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
Who has the better special teams?
PHT Power Rankings: Conn Smythe favorites
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

PHT Morning Skate: Winners, losers of NHL Olympic return; Training camp battles

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from the NHL and around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit for the PHT Morning Skate? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Training camp battles, NHL playoff previews, and other return-to-play links

• Jackets Cannon looks at Columbus’ biggest strength: defense. In particular, Rachel Bules looks at how the pandemic pause will allow the Blue Jackets to have some serious training camp competition for spots. The Blue Jackets will need to be sharp, too, because the Maple Leafs’ firepower presents a real challenge for any defense corps. [Jackets Cannon]

• Speaking of the Maple Leafs — and training camp previews — Emily Sadler put together a thorough breakdown for Toronto. Can Frederik Andersen go the distance? Tyson Barrie ranks as a player to watch. Plus much more. [Sportsnet]

• George Richards takes a look at the Panthers’ “2.0” roster for training camp. If I had to single out a most interesting item, it’s that Anton Stralman has been involved. You may remember him airing some concerns about an NHL return. [Florida Hockey Now]

• What various analytics say about how the Wild’s lines match up with the Canucks. [Zone Coverage]

• It’s one thing for the Coyotes to say that they want to “get a little more juice” out of their offense. It’s another thing to actually lay out how it might work. Craig Morgan rolls out a detailed approach of how that might happen, including activating weakside defensemen. [AZ Coyotes Insider]

• The pandemic pause ranks as the biggest curveball Carter Hart‘s seen in the NHL so far. That said, it’s far from the only one. If he keeps passing these tests, it might all be to the benefit of Hart’s career. [NBC Sports Philadelphia]

Other hockey links

• As a pending UFA on a team that could face a salary cap crunch, Christopher Tanev knows he might not be back with the Canucks. Tanev said he hopes that he can return, and in particular, he’d love to remain Quinn Hughes‘ defensive partner for a long time. [NHL.com]

• It’s easy to look at the NHL’s return to Olympic participation as a good thing for everyone involved. As Ryan Kennedy points out, it depends on the outlook for different countries’ national teams. Kennedy presents the winners and losers for the NHL return to the Olympics, with Germany landing in an interesting spot. [The Hockey News]

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.

Sabres drop lawsuit after assistant coach is granted a green card

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres dropped their lawsuit against the federal government after immigration officials reversed course by approving the team’s strength and conditioning coach’s petition for a green card.

“The matter has been resolved amicably between both parties,” with Ed Gannon receiving approval for an EB-1 visa, the Sabres announced in a text message Wednesday.

The Sabres sued U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in May by alleging officials wrongly denied the team’s visa petition for the British-born coach.

The announcement came a week after the Sabres’ lawyer notified the U.S. District Court in Buffalo that the team was voluntary dismissing the suit, with each side agreeing to bear their own costs and fees.

The Sabres accused immigration services of misstating facts and arbitrarily failing to follow its own rules in denying a green card to Gannon. They argued the decision potentially subjected the team “to substantial financial harm and disruption in developing (its) athletes.”

Gannon was hired by the Sabres in 2015 while the team was beefing up its player development staff. He previously spent 10 years as the lead strength and conditioning coach of a professional rugby club, the Leicester Tigers.

The Sabres filed the application for permanent residency on Gannon’s behalf in October. To be granted a green card, Gannon had to demonstrate that he was at the top of his field, and the Sabres argued that he proved his abilities under USCIS’ criteria.

The denial of Gannon’s petition came amid efforts by the Trump administration to limit legal immigration. A report last year by the Migration Policy Institute concluded that USCIS had become “increasingly active in immigration enforcement” and that the agency was intentionally slowing down adjudication of immigration benefits applications.

Healthy Ekman-Larsson ready to give Coyotes a playoff boost

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GLENDALE, Ariz. — Oliver Ekman-Larsson had knee surgery last summer, fully expecting it to help him have a healthy 2019-20 season.

The Arizona Coyotes captain instead played with lingering pain, never able to fully recover.

The NHL’s shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic was a huge letdown, but it at least allowed Ekman-Larsson time to get back to full strength.

”These 2 1/2 months have been really good for me,” he said during a conference call this week. ”My knee is feeling 100% and I’ve been able to get stronger and faster.”

Ekman-Larsson had another solid season in 2018-19, finishing second on the team with 44 points with 14 goals. He was named to the NHL All-Star team for the fifth time and continued to be one of the NHL’s best offensive defensemen.

Ekman-Larsson opted to have offseason knee surgery to help with another lower-body injury and never was quite right this season, his 10th in the NHL.

The break allowed him time to heal, as did a trip back to his home in Sweden.

Unlike Arizona, Sweden did not go on lockdown once the pandemic hit and Ekman-Larsson took advantage, using the time to heal physically and mentally.

”With this virus going around, I haven’t felt so good mentally,” he said. ”Going back home and being around my family really helped that situation. I benefited from the physical part of being away. For the mental part, it was nice to get away from it.”

The Coyotes returned to the ice this week to prepare for the resumption of the season.

The NHL and the NHL Players’ Association announced Monday a tentative deal on a return-to-play format. Should it be ratified, the league will resume play on Aug. 1 with 24 teams proceeding in an expanded playoff format at two hub cities in Canada.

The Coyotes, the West’s No. 11 seed, will open against Nashville in a best-of-five series in their first postseason appearance since reaching the 2012 Western Conference Finals.

”It just feels like it’s a different game,” said Ekman-Larsson, the lone remaining player from the 2012 team. ”Everybody feels faster and stronger. I don’t know how it’s even possible, but at the same time it’s another level.

”I’m glad that I’ve had the chance to be in the playoffs before. There’s so many good teams and you don’t really know when you are going to have the chance.”

The Coyotes have a chance to make a little noise once they get there.

Ekman-Larsson is healthy, as is Phil Kessel, who struggled with injuries after being traded from Pittsburgh before the season. Arizona also has one of the best goaltending tandems in Antti Raanta and Darcy Keumper, who are both healthy as well.

”For us to get a chance and show that we are good enough to be a playoff team, I think that’s huge for our group moving forward,” Ekman-Larsson said.

A healthy Ekman-Larsson gives them an opportunity to keep moving forward.

Chris Pronger leaves senior VP of hockey ops role with Panthers

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The Panthers announced on Wednesday that Chris Pronger is leaving his role as senior vice president of hockey operations and senior advisor. The Hockey Hall of Famer joined the organization in 2017 after spending three years in the NHL’s Department of Player Safety.

“I want to personally thank the Viola family, Doug Cifu, Dale Tallon and all of the staff with the Florida Panthers,” said Pronger via a team statement. “I was able to grow as an executive and more importantly as a person in my three years with the hockey club. I wish the Panthers organization nothing but the best in the upcoming playoffs and years to come.”

Pronger is moving on to focus on the company he runs with his wife, Lauren. Well Inspired Travels “caters to elite athletes, C-Level executives and business owners.”

The Panthers are currently preparing for their Stanley Cup Qualifier series against the Islanders, which is set to begin next month.

MORE:
A look at the Eastern Conference matchups
Final standings for 2019-20 NHL season, NHL draft lottery results

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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.