Kings court: L.A.’s five candidates for Conn Smythe

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First things first, the Stanley Cup Final is far from over. The Los Angeles Kings’ 3-2 overtime win against the New York Rangers in Game 1 showed that this series could be a lot closer than many fans and experts were expecting.

All that aside, if the Kings do win the Stanley Cup, voters are going to have a real hard time settling on one player from Los Angeles to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.

Five players have distinctly good cases to make to take home the hardware when it’s all said and done. Let’s take a look at the arguments for each of them.

Anze Kopitar — Kopitar leads the playoffs in points scored with 24. He’s been consistently great offensively all throughout the playoffs and he’s been equally strong, if not better, defensively. He’s shut down and outplayed Joe Thornton, Ryan Getzlaf, and Jonathan Toews and is working on Derek Stepan now. If great and consistent all-around play gets it done, he’s your guy.

Marian Gaborik — His 12 goals are tops in the postseason. He’s been everything the Kings have hoped for in helping them have a definitively threatening top line. Playing alongside Kopitar and captain Dustin Brown has helped drive the Kings offense since his arrival at the deadline. It’s not just goals either as he’s piled up 19 points, good for fifth overall in the postseason.

Jeff Carter — Carter has quietly caught up to Kopitar in points (23) and has ignited L.A.’s second line with Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli on his wings. His nine goals put him just behind Gaborik for tops in the playoffs and putting him back at center apart from Mike Richards has helped L.A. become impossible to deal with up the middle.

Justin Williams — You’re probably sick of hearing about his “clutch” play by now but… Can it really be argued anymore? His overtime winner in Game 1 and continued great play in Game 7s through the playoffs has turned him into a mythological character and cult hero in L.A. On top of all that he has 20 points in the playoffs. He’s not just showing up in big moments but all throughout the playoffs.

Drew Doughty — Doughty’s goal to make it 2-2 in Game 1 was something for the all-time highlight reels. His offensive output throughout the postseason has made him out to be a must-watch player and his 17 points make him the highest-scoring defenseman in the playoffs. Add that to his workload averaging nearly 28 minutes per game and matching up against the opponents top players nightly and you’ve got an MVP-like player.

We can’t stress enough that the series isn’t over and if the Rangers do win it’s probably Henrik Lundqvist who walks away with the Conn Smythe, but with an array of talent like this to wrangle, he and the voters will have their hands full.

Flames, Wild continue bad blood with three early fights

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When the Minnesota Wild and Calgary Flames met this past week all hell broke loose, resulting in a pair of suspensions to Flames teammates Mark Giordano and Ryan Lomberg.

Giordano was hit with a two-game suspension for kneeing Mikko Koivu, while Lomberg was suspended two games of his own for leaving the bench during a line change to start a fight with Wild defenseman Mathew Dumba. That fight was in response to a big hit by Dumba that injured Mikael Backlund.

A lot of that bad blood spilled over into Saturday’s 2-1 Flames win that featured three fights early in the first period.

Those fights started just 40 seconds into the game when Dumba found himself in a fight with Calgary’s Matthew Tkachuk.

Dumba ended up exiting the game after the first period and did not return. Wild coach Bruce Boudreau had no update on his status after the game except to say they would know more on Monday.

The fisticuffs did not stop there. Later in the period Giordano fought Minnesota’s Matt Hendricks.

But there was more! The most unexpected fight of the three featured Minnesota defenseman Ryan Suter, who has not been involved in a fight since the 2009 season, dropping the gloves with Sam Bennett

All of that happened in the first 18 minutes of the game.

But Giordano and Tkachuk did not just impact the game with their fists — they also scored goals.

Giordano continued what has been a  career year (and maybe even a Norris Trophy worthy season) by scoring a shorthanded goal mid-way through the first period to give the Flames an early 1-0 lead, while Tkachuk scored his 14th goal of the season in the third period to help give the Flames the win.

David Rittich also continued his surprising play in the Flames’ net by stopping 34 of the 35 shots he faced.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Penguins ready to welcome back Matt Murray, but Kris Letang’s status is in doubt

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PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Penguins are set to welcome back the one player that could significantly alter their 2018-19 season, and are also facing the possibility of being without the one player they may not be able to replace.

Matt Murray, the team’s regular starting goalie over the past two years, is expected to be back in the lineup on Saturday night for the first time since Nov. 17 when the team plays host to the Los Angeles Kings.

His return could potentially coincide with the loss of their top defenseman, Kris Letang.

Letang had to leave the Penguins’ 5-3 win over the Boston Bruins on Friday night with just under eight minutes to play in the third period after he found himself tangled up with Bruins forward Joakim Nordstrom and awkwardly fell to the ice. He struggled to make it back to the bench with an apparent leg injury, and then needed help getting down the tunnel from the team’s bench to the locker room.

When asked after the game if he had any update on Letang’s status, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan simply responded with “no” and gave no other details.

It is still not yet known what his status for Saturday’s game is, or if he will be sidelined for any length of time.

If he is, that would be brutal news for a Penguins team that is trying to play its way back into a solid playoff spot after an inconsistent start to the season. Letang has probably been their best, most irreplaceable player this season and has bounced back from a down 2017-18 season in massive way. He is playing more than 26 minutes per night at a Norris Trophy level. He already has 25 points in 30 games and fairly dominant numbers across the board, from his ability to generate shots, to his possession numbers, to the way he has played alongside his defense partner, Brian Dumoulin.

When asked about potentially losing Letang, Dumoulin said “Obviously it’s tough, we need that guy in the lineup.”

He is not wrong.

The Letang-Dumoulin duo has been one of the NHL’s best this season. During 5-on-5 play the Penguins are outscoring teams by a 28-14 margin when Letang and Dumoulin are on the ice, and controlling more than 57 percent of the total shot attempts and more than 58 percent of the scoring chances.

It is a night and day difference between them and their bottom-two pairings that are currently made up of Olli Maatta and Jamie Oleksiak on the second period, and Jack Johnson and Marcus Pettersson on the third. When Letang and Dumoulin are not on the ice together the Penguins’ goal differential drops to minus-1 while their shot attempt and scoring chance percentage all plunge to under 48 percent.

The common refrain from the Penguins on Friday night is that they have succeeded in Letang’s absence before, specifically during the 2016-17 season when they won the Stanley Cup with him missing the second half of the regular season and the entire postseason.

“We’ve done it before,” said Dumoulin. “We know we can do it. We’ve been carrying eight defensemen so far this year, everyone can play, everyone needs time and action and we want to just keep it simple as a defense corp if he is missing.”

“Because we think we have NHL defenseman,” said Sullivan when asked why he thinks the team would be able to succeed again if Letang has to miss time. “Juuso [Riikola] has played extremely well. Chad [Ruhwedel] is an NHL defenseman. He’s played for our team for a few years, he’s played in the playoffs, he’s won the Stanley Cup with us. These guys are NHL defensemen, and regardless of who is in our lineup we believe we have enough to win.”

Honestly, there is no other approach for the coaches and players to take. But looking at things objectively from an outside perspective it’s easy to see how that team was very fortunate to win without such an important player, and also how different this team is.

With Justin Schultz already sidelined (and he is still expected to miss a couple more months), the only defenders still left over from the 2017 Stanley Cup winning team are Maatta, Dumoulin, and Ruhwedel, the latter of which only appeared in six playoff games that year and has only been a role player this season.

This team also isn’t getting the same level of goaltending that 2017 received, and that was probably the biggest driving force behind that championship run.

Which brings us to the news of Murray’s likely return on Saturday.

Injuries and ineffectiveness have limited him to just 11 games this season and an .877 save percentage that is among the worst in the league. He was activated from injured reserve late in the week and backed up Casey DeSmith in the Penguins past two games, including for DeSmith’s 48-save performance on Friday night.

Overall DeSmith has done a fine job filling in, mixing in some spectacular saves and games with some rough patches as well. But if they are going to get back to the top of the NHL and compete for a championship again it is awfully hard to see them doing that without Murray playing some kind of a significant role in that.

Goaltending was one of the biggest factors in the Penguins’ early postseason exit a year ago (and some of their regular season struggles), and it’s played a role in their early struggles this season. Even if Murray and DeSmith end up splitting time they’re going to need strong performances from both no matter who is in the lineup on defense.

The position is going to take on even more importance if their top defender has to miss any extended time as they attempt to play their way out of their mediocre start.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

NHL offers clarification on obscure OT penalty on Blues’ Tarasenko

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Thanks to Ryan O'Reilly‘s shorthanded goal in overtime on Friday night the St. Louis Blues were able to win consecutive games for just the third time this season. A shorthanded goal in overtime is always noteworthy just because of the circumstances, especially when it lifts a team that has been struggling all season.

What made this one so fascinating for the Blues is why they were shorthanded in the first place.

Just 1:31 into the overtime period Blues forward Vladimir Tarasenko was whistled for using an illegal stick when he picked up a stick that originally belonged to defenseman Colton Parayko.

This resulted in a lot of confusion both during the game and the day after.

There is nothing in the rule book against using a teammates stick (it is actually quite common when a defender loses or breaks their stick during the flow of the game) but the NHL seems to have one very large exception when it comes to equipment — players that have been granted an exception to use an oversized stick because of their height.

Via NHL rule 10.1

No stick shall exceed sixty-three inches (63″) in length from the heel to the end of the shaft nor more than twelve and one-half inches (121/2″) from the heel to the end of the blade.

Requests for an exception to the length of the shaft (only) may be submitted in writing to and must be approved by the League’s Hockey Operations Department prior to any such stick being approved for use.

Only players 6’6” tall or more will be considered for exception. Maximum length of a stick granted an exception under this rule is sixty-five inches (65”).

Blues coach Craig Berube said after the game on Friday that the 6’6″ Parayko is one of the few players around the league that has one of those exceptions. Because of that it seemed to indicate that Tarasenko would be penalized for using it, and it was immediately called during the game with no challenge from the Avalanche or a measurement by the officials.

As we would find out on Saturday, this is not what the NHL wants to see happen in this situation.

Rutherford has a further statement from the NHL which admits the referees technically, by the letter of the law, got the call right, but that they don’t want to see it called in that situation.

From the NHL, via Rutherford:

“It is a minor penalty to play with an exempt stick so technically ref got it right. But the NHL does not want that penalty called in that situation. It does not want refs nor players to need presence of mind to know who’s using who’s stick or if it’s exempt during play. It could be penalized if the bench had handed Parayko’s stick to Tarasenko or if Tarasenko had returned for his next shift with it. But moving forward the NHL will only call a penalty under those circumstances when play is stopped and when challenged by opposition. Even if Colorado had challenged last night, the NHL would not want that to be called a penalty in the manner it unfolded.”

In other words, if it happens during the flow of the game — let it go.

Fortunately for the Blues it did not end up hurting them as O’Reilly scored the winning just 35 seconds later.

Parayko also scored two goals during the game.

This is the second obscure rule the Blues have been involved with in as many games this week.

In their previous game, a 4-3 come-from-behind win against the Florida Panthers, they had a goal disallowed on a weird play when a Robert Bortuzzo dump-in from center ice deflected off of referee Tim Peel and bounced into the net behind Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo. NHL 78.5 rule state that any apparent goal will be disallowed when it has been deflected directly into the net off of an official.

The Blues are back in action on Sunday afternoon against the Calgary Flames and it might be worth watching just to see what obscure rule has to be pulled out of the rule book.

(H/T Scouting The Refs)

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Sabres suspend Patrik Berglund indefinitely for failing to report to team

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The Buffalo Sabres announced on Saturday morning that the organization has suspended forward Patrik Berglund indefinitely for failure to report to the team. The Sabres said they will have no further comment on the suspension at this time.

This announcement comes after the 30-year-old forward missed the previous two games due what coach Phil Housley had called an illness. The Sabres are set to play the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals on Saturday evening and are looking to win their third game in a row.

Berglund was one of the players acquired by the Sabres over the summer in the blockbuster Ryan O'Reilly trade with the St. Louis Blues.

In 23 games with the Sabres this season he has two goals, two assists, is a minus-five, and had been averaging around 14 minutes of ice-time per game. Before he missed the previous two games he had been stuck in a 10-game point drought. The last time he found the scoresheet was the Sabres’ win over the Ottawa Senators back on November 3 when he scored a goal and recorded an assist.

He scored 17 goals and nine assists in 57 games for the Blues a season ago.

Berglund is in the second year of a five-year, $19.250 million contract that carries a salary cap hit of $3.85 million per season and includes a modified no-trade clause.

The Sabres have been one of the NHL’s biggest surprise teams this season with a 19-9-4 record entering play on Saturday, good enough for third place in the Atlantic Division and a 10-point cushion over the non-playoff teams in the Eastern Conference. This is all happening after they finished the 2017-18 season with the worst record in the league for the third time in five seasons. Along with Berglund, the Sabres also acquired Tage Thompson and Vladimir Sobotka in the O’Reilly trade, while also adding Jeff Skinner, Conor Sheary, and Carter Hutton and selecting defenseman Rasmus Dahlin with the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. Their 42 points on the season are currently tied for the fourth most in the league.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.