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Don’t forget how great Kuznetsov, Backstrom were for Capitals

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As obnoxious as any Internet debate can be, bickering about who should win the Conn Smythe can help cement the below-the-fold stars who didn’t land the playoff MVP.

For example: it will never not boggle my mind that Chris Pronger ended his career without that award. Sure, he was a fire-breathing monster on the ice at times, but that was the point.

From a big picture perspective, it’s fitting that Alex Ovechkin won it this year after sparking the Washington Capitals’ run to a first-ever Stanley Cup. His 15 goals and 27 points were crucial to that run, and his epic celebration is leaving us hungover.

But was he truly the right choice from an objective standpoint? To my eyes, and in the mind of many others, Evgeny Kuznetsov would have been the truest choice.

So, with Ovechkin hamming it up (rightfully so) and Braden Holtby enjoying a well-deserved victory lap for “The Save” and reclaiming his spot among the elite, let’s take this moment to shine a light on another key element of Washington’s run: their two star centers.

A postseason for the ages

Again, it’s tough to deny that Kuznetsov was the real Conn Smythe winner.

He wasn’t that far behind Ovechkin’s 15 goals, as Kuznetsov netted 12. They both were tied with two game-winners in that regard.

The pivot’s playmaking was a sight to behold, as he collected almost a helper per game (20 assists in 24 contests).

It would be refreshing to see voters take especially strong work during the Stanley Cup Final into account, too. Now, Ovechkin was no slouch against the Golden Knights, generating three goals and two assists in five games. During that same span, Kuznetsov was killer, though, producing a goal and seven assists for eight points.

Kuznetsov’s 32 points weren’t just a playoff record for the Capitals and the top mark for the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. That mark also stands as the most points generated in a postseason since Evgeni Malkin collected a whopping 36 points during Pittsburgh’s 2008-09 surge. (Ovechkin’s 27 points leave him tied with Sidney Crosby‘s work last postseason for ninth best during that same period of time.)

Remarkably, Malkin’s 36 points and Kuznetsov’s 32 also stand as the two best outputs since the lockout wiped out the 2004-05 season; you need to go as far back as Joe Sakic’s 34 points from 1995-96 before you’ll find a total that dislodges Kuznetsov for second place.

Praising Kuznetsov isn’t about denigrating Ovechkin, who enjoyed a run for the ages and deserves to soak in the limelight after a decade of absorbing an unfair portion of Capitals criticism.

Instead, it’s about doing our best to make sure that his magical run isn’t lost in time.

“He was unbelievable,” Ovechkin said of Kuznetsov after the series, via the Associated Press. “He makes the magic over there.”

Backstrom shows his might

Kuznetsov managed to generate point after point even though it seemed like he might miss a game or more of the series thanks to a hard hit by Brayden McNabb. That thought dovetails nicely into much-needed praise for Nicklas Backstrom.

While you only need to glance at the very top of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs’ points leaders to notice Kuznetsov’s presence, Backstrom’s work was diluted by being limited to 20 games.

Despite clearly playing at less than 100 percent, Backstrom managed more than a point per contest, generating 23 in those 20 games. His assist on this Ovechkin power-play goal stood as a healthy reminder that it’s easy to scream “Cover Ovechkin’s office,” but it’s also easy to forget that the Capitals simply have the passers to make that bread-and-butter play so difficult to stop.

Seriously, acting as though it’s “easy” to stop that is the ultimate in armchair quarterbacking/defending. There aren’t many humans capable of getting that pass through an entire penalty kill unit, but Backstrom is one of them (Kuznetsov, too).

Of course, points aren’t everything. Luckily, Backstrom remained his Selke-level self during the postseason, allowing Barry Trotz to pick and choose matchups how he pleased. The Kuznetsov – Backstrom combination was instrumental in allowing the Capitals to go toe-to-toe with the Penguins’ scoring depth, the Lightning’s dangerous weapons, and the Golden Knights’ impressive top line.

For a player who suffered his own torment during clutch moments, Backstrom showed his toughness and made a real argument for how great he can be.

***

Look, we can debate Ovechkin vs. Kuznetsov all day, but they were both fantastic. The point is to recall their efforts, not to mention great work by Holtby, Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, and others. Here’s hoping this post fights the fading of such memories.

Now, let’s get back to more important matters: bickering about Chris Pronger.

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.

Penguins heavy NHL odds favorite against beleaguered Blackhawks on Wednesday

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It is rare for a road team in the NHL to go as deep into minus money as the Pittsburgh Penguins are for their game against the reeling Chicago Blackhawks (8 p.m ET; NBCSN), meaning a trend could be shrugged off due to small sample size.

The Penguins are -195 road favorites on the NHL odds for Wednesday night with the host Blackhawks coming back at +155, while there is a 6.0-goals total at sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com.

The Penguins are only 1-5 in their last six road games as a favorite of -190 or greater on the moneyline, as well as 3-7 in their last 10 road games, but are 4-1 in five road games this season against Western Conference teams.

The Blackhawks’ trends are even more abject; they have surrendered the first goal in 11 consecutive games and are also 2-6 in their last eight home games at the United Center. Chicago also played Tuesday night, losing 6-3 against the Winnipeg Jets, and is 4-16 in its last 20 games when it played the previous day.

Pittsburgh is 13-10-6 on the season, including a 6-2-2 mark over its last 10 games. The Penguins are well off of their Stanley Cup form of two seasons ago, but still have a strong first two lines centered by Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Both Pittsburgh special teams units are in the top 10 of the NHL, with the power play ranking ninth (23.2 percent) and the penalty killing unit ranking sixth (83.5).

With No. 1 goalie Matt Murray (lower body) close to a return to health, the Penguins could have a choice between him and Casey DeSmith, who is 3-1-1 with a 2.16 goals-against average and .926 save percentage in five starts so far in December.

Chicago is 9-18-5, including 1-9 in its last 10 games, and there is little to suggest much in the way of an immediate turnaround. Captain Jonathan Toews‘ line is one of the least proficient first lines in the NHL and the next waves of attack, which include right wing Patrick Kane, have been just ok, which is why the Blackhawks have not scored more than three goals during any of their last eight home games.

The Blackhawks are also 31st, or dead last, in power play efficiency (11.6 percent) and 28th in penalty killing (74.4 percent).

Cam Ward played in the Winnipeg game, which would suggest the Blackhawks will start goalie Corey Crawford, who is winless in his last eight starts. Crawford is 5-14-1 with a 3.21 goals-against average and .901 save percentage, but his rate stats improve to 2.39 and .925 on home ice, which might provide a glimmer of hope for upset-minded bettors.

The total has gone UNDER in six of Pittsburgh’s last 10 road games against the Central Division, according to the OddsShark NHL Database. The total has gone UNDER in eight of Chicago’s last 10 home games.

For more odds information, betting picks and a breakdown of this week’s top sports betting news check out the OddsShark podcast with Jon Campbell and Andrew Avery. Subscribe on iTunes or Spotify or listen to it at OddsShark.libsyn.com.

Rangers’ Shattenkirk out 2-4 weeks with shoulder injury

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NEW YORK (AP) — The New York Rangers say defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk will be sidelined two to four weeks with a shoulder injury.

Shattenkirk left in the second period of Monday night’s game in Tampa. He took a check around the left shoulder and had a sling on his arm postgame.

The 29-year-old was checked out on Tuesday. General manager Jeff Gorton announced Wednesday that Shattenkirk had a separated shoulder.

Shattenkirk has one goal, seven assists and zero penalty minutes in 29 games this season. He suffered a knee injury last January that ended his season.

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

Bruins’ David Backes takes skate to face, returns

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BOSTON (AP) Boston Bruins forward David Backes rushed himself off the ice Tuesday night after taking a skate blade to the face late in the first period but returned at the start of the second and finished the game.

Backes pushed Oliver Ekman-Larsson near the side of the net and the Arizona defenseman went to the ice, kicking up his left skate on the way down. It caught Backes in the face, and he went down before skating on his own quickly to the bench and out the tunnel.

Backes returned and won the faceoff to start the second period. He did not speak to reporters during the open locker room period but told The Boston Globe as he left the building he had a cut on the side of his nose that required a few stitches and some ointment.

“It’s always scary when your teammate takes a skate to the face, or really anywhere,” Bruins forward Brad Marchand said after scoring twice and adding an assist in the 4-3 victory. “He’s a little prettier now and no worse for wear.”

Backes required 18 stitches to close a cut on his leg after a game against Tampa Bay in March.

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

Which teams are likely to make moves before Holiday Freeze?

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We’re exactly one week away from the NHL’s holiday roster freeze. Teams won’t be able to make a move between Dec. 19 at 11:59 pm ET and Dec. 28 at 12:01 am ET, which means there could be some fireworks between now and the 19th. So, which teams are most likely to make a move before next week? Let’s take a look.

Philadelphia Flyers: The Flyers have already fired a general manager, so you’d have to think that the next step is to acquire some help that will improve their roster immediately. It’s been a disappointing year in Philly. After making the playoffs last season, they now find themselves one point away from the basement of the Eastern Conference. Sure, they could use some help between the pipes (no kidding), but they could also look to acquire a steady defenseman to compliment some of their younger players on the blue line. Their 12-13-3 record has them five points behind the Islanders for third place in the Metropolitan Division.

Minnesota Wild: Prior to last night’s huge 7-1 win over the Montreal Canadiens, the Wild had been floundering. Does one win change that? Probably not. Charlie Coyle‘s name has come up in trade rumors a lot lately, and you’d have to wonder if he’d be the one to go if GM Paul Fenton wanted to shake up his roster. Minnesota is still close enough to the playoffs that a big move could propel them back into a top three spot in the division or a wild card spot. Fenton still hasn’t made a major trade since taking over, so this could be his time to shine.

Carolina Hurricanes: Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon is already sick of seeing his team not make it to the playoffs. They clearly have a need up front. The ‘Canes have to find a way to add some scoring help (Jeff Skinner would look great in a Hurricanes jersey right now). The good thing about Carolina, is that they have an abundance of talent on defense, which means they could sacrifice some of that to get a scoring forward. The Hurricanes are two points behind the Islanders for the final playoff spot in the Metro.

Boston Bruins: Despite the fact that they’ve been hit hard by the injury bug this season, the Bruins have found a way to stay in a playoff spot. Getting healthy would help, but the quickest fix might just be for GM Don Sweeney to make a trade before Christmas. Some depth scoring would certainly help. The Bruins are probably the team from this list that’s in the best shape, but that doesn’t mean they can afford to stay quiet on the trade front.

St. Louis Blues: Doug Armstrong has to do something to get his team back on track, or it could end up costing him his job. The Blues made some significant trades this off-season, but that hasn’t translated into victories. St. Louis could use help all over their roster. Their goaltending hasn’t been good enough, their defense has been in shambles all year and their top scorers haven’t been performing. This might be a do-or-die situation for Armstrong.

Florida Panthers: The Panthers missed the playoffs by just one point last season, which means they have to make the postseason this year. Unfortunately for them, Roberto Luongo has been banged up, again, in 2018-19. Could they be in the market for a goalie? It’s clear that they can’t just keep rolling with James Reimer if they want to play games deep into April. And relying on Luongo to stay healthy is a risky proposition.

Pittsburgh Penguins: Jim Rutherford has already made a couple of moves (he acquired Tanner Pearson from the Kings and Marcus Pettersson from the Ducks), but that doesn’t mean he isn’t willing to pull the trigger on a trade again. Even though they’ve been playing better as of late, the Pens still find themselves on the outside of the playoff picture right now. Maybe they just wait it out, but a move is never out of the question for Rutherford.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.