Lineup shuffling benefits Blues in Stanley Cup Final

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ST. LOUIS (AP) — Had Oskar Sundqvist not gotten suspended and Robert Thomas ruled out with a nagging injury, Zach Sanford might never have gotten a chance to show his stuff on hockey’s biggest stage.

If Vince Dunn not taken a puck to the mouth during the last round, Robert Bortuzzo might not have had the chance to score a key goal in the Stanley Cup Final.

This is the magic of the St. Louis Blues in the playoffs and even more specifically their series against the Boston Bruins. They’ve dressed a lottery ball machine amount of lineup combinations this postseason and because of suspensions and injuries in the final will have their sixth different lineup in six games.

Instead of interrupting continuity that’s usually paramount in the playoffs, the Blues’ game of musical jerseys with players in and out of the lineup has given them a variety of looks for the Bruins to contend with and contributed to St. Louis being on the verge of winning the Stanley Cup.

”You never want to see guys get suspended or go down with an injury,” forward Patrick Maroon said Saturday. ”But Zach Sanford, Sammy Blais and Robby Fabbri have done a really good job filling in. Thomas was playing until he went out. They’ve been here all year, and they know what it takes to win.”

Maroon is one of only 12 skaters plus goaltender Jordan Binnington to play in all 24 of St. Louis’ playoff games so far. That number will dip to 11 with Ivan Barbashev suspended and the very real possibility Thomas is ready to return after missing the past four games with what’s believed to be a hand/wrist injury.

Injury attrition can take its toll this time of year, something the San Jose Sharks found out when the Blues eliminated them without Erik Karlsson, Joe Pavelski and Tomas Hertl. The Blues have kept on chugging through the injuries and gotten impressive performances from players shuffling in and out of the lineup like Bortuzzo or returning off a long layoff like Sanford and Fabbri.

Barbashev isn’t available for Game 6, and coach Craig Berube said other decisions will be made closer to puck drop. Top-line forward Vladimir Tarasenko and bottom-six grinder Alex Steen are expected to play after missing practice for maintenance, but there are other questions about who’s in and out and St. Louis won’t have much of a drop-off either way.

”We have good depth, which is very important on the back end and up front,” Berube said. ”A guy like Sanford coming in and doing a good job for us after being out for some time, and Sammy Blais, just different guys. It’s really important.”

Sanford has had some significant jump in his legs the past three games after sitting out six weeks as a healthy scratch. Dunn showed little rust from missing almost three weeks before getting back in for Game 4.

And there has been no pouting from guys like Bortuzzo and fellow defenseman Joel Edmundson trading places on the ice and in the press box.

”There’s been different circumstances for different things,” Bortuzzo said. ”You’re going to get in there and you’re going to be excited to play. You’re going to be refreshed regardless of what’s going on.”

The Blues had already done a strong job in the first three rounds of wearing down opponents as series dragged on, and they’re in the process of doing the same to Boston. They play the same style, but the Bruins never seeing the same St. Louis team twice in a playoff series that usually breeds familiarity and contempt makes it even more difficult to prepare.

Boston could dress its same lineup from Game 5 because forward Noel Acciari is expected to play after leaving in the third period Thursday and Marcus Johansson had no lingering effects from the hit on him Barbashev was suspended for.

While the Bruins promoted Johansson to their top power-play unit to get that unit going, the Blues have to adjust without Barbashev, who’s a key penalty killer.

”He’s physical for us,” forward Brayden Schenn said. ”He does a good job on the PK, scoring some goals. We can’t worry about him being out. You’ve got to worry about someone else stepping up, stepping in and filling his role.

That has been key to the Blues’ run the past two months, in large part because of injuries and Berube shaking things up with coach’s decisions for performance. The suspensions of Sundqvist and now Barbashev forced Berube’s hand even more, but it hasn’t led the Blues to abandon their bruising approach.

”If that was a thing, then we’d have slowed down on our physical game and that’s not us,” Carl Gunnarsson said. ”I think we’ve just got to keep on going, just going to keep it clean and keep doing what we’re doing.”

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

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

Rangers beat Penguins in OT thanks to Kakko’s big night

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Kaapo Kakko looked dominant, at times, against men before he was drafted, including versus some NHL talent during the 2019 IIHF World Championship. The feeling was that he could make an immediate and successful jump from being the second pick of the 2019 NHL Draft to becoming an instant impact player for the New York Rangers, possibly outshining top pick Jack Hughes for the Devils.

A little more than a month into his career, it’s been up-and-down for Kakko, but we might just look at Tuesday’s game against the Pittsburgh Penguins as a breakthrough moment.

Rangers start strong

Kakko took advantage of a bodacious Brendan Lemieux pass to score the first goal of Tuesday’s game, then ended up collecting the game-winner in overtime as the Rangers beat the Penguins 3-2 (OT). You could call it a big night not just for Kakko, but the Rangers’ youth in general, as Adam Fox set up Kakko’s OT game-winner, and also scored the Rangers’ second goal off of a great feed by Artemi Panarin.

Here’s that OT-winner for your viewing pleasure:

The Rangers dominated the first period, ending in 2-0, and credit to Matt Murray for keeping it from being any worse. Natural Stat Trick’s period-by-period graph provides another way of showing how dramatic the bad start was for Pittsburgh:

Penguins roll with the punches, and break a slump

The point’s been made that the Penguins have had a knack for rallying lately, and they did again on Tuesday — just not for the win.

Pittsburgh scored two goals in the second period to tie things up. Maybe the biggest sigh of relief came on the second tally, and not just because it made the game 2-2 at the time. After going 0-for-28 in their last power-play opportunities and failing to score on the man advantage for almost a month, Jared McCann finally ended that drought.

That second-period effort was enough for the Penguins to secure a standings point despite falling behind 2-0 early on, but Fox and Kakko combined for the game-winner.

Kakko is now at six goals and eight points over his first 16 NHL games, while this also marks his first point streak (he scored a goal against the Panthers on Sunday). With that goal and assist, Fox generated his first multi-point game, but the defenseman has already been a quick study (insert Harvard joke), as this pushes his own point streak to five games (two goals, four assists for six points during that span). Fox also has eight points in 16 games this season.

Recent play of both teams

The Penguins will get a dose of the top two picks of the 2019 NHL Draft this week, as their next game is against Hughes and the Devils on Friday. After that, the Penguins play five of their next six games at home from Nov. 16-27, so maybe they’ll get some confidence in breaking that PP drought and at least getting a point with Sidney Crosby on the shelf for an unclear duration of time. Pittsburgh’s record sank to 10-6-2 for 22 points.

The Rangers, meanwhile, continue to quietly build up steam. They’ve gone 4-0-1 in their last five games, five of their last seven (5-1-1) to improve to 8-6-2 overall.

If young players like Kakko and Fox keep improving, the Rangers might just manage more hot stretches down the road in 2019-20.

If there are still growing pains as much as gains … well, at least Kakko & Co. have the ability to make plays like these:

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Lights went out during brief – but funny – moment in Bruins game

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The Florida Panthers were on the power play – and dangerous sniper Mike Hoffman had a chance to shoot from the slot – when the lights went out, briefly, at TD Garden on Tuesday night.

Now, this wasn’t like the blackout at Boston Garden during the 1988 Stanley Cup Final, when a Game 4 against the mighty Edmonton Oilers had to be replayed in its entirety in Edmonton because of such an outage. In that case, it went wrong for the Bruins, as they had managed a 3-3 tie during the second period of that nullified contest against that dynastic team.

In Tuesday’s case, you could imagine someone, somewhere – probably in Florida – claiming it was all a big conspiracy. For just a moment or two, the lights went out when the Bruins were killing a penalty. This screen grab of Sportsnet’s video (which you can watch fully above this post’s headline) gives you an idea of Hoffman’s location … if you squint a little. Actually, allow some help, as I fight the urge to go full John Madden in telestrator mode:

Apologies to conspiracy theorists, but these things happen. The brightest side is that it wasn’t a situation where a check was about to be delivered, as that could have made for a dangerous moment.

***

That wasn’t the only wild part of Tuesday’s game. The Bruins had a 4-0 lead in the third period against the Panthers, yet Florida ended up winning 5-4 via a shootout. Wow.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Rangers’ Lemieux sets up Kakko for beauty vs. Penguins

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The New York Rangers ended the first period up 2-0 against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday (watch live on NBCSN; stream here) thanks, in part, to some tremendous passing.

Most impressively, Brendan Lemieux sent a tremendous long bomb of a pass, beating multiple Penguins defenders, to Kaapo Kakko, who scored what might have been his best goal in the NHL so far by finishing the play with great moves.

This marks the first multi-game point streak for Kakko, 18, who also scored a goal against the Florida Panthers on Sunday. The second pick of the 2019 NHL Draft now has five goals and seven points so far in his rookie season, and still has two periods to add more during his 16th game.

The Penguins failed on two power plays in the first period, pushing them to 0-for-28. They haven’t scored a PPG since mid-October.

[More on the Penguins’ struggling power play]

To make matters worse for the Penguins, Artemi Panarin sent a tremendous pass to defenseman Adam Fox for the 2-0 goal with less than 10 seconds left.

Pittsburgh’s been a slow-starting team quite often in 2019-20, and in some cases have been able to rally for comeback wins. We’ll see if they can pull off another one on Tuesday, as it’s been a very weak start, and it’s possible it could have been more than a 2-0 lead for the Rangers after 20 minutes.

***

The Penguins ended up rallying back to tie the game 2-2, and sent it to overtime. Kakko scored again in OT, however, giving the Rangers the win. More here.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

WATCH LIVE: Penguins meet Rangers on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Tuesday’s matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers. 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 Penguins are coming off a 3-2 (SO) win on Saturday – a game they trailed 2-0 midway through the second period. It was their third straight game rallying from a multi-goal deficit. Despite earning the win against Chicago, Sidney Crosby left in the third period with a lower-body injury. He has been ruled out for this game, and his status beyond that is unknown.

Pittsburgh enters this game on a massive power play drought. They have not scored a power play goal in their previous 11 games, going 0-for-25 in that span. The total drought actually extends to the game prior to that, when they failed on their final attempt, so the Pens are 0-for-their-last-26 overall.

Rangers No. 1 center Mika Zibanejad has missed the last six games with an upper-body injury, suffered on Oct. 27 on a hit from Patrice Bergeron. Zibanejad will reportedly not travel with the team to Florida, meaning he is out for at least the next three games. He was leading the team with 11 points in nine games prior to his departure from the lineup.

After alternating starts at the beginning of the season, the Rangers have spent the past few weeks giving chunks of consecutive starts to each of their netminders. Alex Georgiev will get the start in this game – his seventh of the season – after Henrik Lundqvist started the previous three.

[COVERAGE OF PENGUINS-RANGERS BEGINS AT 6:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

WHAT: Pittsburgh Penguins at New York Rangers
WHERE: Madison Square Garden
WHEN: Tuesday, Nov. 12, 6:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Penguins-Rangers stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

PENGUINS
Alex GalchenyukJared McCannJake Guentzel
Dominik SimonEvgeni MalkinBryan Rust
Dominik KahunNick BjugstadSam Lafferty
Zach Aston-ReeseTeddy BluegerBrandon Tanev

Brian DumoulinJohn Marino
Marcus PetterssonJustin Schultz
Jack JohnsonJuuso Riikola

Starting goalie: Matt Murray

RANGERS
Artemi PanarinRyan StromeJesper Fast
Chris Kreider – Filip Chytil – Pavel Buchnevich
Brendan LemieuxBrett HowdenKaapo Kakko
Greg McKeggLias AnderssonBrendan Smith

Libor HajekJacob Trouba
Brady SkjeiTony DeAngelo
Ryan Lindgren – Adam Fox

Starting goalie: Alexandar Georgiev

MORE: Crosby out vs. Rangers, injury still being evaluated

Brendan Burke and Joe Micheletti will call the Penguins-Rangers showdown from Madison Square Garden in New York, N.Y. Paul Burmeister will anchor studio coverage with analysts Keith Jones and Patrick Sharp.