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Game 7 is career-defining moment for Tuukka Rask

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One of my favorite NHL things to watch from a distance right now is the way the city of Boston collectively eats itself alive arguing about whether or not Tuukka Rask is a good big game goalie, or a good goalie, or a bad goalie, or a bad big game goalie, or just some kind of a goalie.

Just doing a quick browse around the city’s sports hub to get a vibe for what the mindset is heading into Game 7 against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday night (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, live streamand you see him described as “divisive.” You see references to his poor (and to be fair, they are not great) numbers when the Bruins are facing elimination on home ice. And it even goes back before this game, like when he “again” left “a lot to be desired in a big game in Tampa.”

All of this matters, of course, because Rask hasn’t yet won a championship, and if a player hasn’t yet won a championship all of their postseason and big game shortcomings get magnified because, you know, they just can’t get it done when it matters, or something. Win one or two and nobody ever forgets it no matter how little you do after it.

You also had Bruins play-by-play man Jack Edwards taking the other side and calling out the Rask critics for not going to games and needing somebody to throw under the bus in a city that has had an embarrassment of riches in recent years when it comes to winning.

All of this makes Game 7 on Wednesday one of the defining moments of Rask’s career.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

At least until the next big game that will be the next defining moment of his career, with the result from that game — no matter what it is — making us forget about the result from this defining moment — no matter what it is.

If he wins, he came through in the clutch with a big game and rewrites the narrative of his career. At least temporarily.

If he loses, it is just another game where Rask came up small.

As an uninterested third party observer, it is all tremendous theatre, especially when you consider the reality that over the past 10 years Rask has been one of the best and most productive goalies in the NHL.

A goalie that probably 25 or 26 general managers and coaches in the NHL would have sold their souls to get.

That production is not just limited to regular season success, either. Among goalies with at least 50 playoff games played, Rask has the third-best postseason save percentage in NHL history.

That is worth something.

Every playoff game is a big game. And while the critics are not necessarily wrong to point out his record and struggles in games (the numbers are what they are,  you can not hide from them), there is also something to be said for the fact he has only had to play in six games in his career where the Bruins were even facing elimination. They’ve won five series in his career where they never once had to face elimination, including two on their way to the Stanley Cup Final in 2013.

Comebacks make for compelling viewing and high drama, but there’s a lot to be said for blowing a team away early and not needing to rely on a comeback.

In one of those postseason series wins — a Conference Final, no less — he allowed just two goals in a four-game sweep against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Are those not big games, too? Of course they are. Did he not come through for the Bruins against a team that had lit up the rest of the Eastern Conference before running into him and the Bruins? Of course he did. But because he and the Bruins lost to a buzzsaw of mini-dynasty in the Cup Final it gets forgotten (as does the fact he had a .931 save percentage it that series — maybe the guys in front of him should have scored more than a combined three goals in Games 5 and 6).

But this isn’t necessarily about just Tuukka Rask.

This is about the way we watch and analyze sports. We selectively pick and choose what is important based on what our preconceived ideas of a player or team are. We also observe these things from a bubble that is limited to what is happening in our immediate area. And that’s where Edwards kind of touched on something important when he remarked about Boston’s “embarrassment of riches” in recent years and needing to find something to be controversial.

Cities whose teams win a lot of championships — Boston and Pittsburgh come to mind here immediately — lose all perspective for how rare championships actually are. And they get greedy. They get spoiled. They get an unquenchable thirst for more and a belief that they deserve that next championship more than the other city because they’ve experienced it and winning is what they do. When the local teams inevitably fall short — and they always do eventually — somebody has to be the fall guy. Somebody has to take the blame for the missed opportunity. The city needs its pound of flesh to make itself feel better for losing.

Sometimes that pound of flesh comes from the best player for not scoring in the big game that the team happened to lose. Other times it is the goalie. But we always come for it.

Has Rask struggled in games where the Bruins are facing elimination? The numbers are what they are. But here’s the thing we lose sight of: Most goalies end up with poor records in elimination games because most teams end their season with a loss. Only one team ends its postseason with a win. This is true in every sport. There are 123 professional sports teams in the four major North American men’s sports leagues. Do you know how many of them have won a championship — just one — over the past 15 years? Only 37 of them. Roughly 30 percent. That means over the past 15 years 70 percent of the sports watching population has had their season end with bitter disappointment.

Championships are rare. Extremely rare. They are extraordinarily hard to win and there is never any one particular thing or player that is responsible for why a team won or lost one. More often than not your team is going to lose the next big game. That is just the nature of the beast that is professional sports.

So, back to Rask and Wednesday’s Game 7 against Boston.

What’s going to happen? No idea. He might play great and win. He might play so-s0 and lose. He might get pulled in the first period. He might play really well and lose to a goalie that just so happens to be a little bit better at the other end of the ice (which is exactly what happened in Game 6 in Toronto).

No matter what happens Rask is going to be the same goalie — one of the best in the league over the past decade — that he was coming into the game. We’ll just use this one game to largely define him and his career.

Until the next one.

Related: NHL announces second round opening games

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.

The Buzzer: Ovechkin already at 8

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Three Stars

1. Mark Scheifele

Scheifele helped Winnipeg stay in Monday’s game when it seemed like St. Louis might be pulling away (scoring the Jets’ first goal to shrink a deficit to 2-1, tying the game at 3-3) and then generated an assist on Jacob Trouba‘s overtime game-winner.

Overall, Scheifele generated two goals and two assists, with the tiebreaker being that none of his points came via an empty-netter.

Scheifele logged defenseman-like minutes (25:55), fired five shot on goal, and even was slightly above-.500 at draws with a 14-13 mark. He helped remind the Blues (and the hockey world) that few leads are safe against the high-octane Jets.

2. Alex Ovechkin

Ovechkin probably could have had a hat trick if he really wanted it, but instead he set up T.J. Oshie‘s empty-netter, which elicited some laughter from Oshie.

That empty-netter slightly downgrades Ovechkin’s night in comparison to Scheifele’s Monday, but you could make an argument for the superstar winger’s all-around night. He ended up with two goals and two assists, firing an Ovechkin-like seven SOG. With a +2 rating and a hit credited to him against Vancouver, The Great 8 filled up the peripheral categories, as he’s wont to do.

Ovechkin now has eight goals in eight games in 2018-19. Don’t count him out for yet another Maurice Richard Trophy.

The Capitals have some other worthy mentions, with John Carlson standing out as one of the better choices. (He’s having quite the start to his first season with that fat new contract that looks pretty justified at the moment.)

3. Ryan O'Reilly

You could make a strong argument for other players – again, Carlson stands out – and you might ding “ROR” for being on the losing team.

O’Reilly was pretty excellent in defeat, however. The two-way center scored one goal and two assists, showing that he can produce plenty of chances on the second line with David Perron (when he’s not running shotgun on the top trio with Vladimir Tarasenko).

As you’d expect from a guy who could be a dark horse candidate for the Selke, ROR was strong from an all-around standpoint. O’Reilly had a +2 night (not bad in a defeat), went 13-12 on faceoffs, fired four SOG, and managed three takeaways. O’Reilly also shook off a Brandon Tanev boarding hit that bloodied him early in the contest.

This has been a frustrating start to the season for St. Louis, but don’t blame O’Reilly.

Highlight of the Night

Justin Faulk scored a goal as the Hurricanes dominated the Red Wings, yet his best moment came when he auditioned for Carolina’s goalie position:

Factoids

Ovechkin moves up the all-time power-play goals ranks. How high will he finish by the end of this season? Could he end up being the all-time leader when he clears out his “office?”

Monday was a pretty big night for a few Capitals, it seemed.

Click here for plenty of numbers about the red-hot top Avalanche line of Mikko Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon, and Gabriel Landeskog.

Faulk moved up the ranks with his goal:

Again, the Hurricanes really dominated the Red Wings for most of Carolina’s eventual win.

Scores

Avalanche 4, Flyers 1
Hurricanes 3, Red Wings 1
Jets 5, Blues 4 (OT)
Capitals 5, Canucks 2

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Flyers can’t stop Avalanche’s red-hot top line, either

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The Colorado Avalanche’s top line has to slow down at some point, right?

A cold streak certainly didn’t begin on Monday night, as the dominant trio of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog powered a 4-1 win over the Philadelphia Flyers.

MacKinnon was the subject of this fawning piece on Saturday, and he did his part by extending his season-opening point streak to nine games (now 15 points), as he collected a primary assist. His wingers were the bigger stars on this night, however. For one thing Rantanen extended his own point streak with two goals, which actually places him one ahead of MacKinnon for the team lead. MacKinnon and Rantanen continue to make history for the Avalanche franchise:

[MORE: Rantanen’s becoming a “driving force” for Avs.]

Avs captain Landeskog is a few strides behind those two as far as season totals go (“just” 10 points in eight games), yet he’s been red-hot lately. The hearty Swede now has a four-game goal streak (seven tallies) and five-game point streak (10 points) going after collecting a breakaway tally and an assist in this one.

The Avalanche didn’t need much more from their non-stars to win against the Flyers, with a nice Matt Nieto goal being the only tally that wasn’t generated by one of Landeskog, MacKinnon, or Rantanen.

Colorado is now on a three-game winning streak, bumping its record to 6-1-2.

One of the impressive things about this outstanding start is that the Avalanche haven’t even really had many opportunities to leverage what can potentially be the best home-ice advantage in the NHL: that mile-high elevation.

Only three of the Avalanche’s first nine games have come at home, and this victory against Philly concludes a highly successful (3-0-1) four-game road trip against East teams.

The Avalanche’s early road challenges aren’t over yet, as you can see from their next month of work:

Wed, Oct 24 – vs Tampa Bay
Fri, Oct 26 – vs Ottawa
Sat, Oct 27 – @Minnesota
Thu, Nov 1 – @Calgary
Fri, Nov 2 – @Vancouver
Wed, Nov 7 – vs Nashville
Fri, Nov 9 – @Winnipeg
Sun, Nov 11 – @Edmonton
Wed, Nov 14 – vs Boston
Fri, Nov 16 – vs Washington
Sun, Nov 18 – @Anaheim
Wed, Nov 21 – @Los Angeles
Fri, Nov 23 – @Arizona

As you can see, eight of the Avalanche’s next 13 games are on the road. That’s not the sort of stretch that is so heavily weighted against Colorado as to throw things out of balance by itself, but it’s still another test for a team some expected to hit the wall after last season’s breakthrough.

If the Avalanche enter December with a strong record, then look out, particularly if that top line’s maintaining even a portion of this red-hot chemistry.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Seth Jones return reunites one of NHL’s top defensive pairs

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Huge news for the Columbus Blue Jackets on Monday as the team announced it has activated defenseman Seth Jones from injured reserve, and that he is expected to make his season debut on Tuesday against the Arizona Coyotes.

Jones has missed the first seven games of the season recovering from an MCL injury.

This is a huge development for a Blue Jackets team that has been, to say the least, inconsistent at the start of the year.

First, Jones is one of the NHL’s top defenders and a rising star in the league after finishing fourth in the Norris Trophy voting a year ago. Since arriving in Columbus as part of the one-for-one swap involving Ryan Johansen his game has taken off.

But it’s not just Jones himself that is a difference-maker for the Blue Jackets. When paired with Columbus’ other top young defender, Zach Werenski, the two help form one of the best and most productive defense pairings in the league, and Jones’ return might be just what Werenski needs to help bust him out of what has been a little bit of a slow start to the season.

Since the start of the 2016-17 season (when Werenski made his NHL debut) the two have spent almost all of their 5-on-5 ice-time together as a defense pairing, and they have been as good as any other duo in the league.

Coach John Tortorella said over the weekend that when Jones returns the plan is to put him back on the top pairing with Werenski.

In more than 2,500 minutes of ice-time the Blue Jackets control more than 56 percent of the shot attempts and outscore teams by a 95-69 margin. When neither player is on the ice that shot attempt share drops to below 50 percent, while the goal and scoring chance differentials also see a drop. But it’s not just the team that sees a drop without Jones — Werenski himself sees his play drop off when Jones is not next to him. Given how much time they spend together it’s not a huge sample size, but Werenski’s production and overall play has taken a hit without Jones by his said, especially at the start of this season. Understandable given how good Jones is, but it’s a testament to how well the two play alongside one another and how big of a difference they can make.

The Blue Jackets are fascinating team this season because there are so many different directions they can go in. When they are fully healthy they have a chance to be a really good team because they have two top-tier players in Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky at the top of the lineup, and as mentioned here, one of the best defense pairings in the league in Jones and Werenski, a duo that can eat up 25 minutes per night and dominate.

But given the contract situations with Panarin and Bobrovsky and their uncertain future in Columbus no one really knows if they will be there beyond this season — or even at the end of this season.

If everything clicks just right this will almost certainly be a playoff team, and perhaps one that could even make some noise. Or they could be big-time sellers at the deadline if they stumble and find themselves on the playoff bubble and are not confident they can keep their top two players.

We have not seem them at their best yet so far this season.

Now that they are getting Jones back we should finally be able to see what they are really capable of.

(Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick)

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.

KHL player maintains rep, scores again from center ice (Video)

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If you’re a goaltender in the KHL you ought to have your head up when Andrei Kuteikin is carrying the puck through the neutral zone.

You see, Kuteikin established a reputation for himself during the 2017 Gagarin Cup playoffs as a Stephen Curry type shooter. Like the Golden State Warriors star, the longtime KHL defenseman isn’t afraid to fire the puck from anywhere. Two seasons ago, he scored three times from center ice for Dynamo Moscow in the postseason.

On Monday, now with Spartak Moscow, the 34-year-old Kuteikin drilled home the eventual game winner versus his old team from way downtown.

That’s Ivan Bocharov between the pipes for Dinamo. A teammate of Kuteikin’s last season, he may not have realized who had the puck or was just feeling super confident he could stop the long-range blast before the shot skipped through his five hole.

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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.