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Blues’ Stanley Cup run shows value of regular season

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When the Tampa Bay Lightning woke up on Jan. 3 atop the NHL standings, the St. Louis Blues were dead last.

Tampa had won 31 of its first 39 games, while St. Louis had won just 15 of its first 37. The Lightning staked themselves to 30-point lead on the Blues before the season’s halfway mark.

The rest is league history: The Lightning got swept out of the playoffs in the first round, and the Blues went from the basement to lifting the Stanley Cup in triumph. That the Blues struggled for so long and didn’t hit their stride until January could make much of the marathon regular season seem pointless, though players suggest it actually shows the importance of ups, downs and adversity during the 82-game grind as a way to prepare to win playoff games.

”You’ve got to understand in the bigger picture if you’re going to have a four, five, six-game losing streak at some point, it’s no reason to hit the panic button,” said Jonathan Toews, who won the Cup as Chicago Blackhawks captain in 2010, 2013 and 2015. ”You almost have to go through that so when playoffs do come around, you’re ready to turn that switch and you’ve got that energy and you’ve got that confidence that if you work, you’re going to get the results for it.”

Players who watched all four division champions bow out in the first round and the Blues grind to the first title in franchise history came away with some important lessons on how to approach the regular season. St. Louis showed a midseason coaching change can work, a goalie can come out of nowhere and have success, and momentum can snowball in a positive direction.

”It was good at understanding that it’s a roller coaster, and the more you can stay even keel and keep staying with things and keep pushing each other to think that sometimes things will change, you’ll get a bounce and things will start to go your way,” Blues playoff MVP Ryan O'Reilly said. ”It was very awful at the start. We couldn’t seem to string wins together. But guys kept working. Guys didn’t shut down. They kept working for each other and the next thing you know, things started to change. Once that belief happened, it kind of steamrolled.”

Tampa Bay wound up on the flip side having not lost more than two games in a row all season and lacking the struggles to draw from when things went poorly in the playoffs. They went four and out against Columbus.

”We were good in the regular season and probably thought we’ll be all right in the playoffs because we were good in the regular season,” Vezina Trophy winning Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy said. ”The regular season was great. We were on a good run. In the playoffs, I think our tank was empty because of that and we just went straight down because of that.”

The Lightning tied the NHL record with 62 victories and finished 21 points ahead of the next-closest team. They also became the 10th Presidents’ Trophy winners in 11 tries to fall short of winning the Stanley Cup.

All of which supports the believe that standings and seeding matters little in the playoffs, where matchups take precedence. It also apparently doesn’t matter where a team is at by Thanksgiving or New Year’s Day, which used to be important markers about who will make the postseason.

”We started well and we ended bad,” said Jack Eichel, whose Sabres went on a 10-game winning streak, were first in the league at Thanksgiving and missed the playoffs. ”You look at St. Louis and they did the complete opposite. It’s a long season, and a lot goes into it. Consistency is one of the most important things in this league.”

Is it, though? The Blues didn’t put together a winning streak longer than two until mid-January. They got a boost from rookie goalie Jordan Binnington, tied a franchise record with 11 consecutive victories and became the poster boys for coming together at the right time.

”It’s just something to rally behind,” Dallas Stars goaltender Ben Bishop said. ”Usually that’s kind of what it comes down to. Something happens, and usually a team rallies behind it.”

For Vegas in 2017-18, it was the hometown shooting that killed 58 people and bonded an expansion hockey team with its community. The Golden Knights shocked the league by winning eight of their first nine games of existence and reached the Cup Final before losing to Washington. For St. Louis, Laura Branigan’s ”Gloria” became a popular rallying cry and young fan Laila Anderson battling a rare auto-immune disease was a heartwarming touchstone for the players as they made their run under Craig Berube, who was an interim coach until the celebrations had begun.

Rallying points are impossible to predict, and there’s no way to control when and how a group comes together. Still, general managers, coaches and players are always searching for that recipe of how to peak at the right time.

”You want to keep climbing,” said goaltender Tuukka Rask, whose Boston Bruins pushed St. Louis to Game 7 of the Cup Final. ”I don’t think you want to peak early and then slowly decline from there. That’s what everybody’s looking for. But you’re just trying to make the playoffs, always. You’re just trying to make the playoffs on a good note and not feeling like, ‘Oh, we dodged a bullet here. We barely made it.’ And then you’re kind of starting the playoffs not knowing what your game’s going to look like. You want to be feeling great as a team entering the playoffs.”

Toews pointed out a hot start never hurts. Points banked in October, November and December count just the same.

But St. Louis is perfect evidence that games lost early don’t spell the end. That’s how Jaccob Slavin sees the regular season now that he and the Carolina Hurricanes are trying to back up a surprise trip to the Eastern Conference final and every other team is looking to find the Blues’ rhythm and win it all.

”Until you’re out of it, don’t give up,” Slavin said. ”If you get on a roll at the right time, anything can happen.”

Blackhawks-Oilers stream: 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers

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NBC’s coverage of the NHL’s Return to Play continues with Monday’s Stanley Cup Qualifier matchup between the Blackhawks and Oilers. Coverage begins at 10:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. Watch the Blackhawks-Oilers Game 2 stream at 10:30 p.m. ET on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Connor McDavid scored 2:34 into the game to give Edmonton the early lead before Chicago scored four straight goals – two by captain Jonathan Toews – to take a 4-1 lead after the first period. Rookie Dominik Kubalik was the story the rest of the way.

While Toews, Patrick Kane, McDavid and Leon Draisaitl all found the score sheet, it was Kubalik who made the headlines. The Calder Trophy finalist, who led all rookies with 30 goals during the regular season, set an NHL record for most points (5) in a playoff debut.

Mike Smith allowed five goals on 23 shots before being pulled in the second for Mikko Koskinen.

“We’ll talk about where we are with our goaltenders, and I thought Mikko was fine in net,” Oilers head coach Dave Tippett said. “We have confidence in both our guys, we had long discussions about it. We think we’ll use both in the [postseason]… We started the season 5-0 (with) Smitty. We thought we wanted to start the postseason the same way. We were very confident in Smitty. Other than the giveaway that went off his back, he was kind of left on his own out there.”

Blackhawks forward Drake Caggiula has been suspended for Game 2 following an illegal check to the head of Tyler Ennis.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

WHAT: Chicago Blackhawks vs. Edmonton Oilers
WHERE: Rogers Place – Edmonton
WHEN: Monday, August 3, 10:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
ON THE CALL: Kenny Albert, AJ Mleczko, Pierre McGuire
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Blackhawks-Oilers stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

(5) Edmonton Oilers vs. (12) Chicago Blackhawks (Blackhawks lead series 1-0)

Saturday, Aug. 1: Blackhawks 6, Oilers 4 (recap)
Monday, Aug. 3: Blackhawks vs. Oilers, 10:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN (livestream)
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Oilers vs. Blackhawks, 10:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Friday, Aug. 7: Oilers vs. Blackhawks*, TBD
Saturday, Aug. 8: Blackhawks vs. Oilers*, TBD

You can watch all the NHL playoff streams on the NBC Sports app.

MORE:
2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule

Reaves, Seguin, Lehner, Dickinson kneel during anthem before Stars – Golden Knights

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Two Golden Knights (Ryan Reaves and Robin Lehner) and two Stars (Tyler Seguin and Jason Dickinson) decided to kneel during both anthems before the teams’ round-robin game on Monday.

This comes after other noteworthy moments where NHL players made statements against racism, particularly Wild defenseman Matt Dumba.

After the Golden Knights’ 5-3 win against the Stars, Seguin explained his decision to kneel.

“I was giving it a lot of thought in the last 24 hours about what to do. I talked to Reaves during warmups. He said he saw what I was doing in Dallas, and that him and Lehner were going to kneel, and asked if I’d like to join them. So I told them I’d join them,” Seguin said, via ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski. “Before the game, I went into the dressing room and told everyone what I was doing. Told them there was absolutely no pressure to do anything. Dickinson grabbed me and said he’d like to be a part of it, and support his beliefs and my beliefs.”

More on Stars, Golden Knights, and Dumba kneeling during anthems

Wild defenseman Matt Dumba made a passionate speech before Game 1 of Blackhawks – Oilers on Saturday, then kneeled during the U.S. national anthem. Dumba also raised his fist during the national anthem before his own Wild’s win against the Canucks on Sunday.

As you can read more about here, Dumba said that he regretted only kneeling for the U.S. national anthem, rather than both anthems. In this latest case, Reaves, Lehner, Seguin, and Dickinson kneeled for both anthems before Stars – Golden Knights.

The Golden Knights also tweeted about their players kneeling:

While the Stars shared a similar (if shorter) sentiment:

Along with Dumba, Lehner, Reaves, Seguin, and Dickinson, other teams made statements of their own. Members of the Nashville Predators wore “Black Lives Matter” shirts before Game 1 against the Coyotes on Sunday.

Members of the Bruins wore a variety of shirts along similar lines, while Maple Leafs players made similar gestures early in the NHL Return to Play.

During the end of his passionate speech, Dumba hoped that the Hockey Diversity Alliance and other measures might inspire others in the future.

“I hope this inspires a new generation of hockey players and hockey fans,” Dumba said. “Because Black Lives Matter. Breonna Taylor’s life matters. Hockey is a great game. But it could be a whole lot greater. And it starts with all of us.”

It seems like Dumba and others managed to inspire peers, including Reaves and Lehner of the Golden Knights and Seguin and Dickinson of the Stars.

Read more about the Hockey Diversity Alliance here, and at their website. The NHL also recently announced its #WeSkateFor initiative, which you can learn more about here.

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.

Kucherov leads Lightning past Capitals in round-robin play

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Shootout goals from Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point helped the Lightning beat the Capitals 3-2 in round-robin play Monday.

The first half of the game belonged to Tampa, who lead in possession and on the scoreboard until late in the second period. The Lightning controlled over 60% of shot attempts (per Natural Stat Trick) for most of the opening 40 minutes and built up a 2-0 lead thanks to goals from Kucherov and Mitchell Stevens.

Kucherov’s first of the postseason was the result of strong neutral zone play by the Lightning. They won the middle of the ice, and a Capitals turnover allowed Point to dance into the offensive zone and lay a pass off to Kucherov, who then proceeded to wire a shot by Braden Holtby.

Washington flipped the game to their side with a pair of goals 2:08 apart late in the second. First, Richard Panik put home a rebound that squeaked through Andrei Vasilevskiy‘s pads. Evgeny Kuznetsov then followed that up tapping home another puck that the Tampa netminder had trouble with.

No goals in the third period meant bonus hockey. Round-robin games will feature regular-season overtime rules, but 3-on-3 didn’t solve anything, so a shootout was needed.

Current Eastern Conference round-robin standings

Now that each team has played once, here’s where things stand:

• Lightning – 2 pts.
• Flyers – 2 pts.
• Capitals – 1 pt.
• Bruins – 0 pts.

Reminder that these games will determine seeding for Round 1. Any ties will be broken by regular-season points percentage.

Carlson remains out

Norris Trophy finalist John Carlson did not play Monday. The defenseman remained out after suffering an injury during the Capitals’ exhibition game last week against Carolina. He has practiced with the team since the weekend, but head coach Todd Reirden wanted to play it safe.

“We’re not going to put them in a situation where, if something were to go wrong or re-aggravate any injury or anything that’s going on that would potentially cause a chance for him to miss part of Round 1,” Reirden said on Sunday. “So we’ll do the thing that’s right for the player and obviously right for the team. We obviously wouldn’t put him out there in a situation where anything could become worse because he’s such a large part of our team and obviously a guy that had a tremendous year and is a huge part of our blue line.”

Bogosian makes postseason debut

Lightning defenseman Zach Bogosian has played 644 NHL games since breaking into the league with the Atlanta Thrashers in 2008-09. The No. 3 overall pick in the 2008 draft is with his third franchise and finally took part in the postseason for the first time in his career on Monday.

The last time Bogosian was in any sort of postseason? The 2008 Ontario Hockey League playoffs when he was with the Peterborough Petes. They lost their opening round series in five games to P.K Subban’s Belleville Bulls.

Eastern Conference round-robin schedule

Sunday, Aug. 2: Flyers 4, Bruins 1 (recap)
Monday, Aug. 3: Lightning 3, Capitals 2 (SO)
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Lightning vs. Bruins, 4 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Thursday, Aug. 6: Capitals vs. Flyers, TBD
Saturday, Aug. 8: Flyers vs. Lightning, TBD
Sunday, Aug. 9: Bruins vs. Capitals, TBD

MORE:
2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule

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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.

Canadiens-Penguins stream: 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers

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NBC’s coverage of the NHL’s Return to Play continues with Monday’s Stanley Cup Qualifier matchup between the Canadiens and Penguins. Coverage begins at 8 p.m. ET on NBCSN. Watch the Canadiens-Penguins Game 2 stream at 8 p.m. ET on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Jeff Petry scored with 6:03 remaining in overtime and Carey Price shut the door, stopping 39 of 41 shots he faced, to give the Canadiens the 3-2 upset win. Montreal became the second No. 12 seed to win on Saturday, joining the Blackhawks.

Pittsburgh’s Conor Sheary missed the net on a penalty shot with just over three minutes remaining in regulation, and Montreal’s Jonathan Drouin was awarded a penalty shot of his own in OT, where he over-handled the puck trying to make a deke to his backhand.

The power play was a big factor in the outcome of a number of the games on Day 1 of the playoffs, including this series. Pittsburgh went 1-for-7 with the man-advantage and failed to score on a 5-on-3.

Matt Murray will start Game 2 for the Penguins.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

WHAT: Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Montreal Canadiens
WHERE: Scotiabank Arena – Toronto
WHEN: Monday, August 3, 8 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
ON THE CALL: John Forslund, Mike Milbury, Brian Boucher
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Canadiens-Penguins stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

(5) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (12) Montreal Canadiens (Canadiens lead series 1-0)

Saturday, Aug. 1: Canadiens 3, Penguins 2 (recap)
Monday, Aug. 3: Canadiens vs. Penguins, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN (Livestream)
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Penguins vs. Canadiens, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Friday, Aug. 7: Penguins vs. Canadiens*
Saturday, Aug. 8: Canadiens vs. Penguins*

You can watch all the NHL playoff streams on the NBC Sports app.

MORE:
2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule