Stanley Cup Final Roundtable: Game 7 X-factors, Conn Smythe contenders

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Is Tuukka Rask the only Conn Smythe candidate at this point, win or lose? Is there Blues player who has a shot?

SEAN: With what Rask has done this postseason, he probably should take it, win or lose, but there is a strong case for Ryan O’Reilly. He’s second in scoring among all players and has picked up his offensive game in the Stanley Cup Final with four goals and seven points. Since the award is for the entirety of the playoffs, outside of the San Jose series where he had a measly one goal and five points, he’s produced regularly and played a huge part in shutting down the top offensive threats on the other side of the ice.

JAMES: Look, points aren’t everything, but it says a lot that only two players who’ve scored more points than Logan Couture‘s 20 (Brad Marchand with 23, Ryan O'Reilly at 21). Not ideal when Couture’s Sharks were eliminated on May 21, and even then, Couture was on a three-game pointless drought.

For years, I’ve grumbled about should-be Conn Smythe winners losing out just because their teams didn’t win. In my opinion, Jarome Iginla and Chris Pronger should have had at least one playoff MVP apiece. No one deserves the Conn Smythe more than Rask, whether the Bruins win or the Blues break their Stanley Cup curse.

ADAM: I am 100 percent certain that if the Blues win someone on their team will get it, that does not mean I have to agree with it. Rask is everything the playoff MVP should be, win or lose. He has been the best player on the ice the entire postseason, he has played at a historically good level for his position, and is quite literally the single biggest reason his team is here. Without him playing the way he has they lose to Toronto or Columbus in the first or second round, and he pretty much broke the Hurricanes early in the Eastern Conference Final series. While the Blues have a great team and a lot of excellent players having really good postseasons, there is not one player on the team that reaches that level we have seen from Rask. If I had a vote, it is Rask win or lose.

JOEY: I think Rask has been unbelievable throughout the playoffs, but I don’t think I’d give him the Conn Smythe Trophy if the Bruins don’t get the job done in Game 7. In my mind, there are a couple of worthy candidates if the Blues hoist Lord Stanley. First, Ryan O’Reilly has to be a strong candidate. He’s put up points and he’s been terrific on the defensive end, too. I know there was a point last round where he didn’t produce as much, but he has to be up there. I also think Alex Pietrangelo has to be considered. He’s logged some heavy ice time and he’s been productive, too.

SCOTT: Rask is the only choice, although history has defied that many times over. But you can’t tell me for a second that Rask hasn’t been the best player for the majority of it. I can field an argument for Ryan O’Reilly, but only because it’s become increasingly rare for a non-winning team’s player to get the award. Given that, if St. Louis wins, it likely gets placed into the hands of ROR. And that would be shame to not recognize, win or lose, what Rask has done to get the Bruins this far.

RYAN: Ryan O’Reilly has an outside shot of winning the Conn Smythe Trophy if St. Louis takes Game 7, but even then Tuukka Rask is the heavy favorite.  The only scenario where I think Rask would fall short of the award is if he absolutely collapses in Game 7.  Assuming he at least has an okay game, he’ll win the Conn Smythe even if the Bruins lose.

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Who is your X-factor for each team and why?

SEAN: Ryan O’Reilly has been the engine for the Blues in the Cup Final. He’s played a strong two-way game that has put him ahead of the line on the roster for Conn Smythe Trophy consideration. For the way he leads that top line and how he’s been successful at helping neutralize the Bruins’ top line at times through six games, they’ll need him at his best one more time. Tuukka Rask has not had a game this postseason with a sub-.900 save percentage. That’s huge, and it’s a reason why the Bruins will need him again in an anything goes Game 7. 

JAMES: David Perron‘s been able to possess the puck in the offensive zone, and has 16 SOG in the series, but only a goal and an assist to show for it. A player with his skills could break open a tense situation like a Game 7. Speaking of being limited to only a goal during this series, Patrice Bergeron‘s stuck at a single tally despite 21 SOG (though his three assists give him a solid four points in six games). I’d wager that Bergeron is playing through an injury, but even with that in mind, the all-world, two-way center feels due for some puck luck. What better time for that to happen than Game 7 of a Stanley Cup Final?

ADAM: Jaden Schwartz was so white-hot for the Blues for most of the playoffs and he’s just kind of disappeared in the Stanley Cup Final. He was never as good as he looked in the first part of the playoffs, he was never as bad as he looked during the regular season. There’s a middle ground there and the middle ground is a darn good player. I think he’s due to make an impact in this series and maybe score a big goal for the Blues. On the Boston side, I think I am looking at Jake DeBrusk. He has points in four of his past five games and seems to be getting better as this series goes on.

JOEY: I’m going back to Pietrangelo here. The Blues will need him to play 24 or 25 minutes (more if Game 7 goes to overtime) and they may need him to help set up some of his teammates, especially on the power play. All the players mentioned by others on this list will be key, but Pietrangelo is one of the key veterans on the team. As for the Bruins, I’m looking for David Pastrnak to come up with some big goals. He’s gone hot and cold at different points this postseason but Boston needs him to come up big on Wednesday night.

SCOTT: Brad Marchand. He knows how to get the job done in a Game 7 to decide the Stanley Cup Final. If you’ve done that once, it’s often more experience than anyone else has on the ice. The Bruins have five players who’ve been in this spot before. Marchand had two goals and three points as a rookie in 2011. The pressure didn’t seem to get to him that day. With several more years and now on a third Stanley Cup run, and the demons of 2013 still fresh enough pinch, I think Marchand plays a big role.

RYAN: Jordan Binnington has been more hit-than-miss in the playoffs, which is impressive for a rookie, but there nevertheless have been misses.  For the Blues to win Game 7, Binnington needs to be at the top of his game.  Patrice Bergeron is a big X-Factor for the Bruins.  He’s been somewhat quiet at times in this series, having been held off the scoresheet in four of the first six games.  He’s also minus-four and has averaged 17:31 minutes, down from 19:10 over the first three rounds.  He has the power to change the course of a game though, both on the ice and through his leadership.  A big night from him would make all the difference.

Finally, let’s hear it: Who wins Game 7?

SEAN: It’s Game 7, nothing that happened in the previous six games matters. Discipline, top players getting shut down, hot goaltending… this is the final game of the season and everyone knows what’s on the line. I think the Bruins shake off the Blues’ attempts at establishing their forecheck and rough and physical style and eek out a close out. Jordan Binnington has been fine, but Tuukka Rask has been unbelievable. 

JAMES: I’m on the record of having no sweet clue what will happen, and this series has been almost jarring in its tonal shifts, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the Blues win it all. I picked the Bruins head into the series, and as impressive as St. Louis has been, this Boston team seems like it has that fabled “extra gear.” So, I’ll choose Boston, with about as much confidence as someone has picking an AFC team other than the Patriots to reach the Super Bowl.

ADAM: Have been picking the Blues in every series from the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs and am not going to go away from that now. They have been better on the road all postseason, they have always bounced back after tough games, they have been an outstanding team from top to bottom for months now. They win it.

JOEY: I had the Blues winning the series in seven games at the start so I have to stick with that now. Jordan Binnington will have a big say in who wins this game. If he struggles like he did in Game 6, the Blues will have a hard time winning it all. If he turns in another solid performance, there’s a good chance that this game will be low scoring. Give me St. Louis.

SCOTT: I picked the Bruins from the beginning on the playoffs and they haven’t let me down yet. Rask has been unbeatable in games that matter most and Bruins top line and power play seemed to get back to form in Game 6. Boston wins 4-1.

RYAN: My prediction going into this series was Blues in 7, so I’ll stick with that.  St. Louis has done a great job of bouncing back throughout the playoffs.  They just need to do it one more time after dropping Game 6.

Blues-Bruins Game 7 from TD Garden in Boston will be Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET on NBC (live stream).

Former Bruins coach Cassidy wins; Boston’s home streak ends

Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports
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BOSTON — The Vegas Golden Knights made former Boston coach Bruce Cassidy’s return a success on Reilly Smith‘s score in the fifth round of the shootout, beating the Bruins 4-3 to end their NHL-record for home victories to open a season at 14 games.

The 57-year-old Cassidy was fired by Boston following 5 1/2 seasons in June after the Bruins were eliminated by Carolina in the opening round of the playoffs.

Eight days after he was let go, he was hired by Vegas.

In a matchup of two of the league’s top three teams, Western conference-leading Vegas opened a 3-0 lead early in the second period on two goals by Paul Cotter and the other by Jonathan Marchessault before the Bruins started their comeback when Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak scored just over six minutes apart late in the period.

They tied it on Taylor Hall‘s power-play goal 3:08 into the third when he spun in front and slipped a shot from the slot past goalie Logan Thompson.

Smith had the only score in the shootout, slipping a forehand shot past goalie Jeremy Swayman.

Cassidy took over as Boston’s interim coach on Feb. 7, 2016, before getting the head job that April. His teams made the playoffs all six seasons, including a trip to the 2019 Stanley Cup Final when they lost the seventh game at home against St. Louis.

Cassidy knows what it sounds like in TD Garden with The Standells’ song “Dirty Water” blaring after Bruins’ wins.

“Now that you brought it up, I’m used to hearing “Dirty Water” at the end of the game,” he said, smiling. “I’m glad I didn’t hear it tonight. The streak is irrelevant to me. It’s nice to come in and play well.”

Boston lost for just the second time in 12 games.

“This locker room sticks together, and we knew we were going to do something special tonight,” Swayman said. “It (stinks) losing, but we’re going to make sure we fix the problems.”

The Bruins’ home-opening streak broke the record of 11 that was set by the 1963-64 Chicago Blackhawks and equaled by the Florida Panthers last season.

Before the shootout, Thompson made 40 saves. Boston’s backup Swayman had 21.

“This city meant a lot to him, and he was fired up ready to go,” Thompson said of Cassidy. “We went out there and tried to get him two points tonight.”

Cotter collected William Karlsson‘s pass inside the left circle and unloaded a wrister under the crossbar 1:36 into the game.

Marchessault stole Pastrnak’s attempted clearing pass, broke in alone and tucked in his own rebound to make it 2-0.

Cotter’s second came 51 seconds into the second period when he slipped a wrister past Swayman’s glove.

“We couldn’t get it done early, before the shootout. We had chances,” Pastrnak said. “It’s a tough one to swallow.”

Vegas star forward Jack Eichel missed the game with a lower-body injury.

TRIBUTE

The Bruins played a video montage of Cassidy on the Jumbotron late in the opening period that ended with a picture of him and said: “Welcome back, Bruce.”

The crowd gave him a nice ovation and he waved thanking them.

“It’s a really nice gesture by the Bruins’ organization,” he said. “I appreciate it. I said all along that I have a tremendous amount of respect for them. I’m thankful they did it.”

FOR THE RECORD

Cassidy finished tied for third on the Bruins’ coaching list with Hall of Famer Milt Schmidt (1955-66) at 245 victories, behind Claude Julien’s (2008-17) 419 and Art Ross (1925-45) with 387.

EXTRA SPECIAL TEAMS

The Bruins entered the game ranked second in the league both with their power play (29.6%) and penalty killing (84.1%).

UP NEXT

Golden Knights: Host the New York Rangers.

Bruins: At the Colorado Avalanche.

Penguins plot a way forward as Letang recovers from stroke

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PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang returned to the ice on Thursday, just three days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

The “twirl” the longtime Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman took at the club’s practice facility was approved by team doctors, a spin designed to help Letang’s mental health and nothing else. While the 35-year-old remains upbeat, it remains far too early to put a timeline on when his familiar No. 58 will return to the lineup.

Though Pittsburgh general manager Ron Hextall indicated this stroke isn’t as severe as the one Letang endured in 2014 – when a hole in the wall of his heart led to a stroke that forced him to miss two months – the six-time All-Star is continuing to undergo tests.

There are no plans for Letang to participate in any sort of hockey-specific drills anytime soon, with coach Mike Sullivan stressing the club will “err on the side of caution” when it comes to whatever rehab Letang might need.

While Letang – one of the most well-conditioned players in the NHL – essentially went through the motions by himself, his teammates were 30 minutes south at PPG Paints Arena getting ready for a visit from Vegas and trying to plot a way forward without one of the franchise cornerstones, at least in the short term.

Letang made it a point to help break the news to the rest of the Penguins following a 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina on Tuesday. Pittsburgh scratched Letang from the lineup with an unspecified illness and he spent a portion of the game watching from the press box next to Hextall.

Afterward, Letang informed a somber locker room about his condition, a revelation that came as a shock even as he did his best to reassure those around him that he was and is OK.

“It’s very serious health stuff,” defenseman Chad Ruhwedel said. “You hear about strokes and it’s never really good so we’re just glad to see he’s doing well and everything is good with him.”

Sullivan understands it would be practically impossible for any of the other defensemen on the roster to replicate what Letang brings to the ice, so he’s not going to ask any one player to try. There are few players at the position in the NHL who have Letang’s mix of speed, skill and almost bottomless energy.

The highest-scoring defenseman in franchise history is averaging a team-best 23:54 of ice time and has long been a fixture on the power play and in just about every crucial late-game situation.

“I just think Tanger is not an easy guy to replace,” Sullivan said. “I don’t think from a tactical standpoint things change drastically. It’s just personnel based. But as you know, personnel can mean a lot in those types of situations.”

It’s more than that, however. This isn’t a routine injury. There’s an emotional component and an unknown element to Letang’s status even as the Penguins insist they don’t believe his condition is career-threatening.

“This is a whole different circumstance than an ankle injury or a shoulder injury,” Sullivan said. “This is a very different circumstance.”

Letang’s on-ice presence is just one aspect of his importance to a team that has never missed the playoffs since he made his debut in 2007. He’s become a mentor to younger teammates like 23-year-old defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph, who like Letang is French-Canadian and who, like Letang, plays with a graceful fluidity.

Joseph, who declined to get into specifics about Letang’s message to the team on Tuesday night, believes the best thing the Penguins can do during Letang’s absence is attack the game with the same passion he’s shown for 17 seasons and counting.

“The way he plays for the team every single night and the way he puts his heart and soul into the game on the ice, it’s the least we can do is have our thoughts of him whenever we get on the ice,” Joseph said.

Sullivan shuffled the lineup on Tuesday, elevating veteran Jeff Petry and Brian Dumoulin to the top defensive pair. Petry possesses a skillset that’s not too far removed from Letang’s, but it’s also his first year in Pittsburgh. Asking him to provide the leadership that’s innate to Letang is unfair. It’s one of the reasons Sullivan is insistent that it will take a group effort to fill in for a singular presence.

“We have some diversity on our blue line right now,” Sullivan said. “We feel like we have guys capable of stepping in and getting the job done for us and we’re going to try and do that.”

LA Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers

Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
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LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers, a surprising move for a player once considered the successor in net to two-time Stanley Cup winner Jonathan Quick.

Petersen, 28, went on waivers the day after allowing four goals on 16 shots in relief of Quick during a 9-8 overtime loss to the Seattle Kraken. Quick was pulled after giving up five goals on 14 shots.

Only one NHL goalie has a save percentage lower than Petersen’s .868 this season, Elvis Merzlikins of the Columbus Blue Jackets with .864. Petersen is 5-3-2 in 10 games with a 3.75 goals-against average in his third full season with the Kings and fifth overall.

L.A. signed Petersen to a three-year, $15 million contract in September 2021, and he figured to take the starting job from Quick, who turns 37 in January and is set to be a free agent after the season. Petersen has two years left on that deal after this one at an annual salary cap hit of $5 million.

Penguins’ Kris Letang out indefinitely after 2nd stroke

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PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang plays hockey with a grace and inexhaustible fluidity seemingly impervious to the rigors of spending nearly half his life in the NHL.

For the second time in less than a decade, however, a major health scare has brought Letang’s career to a halt.

The 35-year-old Letang is out indefinitely after suffering a stroke for a second time. Letang reported feeling ill and was taken to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

While general manager Ron Hextall said Wednesday this stroke doesn’t appear to be as serious as the one Letang sustained in 2014, the Penguins will have to find a way forward at least in the short term without one of their franchise pillars.

“I am fortunate to know my body well enough to recognize when something isn’t right,” Letang said in a release. “While it is difficult to navigate this issue publicly, I am hopeful it can raise awareness. … I am optimistic that I will be back on the ice soon.”

The three-time Stanley Cup champion missed more than two months in 2014 after a stroke, which doctors determined was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. He spent Monday feeling off and told team trainers he was dealing with what Hextall described as a migraine headache.

Penguins team physician Dr. Dhamesh Vyas recommended Letang go to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

“He didn’t know (he had a stroke),” Hextall said. “He just knew something wasn’t right.”

Letang is continuing to undergo tests but felt well enough on Tuesday to be at the arena for Pittsburgh’s 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina. He spent the second period chatting with Hextall then addressed his teammates in the locker room afterward in an effort to help allay their concerns.

“I think it was important for Kris to be there because his teammates got to see him in good spirits and that he’s doing well,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said.

Sullivan added initial test results on Letang have been “very encouraging.” Letang will continue to undergo testing throughout the week, though he felt good enough in the aftermath to ask Sullivan and Hextall if he could skate, an activity that is off the table for now.

Hextall said he “couldn’t even guess” how long the Penguins may be without the married father of two, adding hockey is low on the team’s list of concerns about a player who, along with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, has helped the franchise to three Stanley Cups during his 17-year career.

“First and foremost this is about the person and I told Tanger about that last night,” Hextall said. “This is Kris Letang, the father and family guy, the Pittsburgh Penguins, that’s second.”

Letang, a six-time All-Star, has been one of the most durable players in the NHL. His 662 career points (145 goals, 517 assists) are a franchise record for a defenseman. He’s averaged well over 24 minutes of playing time over the course of his career, a number that’s ticked above 25 minutes per game seven times in eight-plus seasons since he returned from the initial stroke.

The Penguins felt so confident in Letang’s durability that they signed him to a six-year contract over the summer rather than let him test free agency for the first time.

“The level of hockey he’s played for as long as he’s played is absolutely incredible,” Hextall said. “The level he’s continued to play at at his age, the type of shape he’s in … he’s a warrior.”

Letang has one goal and 11 assists in 21 games so far this season for Pittsburgh, which hosts Vegas on Thursday night. The Penguins are pretty deep along the blue line, but Sullivan knows he can’t try to replace Letang with any one player.

“It’s not anything we haven’t been faced with in the past and the reality is we have what we have, and we’ll figure it out,” Sullivan said, adding “it’ll be by committee, as it usually is when you replace a player of that stature.”