Couture once again steps up for Sharks in postseason

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SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — Logan Couture got San Jose started in the opener of the Western Conference final against St. Louis by finishing off a 2-on-1 rush. He sealed the win with an empty-net goal, and in between, he did everything else the Sharks needed on both ends of the ice.

Just another typical standout performance from Couture, who always seems to be at his best at this time of year.

”Logan Couture, if he’s not the top two-way center in the league, he’s in that conversation,” coach Peter DeBoer said after Couture had two goals and one assist in a 6-3 win over the Blues in Game 1 on Saturday night.

”Plays a 200-foot game, always on the right side of the puck, always making the right reads. When your center is like that, he drives the guys around him to play an honest game like that.”

Couture and linemates Timo Meier and Gustav Nyquist once again led the way for the Sharks, with Meier also having two goals and an assist, Nyquist getting two helpers and the trio combining for a plus-seven rating.

This is Couture’s time of year. Ever since his first postseason as a rookie in 2010, he has shined on the big stage. His 45 goals in the playoffs since making his debut that season are second most in the NHL to Alex Ovechkin‘s 50. He leads the NHL this postseason with 11 goals and 17 points and is one of six active players with two postseasons with at least 10 goals.

But four of those other players have won the Stanley Cup – a goal that has eluded Couture and the Sharks despite making it to the conference finals for the fourth time in his 10 seasons.

”We haven’t won,” he said. ”So I don’t care what my numbers get to be. I could go this whole playoffs and have zero points and if we win the Stanley Cup I’ll be the happiest guy in this room.”

Couture led the NHL with 30 points in the 2016 playoffs, when the Sharks got to their first Stanley Cup Final in franchise history, and he scores at a higher rate in the playoffs than the regular season despite the tougher opponents and more defensive approach.

He has eight game-winning goals in the playoffs and two in overtime, earning the reputation as a clutch player.

”His biggest thing is he doesn’t change his game no matter what the situation is,” teammate Erik Karlsson said. ”I think we all know that these games are more important than the regular season, but that doesn’t mean that the game of hockey is changing. You still have to do the same thing out there to be successful. He’s really good at doing that. No matter what happens out there, he doesn’t let anything affect him, and he’s not trying to do things that aren’t normal.”

While the goals and the points get the attention from outsiders, his team respects him most for aspects of his game that don’t always show up on the scoresheet.

He plays in all situations, including the penalty kill, often matches up against top lines, takes faceoffs, blocks shots and is a leader in the dressing room.

”I think Logan is the consummate ‘I’m not going to tell you, I’m going to show you what my commitment level is,”’ DeBoer said. ”He brings that every night. … I know everybody looks at the goals and where he is in the scoring and the production and what he’s brought offensively. For me, he walks the walk at both ends of the rink. Those are the type of guys you can win with.”

TARASENKO’S STRUGGLES

While Couture delivered for the Sharks in Game 1, the Blues know they will need more from one of their top forwards if they want to advance to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1970.

Vladimir Tarasenko, who led the team with 33 goals in the regular season, was once again mostly a nonfactor in the conference final outside of an assist on St Louis’ first goal. Tarasenko managed just one shot on goal and was on the ice for four of San Jose’s goals.

Tarasenko also struggled the last time the Blues made it this far in the postseason back in 2016, when they lost to the Sharks in six games. He had no points and a minus-four rating in the first five games before finally scoring twice in the third period of a 5-2 loss in the clincher.

”Vladi’s got to work without the puck a lot harder and he will,” coach Craig Berube said. ”He’s got to get more involved. You can’t just wait for things to happen, especially in the playoffs. You’ve got to go get it and you’ve got to go make it yourself. It’s about working and it’s about working with your line.”

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

NBCSN’s Hockey Happy Hour: Cale Makar’s memorable NHL debut

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This week’s Hockey Happy Hour on NBCSN will feature four notable milestone and record performances.

Just two days after finishing his college season at UMass, Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar scored his first career NHL goal, on his first shot, in his debut in Game 3. In becoming the first defenseman to ever score a goal while making his NHL debut in the postseason, Makar factored in Colorado’s 6-2 victory and two-games-to-one series lead.

Gord Miller and Ray Ferraro called the game action from Pepsi Center in Denver, Colo.

Wednesday, May 27 on NBCSN
#HockeyAtHome: Meet & Greet – 4 p.m. ET
Men in Blazers On Ice – 4:30 p.m. ET
• Flames vs. Avalanche (2019 Western Conference Round 1, Game 3) – 5 p.m. ET

Thursday, May 28 on NBCSN
• Blackhawks vs. Ducks (2015 Western Conference Final, Game 5) – 5 p.m. ET

#HOCKEYATHOME: MEET & GREET – WEDS., 4 P.M. ET
NBC Sports’ Kathryn Tappen co-hosts a 30-minute program that features Buffalo Sabres forward Jack Eichel and Matt Duchene of the Nashville Predators meeting fans and answering their questions virtually during the league’s hiatus.

MEN IN BLAZERS ON ICE – WEDS., 4:30 P.M. ET
Roger Bennett, co-host of “Men in Blazers,” hosts an interview series featuring stars from around the NHL. Washington Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin, Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper and Toronto Maple Leafs forward Auston Matthews headline this episode.

Programming will also stream on NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app.

More information about NBC Sports’ Hockey Happy Hour can be found here.

KHL hopes to start 2020-21 season on Sept. 2

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The Kontinental Hockey League says it plans to return on Sept. 2 to open the 2020-21 season.

The last KHL game was played on March 12. The season was then suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The KHL is widely considered to be the strongest hockey league outside the NHL. It ended its 2019-20 season partway through the playoffs without declaring a champion.

The league says Sept. 2 is a preliminary date that could be subject to “necessary corrections” depending on how the coronavirus situation develops.

International travel restrictions became a problem for KHL teams. The league has teams in six countries but most are in Russia.

The projected Sept. 2 start date is broadly in line with other recent KHL seasons.

Sharks look for rebound following rough 2019-20 season

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The San Jose Sharks had started planning for next season long before the news became official Tuesday that they would be one of the seven teams left home if the NHL resumes its season.

A slow start, a rough December and an injury-plagued final stretch of the season left last season’s Western Conference runners up at the bottom of the conference standings.

”We didn’t get off to a good start. We were chasing our tail,” general manager Doug Wilson said Tuesday. ”October we were awful, November we were one of the best teams in the league record wise anyhow and December we were awful. That’s where the frustration really got elevated. We are capable of playing some good hockey. Were we a great team? No, we probably weren’t a complete team. But we knew we were better than we were playing, and that frustration, that’s OK. It’s now how we channel that, what our focus is, what we do this offseason.”

This marks just the second time in the past 16 seasons that the Sharks failed to make the postseason. They responded the last time by making the only run to the Stanley Cup Final in franchise history in 2015-16 before losing to Pittsburgh in six games.

Wilson is hopeful for a repeat even though this season’s team struggled as top players like Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns had down seasons, goalie Martin Jones struggled and young players like Kevin Labanc failed to develop as anticipated.

”We did not meet our expectations this year,” Wilson said. ”But I do know this, we’ve got some really good players that care a lot. That’s how I look at it. Every year is a different year, a different team. We do not take missing the playoffs lightly. We’re not a team that’s going to go into this long protracted rebuild.”

COACH THEM UP

The poor start led to the firing of coach Peter DeBoer in December. Assistant Bob Boughner took over on interim basis and the team showed signs of playing with better structure under his leadership. Wilson said he hasn’t made a decision on Boughner’s status but praised the work he did.

”It’s a process that’s ongoing,” Wilson said. ”Very difficult to come in and coach a team halfway through the year. You don’t necessarily have all the ingredients and your staff that you want around you.”

GETTING HEALTHY

The Sharks dealt with some bad injury look during the season with Karlsson, captain Logan Couture and star forward Tomas Hertl all missing significant time. Wilson said all three are healing well and should be able to be in top shape whenever next season starts. That will be especially helpful for Karlsson, who spent last summer recovering from a groin injury, contributing to the slow start this season.

”This is the one benefit that he’s going to have,” Wilson said. ”He’s going to have all the time now to get healthy and to get that elite level of fitness the great players have and that he’s been able to have in the past. This extra time for him will be very beneficial.”

JUMBO’S STATUS

One question for the Sharks before next season starts will be the status of Joe Thornton. The Sharks brought Thornton back this season on a one-year deal and he finished with seven goals and 24 assists in 70 games. His production increased as the season went on as he had 11 points in his final 17 games after just 20 in his first 53. Thornton has expressed interest in returning at age 41 for his 23rd year. Wilson said he is in frequent contact with Thornton and knows he cant wait to get back on the ice.

FREE AGENCY

The Sharks have most of their key players other than Thornton under contract for next season. Depth forwards Melker Karlsson and Stefan Noesen are eligible to be unrestricted free agents, along with defenseman Tim Heed and backup goalie Aaron Dell. But with significant money tied up in Karlsson, Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic on defense, as well as forwards Couture, Evander Kane and Timo Meier, the Sharks will have little flexibility unless they trade one of those high-priced stars.

DRAFT DOINGS

The Sharks won’t have the benefit of a high draft pick following a down season because they traded their first-round pick to Ottawa before the 2018-19 season for Karlsson. San Jose did acquire Tampa Bay’s first-round pick in a deadline deal for forward Barclay Goodrow and also has two second-rounders. Those picks could be used either for prospects or packaged in deals for veterans who can contribute even quicker.

Plenty to figure out before NHL decides on hub cities

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Whenever the NHL is able to finish out the 2019-20 season, the games will be played in two “hub” cities which will host each conference.

The league is still investigating the cities they’ll use, which will be dependent on COVID-19 conditions, testing ability and government regulations.

“We’re going to go to the places that in terms of the logistics, the health issue I talked about, the testing issue I talked about, the governmental issues we talked about, we’re not hung up on east‑west,” said Commissioner Gary Bettman on a video conference call with reporters on Wednesday. “For TV scheduling it may be better if we’re in different time zones, but we’re going to go to the places that we think are the safest and make the most sense medically at the time.”

As the NHL revealed on Tuesday, 10 cities are in the mix.

• Chicago, IL
• Columbus, OH
• Dallas, TX
• Edmonton, AB
• Las Vegas, NV
• Los Angeles, CA
• Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN
• Pittsburgh, PA
• Toronto, ON
• Vancouver, BC

[NHL announces return-to-play plans]

The Canadian government currently has a mandatory 14-day quarantine for people entering the country. That could affect Edmonton, Toronto and Vancouver’s chances to host.

“The interpretation of the quarantine consistent with our players’ ability to travel in and not have to do a strict self-quarantine in a hotel room, we won’t be in a position to use any of the Canadian cities as a hub city,” said Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly. “We’re faced with having to find a solution to that. Hopefully we can.”

All of those markets, outside of LA, feature a team in the Return to Play plan. Bettman said that there is a chance a team could move to the other “hub” city if their location is one of the chosen two. For example, if Vegas and Columbus are selected, the Western Conference will play in Columbus and the Eastern Conference would play their games in Vegas.

But it’s never that easy. Logistics may require a team to play in its home city, but it won’t be as advantageous as it usually is.

“[I]f a team happens to be in its own market, the players I don’t think should be planning on going home,” Bettman said. “They’ll be staying in the same conditions that everybody else is.”

What comes next is to move into Phase 2 next week with players holding on- and off-ice training in small groups at team facilities. That could include players from different teams who live in the same city.

“This is a little bit different dynamic,” said Daly, “so we felt like it was important at the request of the NHL Players’ Association to make it available, but it will come down to the individual club specifics as to whether they can really accommodate those players on any real basis.”

If all goes well Phase 3, teams entering formal training camps, will get under way in July. That could set up the 24-team return in August, perhaps?

MORE:
A look at the Eastern Conference matchups
An overview of the Western Conference series
Which play-in playoff series would be the most exciting?
Final standings for 2019-20 NHL season, NHL draft odds

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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.