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PHT Power Rankings: Conn Smythe watch entering Game 4

Now that the Stanley Cup Final is reaching its halfway point it is time for our weekly look at the race for the Conn Smythe Trophy.

After their convincing 7-2 win in Game 3, the Boston Bruins enter Monday’s Game 4 (8 p.m. ET, NBC; Live Stream) with a 2-1 lead in the series and a chance to take complete control before it shifts back to Boston later this week. A win on Monday would give the Bruins a commanding 3-1 series lead, something that only one team has ever squandered in the history of the Stanley Cup Final (just as a reminder, it was complete madness took an insane sequence of events for that to happen). So, obviously, Monday’s game is pretty significant.

With the Bruins holding the lead in the series (as of this publication) they have most of the top leaders in the race.

But the Blues still have their contenders, too, if they are able to come back and win.

Let’s take a look at where the rankings currently stand.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

1. Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins. He was the favorite entering the series and nothing has really changed through the first three games to knock him out of that spot. Rask has played every minute of the playoffs for the Bruins and is still maintaining a .939 save percentage through the first 20 games. It is only the seventh different time in NHL history that a goalie has played in at least 20 playoff games and had a save percentage higher than .935. It is the second time that Rask has done it, making him the only goalie in NHL history to have that claim.

2. Brad Marchand, Boston Bruins. He hasn’t been as dominant through the first three games as he was in the earlier rounds, but a point-per-game average while playing a Stanley Cup Finalist is no small accomplishment. He has a strong chance to finish the playoffs as the leading scorer in the league. In almost any other year that would make him a slam-dunk winner for the Conn Smythe if his team wins. Only reason he is not the favorite right now is because his team’s goalie is having an historically good postseason.

3. Vladimir Tarasenko, St. Louis Blues. He is not going to finish with the best overall numbers in the playoffs, and he may not even be the leading scorer on the Blues, but if they manage to come back in this series and win three of the next four games Tarasenko is probably going to play a huge role. Given that he has a point in eight of the past nine games and had an eight-game point streak that ran throughout the entire Western Conference Final and the first two games of the Stanley Cup Final he is going to stand out. Recency bias is a thing, and if you have your best and most productive games in the final two rounds, you are probably going to get the award if your team ends up winning.

4. Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins. After a quiet start to the Stanley Cup Final Bergeron and his line finally erupted in Game 3. He has two three-point performances in the past four games and is still a force all over the ice despite a little bit of a slump in Games 1 and 2. The Bruins’ power play has been one of their biggest assets in the playoffs and nobody has done more to drive that than Bergeron with a league-leading seven power play goals. Before this season he had just seven postseason power play goals in his entire career.

5. Torey Krug, Boston Bruins. His hit in Game 1 will be replayed on Bruins highlight reels for years to come, especially if they end up winning the series, but that is not what brings him into the Conn Smythe race. It’s the fact he is one of the biggest game-changers the Bruins have on the blue line. In his 346 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time this postseason he is cruising along with a 55 percent Corsi rating while the Bruins are outscoring their opponents by a 14-8 margin. Individually, he is up to 16 total points (two goals, and a league leading 14 assists) in 20 games and has three multi-point games. That includes a four-point effort (the first ever for a Bruins defender in Stanley Cup Final history) in their Game 3 win on Saturday night. 

6. Jaden Schwartz, St. Louis Blues. He was going to cool off eventually because let’s face it, no one consistently scores on a quarter of their shots for an extended period of time. But he is still the Blues’ leading goal-scorer and point-producer and has single-handedly been the difference between winning and losing in at least three games for the Blues this postseason.

More Blues-Bruins Game 4

The Wraparound: Blues look to flip the page
Blues vs. Bruins: Three keys to Game 4 of Stanley Cup Final
Stanley Cup Final: Sean Kuraly breaking through for Bruins

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.

Backstrom expected to return for Capitals vs. Blue Jackets

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ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) Nicklas Backstrom had a smile on his face and no concerns about missing another game.

“I’m good to go,” Backstrom said. “It’s like that guy in `Mighty Ducks.’ I woke up, no pain.”

Backstrom was referring to the fictional Adam Banks character who returned from a wrist injury in time for a championship game. The Washington Capitals are getting the real standout Swedish center back while they’re on a roll.

The Capitals are expected to have Backstrom back Monday when they host the Columbus Blue Jackets. He missed the past eight games with an undisclosed upper-body injury, and Washington went 6-1-1 in that time.

With Backstrom ready to go, the Capitals are set to have their full, healthy lineup on the ice for the first time this season. Despite injuries, they lead the NHL with 22 wins and 49 points through 31 games.

“As of right now, we are playing good hockey and we are getting the points we needed,” Backstrom said Sunday. “It is still early in the season, so you have to keep build, build and build. We are a team that is building for upcoming things.”

Upcoming are matchups against the Atlantic Division-leading Boston Bruins and the Tampa Bay Lightning, a popular preseason pick to win the Stanley Cup. But Backstrom is of course referring to the playoffs, where the Capitals are looking to bounce back from last season’s first-round exit and make another championship run like they did in 2018.

There’s no reason to think they couldn’t do that, especially given their success more than a quarter of the way through the season without the full complement of healthy bodies.

“That shows the depth that we have all the way through our lineup,” coach Todd Reirden said. “That’s been a good problem to have, and it’s allowed us to see some other players get opportunities and showcase some of the abilities they have.”

Backstrom’s return puts Washington’s lineup back in regular order. He’ll take his regular place between Alex Ovechkin and Tom Wilson, allowing Reirden to keep the hot second line of Jakub Vrana, Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie together.

Braden Holtby is expected to start in goal against Columbus.

The Buzzer: Stars Wars Storm Surge; Bob beats Blue Jackets

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Three Stars

1. Sebastian Aho, Carolina Hurricanes

Heading into Saturday, Aho only scored in one goal (a goal and an assist) in his past five contests. He made up for that dry spell in a big way against the Wild, generating a hat trick plus two assists.

His third goal was an empty-netter, but Aho’s first tally ended up being the game-winner. Aho was really clicking with Teuvo Teravainen, who finished the night with three assists.

Aho now has 27 points through his first 30 games in 2019-20.

2. Alex Killorn, Tampa Bay Lightning

The Lightning made life miserable for the Sharks on Saturday, feasting by way of a 7-1 score.

Killorn was a big part of that, generating a goal and three assists for four points. Killorn now has three goals and three assists for six points during a three-game streak, giving Killorn 22 points in 25 games in 2019-20.

As effective as Killorn has been over the years, his career-high is 47 points. Chances are, he’s going to slow down (example a 15.7 shooting percentage so far this season, against a 10.5 career average), but if reasonably healthy, Killorn should blow that previous number out of the water.

There were other Lightning players who played really well, as you’d expect from a blowout. Steven Stamkos ranked among those who collected three points, while Andrei Vasilevskiy made 37 saves to exaggerate the distance between the two teams.

3. Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins

Really, you can take your pick between Malkin and Jake Guentzel, as they both enjoyed one-goal, two-assist nights on Saturday, and they both clearly play off each other quite well. As much as Guentzel has been conjoined to Sidney Crosby during his young (and underappreciated) career, it seems like he can click with Malkin, too. Obviously, it’s not difficult to transition from one “NHL 100” player to another who should have made the “NHL 100,” yet … we’ve seen wingers who cannot find chemistry with one or more of Malkin and Crosby. So credit to Guentzel for being deadly with both, and likely making life a little easier for each of them.

Malkin now has a fantastic 26 points in just 19 games, and may very well have his biggest year in a while if he can stay healthy — an uncomfortably familiar phrase for the Penguins for quite some time. (Heck, even spanning back to Mario Lemieux.)

Guentzel now has 31 points in 30 games, and a solid chance to exceed last season’s excellent career-high of 76 points.

Highlight of the Night

Uh, you think the Kings were expecting Johnny Gaudreau to pass when he did? (Don’t lie.) This is just a tremendous combination of speed, skill, and vision as he set up Sean Monahan:

Star Wars Storm Surge

Yay or nay on the Star Wars-themed Storm Surge from the Hurricanes? I’d say solid enough, although it lacked a Bunch of Baby Yoda so … maybe not ideal.

Factoids

  • The Blue Jackets spoiled Sergei Bobrovsky‘s shutout bid a bit more than halfway through the third period. Still, Bob had a strong night with 33 saves. Hot take: Columbus is still probably relieved to not be spending to the tune of Bob’s $10M AAV, considering how infrequently Bob has looked this good.
  • NHL PR notes that the Avalanche extended a point streak to 14 games, while they also gave the Bruins their first regulation loss at home this season.
  • Brady Tkachuk received a fine from the Department of Player Safety for cross-checking Scott Laughton. More on that wild game here.
  • A bit esoteric, but interesting, from NHL PR: Jack Eichel and Connor McDavid are the fifth pair to generate at least 300 points each in 320 games or fewer. They’re the first pairing to pull that off since Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin.

Scores

PHI 4 – OTT 3
VAN 6 – BUF 5 (OT)
COL 4 – BOS 1
PIT 5 – DET 3
TBL 7 – SJS 1
FLA 4 – CBJ 1
CAR 6 – MIN 2
TOR 5 – STL 2
NSH 6 – NJD 4
DAL 3 – NYI 1
CGY 4 – LAK 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.

P.K. Subban gets a warm tribute during his return to Nashville

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It would have been silly for Nashville Predators fans to boo P.K. Subban during his return to “Smashville.”

Subban didn’t choose to be traded from Montreal to Nashville, and he didn’t elect to be sent from Nashville to the New Jersey Devils, either.

Sports fans aren’t always so rational, though. Really, it makes sense: spending so much money, time, and emotional energy on a game isn’t exactly the most rational thing to do. So there was some concern about how Subban would be received, especially since he’s already booed in an honestly uncomfortably large number of NHL arenas already.

Subban and others can breathe a sigh of relief, though, as while not everyone greeted Subban with open arms in as literal a way as Roman Josi did with their hug on Saturday, the team gave Subban a fantastic welcome back tribute video:

Not only does that video include some of Subban’s great moments during his three seasons with the Predators (that Stanley Cup Final appearance, a Norris Trophy win), it also captures some of the off-the-ice qualities that make Subban so fun and entertaining (and make people sometimes get perplexingly, maybe troublingly mad about him). He got up and decided to sing some Johnny Cash upon arriving in Nashville, was a fantastic charitable presence, and was a lot of fun.

(No Listerine was spilled in the making of the ad, but you can’t have it all.)

Anyway, good on the Predators and their fans for welcoming P.K. back.

As a reminder, Montreal Canadiens fans greeted him with love upon his return, too:

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.

Avs’ rising star Cale Makar shaken by hit from Bruins’ Marchand

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The Colorado Avalanche have done a masterful job, for the most part, when it comes to rolling with injury-related punches to key players such as Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog. They have to hope that Saturday didn’t send another such haymaker their way.

Rising star defenseman Cale Makar (who just fell under a point per game on Saturday with 28 in 29 contests) was clearly shaken up by a hard hit by Boston Bruins forward Brad Marchand.

It didn’t seem like a heinous hit by Marchand, although there are some who wonder if it was a bit high.

Either way, Makar’s reaction is troubling. You can see him shake his head multiple times following the hit, which gives the impression that he could have suffered a concussion. That doesn’t guarantee that Makar did, but it’s a situation to watch — and one the Avalanche should absolutely be careful about.

The Avalanche ended up beating the Bruins 4-1 on Saturday.

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.