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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.”

PHT Morning Skate: Devils should clean house; Could Hall go back to Oilers?

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

• The Bruins are the best team in the NHL right now, but their fortunes may change soon enough. (Sportsnet)

• The NHLPA is covering up a theft of over $100,000 union funds. (TSN)

• The Devils should clean house after this season. (All About the Jersey)

Marcus Johansson is frustrated by the struggles he’s been having this season. (Buffalo Hockey Beat)

• Snoop Dogg is making an appearance in the NHL 20 video game. (Operation Sports)

• How has Sheldon Keefe changed the Maple Leafs? (The Score)

• There’s a few reasons why the Flyers had so much success in November. (Yahoo)

• The Edmonton Oilers are interested in Taylor Hall, but they will probably be outbid. (Edmonton Journal)

• The St. Louis Blues are gaining strength through injury adversity. (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

• The Habs have lose nine of their last 10 games. Is it time for them to rebuild? (Spector’s Hockey)

• What is the true value of a fifth-round draft pick? (Japers Rink)

• Gus Katsaros explains how defensemen are evolving with the times. (Rotoworld)

• The Red Wings are looking to have fun during this tough stretch. (MLive)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

The Buzzer: First place Coyotes; Zuccarello leads Wild to another win

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Three Stars

1. Mats Zuccarello, Minnesota Wild. After a pretty miserable start to the season the Wild are starting to get back on track and picked up their fifth win in a row on Thursday by beating the Tampa Bay Lightning, 5-4. Zuccarello was the big star for the Wild with three points (his first three-point game of the season) including the game-winner in the third period. His goal came just eight seconds after Tampa Bay’s Alex Killorn had tied the game. Things looked bleak for the Wild’s playoff chances in the first month of the season, but their win on Thursday moved them — at least temporarily — into the second wild card spot in the Western Conference.

2. Phil Kessel, Arizona Coyotes. And which team sits on top of the Pacific Division after Thursday’s action? It is none other than the Arizona Coyotes thanks to their 3-1 win in Philadelphia. They have been road warriors this season and now own a 10-3-3 record over their first 16 away games. They used a two-goal effort from Kessel — as well as another great goaltending performance — on Thursday to get their latest win. Kessel has yet to make the big offensive impact the Coyotes were hoping for this season, but he tends to score goals in bunches and maybe this is the start of one of those runs. Arizona is back in action on Friday when Kessel makes his first return to Pittsburgh since the Penguins traded him over the summer.

3. Alexandar Georgiev, New York Rangers. Artemi Panarin scored the game-winning goal in his return to Columbus, but the biggest difference maker for the Rangers in their 3-2 win was their goalie. Georgiev was sensational, stopping 45 out of 47 shots in helping to steal one for the blue shirts. Read all about that game here.

Other notable performances from Thursday

  • Petr Mrazek had an eventful night for the Carolina Hurricanes in their 3-2 win over the San Jose Sharks. He stopped a lot of shots, picked up a shootout win, and got punched in the face. Read all about it here.
  • Joe Pavelski scored the overtime winner for the Dallas Stars in their 3-2 win over the Winnipeg Jets.
  • The Chicago Blackhawks let a 3-0 third period lead slip away in Boston against the Bruins, but Jonathan Toews bailed them out in overtime with the game-winning goal.
  • Milan Lucic was finally able to get his first goal of the season for the Calgary Flames. It turned out to be the game-winning goal in a 4-3 win over the Buffalo Sabres.
  • Matt Calvert had a goal and an assist for the Colorado Avalanche in their 3-2 win over the Montreal Canadiens.

Highlights of the Night

The Wild looked like the Harlem Globetrotters and the Lightning looked like the Washington Generals on this Jason Zucker goal.

The Colorado Avalanche have their top line back together, and Gabriel Landeskog wasted no time in making an impact in his return to the lineup.

Maybe this is the shot that gets Johnny Gaudreau rolling for the Calgary Flames.

Blooper of the Night

Flames forward Matthew Tkachuk accidentally hip-checked a referee in their 4-3 win over the Buffalo Sabres.

Factoids

  • It was a highly competitive night around the league with eight of the nine games being decided by a single goal, including four overtime games. The only game decided by more than one goal was Arizona’s 3-1 win over Philadelphia, and even that was a one-goal game until a late empty-net goal from Kessel. [NHL PR]
  • Thanks to Ryan Pulock‘s overtime goal the New York Islanders extended their point streak on home ice to 12 games. [NHL PR]
  • Jonathan Toews’ overtime goal in Boston was the 14th of his career in the regular season, moving him into a tie for 10th place on the NHL’s all-time list. [NHL PR]

Scores

Chicago Blackhawks 4, Boston Bruins 3 (OT)
Colorado Avalanche 3, Montreal Canadiens 2
Minnesota Wild 5, Tampa Bay Lightning 4
New York Islanders 3, Vegas Golden Knights 2 (OT)
Arizona Coyotes 3, Philadelphia Flyers 1
Carolina Hurricanes 3, San Jose Sharks 2 (SO)
New York Rangers 3, Columbus Blue Jackets 2
Dallas Stars 3, Winnipeg Jets 2 (OT)
Calgary Flames 4, Buffalo Sabres 3

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.

Mrazek gets punched in mask by Thornton; leads Hurricanes to win

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It was an eventful night for Carolina Hurricanes goalie Petr Mrazek.

When it comes to the important stuff — stopping pucks to prevent goals and get a win — he was about as good as he could have possibly been by turning aside 28 out of 30 shots throughout regulation and overtime, as well as all three shots he faced in a shootout, to help lift his team to a 3-2 win over the San Jose Sharks and bust out of a mini-slump that had seen them lose three of their previous four.

He also had a run-in with Sharks forward Joe Thornton that saw him get punched squarely in the mask.

It all started mid-way through the second period when Thornton attempted to jab at the puck that Mrazek had covered in the crease. Mrazek, taking exception to that jab, then chased after Thornton, swung his stick at the back of Thornton’s leg, stood up to get in his face … then got punched.

There were penalties handed out here, with Thornton getting two minutes each for roughing and slashing, while Mrazek was given a two-minute minor for slashing.

Mrazek was asked after the game if it is tough getting back into the game and maintaining focus after a scrum like that, and he was quick to say that’s actually better for him because it makes him feel like he is in the game.

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.

 

Panarin scores in return to Columbus, helps Rangers steal one

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Artemi Panarin was back in Columbus on Thursday night for the first time since leaving the Blue Jackets to join the New York Rangers in free agency this past summer.

After hearing some early boos from the local crowd, Panarin ended up getting the last laugh and was the difference maker by scoring the game-winning goal in the third period of the Rangers’ 3-2 win.

Panarin was the Blue Jackets’ best player for two years and one of the biggest reasons they made the playoffs both years, finally winning their first playoff series a year ago when they upset the heavily favorite Tampa Bay Lightning in Round 1.

This is the video tribute the Blue Jackets had prepared for Panarin on Thursday.

So far his time with the Rangers has been everything the team’s management could have hoped for, and with his goal on Thursday is now up to 13 goals and 34 points on the season in his first 27 games.

What has to be especially frustrating for the Blue Jackets in this one isn’t just the fact that Panarin came back to haunt them by scoring the game-winning goal, but they were probably the better team in this game and played well enough to win. They ended up dominating the pace of the game and outshot the Rangers by a 47-19 margin and spent the entire night taking up residence in the Rangers’ end of the rink.

The problem was Alexander Georgiev was a rock in the Rangers’ net.

They also gave up a crushing goal to Brendan Lemieux in the closing seconds of the first period, erasing what had been a 1-0 lead and squandering what was a tremendous start to the game.

The win allowed the Rangers to keep pace in the Eastern Conference playoff race and leaves them just three points back of a Wild Card spot.

The Blue Jackets fall to 11-13-4 and are already eight points back.

Related: Rangers’ Panarin returns to Columbus the way he left: as a superstar

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.