Race for the Conn Smythe Trophy

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Now that we’re down to the Conference finals in the East and West, it’s time to get serious about breaking down the race for the other postseason trophy to be handed out at the conclusion of the Stanley Cup finals.

The Conn Smythe Trophy goes out to the most valuable player during the Stanley Cup playoffs and with just four teams to choose from, we’ve got some good cases being made from each of them. We’ll take a look at each team and who the leader and the dark horse candidates are. Think a case needs to be made for someone else? You can always shout at us in the comments.

Boston Bruins

Front runner: Boston is all about the stellar work from Tim Thomas in goal. With a 2.03 goals against average and a .934 save percentage through 11 games in the postseason, Thomas is, statistically speaking, the second best goalie in the playoffs. He’s been rock solid the way he has been all year long in goal for the Bruins as he appears headed for another Vezina Trophy.

When things have gotten too wild around the Bruins goal, Thomas has been cool and collected shutting down opponents. Considering the Bruins haven’t been lights out with the offense, you have to look to the defense and goaltending to find the guys carrying the load and Thomas has been their man.

Dark horse pick: This might be more about betting on the future, but let’s take a look at David Krejci. Through the entire first series against Montreal, Krejci was invisible scoring just one goal. Against Philadelphia, however, Krejci piled up four goals and five assists and now with team playoff points leader Patrice Bergeron, Krejci’s importance is even higher to the team to lead the way at center.

San Jose Sharks

Front runner: Ryane Clowe is the guy we’re eyeballing as the favorite here. With 13 points he’s the team leader and he’s been instrumental to energizing the team throughout the playoffs. It’s no mistake that the Red Wings played their best game of the playoffs against San Jose in Game 6 with Clowe out of the lineup. Clowe plays physical, plays an offensive game that’s more grimy than it is pretty, and finds ways to upset opposing teams routinely. He should have a lot of chirping targets against Vancouver.

Dark horse: Joe Pavelski. Pavelski has just five goals and two assists through the playoffs but name a goal he’s scored that hasn’t been absolutely huge. Pavelski was a bit quiet during the Detroit series with two goals and an assist, but if Pavelski picks up on his heroics against Vancouver and gets the Sharks into their first Stanley Cup final, the legend of Joe Pavelski will only grow larger.

Tampa Bay Lightning

Front runner: Dwayne Roloson is the man. I know the first name that comes to mind is Martin St. Louis and for good reason as he’s got 13 points tying him for second in the playoffs. Roloson, however, has been out of his mind good. Roloson leads all goalies in the playoffs in goals against average (2.01), save percentage (.941), shots against and saves (389, 366). Without Roloson playing as well as he has, the Lightning are toast in the playoffs and likely booted in the first round by Pittsburgh. His work in frustrating the Caps was just as admirable. When you’re as good as he’s been in the playoffs, it’s hard not to pick him as the favorite.

Dark horse: Take your pick between Sean Bergenheim and Steve Downie here. Bergenheim is tied for the lead in goals scored in the playoffs with seven while Downie has shaken off his agitator reputation to put up 12 points. Virtual no-name guys rising to the occasion make for a great story but the truth is, Tampa is loaded with guys who could be in the running.

Vancouver Canucks

Front runner: Ryan Kesler is the runaway favorite here for Vancouver. Kesler’s work against Chicago was quiet but helpful earning four assists. Against Nashville, however, he was a holy terror on ice racking up five goals and six assists. Kesler’s 15 points tie him with the ousted Pavel Datsyuk for the NHL playoff lead in points. While the Sedin twins haven’t exactly been other-worldly the way they ought to be, Kesler’s been dynamic all around.

Dark horse: It’s not really a dark horse pick, but Roberto Luongo has to be up there. He’s earned a shutout in each round of the playoffs, his numbers were unreal against Nashville (1.63 GAA, .933 SV%), and now that he’s past the bogeymen from Chicago, another round or two of putting up big numbers like that could help him steal the trophy from his teammate if the Canucks win the Stanley Cup.

PHT Time Machine: Top 1970 Cup Final moments beyond the Orr goal

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Throughout the season we will be taking an occasional look back at some significant moments in NHL history. This is the PHT Time Machine. Today we look back at the Boston Bruins’ 1970 Stanley Cup Final win over the St. Louis Blues and some of the significant moments in that series that were NOT Bobby Orr’s game-winning goal.

It is not uncommon to see replays of Bobby Orr’s 1970 Stanley Cup clinching goal around this time of year because it is one of the most well known plays in NHL history. It will no doubt be even relevant this season because the 2019 Stanley Cup Final between the St. Louis Blues and Boston Bruins is a rematch of that series.

For the Blues, it was the third year in a row they qualified for the Stanley Cup Final by coming out of the NHL’s “expansion division” and the third year in a row they were swept by one of the league’s Original Six powers.

That series has become known almost entirely for Orr’s game-winning goal (his only goal of the series, by the way) but it was far from the only notable development, play, or performance in that matchup.

We are using our latest PHT Time Machine to look at some of the moments that history may have forgotten.

Blues goalie Jacques Plante was saved (literally) by his mask

Following a four-year retirement in the mid-1960s, Plante made his return to the NHL at the start of the 1968-69 season as a member of the second-year Blues franchise, and alongside fellow future Hall of Famer Glenn Hall won the Vezina Trophy (which was at the time awarded to the goalies on the team that allowed the fewest goals in the league) and helped lead the Blues to the Stanley Cup Final.

The Blues relied on three goalies during the 1969-70 season (Ernie Wakely also saw significant playing time as Hall had retired after the 1968-69 season only to come out of retirement during the season) and entered the Stanley Cup Final against the Bruins with Plante in net.

But mid-way through the second period disaster struck when Phil Esposito deflected a Fred Stansfield slap shot, striking Plante squarely in the forehead and knocking him unconscious. He would spend several days in the hospital.

The recap and description of the play (this from the May 5, 1970 Edmonton Journal) is jarring.

This is the play.

Plante would never play another minute in the series, and it is impossible to wonder what would have happened in the series had he not been injured. He only played five games in the playoffs that year for the Blues, finishing with a 4-1 record and an almost unheard of (for the time) .936 save percentage.

The duo of Hall and Wakely finished with a 4-7 record (with all four wins belonging to Hall) and a sub-.900 save percentage in the playoffs, while both struggled in the series against the Bruins.

Wakely, who dressed as the backup at the start of the series, replaced Plante in Game 1 and surrendered four goals before giving up six in the team’s Game 2 loss. He was replaced by Hall for Games 3 and 4 in St. Louis, and while he fared marginally better he was no match for the Bruins’ relentless offensive onslaught.

Plante’s mask saving his life and from further injury came just a decade after he popularized the use of the goalie mask and helped to make a staple of NHL equipment.

This Was The Bruins’ Return To Relevance

Throughout much of the 1960s the Bruins were the laughing stock of the NHL’s original six.

Between the 1959-60 and 1966-67 seasons the Bruins won just 149 games, and were one of just two teams that had failed to win at least 230 during that stretch (the Rangers won 177). They never made the playoffs during that stretch, only twice finished out of last place, and never finished higher than fifth.

But in starting in 1966 things started to change for the Bruins.

Orr made his debut as an 18-year-old during the 1966-67 season and immediately started to transform the team, the league, and even the way the game was played, forever altering what we could expect from defenders with the puck.

One year later they made one of the most significant trades in franchise history when they dealt Pit Martin, Jack Norris, and Gilles Marotte to the Chicago Blackhawks for Phil Esposito, Ken Hodge, and Stanfield. It was a deal that turned out to be laughably one-sided in the Bruins’ favor and helped build the foundation of a team that would not only finally return to the playoffs after an eight-year drought, but also win two Stanley Cups between 1970 and 1972.

Esposito and Hodge were all-star level players on those Stanley Cup winning teams, while Stanfield proved to be an outstanding complementary star that was a virtual lock for at least 25 goals and 70 points every year he played in Boston.

This probably wasn’t the best of the early-mid 1970’s Bruins teams, but it will always be a significant one for snapping what had been a 29-year championship drought with a legendary postseason performance that included a 10-game winning streak. After winning Games 5 and 6 in Round 1 against the New York Rangers, the Bruins then swept the Chicago Blackhawks in Round 2 before sweeping the Blues in the Stanley Cup Final.

The series itself wasn’t really all that competitive, either. While the Blues had been swept in the Stanley Cup Final in each of the previous two seasons against the Montreal Canadiens dynasty they still managed to hold their own in each series, losing several games by just a single goal.

This series was not that. The first three games were all blowouts in the Bruins’ favor, while the Bruins held a commanding edge on the shot chart in every game and ended up outscoring them by a 20-7 margin.

John Buyck was the feel good story and offensive star for Bruins

There is always that one veteran player on every championship team that has been around forever, experienced defeat, and never had their chance to lift the Stanley Cup. They become the sympathetic figure for the postseason and the player that “just deserves it because it is their time.”

For the 1969-70 Bruins, that player was John Buyck.

Buyck had been a member of the Bruins since the start of the 1957-58 season and was a rock for the team every year. And every year the Bruins just kept losing. Finally, at the age of 34, the Bruins broke through and got him a championship and few players on the team played a bigger role in that win.

Buyck finished the series with six goals, including a Game 1 hat trick that helped the Bruins set the tone for the series.

He scored at least one goal in every game in the series, while his Game 4 goal tied the game, 3-3, late in the third period and helped set the stage for Orr’s winner.

It was a big moment for the entire organization as almost no one on the team had ever experienced a championship season.

That core would go on to win another Stanley Cup during the 1971-72 season. The Bruins would have to wait until the 2010-11 team to win another one after that.

For more stories from the PHT Time Machine, click here.

STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW
• Who has the better forwards?
• Who has the better special teams?
• PHT Power Rankings: Conn Smythe favorites
• Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Blues vs. Bruins: Three questions about the Stanley Cup Final

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Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues.

1. Will Binnington join ranks of other rookie Cup winners?

Ken Dryden. Matt Murray. Patrick Roy. Cam Ward. Jordan Binnington? If he helps lead the St. Louis Blues to the Stanley Cup title, he will become the fifth rookie goaltender to achieve that feat. We already know about his integral role in the team’s turnaround this season, and his strong play has continued into the postseason.

Binnington has already set the Blues franchise record for wins in a single postseason (12), and if he should win four more, he would be the first rookie in NHL history to win 16 games in a single playoff. A Calder Trophy finalist, he’s posted a .926 even strength save percentage en route to the fourth and final series.

2. Is there any way to slow “The Perfection Line?”

Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak lead the Bruins in scoring and enter the Cup Final coming off a dominant Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Final where they combined for eight points against the Carolina Hurricanes. Marchand is up to 18 points this postseason and is sure to surpass his career high of 19 which was set when during the team’s Cup run in 2011. He’s been so productive this spring that he can become the ninth player in franchise history to record a point per game in consecutive playoffs after he tallied 17 points in 12 games last season.

Pastrnak, meanwhile, needs five points to become the fourth active NHLer to record multiple 20-point playoffs before turning 24 years old. The other three are all Pittsburgh Penguins — Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jake Guentzel.

One more point for Bergeron would give him 100 career points and another goal would tie him with Johnny Bucyk for fourth on the Bruins’ all-time playoff goals list. He’s currently the NHL leader with six power play goals this postseason. He’s also three power play markers away from tying the NHL record held by Mike Bossy (1981) and Cam Neely (1991).

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

3. Will special teams be the difference?

The Bruins’ power play has been dominant through three rounds, entering the Cup Final clicking at a 34% success rate. The Blues’ man advantage units have been fine, but are far behind Boston at 19.4%. The Bruins scored at least one power play goal in their four-game sweep in the conference final and tallied seven total against the Hurricanes. St. Louis saw their extra man unit finish the Western Conference Final strong going 5-for-15 over their last four games.

Bergeron leads the Bruins with six power play tallies, while Vladimir Tarasenko is tops for the Blues with five.

The Bruins have also been strong on the penalty kill, killing off 86.3% of power play chances by their opponents. During their current seven-game winning streak they’ve killed off 23 of 24 power play opportunities.

STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW
Who has the better special teams?
Who has the better forwards?
Who has the better defensemen?
X-factors
PHT Power Rankings: Conn Smythe favorites
How the Blues were built
How the Bruins were built
Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

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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.

Experience was necessary in Cassidy’s evolution as NHL head coach

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Bruce Cassidy’s first impression as an NHL head coach did not go over well with his players.

At 37, Cassidy was the youngest head coach in the league when the Washington Capitals hired him in 2002. He was entering a difficult situation for someone with no experience at that level. Walking into a dressing room with veterans like Peter Bondra, Sergei Gonchar, Jaromir Jagr, Robert Lang, Michael Nylander, and Olaf Kolzig, among others, and trying to lead a team that had just missed the postseason was a tough situation to be in.

And so, as the 2003 Washington Post story goes following his firing, Cassidy’s greenness in the coaching realm was clearly evident.

“It was bad right from the start,” an anonymous Capital told Jason LaCanfora. “He pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket and started writing stuff on the blackboard. Everyone was just kind of looking at each other. We didn’t know what was going on. It looked like he was winging it. He had all summer to prepare for this day and it looked like he didn’t know what he was doing. Guys started to worry right away.”

Cassidy’s Capitals made the playoffs his first season, but the 2003-04 season would be the end of his time there. After 28 games and an 8-16-1 record, he was fired. Between the record and the growing discord between the head coach and his players, the relationship wasn’t going to last the entire season. 

In fact, the coaching change was made a week after Cassidy apologized for wondering aloud if the family lives of his players was affecting his play. This was a Capitals team that featured Kolzig, who’s son is autistic; Brendan Witt, who’s wife had a life-threatening battle with sepsis; and Jason Doig, who’s wife had recently given birth.

Those comments, which were the final straw for many Capitals players, did not sit well in the room.

“I just don’t think he ever understood the level of professionalism it takes to coach in this league,” one player told LaCanfora. “All of the little things matter.”

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Fast forward 15 years and Cassidy is in his fourth stop as a hockey coach since those forgetting days in D.C. After being dismissed by the Capitals he was an assistant coach for the Chicago Blackhawks for the 2005-06 season before moving on to take the head coaching job with the Kingston Frontenacs of the Ontario Hockey League. In 2008 he joined the Bruins’ American Hockey League affiliate in Providence as an assistant and was promoted before the 2011-12 season to head coach. He quickly improved the AHL Bruins and was named one of Claude Julien’s assistants in 2016. Just 27 games into that season Julien was fired and he was handed a second opportunity.

Looking back now at his 107 games in charge of the Capitals, Cassidy admits he wasn’t comfortable being such a young head coach for a veteran group. “To be honest, all I learned was I’m a lot more comfortable in my own skin now than I was then,” he said this week. “I was young. I really had no NHL experience.”

There was so much experience in that Capitals room that Cassidy was intimidated, unable to take charge and be a leader — vital traits for any head coach.

“These guys have been around, so it probably took me a while to just walk in there, be comfortable and say, ‘This is what we’re doing today,’ and still have the confidence and still be a good communicator while you’re doing that,” he said.

It was a familiar situation when Cassidy took over for Julien in 2017, though the 4,808 days between getting the Capitals’ and Bruins’ gigs allowed for plenty of personal growth. When he walked into that Bruins dressing room for the first time as boss, again there was that abundance of experience staring him right back in the face. Scanning the room, the name plates above the stalls read Backes, Bergeron, Chara, Krejci, Marchand, Rask. Stanley Cup rings and thousands of NHL games under their belts — another veteran team, except this time he was better prepared.

“When you’re around the game for an extra 15 years, you learn stuff,” Cassidy said. “Different ways to communicate, different ways to see the game, how to delegate, how to use your staff, how to use your top-end players to help you find that common goal. I think that was the biggest difference. A lot of newness back then. This time around there’s a lot more experience at this level.”

That experience has paid off. Under Cassidy, the Bruins have a 61% win percentage (117-52-22) and have accumulated the second-most points (256) in the NHL. They made the playoffs in each of his three seasons in charge, with at least one extra round added each year, culminating in this Cup Final appearance, the franchise’s first since 2013.

The skills Cassidy acquired and improved upon since his first time as an NHL head coach have been aided by a Bruins team that has a strong core, talented leadership, and a buy-in attitude of his players.

“I think this leadership group is second to none and I don’t know if I’ll ever have, wherever this career takes me, a group like this to work with,” he said. “I’ve said that since probably the second I got the job here. Those guys are fantastic and they sure make a coach’s job a lot easier.”

STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW
Who has the better forwards?
Who has the better defensemen?
Who has better goaltending?
Who has the better special teams?
X-factors for Bruins, Blues

PHT Power Rankings: Conn Smythe favorites
Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

————

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.

After half-century of frustration, Blues can exorcise demons

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ST. LOUIS (AP) — Stanley Jackson and buddy Steven Crow can be excused if they tend to watch their beloved St. Louis Blues with their hands over their eyes, just waiting for the next thing to go wrong.

So when the Blues beat the San Jose Sharks in Game 6 to earn their first berth in the Stanley Cup Final since 1970, a rematch with the Boston Bruins 49 years in the making, the two old friends couldn’t hold back.

”We were like two 9-year-olds,” Jackson, 52, said. ”We were hugging and jumping. We were crying like babies.”

There’s a lot of that going around in St. Louis. After all, few sports fans anywhere have suffered like Blues fans.

The franchise has shown a remarkable ability to tease but ultimately disappoint – missing the playoffs just nine times but never winning the Cup. Management lost three coaches who went on to win 16 Stanley Cup championships. The Blues would have abandoned St. Louis in the 1980s but the new destination was a Canadian outpost so obscure the NHL wouldn’t allow it.

It’s been a wild ride, and Susan Kelly has had a front-row seat.

Kelly, a 55-year-old lawyer, is the daughter of Dan Kelly, the legendary hockey broadcaster who called Blues games until his death in 1989. She inherited his love for the sport and the team, attending every home game with her 82-year-old mom. In fact, Kelly pulled out of an African safari so she won’t miss the final that starts Monday in Boston.

”It was a no-brainer,” Kelly said. ”I bought the trip insurance just for this reason.”

Despite their checkered past, the Blues have a rabid, devoted fan base, even as they share a city with baseball’s beloved and storied Cardinals. Devotion to the hockey team only grew in 2016 when the NFL’s Rams bolted for Los Angeles. Now, it’s not uncommon for Cardinals stars such as Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright to show up at a Blues game.

The Blues’ best run of success came right off the bat. The NHL doubled in size to 12 teams in 1967 and put all six expansion teams in one division, guaranteeing one of them would reach the Stanley Cup Final.

St. Louis loaded the roster with aging veterans, including eventual Hall-of-Fame goaltenders Glenn Hall and Jacques Plante, and it worked – kind of: The Blues made the final their first three seasons but were swept every time – by Montreal in 1968 and 1969 and by the Bruins in 1970, where Bobby Orr’s series-winning overtime goal came just after he was tripped by St. Louis’ Noel Picard, resulting in the iconic photo of Orr seemingly flying through the air.

Maybe that trip was bad karma – until now, the Blues hadn’t come close to returning to the final, a fact made even more remarkable because they’re almost always in the playoffs, including 25 straight seasons starting in 1979.

So star-crossed is the franchise that what is widely considered the greatest game in Blues history was a prelude to disappointment. Dubbed the ”Monday Night Miracle,” the Blues trailed Calgary 5-2 with 12 minutes to play in Game 6 of the 1986 Western Conference final, tied it with a frantic rally and won it on Doug Wickenheiser’s goal 7:30 into overtime.

Naturally, they lost Game 7.

Adding to the angst for fans is what could have been. The Blues were eliminated from the playoffs one year despite having both Wayne Gretzky and Brett Hull on the team. Hull, Brendan Shanahan and T.J. Oshie are among countless stars who became champions after leaving St. Louis.

The Blues also gave up too soon on some of the best coaches in NHL history. Scotty Bowman won a combined nine Stanley Cup titles with Montreal, Pittsburgh and Detroit after he left St. Louis in a dispute with management in 1971. Al Arbour began his coaching career in St. Louis before winning four straight titles with the New York Islanders. Joel Quenneville won three championships with the rival Chicago Blackhawks after he was fired by the Blues.

Then again, St. Louis is lucky to have a team at all. The Blues have rarely turned a profit and in 1983 were all but sold to an ownership group that would have moved them to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. The NHL Board of Governors rejected the sale and had to briefly take control of the franchise until finding a buyer.

Bowman, who was the Blues’ coach when they went to the Cup Final in 1968, 1969 and 1970, met his wife in St. Louis when she was working as a nurse there. He coached current Blues assistant Larry Robinson and feels a connection to the team to this day.

This season started out to be just another in a long line of disappointments. Despite several offseason acquisitions, the Blues were awful. Players fought in practice. Coach Mike Yeo was fired and replaced by assistant Craig Berube. By Jan. 3, St. Louis had the worst record in the NHL. Two days later, the Blues called up an unheralded goalie, 25-year-old Jordan Binnington. He won in a shutout in his first start and the turnaround was on.

St. Louis won a franchise-record 11 straight games and the Blues went from a team considering trading stars like Vladimir Tarasenko to a contender.

Kelly said she ran into Hull after the clinching game against San Jose. He hugged her and began to cry, she recalled.

She understood.

”I, along with this city, have been waiting our whole lives for this,” Kelly said.

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