Head games: While Luongo’s psyche is in question, is Thomas in Canucks’ heads?

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One thing that traditional writers love (and stats-leaning bloggers often despise) is the concept of the “mental game” in sports. While it seems like a lot of people grossly exaggerate ideas like “choking” and “being rattled,” the undeniable fact is that human beings are involved. (Yes, even the seemingly robotic Sedin twins count in that category.)

Sometimes that brings about the most fragile of human emotions, factors that are seemingly playing a big part in the 2011 Stanley Cup finals.

It’s tough to deny the pivotal moment of motivation that came for the Boston Bruins after that ugly Aaron Rome hit on Nathan Horton, whether that motivation was manifested in sheer anger, bold inspiration or a combination of the two.

After being outscored 12-1 in those two mind-blowing beat-downs in Beantown, it’s reasonable to wonder about the collective psyche of the Presidents Trophy-winning Vancouver Canucks too. The questions naturally begin with their probable Game 5 starter Roberto Luongo. Some goalies have the mindset to shake off every mistake as if they never happened, but Luongo occasionally falls into a habit of letting a soft goal or two to derail him like a train in a middling popcorn movie.

Justin Goldman captured Luongo’s seemingly frail psyche in his NHL.com column.

From the drop of the puck, I could see Luongo’s body language was off. His legs looked heavy. Instead of exuding confidence, he appeared passive and complacent. It was not an easy start to Game 4 for either goaltender though, as choppy plays and missed chances forced both goalies to battle hard to track the puck and stay square.

(snip)

On Peverley’s goal, Luongo proved that solid technique is an extension of solid confidence. Without the poise and patience of a confident goalie, Luongo’s technique appeared flawed. A strong mind is the source of a strong save.

In a game where there’s simply no time to appear fragile, Luongo relinquished three more goals that proved he was not alert or attentive enough to bounce back. This is where things went wrong for Vancouver’s leader — he simply failed to play with the confidence he had in Games 1 and 2.

While Luongo’s miserable play inspires all kind of questions from Vancouver fans – and plenty of confidence for Boston shooters – the opposite is true of Tim Thomas vs. the Canucks. Thomas allowed just one goal in two games at home after being mostly stout in Vancouver (he only allowed five goals in the first four games of this series). Even in defeat, Thomas has been a tough nut to crack, inspiring many to wonder if the highlight reel machine of a goalie is in the Canucks’ heads.

Naturally, they denied the idea.

“Not at all,” Daniel Sedin said when he was asked if Thomas is in the Canucks’ heads. “There are a few games left. There is nothing like that going on. We have to find a way to solve him. He’s not in our heads, but we have to find a way to solve him.”

To some extent, I believe Sedin for a simple reason: I don’t think expectations or opposing goalies do much to alter the Sedin twins’ style. For better or worse, Henrik Sedin will almost always pass and the duo will almost always create nice scoring chances. The key is for Daniel Sedin to get to the slot and for the two (along with Alexandre Burrows) to penetrate the defense rather instead of floating on the perimeter. They managed to have their way against the San Jose Sharks, but tighter checking defenses have given them fits with discouraging frequency throughout the playoffs.

Maybe Thomas isn’t in Vancouver’s heads, but could the bruising, opportunistic Bruins be as a whole?

Whether they win or lose this series, we’ve already seen that Boston will roll with the punches. Despite overcoming serious challenges already, the Canucks are once again placed in a situation where their toughness is in question. We’ll learn a lot about Luongo and this Vancouver team as this series boils down to a best-of-three. It doesn’t take a strong mind to figure that one out.

The Buzzer: Stars Wars Storm Surge; Bob beats Blue Jackets

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Three Stars

1. Sebastian Aho, Carolina Hurricanes

Heading into Saturday, Aho only scored in one goal (a goal and an assist) in his past five contests. He made up for that dry spell in a big way against the Wild, generating a hat trick plus two assists.

His third goal was an empty-netter, but Aho’s first tally ended up being the game-winner. Aho was really clicking with Teuvo Teravainen, who finished the night with three assists.

Aho now has 27 points through his first 30 games in 2019-20.

2. Alex Killorn, Tampa Bay Lightning

The Lightning made life miserable for the Sharks on Saturday, feasting by way of a 7-1 score.

Killorn was a big part of that, generating a goal and three assists for four points. Killorn now has three goals and three assists for six points during a three-game streak, giving Killorn 22 points in 25 games in 2019-20.

As effective as Killorn has been over the years, his career-high is 47 points. Chances are, he’s going to slow down (example a 15.7 shooting percentage so far this season, against a 10.5 career average), but if reasonably healthy, Killorn should blow that previous number out of the water.

There were other Lightning players who played really well, as you’d expect from a blowout. Steven Stamkos ranked among those who collected three points, while Andrei Vasilevskiy made 37 saves to exaggerate the distance between the two teams.

3. Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins

Really, you can take your pick between Malkin and Jake Guentzel, as they both enjoyed one-goal, two-assist nights on Saturday, and they both clearly play off each other quite well. As much as Guentzel has been conjoined to Sidney Crosby during his young (and underappreciated) career, it seems like he can click with Malkin, too. Obviously, it’s not difficult to transition from one “NHL 100” player to another who should have made the “NHL 100,” yet … we’ve seen wingers who cannot find chemistry with one or more of Malkin and Crosby. So credit to Guentzel for being deadly with both, and likely making life a little easier for each of them.

Malkin now has a fantastic 26 points in just 19 games, and may very well have his biggest year in a while if he can stay healthy — an uncomfortably familiar phrase for the Penguins for quite some time. (Heck, even spanning back to Mario Lemieux.)

Guentzel now has 31 points in 30 games, and a solid chance to exceed last season’s excellent career-high of 76 points.

Highlight of the Night

Uh, you think the Kings were expecting Johnny Gaudreau to pass when he did? (Don’t lie.) This is just a tremendous combination of speed, skill, and vision as he set up Sean Monahan:

Star Wars Storm Surge

Yay or nay on the Star Wars-themed Storm Surge from the Hurricanes? I’d say solid enough, although it lacked a Bunch of Baby Yoda so … maybe not ideal.

Factoids

  • The Blue Jackets spoiled Sergei Bobrovsky‘s shutout bid a bit more than halfway through the third period. Still, Bob had a strong night with 33 saves. Hot take: Columbus is still probably relieved to not be spending to the tune of Bob’s $10M AAV, considering how infrequently Bob has looked this good.
  • NHL PR notes that the Avalanche extended a point streak to 14 games, while they also gave the Bruins their first regulation loss at home this season.
  • Brady Tkachuk received a fine from the Department of Player Safety for cross-checking Scott Laughton. More on that wild game here.
  • A bit esoteric, but interesting, from NHL PR: Jack Eichel and Connor McDavid are the fifth pair to generate at least 300 points each in 320 games or fewer. They’re the first pairing to pull that off since Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin.

Scores

PHI 4 – OTT 3
VAN 6 – BUF 5 (OT)
COL 4 – BOS 1
PIT 5 – DET 3
TBL 7 – SJS 1
FLA 4 – CBJ 1
CAR 6 – MIN 2
TOR 5 – STL 2
NSH 6 – NJD 4
DAL 3 – NYI 1
CGY 4 – LAK 3

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.

P.K. Subban gets a warm tribute during his return to Nashville

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It would have been silly for Nashville Predators fans to boo P.K. Subban during his return to “Smashville.”

Subban didn’t choose to be traded from Montreal to Nashville, and he didn’t elect to be sent from Nashville to the New Jersey Devils, either.

Sports fans aren’t always so rational, though. Really, it makes sense: spending so much money, time, and emotional energy on a game isn’t exactly the most rational thing to do. So there was some concern about how Subban would be received, especially since he’s already booed in an honestly uncomfortably large number of NHL arenas already.

Subban and others can breathe a sigh of relief, though, as while not everyone greeted Subban with open arms in as literal a way as Roman Josi did with their hug on Saturday, the team gave Subban a fantastic welcome back tribute video:

Not only does that video include some of Subban’s great moments during his three seasons with the Predators (that Stanley Cup Final appearance, a Norris Trophy win), it also captures some of the off-the-ice qualities that make Subban so fun and entertaining (and make people sometimes get perplexingly, maybe troublingly mad about him). He got up and decided to sing some Johnny Cash upon arriving in Nashville, was a fantastic charitable presence, and was a lot of fun.

(No Listerine was spilled in the making of the ad, but you can’t have it all.)

Anyway, good on the Predators and their fans for welcoming P.K. back.

As a reminder, Montreal Canadiens fans greeted him with love upon his return, too:

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.

Avs’ rising star Cale Makar shaken by hit from Bruins’ Marchand

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The Colorado Avalanche have done a masterful job, for the most part, when it comes to rolling with injury-related punches to key players such as Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog. They have to hope that Saturday didn’t send another such haymaker their way.

Rising star defenseman Cale Makar (who just fell under a point per game on Saturday with 28 in 29 contests) was clearly shaken up by a hard hit by Boston Bruins forward Brad Marchand.

It didn’t seem like a heinous hit by Marchand, although there are some who wonder if it was a bit high.

Either way, Makar’s reaction is troubling. You can see him shake his head multiple times following the hit, which gives the impression that he could have suffered a concussion. That doesn’t guarantee that Makar did, but it’s a situation to watch — and one the Avalanche should absolutely be careful about.

The Avalanche ended up beating the Bruins 4-1 on Saturday.

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.

Laila Anderson, bone marrow donor attend Blues game

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If it got a “little dusty” at the Enterprise Center in St. Louis on Saturday, that’s understandable, because the continued story of Laila Anderson meeting Kenton Felmlee, her bone marrow donor, is sure to make most get a case of heightened allergies.

(Is that a leak from the ceiling? /Sobs)

Anyway, Felmlee was Anderson’s guest during Saturday’s Toronto Maple Leafs – St. Louis Blues game, giving the two another chance to bond, and beyond that, for Anderson to thank Felmlee for helping her in her battle with the rare immune disease HLH.

It’s great stuff, even if the actual Blues game isn’t going so great for St. Louis.

This longer clip from their first meeting earlier this week is worth watching, unless you don’t want people to see you openly weeping’n’stuff:

(Personally, I’d say it’s worth it.)

MORE ON LAILA ANDERSON AND THE BLUES:

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.