NHL Rink Wrap: Matthews takes goals lead; Chara passes Chelios

NHL Rink Wrap: Matthews takes goals lead; Chara passes Chelios
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Thursday’s top NHL players

J.T. Miller, Canucks on night of blowout upsets

Consider this an alternate takeaway for Thursday’s NHL games: not just upsets, but blowouts in those upsets. (Sometimes styled JT, not J.T.) Miller contributed to one of the biggest ones. Miller scored two goals and two assists as the Canucks clobbered Calgary 7-1.

Quite a way for the Flames’ 10-game winning streak to go up in smoke.

That constituted the largest margin of defeat in these upset-blowouts. There were other eyebrow-raising results, however. It’s unlikely people saw it coming when the Devils pulverized the Penguins 6-1. The margin was smaller, but a 6-3 win for the Blue Jackets over the Panthers? Not expected.

Either way, a big night for Jonathan Tanner (J.T.) Miller.

That four-point flame-out leaves Miller with 20 goals and 57 points in 51 games. As strong as his first season was with the Canucks, this is probably the best Vancouver’s seen of J.T. Miller. Rank Miller as one of those players who’s either pumping up their trade deadline value or making them too hard for their current teams to give up.

Thursday NHL highlights

By playing his 1,652nd NHL game, Zdeno Chara passed Chris Chelios for the most games played by a defenseman. In a fun moment, Chelios discussed Chara passing him. More on Chara – Chelios in the takeaways.

Watch the Predators retire Pekka Rinne’s number 35 in this video. If you’re a Predators fan, prepare a tissue. (Though you probably already saw it by now? Maybe?)

I keep saying this, but Patrik Laine keeps scoring. In this case, Laine extended his point streak to 11 games, and extended my line of questioning for the Blue Jackets. What will Laine’s next contract look like? Does it make sense for him to make that money in Columbus? If not, should they shop him around? The gap to gain a playoff spot seems too large, so this might be a good thing that messes up the greater good of building for the future (by being bad in the present).

Don’t get me wrong, though. It’s better for Laine (and just about everyone) when he’s thriving.

Thursday NHL Takeaways

Saros shines after Predators retire Rinne’s number 35

As bittersweet as retiring Pekka Rinne’s number 35 must have been, it would’ve felt worse for the Predators if they didn’t have an elite active goalie in net.

The Predators continue to lean on Juuse Saros, and Saros delivers more often than not. The Predators only managed 20 shots on goal and a single regulation goal versus the Stars, but that was all the “run support” Saros needed to carve out a shootout win. Getting an extra point against the Stars is extra-useful, too, if the two teams end up jousting for a playoff spot.

You think Pekka Rinne was having flashbacks of the stingier, likely Barry Trotz-led Predators days during this win?

Anyway, click here for more on the Predators jersey retirement ceremony for Rinne’s number 35. Scroll up if you just want to watch it go to the rafters.

Auston Matthews takes lead in Maurice Richard Trophy race

An empty-netter iced it, but really, Auston Matthews was the driving force in the Maple Leafs’ tight win over the Wild during the NHL action on Thursday. Matthews scored both Maple Leafs goals (before that ENG by Alexander Kerfoot) for the win, and also the lead in the Maurice Richard Trophy race.

Here’s where Matthews and other top Maurice Richard Trophy hopefuls rest after the NHL games on Thursday:

Auston Matthews: 36 goals in 48 games played
Leon Draisaitl: 35 goals in 51 GP
Chris Kreider: 34 goals in 51 GP
Alex Ovechkin: 32 goals in 61 GP

Those top four stand as the only NHL players to score 30+ goals so far this season. Kyle Connor (in 51 GP) and Alex DeBrincat (52) are currently tied at fifth with 29 goals.

While Matthews has been limited to 48 games played, the Maple Leafs appeared in three more. Meanwhile, the Oilers match the Maple Leafs in games played (51) while the Capitals have played in 53.

Overall, Matthews vs. Draisaitl may be the closest race, but you’re of course not wise to count out Ovechkin in the Maurice Richard Trophy race. Even in 2022, somehow.

That said, I can’t help but believe that if Matthews hasn’t wrestled the Maurice Richard Trophy favorite torch from Ovechkin, big-picture-wise, Ovi’s grasp is at least rapidly slipping. Chris Johnston notes that Matthews scored 77 goals in his last 100 games, a pace that’s almost unthinkable against today’s goalies and defensive systems.

Chara passes Chelios for most games played by an NHL defenseman (1,652)

Indeed, Zdeno Chara stands taller than any other NHL defenseman — now figuratively, to go along with wearing that literal crown.

Chara broke his tie with Chris Chelios, setting a new NHL record for defensemen with 1,652 games played. This ended up being a night of milestones for veterans few will associate long-term with the Islanders, as Zach Parise also reached goal 400:

While Chara might be a tad bit larger than Chelios, it’s interesting to compare the two after seeing them play 1,652 games and 1,651 games respectively. Consider some similarities:

  • They both ended up winning at least one Stanley Cup and at least one Norris Trophy.
  • Each defenseman was pretty gritty, making their longevity that much more impressive. (Keith Yandle‘s streak is impressive, but it’s also a testament to his ability to avoid the sort of collisions that cause injuries.)
  • Despite playing past age 40, both Chara and Chelios maintained a high level of play far beyond that of normal defensemen. If you want, compare Chara with the Islanders to Chelios with the Thrashers as those “jump the shark” moments of severe decline. But note that their late-career slippage is a small part of each story. This isn’t like more than half of “The Simpsons” being a pale imitation of its earlier brilliance.
  • Oh, and you may note that Chara got into a fight in game 1,652.

Slight size difference in this bout. Real disrespect to weight classes, perhaps.

Friday’s big story

Kings – Ducks the latest “battle of California” with West/Pacific playoff implications

While the Sharks sank out of any realistic playoff contention, they’re still part of a larger story that the California teams have been far better than expected.

Zooming out, tons of hockey nerds (raises hand) professed love for the Kings’ larger rebuild. Plenty expected steps in the right direction in 2021-22. But only a few people penciled the Kings in as a possible playoff team.

Right now, they’re relatively comfortable in that role. The Kings hold the Pacific’s third seed, and aren’t that far behind the Golden Knights.

That said, that gap could close quickly. The Kings (61 points in 51 games played) could lose a chunk of their cushion to the Ducks (59 points in 53 GP; outside wild card right now) if Anaheim wins in regulation.

Yes, there’s a lot of season left, but the Ducks likely feed a lot of pressure to win a game like this vs. the Kings. Will the Kings fatten their lead over the wild-card pack, and also eye Pacific Division positioning? Or can the Ducks creep back into that wild-card (if not that divisional) picture?

Few expected battles of California this relevant with March so close.

Thursday NHL scores

Maple Leafs 3, Wild 1
Blue Jackets 6, Panthers 3
Rangers 4, Capitals 1
Devils 6, Penguins 1
Predators 2, Stars 1 (SO)
Canucks 7, Flames 1
Bruins 3, Kraken 2 (OT)
Sharks 4, Islanders 3 (SO)

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.

Vegas Golden Knights come back to beat Florida Panthers in Game 1 of Stanley Cup Final

Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

LAS VEGAS – Back in the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in five years and trailing the Florida Panthers less than 10 minutes into Game 1, the Vegas Golden Knights sent a very clear message.

“We were ready,” Jonathan Marchessault said.

Ready and dominant. Vegas rallied from an early deficit, got the go-ahead goal from Zach Whitecloud with just over 13 minutes left and arguably the best save of the playoffs from Adin Hill and beat Florida 5-2 Saturday night to take the lead in the best-of-seven series.

“We kept out composure, and it was good,” said Marchessault, one of six original Knights players left from the start of the franchise in 2017 who scored the tying goal in the first period. “We just wanted to play the right way and be disciplined, and tonight we were able to be the better team.”

Whitecloud put Vegas ahead, a crucial penalty kill followed and captain Mark Stone scored an insurance goal that was reviewed for a high stick and confirmed. Reilly Smith sealed it with an empty-netter to make the score look more lopsided than the game.

The combination of that offense and Hill’s 33 saves put Vegas up after a feisty opener between Sun Belt teams who wasted little time getting acquainted with big hits during play and plenty of post-whistle pushing and shoving.

“It’s exactly what we expected,” said Vegas defenseman Shea Theodore, who scored his first goal of the playoffs and ended a 27-game drought dating to March 7. “That’s how they wanted to play. We were just trying not to play into it.”

That stuff is just beginning. Game 2 is Monday in Las Vegas.

Before the Panthers even get a chance to respond, they ratcheted up the physical play late after falling behind by two. A handful of penalties resulting from a fracas with 4:24 remaining left the Florida bench well short.

The outcome was determined long before that.

After falling behind on a short-handed goal by Eric Staal that sucked the life out of the crowd of 18,432, the Golden Knights rallied for their ninth comeback win this playoffs. Marchessault – known since arriving in Las Vegas for scoring big goals – answered before the end of the first period.

Early in the second, Hill made a desperation stick save to rob Nick Cousins of what would have been a sure goal. The save was reminiscent of the one Washington’s Braden Holtby made against Vegas – in the same crease – five years ago.

“That’s an unreal save – it’s a game-changer,” coach Bruce Cassidy said. “You need those saves at key moments.”

Giving up a tying goal to Anthony Duclair with 10.2 seconds left in the second did not slow the Golden Knights’ momentum much. Whitecloud’s goal, with two-time Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky screened and unable to see, fired up fans once again.

Bobrovsky, in the final for the first time, downplayed any reason for concern after stopping 29 of 34 shots and losing for just the second time in 12 games this postseason.

“I played a good game,” Bobrovsky said. “I played a solid game. They created some good chances other than goals. They had lots of good scoring chances, and that was fun.”

Part of the fun came when play was stopped.

Less than 10 minutes in, Hill was none too happy about Nick Cousins crashing into his crease and gave the agitating Panthers winger a jab that incited a handful of scrums. During the second period, Matthew Tkachuk let Vegas’ Nic Hague know he wasn’t thrilled about a hit in the corner on Cousins and a collision with Brandon Montour after the whistle.

“If guys are going to come in my crease and try to push me around, I’m going to stand my own ground,” Hill said. “I’m not going to do anything too crazy or get too wild, but, yeah, I’ve got to stand up for myself.”

Florida coach Paul Maurice, back in the final for the first time since 2001, displayed a similarly calm demeanor as he did all the way back in the first round, when his team fell behind 1-0 then 3-1 to NHL-best Boston before winning in seven.

“It’s going to be tight,” Maurice said. “Everybody breathe.”

The Golden Knights are in the final for the second time in six years of existence, five years after making it in their inaugural season. Vegas won the opener in 2018 and lost the series to Washington in five games.

The Panthers are back playing for the Cup for the first time since 1996. Florida got swept by Colorado in that final 27 years ago, 18 months before Tkachuk, the team’s leading scorer this playoffs, was born.

It’s the 66th different matchup of teams in the Cup final in NHL history and the 46th since the expansion era began in 1967-68. This is the first time since Washington-Vegas and just the third time since the turn of the century in which the final features two teams who have never won the league’s championship.

Penguins name former Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas as director of hockey operations

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PITTSBURGH (AP) Kyle Dubas wanted to take a breath and take a break after being fired as the general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Then the Pittsburgh Penguins called.

The break ended shortly thereafter.

Dubas joined the Penguins as the team’s president of hockey operations, less than two weeks after a somewhat ugly exit from Toronto following a second-round playoff loss to Florida.

The 37-year-old Dubas goes from one type of hockey crucible to another. In Toronto, he was tasked with helping the Maple Leafs emerge from two decades of postseason futility. In Pittsburgh, his mission will be to prop open the Stanley Cup window for Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang a little longer.

All three are 35 or older and haven’t won a playoff series since 2018. Yet Dubas believes strongly the issue isn’t the age of the franchise’s core but deficiencies elsewhere on the roster. Dubas replaces Brian Burke, who was fired along with general manager Ron Hextall in April after the Penguins failed to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2006.

“I heard a lot of people that were highly skeptical of the team’s ability to contend here and the way I view it, if the people want to bet against (Crosby, Letang and Malkin) they can go ahead and do so,” Dubas said. “But I’m going to bet on them and go with them here. I think it is a group that’s capable of contending to win a championship.”

Crosby and Malkin were excellent for much of last season and Letang showed remarkable resiliency while dealing with multiple setbacks, including a stroke and the death of his father. Yet save for a 14-2-2 stretch in November and December, the Penguins struggled to find consistency and ultimately stumbled down the stretch to snap the longest active playoff streak in major North American Sports.

While the Penguins do have $20 million in cap space and the 14th overall pick in this month’s NHL draft, significant changes or upgrades could be difficult in the short term.

Dubas inherits a team that was the oldest in the NHL last season and is littered with question marks, particularly in goal and the forward group outside of Crosby, Malkin and Jake Guentzel.

Two-time All-Star goaltender Tristan Jarry will become a free agent this summer and was beset by injuries over the second half of the season. Forward Jason Zucker, who served as the emotional sparkplug for long stretches, is also scheduled to hit the open market and may have priced himself out of town.

Pittsburgh also has several aging players with full or partial no-movement clauses, including 38-year-old forward Jeff Carter, 30-year-old Bryan Rust and 35-year-old defenseman Jeff Petry.

“I think that those are obviously very real situations, everyone knows that they exist,” Dubas said. “To me the effect on it … is what we can add in terms of depth pieces? What we can add in terms of younger players? That’ll be the real key.”

Dubas does plan to hire a general manager to fill the vacancy created when Hextall was let go after a short but largely unfruitful tenure. Dubas will serve as the GM on an interim basis until early July.

Dubas comes to Pittsburgh after nine seasons with the Maple Leafs, including the last five as general manager. Toronto won a postseason series for the first time since 2004 this spring before falling to the Florida Panthers in the Eastern Conference semifinals in five games.

Shortly after the Maple Leafs’ playoff exit, Dubas said that he wasn’t sure if he wanted to remain in Toronto. His contract was set to expire on June 30, but team president Kyle Shanahan opted to pre-emptively fire Dubas instead. Toronto hired former Calgary Flames general manager Brad Treliving as Dubas’ replacement.

Dubas helped build the Maple Leafs into a regular-season power during his tenure. Toronto set single-season records for wins and points, and went 221-109-42 in his tenure. Dubas also didn’t shy away from big moves – he fired Stanley Cup-winning coach Mike Babcock in November 2019 and replaced him with Sheldon Keefe – but struggled to find the right mix in the playoffs until this spring.

In the end, advancing beyond the first round for the first time since 2004 wasn’t enough for Dubas to remain in Toronto.

He joked he was maybe a little “too honest” during his season-ending press conference with the Maple Leafs when he expressed reservations about returning. Shanahan’s abrupt decision to move on came as a bit of a surprise, and Dubas planned to take some time to hit the reset button before looking for another job.

Yet the Penguins – who’d already been given clearance by the Maple Leafs to interview Dubas – provided a compelling reason to speed up the timetable. Dubas’ due diligence included speaking to Crosby and longtime coach Mike Sullivan to take the pulse of a leadership group that remains firmly in place.

Dubas called them “some of the best competitors” in hockey. Competitors that have – for one reason or another – been unable to recapture the magic of their runs to back-to-back Cups in 2016 and 2017.

Time is running out for Crosby to put his name on the Cup for a fourth time in a career that will almost certainly end in the Hall of Fame. Dubas knows he’ll be judged in part on whether he can make that happen. After taking more than six weeks of searching before landing on Dubas, Fenway Sports Group Chairman Tom Werner believes Dubas is up to the challenge.

“Our philosophy is giving Kyle and his associates the best possible resources to win,” Werner said. “Kyle’s been very articulate today about his path to success … we’re very confident that Kyle will execute the plan he’s articulated to us.”

Seattle Kraken sign GM Ron Francis to 3-year extension through 2026-27 season

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SEATTLE — Ron Francis was initially approached about extending his stay as the general manager of the Seattle Kraken back in the winter, but putting finality to the decision took longer than expected.

The Kraken kept winning and pushed what was mostly a formality to a secondary need until after Seattle’s unexpected playoff run finally ended.

“At that point it was kind of verbally done, just kind of a few little small details. And then we get into the playoffs and busy and it kind of got put on the back burner and I didn’t want it to be a distraction with the team and where they were at,” Francis said.

That finality came when the Kraken announced Francis had signed a three-year extension through the 2026-27 season. Francis originally signed a five-year deal when he became the first GM in franchise history back in 2019 and the new contract will kick in starting with the 2024-25 season.

“I’ll never forget the day that he said, ‘Yes, I’m ready to do this,’” Kraken CEO Tod Leiweke said. “But today is another great day for our fans because not only did he come and build, he is going to stay here and continue to build this franchise.”

Seattle reached the second round of the NHL playoffs in its second year of existence, following a challenging first year where it underachieved and was among the worst teams in the league.

But Francis navigated through that difficult first season and helped land the pieces that turned Seattle into a playoff team in the second year without mortgaging future opportunities or putting the Kraken into challenging salary cap situations.

“He has been the leader that’s gotten us to where we are today. And he is the leader to take us to the next level,” Seattle co-owner Samantha Holloway said.

Seattle is the second stop for Francis as an executive after spending seven seasons in the front office of the Carolina Hurricanes. Francis started as director of hockey operations before becoming the general manager in 2014. Francis was let go by the Hurricanes after the 2018 season.

Seattle jumped at the chance to bring the Hall of Fame player in to lead the front office. Seattle’s expansion season was a major underachievement with the Kraken going 27-49-6 and finishing last in the Pacific Division with 60 points. But Francis was able to move veteran players to stockpile draft picks and left enough salary cap room to make some key moves entering the second season.

Seattle signed free agent forward Andre Burakovksy, traded for winger Oliver Bjorkstrand and inserted rookie Matty Beniers into the lineup on Seattle’s top line from the first day of the season. The results on the ice couldn’t be argued. Seattle went 46-28-8 and reached 100 points, knocked off defending Stanley Cup champion Colorado in the first round of the playoffs before falling to Dallas in seven games in the conference semifinals.

“It’s been a real team effort. I’m sitting up here today and they’re saying good things about me, but it’s a much bigger picture than just me,” Francis said. “I’m excited to be here for a few more years and hopefully everybody’s opinion doesn’t change, but we’re going to stick to the plan and continue building it the right way so we can be a great franchise for multiple years.”

Francis also stuck with coach Dave Hakstol after that difficult first season. He may be the next in line for a contract extension from the team after a season where he was recognized as a finalist for the Jack Adams Award for top coach in the league.

Maple Leafs hire Brad Treliving as team’s new general manager

Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

TORONTO — Brad Treliving has a new job.

And the Maple Leafs have a new plan.

Treliving was hired as Toronto’s general manager less than two weeks after firing Kyle Dubas.

The 53-year-old Treliving left the Calgary Flames in April following nine seasons that included five playoff appearances and two 100-point seasons.

“Brad brings a wealth of knowledge from his years of experience as a general manager and hockey executive in Calgary, Arizona and beyond,” Leafs president Brendan Shanahan said in a statement. “He has earned tremendous respect amongst his peers throughout his years in the NHL and has built excellent relationships at all levels within the game.”

Treliving joins the Leafs at a crucial juncture in the wake of Shanahan’s stunning dismissal of Dubas on May 19.

The Original Six franchise, whose Stanley Cup drought stands at 56 years, won a playoff series for the first time in nearly two decades with a victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning this spring, but then lost to the Eastern Conference champion Florida Panthers in five games.

Dubas, who had been Toronto’s GM since 2018 and didn’t have a contract beyond June 30, suggested at an end of season news conference May 15 he wasn’t sure he wanted to remain in the role – at least in part because of the stress on his young family.

A roller coaster five days followed, with Shanahan ultimately firing the 37-year-old Dubas despite previously wanting to keep his GM, and the now-unemployed executive eventually indicating to his boss he wished to stay.

Treliving is the third GM – joining Dubas and Hall of Famer Lou Lamoriello – hired in Toronto by Shanahan, whose so-called “Shanaplan” aimed at getting the storied franchise back on its feet when he came on board in 2014 has seen unparalleled regular-season success, but just that one series victory in eight attempts.

“I’m thrilled to join an Original Six team and recognize how much the Maple Leafs mean to this community,” Treliving said. “This is a very exciting day for my family and I.”

Treliving has a lot to deal with as he settles into his new office at Scotiabank Arena.

Treliving, who served in the Phoenix Coyotes’ front office for seven seasons before arriving in Calgary, will have to decide the future of head coach Sheldon Keefe, while stars Auston Matthews and William Nylander can sign contract extensions as of July 1.

Matthews and Mitch Marner have full no-movement clauses ready to kick in the same day. Nylander will have a 10-team list.

The NHL draft is also set for the end of June in Nashville, Tennessee, while the Leafs have 12 roster players primed to hit free agency at noon EDT on July 1.

The Flames, who missed the playoffs this season, won the Pacific Division in 2021-22 under Treliving before falling to the Edmonton Oilers in the second round.

Johnny Gaudreau then stunned the organization by leaving Calgary for the Columbus Blue Jackets in free agency last summer. Fellow star forward Matthew Tkachuk added another wrinkle by informing the team he didn’t plan to re-sign.

Treliving subsequently dealt the winger to Florida as part of a package that included forward Jonathan Huberdeau and defenseman MacKenzie Weegar heading to southern Alberta.

Huberdeau then signed an eight-year, $84 million contract extension with the Flames that kicks in next season.

Tkachuk, a Conn Smythe Trophy candidate as playoff MVP, and the Panthers open the Cup Final against the Vegas Golden Knights.

Despite the departures of Gaudreau and Tkachuk, the Flames looked like contenders ahead of the 2022-23 season.

The acquisition of Huberdeau and the signing of center Nazem Kadri was expected to fill the void left by Gaudreau and Tkachuk, but the mix wasn’t right for a group led by hard-nosed coach Darryl Sutter.

Huberdeau and Kadri finished well off their career-high points totals of the previous season – the former went from 115 with Florida to 55 in Calgary – while subpar goaltending was an issue much of the season.

Treliving now turns his attention to Toronto.

Just like last summer, he has lots of work to do.