Healthy Thornton could be key for Sharks against Knights

SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — Joe Thornton‘s contributions to the San Jose Sharks in last year’s playoff series against Vegas were limited to pregame warmups and leadership.

After being hampered by knee injuries the past two postseasons, Thornton is healthy to start the playoffs this year for the first time since leading the Sharks on a run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2016. San Jose opens the first round Wednesday night against the Golden Knights in a rematch of a second-round series won by Vegas in six games last year.

Thornton missed the first two games of the 2017 playoffs before returning to play the final four of a first-round loss despite having a torn ACL in his left knee. He then missed the entire postseason with a torn ACL in his right knee last year.

”He’s put a lot of work in the past couple of years just to have this opportunity,” captain Joe Pavelski said. ”It’s a credit to him. As much as he wants to be around us, we want him around.”

The 39-year-old Thornton enters the postseason playing his best hockey of the season, with his 33 points since Jan. 7 ranking third on the team in that span.

Thornton’s play has given the Sharks three top centers, along with Logan Couture and Tomas Hertl, after being thin down the middle last year. While the top two lines get most of the attention from the opposition, Thornton has created consistent offense with wingers Kevin Labanc and Marcus Sorensen.

”He’s been an elite player in this league for 20 however many years now,” Vegas defenseman Deryk Engelland said. ”He brings a lot, he sees the ice extremely well, he’s a big guy and on that third line I think he’s the type of guy who makes everyone around him better.”

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

A healthy Thornton isn’t going to be the only difference when these teams meet in the playoffs for a second straight year. The Sharks also added star defenseman Erik Karlsson in a trade before the season and another skilled forward at the trade deadline in Gustav Nyquist.

The Golden Knights added an entirely new second line that is talented enough to be the top group on many teams. Vegas signed Paul Stastny as a free agent in July, acquired Max Pacioretty in a deal with Montreal in September and then got the big piece that sparked the season at the trade deadline with a deal for Mark Stone.

The Knights won 10 of 11 after the trade, including a 7-3 win in San Jose, before a late-season slump cost them a chance at home-ice in this series

”It was hard last year obviously, we definitely didn’t have as much depth as now,” forward Jonathan Marchessault said. ”I think we have a healthy team and we definitely have the depth. We’re a confident group, we know we can make some damage in the playoffs.”

Here are some other things to watch:

KARLSSON’S HEALTH: Karlsson missed 17 games with his second groin injury of the season before returning with some rust for the regular-season finale. San Jose hopes he can shake that rust quickly and get the team back to the form it had in December and January before the first injury happened and the Sharks were playing as well as anyone. Coach Peter DeBoer called Karlsson a critical piece who helps on both ends of the ice.

”He’s probably one of the best, if not the best transporter of the puck in the league,” DeBoer said. ”That speaks for itself. We missed him and it’s nice to have him back.”

IN BLOOM: Perhaps the biggest difference in last year’s series was the play of Vegas goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who had two shutouts and a .935 save percentage in the series. Fleury missed nearly three weeks late this season with a lower-body injury and allowed eight goals in two losses after returning. But he has shown the ability to carry a team in the playoffs in the past.

PLAYOFF JONES: Sharks goalie Martin Jones heads into the postseason with the lowest save percentage of any starting goalie in the playoffs. But ever since arriving in San Jose before the 2015-16 season, Jones has been better in the playoffs than the regular season. His .926 career save percentage in the playoffs ranks sixth best in NHL history among goalies with at least 40 starts. He has allowed two or fewer goals in nearly two-thirds of his postseason starts.

FOURTH-LINE GRINDERS: Both teams have plenty of skill up front but the Golden Knights can bring an element of physicality with the fourth line featuring Ryan Reaves and Williams Carrier. Reaves led the league with 305 hits, while Carrier ranked fourth with 277. The Sharks will answer with enforcer Micheal Haley on the fourth line to start the series but could switch to Joonas Donskoi later. Donskoi, who was on the top line last postseason, has no goals in his last 34 games.

AP freelancer W.G. Ramirez in Las Vegas contributed to this report

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

Blues face prime opportunity to return to Stanley Cup Final

Leave a comment

When you have your opponent looking down and out in a playoff series you do not want to let them get back up.

You do not even want to give them the chance to get back up.

You want to eliminate them when you have the opportunity and remove all doubt, avoiding what would be an all-or-nothing Game 7 on the road.

That is the position the St. Louis Blues find themselves in heading into Game 6 of the Western Conference Final on Tuesday night (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN; live stream) when they will host an injury-riddled San Jose Sharks team.

The Blues have won the past two games, including a thoroughly dominant performance on Sunday, they are at home, and they are facing a Sharks team that is without two of its best players and potentially a third that will almost certainly not be 100 percent if he does play.

Everything has fallen in the Blues’ favor for this game, and it is hard to imagine a better opportunity to close out a series than this.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Just look at everything that is sitting in the Blues’ corner for this game.

  • Their best player, Vladimir Tarasenko, has gone on a tear and is riding a five-game point streak heading into Tuesday’s game. He was always going to be one of the biggest factors in this series and has found his scoring touch at just the right time.
  • The Sharks will not have Erik Karlsson, one of their most important players and a defender that can single-handedly change a team and a game when he is in the lineup. This series started to shift in the Blues’ favor when Karlsson’s groin injury resurfaced, limiting his ability to make an impact. He was obviously less than 100 percent in the Blues’ Game 4 win and barely played in Game 5 on Sunday. The Blues have outscored the Sharks by a 7-1 margin in those two games. Even though the Sharks still have another Norris Trophy winner (and a Norris Trophy finalist this season) in Brent Burns in their lineup, they are definitely a weaker team when one of them is out of the lineup.
  • The Sharks will also be without Tomas Hertl, currently their second-leading goal-scorer. With Hertl and Karlsson out it means the Sharks will be playing a must-win game without two of the top-six scorers in the playoffs and two players that have been involved in an overwhelming majority of their offense. At least one of Hertl or Karlsson has been on the ice for 39 of the Sharks’ 57 goals, while one of them has scored or assisted on 25 of them. When neither one is on the ice the Sharks have averaged just 2.22 goals per 60 minutes (all situations) in the playoffs. Not a great number.

So, yeah, this is a huge opportunity for the Blues and a game where it would probably be in their best interest to take care of business.

A loss on Tuesday night not only sends them to a Game 7 in San Jose where anything can happen, it also leaves open the possibility that one of those two key Sharks players (or even both of them) could be available. Yes, the Blues have been great on the road in these playoffs, but there is no guarantee that continues, especially in a win-or-go-home situation.

Even without Hertl and Karlsson the Sharks still have plenty of talent on their roster, so this game is far from a cake-walk for the Blues. But this is definitely the weakest lineup they are going to face in this matchup and there is never going to be a better opportunity to end a 49 year Stanley Cup Final drought than this night.

If they are going to do it, this seems like the game for it to happen.

MORE: Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

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.

Karlsson, Hertl out for Game 6; Pavelski game-time decision

4 Comments

If the San Jose Sharks are going to force a Game 7 in the Western Conference Final against the St. Louis Blues they are going to have to do it on Tuesday night (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN; Live Stream) without a couple of their most important players.

Coach Pete DeBoer announced after the morning skate that defender Erik Karlsson and forward Tomas Hertl are not available for Game 6 against and that they did not even accompany the team on the road trip to St. Louis.

Both players exited the Sharks’ Game 5 loss on Sunday due to injury.

Karlsson has been hampered by a nagging groin injury that has resurfaced in the playoffs, while Hertl had to leave the game after he was on the receiving end of a high hit from Blues forward Ivan Barbashev. There was no penalty called on the play and Barbashev was not disciplined by the league.

Captain Joe Pavelski also exited Sunday’s game with an injury and did not take part in the morning skate on Tuesday but is a game-time decision according to DeBoer.

Pavelski had previously missed the first six games of the Sharks’ Round 2 series against the Colorado Avalanche after he was injured in their Game 7 win against the Vegas Golden Knights. He has five points (two goals, three assists) since returning to the lineup.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

While Pavelski at least seems like a possibility to play, the losses of Karlsson and Hertl are going to be significant for the Sharks.

Even though Karlsson has been limited by injury for much of the season he has still been an impact player and played a huge role in the team’s Round 1 comeback against the Golden Knights. He has 16 total points in 19 games and is the league’s fifth-leading scorer in the playoffs. It was obvious he was struggling in the Sharks’ Game 4 loss but still attempted to play in Game 5. It did not go well as he was clearly unable to play up to his normal level and logged just 10 minutes of ice time, with only three of those minutes coming after the first period.

Hertl, meanwhile, has been one of the Sharks’ most dynamic forwards and has scored some of their biggest goals this postseason, including a game-winning shorthanded goal in double overtime to help the team fight off elimination in Round 1, and one of the power play goals in their come-from-behind Game 7 win against the Golden Knights.

He has 10 goals (third among all players in the playoffs) and 15 total points.

MORE: Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

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.

Canes’ Martinook, de Haan have offseason surgeries

Leave a comment

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Carolina Hurricanes forward Jordan Martinook and defenseman Calvin de Haan have had offseason surgeries.

General manager Don Waddell said Tuesday that Martinook had a procedure on a core muscle while de Haan’s surgery was on his right shoulder.

Martinook is expected to recover in 4-6 weeks while de Haan will be out 4-6 months.

The 26-year-old Martinook had a career-best 15 goals with five game-winners, and was in and out of the lineup during the playoffs due to injuries. The 28-year-old de Haan injured his shoulder against Pittsburgh on March 31 but returned for Game 4 of the first-round playoff series against Washington.

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

Blues seeking a shot at redemption as they try to close out Sharks

2 Comments

A lot has happened in the past 49 years.

Cell phones, Instagram, selfies and, for the purposes of this story, a whole lot of hockey. What hasn’t happened in nearly half a century, however, is a St. Louis Blues team opposite another in the Stanley Cup Final.

The Blues could get with the times if they’re to find a way past the San Jose Sharks on Tuesday. (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN; live stream).

Some history…

It was 1970 when St. Louis made their third straight appearance in the Cup Final, their most recent. Having been swept in their previous two attempts, both at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens, the Blues were now coming up against another Original Six team with Bobby Orr’s Boston Bruins.

Different team, different legends, same result.

The Bruins snatched the broom from the Canadiens and repeated the process against the Blues thanks, in part, to one of the most iconic goals in NHL history that Number 4 scored in overtime to clinch the Stanley Cup.

The Blues are one win away from a chance at redemption, nearly 50 years in the making.

“It’s probably tough to put into words,” Blues forward Jaden Schwartz said. “It’s something that everyone’s worked for and dreamed about. You don’t want to look too far ahead. We all know how important and how hard that last win’s going to be. It would be a dream come true.”

The Sharks are treading familiar water heading into the game, something the Blues are acutely aware of.

“We’re close. We’re very close right now,” Blues forward Patrick Maroon said. “I think the guys know that. It’s in the back of their heads, but we know that that’s a good hockey team over there too and they’re not going to give up.”

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Some, even, won’t talk about it just yet.

“We will talk about it when we get there,” Alexander Steen said.

No team has been to more Stanley Cup Playoffs than the St. Louis Blues and not hoisted hockey’s holy grail at some point in June. Their 42 playoff appearances is far and away the most by any team (Buffalo is second with 29). A win Tuesday would also end the second-longest Cup Final drought in NHL history (behind only Toronto).

“It’s gonna be a lot of emotion and it’s important our players keep it in check,” head coach Craig Berube said. Our players have done a pretty good job of … focusing. I don’t expect anything different. It’s important at the start of the game you’re simple and direct. Keep your emotions in check and not let them get out of control.”

MORE: Tarasenko getting hot at right time for Blues

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