Blue Jackets’ future cloudy after Kekalainen’s gamble falls short

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If you’re looking for a feel-good story about how the Columbus Blue Jackets ignited hockey fandom in a town for the past month, you won’t find it here on this Tuesday in early May.

Fuzzy feelings are fleeting when a team that went all-in, risking future assets and big returns on key pending unrestricted free agents, crashes out of the playoffs in Round 2.

The talk or progress would be a sentiment I could be more bullish on if they weren’t fixing to lose two or three of their stars come the summer.

Yes, the Blue Jackets beat the Tampa Bay Lightning. Swept them, no less, in emphatic fashion.

Sure, Columbus battled the Boston Bruins hard, taking them to Game 6 before being unable to solve Tuukka Rask

They showed tremendous tenacity during those two rounds and a sense of having bought into a suffocating style of hockey that stymied one of the best regular-season teams of all-time.

Coming back from a 3-0 deficit in Game 1 against the Lightning will be memorable. As, too, will be the play of Sergei Bobrovsky, who gave the Blue Jackets a chance every night, as did the scoring touches of both Artemi Panarin and Matt Duchene, who proved to be crucial pieces that stepped up when the lights shined brightest.

The crowds, the chants, the atmosphere, the cannon — all special while it lasted.

John Tortorella said his team made huge steps forward. True. The exact makeup of the team as of Monday’s Game 6 made huge steps forward over the past month, and there’d be a lot of build on here if it weren’t for this dark cloud that’s also been hovering over the team.

There’d be a reason to be optimistic if every player mentioned above were locked into varying lengths of long-term deals with the organization. The sad reality is they aren’t. And it seems almost certain at this point that they will lose both Panarin and Bobrovsky to free agency, and Duchene could walk to under the same circumstances if he so chooses.

Losing them is, at the very least, a step back, right?

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

General manager Jarmo Kekalainen gambled big here, so much so that he can probably skip his flight to Vancouver for this year’s draft because he won’t play a big part having only a third-round pick and Calgary’s seventh-round choice at the moment. (Not to mention no second- or third-round pick in 2020.)

The only thing that lasts forever in hockey is Stanley Cup banners and the engraving on hockey’s holy grail that goes with it.

Hockey’s a sport where if you’re not first, your last. You can raise feel-good banners, but they become the butt-end of jokes rather than revered pieces of fabric.

When the dust settles in or around July 1, the Blue Jackets could be without their top scorer, their No. 1 goaltender and the man they sold a good acre or two of the farm to get at the NHL trade deadline.

Per CapFriendly, Columbus’ projected cap space heading into next year is in the $27 million range. Can that coerce a No. 1 to sign in free agency if Bobrovsky leaves? Maybe, but the No. 1 goalie pool this year is slim at best.

Can it replace a 27-year-old superstar in Panarin? What about a 28-year-old point-per-game player in Duchene?

Kekalainen’s wand is going to need a full charge to pull off that kind of sorcery. That’s not to say it can’t happen, but it’s a tall order in the highest degree.

Sure, the remaining players can draw on the experiences they had. Is there much to extract from that, however, if three big names are out?

“Next year who knows what’s going to happen?” said Cam Atkinson after Game 6. “Who’s going to be in this locker room?”

There’s a core in Columbus that will remain, however: Atkinson, Seth Jones, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Josh Anderson, and Nick Foligno, who’s a consummate captain.

But you don’t just magically regrow a couple of severed limbs. That takes detailed surgery and an unknown timeframe get back to full strength.

Gambles, however well calculated they may be, are still gambles at the end of the day.

Kekalainen pushed all in and got caught by a better hand.

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

Blues face prime opportunity to return to Stanley Cup Final

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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

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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

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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

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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