Bruins, Blues set to clash in bruising Stanley Cup Final

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BOSTON (AP) — When the NHL altered its rules with an eye toward speed and skill, this is not the Stanley Cup Final it had in mind.

Hockey is becoming less of a big man’s game, offense is up and it’s faster than ever. Then there’s the big and tough St. Louis Blues facing off against the bigger and tougher Boston Bruins in the final that shows size still matters in the playoffs.

”They are physical, we’ll be physical,” Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said Sunday. ”I don’t think we shy away from that type of game.”

The past decade-plus has been a study in the NHL getting younger and quicker, and previous champions like Chicago in 2013 and 2015 and Pittsburgh in 2016 and 2017 exemplified that. The 2019 champion will show there are still many kinds of blueprints for winning, though skill is still needed along with size and physicality.

When the puck drops on Game 1 Monday night, the bruises will begin in what should be a throwback series with the Stanley Cup on the line.

”At this point you’re going to get both teams coming out of the gates laying their hits,” big Blues defenseman Robert Bortuzzo said. ”It’s going to be a heavy series. It’s hard to say how much physicality will be going both ways. I’m sure guys will be looking to get their licks in.”

Boston and St. Louis don’t lack high-end skill, from goaltenders Tuukka Rask and Jordan Binnington to scorers Brad Marchand and Vladimir Tarasenko. They do resemble their coaches – Cassidy, who has become a mature, straightforward communicator and Craig Berube, a no-nonsense, team-first guy who has turned the Blues into a north-south, no frills team.

These teams are in many ways mirror images of each other based on their gritty styles and how tough they are to crack.

”The two hardest, heaviest teams are in the final,” San Jose Sharks coach Peter DeBoer said after his team was eliminated by the Blues in the Western Conference final. ”Everybody talks about skill and speed, there’s room for all these small players. There is a room for that. But I don’t think it’s an accident.”

It’s certainly no accident that the Bruins and Blues like to make opponents black and blue. Bruins forward Danton Heinen said physicality is what he and his teammates have tried to deliver all year long and will continue to, but the Blues figured out last round that they need to be more selective about dishing out punishment.

”You can’t just run around out there,” St. Louis forward Oskar Sundqvist said. ”When you’re going to hit, you need to hit with a purpose.”

The purpose now is to lift hockey’s hallowed trophy. After Bruins center Patrice Bergeron played the 2013 final with broken ribs and a punctured lung, there’s not much guys won’t do this time of year at their own expense.

”This is the Stanley Cup. This is what everyone plays for,” Boston forward Jake DeBrusk said. ”It’s going to be fun, physical and pretty intense, so hopefully the body holds up for everybody here.”

GOALIE DUEL

With a league-best 1.42 goals-against average and .942 save percentage, Rask is the front-runner to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. Rask is in his second final as a starter after being on the Boston team that lost to Chicago in six games in 2015.

”It’s a team sport,” Rask said. ”Everybody has to pull their load. That’s the only way you can win.”

All the Blues is win, win, win no matter what since Binnington made his first NHL start in early January. They won 30 of their final 45 games to get into the playoffs, and Binnington has a 2.36 GAA and .914 save percentage in the playoffs.

No goalie has won the Conn Smythe since Jonathan Quick with Los Angeles in 2012.

CUP EXPERIENCE DISPARITY

The Bruins and Blues play similar styles yet have very different levels of winning this time of year.

Five Boston players – Rask, captain Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Krejci – are still around from the 2011 Cup-winning Bruins, and Joakim Nordstrom won in 2015 with the Blackhawks. St. Louis has two players with Cup rings, though even that should have an asterisk because Jordan Nolan (2012 and 2014 Kings) hasn’t played since January and Oskar Sundqvist (2016 Penguins) only skated 20 regular-season and playoff games with Pittsburgh that year.

”Our guys that have been there, that have won a Cup, have lost a Cup, that should give us an edge,” Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said.

Of course, a year ago the Washington Capitals had only one Stanley Cup winner in Brooks Orpik before Alex Ovechkin lifted it in Las Vegas. Armstrong is banking on his players earning their experience in the final.

”Hopefully a year from now we’ll say, geez, St. Louis has got a lot of championship experience,” Armstrong said.

MAY SWEEPS

To say this has been a weird playoffs would be the understatement of the league’s 101-year history. Top seeds Tampa Bay and Calgary were knocked out in the first round along with fellow division winners Washington and Nashville, and the Lightning were actually swept by Columbus.

But there has also been a strange pattern with sweeping teams that the Bruins hope is a coincidence and not a trend related to too much time off. The New York Islanders swept Pittsburgh in the first round, then got swept by the Carolina Hurricanes in the second round. Carolina? Yeah, swept in the Eastern Conference final by the Bruins.

Boston also beat Columbus after the Blue Jackets swept the Lightning, making teams that won their previous series four games to none a combined 0-3 so far.

”It’s something that naturally you’re going to think about a little bit,” DeBrusk said.

INJURY WATCH

Attrition to the San Jose Sharks helped St. Louis get through West final, and despite their physicality, the Blues and Bruins have been fairly fortunate when it comes to injuries this postseason. St. Louis defenseman Vince Dunn missed the past three games with an upper-body injury but returned to practice wearing a full shield over his face, and forward Robert Thomas skated Saturday after leaving early in the third period West final clincher Tuesday.

Dunn is unlikely to play in Game 1 but could be available later in the series. Thomas is expected to play despite not practicing Sunday.

The Bruins have had a week and a half off to heal up, which is good news for captain Zdeno Chara, who was injured and didn’t play in Game 4 of the East final. They got a bit of a scare when Marchand jammed his left hand after bumping into teammate Connor Clifton during an intrasquad scrimmage to stay sharp during the long layoff.

Marchand missed practice Sunday, but coach Bruce Cassidy said it was for maintenance and expects Boston’s leading scorer to be good to go for Game 1.

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

NHL on NBCSN: Ovechkin just needs bounces to reach 700 goals

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Thursday’s matchup between the Washington Capitals and Montreal Canadiens. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Alex Ovechkin‘s been stuck on 698 goals for five games now, with Thursday’s game against the Habs serving as his next crack at 700.

If it’s getting to Ovechkin, then he’s not admitting it. He denied his quest for 700 being a distraction for himself and his Capitals teammates.

“I don’t think somebody thinks about it,” Ovechkin said, via NHL.com’s Tom Gulitti. “If it happens, it happens. It’s just a matter of time, tomorrow, after tomorrow, whatever. We’re focusing right now to get our game better, to secure a playoff spot, and then we’ll move on.”

Blaming Ovechkin solely for the Capitals’ recent struggles (four losses, all in regulation, over the past five games) is oversimplifying. Consider, for instance, that they just concluded a three-game road trip in Vegas, all against viable opponents.

Even so, when a player is chasing a big milestone, teammates sometimes feel obliged to try to force it. Capitals GM Brian MacLellan cautioned against that, as Gulitti reports.

“From observing, I would say I think everybody wants him to get it and are trying hard for him to get it and I think we would benefit from just let’s play our game and it’s going to happen organically,” MacLellan said. “It’s just going to take care of itself. But you’d have to ask him that specifically if it’s affecting him.”

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET]

Ovechkin shooting, not getting bounces yet to hit 700 goals

The gut reaction would be to say that Ovechkin has been terrible since trying to reach 700.

After all, Ovechkin hasn’t scored a goal. In fact, Ovechkin has been held pointless, suffering through a cumulative -6 rating.

Yet, if you dig a little deeper, Ovechkin’s drought is mainly a reminder that hockey is a game of bounces. Ovechkin’s been almost miraculously immune to sniping slumps during his already-illustrious career, but he does get snakebit from time to time.

The numbers certainly indicate that he’s trying.

Through those five games, Ovechkin fired a whopping 27 SOG. That’s even after starting slow with two SOG against the Flyers on Feb. 8. The NHL also credits him with nine missed shots. Ovechkin isn’t hesitating to shoot, he just needs a few bounces to reach 700 goals.

You wonder if Ovechkin might tweak his pregame superstitions, though.

Could Canadiens (unintentionally) provide the breakthrough?

Reviewing his play at all strengths at Natural Stat Trick, it seems like Ovechkin is honestly playing reasonably well. The results just haven’t been there lately, which happens in the bounce-heavy world of pucks.

The Canadiens could be a worthwhile target for Ovechkin, who fell short against the team he won a Stanley Cup against (and the franchise he scored “the goal” against). Through 49 career regular-season games against Montreal, Ovechkin’s scored an impressive 32 goals and 54 points. That translates to .65 goals per game, even better than Ovechkin’s remarkable overall career average of .61.

With a middle-of-the-pack 3.08 goals allowed per game and a middling 79.1% penalty kill success rate, the Habs could be just what the milestone-loving doctor ordered for Ovechkin.

Joe Beninati and analysts Craig Laughlin and Alan May will have the call from Capital One Arena.

MORE OVECHKIN:
NHL Power Rankings: Ovechkin’s top 10 goals
By the Numbers: Ovechkin’s 698 NHL goals
Stunning Numbers as Alex Ovechkin closes in on 700 goals
Can Alex Ovechkin break Wayne Gretzky’s record of 894 goals?
My Favorite Goal: Ovechkin scores ‘The Goal’

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.

Our Line Stars: NHL Trade Deadline special with Bob McKenzie

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Bob McKenzie joins as a special guest to give all the latest as the Feb. 24 trade deadline approaches. Would the Avalanche make a blockbuster trade for Henrik Lundqvist or Carey Price? Are the Bruins willing to pay the price for Chris Kreider? Does the addition of Alec Martinez put Vegas over the hump? Plus, why Chuck Fletcher’s deadline moves in his Minnesota days might mean he’ll be more cautious this year in Philly.

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 else 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

MORE: PHT’s 2020 NHL Trade Deadline Tracker

PHT Morning Skate: Best fits for top trade targets; Bruins have room to work with

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

• Adam Gretz chooses ideal landing spots for top trade deadline targets. Chris Kreider making the Blues even more relentless? Yikes. (YardBarker)

• Gus Katsaros supplements that with an analytics-based look at those who have already been traded, and those who might move. (Rotoworld)

• Speaking of players who were already traded, Tyler Toffoli shares his experience hustling to join the Canucks. Yes, it involved sharing some joking texts with once-again-teammate Tanner Pearson. (Sportsnet)

• Breaking down how Brenden Dillon fits with the Capitals. Interesting point that while Dillon is prone to taking penalties, the Caps’ strong PK might mitigate that drawback. (Japers Rink)

• The Bruins possess healthy cap space, making a trade deadline move relatively simple by contender standards. They’d only need to juggle a bit if they landed a big-budget rental. (NBC Sports Boston)

• I’ve pondered how teams might practice “load management” with players plenty of times before. With that in mind, it’s nice to see a deeper discussion of the practice — or lack thereof — in the NHL. Dom Luszczyszyn discusses how parity makes NHL teams less likely to rest players than their NBA counterparts, but how smart hockey teams should explore similar tactics anyway. (The Athletic, sub required)

[MORE: PHT’s 2020 NHL Trade Deadline Tracker]

J.T. Miller has delivered at a staggering level for the Canucks on the ice. It turns out he’s elite when it comes to heartwarming gestures, too. (Canucks)

• Cycling back to Miller’s on-ice impact, The Point recently broke down his breakthrough. Sheng Peng discusses how well Miller gels with Canucks star Elias Pettersson. (The Point)

Braden Holtby has looked sharp lately. After struggling through much of this regular season, could Holtby be back on his game? (Nova Caps)

• Kim and Terry Pegula told Sabres GM Jason Botterill that they are not looking to hire a president of hockey operations. Botterill apparently said in the past that he prefers to report directly to ownership. All of that said, it’s not clear if the Pegulas might be looking for a new General Manager. (Buffalo News)

• Things were bad for Milan Lucic, particularly in November. With James Neal red-hot, people were making unkind comparisons. But even more directly, he found himself benched, and pondered retirement because the game just wasn’t fun anymore. Like a frosted tip, it seems like Lucic has his sparkle back at the moment, though. (Sporting News)

• Andrew Berkshire recently broke down the five best defensive pairings in the NHL, including Nashville’s Roman JosiRyan Ellis combo. (Sportsnet)

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.

The Buzzer: Pastrnak lifts Bruins to OT win; Kreider’s value continues to increase

David Pastrnak #88 of the Boston Bruins scores the game winning goal
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Three Stars

1) David Pastrnak, Boston Bruins

Great scoring opportunities often start with a smart play in the defensive zone. Pastrnak poked the puck away from Oilers defenseman Darnell Nurse then took off in the other direction. David Krejci made a quick outlook pass to Pastrnak before he converted a breakaway to lead the Bruins to 2-1 overtime victory against the Edmonton Oilers. It was Pastrnak’s 43rd of the season and helped the Czech forward return to the top of the NHL goal-scoring list alongside Toronto Maple Leafs forward Auston Matthews.

2) Chris Kreider, New York Rangers

No. 20’s three-point night led the Rangers to a 6-3 victory against the Chicago Blackhawks Wednesday. Kreider remains the top rental forward available ahead of the 2020 NHL Trade Deadline and his value increased with another strong performance. The speedy power forward corralled a pass from Mika Zibanejad and then blew by Blackhawks defenseman Adam Boqvist before netting his 24th of the season. NHL insider Bob McKenzie reported that the Boston Bruins, Colorado Avalanche, New York Islanders, St. Louis Blues and Washington Capitals have all expressed interest in Kreider. The Massachusetts native has spent his entire NHL career with the Blueshirts, but will likely be sporting a new sweater this time next week.

3) Alex Galchenyuk, Minnesota Wild

The 26-year-old forward made his first goal with the Wild count as he knotted the game late in the third period and then scored the shootout-decider in Minnesota’s 4-3 win against the Vancouver Canucks. Galchenyuk converted a forehand-backhand combination in the skills competition and interim coach Dean Evanson picked up his first win since the organization fired Bruce Boudreau. Galchenyuk was the beneficiary of an odd bounce at 15:15 of the final frame when his wraparound attempt redirected off Canucks defenseman Troy Stetcher.

Highlights of the Night

Vincent Trocheck is ready for baseball season as he batted this puck out of mid-air at 10:50 of the second period.

Patrice Bergeron finished a breakaway with a nifty backhand-forehand deke to open the scoring in Edmonton.

Roope Hintz found Corey Perry at the far post for the easy tap-in power-play goal to give the Stars a first-period lead.

Kevin Fiala wires a wrist shot off the cross bar and in just over a minute into the game.

Stats of the Night

Scores

New York Rangers 6, Chicago Blackhawks 3

Boston Bruins 2, Edmonton Oilers 1 (OT)

Dallas Stars 3, Arizona Coyotes 2

Florida Panthers 4, Anaheim Ducks 1

Colorado Avalanche 3, New York Islanders 1

Minnesota Wild 4, Vancouver Canucks 3 (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.