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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.”

The Buzzer: Fischer’s hat trick lifts Coyotes, Price ties Roy, Saad arrives

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Three Stars

1. Christian Fischer, Arizona Coyotes. After a miserable start to the season where they could not find the back of the net no matter what they did, the Arizona Coyotes are starting to put it together a little. Their 4-1 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday night was their second in the past three games. While the return of Alex Galchenyuk should help, it was Christian Fischer playing the role of star in this one as he recorded the hat trick in the win to give him four goals on the season. Derek Stepan recorded the lone assist on all three goals. Dylan Strome scored the other goal on the night for Arizona as the Coyotes scored four consecutive goals to take the win and end their current road trip. They still have a ways to go, but it took them more than 20 games a season ago to win their third game of the season. Progress. There is talent here. Some patience is required.

2. Mika Zibanejad, New York Rangers. Entering play on Tuesday night there were only two teams in the NHL that had yet to win a game in regulation this season. They just so happened to be playing in New York when the Rangers hosted the Florida Panthers. It was the Rangers that ended up getting the win thanks in large part to Mika Zibanejad. He finished the game with three points, including two goals (one of two Rangers players — Mats Zuccarello being the other — to score two goals on the night) to help lift the Rangers to the win.

3. Brandon Saad, Chicago Blackhawks. Saad has been under the microscope in Chicago for two reasons: First, he simply has not played well since returning to the Blackhawks at the start of the 2017-18 season. Second, the guy that was traded for him — Artemi Panarin — has continued to be a star in Columbus and has been one of the best players in the league. The Blackhawks have said they need, and want, more from Saad and on Tuesday night they finally got it. He scored a pair of goals, including one on the power play, an area where he struggled mightily a year ago, to help lead the Blackhawks to a 3-1 win over the Anaheim Ducks.

Southern California’s hockey teams are not having fun

The Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings are not off to good starts. At all. The Kings have been a mess all season and dropped yet another game on Tuesday, losing in Dallas by a 4-2 margin. They are now the worst team in the Western Conference through nine games and just keep looking like a team that needs a fresh start and a new direction. This group is just not working anymore.

Meanwhile, the Ducks’ record looks better but the actual play on the ice doesn’t. Starting goalie John Gibson was great once again on Tuesday night, turning aside 36 out of 38 shots. It is the fifth time this season he has made at least 36 saves in a game. He has allowed more than two goals in just one of those five games. His team has only managed to win one of those five games. He has been amazing, and perhaps the most impressive player in the league so far. The team in front of him, not so much.

The Burns-Karlsson connection clicks for San Jose

San Jose’s two Norris Trophy winning defensemen teamed up for the game-winning goal in Nashville on Tuesday night as the Sharks erased two-goal third period deficit to storm back for a 5-4 win.

Read all about it and see all of the highlights here.

Highlights of the Night

The Boston Bruins’ top line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and David Pastrnak is arguably the best line in the NHL. They dominated again on Tuesday night in Ottawa and this play by Marchand to set up Pastrnak for his second goal of the game was a thing of beauty.

Sidney Crosby did this thing in overtime, making an emphatic statement in the best player debate that has been taking place so far this season.

Factoids

The Montreal Canadiens continue to be a surprise team and Carey Price continues to play well. These two things are related. Speaking of Carey Price, Tuesday’s win was a big one for him as it continues to move him up the Canadiens’ all-time wins list, tying him with a very important player.

Scores

Arizona Coyotes 4, Columbus Blue Jackets 1

New York Rangers 5, Florida Panthers 2

Montreal Canadiens 3, Calgary Flames 2

Boston Bruins 4, Ottawa Senators 1

San Jose Sharks 5, Nashville Predators 4

Chicago Blackhawks 3, Anaheim Ducks 1

Dallas Stars 4, Los Angeles Kings 2

Pittsburgh Penguins 6, Edmonton Oilers 5 (OT)

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.

Sidney Crosby makes emphatic statement in best player debate

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Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews.

Auston Matthews or Connor McDavid.

That is the discussion some folks around NHL have been trying to hold regarding which one of them is the new best player in the NHL.

Well, Sidney Crosby would like to remind you that … yeah … it might still be him.

If nothing else, he has made a pretty compelling argument for himself over the past week.

Crosby scored his first two goals of the season on Tuesday night to help lead his Pittsburgh Penguins to a wild 6-5 win over McDavid and the Oilers.

It’s not that McDavid didn’t also show up in this game; because he did, scoring a goal and assisting on another. But Crosby delivered the emphatic punch in overtime when he scored one of the most ridiculous goals of the season (so far) when he completely obliterated Ryan Strome (not a defenseman! And he was tired at the end of extended shift!) and did this … with McDavid standing right next to it all.

My goodness.

This has been a fascinating week for Crosby as it relates to the “best player” debate, because his past two games have come against Toronto (Matthews) and Edmonton (McDavid) and he spent an awful lot of ice-time going head-to-head against both of them.

For the most part, he completely dominated them.

On Thursday night in Toronto he spent eight minutes of even-strength ice-time going against Matthews (more than any other Toronto forward).

Not only did Matthews fail to record a point or a shot, the Maple Leafs as a team didn’t even get a shot on goal during those minutes.

Over the two games total Crosby spent more than 20 minutes of even-strength ice-time going head-to-head against McDavid and Matthews. During those minutes the Penguins scored the only goal (Crosby’s overtime winner on Tuesday) and controlled more than 65 percent of the shot attempts.

At this point Sidney Crosby has entered the “latter day Steve Yzerman” phase of his career.

When Yzerman was a young player in Detroit he was such a monster offensively that if he played in any other era that didn’t have Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux playing at the exact same time he probably would have been regarded as the best offensive player in the league.

He was incredible.

Then around the time he hit his 30th birthday the offense started to drop off. It was — and still is — often times looked at as him sacrificing offense to improve his defense for the betterment of the team; but the more likely explanation is that he just got a little older and simply was not capable of scoring 120 points anymore.

So his game evolved and he became a ferocious two-way player that could take over games in other ways.

This is where Sidney Crosby is now.

He is in his age 31 season, and as such he is simply not going to be the offensive force he was when he was 24 or 25. He is still going to be capable of doing things like he did on Tuesday night when he ruined Ryan Strome’s night and posterized him, but he is not going to be the 110-point scoring champion every year. I mean, he has been an 89-point player pretty much four years in a row, and while that is still in the top 1 percent of the entire league, it is probably not going to result in a scoring title. This is what he is as an offensive player at this point, and that is fine.

But he is going to find other ways to impact the game and dominate it even when he is not lighting up the score sheet the way he once did. That is pretty much what he did the past two games when he went against the latest two players the hockey world has attempted to elevate above him, and completely outplayed them. If your best player can go against the other team’s best player and shut them down and cancel them out, you are going to have a lot of success.

He is also still on occasion going to do things like that overtime winner on Tuesday night.

(Stats 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.

 

Sharks storm back, stun Predators with late rally

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Tuesday’s game in Nashville seemed like it could have been a potential Western Conference Final preview between the San Jose Sharks and Predators, and for 50 minutes it looked like the Predators were going to continue to assert their dominance as the elite team in the conference.

Maybe they still are and ultimately still will be, but on this particular night everything fell apart for them in the blink of an eye as they let two points slip away in the standings.

The Sharks scored three consecutive goals in the final 10 minutes of regulation, including two less than 40 seconds apart to erase a two-goal deficit, to come back for a stunning 5-4 win.

Brent Burns‘ goal with just 2:52 to play proved to be the game-winner, and it was made possible thanks to quick goals from Brendan Dillon and Joe Pavelski just a few minutes earlier to tie the game.

Burns’ goal can be seen in the video above.

Here are the two goals to tie the game.

After acquiring Erik Karlsson over the summer and re-signing Evander Kane to a long-term contract extension the Sharks, a team that was already good enough to make the second-round of the playoffs a year ago, entered the season as one of the hot picks to win the Western Conference this season and compete for the Stanley Cup.

Through their first eight games entering play on Tuesday they had been a little inconsistent but it seems they may be starting to hit their stride a little bit. The win in Nashville is their third in a row and comes on the road against one of the league’s best teams. After winning the Western Conference two years ago, then taking the Presidents’ Trophy a year ago as the NHL’s best team during the regular season, the Predators stormed out of the gate again this season with wins in seven of their first eight games, and looking particularly dominant in the process.

Tuesday’s game was a great test for both teams, and all they did was show that they are two evenly matched, great rosters that are going to have a chance to play very far into the spring.

If this game was any preview of what is to come it would be one heck of a best-of-seven series (if it happens).

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.

Bruins rookie Vaakanainen concussed by Borowiecki; Discipline coming?

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Already playing without a couple of defenders (Torey Krug, Kevan Miller) the Boston Bruins lost another one on Tuesday night when rookie Urho Vaakanainen, playing in just his second NHL game, had to leave their game against the Ottawa Senators after he was elbowed in the face by Senators defenseman Mark Borowiecki during a scramble around the front of the Ottawa net.

The Bruins later announced that Vaakanainen has already been diagnosed with a concussion.

You can see the play in the video above.

He was not penalized on the play, but that is not a good look for Borowieckiy because you can clearly see him look at Vaakanainen as he skates in and deliberately raise his elbow to hit him in the head.

I get that the front of the net is a tough area, but this isn’t 1980 anymore and that type of needless play should not be looked at as “okay” just because there is a scramble.

The NHL’s Department of Player Safety will almost certainly review that play and he could be be facing some discipline for it. If the NHL determines it is a play worthy of discipline that could be bad news for Borowiecki because he has been suspended once before and the player on the receiving end of his hit was injured. Those two things always factor into the punishment.

Vaakanainen was the selected by the Bruins in the first-round of the 2017 draft with the No. 18 overall pick.

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.