NHL Playoffs, Blackhawks vs. Sharks, Game 4: Blackhawks sweep Sharks, headed to Stanley Cup finals

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Blackhawks.jpgChicago Blackhawks 4, San Jose Sharks 2

Blackhawks win series 4-0

This moment has been a very long time coming for the Chicago
Blackhawks and their boisterous, enthusiastic fans. Before 2008, the
Blackhawks had not won a playoff series since 1996 and had missed the
playoffs altogether nine times between 1997 and 2008. Even in 1995,
after a strike-shortened season, the deep run was a disappointment with
the team just a few years removed from being swept in the Stanley Cup
finals by the Pittsburgh Penguins.

That 1992 team, the last time that the Chicago Blackhawks made it
this far, featured Jeremy Roenick, Steve Larmer, Brent Sutter, Chris
Chelios and Ed Belfour. This was the last truly great Blackhawks team,
nearly two decades ago, and in between nothing but bad ownership,
extreme disappointment, poor television coverage and dwindling crowds.

After Rocky Wirtz took ownership of the team and the likes of Dale
Tallon and Rick Dudley worked their magic on the roster, it’s taken just
two seasons for the Blackhawks to go from being out of the playoffs and
into the Stanley Cup finals. This isn’t a fluke postseason run, either,
where a low-seeded team gets hot at the right time. This was a
calculated season where the Blackhawks dominated all year long with one
goal and one goal only on their minds: the Stanley Cup.

That the Chicago Blackhawks clinched the Western Conference finals at
home, after a convincing sweep of the San Jose Sharks, was fitting.
These Hawks fans, who had been driven away by years of poor ownership
and management, have returned in droves to threaten to give Chicago the
best home-ice advantage in the NHL. It’s obvious how this team thrives
off the energy of the fans, how gracious they were for their support as
they skated around the ice with sticks held high as they celebrated a
tremendous victory.

Don’t let the sweep of the Sharks fool anyone; this was a hard fought
series that provided the big test that the Chicago Blackhawks needed to
prove they’re finally worthy of a Stanley Cup. They completely
overmatched the Nashville Predators and used pure emotion and grit to
take care of a deep and talented Vancouver team. Against the Sharks, a
team with which they almost little history with, they were challenged by
a team that proved just as capable as themselves to put together an
incredible amount of offensive pressure in a very short amount of time.

Several times throughout the series the Sharks were the better team,
controlling play and taking leads in three of the four games. Each time
the Blackhawks battled back, never panicking and showing an innate
ability to ramp up their play to the next level. In Game 4, with the
Sharks controlling play through the first period and most of the second
and then taking a two-goal lead, the Hawks responded with an incredible
counter attack that put the Sharks immediately back on their heals.

This wasn’t about the San Jose Sharks choking away a 2-0 lead, this
as about the Blackhawks responding and taking the game to a lever that
the Sharks just couldn’t compete at. Sometimes, a team is just better
than their opponent and in this series that was the Blackhawks, both
physically and mentally.

The Chicago Blackhawks may not have lost a game in this series to the
Sharks, but the series was much closer than the 4-0 outcome shows. In
tightly contested games and series between two extremely talented teams,
whichever side is able to find any sort of edge over the other is the
one that advances. The Blackhawks used inspired play by Antti Niemi and
Jonathan Toews, as well as incredibly timely goal scoring by the
surprising Dustin Byfuglien, to give themselves the edge to win three
very close games and all of which were decided in the late stages of the
third period or overtime.

It may have been a sweep, but it wasn’t
easy.

The Sharks played at times like a team scared of losing. The
Blackhawks played like a team that knew they were going to win.

For
Antti Niemi, it’s validation that the Blackhawks made the right
decision heading into the postseason as he proved in this series just
how great he can really be. There were times of trepidation in Game 4 as
Niemi looked to have reverted to the shaky goaltending of the regular
season. The team in front of him picked it up instead, limiting the
Sharks to just three shots on goal in the third period. Overall, it was a
magical series for Niemi as he was by far the most important player on
the ice for the Blackhawks against the Sharks.

For all the Patrick
Kane’s, Patrick Sharp’s, Marian Hossa’s and Duncan Ketih’s this team
may have, there has been none more surprising than that of Dustin
Byfuglien. He has scored in five straight games for the Hawks, while
netting the game-winning goal in three of the four games. Not
coincidentally, those three game-winning goals came in the games that
were decided by just one goal and were the tightest contested of all.

The
Chicago Blackhawks of 2010 are a complete team, that just just one
question mark heading into the postseason. With Antti Niemi stepping up,
the Blackhawks are firing on all cylinders and are boasting an
incredible amount of scoring depth. It should be no surprise they’ve
made it this far, and are entering the Stanley Cup finals young, hungry
and supremely confident.

You wonder if the Eastern Conference
champion will even stand a chance.

Gritty’s grand entrance highlights Stadium Series pregame

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PHILADELPHIA — Right after some current and retired Philadelphia sports stars and legends — Jimmy Rollins, Bobby Clarke, Boban Marjanović — were introduced to the Lincoln Financial Field crowd, the real star of the city took center stage.

All week long, Gritty had been teasing some sort of big stunt before Saturday’s Stadium Series game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers.

Sure enough, just before the players entered the field, there was Gritty standing on top of the stadium wearing an lit up LED suit. Braving the elements, Gritty then jumped off and flew via zipline to the field as the teams began to walk out.

We knew Gritty was comical, but we didn’t know it had a bit of daredevil inside.

While the crowd went nuts, Gritty’s grand entrance didn’t sit too well with one NHL mascot.

Gritty’s mainstream popularity is big enough that some serious mascot-on-mascot chirping might become a regular thing. We’re all for it.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Trade: Stars land Zuccarello; Rangers get what could be great picks

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The New York Rangers sent Mats Zuccarello to the Dallas Stars in a fascinating trade on Saturday, and the conditions of that deal will mean that Rangers fans will have incentive to cheer Zuccarello on — even beyond simply liking the guy.

(And that shouldn’t be difficult, because Rangers fans really – justifiably – love the undersized winger.)

Conditional draft picks are becoming more and more in vogue heading into the 2019 trade deadline, but this situation is especially interesting.

TSN’s Bob McKenzie reports that trade details work out this way. (Note: please keep in mind that the exact specifics haven’t been confirmed by the teams, although McKenzie’s TSN colleague Darren Dreger confirmed that Zuccarello is indeed Dallas- bound.)

Stars receive: Mats Zuccarello.

Rangers’ rather complicated but interesting side: For one thing, the Rangers retain 30-percent of Zuccarello’s salary.

Conditional pick 1: Begins as a 2019 second-round pick.

That 2019 second-rounder gets bumped up to a first-rounder if the Stars win at least two playoff rounds during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Conditional pick 2: Begins as a 2020 third-round pick.

That 2020 third-rounder turns into a 2020 first-rounder if the Stars re-sign Zuccarello.

So, at worst, the Rangers receive second and third-rounders for Zuccarello, but could end up with one or even two first-rounders depending upon how this works out. Wow.

A bit more on those picks

As of this writing, the Stars are ranked as the West’s first wild-card team. They’re unlikely to catch the Blues for the third Central spot, and face some competition in even staying in the full playoff picture.

But if they maintain their current spot, things get interesting.

The Winnipeg Jets and Nashville Predators came into 2018-19 as the West’s most popular picks (along with the Sharks, probably?) for a deep run, but both teams have been experiencing some struggles here and there. The Stars would still be beating odds if they made a deep enough run to win two playoff rounds, but it’s not impossible, especially if they add even more after landing Zuccarello and Ben Lovejoy.

(Frankly, the Lovejoy trade is … underwhelming.)

There’s a decent-enough chance that the Stars might want to re-sign Zuccarello, too. As you can see from this post, Dallas is in a position to have a lot of cap space to work with in 2019-20, so maybe they’d keep the splendidly talented winger around with an extension?

More to come.

Trade: Blue Jackets load up with Dzingel; Senators load up on picks

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The Columbus Blue Jackets are eliminating any doubts that they’re going all-in this season. Meanwhile, the Ottawa Senators are going all-out … as in, trading everyone out.

One day after the Blue Jackets sent a bunch of assets to Ottawa for Matt Duchene, the two teams made another significant swap on Saturday. The Blue Jackets landed another Senators center in Ryan Dzingel, while picks are the biggest takeaways for the Senators.

The Ottawa Sun’s Bruce Garrioch and Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman are among those who report these full trade terms:

Blue Jackets receive: Ryan Dzingel, Calgary Flames’ 2019 seventh-round pick.

Senators get: Anthony Duclair, 2020 second-rounder, 2021 second-rounder.

This post will be updated with more analysis soon.

Carolina, Columbus wins highlight Stadium Series’ importance for Pens

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NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Saturday’s Stadium Series matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers from Lincoln Financial Field. Coverage begins at 8 p.m. ET on NBC. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Saturday night won’t feel like any other night for the Penguins and Flyers. It’s just human nature.

How can you not be distracted by the pageantry of an outdoor game and all of the hoopla that comes with it? From dealing with those unique environs to wondering if such an environment will even allow for competitive hockey (thanks a lot, rain), there’s just a lot going on.

That’s something to consider for any such contest, yet when it happens this late into February, the teams involved really need to find a way to focus. With the Flyers virtually out of the race, the onus is then on the Penguins to make sure they win Saturday’s game. After all, if the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs began at this very moment, the Penguins would be out of the mix.

[Penguins say the right things]

As you can see in the post linked above, the Penguins were already emphasizing that they’re focused on getting this win coming into the weekend, but recent events really cement that this isn’t just a fun event for the Pens.

Blue Jackets move up, and make a big move

Earlier this week, the Penguins moved ahead of the Blue Jackets, but that margin was smaller than it seemed because Columbus had two games in hand.

The Blue Jackets won both of those games, impressively beating the Senators on Friday and Sharks on Saturday by a combined score of 7-0. This leaves the Penguins two full points behind Columbus heading into the 2019 Stadium Series that’s moments away.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 8 P.M. ET – NBC]

Blue Jackets (third place in Metro): 35-23-3, 73 points, 35 regulation/overtime wins, 61 games played
Penguins (ninth place in East): 32-22-7, 71 points, 31 ROW, 61 GP

The good news for the Penguins is that they have quite a bit of control of their own fate against Columbus. They place against the Blue Jackets three more times this season, with those head-to-head matches all coming by March 9.

The bad news is that they’ll be facing a more loaded version of this Blue Jackets team, if Columbus decides to keep Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky for the rest of the season, as trading for Matt Duchene makes a good team far scarier to face.

So … finishing ahead of the Blue Jackets won’t be easy.

Hurricanes storm past Pittsburgh, too

The Hurricanes also shut out their opponents on Saturday, as Carolina beat the Dallas Stars 3-0. That win gives the Hurricanes a small lead for the East’s second wild-card spot, at least for now:

Hurricanes (second WC): 33-23-6, 72 points, 32 ROW, 62 GP
Penguins (ninth place): 32-22-7, 71 points, 31 ROW, 61 GP

While Columbus has a decent (though far from insurmountable) edge on Pittsburgh, the gap between the Hurricanes and Penguins is tiny. Carolina and Pittsburgh also face each other two more times in 2018-19, so far all we know, the East’s bubble races could come down to those games.

(The Blue Jackets and Hurricanes meet one more time in the regular season: a March 15 contest in Carolina.)

***

The last 24 hours or so haven’t been kind to the Penguins’ playoff hopes, yet the fierce challenges from Columbus and Carolina should at least keep Pittsburgh alert. Of course, if any team would love to spoil things for the Penguins, wouldn’t it be the Flyers?

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.