at Ice Palace on May 19, 2016 in Moscow, Russia. Russia defeated Germany 4-1.  (Photo by Anna Sergeeva/Getty Images)
Getty Images
1 Comment

The final four is set at the 2016 World Hockey Championships.

The United States, Canada, Russia and Finland all advanced by way of their quarterfinal victories on Thursday — a near identical scenario to last year’s semifinals, save Finland replacing the Czech Republic.

The U.S. will now play Canada on Saturday at the Ice Palace in Saint Petersburg, while Russia will take on the Finns at the same venue.

A rundown of today’s games:

U.S. 2, Czech Republic 1 (SO)

Auston Matthews provided the heroics, scoring the lone American goal in regulation before netting the shootout winner. Keith Kinkaid was terrific in goal, stopping 31 of 32 shots, as the U.S. scored the biggest upset victory of the quarterfinal round. The Czechs came into this game having captured Group A with an impressive 5-1-1-0 record, outscoring opponents 27-12 over that stretch.

The Americans, meanwhile, lost four games en route to finishing fourth in Group B.

Canada 6, Sweden 0

Canada rebounded from a disappointing 4-0 loss to Finland in their Group A finale to rout the Swedes. Six different players scored — Matt Dumba, Max Domi, Derick Brassard, Mark Scheifele, Mark Stone and Brad Marchand — while Cam Talbot kicked aside all 24 shots faced for the shutout.

Russia 4, Germany 1

The powerhouse host side proved too much for Germany and netminder Thomas Greiss. The Russians out-shot the Germans 37-20 and got goals from Alex Ovechkin, Yevgeni Dadonov and a pair from Vadim Shipachyov.

The Germans actually held a 1-0 lead at the end of the first period, only for Russia to score four unanswered.

Finland 5, Denmark 1

Finland remained undefeated at the worlds with an easy win over Denmark. Mikael Granlund led the way with two goals, while Jussi Jokinen, Jarno Koskiranta and Patrik Laine — the projected No. 2 pick at this year’s draft — added singles.

The Finns now have eight wins from eight games, have outscored opponents 34-7 and have emerged as the class of the tournament, setting up a tantalizing matchup with the host Russians on Saturday.

Rutherford says Fleury’s ‘absolutely not’ done in Pittsburgh, but logic suggests otherwise

PITTSBURGH, PA - MAY 02:  Marc-Andre Fleury #29 of the Pittsburgh Penguins looks on from the bench in Game Three of the Eastern Conference Second Round against the Washington Capitals during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Consol Energy Center on May 2, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
Getty Images
21 Comments

Matt Murray‘s emergence this postseason has led to questions about Marc-Andre Fleury‘s future in Pittsburgh (see here and here and here).

But if you ask Pens GM Jim Rutherford about it — like WPXI’s Alby Oxenreiter did on Thursday — you’ll get a pretty definitive answer.

From the NHL:

Q: What about the young players?

Rutherford: “They speak for themselves. Those two goalies – you can never have enough good goalies. The Penguins have three good ones now. I feel bad for Fleury. He’s such a great team guy and we’re fortunate that he is. He’s handled this situation like a pro. First class. He’s ready to go when called on.”

Q [from Oxenreiter]: Does this mean he’s history with the organization?

Rutherford: “Absolutely not.”

That absolute hasn’t kept pundits from pointing out that Fleury’s future in Pittsburgh is far from certain.

First, there’s the fact the No. 1 gig may not just be Murray’s now, but also moving forward — meaning Fleury, who turns 32 in November, would be a backup making $5.75 million annually through 2019. An expensive backup, sure, but also a good backup. Fleury’s had at least 30 wins, a 2.35 GAA and .920 save percentage over each of the last two seasons, and was an All-Star in 2015.

That’s the kind of goalie a few teams could use.

One of them, as has been speculated over the last few months, is the proposed Las Vegas expansion club. While the announcement has yet to be made official, all signs — including discussions of expansion draft format at the most recent GM meetings — have led to assumptions Vegas will be a go.

With that said, consider this bit from Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston:

An interesting aspect of the recent deal worked out by the NHL and NHL Players’ Association regarding expansion draft rules is that only players with a full no-movement clause will have to be protected by their team, according to a source.

Fleury’s contract includes a no-movement clause for the purposes of waivers or being assigned to the American Hockey League, but it is limited when it comes to trades. Each year he submits a 12-team list of teams where he can’t be dealt.

As a result, he’s not exempt from the expansion process and the Penguins would have to decide between protecting either him or Murray if both remained on the roster through the end of next season.

It might ultimately force general manager Jim Rutherford into making up his mind sooner in order to trade one away and get a return on the asset.

Rutherford’s move could be to give Fleury an option for his future. Something like:

“If it’s not going to be in Pittsburgh, want to try and choose a location? Or risk having your location (Vegas) chosen for you?”

A landing spot that’s making the rounds is Calgary. The Flames don’t have a legit NHL starter under contract for next season and, as the Globe and Mail’s Eric Duhatshek points out, Fleury could be the ideal “transitional guy.”

“In a perfect world you’d bring in a young guy who can play for you for a long time and grow and mature with your group, but if that guy isn’t available and if you think [goalie prospect] Jon Gillies can be that guy in a few years down the road, then you just need a transitional guy,” Duhatshek said, per Sportsnet. “The acquisition cost for a guy like Fleury… that might just be taking him off your hands, free the money off the books, and it doesn’t cost you a tangible asset off your roster.”

Money’s a key part of all this. In the end, money could end up trumping all.

Because as good as Fleury’s been for Pittsburgh, as good as he might continue to be and as well-liked in the room as he is, the Penguins 1) have their goalie of the future in Murray, 2) are hovering very close to the salary cap ceiling, and 3) could certainly use nearly $6 million in cap relief.

It might have to come via trade this summer, because there’s no guarantee Fleury would be picked at a potential expansion draft next year — and who knows where his market value would be by then?

Whether they like it or not, Rutherford and the Pens may need to act sooner rather than later.

No matter now much they love the Flower.

Hitchcock said changes were coming — will Paajarvi make playoff debut?

Magnus Paajarvi
AP
1 Comment

Following an ugly 4-0 loss in Game 2 of the Western Conference Final, Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock alluded to lineup changes for when the series shifted back to San Jose for Game 3.

“Changing your lineup has a real impact,” Hitchcock said, per the Post-Dispatch. “We’ve made adjustments all playoffs and everyone of them has worked.

“We’re probably going to have to make a few more [Thursday] and hopefully they work.”

So, what are those changes going to be?

Here are Blues beat reporters Jeremy Rutherford and Lou Korac:

Of the two, Paajarvi would be the biggest move. The veteran Swede hasn’t played at all in the playoffs, with his last action coming on Apr. 9, and he finished the year with just three goals and nine points in 48 games.

That said, Hitchcock has been fond of what Paajarvi brings to the table — calling him one of the team’s best players back in late December — and the move could give St. Louis some more speed, which has been an issue against the Sharks.

“They skate fast,” Hitchcock said, also per the Post-Dispatch. “They skate fast, they support the puck. They might look faster than they are, but they’ve got a lot of quick players. They’ve got a lot of aggressive skating players.”

Jaskin has been more involved than Paajarvi this postseason, though only slightly. He appeared in two games during the Dallas series, but did score the game-winning goal in Game 5 of the series.

There’s also the possibility Hitchcock could shake up his defense as well. Roberto Bortuzzo, who hasn’t played since Game 6 of the Dallas series, could draw in ahead of Joel Edmundson, who was out doing extra work following this morning’s skate.

Matthews stars as U.S. upsets Czechs at worlds

MOSCOW, RUSSIA - MAY 19: Auston Matthews #34 of USA celebrates his second period goal against Czech Republic with teammates Noah Hanifin #15 and Kyle Connor #18 at Ice Palace on May 19, 2016 in Moscow, Russia. (Photo by Anna Sergeeva/Getty Images)
3 Comments

MOSCOW (AP) Auston Matthews scored one goal in regulation and one after it Thursday to give the United States a spot in the semifinals of the hockey world championship with a 2-1 shootout win over the Czech Republic.

Loaded with young talent, the Americans came into the game as underdogs after losing four times in the round robin stage. But they managed to eliminate an experienced Czech team that had won its preliminary round group.

Matthews, still only 18, scored in the second period to tie the game and later scored the only goal in the shootout, sliding the puck between Czech goaltender Dominik Furch’s legs.

“I just wanted to open his legs, go five-hole,” Matthews said. “I was able to sneak it in there, so it worked out.”

Matthews is widely expected to be the No. 1 pick in next month’s NHL draft.

“He almost presses too hard sometimes, you know. I talked to him, I said `You know, your moment’s going to come,’ and sure enough it comes in the shootout,” teammate Nick Foligno said. “He’s just young and he’s learning but he’s got all the tools and all the talent.”

Tomas Zohorna gave the Czechs the lead with a penalty shot after Patrick Maroon was penalized for hooking Zohorna on a U.S. power play.

American goalie Keith Kinkaid saved all three Czech shots in the shootout.

The U.S. was outshot 29-20 in regulation, including 8-2 in the first, but piled on the pressure in 10 minutes of four-on-four overtime, forcing Furch to make seven saves, including a stick save on a shot from Chris Wideman.

The United States will next play either Canada or Sweden in Saturday’s semifinals.

Finland also secured a place in the semifinals with a 5-1 win over Denmark. The Finns will next play either Russia or Germany.