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Variety of champs shows there’s no one Stanley Cup blueprint

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Had the night of June 12 gone differently, maybe NHL rivals would be looking to the Boston Bruins as the model to follow to win the Stanley Cup.

”We were one game away to change the narrative of how teams should be structured,” Bruins defenseman Torey Krug said.

The Bruins lost Game 7 of the final to the big, heavy St. Louis Blues, who bruised and battered their way to the Cup. In recent years, that might have led teams around the league to bulk up and try to follow the Blues’ lead – but that is unlikely.

The differences in recent champions – from fast and skilled to physical and punishing – illustrate how many different blueprints there are to win a championship in today’s NHL. They also show the importance of tailoring style of play to personnel and perfecting team chemistry.

”There’s so many different ways,” Blues playoff MVP Ryan O'Reilly said. ”Most of the players in the league, you’re not going to change. You change little things and make adjustments, but you’re not going to change the players that they are. So it’s finding your group of players and getting them to play the most effective way.”

Over the past decade, the Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins won it all with speed, skill and talent. The Los Angeles Kings, Washington Capitals and Blues had plenty of skill, sure, but also used size to wear down opponents.

In a sport where whoever lifts the Cup tends to swing the pendulum on how to build a winner, it’s become more of a race to see which team can impose its will come playoff time.

”Every year is different,” said Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask, who started in two finals and was the backup when Boston won the Cup in 2011. ”The way you build your team, everybody needs to be comfortable with that. You can win many different ways as long as your team’s comfortable playing that style of game.”

The Blues under coach Craig Berube got comfortable playing a defense-first style predicated on taking the body and winning series by attrition. O’Reilly concedes a lot has to go right to play that way.

The 2016 and 2017 Penguins battled attrition and overcame injuries to win the Cup. They weren’t the biggest team by any means but had the ingredients to go toe to toe with anyone when it mattered most.

”Playoffs is a whole different beast, and obviously there’s more hitting,” Chicago winger Alex DeBrincat said. ”Even if you’re a skilled team, you’re going to hit more.”

Jonathan Marchessault, whose Vegas Golden Knights lost to the Capitals in the 2018 final, said it’s important to ”stay true to the identity of your team” – whatever that is. Yet there remains a notion that when the regular season ends and the playoffs begin, the NHL trend toward speed and skill ruling the ice is no longer the case.

”It’s different hockey,” said Anze Kopitar, who won with the Kings in 2012 and 2014. ”In order to get into the playoffs, you’ve got to be fast and skilled and everything. Playoffs is a little bit different. You’ve got to wear teams down, and that’s what it is. It’s not as high-scoring as it is during the regular season. You still obviously have to have some grit and some hard-nosed guys that are willing to do that.”

Players talk about feeling like there’s less room to maneuver in the playoffs, like the surface shrinks and each decision must be made a half-second quicker. That does put a premium on turning up the toughness level.

”Even if the game is going skill and finesse, generally speaking, speed, skill, if you ask anyone around the league, going into a rink where you know it’s going to be a heavy style, there’s an intimidation factor there,” said Tom Wilson, who recorded 15 points, blocked 12 shots and dished out 100 hits during the Capitals’ Cup run. ”That’s why hockey’s great. That’s why it’s a physical sport. When you’re playing a team and you know they’re going to finish their checks, you know they’re going to be heavy on the puck, you know they’re going to battle, that’s important.”

Battling isn’t just about the Kings, Capitals or Blues finishing thundering checks and separating opposing players from the puck. It’s about gutting through injuries, winning races to the puck and dictating the tempo of the game to suit a certain style.

”You always have to stick to what gives you success throughout a regular season,” Krug said. ”We play a certain way where we can match up against any style. If you want to play fast, we’ll do it. You want to play heavy and in your face, we have the players that can do that as well, and we won’t shy away from it.”

The Blues’ blueprint could help a team like Winnipeg lift the Cup. Maybe the Tampa Bay Lightning can take a page from the Penguins’ playbook. Or perhaps the San Jose Sharks win with the depth on defense that earned the Blackhawks three championships in six years.

Based on the variety of champions and the parity of the NHL , which will be the last team standing and how they do it is anyone’s guess.

”The fun part about the year we won and this year is that anyone can win,” Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom said. ”Everyone can win, which is great.”

The Buzzer: Streaks good and bad around NHL; Leafs turn the page

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Turning over new Maple Leafs

One streak did end, although Sheldon Keefe has to hope that his NHL head coaching career will begin with a streak that goes beyond a debut win. The Maple Leafs ended their losing streak at six games by beating the Coyotes 3-1 in their first game after Mike Babcock fired. Read up on that win here.

From hot streaks to cold

The Islanders maintained their now-franchise-record breaking point streak of 16 games by beating the Penguins in overtime. In doing so, the Isles are also on a five-game winning streak. The Dallas Stars matched that winning streak with their fifth victory in a row, and are pretty hot in their own right, going 9-0-1 in their last 10 games. They’re also 12-1-1 in their last 14 contests.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Flames put forth a painful, pitiful effort in dropping their sixth straight loss. The Predators were more competitive in many ways on Thursday, but Nashville has also lost six in a row. Tense times for two teams that expected to be Western Conference contenders.

Three Stars

1. Claude Giroux, Philadelphia Flyers

Heading into Thursday’s game, Giroux was on a three-game pointless streak, and only had a single point (one goal) over his past six games. The veteran forward exploded with a two-goal, two-assist performance to help the Flyers beat the Hurricanes.

Giroux’s two assists were primary assists, and his second goal ended up being the game-winner. He even threw in a 17-10 mark on faceoffs for good measure.

2. Zach Sanford, St. Louis Blues

Despite a modest 13:19 in ice time on Thursday, Sanford helped lead the charge as the Blues humiliated a flustered Flames team. Sanford scored the game’s first goal (thus getting a GWG) and added three assists during a four-point performance that was almost as impressive as Giroux’s output.

If you’d prefer handing this star to Jordan Binnington for his 40-save shutout, that’s totally understandable.

3. Aaron Ekblad, Florida Panthers

Florida found itself down 4-0 with less than two minutes remaining in the second period, yet managed to enter the third period down a more palatable 4-2. From there, Ekblad took over, scoring a goal and an assist during the third period, then adding the overtime game-winner to lock up a comeback win for Florida. Like Giroux, Ekblad came into the night’s action on a cold streak, having only managed a goal over seven games.

For me, Ekblad’s little trot after the OT-GWG breaks the tie with other players who scored three points on Thursday:

Highlight of the Night

No doubt about it, that goes Tuukka Rask, whose save rivals Marc-Andre Fleury for the save of the week/month/year. This post has more.

Benn the Bulldozer

On a less busy night, Jamie Benn trucking Mark Scheifele than scoring a pretty game-winning goal would be the top dog. It’s at least worth watching:

Factoids

  • The Panthers have now overcome four-goal deficits to win games twice in 2019-20, joining the 1983-84 Oilers as the only teams to manage such wins twice in the same season, according to NHL PR.
  • Sportsnet notes that the Flames are on a streak of 362:46 without taking a lead, the longest stretch in franchise history. Um, at least they haven’t squandered any leads, then? The Maple Leafs’ run without a lead ended at 446:47 when Tyson Barrie scored the opening goal on Thursday, also according to Sportsnet.
  • Via NHL PR: Cale Makar is the first Avs/Nordiques rookie defenseman to generate at least 15 points in a single month, and sixth overall among the franchise’s defensemen.

Scores

BOS 3 – BUF 2
FLA 5 – ANA 4 (OT)
NYI 4 – PIT 3 (OT)
PHI 5 – CAR 3
CBJ 5 – DET 4
STL 5 – CGY 0
VAN 6 – NSH 3
MIN 3 – COL 2
TBL 4 – CHI 2
DAL 5 – WPG 3
TOR 3 – ARI 1
SJS 2 – VGK 1 (OT)
LAK 5 – EDM 1

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.

Maple Leafs end skid in first Babcock-less game

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If it weren’t for Vinnie Hinostroza spoiling Frederik Andersen‘s shutout with 17 seconds left, Thursday would have been just about perfect for the Toronto Maple Leafs during their first game post-Mike Babcock.

Most importantly, the Maple Leafs ended their six-game losing streak with a win. (Yes, that makes brand-new head coach Sheldon Keefe 1-0-0.)

The symmetry starts to go up a notch when you consider that, on this night, Tyson Barrie finally scored his first goal of the 2019-20 season, which is also his first with the Maple Leafs. Barrie is up there when you picture Leafs with relief of Babcock grief, so scoring here almost feels on-the-nose:

That Barrie goal gave the Maple Leafs a coveted 1-0 lead, and that’s quite a reversal from how things could have felt if Andersen didn’t make this great glove save (which would have stood out even more if Tuukka Rask didn’t give Marc-Andre Fleury competition with an absolutely ludicrous stop).

The underlying numbers are promising, too. In particular, it has to be uplifting to see that the Maple Leafs managed an impressive 18-7 advantage in high-danger chances at all strengths, according to Natural Stat Trick.

There’s a lot to like for the Leafs, but there’s also no denying that the Maple Leafs have a lot of work to do — and a hole they need to dig out of. That win merely brought them back to “.500,” as they’re now 10-10-4 for 24 standings points in 24 games. They wouldn’t make it into the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs if they began on Thursday night, and Toronto’s ninth place standing is even inflated when you realize that teams right behind them hold games in hand. (Toronto’s 24 games played ties for the most in the NHL, while teams like the Lightning [22 points in 19 GP] loom large.)

Ultimately, though, the Maple Leafs can only control what they’re doing on the ice. So far, so good then, when you consider how they’re playing with Keefe pulling the strings instead of Babs.

More on Babcock, Leafs:

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.

Blues’ Dunn levels Flames’ Mangiapane with huge hit

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These are painful times for the Calgary Flames … sometimes literally.

By falling 5-0 to the St. Louis Blues on Thursday, the Flames have now dropped six consecutive games. It’s hard not to think a little bit about the Toronto Maple Leafs firing Mike Babcock amid their slump when considering the Flames’ own struggles, both now and in their own disappointing showing in Round 1 of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Talk of big changes (to coaching, Johnny Gaudreau, the GM, or anything else) can wait for another day … maybe one soon? For now, let’s bask in the fearful glow of Vince Dunn‘s hit on Andrew Mangiapane, as you can witness in the video above this post’s headline.

Is that hit symbolic of the Flames’ pains lately, or could you best embody that agony by comparing the team to its most snakebitten player, Sam Bennett?

Either way, these are uncomfortable times for the Flames, and not just Mangiapane.

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.

Islanders’ point streak hits 16 games, a new franchise record

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The Penguins spoiled the Islanders’ 10-game winning streak, but not the Islanders’ point streak, back on Nov. 7. The Islanders really haven’t slowed down since then, as Thursday’s 4-3 OT win against Pittsburgh extended their latest winning streak to five games, and allowed them to set a new franchise record.

By going 15-0-1 in their last 16 games, the Islanders set a new franchise mark for longest point streak. Yes, that means Barry Trotz’s odds-defying group has accomplished something the dynastic Mike Bossy-powered ’80s group never did.

At this rate, the Islanders might just bank enough standings points that it might not matter much when/if they “come back to Earth.”

In the spirit of Derek Jeter wedging his jersey number into a word where it only kinda sorta works, the Islanders embraced the history of the 16-game streak:

When you’re winning (or at least getting a point) as often as the Islanders have been, you’ll need to win in different ways. After some comeback wins recently, Thursday’s game against the Penguins was a back-and-forth affair where the two teams traded leads, and the Penguins needed a last-minute goal to even get the game to overtime. Brock Nelson‘s two goals were key, including his OT-winner:

There’s been a “cardiac kids” element to this run, especially lately. Thursday’s win marks the third consecutive game where the Isles’ action went beyond regulation, and six of the Islanders’ wins (plus their lone OT loss to the Penguins) have come via either a shootout or overtime goal.

This also marks the best 20-game start in franchise history for the Isles, according to The Athletic’s David Staple.

Just resounding stuff.

It says a lot about the Capitals’ own hot start (16-4-4, 36 points in 24 games played) that the Islanders still aren’t in the lead in the Metro. Of course, the Islanders could close a ton of ground considering their games in hand, as they’re 16-3-1 for 33 points in just those 20 games played.

Looking ahead, the Islanders will go on the road quite a bit as they try to extend this point streak even beyond 16 games. To start, they’ll take a California road trip, and the away-heavy stretch doesn’t end there.

Nov. 23: at San Jose
Nov. 25: at Anaheim
Nov. 27: at Los Angeles
Nov. 30: vs. Columbus
Dec. 2: at Detroit
Dec. 3 :at Montreal
Dec. 5: vs. Vegas
Dec. 7: at Dallas
Dec. 9: at Tampa Bay
Dec. 12: at Florida

As you can see, the Islanders face a run where eight of their next 10 games are on the road. You’d think that maybe there will be stumbles (dare I wonder, *gasp* maybe even a single regulation loss?) along that way, but the Islanders keep buzzing along, and they’re 6-1-0 on the road thus far this season … so who knows?

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.