Poll: Who will win the Western Conference finals?

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While few hockey people saw a Tampa Bay Lightning-Boston Bruins Eastern Conference finals coming, this one was much more foreseeable. Despite the negative things written about both teams, the San Jose Sharks and Vancouver Canucks are the top two seeds from the West, after all.

The best part is – if you ask me – these really are the best two representatives from the Western Conference. Honestly, these might be the two best teams in the NHL. Each team won tough Game 7s after “blowing” 3-0 series leads, at least temporarily halting the masses from fitting them with ridiculous “choker” labels. The winner of this series might not have to deal with such talk much longer … but you really never know with knee-jerk reactions.

The Canucks enjoyed the all-world play of Ryan Kesler in the second round, but must hope for more production from the Sedin twins. Their defense might be the deepest the Sharks will face in the playoffs, even if they lack a Duncan Keith or Nicklas Lidstrom-type star. Roberto Luongo consistently finds himself on the verge of scapegoat status, even if he happens to be one of the best goalies in the world.

The Sharks boast a stout offensive attack, with the usual suspects (Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley) supplemented by burgeoning young players (Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture and Devin Setoguchi). They might not have the same depth on D as Vancouver, but Dan Boyle will likely be the best defenseman on the ice most nights. The team also employs a ghost from the Canucks’ playoff past in the form of goalie Antti Niemi. Niemi foiled the Canucks (and Sharks, by the way) last year on his way to Stanley Cup ring with Chicago. He might have the perfect attitude (or lack thereof) for this Sharks team.

Both teams are talented and some might say that each carries baggage into this game. It’s not an easy choice at all, but who do you expect to win this series … and in how many games?

Islanders agree to terms with Mathew Barzal on 8-year extension

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Mathew Barzal has agreed to terms with the New York Islanders on an eight-year extension, a move that keeps the franchise’s top forward under contract for the balance of his prime.

The deal is worth $73.2 million with an annual salary cap hit of $9.15 million, according to a person with knowledge of the contract. The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the team did not announce terms.

Barzal has led the team in scoring, or been tied for the lead, every season since he became a full-time NHL player in 2017-18. He has 349 points in 411 regular-season and playoff games for the defensively stingy Islanders, who qualified for the postseason three consecutive times before an injury- and virus-altered last year.

“We feel recharged,” Barzal said recently. “We feel like everybody had good summers and worked hard, and we got that excitement back.”

Barzal, now 25, is coming off putting up 59 points in 75 games. The offensive star will now be asked to round out his game.

“I’m a fan because Mat has the ability to raise his game and to be a special player,” general manager Lou Lamoriello told reporters at the team’s practice facility on Long Island. “And now, with this contract and our faith in him, (it) puts that responsibility on him. We’re trusting that. It’s up to him to respond to that.”

Senators goaltender Cam Talbot out 5-7 weeks with injury

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OTTAWA, Ontario — Ottawa Senators goaltender Cam Talbot is expected to be out five to seven weeks with what the team called an upper-body injury.

The Senators initially called Talbot day to day with what they hoped was a minor injury. Instead he’s now expected to miss at least the first month of the NHL season.

Ottawa claimed goalie Magnus Hellberg off waivers from the Seattle Kraken upon announcing Talbot’s expected absence. Hellberg, who played for Sweden at the Beijing Olympics could split time with countryman Anton Forsberg while Talbot is out.

The Senators acquired Talbot from Minnesota during the offseason to make him their starter after the Wild opted against bringing him back along with Marc-Andre Fleury. Talbot, 35, had a 2.76 goals-against average and .911 save percentage this season.

Losing Talbot is a blow to the Senators, who also acquired winger Alex DeBrincat from Chicago and signed longtime Philadelphia Flyers captain Claude Giroux as part of a move toward contending and ending their playoff drought.

Blackhawks’ Boris Katchouk sidelined by ankle sprain

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CHICAGO — Blackhawks forward Boris Katchouk will be sidelined for four to six weeks with a left ankle sprain, the team announced.

The 24-year-old Katchouk played almost 12 minutes during a 3-0 preseason loss to Detroit on Saturday night. He was acquired in a multiplayer trade with Tampa Bay in March.

The Blackhawks open the season on Oct. 12 at Colorado.

The team also said forward Jujhar Khaira is day to day with a right ankle injury.

Ducks’ Urho Vaakanainen crashes into boards, leaves on stretcher

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ANAHEIM, Calif. — Ducks defenseman Urho Vaakanainen was taken off the Honda Center ice on a stretcher after he crashed into the end boards in the first period of Anaheim’s preseason game against the San Jose Sharks.

The Finnish defenseman was conscious and alert with full movement in his extremities at UCI Medical Center, the Ducks said.

The frightening incident occurred midway through the opening period when Vaakanainen smashed into the boards at a dangerous speed behind the Sharks’ net. Vaakanainen appeared to be concentrating on the pass he had just made to Derek Grant, who scored the Ducks’ opening goal on the assist.

Vaakanainen’s teammates came onto the ice and gathered around him as he was taken away on the stretcher.

The Ducks acquired the 23-year-old Vaakanainen from Boston last March in the deal that sent longtime Ducks defenseman Hampus Lindholm to the Bruins. After recording two assists in 14 games for the Ducks last season, Vaakanainen is attempting to win a top-six role on Anaheim’s defense this fall.