Five things to look for in tonight’s Game 4

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Tonight’s Game 4 of the Stanley Cup finals arrives with intrigue pouring out of every possible angle you could draw up. After a Game 3 that saw vicious hits, tons of Boston goals, and lots of frustrated Canucks before and after the game there’s a lot of things Game 4 is going to tell us about how this series goes from here on out.

There’s a lot of different ways you could see happen tonight and we’ve got a list of five things to keep your eyes out for tonight.

1. Referee impact

We’ve seen so many different things happen in this series that’s required the attention of the officials and tonight’s referees Dan O’Halloran and Kelly Sutherland are going to have their hands full with all sorts of things to look for. The series has been overly physical and while everyone’s minds will be stuck on what happened with Nathan Horton and Aaron Rome and the various taunting, the officials have their marching orders to put that to an end should it occur again.

It will also be curious to see if any of the play around the goalies gets monitored right away. Tim Thomas’ physical play has the Canucks all up in arms and they want to see things straightened out there. O’Halloran and Sutherland will have to set the tone early about what sort of game they’re going to call. A loosely officiated one could lead to more dramatics.

2. The Replacements

With Nathan Horton out with a severe concussion and Aaron Rome out for delivering the blow, both teams will have guys to work into the lineup to fill holes in Game 4. Tyler Seguin will be back into the lineup after losing his sport to Shawn Thornton in Game 3. As for who takes Horton’s spot on the top line, you could see either Michael Ryder or Rich Peverley get the call there. Peverley took Horton’s spot there in Game 3 and played well while Ryder had a strong Game 3. Claude Julien may not want to move Ryder away from his Game 3 linemates however.

As for Vancouver, it’ll be Keith Ballard getting the nod to take Rome’s spot on the blue line. Ballard has a wealth of NHL experience but has struggled in dealing with Alain Vigneault’s choices on defense and has been passed over for the likes of Rome and even Chris Tanev at times this year. Vigneault is opting for experience this time around and Ballard will look to make it pay off.

3. Capitalizing on turnovers

Both teams have been excellent at making each other cough up the puck and while the Canucks did well to bury their chances in Games 1 and 2, it was all Boston in Game 3 as they pressured Vancouver’s defense into making bad plays and mishandling the puck, especially on the power play as they helped make the pairing of Christian Ehrhoff and Alex Edler look poor. While the Canucks had their chances off turnovers in Game 3, Tim Thomas helped stop them. We’ll see more of the high pressure defense from both teams and how they handle it may help determine the outcome of the game.

4. Home ice strikes back… In more ways than one

Remember how we were talking about how great road teams have played in the playoffs? So far in the finals the home teams have taken control winning all three games. Home teams are finally back on the right side of the ledger in the playoffs with a 45-40 record. The actual physical ice in TD Garden will be a topic of discussion as well.

After this morning’s skates there were complaints from some players that the ice was in bad shape. A concert was held last night here at TD Garden and today’s been abnormally warm in Boston which means we could see some strange bounces and slower moving pucks during the game. How it holds up later on in the game will be the real test.

5. How Vancouver bounces back

After such a beat down on the scoreboard and on the ice and all the complaining and politicking we’ve heard out of the Canucks since Game 3 ended, how they come back in Game 4 is going to be fascinating to watch. The last time we saw Vancouver take such a wicked beating in the playoffs, a 7-2 loss to Chicago in Game 4 in this year’s first round, they followed up in the next game by losing 5-0 which led to Cory Schneider starting in Game 6. We saw Vancouver get past all that by the skin of their teeth, but following up this beating in the finals with a similar stink bomb would change the focus of the series entirely.

Vancouver will need a better all-around game from Ryan Kesler and a more focused effort from Alex Burrows if they’re going to win this game and set up the potential of winning the Stanley Cup on home ice. Without that they’re in trouble.

The Buzzer: Jarnkrok, Atkinson post hat tricks; Karlsson gets first for Sharks

Associated Press
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Three stars

1. Cam Atkinson, Columbus Blue Jackets

Three goals for the hat trick and an assist to cap off a four-point night for Atkinson in a 4-1 win for the Blue Jackets against the Carolina Hurricanes. Not too shabby. Atkinson helped Columbus to its second-best start through 20 games in franchise history. The Blue Jackets have won three in a row and are sitting in the top spot in the Metropolitan Division.

Atkinson is rocking a four-game point streak now with six goals and nine points during that time. He’s currently on pace to eclipse the 40-goal mark, which would be a career-high. He had 35 two years ago.

Atkinson is now tied with Rick Nash for most hat tricks in franchise history at five.

2. Calle Jarnkrok, Nashville Predators

Jarnkork scored quite the hat trick himself on Saturday.

One of his goals came at even strength, another on the power play and one shorthanded. There should be a special name for that, like the hat-hat trick or something (terrible, right?) or maybe the three-phase hatty? I’m striking out.

Whatever ever way you slice it, it was no small feat. Since 2013-14, only seven players — including Jarnkrok — have done it. Not bad for your first hatty.

3. Aaron Dell, San Jose Sharks 

San Jose got a Dell on Saturday night, and it stopped 30 shots for his fourth career shutout in a 4-0 win against the St. L

Not a bad purchase.

Dell exacted a bit of revenge after he was between the pipes on Nov. 9 when the Sharks were blanked by the same Blues team 4-0 on Nov. 9.

Other notable performances:

  • The Edmonton Oilers and the Calgary Flames can both take a bow. What a game.
  • We almost need to create a ‘Mike Hoffman Streak Watch’ section or something like that. Regardless, the man pushed his point streak to 15 games on Saturday with a goal and an assist, extending the franchise record.
  • Carey Price is taking a beating in the media but he’s been solid over his past two games, including stopping 36-of-38 in a 3-2 win.
  • Henrik Lundqvist captured win No. 438 to pass Jacques Plante for seventh on the NHL’s all-time list.
  • Mark Stone had two goals in a 6-4 win for the Ottawa Senators over the slumping Pittsburgh Penguins.
  • Chris Kreider is a big reason why the New York Rangers are near the top of the Metropolitan Division. He had a three-point night, scoring and adding two assists.
  • Speaking of the Metropolitan, Sergei Bobrovsky stopped 30-of-31 and has now won in his past four appearances. His Blue Jackets are in first place.
  • The Buffalo Sabres are good. Rasmus Dahlin is also good and he had a goal and an assist to help the Buffalo Sabres to their fifth straight win.
  • Elias Pettersson scored again, so Vancouver can breathe again.
  • Erik Karlsson finally scored his first of the season in his 21st game, so San Jose can also stop holding its breath.
  • Jaroslav Halak continues to defy anyone and everyone’s expectations. He stopped 31 shots for his seventh win of the season. He’s got a .935 save percentage and a 2.07 goals-against average.

Highlights of the night

Erik Karlsson dropped his first goal with the San Jose Sharks. It was quite the rocket.

Jarnkrok’s hatty:

And Atkinson’s:

Factoids

Scores
Lightning 6, Flyers 5 (OT)
Red Wings 3, Devils 2 (OT)
Sabres 3, Wild 2
Canadiens 3, Canucks 2
Senators 6, Penguins 4
Rangers 4, Panthers 2
Blue Jackets 4, Hurricanes 1
Bruins 2, Coyotes 1
Predators 5, Kings 3
Flames 4, Oilers 2
Sharks 4, Blues 0


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Saturday’s Battle of Alberta was gloriously epic

Associated Press
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Hate.

At times on Saturday night at the Saddledome in Calgary, it seethed.

And it was glorious. Mightily, brilliantly, glorious.

Saturday night was alright for mayhem and the Battle of Alberta had it in droves.

A great game of hockey bookmarked massive hits, fights and hate. Did I mention hate?

The montage above was just first-period highlights.

Let’s recap:

  • The Leon Drasaitl hit on Matthew Tkachuk knocked the latter out of the game for a while
  • Nurse clearly threw another bomb after the linesmen go in between him Sam Bennett
  • Nurse was telling the linesman to let him and not in those exact words
  • Connor McDavid and Mikael Backlund wrestled

The hit that led to Nurse and Bennett scraping is here:

The hate resumed in the second period, because of course it did.

Milan Lucic was engaged in this game, a sight for sore eyes for Oilers fans.

Here’s a sample of that engagement:

Now, if Lucic can bottle that and take some sips before each game going forward…

Oilers Twitter seemed quite pleased with No. 27 during the game.

Calgary prevailed in the game, winning 4-2 after scoring four unanswered as the Oilers squandered a 2-0 lead.

Neither team started their struggling No. 1 netminders. David Rittich for Calgary was the better of the two backups in the game, stopping three breakaways in the game. Edmonton simply couldn’t douse the Flames, who kept it coming in the third frame when the Oilers started to fizzle out.

Bonus: For old times’ sake, here’s the scrap of all scraps in the Battle of Alberta:

John Tortorella would have been proud.

Let the hype begin for the next game in the famed series on Dec. 9 in Edmonton.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Soak it in: The Buffalo Sabres are good

Associated Press
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Remember when the Buffalo Sabres were bad?

The answer is we all do. You don’t have to go that far back in the annals of hockey history to find some woefully bad Sabres teams.

But those days of Buffalo being the butt-end of jokes and all of that sort of thing seem to be over with. The western New Yorkers aren’t simply toiling as an embarrassing team anymore. It’s been a bit of a process to turn the ship around, but the fruits of that labor seem to be flourishing so far this season.

Case and point: Buffalo has now cobbled together five straight wins, including triumphs over the Tampa Bay Lightning — tops in the Atlantic Division — and the Winnipeg Jets and Minnesota Wild, teams sitting second and third in the Central Division, respectively.

They’ve embraced the grind, have learned to weather storms and are still standing at the end of it.

In Winnipeg on Friday, the Sabres were outshot 12-4 in the first period and survived. In Minnesota on Saturday, they were again pelted in the opening frame, doubled up 18-9 on the shot counter, and still found a way to only be down by a single goal.

And in both games, they battled back in the third, tied the game and then won it late in regulation or in extra hockey, as was the case in Winnipeg. And they did it on back-to-back nights when you’d have forgiven them for packing it in early against Minnesota after Friday’s game, which needed 65 minutes and seven rounds of a shootout.

Summer acquisitions of Jeff Skinner and Carter Hutton have played massive roles in Buffalo’s ascent up the standings a month-and-a-half into the season.

Skinner has 14 goals and 21 points in 20 games this season after coming over from the Carolina Hurricanes.

Hutton is 4-0-0 in his past four games with a 1.42 goals-against average and a .950 save percentage.

Linus Ullmark is 4-0-1 in his backup role and Buffalo had the 11th best team save percentage coming into Saturday. 

Their penalty kill is in the top 10

Jason Pominville has turned back the clock with nine goals and 17 points thus far. Thirty-five years old and the wear and tear of 1,000 games? Pfft. Pominville is laughing at Father Time. 

And most importantly, they’re resilient.

“I just think we bent a little bit but we didn’t break,” Sabres head coach Phil Housley said after Friday’s win in Winnipeg. “I think last year we maybe would have broke a little more and gave the game away. We hung in there. That’s what’s great about this group, that they stick with it. We make some adjustments in between periods and they follow through with those adjustments. But it’s great for them, they’ve shown the resiliency up to this point in the season.”

The Sabres are simply an exciting team to watch these days and they’re positioning themselves to be in the playoff hunt, both this year and in the future.

Imagine that.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Chara’s month-long absence adds to Bruins’ blue line woes

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In a week where NHL injury news was seemingly non-stop, the Boston Bruins suffered another blow with the news that Zdeno Chara would be out indefinitely following a leg injury suffered Wednesday against the Colorado Avalanche. According to The Athletic’s Fluto Shinzawa, the captain is expected to miss the next 4-6 weeks.

The continued hits to the Bruins’ blue line saw them dress two players, Connor Clifton and Jakub Zboril, making their NHL debuts Friday during a 1-0 overtime loss to the Dallas Stars. Add in rookie Jeremy Lauzon and you had three defenseman on the ice with not even a combined 10 games of NHL experience. Along with Chara, Charlie McAvoy, Urho Vaakanainen, Brandon Carlo, Kevan Miller and John Moore were also absent.

This is something that head coach Bruce Cassidy has never experienced.

“No. Not this many at the same time,” Cassidy on Friday. “Clearly when you lose guys through the course of the year, five or six, but not at the same time. It will be a challenge, no doubt.”

Lauzon (24:52 TOI) and Matt Grzelcyk (25:27) made up the top pairing with Chara and McAvoy sidelined.

(Let’s also not gloss over that while Patrice Bergeron got banged up against the Stars and returned, there’s still plenty of concern about his status.)

The good news is that the blue line injury list could see fewer faces on it real soon. Cassidy said that Miller could be back Wednesday against the Detroit Red Wings. Any of Carlo, McAvoy or Vaakanainen may also be able to return to the lineup that night. The Bruins have three full days off after Saturday’s meeting with the Arizona Coyotes; plenty of time to recoup and possibly piece back together their defense corps.

In the meantime, the Bruins will rely on some of their kids to help them get through this stretch. It’ll be quite a period of evaluation.

“It’s the National Hockey League, you can either play in it or you can’t. We’ll find out with some of these guys,” said Cassidy. “Sometimes this is the best way to find out, that’s the positive in it. The negative is we’ve got a lot of good players out of the lineup back there. “If they want to play here it’s a great opportunity to show what they can do right now. That’s the way I look at it. This is kind of their dream to get here. Well, here you are, have at it.”

UPDATE: The Bruins say Chara’s injury is to his left MCL and he’ll be re-evaluated in four weeks. Moore and Bergeron are leaving the road trip and heading back to Boston for evaluation.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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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.