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.

Thompson nets 4 in 1st, 5 overall, as Buffalo tops Columbus

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Russell LaBounty/USA TODAY Sports
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COLUMBUS, Ohio — Tage Thompson matched an NHL record by scoring four times in the first period and finished with five goals and an assist as the Buffalo Sabres won their third straight road game, 9-4 over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday night.

Thompson is the second U.S.-born player to score five goals in a game. He is the fourth player in NHL history to record four goals in the first period of a regular-season game, joining Peter Bondra (1994), Grant Mulvey (1982) and Joe Malone (1921). He is also the fourth active player to score five goals in a game, joining Timo Meier (Jan. 17, 2022), Mika Zibanejad (March 5, 2020) and Patrik Laine (Nov. 24, 2018).

“It’s definitely a rewarding feeling,” Thompson said. “You’ve spent a lot of years working to get to this point and to be rewarded for it is a pretty good feeling and it just leaves you hungrier.”

Thompson’s outburst helped Buffalo score six times in the first 16:40.

“That was an amazing performance by Tage, and really, the whole group set the table,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “I thought the energy, the collective effort, the focus to start was really good and enabled that to happen.”

Alex Tuch had a goal and three assists, Dylan Cozens added a power-play goal and two assists and Rasmus Dahlin finished with a goal and two assists. Peyton Krebs also scored. Jeff Skinner picked up four assists and Jacob Bryson had two. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen stopped 20 shots.

Patrik Laine and Gustav Nyquist each scored twice for Columbus.

Joonas Korpisalo stopped two shots before being pulled in the first in favor of Elvis Merzlikins, who stopped 15 shots through the second period. Korpisalo returned in the third and finished with six saves.

Columbus has lost six straight home games and five of its last six overall.

“We didn’t have an answer for that one line,” Blue Jackets coach Brad Larsen said. “Tage Thompson just tore us up tonight.”

Buffalo dominated from the puck drop, scoring four goals on its first six shots.

Cozens put the Sabres on the board at 3:21 of the first, 53 seconds into a Blue Jackets penalty, and Thompson made it 2-0 just 2:09 later. Dahlin scored Buffalo’s third goal at 7:28 of the first, driving Korpisalo from the net in favor of Merzlikins, who gave up Buffalo goal No. 4 to Thompson 32 seconds later.

Thompson’s third career hat trick and second of the season came on a power-play goal at 12:22 of the first. He followed with his fourth goal, also on the power play, at 16:40.

Columbus scored two goals in just over a minute, with Laine at 10:49 and Nyquist at 12:04, before Buffalo reeled off three straight in just over three minutes to end the period, including Thompson’s fifth, and goals by Krebs and Tuch.

Laine and Nyquist scored in the third period for Columbus.

STREAKING

Cozens has 12 points in his last five games and is riding a career-best, five-game point streak. Thompson has eight goals and five assists in his last five games and 10 multi-point games. Dahlin has a five-game point and assist streak, and Gaudreau stretched his points streak to six games.

NOTES: The Sabres joined the Kraken as the second team this season to score nine goals in a game. … Thompson is the second player in Buffalo history to have five goals in a game, joining Dave Andreychuk, who had five goals and an assist on Feb. 6, 1986.

UP NEXT

Buffalo: Hosts Pittsburgh on Friday.

Columbus: Hosts Calgary on Friday.

Ovechkin, Strome lead Capitals past struggling Flyers 4-1

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Eric Hartline/USA TODAY Sports
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PHILADELPHIA — Alex Ovechkin scored two empty-net goals, Dylan Strome had a goal and an assist and the Washington Capitals defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 4-1 on Wednesday night.

T.J. Oshie also scored for the Capitals, who finished 3-3 on a six-game trip. Charlie Lindgren made 29 saves.

Kevin Hayes scored for Philadelphia, which has lost 13 of 15 games. Carter Hart made 23 stops.

Strome broke a 1-all tie with 10:41 remaining when he deflected John Carlson‘s shot from long range past Hart.

Hayes had a golden opportunity to tie it on a Philadelphia power play, but Lindgren made a great right pad save on a try from close range with 8:20 remaining.

Ovechkin iced it, scoring into an empty net with 1:35 left and adding another empty-netter with 8.2 seconds left for his 15th of the season. Ovechkin has 795 career goals, good for third all-time. He is six goals away from tying Gordie Howe for second place. Wayne Gretzky, with 894 goals, tops the list.

Hayes scored his ninth goal of the season for his team-leading 28th point with 4:14 left in the first period to give the Flyers a 1-0 lead. Hayes rushed to the bench after breaking his stick on a slap shot attempt, and scored on a wrist shot from the high slot with his new stick.

The Flyers had a power-play goal for the third straight game and have four overall in that stretch. Philadelphia, which began play ranked 30th in the NHL in scoring on the man advantage, now has converted 16.7% (14 of 84) of its chances.

Oshie tied it 3:51 into the second on the Capitals’ fourth power play as the Flyers continued to take sloppy penalties. This time, James van Riemsdyk committed Philadelphia’s third tripping minor of the game. Oshie made them pay with his fifth goal of the season when he finished a nifty passing sequence with Strome and Evgeny Kuznetsov with a perfectly placed one-timer over Hart’s left shoulder.

NOTES: Van Riemsdyk returned after missing the last 20 games due to a broken right index finger. . Flyers forward Tanner Laczynski was placed on injured reserve after departing midway through the third period of Monday’s 5-3 win over Colorado with what looked like an injury to his left leg. . Washington was without several injured players, including starting goalie Darcy Kuemper (upper body). Kuemper was with the team, but missed his second in a row. . Carlson had two assists. . Philadelphia’s Cam Atkinson, out all season with an upper body injury, has been practicing and is close to returning.

UP NEXT

Capitals: Host Seattle on Friday night.

Flyers: Open four-game trip at Vegas on Friday night.

Penguins prospect Sam Poulin taking leave of absence

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Jeanine Leech/Getty Images
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PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins forward prospect Sam Poulin is taking a leave of absence from the club’s American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

Penguins general manager Ron Hextall announced on Wednesday that the 21-year-old Poulin, Pittsburgh’s first-round pick in the 2019 draft, is stepping away due to “personal reasons.”

“The Penguins support Sam’s decision to take time away from hockey to focus on himself,” Hextall said in a release. “As with all of our players, our priority is them as individuals first. We look forward to having him back with the team when he is ready.”

Hextall said Poulin will return home to Quebec and continue to work out on his own.

Poulin made his NHL debut in October and had one assist in three games before heading back to the AHL. Poulin had four goals in 13 games for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton at the time of his decision.

Nathan MacKinnon sidelined about a month with upper-body injury

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DENVER — The injury-riddled Colorado Avalanche will be without leading scorer Nathan MacKinnon for about a month after he suffered an upper-body injury in a loss to Philadelphia.

The team announced the news on social media.

MacKinnon has eight goals and 26 assists for a team-best 34 points this season for the defending Stanley Cup champions. He joins a long list of banged-up players, including Valeri Nichushkin, Evan Rodrigues, Bowen Byram, Kurtis MacDermid, Josh Manson, Darren Helm and captain Gabriel Landeskog. Forward Artturi Lehkonen also missed the game in Philadelphia.

The 27-year-old MacKinnon signed an eight-year extension in August. He was coming off a postseason in which he tied for the league lead with 13 goals, helping the Avalanche raise their third Stanley Cup in franchise history.