Five Thoughts: Vancouver on a mission to be playoffs ultimate heel team

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With just one game to feed our brains, we managed to have a lot to talk about this morning. Let’s just get right to it because this morning’s Five Thoughts are a lot to chew on. Be patient, at least we’re not discussing the Royal Wedding. Hockey is joy.

1. I remarked a bit on Twitter during last night’s game that a lot of what Vancouver does during the game for the serious NHL watcher is enough to make them really dislike how the Canucks play hockey. Ryan Kesler seemed to embellish a tripping call against Patric Hornqvist in the third followed up by a Roberto Luongo dramatic flop after Mike Fisher was stopped on a shorthanded breakaway that saw Fisher ever-so-slightly bump Luongo after the fact. Add this on top of GM Mike Gillis’ complaints about officiating in the last round and you’ve got yourself one very unlikable team.

The Canucks talent level is high enough that they don’t need to do things like this, yet they do. Think back to the last series when we saw Daniel Sedin fall to the ice dramatically after a slight nudge and about the only comparison I can come up with is to a rival sports team in an afterschool special who you know is already really good yet they do jerky things because they can and it helps them get an unnecessary edge. Here’s to hoping the theatrics will come to an end eventually, but it’s doubtful. Every great drama needs a heel and the Canucks are running with it.

2. After how bad things looked in the first round for both Roberto Luongo and Pekka Rinne, they both seemed to answer the call well in Game 1. Luongo earned the shutout after stopping 20 shots as the Canucks defense made life miserable on the Predators. It was Luongo’s second shutout of the playoffs and a nice first step for him after such a tumultuous first round against Chicago.

The real first star, however, was Rinne. Rinne was stellar in stopping 29 shots for Nashville and while Chris Higgins’ goal eluded him in the second period, Rinne was fantastic in resisting the Cancuks’ attack. He gloved down virtually everything and looked like the goalie that’s the most serious threat to Tim Thomas for the Vezina Trophy. If these two can keep this up throughout the series we’ll have enough goaltending highlights to last us the rest of the playoffs.

3. Predators coach Barry Trotz was really unhappy with how his team played in Game 1 and that’s more than understandable. The Predators aren’t an offensively proficient team in the first place but 20 shots is bad no matter what. Take that and the fact that Nashville was so poor in the faceoff circle and you’ve got yourself a handful of reasons to be really angry. Knowing how this Predators team is, expect Game 2 to be a lot more intense. Vancouver has to be prepared for it or else Nashville will grind them right off the ice.

4. While we’re busy watching the playoffs, the drama surrounding Winnipeg just gets all the more fascinating. With the recent talk of Atlanta now being in the mix to be bought and moved to Winnipeg should things in Phoenix get straightened out makes it almost certain in my mind that we’ll see a team playing in Manitoba next year. Which one it is still remains to be seen.

What’s adding to the intrigue of all this is this: What happens should things in Arizona not work out and the Coyotes move back to Canada? What happens with the Thrashers and their apparent awful mess in the front office? Atlanta’s problems have been bubbling below the surface for some time now but it appears things there have gotten bad enough so that now they’re David Thomson of True North’s booby prize should the Coyotes stay put. What a sad mess.

5. After all the yelling and kvetching we do about blows to the head and the seeming inaction that happens with awful hits from behind, the one seemingly very legal hit we’ve seen all playoffs is the one whistled for a penalty. Keith Ballard’s incredible hip check on Jordin Tootoo was something made for highlight reels and very legal according to the vast majority of eyes that watched it.

It’d be nice of officials were as vigilant on actually awful hits as they are on ones like this that look visibly stunning but are just a healthy part of the game. Officials don’t want to be the guy that boots a call on an actually dirty hit so now they’ll send off anyone on anything that looks or sounds scary. No one wins that way.

US tops Canada 4-1 to claim bronze at hockey worlds

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COPENHAGEN, Denmark (AP) — The United States topped Canada 4-1 to claim the bronze medal at the world ice hockey championship on Sunday.

Chris Kreider led the U.S. with two goals.

Forward Nick Bonino scored the winner on a rebound during a power play in the final period. Anders Lee and Kreider added empty-net insurance goals to give the U.S. its third bronze in six years.

”It’s important for the team but it’s also important for USA Hockey,” U.S. captain Patrick Kane said. ”Now, we can build up off this level and try to keep being better and better.”

Kane had an assist in the game to finish the tournament with 20 points for eight goals and 12 assists, the first player to do so since 2008.

”Obviously I’m here to produce and try to create offense and make plays out there,” Kane said. ”Overall, I’m happy … it was a fun tournament and a great experience for me and I hope it will help me with my career going forward too.”

Canada had to settle for a disappointing fourth-place finish.

”We wanted to win gold,” Canada forward Bo Horvat said. ”We wanted to be in the final. It’s not a result we wanted. But we have to take the positives from this experience and bring it to next year.”

Kreider scored the go-ahead goal for the U.S. in the second period, capitalizing on a mistake by Canada captain Connor McDavid.

Canada answered with a Marc-Edouard Vlasic shot that went in between the pads of goaltender Keith Kinkaid.

Sweden plays Switzerland for gold later Sunday.

Captained by McDavid, the NHL scoring leader, Canada was considered a contender for gold.

Chasing its third title in four years, Canada suffered losses in the preliminary round to the U.S. and Finland and was stunned by Switzerland 3-2 in the semifinals.

The U.S. had a great start to the tournament with six straight wins. It knocked out the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals but was trashed 6-0 by Sweden in the semis.

Jets tweak defense for Game 5 vs. Vegas

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As “stay the course” as Paul Maurice’s message seemed with the Winnipeg Jets facing elimination in Game 5, he’s making quite a few lineup changes against the Vegas Golden Knights.

In particular, their defense will look quite different. Ben Chiarot and Toby Enstrom are being replaced by Joe Morrow and Dmitry Kulikov (pictured). On the offensive side, Joel Armia is returning to the lineup in place of Andrew Copp.

While this might feel like swapping lower-end parts (especially in Armia taking Copp’s spot), it’s worth noting that Morrow is likely to pair with Dustin Byfuglien on what is technically Winnipeg’s first duo, so these changes could make a difference. They also shine a spotlight on the gulf in talent between Winnipeg’s left and right sides on defense.

Winnipeg will ask the two returning defensemen to shake off some significant rust. Morrow, 25, hasn’t played since April 20 during the Minnesota Wild series. Kulikov, 27, has been sidelined and/or scratched since March 8.

No pressure.

At least Morrow’s already contributed a big goal during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs:

Game 5 is about to air on NBC (at 3 p.m. ET). You can also stream the action live here.

MORE:
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

WATCH LIVE: Vegas eyes Stanley Cup Final berth with Game 5 win

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Game 5: Vegas Golden Knights at Winnipeg Jets, 3 p.m. ET (Golden Knights lead series 3-1)
NBC
Call: Kenny Albert, Joe Micheletti, Brian Boucher
• Stream here
Series preview

• Fleury, secondary scoring biggest issues facing Jets
Nate Schmidt is underrated star of Golden Knights
These playoffs belong to Marc-Andre Fleury
Jonathan Marchessault, Golden Knights enjoying lucky Lamborghini

MORE:
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

Vegas looks to continue fairy tale with conference title

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LAS VEGAS (AP) — Just saying the Vegas Golden Knights are one win away from advancing to the Stanley Cup Final has a magical ring to it.

But what’s even more mystical is thinking the Knights are a mere five wins from hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup in its inaugural season.

Five more wins, over a potential 10 games.

And while this might be a first-year team writing a fantastical Hollywood screenplay nobody could’ve scripted last summer when the roster was constructed, the NHL playoffs are nothing new to a core of characters in this cast.

Everybody knows about three-time Stanley Cup champion Marc-Andre Fleury, a key figure during Pittsburgh’s reign the last two years, and 10-year veteran James Neal, who was with Nashville for last year’s run to the final against the Penguins.

But between guys such as David Perron, Luca Sbisa, Deryk Engelland, Ryan Reaves, Reilly Smith, Cody Eakin and Tomas Tatar, the Golden Knights aren’t as new to the playoffs as people may believe.

The players’ individual postseason pedigree could be part of the reason the team is one game from clinching the Western Conference. Another reason is the eagerness of Fleury and Neal’s co-stars in this feel-good story.

”We don’t see ourselves as an expansion team for a long time now,” said Perron, a 13-year veteran who is playing in his seventh postseason. ”But at the same time, it’s always nice to keep proving people wrong and we know that even at this point, I don’t feel like people believe we’ll close it out. So, we’ve got to find a way.”

Coach Gerard Gallant has shown he has confidence in all his players, as they’ve all experienced pressure situations and performed well in all three round of the playoffs, including seven one-goal games. Not including Fleury’s 129 career playoff games, or Neal’s 94, the players who skated in Friday night’s 3-2 Game 4 victory now have a combined 489 games of postseason experience to their credit.

”It’s not new for those guys, I don’t think you get here if you don’t use your hockey players,” Gallant said. ”We’ve done it from Day One and there’s no reason not to use them because everybody competes, everybody battles and everybody’s a part of our team. That’s what we do. Guys work hard and compete hard and do your job and you’ll play. I feel comfortable putting most of our guys on the ice. There’s no issues there.”

And that’s because the Golden Knights have always done a good job of living in the moment, and not looking past each game.

Erik Haula spent his first four seasons in Minnesota and went to the playoffs every year, but it didn’t take long for him to realize he was with a special group of players.

”We got off to a great start, won two on the road (to open the season),” said Haula, who has three goals and four assists in the postseason. ”Right after that first home game, that was special. It was a special night for the whole community. Right there, I think we came together as a community, as a team. We never looked back. We just kept going.

”We just have a close group. We respect every single person in here. We need every single person in here.”

Luca Sbisa has been in the league nine years and been to the postseason five times. His presence on defense has bolstered the crew on the blueline, helping to neutralize Winnipeg’s depth on offense.

”Coming in I just wanted to help this team and do what I could, especially on the ice,” said Sbisa, who went to the playoffs in four of the five seasons he was with Anaheim. ”I wanted to give our team a chance to win every night and here we are. We can’t look too far ahead, you gotta take it one game at a time. If you think about the next game you’re probably going to shoot yourself in the foot. We just have to find the balance of being aggressive and being smart. It’s been a long and fun ride so far.”

The fun continues Sunday, when the Jets host Game 5 and will look to stay alive against the fairy tale Knights from Vegas.

”I would say that winning and having fun go hand-in-hand,” said Eakin, now in his seventh year and playing in his third postseason. ”I’ve been on a few teams that have been pretty good, won a few times. We know we got to play our best hockey. Especially this time of year, there’s not a team that is going to roll over and die.”