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Changing face (and pace) of NHL underdogs

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Sports fans love underdogs, yet for far too long in the NHL, defying the odds meant slowing hockey down to an agonizingly boring level.

As surreal as it was to see the 2010 Canadiens shock the Capitals and Penguins thanks to an out-of-body experience by Jaroslav Halak, you wonder if upsets like those sent the wrong message: just turtle and hope your goalie can save the day. Such tactics made fans of the sport as a whole shudder back to the Devils trapping the Red Wings into oblivion during the 1995 Stanley Cup Final, and probably long before that. Maybe a team could steal wins with such tactics, but viewers became the biggest losers.

We’re still very much in the “don’t get fooled by early results” portion of the 2018-19 season, yet I can’t help but wonder: are NHL underdogs becoming … fun?

Pushing the pace instead of lagging behind

Amusingly enough, the current rendition of the Montreal Canadiens could be the latest example of a team realizing that they’re not particularly imposing on paper, shrugging their shoulders, and throwing caution to the wind.

The Habs are off to a 3-1-1 start, and while gravity will almost certainly pull them down a bit, they haven’t been riding good luck alone.

So far, they’re firing a hail of pucks on opponents, averaging 36 shots on goal per contest while giving up just 26.6 against. Even the NHL’s elite teams don’t tend to generate such a massive differential of scoring chances over the long haul of an 82-game season, but the point is clear: through five games, this Canadiens team has been relentless.

[How the Habs could exceed expectations this season]

That stretch included an overtime loss to the Maple Leafs, plus two impressive wins against the Penguins. In the past – and in past editions of the Habs – they probably would’ve merely tried to slow down those seemingly mighty teams.

Dice up the numbers in any variety of ways (high-danger chances, shots, scoring chances), and it’s clear that the Canadiens have been very aggressive to begin the season. It makes earlier comments from Claude Julien seem like more than just boilerplate material about playing with more speed.

“We’re trying not to get painted on the wall and stopped,” Julien said in late September, via Sportsnet’s Eric Engels. “I think we’re in movement a lot more this year and our transition game is better because of that. We talked about our speed and we just want to use our speed more. When you have to stop and take off again, it takes away from that speed. So it’s not about going in circles; it’s about making sure that you’re in movement all the time so that when you do get the puck you’ve already got some of that speed.”

Julien added that “with good transition and quick play you’re able to catch teams off balance,” and in all honesty, the Canadiens caught me off balance, too. It’s fascinating to see this Montreal squad shake off an ugly season and summer to just play, and this could be the latest example of what we should all hope is a larger trend of teams pushing the pace even during perceived rebuilds.

Young legs

Now, again, we aren’t even in November. The Canadiens are certain to cool off, with the main question being how much they slow down.

Early on, they’ve been embracing a youth movement. One thing that sticks out is how their defense is playing a more modern style.

While Shea Weber continues his murky knee injury rehab, slow-footed, expensive defenseman Karl Alzner hasn’t managed to suit up for Montreal yet this season. Instead, the defensive minutes are going to Mike Reilly, Jeff Petry (as usual), and Noah Juulsen. While Petry is 30, Reilly is 25 and Juulsen is 21.

There will be growing pains with such an alignment, and the Canadiens probably can’t manufacture too many wins with Antti Niemi in net instead of Carey Price. There’s also the very real threat of slipping into old, slow, habits once older, slower players return to the mix.

Still, it means a lot that this team is at least bringing energy and enthusiasm to the rink. Other fledgling teams should take note: let your young players play, and let them make mistakes. More often than not, the pros outweigh the cons when you allow skilled athletes to take chances. Really, wouldn’t it be better to lose and be entertaining than to lose and put your fans into a sad slumber?

Excusing mistakes and growing pains hasn’t always been Julien’s calling card, but by going younger on defense and embracing fresh faces like rookie Jesperi Kotkaniemi, this Canadiens team has been far more exciting than expected.

“I just never knew where I stood; it was one mistake, you’re coming out of the game,” Reilly said, via The Athletic’s Arpon Basu (sub required). “That’s kind of the way it was, it was one mistake and no trust. So it feels good that you can kind of come in here – obviously you’re going to be held accountable – but if you make one little mistake you’ve got to move on. That’s what I like about this.”

[More on the burst Montreal receives from Kotkaniemi]

To some extent, the Ottawa Senators have also been more refreshing than expected, with Chris Tierney, Brady Tkachuk, and Thomas Chabot powering a respectable start. Their numbers indicate that there’s been more smoke and mirrors involved than with Montreal (again, the Habs have been dictating play).

The point that hopefully gets across to NHL teams – particularly coaches and GMs – is that you don’t need to bog down the game to try to save face, even if your team enters a season looking weak on paper.

Embracing the reality of a faster NHL

Refreshingly, there are examples with larger sample sizes.

The Colorado Avalanche essentially paralleled the Senators and Habs expectations entering 2017-18, only to make the playoffs and occasionally give the Predators fits with their speed and aggressiveness. The New Jersey Devils also carried low expectations into last season. Instead of, well, playing like most people expect the Devils to play, they went for a run-and-gun style that fit their roster and camouflaged a shaky defense. Both experiments were brilliant successes, and each team is off to promising starts in 2018-19.

Amusingly, this emphasis on skill and speed – or even “outscoring your problems” – could possibly be traced back to the repeat champion Penguins, who haven’t ranked as underdogs in ages.

The Penguins and other teams are forging a more lightning-fast NHL, so other teams must decide if they want to adapt or be left behind. Underdogs like the Canadiens aren’t likely to keep pace over the marathon of an 82-game season, but it’s more fun (and probably more effective) to see them race along rather than making like the tortoises of old.

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.

Finland defeats Canada for gold at IIHF World Championship

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BRATISLAVA, Slovakia (AP) — Marko Anttila helped lead Finland to its third world hockey title, scoring the tying and go-ahead goals in a 3-1 victory over Canada on Sunday.

Anttila tied it at 1 on a power play early in the second period and the Finnish captain made it 2-1 early in the third. Harri Pesonen added an insurance goal with five minutes to play.

Kevin Lankinen made 42 saves for Finland, allowing only Shea Theodore‘s first-period goal.

Matt Murray stopped 19 shots for Canada.

Anttila also scored Saturday in Finland’s 1-0 victory over Russia. The Finns knocked off two-time defending champion from Sweden in the quarterfinal. Draft-eligible Kaapo Kakko led the team with six goals.

Finland also won titles in 1995 in Sweden and 2011 in Bratislava.

Earlier, Russia beat the Czech Republic 3-2 in a shootout for third place. Russia was outshot 50-30 through 70 minutes of play, including 10 minutes of sudden-death 3-on-3 overtime, then outscored the Czech Republic 2-0 in the shootout on goals from Ilya Kovalchuk and Nikita Gusev.

Unflappable Binnington won’t be affected by Stanley Cup spotlight

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BOSTON — The question was delivered after a 2-0 win over the Nashville Predators in February — a victory that came after the St. Louis Blues’ saw their 11-game win streak snapped a few nights earlier.

The Blues has just played their ninth game of the month that finished within two goals. They were in the middle of turning around their season and the backbone for the change in fortune was a 25-year-old rookie goaltender who hadn’t made an NHL start until this past January. All those tight hockey games surely had to have brought out a few nerves in Jordan Binnington, right?

“Do I look nervous?”

“No.”

“There’s your answer.”

That line was put on a t-shirt, which has sold throughout St. Louis since, with even some of Binnington’s family members grabbing a few. 

That win came in Binnington’s 18th career NHL start. But way before that game at the end of February, his teammates already knew that he was pretty unflappable.

“It’s just how he is,” said Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo during Stanley Cup Final Media Day. “He’s pretty quiet. He just goes about his business. That quote’s obviously funny but every day he just shows up, does what he has to do. For us, it’s enjoyable when he does stuff like that because we get a kick out of it.”

The quiet confidence that Binnington possesses has been an integral part in helping get the Blues to within four wins of the franchise’s first Stanley Cup. Even after defeats, that memory is erased from his head and he’s looking forward as “don’t look back” is a big mantra with head coach Craig Berube. The same can be said for his goaltender, who has only lost consecutive starts twice this season, both coming in the playoffs.

“If you want to be successful, you want to have that demeanor, you can’t let things affect you and nothing seems to bother him,” Pietrangelo added.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Binnington even has a tie to the Bruins organization after having been loaned to their minor league affiliate in Providence last season since the Blues didn’t have their own AHL team. While sharing one with the Colorado Avalanche, general manager Doug Armstrong was allowed to place one goaltender with the AHL team in San Antonio. That goalie ended up being Ville Husso. Armstrong then alerted his fellow GMs that if anyone was looking for an experience netminder on loan, Binnington, who rejected a move to the ECHL, was available. That’s when Bruins GM Don Sweeney reached out and a deal was made.

Binnington played 28 games last season in Providence and three more in the Calder Cup playoffs.

“They were nothing but good to me,” Binnington said of AHL Providence. “The Boston Bruins prospects are in good hands, I can tell you that. It was a great city and I’m very fortunate they took me in. Met a lot of good people.”

After that experience, Binnington still had to continue fighting for a place in the NHL. He began the 2018-19 season in San Antonio and waited for his opportunity. 

It took 164 AHL and 40 ECHL games, but his chance came in January as starter Jake Allen continued to struggle. A 2-0 shutout over the Philadelphia Flyers was not only the birth of the team’s victory anthem — Laura Branigan’s “Gloria” — but also Binnington usurping the No. 1 job, reaching the Cup Final, becoming a 2019 Calder Trophy finalist, and him likely cashing in this summer as he’s scheduled to become a restricted free agent on July 1.

All that time waiting for an opportunity didn’t damper Binnington’s confidence.

“I realized a couple years ago I was in a situation where my back was against the wall,” Binnington said. “Got to handle it right, and I’ve just had this belief and hunger in myself to be the best I can be and make the most of my talent. I’m very fortunate to be coming to a team like this and it’s been a pretty special season so far.”

Binnington’s teammates have enjoyed being up close to witnessing his journey over the past four months. Who knew that night in Philadelphia in early January would lead to this? 

The 49 starts since have prepared Binnington for this moment as his team plays on the biggest stage. Some players who have never played in a Cup Final might be feeling the butterflies right now, but to Binnington it’s just another series. There’s no spotlight big enough that will made him prepare and execute his game any differently.

“I think that’s where experience comes in and you learn that confidence comes from preparation,” he said. “You want to be prepared for anything that’s thrown at you and that’s kind of the way I look at my life now and hockey specifically. I think that’s an important way to look at it.”

STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW
Who has the better forwards?
Who has the better defensemen?
Who has better goaltending?
Who has the better special teams?
X-factors for Bruins, Blues

PHT Power Rankings: Conn Smythe favorites
Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

————

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.

Bruins fan Matt Damon wowed by Stanley Cup

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When you think of Matt Damon’s connection to Boston, you’re most likely going to recall “Good Will Hunting,” and maybe make some bad jokes about apples and/or Ben Affleck. If forced to make a Boston sports connection, there’s likely the urge to compare him to Tom Brady, his occasional lookalike.*

Apparently Damon is also a Boston Bruins fan, or at least he came off as a one in the video above. If nothing else, he’s impressed by the sight of the Stanley Cup, which qualifies him as “human.” Damon was presented with the Stanley Cup while he was on hand for the Indy 500, which is airing on NBC (stream here).

There’s some good stuff as Damon explains that he was in Vancouver right after the town, um, handled the Bruins’ 2011 Stanley Cup win poorly; Damon said he was going to work, which is hilarious and adorable. There’s also some old-school Stanley Cup trivia in the video, so that should be fun to watch even if you’re not a Damon fan.

Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final takes place between the Bruins and St. Louis Blues at 8 p.m. ET on Monday on NBC. Click here for the full TV info.

* – Dangerous observation: Damon kinda sorta looks like Sidney Crosby from certain angles, doesn’t he? /ducks

OK, maybe that comparison is a stretch. But Damon’s looking a bit less like Brady these days, right?

STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW
• Who has the better special teams?
• Who has the better forwards?
• Who has the better defensemen?
• X-factors
• PHT Power Rankings: Conn Smythe favorites
• Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

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.

Marchand says left hand is ‘good’ heading into Cup Final

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BOSTON (AP) — Bruins winger Brad Marchand says his left hand is fine heading into the Stanley Cup Final.

He sat out Boston’s practice Sunday after being given a ”maintenance day” by coach Bruce Cassidy. But Marchand showed no visible signs of discomfort and didn’t wear any braces on his hand as he met with reporters.

”I just told Butchy I wanted a day off. I’ve had enough of practicing,” Marchand said with a smile when asked about his status for Game 1 on Monday night. ”I’m good.”

Cassidy echoed Marchand’s assessment, saying ”he’ll be ready to go.”

Marchand tweaked his hand during the Bruins’ intrasquad scrimmage on Thursday when he bumped into Connor Clifton in front of the net. Sunday was the first practice Marchand’s missed since the Bruins beat the Carolina Hurricanes on May 16 to advance to the Cup Final.

Marchand is Boston’s leading scorer in the playoffs with 18 points (seven goals and 11 assists). He had 100 points (36 goals and 64 assists) during the regular season.

He says that bumps and bruises are simply part of the game at this time of the season and is nothing he is getting worked up about.

”There’s always things that come in. Guys get hurt in practice and stuff like that,” Marchand said. ”But I think we’re feeling pretty good in the room. Regardless, it doesn’t matter. You play with what you have and you play as healthy or unhealthy as you are this time of year. At the end of the day there’s no excuses. . They have guys that are banged up, too.”

This will be the third Stanley Cup Final for Marchand. He was 22 years old in 2011 and in his second NHL season when Boston beat the Vancouver Canucks in seven games to win the franchise’s sixth championship. But he said the Bruins’ 2013 Cup loss to the Chicago Blackhawks sticks with him more.

”It was devastating,” Marchand said. ”It still hurts to this day. I probably look back more on the loss and what I would do differently, than the win. You lose something like this, you’re a lot closer with the hurt. It never leaves you. Hopefully we don’t feel that again.”

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

Follow Kyle Hightower on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/khightower