Crease concerns: Several contenders have goalie questions

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Mike Smith and David Rittich helped the Calgary Flames finish first in the Western Conference.

Yet there are still questions about how far those goalies can carry their team in the playoffs.

Smith and Rittich sounds more like a law firm than the goaltending tandem anyone expected the NHL’s second-best team to have. Smith is a 37-year-old veteran with a sub.-900 save percentage seven years removed from his last playoff action, while Rittich is a 26-year-old in his first full year in the league who would be getting his first taste of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

It’s not out of the realm of possibility the Flames split the duties like they did all season, and as a result they’re one of several teams with goaltending questions as the playoffs begin. Winnipeg, San Jose and Toronto are among the other serious contenders with significant question marks in net at the wrong time of year to have them.

”We wouldn’t be where we are without our goaltending,” Calgary general manager Brad Treliving said. ”We’ve gotten strong goaltending all year at the right time. What we’ve never really had is times in the year where both guys are maybe going through a little bit of a skid.”

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Treliving wouldn’t be surprised if coach Bill Peters uses both goalies in the playoffs, a ”nontraditional” strategy but not one he thinks is a problem. Smith figures to start Game 1 of the first round against Colorado on Thursday, but it’s up in the air after that.

The Flames at least know they can turn to another goalie if one falters. San Jose – which had the worst team save percentage in the NHL at .889 will go with Martin Jones, but backup Aaron Dell has struggled plenty this season, too. The Sharks also open against the defending West champion Vegas Golden Knights, who have arguably the best goaltending situation in the playoffs assuming Marc-Andre Fleury is healthy.

Winnipeg will ride with Connor Hellebuyck, even though Laurent Brossoit should be back from injury to back up in Game 1 Wednesday against St. Louis, which has out-of-nowhere phenom Jordan Binnington. Hellebuyck has not been quite as stellar this year as last when he carried a strong regular season into the West final, though that run could pay dividends this time around.

”One thing that you can’t substitute is experience,” Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff said. ”Once you go through something and you experience it, you have a mental template of how you need to act and what you liked about it, what you didn’t like about it. So now he’s got that experience. He likes to play big games.”

With big games to come against the Boston Bruins, Toronto’s Frederik Andersen better be up to the task for the Maple Leafs to avoid a third consecutive first-round exit. Andersen is 3-3-3 with a 3.94 goals-against average and .881 save percentage in his last 10 games and wondered if injuries have thrown off his rhythm.

”I think I’ve played more games and felt better” in previous seasons, Andersen said. ”This year I’ve been banged up a little bit at times and obviously with the time I missed, it’s been different.”

After coach Mike Babcock said nothing is more important going into playoffs than a goaltender feeling good about himself, Andersen’s response might not portend great things for Toronto. Add to that switching out regular backup Garret Sparks for Michael Hutchinson at the eleventh hour and there’s Philadelphia Flyers-level goalie drama going on with the Maple Leafs.

There’s no drama with the Flames, who finished second in the league in goals behind Presidents’ Trophy winning Tampa Bay and are confident going into the playoffs. While Columbus acquired Keith Kinkaid from New Jersey for depth behind Sergei Bobrovsky and Joonas Korpisalo, Calgary didn’t come close to such a move and will roll along with Smith and Rittich.

”That was not a discussion point for us,” Treliving said. ”They have a great relationship, they push each other, they cheer for each other when they’re not in the net. I don’t pay a whole lot of attention to things outside of our room. We just worry about ourselves inside that room, and I know our guys have a lot of confidence in both guys.”

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

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

P.K. Subban gets a warm tribute during his return to Nashville

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It would have been silly for Nashville Predators fans to boo P.K. Subban during his return to “Smashville.”

Subban didn’t choose to be traded from Montreal to Nashville, and he didn’t elect to be sent from Nashville to the New Jersey Devils, either.

Sports fans aren’t always so rational, though. Really, it makes sense: spending so much money, time, and emotional energy on a game isn’t exactly the most rational thing to do. So there was some concern about how Subban would be received, especially since he’s already booed in an honestly uncomfortably large number of NHL arenas already.

Subban and others can breathe a sigh of relief, though, as while not everyone greeted Subban with open arms in as literal a way as Roman Josi did with their hug on Saturday, the team gave Subban a fantastic welcome back tribute video:

Not only does that video include some of Subban’s great moments during his three seasons with the Predators (that Stanley Cup Final appearance, a Norris Trophy win), it also captures some of the off-the-ice qualities that make Subban so fun and entertaining (and make people sometimes get perplexingly, maybe troublingly mad about him). He got up and decided to sing some Johnny Cash upon arriving in Nashville, was a fantastic charitable presence, and was a lot of fun.

(No Listerine was spilled in the making of the ad, but you can’t have it all.)

Anyway, good on the Predators and their fans for welcoming P.K. back.

As a reminder, Montreal Canadiens fans greeted him with love upon his return, too:

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.

Avs’ rising star Cale Makar shaken by hit from Bruins’ Marchand

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The Colorado Avalanche have done a masterful job, for the most part, when it comes to rolling with injury-related punches to key players such as Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog. They have to hope that Saturday didn’t send another such haymaker their way.

Rising star defenseman Cale Makar (who just fell under a point per game on Saturday with 28 in 29 contests) was clearly shaken up by a hard hit by Boston Bruins forward Brad Marchand.

It didn’t seem like a heinous hit by Marchand, although there are some who wonder if it was a bit high.

Either way, Makar’s reaction is troubling. You can see him shake his head multiple times following the hit, which gives the impression that he could have suffered a concussion. That doesn’t guarantee that Makar did, but it’s a situation to watch — and one the Avalanche should absolutely be careful about.

The Avalanche ended up beating the Bruins 4-1 on Saturday.

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.

Laila Anderson, bone marrow donor attend Blues game

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If it got a “little dusty” at the Enterprise Center in St. Louis on Saturday, that’s understandable, because the continued story of Laila Anderson meeting Kenton Felmlee, her bone marrow donor, is sure to make most get a case of heightened allergies.

(Is that a leak from the ceiling? /Sobs)

Anyway, Felmlee was Anderson’s guest during Saturday’s Toronto Maple Leafs – St. Louis Blues game, giving the two another chance to bond, and beyond that, for Anderson to thank Felmlee for helping her in her battle with the rare immune disease HLH.

It’s great stuff, even if the actual Blues game isn’t going so great for St. Louis.

This longer clip from their first meeting earlier this week is worth watching, unless you don’t want people to see you openly weeping’n’stuff:

(Personally, I’d say it’s worth it.)

MORE ON LAILA ANDERSON AND THE BLUES:

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.

Canucks’ Miller scored an awesome water bottle breaker in OT

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Over time, you can become jaded as a sports (and specifically hockey) fan.

Stories about abusive coaches, lockouts, fans booing players for simply no longer being on their teams — it can sap some of the joy of the game.

Thankfully, we have highlights, and I can’t think of many simpler joys than someone scoring a goal and absolutely obliterating the goalie’s water bottle in the process. (As long as no one gets too dehydrated in the making of such films.)

Vancouver Canucks winger J.T. Miller did it one better on Saturday: he scored an important goal that way. Miller presented the ultra-rare OTBBGWG (overtime bottle-breaking game-winning goal) as the Canucks beat the Buffalo Sabres 6-5 in OT.

Bask in the glory of that goal in the video above this post’s headline. Here’s a fun alternate angle:

By the way, Miller continues to be a deadly offensive weapon for the Canucks. This one-goal, one-assist output extended his current point streak to an impressive eight games (5G, 6A for 11 points). Overall, Miller has 31 points in 30 games during his first season in Vancouver.

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.