To grandma with love: O’Reilly hopes to take Cup to big fan

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BOSTON (AP) — Ryan O'Reilly should expect another email from his 99-year-old grandmother.

Congratulations from Deirdre O’Reilly are certainly in order after her grandson won the Stanley Cup and the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player in the NHL playoffs. O’Reilly scored the opening goal for the St. Louis Blues in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final to help beat Boston 4-1 and give the franchise its first title in its 51st season.

”You dream of this for so long,” he said. ”As a kid, that feeling comes back to you of just what it means to win this thing. I still can’t believe this. I can’t believe I’m here right now and a Stanley Cup champion with this group of guys.”

O’Reilly made good on Doug Armstrong’s blockbuster trade to acquire him last summer – and the line he told the St. Louis general manager on that initial call: ”Let’s go win a Cup.”

O’Reilly was a major reason for that. He set a Blues record with 24 playoff points and became the first player since Wayne Gretzky in 1985 to score in four consecutive Cup Final games.

”His worth ethic and his production for us all year and then throughout the playoffs, he was just a relentless hockey player for a long time,” coach Craig Berube said. ”Never quits. Such a smart two-way player. He’s a special player.”

And O’Reilly did much of it after cracking a rib during the second round against Dallas and doing worse damage in the Western Conference final against San Jose. O’Reilly wanted so badly to excel in these moments that he played through the pain.

”There was a couple tough games, but once you kind of get going and the adrenaline takes over, I didn’t notice it,” O’Reilly said.

O’Reilly’s grandmother watches and emails him from Seaforth, Ontario, where he grew up playing hockey. She bought him multiple pairs of skates when he was a kid and has tracked his progress very closely.

”She’s obviously a big part of my career,” O’Reilly said.

The 28-year-old center’s career hit a new peak this season when he was a finalist for the Selke Trophy as best defensive forward and the Lady Byng for sportsmanlike and gentlemanly conduct. Then he raised his game even further.

After scoring just three goals in his first 22 playoff games, O’Reilly scored five in the past four to carry the Blues to the Stanley Cup.

”He looks energized to me a little bit more, more jump in his stride out there, and he’s finishing,” Berube said recently. ”He gets chances all the time, but he’s finishing right now.”

This is the time O’Reilly had been waiting for after several soul-crushing seasons in Buffalo. After getting a taste of the playoffs with Colorado in 2010 and 2014, he missed with the Avalanche in 2015 and with the Sabres from 2016-2018.

O’Reilly raised eyebrows on locker cleanout day in Buffalo 15 months ago when he said he’d “lost the love of the game” multiple times throughout a trying season and needed to get it back. The trade to St. Louis last summer changed everything, and now it’s back in every possible way.

”It’s very refreshing,” O’Reilly said. ”It just kind of helps remind you what it’s all about and why as a kid you play the game to have a chance to win a Stanley Cup and to be a part of a group like this, it just gave me a new life and reminder of how good and exciting this game can be.”

O’Reilly stated the obvious that winning is fun, losing is tough and ”it eats away at you.” It was fun for the Blues in coming back from 1-0 and 2-1 series deficits in the final in large part because O’Reilly helped lead the way.

Following a horrendous faceoff performance in a blowout Game 3 loss, O’Reilly won 43 of 70 faceoffs the next three times out to help the Blues control play and take it to the Bruins.

O’Reilly of course scored some big goals in the process, too. Throughout the season, he earned a ton of respect from his teammates, referring Patrick Maroon to his sports psychologist dad and pulling a team together that had six new faces.

”Off the ice, he’s an unreal guy,” linemate Zach Sanford said. ”Everyone loves him. He’s a good guy, he’s a nice guy. He’s always putting in the work. You see him after practice, leading all these drills on the ice and before games doing all these warmup drills and stuff. Obviously on the ice he’s a great player. He’s good offensively and defensively. There’s not too many guys that can do it at the level he does.”

That showed in the Stanley Cup Final that made all those years watching playoffs this time of year feel like they had a purpose.

”The Cup is the ultimate goal,” O’Reilly said. ”(I was) just trying to go out there and be the spark and try to make a difference.”

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

PHT Morning Skate: Winners, losers of NHL Olympic return; Training camp battles

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

Training camp battles, NHL playoff previews, and other return-to-play links

• Jackets Cannon looks at Columbus’ biggest strength: defense. In particular, Rachel Bules looks at how the pandemic pause will allow the Blue Jackets to have some serious training camp competition for spots. The Blue Jackets will need to be sharp, too, because the Maple Leafs’ firepower presents a real challenge for any defense corps. [Jackets Cannon]

• Speaking of the Maple Leafs — and training camp previews — Emily Sadler put together a thorough breakdown for Toronto. Can Frederik Andersen go the distance? Tyson Barrie ranks as a player to watch. Plus much more. [Sportsnet]

• George Richards takes a look at the Panthers’ “2.0” roster for training camp. If I had to single out a most interesting item, it’s that Anton Stralman has been involved. You may remember him airing some concerns about an NHL return. [Florida Hockey Now]

• What various analytics say about how the Wild’s lines match up with the Canucks. [Zone Coverage]

• It’s one thing for the Coyotes to say that they want to “get a little more juice” out of their offense. It’s another thing to actually lay out how it might work. Craig Morgan rolls out a detailed approach of how that might happen, including activating weakside defensemen. [AZ Coyotes Insider]

• The pandemic pause ranks as the biggest curveball Carter Hart‘s seen in the NHL so far. That said, it’s far from the only one. If he keeps passing these tests, it might all be to the benefit of Hart’s career. [NBC Sports Philadelphia]

Other hockey links

• As a pending UFA on a team that could face a salary cap crunch, Christopher Tanev knows he might not be back with the Canucks. Tanev said he hopes that he can return, and in particular, he’d love to remain Quinn Hughes‘ defensive partner for a long time. [NHL.com]

• It’s easy to look at the NHL’s return to Olympic participation as a good thing for everyone involved. As Ryan Kennedy points out, it depends on the outlook for different countries’ national teams. Kennedy presents the winners and losers for the NHL return to the Olympics, with Germany landing in an interesting spot. [The Hockey News]

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.

Sabres drop lawsuit after assistant coach is granted a green card

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres dropped their lawsuit against the federal government after immigration officials reversed course by approving the team’s strength and conditioning coach’s petition for a green card.

“The matter has been resolved amicably between both parties,” with Ed Gannon receiving approval for an EB-1 visa, the Sabres announced in a text message Wednesday.

The Sabres sued U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in May by alleging officials wrongly denied the team’s visa petition for the British-born coach.

The announcement came a week after the Sabres’ lawyer notified the U.S. District Court in Buffalo that the team was voluntary dismissing the suit, with each side agreeing to bear their own costs and fees.

The Sabres accused immigration services of misstating facts and arbitrarily failing to follow its own rules in denying a green card to Gannon. They argued the decision potentially subjected the team “to substantial financial harm and disruption in developing (its) athletes.”

Gannon was hired by the Sabres in 2015 while the team was beefing up its player development staff. He previously spent 10 years as the lead strength and conditioning coach of a professional rugby club, the Leicester Tigers.

The Sabres filed the application for permanent residency on Gannon’s behalf in October. To be granted a green card, Gannon had to demonstrate that he was at the top of his field, and the Sabres argued that he proved his abilities under USCIS’ criteria.

The denial of Gannon’s petition came amid efforts by the Trump administration to limit legal immigration. A report last year by the Migration Policy Institute concluded that USCIS had become “increasingly active in immigration enforcement” and that the agency was intentionally slowing down adjudication of immigration benefits applications.

Healthy Ekman-Larsson ready to give Coyotes a playoff boost

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GLENDALE, Ariz. — Oliver Ekman-Larsson had knee surgery last summer, fully expecting it to help him have a healthy 2019-20 season.

The Arizona Coyotes captain instead played with lingering pain, never able to fully recover.

The NHL’s shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic was a huge letdown, but it at least allowed Ekman-Larsson time to get back to full strength.

”These 2 1/2 months have been really good for me,” he said during a conference call this week. ”My knee is feeling 100% and I’ve been able to get stronger and faster.”

Ekman-Larsson had another solid season in 2018-19, finishing second on the team with 44 points with 14 goals. He was named to the NHL All-Star team for the fifth time and continued to be one of the NHL’s best offensive defensemen.

Ekman-Larsson opted to have offseason knee surgery to help with another lower-body injury and never was quite right this season, his 10th in the NHL.

The break allowed him time to heal, as did a trip back to his home in Sweden.

Unlike Arizona, Sweden did not go on lockdown once the pandemic hit and Ekman-Larsson took advantage, using the time to heal physically and mentally.

”With this virus going around, I haven’t felt so good mentally,” he said. ”Going back home and being around my family really helped that situation. I benefited from the physical part of being away. For the mental part, it was nice to get away from it.”

The Coyotes returned to the ice this week to prepare for the resumption of the season.

The NHL and the NHL Players’ Association announced Monday a tentative deal on a return-to-play format. Should it be ratified, the league will resume play on Aug. 1 with 24 teams proceeding in an expanded playoff format at two hub cities in Canada.

The Coyotes, the West’s No. 11 seed, will open against Nashville in a best-of-five series in their first postseason appearance since reaching the 2012 Western Conference Finals.

”It just feels like it’s a different game,” said Ekman-Larsson, the lone remaining player from the 2012 team. ”Everybody feels faster and stronger. I don’t know how it’s even possible, but at the same time it’s another level.

”I’m glad that I’ve had the chance to be in the playoffs before. There’s so many good teams and you don’t really know when you are going to have the chance.”

The Coyotes have a chance to make a little noise once they get there.

Ekman-Larsson is healthy, as is Phil Kessel, who struggled with injuries after being traded from Pittsburgh before the season. Arizona also has one of the best goaltending tandems in Antti Raanta and Darcy Keumper, who are both healthy as well.

”For us to get a chance and show that we are good enough to be a playoff team, I think that’s huge for our group moving forward,” Ekman-Larsson said.

A healthy Ekman-Larsson gives them an opportunity to keep moving forward.

Chris Pronger leaves senior VP of hockey ops role with Panthers

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The Panthers announced on Wednesday that Chris Pronger is leaving his role as senior vice president of hockey operations and senior advisor. The Hockey Hall of Famer joined the organization in 2017 after spending three years in the NHL’s Department of Player Safety.

“I want to personally thank the Viola family, Doug Cifu, Dale Tallon and all of the staff with the Florida Panthers,” said Pronger via a team statement. “I was able to grow as an executive and more importantly as a person in my three years with the hockey club. I wish the Panthers organization nothing but the best in the upcoming playoffs and years to come.”

Pronger is moving on to focus on the company he runs with his wife, Lauren. Well Inspired Travels “caters to elite athletes, C-Level executives and business owners.”

The Panthers are currently preparing for their Stanley Cup Qualifier series against the Islanders, which is set to begin next month.

MORE:
A look at the Eastern Conference matchups
Final standings for 2019-20 NHL season, NHL draft lottery results

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.