Stanley Cup Final: Kuraly breaking through for Bruins

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If you handed out an MVP trophy for the best player of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final (rather than the full postseason, with the Conn Smythe), then Sean Kuraly would be the unlikely frontrunner for the Boston Bruins.

Kuraly’s been crucial in the Bruins taking a 2-1 series lead through the first three games against the St. Louis Blues, scoring two goals (both of Boston’s game-winners) and two assists.

Even for those of us who targeted Kuraly as a potential surprise breakthrough candidate really didn’t see this coming.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

In a way, Kuraly’s getting all the bounces he wasn’t enjoying during most of this postseason, all at once. His two goals during the past three games came on just five shots on goal, good for a 40 shooting percentage. Kuraly’s 3-0 goal from Game 3 qualifies as a head’s up play, but there was also some luck involved in catching Jordan Binnington by surprise with such a quick release (and maybe partial screen?), not to mention the luck of surviving the offside review.

But, again, there’s an argument that Kuraly has been “due.”

Through the first 13 games of his postseason run – Kuraly missed some time due to hand surgery – Kuraly fired 38 shots on goal, matching Blues forwards Ryan O'Reilly, Oskar Sundqvist, and Brayden Schenn, who generated that many in 19 games (and more average ice time, most glaringly for ROR and Schenn). Even if you chalk up some of that shot volume to quantity over quality, Kuraly had been unlucky, only scoring two goals and five points, giving him just a 5.3 shooting percentage.

Delightfully, the deeper you dig into Kuraly’s stats, the more it looks like the Bruins unearthed another gem.

Any scoring from Kuraly should be considered gravy, because he’s really been asked to do a lot of the dirty work for the Bruins.

So far during the postseason, Kuraly’s begun an absurd 89 percent of his even-strength shifts in the defensive zone. (According to Natural Stat Trick, he’s had 48 defensive zone starts, 68 in the neutral zone, and just seven in the offensive zone.)

Considering his heavy workload, it’s impressive that Kuraly’s largely broken even in the possession game, and the Bruins have actually generated more high-danger chances for (35) than against (32) at even-strength with Kuraly on the ice.

That’s … pretty remarkable, especially for a nominal “fourth-liner.”

One of Kuraly’s defining skills is his speed. As The Point noted heading into his postseason debut, Kuraly uses his skating to be an absolute beast in transition, which is likely part of the reason that Bruce Cassidy loves deploying him in such heavy defensive assignments.

Cassidy also singled out Kuraly as a player who deserved more recognition in April:

Game 1 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final likely ranks as the high point for Kuraly, along with his linemates Joakim Nordstrom and Noel Acciari.

Not only did Kuraly score a gritty game-winning goal and set up Connor Clifton with a tremendous pass, but that trio drew the occasional assignment against the Blues’ top line of Vladimir Tarasenko, Brayden Schenn, and Jaden Schwartz. It says a lot about Kuraly’s line – and Cassidy’s confidence in that line – that they got that opportunity, and didn’t just earn a draw, but occasionally actually won the matchup against Tarasenko’s group.

Looking forward, it’s tough to tell if Kuraly might be a more regular scorer.

The 26-year-old managed eight goals and 21 points in 71 regular-season games, managing a solid 134 SOG considering his modest TOI average of 13:46 per game, but his shooting percentage was low at six percent. Kuraly’s career shooting percentage is even lower at 5 percent, and the sample size isn’t tiny at 154 games. It’s fair to wonder if Kuraly may be lacking a bit as a shooter.

Of course, opportunity plays into the discussion.

Kuraly saw his ice time climb significantly once January rolled around, a lot like Sundqvist with the Blues, he’s seen a prominent role during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Kuraly’s averaging 15:37 TOI per game, fifth-most among Bruins forwards, ahead of Charlie Coyle, Jake DeBrusk, and Danton Heinen.

The Bruins probably aren’t sweating the question of whether Kuraly can ascend in the lineup, or if he’ll merely remain a really, really good depth player.

That’s because Kuraly has the contract that figures to give Boston a competitive advantage. Via Cap Friendly, Kuraly’s cap hit comes in at a measly $1.275 million, and it runs through 2020-21, with no sign of performance bonuses.

Boston’s shown an uncanny knack for supplementing top players like Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron with smart late first-rounders like David Pastrnak, and hidden gems such as undrafted Torey Krug. By getting Kuraly in the Martin Jones trade, and locking him up to an extremely cheap contract, the Bruins seem to have struck it rich again with Kuraly.

If he keeps scoring, even better, but the Bruins will gladly take the version of Kuraly who was quietly winning tough matches for them.

Game 4 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final airs on NBC at 8 p.m. ET on Monday (stream here).

BREAKING DOWN BLUES-BRUINS GAME 3:
Bruins blast Blues, take 2-1 lead in Stanley Cup Final
Blues special teams continue to be sour note 
Berube keeping the faith in Binnington after rough Game 3

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.

Capitals storm back to beat Penguins, regain top spot in Metropolitan

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It still probably wasn’t the exact way they want to play, but the Washington Capitals found a way to end their four-game losing streak on Sunday afternoon. Thanks to a four-goal third period they were able to rally for a 5-3 win against the Pittsburgh Penguins to regain the top spot in the Metropolitan Division.

Washington now sits in sole possession of first place in the division with 82 points, two points ahead of Pittsburgh.

The Penguins still have one game in hand while the two teams will meet two more times this season with both games in Pittsburgh.

In the end, this was a gutsy win for Washington. Despite being outshot 36-23 and struggling to find much sustained offensive zone time, they still managed to cause enough havoc around the Pittsburgh net and feasted on a couple of glaring mistakes by the Penguins in the third period.

After Patric Hornqvist and Sidney Crosby scored two goals less than 30 seconds apart in the second period, the Penguins entered the third period holding a 2-1 lead. But Washington quickly struck for a pair of goals early in the third period.

Tom Wilson scored the equalizer on a breakaway following a brutal turnover by Pittsburgh’s Marcus Pettersson.

Carl Hagelin responded moments later when he scored on a net-front scramble in front of Penguins goalie Matt Murray to help the Capitals regain the lead.

The Penguins seemed to steal momentum back thanks to a highlight reel goal from Evgeni Malkin, but a T.J. Oshie goal just a few minutes later ended up being the game-winner. Hagelin added an empty-net goal (his second goal of the game) in the final minute.

A few other takeaways from this game:

1. It might get lost in the madness that was the third period, but Braden Holtby played a great game in net for the Capitals. He did give up the three goals, but two of them were great individual efforts from two of the best players in the world (Sidney Crosby and Malkin) and, well, sometimes that is just going to happen. That also should not take away from how strong he was overall. He stood tall on a couple of Penguins power play opportunities, while also shutting down a handful of odd-man rushes. His overall production has rapidly declined the past couple of years but he is still capable of getting hot and taking over a game.

2. Malkin’s third period goal will not be showing up on John Carlson‘s Norris Trophy highlight reel this season, but it was still a big day for the Capitals’ defenseman on Sunday. His assist on Hagelin’s first goal was the 475th point of his career, making him the highest scoring defenseman in Capitals franchise history, passing Calle Johansson.

3. As for the Penguins, this is their third consecutive loss and it is becoming obvious that the injury situation is finally starting to catch up to them defensively. There is not a single trade that general manager Jim Rutherford can make before Monday’s trade deadline (3 p.m. ET) that will do more to help the team than the return of injured players Brian Dumoulin, John Marino, Dominik Kahun, and Zach Aston-Reese. That quartet represents two of their top-four defenseman (perhaps their two best defensive defensemen) and two outstanding defensive forwards. That is a lot to overcome, and it is not a coincidence that their injuries have coincided with a downward trend in their defensive performance.

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.

Hurricanes selling David Ayres shirts

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On Saturday afternoon few in the NHL knew the name David Ayres.

But after the 42-year-old emergency goalie was forced into action in an emergency role for the Carolina Hurricanes against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday night, he is the talk of the league on Sunday.

Ayres stopped eight out of 10 shots (and recorded a shot on goal of his own) in the Hurricanes’ stunning 6-3 win.

Now, if you want, you can buy an Ayres No. 90 t-shirt through the Hurricanes’ team shop.

The description from Carolina Pro Shop:

“Zamboni driver by day, emergency goaltender by night” David Ayres earned First Star honors and saved the day for the Canes in Toronto! Grab your t-shirt jersey to support the Canes’ newest legend!

The Hurricanes also add that Ayres will receive royalties from the sales, while a portion of the proceeds will go a kidney foundation. Ayres underwent a kidney transplant in 2004.

He entered the game after Hurricanes goalies James Reimer and Petr Mrazek both exited the game due to injury.

He has served as a fill-in goalie for the Maple Leafs during practices and has also dressed as an emergency backup in the AHL, where he also is a Zamboni driver for the Toronto Marlies.

The Hurricanes also announced that Ayres will be in Raleigh on Tuesday night to sound the siren before their game against the Dallas Stars.

Related: Hurricanes’ emergency goalie David Ayres beats Toronto Maple Leafs

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.

 

Golden Knights aim to stay hot vs. Ducks

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Sunday’s matchup between the Vegas Golden Knights and Anaheim Ducks. Coverage begins at 10 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

To put things mildly, Vegas has been through some challenging times in 2019-20. Yet, after navigating many bumps in the road, the Golden Knights are heating up, and hope to keep that surge going against the Ducks on NBCSN on Sunday.

Golden Knights gathering steam under DeBoer

Honestly, it’s still kind of jarring that the Golden Knights fired Gerard Gallant. It sure didn’t seem like their struggles stemmed from bad coaching.

And yet … whatever the explanation might be, the Golden Knights seem like they’ve regained their swagger.

Now, it’s worth noting that the Golden Knights didn’t take off right away under Peter DeBoer. Their struggles extended from coach to coach, as Vegas suffered through a 4-7-2 stretch from Jan. 7 – Feb. 11. But now? Now they’re starting to look like the dangerous team many expected.

The Golden Knights have rumbled through some stout competition lately, beating the Blues, Islanders, Capitals, and maybe most impressively, the Lightning on Thursday.

They needed to make the most of a five-game homestand in Vegas, and they have, winning all of those games after they made the Maple Leafs’ Saturday a little less disastrous by beating the Panthers.

Sunday closes off a back-to-back set, and represents a rare road game. The Golden Knights’ Sunday NBCSN contest against the Ducks serves as a bridge between that five-game homestand and another four-game stretch in Vegas starting on Wednesday.

Golden Knights, Ducks approach trade deadline very differently

The Golden Knights and Ducks already rank as buyers and sellers, even if they’re done with their deadline dealing.

The Ducks may have sold a bit low on Ondrej Kase, particularly since they took on David Backes’ contract from the Bruins. Meanwhile, the Golden Knights already seem pleased with the addition of Alec Martinez.

“I thought he did awesome,” Jon Merrill said of Martinez’s debut, via The Athletic’s Jesse Granger (sub required). “He’s a veteran defenseman with a lot of poise in his own zone. He’s a great defender and blocks a ton of shots. You have to read the play, and it’s timing when to step into the lane. It’s definitely an acquired skill. I think the more you do it, the more you get a sense of when the shots are going to come. He’s done a great job at it his whole career.”

Get a glimpse of Martinez and the Golden Knights as they face the Ducks Sunday on NBCSN.

John Forslund and Brian Hayward will call the action at Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif. Sunday’s studio coverage on NBC will be hosted by Liam McHugh with analysts Keith Jones and Mike Milbury.

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.

NHL on NBCSN: Blues looking to keep rolling, Wild aim to keep hopes alive

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Sunday’s matchup between the St. Louis Blues and Minnesota Wild. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Blues and Wild are in very different situations, yet both teams have dealt with tumultuous times heading into their Sunday game on NBCSN.

Blues starting to heat up again?

Things were starting to look a little dicey for St. Louis. The Blues lost five in a row from Feb. 6-16, with a game against the Ducks postponed following Jay Bouwmeester’s health scare. Pulling back further, the Blues managed just two wins from Jan. 15 – Feb. 16 (2-7-3).

For some time, it looked like the Blues would cruise to a Central Division title despite Vladimir Tarasenko‘s absence.

Now the Blues are on an upward trend again. In dispatching the Stars 5-1 in Dallas, St. Louis is now on a three-game winning streak.

“The way the guys in front of me and [Jordan Binnington] have played the last four games has been pretty remarkable,” Jake Allen said, via the Blues’ website. “Scoring chances created, back-checking and blocked shots. It’s great to see.”

There are also positive vibes regarding trade acquisition Marco Scandella. Craig Berube provided a positive early review to how Scandella is working with Colton Parayko, as the Athletic’s Jeremy Rutherford reported (sub required).

“He’s a big guy,” Berube said. “Plays physical, good defender, good stick. Two big guys out there that we can play against anybody, be hard on the other team, be hard on top players on the other teams. (Jay Bouwmeester) was there for a long time with Parayko. This is a similar fit that I see.”

Wild try to hang in there

Minnesota’s been through quite a bit in 2019-20, as well.

After quite a few instances where he seemed to be on the hot seat, Bruce Boudreau got the axe. Plenty of Wild players have wondered about their future, a thought highlighted by Jason Zucker being traded. Interim head coach Dean Evason has had his hands full in trying to keep the Wild in the West playoff hunt.

It still looks like a serious uphill battle, but the Wild have won two in a row. Jared Spurgeon‘s hat trick was the highlight of a frenetic 5-3 Friday win against the Oilers.

“We had a real scramble-fest going there in the third period,” Evason said, via the Wild website. “But guys were committed and it didn’t really matter who we called up, they just played and played the right way. It’s very encouraging.”

With all of that in mind, will it be the Blues or Wild who end Sunday’s NBCSN game feeling encouraged?

Chris Cuthbert will call the action from Xcel Energy Center alongside analyst Pierre McGuire. Sunday’s studio coverage on NBC will be hosted by Liam McHugh with analysts Keith Jones and Mike Milbury.

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.