NHL Rink Wrap: Lightning end Panthers’ streak; Emotional home games

NHL Rink Wrap: Surging Lightning end Panthers' streak; Emotional home games
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Sunday’s top NHL players

Nikita Kucherov helps Lightning end Panthers’ winning streak at 13 games

As defending repeat champions, the Tampa Bay Lightning weren’t likely to be dismissed by any would-be playoff opponents. Yet, with the Panthers already clinching the East (and thus the Atlantic Division), and the Maple Leafs secure in the second spot, there was a slight chance the Lightning would fall into a wild-card spot. Maybe at least one team breathed a sigh of relief that the Lightning may be running out of steam?

That notion seems a lot less sound lately, including after the NHL action on Sunday.

The Lightning ended the Panthers’ franchise-record winning streak at 13 games, and they did it in a big way. Tampa Bay doubled Florida up 8-4, and Nikita Kucherov played a starring role.

Kucherov collected a whopping five points on two goals and three assists. That big night pushes Kucherov to 23 goals and 62 points in just 44 games. Over an 82-game season, that would translate to 115 or 116 points. Kucherov’s reached the 100+ point mark twice in his career, so it’s fair to argue that he’s been about as potent as he’s ever been. (OK, maybe not at the level of his 128-point masterpiece in 2018-19, but that was also the year he got suspended in the playoffs and the Lightning were swept.)

Kucherov, Stamkos, Lightning have been on a resounding run

In a season where teams keep making history, and stack up huge winning streak, a three-game run should be nothing too notable.

However, with the playoffs so close, the Lightning’s three-game winning streak gets intriguing. Especially once you realize who the Lightning beat, and how lopsided those games were.

  • On Thursday, the Lightning walloped the Maple Leafs by a jarring score of 8-1.
  • A Predators team with more on the line couldn’t contain the Lightning, who won 6-2 on Saturday.
  • Apparently a back-to-back set couldn’t slow the Lightning offense. During the NHL action on Sunday, the Lightning handed that 8-4 beating the to the Panthers.

With that, the Lightning outscored three likely (two guaranteed) playoff opponents by a combined score of 22-7.

In what’s already been a season of rejuvenation, Steven Stamkos is getting on an even bigger role as the playoffs approach. His four points from that Sunday game almost got him NHL player of the night, and was impressive on its own. Remarkably, it pushed Stamkos to a streak of four straight games with at least three points (4G, 9A). Going further, he’s on a six-game multi-point streak (5G, 12A).

While I’d still consider resting Lightning players during this last week — I’ve been beating that drum, often to no avail, including with the Bolts for a while now — it’s understandable to allow Stamkos to chase a milestone. That four-point night leaves Stamkos in range of a 100 points this season (he’s at 97 in 78 games). Remarkably, he’s a point shy of tying his career-high of 98 points, so that would be his first 100-point campaign.

Perhaps you can just rest other high-mileage Lightning players, then?

Either way, it seems like this team may indeed reach the playoffs on a roll.

Sunday NHL highlights

This shorthanded goal could’ve been a highlight reel based on the Brandon Hagel pass alone. Then Nick Paul pulled off a ridiculous between-the-legs move to make it possibly the best shorthanded goal of the season:

Kevin Fiala scored a beautiful goal against his former team, putting together dazzling moves. The Wild should probably try to sign that fella.

The Golden Knights blew it against the Sharks as a last-second goal helped derail them:

One more Ryan Getzlaf Ducks highlight during a home game.

Sunday NHL Takeaways

Canadiens honor Guy Lafleur in first home game since his death

The Montreal Canadiens honored Guy Lafleur’s memory in their first home game since he died at age 70.

Watch the great ovation and tribute for Guy Lafleur in the video below:

This was an especially nice touch from the Canadiens and their advertisers:

Ryan Getzlaf plays final game for the Ducks

Being that Ryan Getzlaf decided to retire after this season, Sunday’s game against the Blues represented his last home game with the Ducks. While it’s tough not to wonder what Getzlaf might have brought to a contender in a trade deadline move, it clearly meant a lot for him to play for just the Ducks.

Here’s video of that ceremony:

This quirky gift from Teemu Selanne was probably the off-beat highlight of the whole thing.

Alex Ovechkin leaves Capitals’ loss to Maple Leafs with an injury

So far, it’s too early to tell if an upper-body injury will cost Alex Ovechkin much time. What we do know is that Ovechkin was not able to return to the Capitals’ shootout loss to the Maple Leafs after that injury.

Here’s footage of the awkward fall.

T.J. Oshie seemed optimistic, if vague about the Ovechkin injury situation. Perhaps we’ll learn more in the coming days?

Hurricanes have another goalie injury to watch in Raanta

With the Hurricanes already concerned about Frederik Andersen, their goalie situation could get shaky fast. Antti Raanta left the Hurricanes’ win over the Islanders with an injury and did not return.

It’s not yet clear how much time Raanta and Andersen may miss. This is tough timing, for sure, as the list of Hurricanes goalies is pretty scary.

Golden Knights suffer painful, squandered lead

Less than seven minutes into the third period, Nicolas Roy gave the Golden Knights what they hoped would be a commanding 4-2 lead over the Sharks. It was not the commanding lead Vegas hoped for.

After emptying their net, the Sharks scored with about two minutes left to make it 4-3. Then, Timo Meier stunningly tied things up with a second remaining.

Following that squandered lead, and a failed overtime power play, it sure felt like the Golden Knights might lose another should-win game and really doom their season. And indeed, they did. The Sharks ended up winning in a shootout 5-4.

How does Vegas’ playoff hopes look now?

There’s also a path where the Golden Knights could make the playoffs if the Predators lose out, all in regulation.

Many things have made life worse for Vegas in this painful season, but failing to beat teams far outside of the playoff picture may end up being more agonizing than all of those injuries.

A big story for Monday

Blackhawks – Flyers mainly about draft lottery positioning

Following the NHL games on Sunday, the Flyers boast the fourth-fewest points in the NHL (61 points with three games remaining), while the Blackhawks rank sixth (63 points, also three games left). With the Senators sitting at 69 points, the Blackhawks aren’t likely to go any lower than sixth. The most likely areas where a team may move is from that sixth spot to as low as third (Kraken: 58 points, but with four games left they could go as high as 66 standings points).

Under certain circumstances, we might gain reminders of home fans cheering for their own team to lose, like that Sabres – Coyotes game of infamy.

Being that the Flyers visit the Blackhawks, this one might have a different flavor.

  • Due to the Seth Jones trade, it’s unclear if the Blackhawks 2022 first-round pick will go to Chicago or the Columbus Blue Jackets. If the Blackhawks’ pick ends up being in the top 2 after the 2022 NHL Draft Lottery, it would go to Chicago, with the Blue Jackets receiving the Blackhawks’ 2023 first-rounder instead. So … there’s not the same clarity to root for a team to tank.
  • On the Flyers’ end, tanking and an “aggressive retool” might not mix, at least in some ways. Would Philly be bold enough to trade such a high pick in hopes of a quicker turnaround?
  • Then there’s the usual flavor: as much as any team may want to tank, the players on the ice want to bolster their hockey futures. So they’re unlikely to mail it in … at least not completely.

As Monday’s only game, Flyers – Blackhawks lacks much in the way of immediate stakes. It’s not unlike a Monday game between the Jets and the Canadiens. Don’t be surprised if fans of teams with draft lottery interest may at least keep an eye on it.

(Plus, most prefer some low-importance hockey to no hockey at all, right?)

Sunday NHL scores

Red Wings 3, Devils 0
Hurricanes 5, Islanders 2
Blue Jackets 5, Oilers 2
Flyers 4, Penguins 1
Lightning 8, Panthers 4
Maple Leafs 4, Capitals 3 (SO)
Jets 4, Avalanche 1
Bruins 5, Canadiens 3
Wild 5, Predators 4 (OT)
Blues 6, Ducks 3
Sharks 5, Golden Knights 4 (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.

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    Ducks hire former Leafs, Islanders assistant Greg Cronin as head coach

    Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

    ANAHEIM, Calif. — The Anaheim Ducks have hired veteran NHL assistant and AHL head coach Greg Cronin to be their new head coach.

    Ducks general manager Pat Verbeek announced the decision to hire the 60-year-old Cronin, who will be a first-time NHL head coach.

    Cronin has 12 years of experience as an NHL assistant with the Toronto Maple Leafs and in two stints with the New York Islanders. The Massachusetts native has been the head coach of the AHL’s Colorado Eagles since 2018, and he spent six years as a collegiate head coach at Northeastern.

    Verbeek called Cronin “the ideal fit” to take over a young, rebuilding team.

    “I felt we needed a teacher of the finer points of the game, and someone who has worked extensively over time with talented young players, helping them develop into successful NHL players,” Verbeek said. “Greg has done all that and more.”

    Cronin replaces Dallas Eakins, whose contract wasn’t renewed in April after the Ducks finished their fourth consecutive losing season of his tenure. Anaheim finished in last place in the overall NHL standings at 23-47-12.

    The Ducks never finished higher than sixth in the Pacific Division during Eakins’ four years in charge. They’ve missed the playoffs in a franchise-record five straight seasons, and Anaheim was the NHL’s worst defensive team of the 21st century by several measures during the just-completed season.

    Cronin takes over a struggling team that is still loaded with young talent, including the No. 2 overall pick in the upcoming draft and a wealth of farm prospects seemingly ready to break into the NHL. Anaheim has a solid long-term base with playmaking center Trevor Zegras, two-time All-Star Troy Terry and promising forward Mason McTavish.

    Cronin has never led an NHL bench, but he interviewed for the Boston Bruins’ vacancy a year ago.

    He becomes only the Ducks’ fourth permanent head coach since Henry and Susan Samueli bought the franchise from Disney in 2005, joining Randy Carlyle, Bruce Boudreau and Eakins.

    Canadiens sign Cole Caufield to 8-year, $62.8 million extension

    David Kirouac-USA TODAY Sports

    MONTREAL — The Montreal Canadiens signed Cole Caufield to an eight-year, $62.8 million contract extension.

    The deal, which will pay the 22-year-old winger an average annual salary of $7.85 million, runs through the 2030-31 season.

    Caufield scored 26 goals and added 10 assists in 46 games in 2022-23 before he underwent season-ending surgery on his right shoulder in February.

    Despite missing nearly half the season, Caufield led the Canadiens in goals for the second consecutive season, tied with Nick Suzuki.

    Montreal selected Caufield in the first round (15th overall) of the 2019 draft.

    Since making his NHL debut in 2020-21, the forward has 84 points (53 goals, 31 assists) in 123 NHL games.

    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

    Getty Images

    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.”