Panthers squeak by Islanders in SO to stay on Bruins’ heels

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The Boston Bruins pulled off a dramatic comeback against the Philadelphia Flyers this afternoon, putting the pressure on the Florida Panthers to beat the Metropolitan Division-leading New York Islanders just to keep pace. The Panthers didn’t make it look easy, but they got two points in a 4-3 shootout victory.

Without defenseman Aaron Ekblad and forward Tomas Kopecky (both flu), the Panthers leaned heavily on 35-year-old Brian Campbell and 43-year-old Jaromir Jagr, giving them 26:18 and 21:12 minutes of ice time respective. However, it was ultimately Jonathan Huberdeau, 21, that proved to be the hero tonight.

He netted a key goal for the Panthers in the third period and accounted for the only marker in the shootout.

The Panthers also had Dan Ellis playing between the pipes as goaltenders Roberto Luongo and Al Montoya are both sidelined. Ellis kicked out 25 of 28 shots before out dueling Frans Nielsen, John Tavares, and Josh Bailey in the skills competition.

Florida improved to 29-23-14 to remain two points shy of the Bruins in the battle for the second Wild Card spot. It’s worth noting though that Boston has a huge lead in ROW (30 to 22), so any tie is projected to go to the Bruins.

Blues vs. Bruins: Three questions about the Stanley Cup Final

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Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues.

1. Will Binnington join ranks of other rookie Cup winners?

Ken Dryden. Matt Murray. Patrick Roy. Cam Ward. Jordan Binnington? If he helps lead the St. Louis Blues to the Stanley Cup title, he will become the fifth rookie goaltender to achieve that feat. We already know about his integral role in the team’s turnaround this season, and his strong play has continued into the postseason.

Binnington has already set the Blues franchise record for wins in a single postseason (12), and if he should win four more, he would be the first rookie in NHL history to win 16 games in a single playoff. A Calder Trophy finalist, he’s posted a .926 even strength save percentage en route to the fourth and final series.

2. Is there any way to slow “The Perfection Line?”

Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak lead the Bruins in scoring and enter the Cup Final coming off a dominant Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Final where they combined for eight points against the Carolina Hurricanes. Marchand is up to 18 points this postseason and is sure to surpass his career high of 19 which was set when during the team’s Cup run in 2011. He’s been so productive this spring that he can become the ninth player in franchise history to record a point per game in consecutive playoffs after he tallied 17 points in 12 games last season.

Pastrnak, meanwhile, needs five points to become the fourth active NHLer to record multiple 20-point playoffs before turning 24 years old. The other three are all Pittsburgh Penguins — Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jake Guentzel.

One more point for Bergeron would give him 100 career points and another goal would tie him with Johnny Bucyk for fourth on the Bruins’ all-time playoff goals list. He’s currently the NHL leader with six power play goals this postseason. He’s also three power play markers away from tying the NHL record held by Mike Bossy (1981) and Cam Neely (1991).

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

3. Will special teams be the difference?

The Bruins’ power play has been dominant through three rounds, entering the Cup Final clicking at a 34% success rate. The Blues’ man advantage units have been fine, but are far behind Boston at 19.4%. The Bruins scored at least one power play goal in their four-game sweep in the conference final and tallied seven total against the Hurricanes. St. Louis saw their extra man unit finish the Western Conference Final strong going 5-for-15 over their last four games.

Bergeron leads the Bruins with six power play tallies, while Vladimir Tarasenko is tops for the Blues with five.

The Bruins have also been strong on the penalty kill, killing off 86.3% of power play chances by their opponents. During their current seven-game winning streak they’ve killed off 23 of 24 power play opportunities.

STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW
Who has the better special teams?
Who has the better forwards?
Who has the better defensemen?
X-factors
PHT Power Rankings: Conn Smythe favorites
How the Blues were built
How the Bruins were built
Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

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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.

Experience was necessary in Cassidy’s evolution as NHL head coach

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Bruce Cassidy’s first impression as an NHL head coach did not go over well with his players.

At 37, Cassidy was the youngest head coach in the league when the Washington Capitals hired him in 2002. He was entering a difficult situation for someone with no experience at that level. Walking into a dressing room with veterans like Peter Bondra, Sergei Gonchar, Jaromir Jagr, Robert Lang, Michael Nylander, and Olaf Kolzig, among others, and trying to lead a team that had just missed the postseason was a tough situation to be in.

And so, as the 2003 Washington Post story goes following his firing, Cassidy’s greenness in the coaching realm was clearly evident.

“It was bad right from the start,” an anonymous Capital told Jason LaCanfora. “He pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket and started writing stuff on the blackboard. Everyone was just kind of looking at each other. We didn’t know what was going on. It looked like he was winging it. He had all summer to prepare for this day and it looked like he didn’t know what he was doing. Guys started to worry right away.”

Cassidy’s Capitals made the playoffs his first season, but the 2003-04 season would be the end of his time there. After 28 games and an 8-16-1 record, he was fired. Between the record and the growing discord between the head coach and his players, the relationship wasn’t going to last the entire season. 

In fact, the coaching change was made a week after Cassidy apologized for wondering aloud if the family lives of his players was affecting his play. This was a Capitals team that featured Kolzig, who’s son is autistic; Brendan Witt, who’s wife had a life-threatening battle with sepsis; and Jason Doig, who’s wife had recently given birth.

Those comments, which were the final straw for many Capitals players, did not sit well in the room.

“I just don’t think he ever understood the level of professionalism it takes to coach in this league,” one player told LaCanfora. “All of the little things matter.”

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Fast forward 15 years and Cassidy is in his fourth stop as a hockey coach since those forgetting days in D.C. After being dismissed by the Capitals he was an assistant coach for the Chicago Blackhawks for the 2005-06 season before moving on to take the head coaching job with the Kingston Frontenacs of the Ontario Hockey League. In 2008 he joined the Bruins’ American Hockey League affiliate in Providence as an assistant and was promoted before the 2011-12 season to head coach. He quickly improved the AHL Bruins and was named one of Claude Julien’s assistants in 2016. Just 27 games into that season Julien was fired and he was handed a second opportunity.

Looking back now at his 107 games in charge of the Capitals, Cassidy admits he wasn’t comfortable being such a young head coach for a veteran group. “To be honest, all I learned was I’m a lot more comfortable in my own skin now than I was then,” he said this week. “I was young. I really had no NHL experience.”

There was so much experience in that Capitals room that Cassidy was intimidated, unable to take charge and be a leader — vital traits for any head coach.

“These guys have been around, so it probably took me a while to just walk in there, be comfortable and say, ‘This is what we’re doing today,’ and still have the confidence and still be a good communicator while you’re doing that,” he said.

It was a familiar situation when Cassidy took over for Julien in 2017, though the 4,808 days between getting the Capitals’ and Bruins’ gigs allowed for plenty of personal growth. When he walked into that Bruins dressing room for the first time as boss, again there was that abundance of experience staring him right back in the face. Scanning the room, the name plates above the stalls read Backes, Bergeron, Chara, Krejci, Marchand, Rask. Stanley Cup rings and thousands of NHL games under their belts — another veteran team, except this time he was better prepared.

“When you’re around the game for an extra 15 years, you learn stuff,” Cassidy said. “Different ways to communicate, different ways to see the game, how to delegate, how to use your staff, how to use your top-end players to help you find that common goal. I think that was the biggest difference. A lot of newness back then. This time around there’s a lot more experience at this level.”

That experience has paid off. Under Cassidy, the Bruins have a 61% win percentage (117-52-22) and have accumulated the second-most points (256) in the NHL. They made the playoffs in each of his three seasons in charge, with at least one extra round added each year, culminating in this Cup Final appearance, the franchise’s first since 2013.

The skills Cassidy acquired and improved upon since his first time as an NHL head coach have been aided by a Bruins team that has a strong core, talented leadership, and a buy-in attitude of his players.

“I think this leadership group is second to none and I don’t know if I’ll ever have, wherever this career takes me, a group like this to work with,” he said. “I’ve said that since probably the second I got the job here. Those guys are fantastic and they sure make a coach’s job a lot easier.”

STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW
Who has the better forwards?
Who has the better defensemen?
Who has better goaltending?
Who has the better special teams?
X-factors for Bruins, Blues

PHT Power Rankings: Conn Smythe favorites
Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

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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.

After half-century of frustration, Blues can exorcise demons

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ST. LOUIS (AP) — Stanley Jackson and buddy Steven Crow can be excused if they tend to watch their beloved St. Louis Blues with their hands over their eyes, just waiting for the next thing to go wrong.

So when the Blues beat the San Jose Sharks in Game 6 to earn their first berth in the Stanley Cup Final since 1970, a rematch with the Boston Bruins 49 years in the making, the two old friends couldn’t hold back.

”We were like two 9-year-olds,” Jackson, 52, said. ”We were hugging and jumping. We were crying like babies.”

There’s a lot of that going around in St. Louis. After all, few sports fans anywhere have suffered like Blues fans.

The franchise has shown a remarkable ability to tease but ultimately disappoint – missing the playoffs just nine times but never winning the Cup. Management lost three coaches who went on to win 16 Stanley Cup championships. The Blues would have abandoned St. Louis in the 1980s but the new destination was a Canadian outpost so obscure the NHL wouldn’t allow it.

It’s been a wild ride, and Susan Kelly has had a front-row seat.

Kelly, a 55-year-old lawyer, is the daughter of Dan Kelly, the legendary hockey broadcaster who called Blues games until his death in 1989. She inherited his love for the sport and the team, attending every home game with her 82-year-old mom. In fact, Kelly pulled out of an African safari so she won’t miss the final that starts Monday in Boston.

”It was a no-brainer,” Kelly said. ”I bought the trip insurance just for this reason.”

Despite their checkered past, the Blues have a rabid, devoted fan base, even as they share a city with baseball’s beloved and storied Cardinals. Devotion to the hockey team only grew in 2016 when the NFL’s Rams bolted for Los Angeles. Now, it’s not uncommon for Cardinals stars such as Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright to show up at a Blues game.

The Blues’ best run of success came right off the bat. The NHL doubled in size to 12 teams in 1967 and put all six expansion teams in one division, guaranteeing one of them would reach the Stanley Cup Final.

St. Louis loaded the roster with aging veterans, including eventual Hall-of-Fame goaltenders Glenn Hall and Jacques Plante, and it worked – kind of: The Blues made the final their first three seasons but were swept every time – by Montreal in 1968 and 1969 and by the Bruins in 1970, where Bobby Orr’s series-winning overtime goal came just after he was tripped by St. Louis’ Noel Picard, resulting in the iconic photo of Orr seemingly flying through the air.

Maybe that trip was bad karma – until now, the Blues hadn’t come close to returning to the final, a fact made even more remarkable because they’re almost always in the playoffs, including 25 straight seasons starting in 1979.

So star-crossed is the franchise that what is widely considered the greatest game in Blues history was a prelude to disappointment. Dubbed the ”Monday Night Miracle,” the Blues trailed Calgary 5-2 with 12 minutes to play in Game 6 of the 1986 Western Conference final, tied it with a frantic rally and won it on Doug Wickenheiser’s goal 7:30 into overtime.

Naturally, they lost Game 7.

Adding to the angst for fans is what could have been. The Blues were eliminated from the playoffs one year despite having both Wayne Gretzky and Brett Hull on the team. Hull, Brendan Shanahan and T.J. Oshie are among countless stars who became champions after leaving St. Louis.

The Blues also gave up too soon on some of the best coaches in NHL history. Scotty Bowman won a combined nine Stanley Cup titles with Montreal, Pittsburgh and Detroit after he left St. Louis in a dispute with management in 1971. Al Arbour began his coaching career in St. Louis before winning four straight titles with the New York Islanders. Joel Quenneville won three championships with the rival Chicago Blackhawks after he was fired by the Blues.

Then again, St. Louis is lucky to have a team at all. The Blues have rarely turned a profit and in 1983 were all but sold to an ownership group that would have moved them to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. The NHL Board of Governors rejected the sale and had to briefly take control of the franchise until finding a buyer.

Bowman, who was the Blues’ coach when they went to the Cup Final in 1968, 1969 and 1970, met his wife in St. Louis when she was working as a nurse there. He coached current Blues assistant Larry Robinson and feels a connection to the team to this day.

This season started out to be just another in a long line of disappointments. Despite several offseason acquisitions, the Blues were awful. Players fought in practice. Coach Mike Yeo was fired and replaced by assistant Craig Berube. By Jan. 3, St. Louis had the worst record in the NHL. Two days later, the Blues called up an unheralded goalie, 25-year-old Jordan Binnington. He won in a shutout in his first start and the turnaround was on.

St. Louis won a franchise-record 11 straight games and the Blues went from a team considering trading stars like Vladimir Tarasenko to a contender.

Kelly said she ran into Hull after the clinching game against San Jose. He hugged her and began to cry, she recalled.

She understood.

”I, along with this city, have been waiting our whole lives for this,” Kelly said.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Canada, Finland advance to IIHF World Championship gold medal game

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BRATISLAVA, Slovakia (AP) — Mark Stone scored his tournament-leading eighth goal, Matt Murray made 39 saves and Canada beat the Czech Republic 5-1 on Saturday night to advance to face Finland in the world hockey championship final.

”I think we can beat anybody in this tournament,” Stone said. ”It’s just a matter of whether we play well or not. We’re going to have to bring our best game to beat (Finland), but I’m comfortable with the team that we have.”

In the first semifinal, Marko Anttila scored midway through the third period in Finland’s 1-0 victory over Russia.

Darnell Nurse, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Kyle Turris and Thomas Chabot also scored for Canada.

”I think as a team we’re just thankful for the opportunity,” Murray said. ”One, to be here and play for our country and now to get this opportunity to play for gold. It’s very exciting and that’s what we’re here for.”

Tomas Zohorna scored for the Czechs.

”The score was 5-1 but it felt closer than that,” Dubois said. ”The Czechs played a really good game. They did a lot of good things. I thought we defended well as a unit of five. We didn’t give them a lot. Murray was really good when we made mistakes and that’s what made the difference.”

Canada has won eight straight games since opening with a 3-1 loss to Finland. The teams last met in the final in 2016 in Moscow, with Canada winning 2-1. The title game is Sunday.

In the first semifinal, Anttila grabbed the loose puck after Henri Jokiharju’s point shot bounced off defenseman Nikita Zaitsev‘s leg and fired it through goalie Andrei Vasilevski’s gaping five-hole.

”He took a stick in the face and came back and scored the game-winning goal,” Finnish goalie Kevin Lankinen said. ”That shows a lot of character. He’s a good leader and a really nice guy to be around.”

Lankinen made 32 saves for his second shutout of the tournament.

”We’ve believed in ourselves all tournament,” Lankinen said. ”I don’t know if anybody else has, but the way we’re playing, we can beat any team in this tournament. I like to think we’ve got one more win left in us.”