Stanley Cup Final Preview: Who has the better forwards?

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Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues.

One of the best lines in hockey against a team that has made it a mission to shut down the opposition’s best. It makes for quite the chess match over the coming couple of weeks.

So, which of these two teams has a better group of forwards? Let’s take a look.

CENTERS

The votes for the Selke Trophy have already come in, but we’re about to watch two candidates for this year’s award go head-to-head in what should be a colossal battle between the top two-way centers in the game.

Patrice Bergeron and Ryan O'Reilly is the type of mouthwatering matchup you don’t always get to see in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Both have been instrumental to their team’s success so far, and both are coming off big games to close out their respective series.

Bergeron makes up one-third of the best line in hockey at the moment. He, along with Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak, has steered the Bruins to where they are, offensively. Bergeron has eight goals and 13 points, including a two-goal, one-assist effort in Game 4 against the Carolina Hurricanes to earn the series sweep in the Eastern Conference Final. Bergeron is 59.3 percent in faceoffs this postseason. Bergeron is third among centers with a 56.24 CF% — an elite number.

Having an old faithful in David Krejci certainly helps in the second-line spot. Krejci’s experience will play a big role for Boston, and the 33-year-old is producing, coming into Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on a six-game point streak and 14 points in 17 games so far.

Then comes Boston’s depth centers in Charlie Coyle (12 points) and Sean Kuraly (five points). Coyle’s addition to the Bruins didn’t pan out right away in Boston but he’s been exactly what the Bruins needed down the middle in the playoffs. Kuraly’s just been a pleasant surprise, with the fourth-liner chipping in nearly 16 minutes a night.

O’Reilly’s coming off a three-assist outing in Game 6 to finish off the San Jose Sharks and is average 21:26 per game, which is tops among Blues forwards. He trails Bergeron significantly in the faceoff circle (48.7 percent) and possession (48.45 CF%).

Brayden Schenn scored his first goal since Game 5 of Round 1 against Winnipeg in their final game of the series against San Jose. He’s been a hard-nosed player in these playoffs but his production could use a bump. Tyler Bozak has two game-winning goals and 10 points and Oskar Sundqvist, like Kuraly, has been deployed often in his fourth-line role.

ADVANTAGE: Bruins. It’s hard to bet against a spine of a team that includes Bergeron and Krejci in the playoffs. The experience factor is massive, and so too is the play. Coyle has been solid in his third-line role and Kuraly has been one of the surprises of the playoffs. St. Louis is closer than some might give them credit for, but Boston has perhaps the best center in the game.

WINGERS

Is the Vladimir Tarasenko production we saw in the Western Conference Final the real deal?

It matters when comparing each team’s two top-line wingers.

Both Marchand and Pastrnak have put up some incredible numbers in this postseason. When they’re producing, Boston is winning. Marchand has 18 points in 17 games and Pastrnak 15 in the same span. Both have combined for four game-winning goals. For the most part, we know what we’re getting from those two.

Jaden Schwartz has been one of the best goal scorers in these playoffs with 12 (that’s one more than he scored in 69 regular-season games), including a hat trick in a 5-0 shutout in Game 5 against the Sharks. Schwartz has come up big throughout the postseason. Schwartz, Schenn and Tarasenko terrorized the Sharks in the WCF, with Tarasenko’s six-game point streak helping lead the charge. As long as the latter doesn’t pull off a disappearing act, they could throw quite the wrench into this series.

St. Louis’ depth in these playoffs has been one of its glowing attributes. Sammy Blais has carved out a top-six role opposite David Perron. Patrick Maroon has been the hometown hero and has played well, as too has Robert Thomas. And Alex Steen has embraced his place on the fourth line with great results.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The same can be said about the Bruins, of course. Marcus Johansson has quietly had a solid postseason and with teams focusing much time and effort stopping the top line, he’s been able to provide several key moments for the Bruins, including the series-clinching goal against the Toronto Maple Leafs and a goal in their Game 6 win against the Columbus Blue Jackets. David Backes won’t be short of motivation against his old team. The Bruins have turned to him when the chips were stacking against them and he’s been a game-changer at times.

ADVANTAGE: Blues. The depth down the wings in St. Louis is very good. That’s not to say Boston’s isn’t, but there’s a bit bigger of a drop off once you get past their dominating top line. The Blues are where they are because of contributions up and down the lineup.

OVERALL

At this stage, both teams have made it here on merit. There’s no luck involved with reaching the Stanley Cup Final. Both teams have their set of strengths up front. Both top lines are playing at a high level at the moment. Both teams have considerable depth they can lean on.

ADVANTAGE: Bruins (by a hair). No team in the East has been able to contain Boston’s top line, which will win games on its own. If the Blues become the first, they will hoist their first Stanley Cup. If not, like teams before them, it may not matter what the other nine guys on the bench can do.

That said, the Blues were able to contain Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele. They were able to contain Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn. And they were able to be effective against Logan Couture and Co.

It’s tough to bet against Boston. Then again, it’s tough to think the Blues can’t handle it. Boston gets the edge based on experience, but the Blues are right there.

STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW
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Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

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

The Buzzer: Blues edge Flames in shootout; Eichel sets new career high

The St. Louis Blues celebrate their 5-4 shootout win over the Calgary Flames
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Three Stars

1) David Perron, St. Louis Blues

After making the All-Star Game for the first time in his NHL career, Perron started the second half of the season with a two-game point streak. He added a goal, an assist and a shootout tally as the Blues defeated the Flames 5-4 in a back-and-forth battle that ended in the skills competition. The 31-year-old forward notched his 22nd of the season when he hammered home a loose puck in front to knot the game at 2-2 late in the first period. Perron also made a nifty pass to help St. Louis exit the zone before Zach Sanford tied the game early in the final frame. Additionally, the Blues snapped a three-game losing streak.

2) Sean Monahan, Calgary Flames

The Flames alternate captain is still a bit behind his 82-point total pace from last year after surpassing his previous career-high by 18 points set the season before. Monahan remains a critical piece in the Flames’ lineup as they prepare for a playoff push in the tightly contested Pacific Division. The 25-year-old recorded his 400th career point when he snapped off a wrist shot from the slot at 15:43 of the first period to give Calgary a 2-1 lead at the time. He would go on to record his second of the game, another wrister from the slot, early in the middle frame to even the score at 3-3.

3) Mark Borowiecki, Ottawa Senators

It’s not often an empty-net goal helps an NHL player land on this list, but Borowiecki’s game-sealing tally late in the third period was quite the play in the Senators’ 5-2 win against the Sabres. Ottawa’s alternate captain willingly went down on one knee in order to block a one-timer from Marcus Johansson to help preserve a one-goal lead at the time. After the block, Borowiecki quickly gathered himself, collected a loose puck and fired it off the boards into the empty cage. The Senators lead the NHL with 11 shorthanded goals.

Highlights of the Night

Blues forward Robert Thomas feathered a beautiful cross-ice pass between a couple of Calgary Flames to set up Alexander Steen to open the scoring.

In his 500th NHL game, Jaden Schwartz recorded his 17th of the season when he redirected a pretty pass from Brayden Schenn.

[RELATED: Predators facing difficult road in playoff push | How the Canucks climbed to top of Pacific Division]

Blooper of the Night

Who should get credit for this empty-net goal?

Stat of the Night

Scores

Ottawa Senators 5, Buffalo Sabres 2

St. Louis Blues 5, Calgary Flames 4 (SO)

Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.

Hall of Fame goalie Ed Belfour arrested on mischief, public intoxication charges

former Dallas Star and NHL alumnus Ed Belfour
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Hockey Hall of Famer Ed Belfour was arrested early Tuesday morning. The former NHL goaltender caused damage to a downtown Bowling Green hotel.

Police found the 54-year-old inside the Kentucky Grand Hotel and Spa around 1:30 a.m. Tuesday, the Bowling Green Daily News said, citing the arrest report. He was arrested on charges of third-degree criminal mischief and alcohol intoxication in a public place, according to the citation. He was booked into the Warren County Regional Jail just before 3 a.m. Tuesday, according to the jail’s website.

According to report, he was “manifestly under the influence of alcohol to a point he was a danger to himself and others.”

Police responded to a complaint of an intoxicated person after Belfour tried to fight an employee and struck glass in anger. When cops arrived on the scene, they found Belfour on the second floor, kicking a spa door while “clutching a curtain rod that had been ripped out of the dry wall above a window next to him,” according to the report.

When detained, Belfour was not compliant with officers.

Belfour won the Stanley Cup in 1999 with the Dallas Stars and captured an Olympic gold medal during the 2002 Winter Games as a member of Team Canada. He currently sits in fourth place on the NHL all-time wins list.

How the Canucks climbed to top of Pacific Division

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For the first time in five years Vancouver Canucks fans have reason to be excited about their team. They are the hottest team in the NHL right now, and with their 3-1 win over the St. Louis Blues on Monday night are 12-3-0 over their past 15 games. That run has helped them climb to the top of the Pacific Division and put them in a position where they have a very good chance to make the playoffs for the first time since the 2014-15 season.

While it is true that the Pacific Division is very watered down this season — especially with the struggles of Vegas and San Jose — the Canucks still have something building here. They are exciting, they can score, and as of Monday have the third-best goal differential in the Western Conference.

Let’s take a look at what is driving their success so far this season.

Quinn Hughes has been better than advertised

Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser are the young cornerstones at forward, but Hughes is the player that’s really helped get this rebuild running in the right direction.

He may not win the Calder Trophy as the league’s rookie of the year, but he is almost certainly going to be Vancouver’s third straight finalist (following Boeser and Pettersson) as he competes with fellow rookie defenseman Cale Makar (Colorado Avalanche) for that crown. He’s already a 20-minute per night defenseman and fills one of the single biggest needs the Canucks have had the past couple of years — a young, impactful, top-pairing defenseman to lead their blue line. He’s the type of player that as soon as you watch him you know he’s going to be a star with the way he skates, moves the puck, and contributes to the offense.

But what’s really made him such a valuable piece is that he is able to do all of that while still being the team’s best defensive defenseman as a 20-year-old rookie. When he is on the ice during 5-on-5 play this season the Canucks are allowing the following:

  • 52.3 shot attempts per 60 minutes
  • 28.2 shots on goal per 60 minutes
  • 2.24 expected goals against per 60 minutes
  • 27.4 scoring chances per 60 minutes
  • 2.24 goals against per 60 minutes

Those numbers not only place him first among all Canucks defenders in every category, he is first by a significant margin in all of them.

(Data via Natural Stat Trick)

J.T. Miller has been the perfect support player

It’s been no secret the past two years that Boeser and Pettersson were the two players driving the bus for the Canucks offensively, and they still are.

It’s also no secret that two players alone can not carry a team on their own. And while the Canucks still have some depth concerns, Miller has been everything the Canucks could have hoped for him to be and more.

They raised some eyebrows when they traded a future first-round draft pick to the Tampa Bay Lightning for him, but it’s hard to argue with the results right now.

He is in the middle of a career year and currently on pace for more than 30 goals and 70 points, while also being one of the best possession-driving forwards in the entire league.

They paid a steep price, and the trade definitely carried some risk, but he is signed long-term, at a fair price, and has been a perfect fit within the core, while also being young enough to be a part of that core in future seasons. I was not a huge fan of the move at the time, but at some point you have to start adding talent to make your rebuild actually get somewhere. The Canucks have done that here.

Jacob Markstrom has been a rock in net

Markstrom hasn’t been one of the league’s elites in net, but he has been a rock solid starter since taking over that position in Vancouver. He may not steal a ton of games, but he’s not losing many games for them, either. He’s been a steady, and durable goalie that has consistently given them better-than-league average play the past few years. He has been even better this season.

While Hughes has been an immediate sensation on the blue line, this team still has its flaws defensively and gives up its share of shots and chances. They’re not yet a championship-level defensive team, and that makes quality goaltending even more vital for their chances. Markstrom is giving them that, and in the process is playing his way toward what could be a pretty significant raise this offseason.

MORE:
NHL Power Rankings: Looking at top Stanley Cup Contenders
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The 10 players that can impact NHL playoff race

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.

Headache-plagued Stephen Johns finally back on ice for Stars

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FRISCO, Texas (AP) — Stephen Johns sometimes wondered if he would play hockey again while missing nearly 22 months with headaches that may or may not have been related to concussions.

The Dallas Stars defenseman just didn’t appreciate it when doctors suggested as much.

“That just kind of pissed me off because it wasn’t their decision to make,” Johns said after a week-plus break for Dallas that came after his first game since March 29, 2018.

“Obviously there were times when I thought I would never play again, but that was probably when it was the lowest of my lows. Obviously I climbed out of it. In the back of my mind I knew I wasn’t done yet and I still had a lot to prove.”

The Stars didn’t have much to celebrate on the ice in a 7-0 loss to Minnesota in Johns’ return Jan 18. They liked the ending of his first home game a lot more, a 3-2 overtime win over Tampa Bay on Monday night.

Either way, there’s still an aspect to Johns being back that has little to do with scores and stats. Even the 27-year-old feels it.

“Trust me, it’s not frustrating,” he said. “Now I know where my game is. It’s a breath of fresh air almost to have something to work towards again.”

After sitting the final four games of the 2017-18 season, Johns missed all of 2018-19, which ended with Dallas’ Game 7 loss to eventual Stanley Cup champion St. Louis in the second round of the playoffs.

When training camp opened, general manager Jim Nill declared Johns still wasn’t ready to return and wouldn’t discuss it further. For Nill, it was about protecting a player who had been dealing for more than a year with issues bigger than getting back on the ice.

Post-traumatic headaches — the official explanation — were part of the mystery, and Nill said doctors couldn’t know for sure whether Johns’ history of concussions played a role. Ultimately, Nill said, the cause paled compared to the recovery.

“In the end, we’re just happy he’s back playing and feeling good,” Nill said. “He can feel good about himself and he looks like himself again.”

Johns was a top prospect for Chicago when Nill got him in a trade, with Patrick Sharp the headliner when the Blackhawks were dumping salary in 2015.

Late in the first season after the swap, Johns made his NHL debut and ended up playing all 13 playoff games. Dallas lost a Game 7 in the second round to St. Louis that year as well. Johns had to watch when it happened again three years later.

“It’s hell. It’s very simple,” Johns said. “A couple of guys stood back and watched us lose 7-0 to Minnesota. I know exactly what they were thinking sitting on the couch watching. It sucks watching.”

Captain Jamie Benn tried to be mindful of Johns being stuck on the periphery of the team for the daily routine, “pretty much rub elbows with them on my way out and they’re on their way in,” as Johns put it.

For Benn, it was diversions such as playing golf, and other ways to try to keep the focus off his teammate’s injury.

“I’m sure the amount of times were endless that he got asked how he’s doing,” Benn said. “When I talked to him, I didn’t really ask him. We all knew he wasn’t doing very good. So the last thing he wants to hear is, ‘How you doing?’”

Much better now, after a two-game conditioning assignment with the AHL’s Texas Stars before joining Dallas. Johns is still looking for his first point after averaging about 16 minutes in two games.

Interim coach Rick Bowness said Johns was too eager to show his physical style against the Lightning, leaving himself and the team in some bad positions after delivering hits.

“We’ve got to give the kid a chance to play,” Bowness said. “We knew this going in that he’s going to be rusty and there’s going to be bad decisions and bad timing.”

Nill figures there’s plenty of time to work on the timing of a player who looked to be a key piece on the Dallas blue line before Miro Heiskanen emerged as a 19-year-old rising star as a rookie last season.

“I’m happy to see him around the dressing room, with his teammates, smile on his face, feeling good about himself,” Nill said. “We know he’s a good hockey player. He knows he brings a lot to this team. Now he can start working on that.”