Vasilevskiy turns East final around for Lightning

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Jon Cooper didn’t blame Andrei Vasilevskiy for the Tampa Bay Lightning digging a deep hole early in the Eastern Conference final.

Two games and two losses brought plenty of criticism of the young Russian goaltender. Cooper wasn’t thrilled about that.

”The questions were coming from the other side of the table, and I felt it was the questioning of Vasilevskiy,” the Tampa Bay coach said. ”We don’t. He’s been the guy for us.”

Vasilevskiy is the guy who turned the series around for the Lightning, who now lead the Capitals 3-2 and can eliminate Washington on the road in Game 6 on Monday night and move on to the Stanley Cup Final against the Vegas Golden Knights. After a 6.00 goals-against average and .839 save percentage in Games 1 and 2, he has a 2.00 GAA and .943 save percentage since as the series’ biggest difference-maker.

”Just tried to stay positive and play my game,” Vasilevskiy said last week. ”It’s very important, especially in the playoffs. Good or bad game, doesn’t matter. Turn the page, start over again and again. That’s how you get success.”

Vasilevskiy has found plenty of success this season, his first as a full-time NHL starter. The 23-year-old is a Vezina Trophy finalist after leading the league with 44 wins and eight shutouts.

But Vasilevskiy hasn’t made it easy on himself. He rarely does.

Cooper saw it during the 2016-17 season when Vasilevskiy struggled during a stretch of 10 consecutive starts when Ben Bishop was hurt and then again late this season when a swoon by him and the entire team almost cost Tampa Bay the East’s top seed. Vasilevskiy bounced back strong each time.

”His ability to be able to turn the page now and understand, ‘You know what there might be a tough night for you, but I’m going to go out the next night anyway and I’ve got to be there for my team,’ – I think that’s where his growth process has really come in,” Cooper said.

The same happened between Games 2 and 3 in this series. The shy Vasilevskiy who has been reluctant to do interviews told a pool reporter he didn’t make any adjustments from his worst games against the Capitals to his best.

Somehow, he has looked like an entirely different goalie. Chants of ”Vasy! Vasy!” filled Amalie Arena in Game 5 on Saturday night when he stopped 28 of 30 shots, and the highest praise was reserved for inside the Lightning’s locker room.

”He’s a world class goaltender, that’s what he does,” defenseman Braydon Coburn said. ”He battles hard every day in practice all season long, and he’s raised his game in the playoffs here.”

No doubt his teammates have improved their play in front of Vasilevskiy, with defenseman Anton Stralman saying: ”We always feel like we owe him.” But against a star-studded Capitals team led by countrymen Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov, Vasilevskiy had to raise his game to give Tampa Bay any chance.

Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said confidence in Vasilevskiy never wavered, and he has showed them on the ice evidence of what they’ve seen all season.

”He just expects a lot,” Stamkos said. ”You see his work ethic every day in practice. You guys don’t get to see what goes on in the room, but his mental preparation, his physical preparation, he wants to be the best all the time. He doesn’t want to give up a goal at all, including in practice. That’s the mentality he has and that’s why he’s so good.”

If the Capitals can crack Vasilevskiy like they did the first two times, there will be a Game 7 on Wednesday night at Tampa Bay. But they’d better figure that out and get an even better game from Braden Holtby because the Lightning are 11-0 in the playoffs when scoring three-plus goals.

That record is thanks to Vasilevskiy, who doesn’t like cameras but loves playoff hockey.

”It’s definitely a fun time,” he said. ”Lot of emotions. Different hockey. It’s pretty fun to play. Just excitement level is pretty high. A different season.”

AP Sports Writer Fred Goodall in Tampa, Florida, contributed to this report.

Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

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

The Buzzer: Silfverberg plays OT hero; Donato helps Wild

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Three Stars

1. Jakob Silfverberg, Anaheim Ducks

Silfverberg was involved in three of Anaheim’s four goals during their 4-3 win over the San Jose Sharks. After helping set up the Ducks’ first two goals, Silfverberg put the game to bed 38 seconds into overtime to clinch the victory for Anaheim.

2. Ryan Donato, Minnesota Wild

One-third of Minnesota’s “Kid Line” set up both Wild goals during a 2-1 win over the Washington Capitals. The two points earned helped move Minnesota back into Western Conference wild card spot with seven games to go. Donato now has 13 points in 14 games since being dealt to the Wild.

3. Rickard Rakell, Anaheim Ducks

Rakell tallied twice and assisted on the OT winner, helping the Ducks to go two-for-three on the power play. The goals were Rakell’s first in seven games. He now has 13 on the season.

Highlights of the Night

• Silfverberg has five multi-point games this season and four in his last 18 games:

Jordan Greenway powered his way to the net for his 12th of the season and finished off with some nice stick handling:

Factoids of the Night

• Donato’s assist on Greenway’s goal was the 10,000th point in Wild franchise history.

Scores
Wild 2, Capitals 1
Ducks 4, Sharks 3 (OT)

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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.

Lightning’s Gourde suspended two games for illegal check to the head

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Yanni Gourde has been suspended two games by the NHL Department of Player Safety for his hit to the head of Jordan Staal of the Carolina Hurricanes Thursday night.

The Tampa Bay Lightning forward went to lay a hit on Staal and ended up getting his head, leading to a match penalty and an ejection. Staal, who missed 32 games this season while dealing with a concussion, left the game before returning and scoring Carolina’s second goal in a 6-3 loss.

“I haven’t really watched or seen it but, you know, it’s a fast game, things happen,” Staal said afterward. “Obviously, you never want to see those hits. I was fortunate enough to come out of it feeling all right.”

DoPS head George Parros said the head check was avoidable in the department’s suspension video.

“While we acknowledge Gourde’s argument that Staal is bent low and stumbling as he plays the puck, this hit does not meet any of the criteria for unavoidable head contact,” Parros said.

Gourde, who has no history with the DoPS in his 179-game career, will miss the Lightning’s games against St. Louis on Saturday and Boston on Monday. He is eligible to return next Saturday vs. Washington.

Under the terms of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, Gourde forfeits $10,752.68 — money that goes to the Players’ Emergency Assistance Fund.

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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.

Ducks give discouraging update on Eaves, Kesler

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Back in 2016-17 Anaheim Ducks forward Ryan Kesler was wrapping up the first year of a six-year, $41.2 million contract extension and still looking like one of the league’s best shutdown centers.

He finished with 22 goals and 58 points for a Ducks team that reached the Western Conference Final, and was also the runner-up for the Selke Trophy as the NHL’s best defensive forward.

The two years that have followed, including the 2018-19 season, have not been kind to him.

After appearing in only 44 games a season ago due to injury, the 34-year-old Kesler has been limited to just 60 games this season and has missed each of the past seven due to a hip injury. In the two years he has combined for just 13 goals and 22 points, and it sounds like the Ducks do not expect to see him on the ice again this season, while there should be some serious doubt as to what his future might hold.

“We’re going to meet with the doctors tonight, [Kesler] and I,” general manager and interim head coach Bob Murray said on Friday, via the Ducks’ website. “[Kesler] has to get everything in his life in order as to what he has to do in order to play. It’s not exactly good for his body, the things he puts himself through. We need to take full inventory of where he is in his life and go forward from there. The agent and I have talked a bunch.”

Kesler still has three years remaining on his contract after this one at a salary cap hit of $6.875 million per season. Between him, Ryan Getzlaf, and Corey Perry the Ducks have more than $23 million per season tied up in three players all age 33 or older over the next two full seasons (plus a third season for Kesler).

With the Ducks badly struggling on the ice this season with one of the league’s worst records it does not leave them in an ideal situation. 

Kesler’s status is not the only troubling one that Murray addressed on Friday.

He also mentioned that forward Patrick Eaves is dealing with a lot of the same issues that he dealt with a year ago when a post-viral syndrome limited him to just two games.

He has only appeared in seven NHL games this season.

“He’s had a setback,” said Murray. “Texted with him yesterday. There is no new diagnosis or anything. This is a very troubling situation, and everybody is doing the best they can with it. There is no diagnosis, and he’s just struggling again with everything. Like [Kesler], we hope he gets better so he can have a normal life. I don’t want to speak for him, but he’s just struggling. It’s more like what he had last year. He’s experiencing some of the same issues as last year. Let’s just leave it at that.”

Eaves joined the Ducks in the middle of the 2016-17 NHL season and has scored 132 goals in 633 career games with the Ducks, Dallas Stars, Nashville Predators, Carolina Hurricanes, Detroit Red Wings, and Ottawa Senators.

Related: After year away, Eaves had a blast in return to NHL

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.

Truck driver involved in Humboldt Broncos bus crash sentenced to eight years

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MELFORT, Saskatchewan — The driver whose transport truck crashed into a hockey team bus in Canada, killing 16 people, has been sentenced to eight years in prison.

Thirteen others were injured when Jaskirat Singh Sidhu’s semitrailer loaded with peat moss collided with the Humboldt Broncos’ bus in rural Saskatchewan. Sidhu had pleaded guilty earlier this year to 29 counts of dangerous driving

The Broncos were on their way to a playoff game in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League.

Judge Inez Cardinal said Friday that Sidhu’s remorse and guilty plea were mitigating factors, but added she had to consider the number of people who died or were severely injured and face lifelong challenges.

Sidhu’s truck ran through a stop sign and into the path of the junior hockey team’s bus at an intersection last April.

Cardinal said the collision was avoidable.

“Mr. Sidhu had ample time to react … had he been paying attention,” she said. “Somehow we must stop this carnage on our highways.”

The prosecution wanted the 30-year-old Sidhu to be sent to prison for 10 years, while his lawyers said other cases suggested a range of 1 1/2 to 4 1/2 years.

Cardinal began her decision by reading aloud each victim’s name. She said the nearly 100 victim impact statements from families were staggering.

The judge said the hockey players who died were gifted athletes, while others on the bus were dreaming about families or had already started them.

“Families have been torn apart because of the loss,” Cardinal said. “They are prone to depression, anxiety or outbursts.”

She also spoke of the survivors, who she suggested “are putting on a brave face in an attempt to be strong.”

Sidhu’s lawyers had said he was remorseful and is likely to face deportation to his home country of India after he serves time.

At a sentencing hearing in January, it was made known that Sidhu was going between 86 and 96 kph (53 and 60 mph) when he passed four signs warning him about the upcoming intersection and approached an oversized stop sign with a flashing light.

Prosecutor Thomas Healey said Sidhu should have seen the busy highway in front of him or a car that was stopped across the road and waiting for the Broncos’ bus to pass.

Healey described the semitrailer as a rocket that barreled into the intersection, which gave the bus driver no time to avoid the crash.

Defense lawyer Mark Brayford said Sidhu was hired by a small Calgary trucking company three weeks earlier. He had spent two weeks with another truck driver before heading out on his own for the first time.

Brayford suggested Sidhu was distracted by a flapping tarp on the back of his load of peat moss.