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Maple Leafs are best bet to end Canada’s Stanley Cup drought

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John Tavares didn’t just follow his heart home to Toronto.

In his head, he envisioned the Maple Leafs as a perennial contender.

”I came here believing that we can win a Stanley Cup year in, year out,” Tavares said.

In Year One of the Tavares era with young stars Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner riding shotgun, the Maple Leafs are expected to make the playoffs and go on a run next spring. And even after the Winnipeg Jets reached the Western Conference finals, Toronto appears to have the best chance to end Canada’s Stanley Cup drought that dates back a quarter-century to 1993.

”The big picture is obviously to always win the Stanley Cup and to not take any year for granted and always to believe every year, especially with the team we have that that’s where we want to get to,” Tavares said. ”First and foremost you’ve got to take the small steps and look at the small goals, the small building blocks to get there. I think you’ve got to enjoy that process, enjoy that journey.”

Toronto has 13 championships but none since 1967, when the NHL was a six-team league. Signing Tavares to a $77 million, seven-year contract has raised optimism the drought will end soon – another big move following the hiring of coach Mike Babcock in 2015 and picking Matthews first overall in 2016.

”You add him, and we have a good core,” Matthews said. ”We want to definitely keep that core together obviously because we want to see ourselves in a position to win every year for the next 10 years.”

To get there, the Maple Leafs have to get through a competitive Eastern Conference that includes the defending champion Capitals, back-to-back 2016 and 2017 champion Penguins and the well-established Lightning and Bruins. The Leafs are coming off back-to-back first-round exits and hope to get reliable goaltending from Frederik Andersen and solid defense to avoid a similar result.

SOARING JETS

The path to the Cup Final isn’t any easier for Winnipeg, which was one of the final two teams alive in the West last season before losing to Vegas. The Jets lost deadline pickup Paul Stastny in free agency but otherwise bring back the same group and the same big expectations to play games into June.

”We’re really close,” center Mark Scheifele said. ”We have a bunch of young guys that are still coming into their own, that are still learning about the league. That run that we had last year is so crucial in terms of experience that you were able to gain that experience, gain that hunger for what could be coming.”

Scheifele, captain Blake Wheeler, center Bryan Little, winger Nikolai Ehlers and goaltender Connor Hellebuyck are all signed long term, and Finnish phenom Patrik Laine is coming off a 43-goal season. Winnipeg will again have to deal with Central Division-rival Nashville but is as well positioned as anyone to come out of the West.

FLAMING IN

Missing the playoffs brought changes in Calgary. The Flames fired coach Glen Gulutzan and replaced him with Bill Peters, traded Dougie Hamilton and Micheal Ferland to Carolina for Noah Hanifin and Elias Lindholm, and signed James Neal.

”I think Noah is just scratching the surface,” general manager Brad Treliving said. ”We’ve got some guys on the blue line who can produce. We also want guys who want to be in Calgary. … Elias and Noah, they’re excited to get out there.”

Lindholm and Hanifin should be excited to join a team with forwards Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan and defensemen Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie. The Flames could be scary good this season in a Pacific Division that got weaker with a long-term injury to Anaheim’s Corey Perry.

WELL-OILED MCDAVID

Connor McDavid led the NHL with 108 points last season and was voted the most outstanding player by his peers. His Edmonton Oilers finished 17 points out of the final playoff spot in the West. That doesn’t compute except Edmonton’s goaltenders had the fifth-worst save percentage in the league and the rest of the Oilers couldn’t keep up with McDavid’s production. He’d like to score more goals this season but learned from last year that it’s not about him.

”It doesn’t matter what one player does at all,” McDavid said. ”It’s all about the team, and if one guy’s having success, it doesn’t mean that the team’s having success and you’ve got to find a way to win games and that’s not one guy.”

One guy who needs to be better is goalie Cam Talbot. And it wouldn’t hurt if Edmonton’s defensemen all took a step up.

NO MAN’S LAND

Toronto, Winnipeg and Calgary appear to be in good shape for years to come and the Oilers have McDavid to build around. The rest of Canada’s teams are in trouble.

The Ottawa Senators traded two-time Norris Trophy winning defenseman Erik Karlsson and winger Mike Hoffman and can’t even look forward to a silver lining if they bottom out: the Colorado Avalanche own their first-round pick.

”We’re looking to have a competitive, good hockey team this year and we’re aiming to be the best we can be and we can be a very good team with the roster we have,” said center Matt Duchene, who was acquired in the trade that cost the Senators that 2019 first-round pick.

Ottawa is expected to be among the worst teams in the NHL, but at least that’s clarity compared to the Montreal Canadiens and Vancouver Canucks. Both appear stuck between rebuilding and trying to stay afloat.

”Obviously it’s in transition with Hank and Danny (Sedin) being gone and having that void to fill,” Vancouver forward Bo Horvat said. ”We know where we’re at as a team, we know what we have to do and we know that we got young guys coming up that are going to have to try to prove themselves as everyday NHLers.”

Montreal has a potential star in third overall pick Jesperi Kotkaniemi and can always dream big because of goaltender Carey Price.

”He’s the best goalie in the world,” forward Max Domi said. ”It’s going to be awesome to have him back there.”

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

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

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Steven Stamkos on Game 3 return: ‘It was a dream come true’

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The cheer from the bench was just a little bit louder. The smile on Steven Stamkos‘ face was bigger than usual.

After 211 days away, the Lightning captain returned to the lineup for Game 3 and made an impact — albeit in a brief appearance. Stamkos played only five shifts and 2:47 during Tampa’s 5-2 victory, but it was a worthwhile experience.

His goal 6:58 into the game gave the Lightning a 2-0 lead over the Stars. It was in early March that Stamkos underwent core muscle surgery and it has been two months since he was re-injured and miss everyone of Tampa’s Stanley Cup Playoff games before Game 3. So when his wrist shot flew over Anton Khudodin’s blocker, it was a moment he’d been waiting a long time for.

“At this time of the year you want to do anything you can to help your team win,” said Stamkos, who found out he’d be playing after Tuesday’s skate. “I’ve watched these guys be so committed to what our end goal is and to be part of it tonight, it was a dream come true, and I’m so proud of these guys to be able to share that moment with them.”

[Three Takeaways from Game 3]

The reaction of Lightning head coach Jon Cooper after the goal summed up the moment. Along with the general happiness of taking a two-goal lead in the first seven minutes of the game, there was also a bit of disbelief.

“You marvel at players,” Cooper said. “He only had five shifts, but probably an efficient five shifts as you’re ever going to see in a National Hockey League playoff game. … It was pretty damn cool.”

Before Wednesday night, Stamkos last played Feb. 25, with his last goal coming Feb. 20. It was a long road back to the ice. The March pause saw the 2019-20 NHL season hang in the balance, and when there was clarity on a resumption of play, he had to exit the lineup again hoping to come back during the playoffs. Fortunately for him, the depth of the Lightning allowed a return to be possible.

“Our group feels like we’ve got a recipe in how we want to play,” said defenseman Ryan McDonagh. “No matter who’s going over the boards, no matter how many times you’re asked to go over, you see the effort and will from everybody, and that’s what’s been the key for us.”

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Stamkos had been left to be the team’s biggest cheerleader while he waited for the day he’d return to the lineup. Those moments watching were excruciating for him, and each series win brought another lifeline.

“It’s so painful to just sit and watch and feel like you have no part of the game because you’re way more nervous watching the games,” Stamkos said. “You want to have a say and you want to contribute.”

All that work since March has paid off. While Stamkos wasn’t ready to declare his status for the remainder of the series, his road to get to this point has not gone unnoticed by his teammates.

“He’s worked extremely hard to get back to a spot where he could play,” said Brayden Point. “Just seeing him day in, day out, the positivity he brings and the leadership he brings even when he’s not playing has been huge for us. For us to see him work that hard to get back in the lineup and then score one, it’s pretty inspirational for our bench.”

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars (TB leads 2-1)

Stars 4, Lightning 1. (recap)
Lightning 3, Stars 2. (recap)
Lightning 5, Stars 2 (recap)
Game 4: Friday, Sept. 25, 8 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
Game 5: Saturday, Sept. 26, 8 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
*Game 6: Monday, Sept. 28, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
*Game 7: Wednesday, Sept. 30, 8 p.m. ET – NBC

*if necessary

————

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.

NHL schedule for 2020 Stanley Cup Final

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The Stanley Cup Playoffs continue on Saturday, Sept. 19 in the hub city of Edmonton. Now that we are through the conference finals, the full 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Final schedule has been announced.  

The top four teams during the regular season in both conferences played a three-game round robin for seeding in the First Round. The eight winners of the best-of-5 Qualifying Round advanced to the First Round.  

Rogers Place in Edmonton will host 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Final.  

Here is the 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Final schedule.

2020 STANLEY CUP FINAL (Rogers Place – Edmonton)

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars (TB leads 2-1)

Stars 4, Lightning 1 (recap)
Lightning 3, Stars 2 (recap)
Lightning 5, Stars 2 (recap)
Game 4: Friday, Sept. 25, 8 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
Game 5: Saturday, Sept. 26, 8 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
*Game 6: Monday, Sept. 28, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
*Game 7: Wednesday, Sept. 30, 8 p.m. ET – NBC

*if necessary

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

CONFERENCE FINAL RESULTS

EASTERN CONFERENCE FINAL
Lightning beat Islanders (4-2)

WESTERN CONFERENCE FINAL
Stars beat Golden Knights (4-1)

***

SECOND ROUND RESULTS

EASTERN CONFERENCE
Lightning beat Bruins (4-1)
Islanders beat Flyers (4-3)

WESTERN CONFERENCE
Golden Knights beat Canucks (4-3)
Stars beat Avalanche (4-3)

***

NHL QUALIFYING ROUND / ROUND-ROBIN RESULTS

EASTERN CONFERENCE
Philadelphia Flyers (3-0-0, 6 points)
Tampa Bay Lightning (2-1-0, 4 points)
Washington Capitals (1-1-1, 3 points)
Boston Bruins (0-3-0, 0 points)

Canadiens beat Penguins (3-1)
Hurricanes beat Rangers (3-0)
Islanders beat Panthers (3-1)
Blue Jackets beat Maple Leafs (3-2)

WESTERN CONFERENCE
Vegas Golden Knights (3-0-0, 6 points)
Colorado Avalanche (2-1-0, 4 points)
Dallas Stars (1-2-0, 2 points)
St. Louis Blues (0-2-1, 1 point)

Blackhawks beat Oilers (3-1)
Coyotes beat Predators (3-1)
Canucks beat Wild (3-1)
Flames beat Jets (3-1)

***

FIRST ROUND RESULTS

EASTERN CONFERENCE
Flyers beat Canadiens (4-2)
Lightning beat Blue Jackets (4-1)
Islanders beat Capitals (4-1)
Bruins beat Hurricanes (4-1)

WESTERN CONFERENCE
Golden Knights beat Blackhawks (4-1)
Avalanche beat Coyotes (4-1)
Stars beat Flames (4-2)
Canucks beat Blues (4-2)

3 Takeaways: Lightning’s top players shine in Game 3 win

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Steven Stamkos briefly returned to the lineupand scored a goal! — while the Tampa Bay Lightning’s top line continued to dominate in a 5-2 win over the Dallas Stars in Game 3 on Wednesday night.

The Lightning now lead the series by a 2-1 margin.

The two teams meet in Game 4 of the 2020 Stanley Cup Final on Friday night at 8 p.m. ET on NBC (livestream).

Now, three takeaways from the Lightning win.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

1. Steven Stamkos didn’t play long, but he made an impact

The Lightning have been waiting to see Stamkos in an NHL game for nearly seven months. When he finally got back into the lineup, he played less than three minutes before exiting the game.

He did, however, manage to make a significant impact in those three minutes by delivering a bit hit on his first shift and then scoring a goal (on a beautiful play!) on his first shot.

He barely played after that, and in a way made some history.

Now we go back to wondering when, or if, we will see him again in this series.

His injury situation is not the only one to keep an eye on from this game.

Dallas also had a couple of issues as top-line winger Alexander Radulov exited the game late after being involved in a big collision behind the net, while Denis Gurianov was also hit in the face by a puck while sitting on the bench.

2. Victor Hedman looks unstoppable right now

Yeah, Stamkos briefly played and scored. Sure, the top line of Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, and Ondrej Palat all scored goals and finished with two points each. But the player that really powers this machine remains Hedman from the blue line, and wow was he great — again! — on Wednesday.

He made a sensational defensive play early in the first period to disrupt a Denis Gurianov breakaway, played 22 minutes, scored his 10th goal of the playoffs, finished with a game-high three points, and once again helped dictate the pace of the game when he was on the ice. During 5-on-5 play the Lightning outshot the Stars 11-5 with Hedman on the ice, while they also scored a pair of goals.

All postseason Kucherov and Point have been the Lightning’s Conn Smythe favorites, but Hedman is starting to play his way into that discussion if they can win this series.

3. Anton Khudobin gets pulled

Khudobin was the key factor in the Stars’ getting through the Vegas Golden Knights in the Western Conference Final.

The were going to need another performance like that against Tampa Bay.

After getting one of those performances in Game 1, he has not quite matched that over the past two games.

Khudobin was benched after giving up five goals on 29 shots in just two periods of play on Wednesday, dropping his save percentage in the series to .906.

Even with that it would be unfair to put all of this on him. The Lightning scored a couple of fluky goals in Games 1 and 2 that went in off of weird bounces, while the Stars have also struggled to stay out of the penalty box at times.

Tampa Bay’s first goal on Wednesday came on a Nikita Kucherov breakaway after Miro Heiskanen was guilty of an ugly turnover in the neutral zone that put the puck right onto Kucherov’s stick. Just a few minutes later Stamkos scored his goal when the Stars had another defensive breakdown that left him alone, and then an ugly line change contributed to Point’s goal.

So there were some issues outside of the goalie.

It is not that he has played poorly, it is just that he has not played as well as he did in the previous series. Given the talent the Lightning have on their roster, and the way they have been playing all postseason, they might need him to find that level again.

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars (Lightning lead series 2-1)

Game 1: Stars 4, Lightning 1. (recap)
Game 2: Lightning 3, Stars 2. (recap)
Game 3: Lightning 5, Stars 2 (recap)
Game 4: Friday, Sept. 25, 8 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
Game 5: Saturday, Sept. 26, 8 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
*Game 6: Monday, Sept. 28, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
*Game 7: Wednesday, Sept. 30, 8 p.m. ET – NBC

*if necessary

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.

Stamkos makes brief return as Lightning dominate Stars in Game 3 win

Lightning Game 3
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Steven Stamkos made a very brief appearance for the Tampa Bay Lightning Wednesday night in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final.

He returned to the lineup for the first time in seven months, scored a goal on his only shot, and then spent the rest of the game sitting on the bench, presumably because he was still not 100%.

But that one goal? It helped get the Lightning rolling early in what became a 5-2 rout, giving them a 2-1 series lead over the Dallas Stars.

Game 4 is Friday night at 8 p.m. ET on NBC.

The night began with Stamkos being the big story, and in a way he still kind of is in the aftermath. Not only for his early goal, but also for the fact he managed to play just a handful of shifts before leaving again. It certainly creates more questions as to whether or not he will be able to go in Game 4 or later in the series.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

But while Stamkos was not able to continue, Tampa’s other star players continued to dominate.

Each player on the top line (Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, Ondrej Palat) finished with a goal and an assist, while Victor Hedman continued his stellar postseason by scoring his 10th goal. That is of the highest marks ever for a defenseman in the playoffs. Paul Coffey (12) and Brian Leetch (11) are the only defenders to ever score more goals in a single postseason.

Hedman also made a fantastic defensive play early in the first period — when the game was still tied 0-0 — by chasing Stars’ speedster Denis Gurianov down from behind and disrupting his shot attempt on a breakaway.

Tampa really started to take the game over during a completely lopsided second period that saw them score three goals and own a commanding 21-4 shots on goal edge. The Lightning had 27 total shot attempts while allowing just 9 to the Stars.

That offensive outburst also resulted in the Stars pulling starting goalie Anton Khudobin at the start of the third period. It was one of his worst games of the postseason as he stopped just 24 out of 29 shots.

There is still a long way to go in this series but this is starting to trend in a tough direction for the Stars with back-to-back losses. It is not just the fact that they lost those games that is concerning, but the way Tampa Bay has been able to jump out to huge leads (3-0 in Game 2, 5-1 in Game 3) and just look like a vastly superior team for extended periods of time.

The Lightning are the arguably the most talented team in the league on paper and when they get rolling like they have at times over the past two games it is going to take near perfection — with great goaltending — to slow them down. The Stars fell short in both areas on Wednesday. They have to figure out how to get back closer to that level before Game 4 on Friday night.

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars (TB leads 2-1)

Stars 4, Lightning 1 (recap)
Lightning 3, Stars 2 (recap)
Lightning 5, Stars 2
Game 4: Friday, Sept. 25, 8 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
Game 5: Saturday, Sept. 26, 8 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
*Game 6: Monday, Sept. 28, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
*Game 7: Wednesday, Sept. 30, 8 p.m. ET – NBC

*if necessary

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.