Blues move to Stanley Cup Final after sinking Sharks

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The last time the St. Louis Blues made it to a Stanley Cup Final, it was all the way back in 1969-1970. They were swept by the Boston Bruins during that long-ago visit, with Bobby Orr’s famous leaping goal putting a bow on things. So, the current-day Blues hope that this … “rematch” goes far better.

To get this far, the Blues had to beat the San Jose Sharks, the team that most recently knocked them out of a Round 3 series back in 2015-16.

An injured Sharks team just didn’t have enough to push through the bruising Blues in Game 6 on Tuesday, as St. Louis won 5-1 to win the series 4-2. With that, the Blues will take on what’s sure to be a well-rested (maybe too rested?) Bruins team in the 2019 Stanley Cup Final.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

An empty-netter inflated the score in Game 6, and Tyler Bozak‘s 4-1 insurance tally happened fairly late in the proceedings, so this one was pretty close at times. That said, the Sharks ultimately only got so close before the Blues pulled far ahead.

Game 1 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final takes place in Boston at 8 p.m. ET on Monday. Click here for the full schedule and TV info.

Tough start, and finish, for Sharks

Being without Joe Pavelski, Erik Karlsson, and Tomas Hertl was already a tough way for San Jose to start Game 6, and didn’t really get better from there, as David Perron deflected a puck past Martin Jones to make it 1-0 for St. Louis just 1:32 in. Things looked pretty dire for the Sharks heading into the first intermission, after Vladimir Tarasenko‘s power-play goal made it 2-0.

Credit the Sharks for continuing to fight, but credit the Blues for taking it to the Sharks to give San Jose little hope of actually winning that fight.

Dylan Gambrell ended up being one of the Sharks who drew into action thanks to all of those injuries, so he made for a great story by scoring his first NHL goal in his first playoff game. The Sharks embraced that added life, briefly, as Logan Couture almost scored before Colton Parayko cleared the puck from Jordan Binnington‘s crease. But it remained 2-1, and Gambrell’s goal ended up being a fun footnote instead of a turning point.

Not long after that brief surge, the Blues got their two-goal lead right back. Brayden Schenn‘s been agonizingly close to scoring for a while now, so he was clearly relieved when he scored the 3-1 goal on the power play. Maybe that goal drought explains the creativity of Schenn’s sword-sheathing celebration?

Blues, Binnington shut the door

It wasn’t just Schenn who was struggling to score late in this series. The Sharks, as a team, were just as cold when it came to piercing the Blues’ defense, and during the rare moments when they found space, Binnington was usually up to the task.

The Blues were clearly content to sit on their 3-1 lead during the third period, and Binnington made sure that such a strategy worked out. He made some tremendous saves against Evander Kane and Logan Couture, including stopping Couture on a semi-breakaway, earning a big cheer from an appreciative crowd in St. Louis.

The Blues won Game 4 by a score of 2-1, then handed the Sharks a disastrous 5-0 defeat in Game 5. So, during these last three games, San Jose only managed two goals overall. Heading into the postseason, it seemed like Martin Jones would be the problem if the Sharks fell short. While Jones faced his highs and lows, the Sharks’ seemingly explosive lineup simply ran out of firepower.

***

Now, the Sharks must face an uncertain offseason with Erik Karlsson, Pavelski, Joe Thornton, and Gustav Nyquist heading toward unrestricted free agency. As much as this run has been about the likes of Hertl and Timo Meier (a pending RFA) emerging as the future of the Sharks alongside Couture, the Sharks’ path ahead seems a little murky. This was a memorable and exciting run for the Sharks, yet it ends with that all-too-familiar empty feeling.

The Blues, meanwhile, face a straightforward future, but one that likely brings plenty of bumps in the road. Beat the Bruins and win that first-ever Stanley Cup, or repeat decades-old history.

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.

Examining the options for Kings, Kovalchuk

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It seems that Ilya Kovalchuk‘s time with the Los Angeles Kings is going to be coming to an end one way or another in the not too distant future.

The team made him a healthy scratch on Tuesday night, and he will reportedly be out of the lineup for the foreseeable future as the team looks to get younger, shed salary, and finally begin turning the page over to a new chapter in a long overdue and much needed rebuild. The biggest question that remains with Kovalchuk is what, exactly, they are able to do with him.

Because of Kovalchuk’s contract the Kings options seem to be severely limited.

The key points regarding his contract…

  • He has one year remaining on it after this season at a salary cap hit of $6.25 million.
  • He is due a signing bonus in December worth $5.3 million, meaning any team that traded for him after that date would only be on the hook financially for a prorated salary of $700,000 for the rest of this season.
  • Because the contract is a 35-plus contract the Kings would still be on the hook for the entirety of his remaining salary cap hit if they were to buy him out or release him. And they would only be able to release him if Kovalchuk agrees to walk away from the remaining money he is owed, which seems unlikely.
  • His contract also contains a no-move clause and a modified no-trade clause, which could limit where he ends up in a trade.

Not an ideal situation to be in for the Kings.

The most logical option might be waiting until after his bonus is paid next month and digging back into the trade market when a team won’t have to commit as much financially. The issue, though, is still the fact that Kovalchuk is 36 years old, still has one year left after this one, and just hasn’t really been any kind of an impact player since returning to the NHL. He has scored at a 20-goal pace with the Kings, so there is still some offensive production there. Even with that he has clearly been a miserable fit in Los Angeles for where the team is and where it is looking to go in the future.

Are there any teams that would have an interest in taking that on? Look at it this way, if the Edmonton Oilers can move Milan Lucic‘s contract, there is absolutely a chance for the Kings to move this one.

Let’s speculate a bit on some potential landing spots.

New York Islanders. Before you completely dismiss this and yell about how he would never fit within their system or be good enough defensively to play for Barry Trotz, stop and think for a minute about who their general manager is. Lou Lamoriello is the one that went all-in on signing him to that original massive contract years ago with the New Jersey Devils, while there were also rumblings the team was interested in signing him when he returned to the league last summer. For as good as the Islanders have been they could still use another goal-scorer, there is history between the player and GM, and they have the salary cap space to take on that cap hit. It could be an interesting lottery ticket for a team that is still probably a piece or two away from really being able to make some serious noise in the playoffs. There are worse potential landing spots.

Columbus Blue Jackets. Another team with salary cap space that is in desperate need of offense. Even after their offseason  free agency exodus and slow start through the first month, the Blue Jackets do not seem ready to throw in the towel on this season. The problem: their offense has been completely non-existent to this point. Their goals per game average is the second lowest in the league, ahead of only the Detroit Red Wings.

San Jose Sharks. The salary cap would make it complicated so there would have to probably be some maneuvering done to make it work, but the Sharks are already trying to win with a bunch of superstars from 2008 so why not add one more to the mix?

St. Louis Blues. Not sure how they would make this work with the salary cap, especially next season, so it is probably a really long shot in the dark, but with Vladimir Tarasenko sidelined for the next five months they could really use another goal-scorer.

Carolina Hurricanes. Now here is an intriguing option. If the Kings are going to trade Kovalchuk one of the options might include them throwing in a valuable asset (draft pick, prospect, young player) as a sweetener to convince another team to take such an ugly contract. Do you know what team has had a lot of success in making those kind of moves over the years? These folks. It’s how they ended up with Teuvo Teravainen, as well as an additional 2020 first-round pick from the Toronto Maple Leafs for absorbing Patrick Marleau‘s contract. Would it really be a shock if they picked up the phone, gave the Kings a call, and said, “hey, we hear you have a contract you don’t want. Let’s talk about that…” This is right in their wheelhouse.

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.

 

Roberto Luongo back with Panthers as special adviser

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Roberto Luongo retired from the Florida Panthers. He just never left.

And now the goaltender is officially part of the franchise again.

Florida’s all-time leader in wins and shutouts has agreed to become a special adviser to general manager Dale Tallon, a move that has been in the works for some time and was formally announced Wednesday.

His hiring was no surprise: Luongo has been a regular fixture at games with the Florida front-office brain trust this season, only now wearing suits instead of skates and having conversations in press boxes instead of locker rooms.

”I’ve had the honor and privilege to work with Roberto during his time playing for the Panthers and am proud to welcome him to our franchise’s hockey operations staff,” said Tallon, who is both Florida’s GM and president of hockey operations.

The 40-year-old Luongo retired this past summer after 19 seasons in the NHL, 11 of them with Florida, and indicated then that he would be interested in staying with the Panthers in some capacity. His plan was to take some time and figure out in what role, and how quickly.

Turns out, the five-time NHL All-Star didn’t need that long to think.

Luongo and his family are remaining as residents of Parkland, Florida – the city where he lived at the end of his playing career – and since he’s sticking around, it was always assumed that he was going to be with Tallon again before long.

”Roberto always approached every game with an unmatched work ethic and we are confident he will take to this new role with the same passion,” Tallon said. ”A cornerstone player in our franchise’s history, we are thrilled that Lu will be a part of shaping our franchise’s future.”

Luongo joins Panthers senior vice president Shawn Thornton, director of player personnel Bryan McCabe and assistant coach Derek MacKenzie as former Florida players who have remained with the team after retirement in various key roles.

The Panthers are retiring Luongo’s No. 1 jersey on March 7, before a game against Montreal, his hometown team.

Luongo was the fourth overall pick in the 1997 draft by the New York Islanders, with whom he made his NHL debut on Nov. 28, 1999. Luongo then spent five years with Florida, the next eight with Vancouver and returned to the Panthers on March 14, 2014. His last game was April 6, two days after his 40th birthday.

Our Line Starts podcast: Crosby and Marner injuries; Montgomery’s comments

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Paul Burmeister, Keith Jones, and Patrick Sharp discuss how Pittsburgh and Toronto will be affected by the injuries to Sidney Crosby and Mitch Marner, and offer their reaction to Jim Montgomery calling out Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin. Pierre McGuire interviews Arizona head coach Rick Tocchet, whose story from his rookie year under Mike Keenan got Sharp and Jones reflecting on unique motivational tactics implemented by their old coaches

0:00-1:50 Intros
1:50-4:25 How will Toronto handle Marner’s absence
4:25-9:30 Crosby the latest Pens casualty
9:30-16:55 Jim Montgomery rips his top players
16:55-30:55 An early look at 2020 Hall of Fame candidates
30:55-42:25 Pierre McGuire interviews Rick Tocchet
44:30-End Unique motivational tactics from old coaches

Our Line Starts is part of NBC Sports’ growing roster of podcasts spanning the NFL, Premier League, NASCAR, and much more. The new weekly podcast, which will publish Wednesdays, will highlight the top stories of the league, including behind-the-scenes content and interviews conducted by NBC Sports’ NHL commentators.

Where you can listen:

Apple: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/id1482681517

Stitcher: https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/nbc-sports/our-line-starts

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/7cDMHBg6NJkQDGe4KHu4iO?si=9BmcLtutTFmhRrNNcMqfgQ

NBC Sports on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/nbcsports

Since losing ’18 Cup Final, Golden Knights look more like Caps

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Almost 18 months since the Vegas Golden Knights’ improbable inaugural season ended, they look much more like the team that vanquished them in the Stanley Cup Final.

If you can’t beat ’em, be more like ’em.

Once a ragtag group relying on more will than skill, Vegas is beginning to resemble the Washington Capitals they faced in the 2018 final. The Golden Knights don’t have carbon copies of Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom, but they added some serious skill in forwards Paul Stastny, Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone and could easily follow the Capitals’ championship model.

“They’ve done a great job,” Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said. “I think they’ve added another layer. I thought when we beat them, we were a little bit deeper team, especially up front. Then adding Stone, adding Pacioretty, signing Stastny – those are three really good players, so they have a whole new layer of offensive, really solid players on their team. In theory, I think they’re a better team than they were.”

The Golden Knights who went to the final in their expansion season had a first line of Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith and leaned heaviest on defensemen Nate Schmidt, Shea Theodore and Deryk Engelland. All those players remain but have the pressures eased off them, given internal promotions and external additions.

Forward William Carrier, one of more than a dozen players left from the 2018 final, said this is a better team.

“Right now, we’re a more talented team,” coach Gerard Gallant said. “It’s a different team. We’re a more skilled team than we were back then. But back then we had that air about (us) – we were the hardest working team in the league. I want us to get back to that. We were a fast team, we were a quick team that first year and everything went our way. We had a lot of puck luck and a lot of good things that happened that first year.”

Those good things stopped when the Capitals wore down the Golden Knights with their depth and won the series in five games. Then, last spring, Vegas got knocked out in the first round when a blown call in Game 7 against San Jose snowballed into a disastrous third period.

Bouncing back from two tough playoff exits is another lesson the Golden Knights can learn from the Capitals, who kept getting stopped in the second round or earlier before breaking through and winning it all.

“We’ve had some disappointments,” said Kelly McCrimmon, who took over for George McPhee as Knights GM last summer. “That’s your ultimate opportunity to evaluate and to learn and to assess where you need to be better. … There’s things you need to do to get you to the playoffs, there’s things you need to do to get you through the playoffs. We’ve been fortunate that we’ve been a playoff team both years, we’ve gained that experience.”

Capitals winger Tom Wilson looks at Vegas as a team built for the playoffs because of its size, skill and toughness. It’s almost like gazing into a mirror.

“They have a really stable team – they can establish all four lines and roll,” Washington’s Jakub Vrana said. “They play hard, and they work hard for every inch of the ice. That’s what’s been winning them games. We do the same thing.”

Blending the work ethic and the grittiness that got Vegas into the final with the talent that could get it over the top is now the challenge. Gallant doesn’t shy away from the comparison to the Capitals, who perfected that mix.

“The work comes before the skill, and when you get your talented guys and your skilled guys working real hard, then that’s when you’re going to have the right team,” Gallant said. “I think the team in Washington, that’s what they do. They’ve got some real talented hockey players, but when they work hard, they’re a great team.”

The next stage in becoming a consistently great team is integrating homegrown players, like Cody Glass and Nicolas Hague, who were picks from the Golden Knights’ first draft in 2017. Vegas is at the salary cap like the NHL’s best teams and isn’t afraid of the big expectations that come with that.

“We don’t feel or act or believe we’re an expansion team,” McCrimmon said. “We’re in Year 3 as a franchise, and like every other team, always trying to get better, always trying to win more games, always trying to be a playoff team and have success.”

FIRST TIMER

Lifelong Maple Leafs fan Ron Ruckstuhl, 52, was diagnosed with Lewy dody disease three years ago and told he had five to seven years to live. In August, son Joshuah sent a tweet to retired NHLer Paul Bissonnette hoping his dad could attend a game in Toronto for the first time.

“I’ve waited 52 years for something like this,” Ron said.

As part of the “NHL First Timer” video series, the league surprised Ruckstuhl at his house earlier this month and took him and sons Joshuah and Ryan to the Leafs’ game Nov. 5 against Los Angeles.

“I’d never seen my dad smile and laugh (like that),” said Joshuah, 28, who is his father’s full-time caregiver. “For a little bit, you didn’t realize he was sick. You could see him forget about being sick for just a little bit.”

The league is releasing video of the occasion Wednesday to mark World Kindness Day.

“This is what it’s all about,” NHL chief content officer Steve Mayer said. “To be able to put joy in somebody’s life like Ron’s and to be able to show his story to the world is quite an honor and it makes me proud to be a part of the NHL.”

NO LONE WOLF

Phil Kessel is fitting in just fine with the young Arizona Coyotes and has come a long way from playing in the shadow of – and winning two titles with – Sidney Crosby and Evgeny Malkin in Pittsburgh.

“He fed off those guys in Pittsburgh really well,” said coach Rick Tocchet, who also was an assistant with the Penguins. “Sometimes he was under the radar, and he’d come up with some big goals because (opponents focused on) Malkin or Crosby. Now there’s a little bit more focus on him.”

Tocchet said Kessel has done more leading because he recognizes, at 32, he should. It’s working.

“Phil, the young guys love him and he’s taking pressure off guys,” Tocchet said. “When some guys aren’t scoring, to be honest with you, the media are not on the guy as much because Phil takes that pressure off. So he does take the pressure or the burden off some guys if they’re not scoring.”