Jonas Hiller’s long road from cloudy unknown to world-class netminder

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The 2010-11 season was shaping up to be a dream season for Jonas Hiller. He was in the midst of a career year with a .926 save percentage and 2.50 goals against average going into the all-star break. It would be his first career all-star appearance—the only goaltender in the Western Conference to earn the honor in 2011. The sky was the limit.

Then it all faded to black. Actually, that’s not true. It was then that the room started spinning out of control.

It was during that fateful weekend in January where Hiller’s dream season turned into a mystifying nightmare. At some point, something had happened to the Swiss netminder that doctors, coaches, and even Hiller couldn’t explain. The official word from the Ducks was “vertigo-like symptoms,” which basically means the goaltender’s world was spinning and no one knew why.

Six months later he said he was better. Then the Ducks said he was clear to play. With the great news of the offseason and Hiller stepping up in training camp, some of the details of Hiller’s bout with vertigo are starting to come to light. It’s long been thought that something happened during the All-Star weekend to Hiller, but it was mostly hearsay. In fact, he played in two more games after the All-Star break before the Ducks put him on injured reserve. Still, there’s no doubt that the man who returned from Raleigh wasn’t the same, all-world goaltender who was the only Western Conference goaltender that earned a trip to the all-star game.

Ducks legend Teemu Selanne shared with Pro Hockey Talk that there was something wrong with Hiller from the moment he returned. Something very wrong.

“I saw it right away,” Selanne admitted. “I think I was one of the first guys that saw him after the all-star break—the first practice, the first one he was so lazy out there. He was sitting on his stall [for an] hour, just looking in one spot. I said, ‘God, there’s something wrong with this guy.’ Then he tried to play, he couldn’t focus. It was obviously tough because up to that point, I think he was the best goalie in the league. That’s what it takes to win in this league these days. When the goalie is struggling, that’s a bad sign.”

The most frustrating part for Hiller and the Ducks was the unknown. After appearing in two games after the symptoms appeared – he was pulled after giving three goals in 11 minutes in the first game – the Ducks shut him down while they tried to figure out what was wrong with their prized netminder. At the end of March, the organization gave him another shot to get back to the ice to see where he stood. The news wasn’t good.

After giving up three goals on nine shots in an important game in Nashville, Hiller was returned to the bench while Ray Emery and Dan Ellis held down the goaltending duties. Hiller battled throughout the stretch run (and eventually the playoffs) to return to the crease, but it wasn’t to be. Bobby Ryan got an up-close and personal look at the Swiss netminder:

“You could see it in his eyes. He was battling a little bit. I think I noticed it the most in the playoffs, having some suspension time and getting to skate with him a little more then and work with him one on one.”

He was eventually shut down for the rest of the season.

That brings us back to today. Watching him stone teammates in practice, you’d never know that he was the guy who missed the last two months of last season. In his first game back, Hiller stopped 21 of 22 shots against the Vancouver Canucks and earned the #1 star of the game. When Selanne talks about Hiller’s performance in Vancouver, his tone noticeably changes for the better. Then again, he also shares that he wasn’t so sure how his goaltender would react to a live-game situation:

“He was outstanding in that game. You know, before that, you never know how the guy is going to be before he starts playing games. Obviously, it’s a totally different situation when you have the pressure of the games bring on you. It was great relief for everybody to see him doing well—he played so well.

“It’s funny,” Selanne continued. “A couple days in practice when the team went to LA, we were doing the shootouts and shooting the pucks and he was almost like a wall. We thought he was better than ever! So that’s great. We all know how important goaltending is these days. When the goalie gives you a chance to win every night, that’s huge.”

Around the league, organizations are looking to find new players in training camp to add to their respective teams to improve their team. But in Anaheim, the best “new” player may end up being that familiar face who was battling the unknown for the last six months of his life. Not many teams can claim they added a world-class goaltender to a team that already made a playoff run at the end of last season.

Look out Western Conference: the Hiller of old looks like he’s back.

Vegas looks to continue fairy tale with conference title

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LAS VEGAS (AP) — Just saying the Vegas Golden Knights are one win away from advancing to the Stanley Cup Final has a magical ring to it.

But what’s even more mystical is thinking the Knights are a mere five wins from hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup in its inaugural season.

Five more wins, over a potential 10 games.

And while this might be a first-year team writing a fantastical Hollywood screenplay nobody could’ve scripted last summer when the roster was constructed, the NHL playoffs are nothing new to a core of characters in this cast.

Everybody knows about three-time Stanley Cup champion Marc-Andre Fleury, a key figure during Pittsburgh’s reign the last two years, and 10-year veteran James Neal, who was with Nashville for last year’s run to the final against the Penguins.

But between guys such as David Perron, Luca Sbisa, Deryk Engelland, Ryan Reaves, Reilly Smith, Cody Eakin and Tomas Tatar, the Golden Knights aren’t as new to the playoffs as people may believe.

The players’ individual postseason pedigree could be part of the reason the team is one game from clinching the Western Conference. Another reason is the eagerness of Fleury and Neal’s co-stars in this feel-good story.

”We don’t see ourselves as an expansion team for a long time now,” said Perron, a 13-year veteran who is playing in his seventh postseason. ”But at the same time, it’s always nice to keep proving people wrong and we know that even at this point, I don’t feel like people believe we’ll close it out. So, we’ve got to find a way.”

Coach Gerard Gallant has shown he has confidence in all his players, as they’ve all experienced pressure situations and performed well in all three round of the playoffs, including seven one-goal games. Not including Fleury’s 129 career playoff games, or Neal’s 94, the players who skated in Friday night’s 3-2 Game 4 victory now have a combined 489 games of postseason experience to their credit.

”It’s not new for those guys, I don’t think you get here if you don’t use your hockey players,” Gallant said. ”We’ve done it from Day One and there’s no reason not to use them because everybody competes, everybody battles and everybody’s a part of our team. That’s what we do. Guys work hard and compete hard and do your job and you’ll play. I feel comfortable putting most of our guys on the ice. There’s no issues there.”

And that’s because the Golden Knights have always done a good job of living in the moment, and not looking past each game.

Erik Haula spent his first four seasons in Minnesota and went to the playoffs every year, but it didn’t take long for him to realize he was with a special group of players.

”We got off to a great start, won two on the road (to open the season),” said Haula, who has three goals and four assists in the postseason. ”Right after that first home game, that was special. It was a special night for the whole community. Right there, I think we came together as a community, as a team. We never looked back. We just kept going.

”We just have a close group. We respect every single person in here. We need every single person in here.”

Luca Sbisa has been in the league nine years and been to the postseason five times. His presence on defense has bolstered the crew on the blueline, helping to neutralize Winnipeg’s depth on offense.

”Coming in I just wanted to help this team and do what I could, especially on the ice,” said Sbisa, who went to the playoffs in four of the five seasons he was with Anaheim. ”I wanted to give our team a chance to win every night and here we are. We can’t look too far ahead, you gotta take it one game at a time. If you think about the next game you’re probably going to shoot yourself in the foot. We just have to find the balance of being aggressive and being smart. It’s been a long and fun ride so far.”

The fun continues Sunday, when the Jets host Game 5 and will look to stay alive against the fairy tale Knights from Vegas.

”I would say that winning and having fun go hand-in-hand,” said Eakin, now in his seventh year and playing in his third postseason. ”I’ve been on a few teams that have been pretty good, won a few times. We know we got to play our best hockey. Especially this time of year, there’s not a team that is going to roll over and die.”

Maurice wants Jets to stay loose ahead of elimination game

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WINNIPEG, Manitoba (AP) — Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice wants the Jets to focus on fun, not the magnitude of Sunday’s game against the Vegas Golden Knights.

The expansion Golden Knights are up 3-1 in the best-of-seven Western Conference final and could eliminate the Jets and reach the Stanley Cup Final with a victory.

”These are the best games, always are, when everything is on the line,” Maurice said Saturday. ”Everybody will be at their most excited. You have to find a way, and it shouldn’t be very difficult, to love every minute of it. … This has to be your finest hour. Before the puck drops, I’m not talking about the play, be able to get your mind that this is the most fun game of the year now.”

The Jets have accomplished more in the playoffs than the Atlanta Thrashers franchise did before relocating to Manitoba in 2011. They’ve also surpassed the achievements of the original NHL Jets franchise that moved to Arizona in 1996.

As the current Winnipeg team eliminated the Minnesota Wild in the first round in five games and then bounced the Predators in a Game 7 in Nashville, fans from across the country have cheered on the only Canadian team left in the championship run.

Jets defenseman Ben Chiarot and his teammates have seen the adoration, particularly in Winnipeg with their white-clad crowd inside Bell MTS Place and thousands more outside at ”whiteout” street parties around the rink.

Now, though, isn’t the time to let the hopes of hockey fans weigh them down, he said.

”I don’t think you can think about that, how many people we have watching us,” Chiarot said.

”It’s a little daunting when you think of a whole province, or even the whole country, watching us play. So you just focus on what you do and the guys in the room and that’s all we focus on.”

Winnipeg won the first game against the Golden Knights at home.

The Jets had an NHL-best home record of 32-7-2 in the regular season and finished with nine straight victories at home. They added four more in the playoffs, but have lost three of their last four games at home.

In the last two losses to Vegas, the Jets gave up the first goal. When they did tie it up in both matches, the Golden Knights responded with goals in under a minute to regain their lead.

”It’s going to be really important, not only just to score the first, but just to have a good start,” Jets forward Andrew Copp said. ”We felt like we actually started OK last game, just kind of got in penalty trouble early. That can determine how it looks like you start.”

If the Jets can pull out a victory Sunday, Game 6 is Tuesday night in Las Vegas. A Game 7 would be Thursday night in Winnipeg.

Maurice wants his players to approach the do-or-die game like their Game 7 victory in Nashville.

”I want them to take their experience from Game 6 and 7 and create the environment they created there where they came out with an excitement and smile on their face,” he said. ”Going into Game 7, there’s as much pressure in that game as there was here, right? It’s the exact same game. This one is at home. We’ll need that crowd. They’ve been great for us.

”Both teams, all four teams now (left in the playoffs), there’s not quite as much in the tank as there was before. You’re looking to draw on that and go out with an excited smile.”

PHT’s Three Stars: Vasilevskiy, Callahan lead Lightning in Game 5

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1st Star: Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning

Vasilevskiy’s great play continued in Game 5 after a bit of a stumble to start the series. In making 28 saves, he helped the Lightning beat the Washington Capitals 3-2 to take a 3-2 series lead in the Eastern Conference Final. He’s now stopped 100 of the last 106 shots he’s faced. Tampa can clinch a berth in the Stanley Cup Final with a win Monday night in Game 6 (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

2nd Star: Ryan Callahan, Tampa Bay Lightning

Callahan had his biggest game of the playofs with a goal and an assist in the Tampa win. He first assisted on Cedric Paquette‘s opening goal 19 seconds into the game and followed that up with an early tally himself in the second period. His goal, which would end up standing as the game-winner, came just 33 seconds into the middle period.

3rd Star: Dan Girardi, Tampa Bay Lightning

The blue liner logged 19:34 during Game 5 and blocked a game high four shots, including one in the final minute on Alex Ovechkin to help preserve the lead.

[Quick-striking Lightning on verge of Stanley Cup Final berth]

Highlight of the Night:

John Carlson might have nightmares about this save by Vasilevskiy with seconds to go:

Factoid of the Night:

Sunday’s schedule: Vegas Golden Knights at Winnipeg Jets, 3 p.m. ET, NBC, live stream (Vegas leads series 3-1)

MORE:
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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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.

Quick-striking Lightning on verge of Stanley Cup Final berth

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You can’t spot a team a 3-0 lead and expect to win in the playoffs.

And while the Washington Capitals tried desperately to not fall victim to their own undoing earlier in the game, they simply ran out of time in a 3-2 loss on Saturday against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The Lightning now lead the best-of-7 series 3-2 as the series shifts back to D.C. for Game 6 on Monday. Tampa is 7-0 all-time in Washington in the playoffs and has now won three straight in the series after falling behind 0-2.

In the first period and into the second, the Capitals appeared to be the same old disappointing playoff team — they just delayed their arrival this season for an extra round.

[PHT’s Three Stars: Vasilevskiy, Callahan lead Lightning in Game 5]

This does look like vintage Capitals collapse, no?

Giving their opponents a 3-0 lead in just over 20 minutes, including allowing goals at 19 seconds of the first period (Cedric Paquette) and 33 seconds of the second period (Ryan Callahan), isn’t a winning formula.

Nor is your superstar getting exactly zero shots on goal for the first 58 minutes of the game.

Sure, Alex Ovechkin hit the bar earlier in the third period, and once he did get shooting, he found twine on his second shot of the game with 1:36 left and the net empty, but it was all too late in the end.

Tampa is now a team on the verge of a berth in the Stanley Cup Final and the Capitals on the brink of their yearly disappointing exit from the postseason.

A silver lining: Evgeny Kuznetsov keeps producing. But you’re not winning a conference final riding on the back of one player, as Washington is figuring out.

The urgency displayed in the third period from the Caps would be better used spread out over all three periods.

But perhaps most concerning for the Capitals is how Tampa found their stride 5-on-5.

They didn’t manage to win the puck possession battle (as per usual in this series) but they did have a nearly 3-to-1 edge on high-danger scoring chances for at 15-6.

All three of their goals came at 5-on-5 and they didn’t have to rely on their power play to get their offense rolling.

That will be interesting to watch in Game 6. Giving the Lightning a man-advantage was a death sentence. But if they’re scoring 5-on-5 as well, Washington is going to be in a world of hurt.

This isn’t helping either:

MORE:
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub


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