Roundtable: Stanley Cup Final surprises; under-the-radar players

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What has been the biggest surprise for you through three games of the Stanley Cup Final?

Sean Leahy, NHL writer: I was a bit surprised how flip-flopped Game 3 was to Games 1 and 2, where we saw a Colorado domination. Was it the home ice advantage and Jon Cooper getting that last change and his preferred matchups? After being unable to get close to Darcy Kuemper through two games, the Lightning nearly lived there Monday night. They also prevented Colorado from testing Andrei Vasilevskiy at even strength. Shot attempts were kept to the perimeter — much like what the Avalanche did to Tampa Bay to start the series.

We know the Lightning are a well-coached team and have a roster of players capable of winning this series. But to see how much the Avalanche struggled in Game 3 was eye-opening and makes me eager to see what adjustments Jared Bednar makes for Game 4 to head home with a 3-1 series lead.

Michael Finewax, NBC Sports Edge Senior Hockey Writer/Editor: The biggest surprise has to be the play of Valeri Nishushkin. The Colorado winger has been a huge force this series, scoring in all three games, although his goal in Game 3 was called back due to an offside. Nichushkin has played 18:55 per game and they have been most effective minutes. Nichoshkin could be the most valuable player thus far in the Stanley Cup Final and if anyone saw that coming, kudos to you.

James O’Brien, NHL writer: I’m surprised by a specific facet of the Lightning’s turnaround against the Avalanche from Games 1 and especially 2 to Game 3. The Lightning only partially slowed down the Avalanche’s transition machine, yet they absolutely flipped high-danger chances. As much as people view the Lightning as hockey chameleons who can adapt to any style, it sure seems like their main adaptation lately has been “grinding things to a halt.” While there are some similarities here, this really has been a testament to Tampa Bay’s versatility.

Adam Gretz, NHL writer: The biggest surprise for me is the way the goaltending situation has (mostly played out). Andrei Vasilevskiy looked human through the first two games, and Tampa Bay was not able to take advantage of Darcy Kuemper in those games. The one big, decisive advantage that existed within these two teams was not exploited by the team that had the advantage. Now, granted, that did change in Game 3, and I feel that it could still play an impact through the remainder of this series (and I do think it is still going seven games) but the way it all started off was definitely a surprise for me. I guess the way Games 1 and 2 went was more of a testament to how dominant Colorado can be that the goaltending edge did not even really matter. It still might, though. This Tampa Bay team is tough to knock out.

[Stanley Cup Playoffs 2022 schedule, TV info]

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Which player in the series has been under the radar?

Michael Finewax, NBC Sports Edge Senior Hockey Writer/Editor: I really should go back to Nichushkin here as well but I will go with the play of Anthony Cirelli. The Tampa Bay center was amazing in the pivotal Game 3, playing 19:55 while scoring the Lightning’s first goal of the game to tie the score at one. Cirelli is an underrated bottom-six forward in Tampa Bay but he has three points in the Final and is always a pest up front.

Adam Gretz, NHL writerBrandon Hagel has been an intriguing one for me all postseason. Tampa Bay paid such a high price for him, and there were all of the Blake Coleman comparisons, but I just do not see Blake Coleman 2.0 here. I am not saying Hagel has been bad. His defensive numbers and impacts seem fine, but there is just no offense coming from here and that was a big selling point for him at the trade deadline. It was inevitable that shooting percentage he had early on with Chicago was going to regress and we would see what type of player he would be. That happened, and I am not sure I see the impact yet.

James O’Brien, NHL writer: I think Nathan MacKinnon‘s dynamic play slips under the radar because of a lack of goals so far; one can even imagine an especially lazy hot-taker slamming MacKinnon for that and his -2 rating in Game 3. MacKinnon shrugged off the lack of goals, and with good reason: he’s been a physical force. Through the first three games, MacKinnon’s fired 14 shots on goal, and aside from some bumpy Game 3 moments, has been tilting the ice in Colorado’s favor to an impressive degree. Every now and then, there are shades of the Nathan MacKinnon who struggled to actually finish the many chances he created earlier in his career, but I wager when the dam breaks, a ton of goals will come.

If that’s not an exotic enough answer, how about the striking offensive aggression of … Josh Manson? It’s not just the Game 2 goal; since coming to Colorado, he’s been much more assertive offensively, including pinching aggressively. That’s really a positive and negative thing, honestly, because there are times when maybe Manson shouldn’t be taking chances.

Sean Leahy, NHL writer: He was a punchline for a long time in this league but Jack Johnson has been solid in a pairing with Manson this series. At 5-n-5, he’s a positive possession player and has been on the ice for only one goal against. The pair has been good at suppressing shots and not allowing many high-danger chances on Darcy Kuemper or Pavel Francouz.

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    Rangers sign Filip Chytil to 4-year extension

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    NEW YORK — The New York Rangers have signed forward Filip Chytil to a four-year contract extension worth $17.75 million, locking up another member of their core long term.

    The team announced the deal Wednesday night. Chytil will count just under $4.44 million annually against the salary cap through the 2026-27 season.

    Chytil, 23, is in the midst of a career year. He has set career highs with 22 goals, 20 assists and 42 points in 66 games for the playoff-bound Rangers.

    The Czech native is the team’s sixth-leading scorer and ranks fourth on the roster in goals. The 2017 first-round pick has 144 points in 342 NHL regular-season and playoff games. He was set to be a restricted free agent with arbitration rights this summer.

    New York already had top center Mika Zibanejad signed through 2030, No. 1 defenseman Adam Fox through 2029, veteran Chris Kreider through 2027, winger Artemi Panarin through 2026 and reigning Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Igor Shesterkin through 2025.

    General manager Chris Drury’s next order of business is an extension for 2020 top pick Alexis Lafrenière, who is only signed through the remainder of this season and can be a restricted free agent.

    Blackhawks’ Jonathan Toews returns to ice, hints at retirement

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    CHICAGO — Longtime Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews returned to the ice but hinted his stellar NHL career could be winding down after 15 years.

    Toews, 34, skated with teammates prior to Chicago’s game with the Dallas Stars. It was his first time practicing with them since a game in Edmonton on Jan. 28.

    He made a statement through the team on Feb. 19 saying he would be stepping away because of the effects of Chronic Immune Response Syndrome and “long COVID.”

    In meeting with reporters, Toews stopped short of saying he hoped to play in any of last-place Chicago’s nine remaining games. His eight-year, $84 million contract is set to expire at the end of the season.

    Toews said he’s feeling stronger, but isn’t sure if he’ll be able to play again for the Blackhawks or another team.

    “Both if I’m being fully honest,” Toews said. “I feel like I’ve said it already, that I’ve gotten to the point where my health is more important.

    “When you’re young and you’re playing for a Stanley Cup and everyone’s playing through something, that means something and it’s worthwhile. But I’m at that point where it feels like more damage is being done than is a good thing.”

    Toews, the Blackhawks’ first-round draft pick (third overall) in 2006, joined the team in 2007 and was a pillar of Stanley Cup championship clubs in 2010, 2013 and 2015.

    At the peak of his career, he was one of the NHL’s top two-way centers, winning the Selke Trophy as the league’s top defensive forward in 2013.

    In 1,060 regular-season games, Toews has 371 goals and 509 assists. In 139 playoff games, he’s posted 45 goals and 74 assists, and he won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP in 2010.

    Toews missed the entire 2020-21 season with Chronic Immune Response System, which caused debilitating inflammation and fatigue.

    He appeared in 71 games in 2021-22, then started this season with renewed energy before slowing and eventually shutting himself down.

    Entering this season, it looked as if Chicago might deal him, as it did fellow star Patrick Kane, before the March trade deadline. But Kane went to the New York Rangers and Toews to injured reserve.

    Toews believed he was progressing before a relapse in January left him so sore and tired that he could barely “put on my skates or roll out of bed to come to the rink.”

    Toews said his progress over the past month has been “pretty encouraging” and he’s delighted to be back among his teammates. He has no timetable beyond that.

    “We’re just going to go day by day here,” Chicago coach Luke Richardson said. He deserves anything he wants to try to achieve here.”

    Richardson hoped Toews “can take that next step later in the week and hopefully (he) gives us the green light to go in a game.”

    But Toews emphasized his long-term health and ability to lead a “normal life” is most important. He wants to go out on a positive note and not hit the ice for a game playing through excessive pain and dysfunction.

    “It’s definitely on my mind that this could be my last few weeks here as a Blackhawk in Chicago,” Toews said. “It’s definitely very important for me to go out there and enjoy the game and just kind of soak it in and just really appreciate everything I’ve been able to be part of here in Chicago.”

    Budding Wild star Matt Boldy more willing to shoot, and it shows

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    ST. PAUL, Minn. — Matt Boldy was unable to resist a smile in the aftermath of his second hat trick in five games for the Minnesota Wild, a young right wing and reluctant star trying to make sense of a remarkable hot streak.

    Does the puck feel as if it’s automatically going in the net these days each time he shoots?

    “Yeah, it does,” Boldy said in the locker room after leading the first-place Wild to a 5-1 win over Seattle. “My linemates are playing great. Hopefully you guys are giving them a lot of credit. You look at some of those goals – just putting it on a tee for me.”

    This non-attention-seeker has found himself squarely in the NHL spotlight. Boldy has 11 goals in nine games since Wild superstar Kirill Kaprizov was sidelined with a lower-body injury to raise his goal total to 28, in part because he’s been more willing to shoot. With vision and stickhandling as strengths and the humility of being a second-year player, it’s easy to be in a pass-first mindset.

    “Everybody kind of took turns talking to him. But it’s not that he didn’t want to. A lot of times a situation like that where a guy’s got that skillset, it’s a real unselfish quality, right?” coach Dean Evason said. “But I think he gets now that he helps the team a lot when he scores goals.”

    The Wild were confident enough in Boldy’s scoring ability to commit a seven-year, $49 million contract extension to him earlier this winter, after all.

    “I think I’ve always had that mentality, but sometimes you just get into spots and it comes off your stick good,” Boldy said. “When things are going well, the puck goes in the net.”’

    The Wild are 6-1-2 without Kaprizov. Boldy is a big reason why.

    “You go through the slumps, you learn what you need to do to score. I think he’s found a good way to be in the right spot and shoot the puck when he had a good opportunity,” center Joel Eriksson Ek said.

    The Wild have only won one division title in 22 years, the five-team Northwest Division in 2007-08. They’re leading the eight-team Central Division with eight games to go, with both Colorado and Dallas too close for comfort. They haven’t won a playoff series since 2015.

    With Kaprizov due back before the postseason and Boldy on this heater, a Wild team that ranks just 23rd in the league in goals per game (2.93) ought to have a better chance to advance. Eriksson Ek and Marcus Johansson have been ideal linemates for the Boston College product and Massachusetts native.

    Since the Wild entered the league in the 2000-01 season, only five NHL players have had more hat tricks at age 21 or younger than Boldy with three: Patrik Laine (eight), Marian Gaborik (five), Steven Stamkos (five), Alex DeBrincat (four) and Connor McDavid (four). Boldy turns 22 next week, so there’s still time for one or two more.

    “He’s big. He controls the puck a lot. He’s got a good shot, good release. He’s smart. He switches it up. He’s got good moves on breakaways. He’s a total player,” goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said. ”Fun to watch him grow this year.”

    Pezzetta scores shootout winner; Canadiens beat Sabres 4-3

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    BUFFALO, N.Y. ⁠— Brendan Gallagher and the Montreal Canadiens rallied back to avoid playoff elimination with less than three weeks left in their season. The Buffalo Sabres, meanwhile, are running out of chances to stay in the Eastern Conference wild-card hunt.

    Gallagher forced overtime by scoring his 200th career goal, and Michael Pezzetta scored the decisive shootout goal in a 4-3 win over the Sabres on Monday night.

    “It’s one of those things I think we earned that chance. We weren’t fantastic but we did enough on the road tonight to get a win,” Gallagher said. “Smiles all around.”

    The Canadiens could laugh, especially after Pezzetta celebrated his goal by putting his stick between his legs and riding it like a wooden horse — much like former NHL tough guy Dave “Tiger” Williams did during his 14-year NHL career spanning the 1970s and 80s.

    “I’m not sure we’ll see that again. One of a kind,” said Gallagher. “I’d be worried about falling over.”

    Pezzetta scored by driving in from the right circle to beat Eric Comrie inside the far post. Buffalo’s Jack Quinn scored in the fourth shootout round, but was matched by Montreal’s Jesse Ylonen, whose shot from in tight managed to trickle in through Comrie.

    Jordan Harris and Alex Belzile also scored for Montreal, and Jake Allen stopped 30 shots through overtime, while allowing one goal on six shootout attempts.

    Montreal would have been eliminated from playoff contention for a second straight season – and two years removed from reaching the Stanley Cup Final – with any type of loss.

    The Sabres squandered a 3-2 third-period lead to drop to 3-6-3 in their past 12. Buffalo also blew a chance to move to within four points of idle Pittsburgh, which holds the eighth and final playoff spot.

    “Just a little hesitation,” forward JJ Peterka said of the Sabres third-period lapse. “We didn’t play with much energy and we didn’t play that aggressive as we played the two periods before. I think that was the difference.”

    Buffalo’s Lukas Rousek scored a goal and added an assist while filling in for leading scorer Tage Thompson, who did not play due to an upper body injury. Peterka and defenseman Riley Stillman also scored, and Comrie stopped 38 shots through overtime, and allowed two goals on six shootout attempts.

    Montreal blew two one-goal leads to fall behind 3-2 on Stillman’s goal at the 8:31 mark of the second period.

    Gallagher scored on the fly by using Sabres defenseman Rasmus Dahlin as a screen to snap in a shot inside the far left post. With the goal, Gallagher tied Bobby Rousseau for 24th on the Canadiens career scoring list.

    “I liked the way we corrected ourselves, it’s a sign of maturity, in the way we stayed on task,” Canadiens coach Martin St. Louis said, in recalling how the Canadiens recently unraveled in an 8-4 loss two weeks ago to Colorado, which plays a similar up-tempo style as Buffalo.


    The Sabres hosted their third Pride Night, with Russian D Ilya Lyubushkin electing not to participate in warmups by citing an anti-gay Kremlin law and fears of retribution at home in Moscow, where he has family and visits in the offseason. The remainder of the team wore dark blue jerseys with the Sabres logo on the front encircled by a rainbow-colored outline.

    During the first intermission, the Sabres broadcast a video in which GM Kevyn Adams said: “This is about recognizing someone’s humanity and true identity. We know there are people out there struggling with who they are, and we want them to know that they have an ally in the Buffalo Sabres.”


    Canadiens: At the Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday night.

    Sabres: Host the New York Rangers on Friday night.