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Laine has rekindled passing ability, and goalies should be very afraid

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It was 11:24 into the first period of Thursday’s 4-3 win against the Boston Bruins when Patrik Laine was presented with a conundrum.

Bearing down on goal with the puck on his stick, and with linemate Mark Scheifele angling hard to the Boston net off to his right, the Winnipeg Jets forward had a choice to make: try and pick a corner, the preferred method of a 20-year-old superstar who has 109 goals in two-and-a-half years in the NHL or slide a perfect pass to Scheifele, who’d meet it at the back door behind a helpless Tuukka Rask.

For a guy born with the gift of snipe, the decision in front of him (and the one he’d eventually make) seemingly perplexed the young Finn.

“Yeah, I thought I was going to shoot, too,” Laine said while fielding questions after the game.

Laine chose Option B, making that perfect pass to Scheifele, who was, predictably, sitting on the back doorstep waiting to receive.

Never one to shy away from being brutally honest, Laine explained his strategy.

“If I don’t know what I’m doing, I don’t think the goalie’s going to know what I’m doing,” he said. “I thought first I was going to shoot it, I was pretty close. But then I saw [Scheifele] back door so might as well pass it, sometimes.”

Might as well.

Laine’s gone from a goal-scoring prodigy to an elite passer (while still also being a goal-scoring prodigy). But we always knew he could.

Laine’s game has flourished since linking up on a line with Scheifele and Blake Wheeler. Before, Laine was so far down in the gutter that some pondered trading him, or at the very least, shipping him down to the American Hockey League to “teach him a lesson.”

Trading nor demoting Laine was ever going to materialize, but the concern over Winnipeg’s prized possession was reaching hysteria levels as Laine’s goal drought reached 15 games.

Laine-Scheifele-Wheeler had been experimented with in the past but results were average. Laine’s defensive game was never up to snuff, and playing on a line tasked with lining up against the NHL’s best demanded all three parts of the trio playing in both ends of the ice.

This time around, it’s clicked. Two months of floating around and looking bewildered with his lot in life has simply vanished. In its place is a Patrik Laine who backchecks, who can be found behind his own net digging out a puck and leading a rush up the ice. He’s adapted to the way both Scheifele and Wheeler play.

“I think what guys realize about me and Wheels is it’s never one guy’s the passer, one guy’s the shooter,” Scheifele said. “We all do the work, we all do what needs to be done. When you’re the guy to score, you’re the guy to score. When you’re the guy to pass, you’re the guy to pass. That’s the way we’ve always worked.”

Laine is now working within those parameters. Part of that is having no choice in the matter. You play north-south with intense pace like the other two or you play on a different line. The other part is that Laine has adopted the line’s mantra, as Scheifele explained.

“I think they’re good at creating spaces, kind of empty spots on the ice and it’s just easy for me to try to read off them, what they’re doing and where the open ice is going to be,” Laine said. “Now, I’m starting to learn where they want to go, and where do they want me to go. So it’s been kind of a learning process, learning every game and every practice. But it’s getting more and more comfortable.”

Winnipeg’s top line features three right-handed shots, a mixture that head coach Paul Maurice has liked. And why wouldn’t he? The line combined for seven points against the Bruins and his best shooter has unleashed a more well-round version of himself.

“It’s a completely different style of game,” Maurice said. “I’ve got three right-handed shots there, so when [Laine] opens up, he’s got two guys that are very, very fast. So Blake [Wheeler] just drives the pace and Mark [Scheifele] is very good at finding holes off that.

“It’s a different game if it’s a lefty there. There’s just different kinds of plays that get completed. It puts Patrik, because of the off-side speed that he’s playing with, it puts him in position, when he gets it, to have those passing options that he wouldn’t have had before. It also puts him in a more difficult place to shoot the puck. It’s more of a challenge how he gets the puck coming on that side of the ice, but he’s starting to put those numbers up.”

Maurice said himself Thursday that Laine’s game is night and day better the moment he moved to the left wing on Scheifele’s line.

“One, because he’s smart and he wants to make it work,” Maurice said. “But he also has an appreciation now that when you’re playing against – and tonight we ran [Adam] Lowry against [Patrice] Bergeron – but on nights when their best are playing [against Scheifele’s line], you don’t get to make two mistakes on one shift or it’s in the back of the net. The same as it is going the other [way]. We put him there, as much as we thought it would be an offensive grouping that we liked, to teach him that part of the game.”

Laine’s gone from the kid barely passing in the back of the class to the astute learner with his hand up in the front row.

And his game has evolved.

In the past, a stretch of points for Laine would look like betting odds: several goals and one or two assists. At the moment, he’s bucked that trend with four goals and eight assists in his past 11 games.

A Patrik Laine with a shot possessed by few and the vision to match? Tuukka Rask got a taste on Thursday. All he could do was guess with Laine bearing down on him. Like Laine, he didn’t know what was going to happen either.

“All the options are right there, obviously, but when it’s one of the best shooters in the league you don’t want to cheat on that so I just didn’t make the push on time,” Rask said.

Good luck, goalies.

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Gallant responds to ‘clown’ DeBoer for ‘chirping’ comment

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The war of words in the Vegas Golden Knights-San Jose Sharks series has now extended to the coaches, and friends, things are getting spicy.

On Monday Sharks coach Peter DeBoer was critical of his counterpart, Gerard Gallant, for “chirping” at Sharks players during the series, saying: “I don’t know if it works in our favor. I mean, there’s still chatter. Their coach is chattering. He’s probably doing the most chattering. He’s talking to our players constantly during the game, which I haven’t seen before.”

DeBoer went on to call the chatter, “ridiculous.”

On Tuesday, just hours before the decisive Game 7 (10 p.m. ET; NBCSN; Live Stream), Gallant was asked about DeBoer’s comments and responded not only in great detail about the incidents, but by also calling DeBoer a clown.

“I really don’t want to talk about that, but I think I’m going to have to a little bit,” said Gallant. “For that clown to say that in the paper yesterday, it’s not right.”

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

From there, Gallant explained when and why he was chattering from the bench.

“There might have been two incidents that happened, and I’ll tell you both incidents,” Gallant began.

Logan Couture, I thought it was an embellishment, so I’m yelling at the referee. Not Logan Couture. The other one, in Game 2, Evander Kane, he is yelling at Ryan Reaves between the bench. Evander yells at me, he says, ‘hey coach, when are you going to send your big guy out on the ice and play him more than four minutes?’ I said, ‘he’s played 10 minutes every game and he’s going to play a lot more.’ Those are the two times. If I’m going to be a chirper and a loudmouth, I think people know me as a coach and respect me as a coach. If he’s going to yap about that, that’s a little unclassy for me.”

The trash talking in the series began with Reaves and Kane having a very public back-and-forth, complete with Kane referring to Reaves as “the muffin man” after their Game 3 fight and Reaves cracking jokes about Joe Thornton‘s age and vision.

This is only the Golden Knights’ second year in the NHL, but having already played the Sharks in the playoffs each year, and having some wild regular season matchups in between, it is very clear they have their first true rival.

The handshake line on Tuesday night, no matter who wins, should be an interesting one.

Related: Trash talk between Reaves, Kane almost as good as their fight

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.

Pressure once again on Babcock, Maple Leafs in Game 7

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Trying to pick the winner of a Game 7 in the Stanley Cup Playoffs is completely futile. It is there that one of the most random sports, at its most random time of year, descends into its most random madness where anything and everything can happen. That unpredictability is a big part of what makes it so great and captivating.

It doesn’t really matter what happened in the previous six games of the series, or at any other point in the season because Game 7s usually come down to which goalie plays the best game for 60 minutes, or which team gets the right bounce at the right time. Those are things that are just impossible to predict before the game begins. You just have to watch and see how it all plays out.

With that said, I have no idea what is going to happen between the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday night (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN; live stream) , but I do know this much — the Maple Leafs better win.

Don’t care how. Don’t care why. Don’t care what the score is. They just need to win.

They better win for the short-term reputation of their core, and they better win for the long-term reputation of their head coach.

I’m not going to go as far as to say Mike Babcock is coaching for his job on Tuesday night, because there is literally no indication of that. Plus, deciding the fate of your coach based on one game is kind of a foolish thing to do anyway. At this point he is either your coach, or he is not.

But at some point these people have to win something.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

And I’m not even talking about the Eastern Conference or the Stanley Cup itself.

Just something.

A playoff round, for example, would be a huge place to start for an organization that hasn’t played in the second round since before the salary cap era began (2004), and has built a roster that has championship aspirations right now. This isn’t a team whose window is still a couple of years away from opening. They are in it right now, and with the Tampa Bay Lightning and Pittsburgh Penguins (and maybe Washington Capitals after Wednesday?) out of the picture this season the field is wide open for every team in the Eastern Conference.

But again, let’s just start with a round.

It would be huge for the best collection of young forwards in the NHL that was only strengthened this summer with the addition of John Tavares. At some point Round 1 exits — and a loss on Tuesday would be the third in a row — will not be enough for this core.

It would be huge for the highest paid head coach in the NHL whose actual results-based resume has not matched his reputation and league-wide standing in quite a while. At some point third place finishes (a Babcock coached team has not finished higher than third in its division since 2010-11) and Round 1 exits (he has not been out of Round 1 since 2012-13, and only once since 2010-11) will not be enough. I again go back to the fact that 25 different NHL head coaches have won a playoff series since Babcock last won one. If you’re the Maple Leafs, you’re not paying more than $6 million per season for those results.

It would be huge for Nazem Kadri, an incredibly valuable player, who once again failed his team by doing something completely reckless and senseless to take himself out of a playoff series. It would be an awfully bad look to have your team go out early, again, while you’re sitting in the press box for a significant chunk of the series for a totally avoidable reason. This will be the 14th playoff game between the Bruins and Maple Leafs the past two years, and Kadri has made himself available for only six of them. Would you be able to bring him back after that?

It is a Game 7 in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and the pressure is on everyone to win.

If Boston loses it would no doubt be disappointing for the organization and the fans. But this Bruins’ core at least has a championship to fall back on, and has at least made some kind of a run at some point in the past decade. It would be frustrating, but it wouldn’t be something that would make the organization take a long look at itself in the mirror and try to figure out why this sort of thing keeps happening.

But Toronto? A loss on Tuesday night would sink them into a sea of questions regarding their core, their coach, and just why in the hell they can’t get through this Boston Bruins team.

That will not be fun — or good — for anyone.

Anything can happen in a Game 7, but Toronto needs this one more than any other team playing in a Game 7 in this round.

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.

AP/CP survey: Players pan delay of game, goalie interference

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The pace and excitement of 3-on-3 overtime isn’t just a thrill for hockey fans – NHL players love it, too.

An Associated Press/Canadian Press survey of NHLPA representatives from all 31 teams found that 97% of those polled enjoy the league’s current overtime format during the regular season. The survey also found there are other rules the players are less thrilled with, ranging from delay-of-game penalties to confusion about goalie interference.

For Arizona Coyotes defenseman Kevin Connauton, the worst rule in hockey is resolving a game with a shootout when overtime fails to produce a winner.

”I don’t really like the shootout,” he said. ”I think you just play 3-on-3 and eventually someone will score.”

The survey found that 30 players like the 3-on-3 setup. Only Philadelphia defenseman Radko Gudas said he did not, preferring the previous 4-on-4 setup better. He and said having fewer players on the ice is too much like ”summertime hockey.”

”You work your bag off 60 minutes 5-on-5 and then all of a sudden it’s 3-on-3, a speedier, faster guy pretty much wins,” he said. ”I think 4-on-4 would be more hockey-like situations than 3-on-3.”

Still, his peers said they love it. Playing a five-minute 3-on-3 period provides a fair way to end the game while allowing fans to see some pure skill, Toronto Maple Leafs center John Tavares said.

”(It’s) exciting and you see the best players in the world with that type of time and space,” he said. ”It goes to show it’s a good way to end games. There’s no perfect science to this. We want a winner, but we can’t play forever. It’s a great way to showcase the talent, the skill of the game.”

The pace can be tough for the guys on the ice, New Jersey Devils goaltender Cory Schneider said.

”I hate it as a goalie, but I like it as a hockey fan,” he said. ”I think it’s better than the shootout, for sure. And I know it’s not perfect, but it gets you a decision, it gets people excited, you see some amazing skill and the way the league is now, it’s a great showcase for what these guys can do.”

The NHL moved away from 4-on-4 overtime in the 2015-16 regular season in a bid to create more space on the ice, allow for more goals and reduce the number of games going to shootouts. In the postseason, overtime is in 20-minute, sudden-death periods at 5-on-5. There are no shootouts.

Dylan DeMelo of the Ottawa Senators loves 3-on-3, but said there is one tweak he’d like to make. The defenseman said he wants to see a rule that would stop players from taking the puck over center ice and then back again to regroup. He thinks that would make OT even more entertaining.

There are a number of other rules players would love to see changed, including 63.2 that stipulates a delay of game penalty when a puck is shot or batted over the glass.

”I don’t think it should be a penalty. I think it should be the same as an icing. Whistle, faceoff in your end, no ability to change,” said Colorado Avalanche defenseman Ian Cole, one of five players (16%) who said the rule is the worst in hockey. ”A penalty for a play that has a high chance to happen in a course of a game or a (penalty kill) or whatever, it seems a little drastic.”

For other players, the uncertainty around what constitutes goalie interference is particularly irritating. Three players, or 10% of those in the survey, said the inconsistency was their least-favorite part of the NHL rule book.

”What is goaltender interference and what’s not?” said Edmonton defenseman Darnell Nurse. ”Maybe having more of a clear line, but any time you talk about something within the game, things happen so fast out there that judgment calls and whatnot, they’re hard to make.”

According to the league, there are only two situations where goaltender interference should result in a disallowed goal: if an attacking player stops the goalie from being able to move freely within his crease or defend his goal, or an attacking player intentionally or deliberately makes contact with the goalie.

Some players say what counts as interference in one game might not be the same in the next.

On Friday, Flyers goalie Cam Talbot tweeted his dissatisfaction with how the rule was applied in the Maple Leafs’ 2-1 win over the Boston Bruins.

”Once again the NHL goalie interference review is flawed,” wrote Talbot, who was not part of the AP/CP survey. ”Someone that’s played the game in the blue paint should be in the situation room. Games are being lost in the playoffs and it’s not right. (hash)inconsistent.”

Three players said what they most dislike are offside reviews. Nine others named other rules, including tripping being called alongside diving, and the ban on time outs being used when the puck is iced. Eleven players did not provide a specific answer.

”Rules are the rules. I just follow them,” said winger Anders Lee of the New York Islanders.

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

Sabres’ Zach Bogosian out 5-6 months after hip surgery

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Buffalo Sabres defenseman Zach Bogosian will miss five to six months after his second hip operation in a little more than a year.

The Sabres provided the update Tuesday, two weeks after their season ended. Bogosian missed the final eight games with what the team referred to only as a lower-body injury.

The timetable for recovery means Bogosian is in jeopardy of missing the start of next season.

The surgery is the latest setback for the 28-year-old hard-hitting defenseman, who has played 70 games just twice in his 11 NHL seasons. Bogosian was limited to playing just 18 games in 2017-18 before season-ending hip surgery in January of that season.

Last season, he finished with three goals and 19 points in 65 games, matching the most he played since 2011-12, when Bogosian was with Winnipeg.

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