Alex Ovechkin

One tweak for Blues’ putrid playoff power play

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Teams might look at power-play goals as a luxury, at least during the playoffs.

The Boston Bruins, aka owners of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs’ only active unit that’s actually regularly productive, can attest. Despite investing in Tomas Kaberle during the 2011 trade deadline, the Bruins’ power play struggled to the point that people wondered if Kaberle should be benched … but the Bruins won the 2010-11 Stanley Cup nonetheless.

Blues hitting sour notes on power play

Still, every goal counts with things as tight as they are in this postseason, so the St. Louis Blues have to be concerned about their chances of winning a 1-1 series against the San Jose Sharks with a power play that’s ice cold heading into Game 3 on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN; stream here).

You can dice up their numbers in a lot of ways, and most of them are disturbing. The Blues won Game 2 by a score of 4-2 on Monday despite a power play that went 0-for-5, and also allowed a Logan Couture shorthanded goal. After being productive against the Jets in Round 1, St. Louis has gone just 2-for-28 since their tight series against the Stars, and haven’t scored in their last 18 opportunities. The Athletic’s Jeremy Rutherford notes (sub required) that the Blues have only managed a 7-5 shots on goal advantage against the Sharks so far on the PP.

Sometimes it’s best to zoom out a little bit and look at the sheer totals, and that’s not pretty either. Overall during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Blues have scored seven power-play goals, while allowing three shorthanded tallies. Not ideal to only manage a +4 differential on the PP two games into Round 3.

The question, then, is: what should the Blues do?

Overall, it’s best not to panic, so head coach Craig Berube’s “just chill out” comments aren’t totally off base.

“Yes, the power play overall — it can be frustrating,” Berube said, via Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “But the key is, I do not believe that it frustrated our team. And it can’t. You can’t let it happen. They have a great penalty kill over there. They’ve had a real good penalty kill for years.”

Brayden Schenn and others also weighed in on the subject.

Rutherford and Justin Bourne provided a detailed breakdown of some of the Blues’ struggles in that article for The Athletic, and it’s worth a look — for those interested, and even the Blues as a whole.

Move that Tank

But, when I see a struggling power play, I try to take a K.I.S.S. approach of simplicity, and look at who’s shooting, and from where.

Nothing seemed too outrageous when breaking down the Blues’ advanced special teams stats at Natural Stat Trick, and the Blues are smart enough to realize that Vladimir Tarasenko should be firing the puck the most, as he leads the team with 22 PP SOG, blowing away Ryan O'Reilly, who’s in second place with just seven. This isn’t a situation where a team is leaning too much on shots from defensemen (see: Nashville) or making a personnel decision that baffles me every time (Carolina using Justin Faulk on its top unit instead of Dougie Hamilton).

There is one adjustment I’d strongly consider making: get Tarasenko closer to the net, rather than having him running things from the point.

Now, it wouldn’t be surprising if Tarasenko prefers playing the role of power play QB. His passing ability won’t get the same shine as his lethal shooting, but he has strong instincts in that regard. There are less outrageous ideas than “get the puck on Tank’s stick more often.”

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Still, when a power play is struggling, I wonder if the high-danger shooters aren’t getting enough high-danger chances, and I’d wager that Tarasenko would be more of a threat if he was closer to the net, more often. My instinct would be to have him hovering around the right faceoff dot, essentially giving him the photo-negative of Alex Ovechkin shooting from his “office” at the left circle, but honestly, those details are negotiable. The point is that, in my opinion, Tarasenko’s skills would be best used in a spot where it’s that much harder for his shots to be blocked.

The Blues have some nice options on the point, even without Tarasenko. Whether it’s Alex Pietrangelo‘s strong hockey IQ or Colton Parayko‘s rifle of a shot, it’s not as though St. Louis would be totally lost if they weren’t as prone to putting Tarasenko on the point.

This isn’t to say that the Blues don’t let Tarasenko approach the net in these situations, but my advice is simply to get him there more often. Like, preferably all the time.

It might mean that Tarasenko gets fewer actual shots on net, but a lot of times on the power play, it’s about quality over quantity. At this point, it’s tougher for the Blues to argue that the current setup is working, as they haven’t been getting the right quantity of goals on the power play.

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So, again, there’s value in at least debating smaller tweaks. I could see an argument for an elevation of Robert Thomas, who’s coming into his own as a young forward (Berube didn’t seem to like that). Heck, you could make a case for the other Rob: Robby Fabbri, who for all of his struggles – injuries and overall – is the sort of creative player who might be able to make plays on what sometimes feels like a static power play.

(Granted, Fabbri makes more sense to me as a second PP unit specialist, if he can get back into the lineup.)

But, really, the Blues are probably closer than it might seem to being successful. All they really might need to do is bring Tarasenko closer to the net.

Game 3 of Blues – Sharks takes place on Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET (NBCSN; stream here).

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.

Patrick Kane sets U.S.-scoring record at world championship

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KOSICE, Slovakia (AP) — Patrick Kane scored a goal and had two assists to become the United States’ all-time leading scorer at the world hockey championship in 6-3 win over Britain on Wednesday.

The three-time Stanley Cup champion and two-time Olympian finished the game with 36 points, surpassing the 33 points U.S. Hockey Hall of Famer Mark Johnson had in the tournament. Johnson led the Americans with 11 goals when they won Olympic gold in 1980.

”It’s special when you think of all the great American players, all the kids that grow up in the USA, dreaming of playing hockey, dreaming of playing for their country,” Kane said. ”I’ve really enjoyed this tournament. This is my third time over here. It would be really nice to win it more than anything. The personal achievements and accolades are pretty nice, too.”

The Americans won bronze last year at the world championship in Denmark, where Kane had a tournament-high 20 points and was named MVP. Kane’s first appeared at the world championship in 2008, when the U.S. was eliminated in the quarterfinals with a loss to Finland.

Kane has helped the U.S. win three straight games in Group A since opening with a loss to the host Slovaks. The Americans have preliminary-round games remaining against Denmark, Germany and Canada.

The British team, which returned to the top division for the first time in 25 years, had a relatively strong showing after losing to Germany by two goals and getting routed by Canada and Denmark. Mike Hammond scored late in the first period to pull Britain into a 1-all tie. The British team scored in each of the three periods against the U.S. after having only one goal and giving up 20 goals in the previous three games.

Switzerland stayed undefeated in Group B as Andreas Ambuhl scored twice in a 4-1 win over Norway. The Swiss will likely be tested as they close the preliminary round against Sweden, Russia and the Czech Republic.

Germany scored twice over the final 1:52 against Slovakia, rallying to win 3-2 to remain the only unbeaten team in Group A.

Leon Draisaitl scored the game-winning game with 27.4 seconds left after Markus Eisenschmid pulled the Germans into a 2-all tie late in the third period.

Alex Ovechkin put the Russians ahead by four goals in the first period against Italy and they went on to win 10-0 in Bratislava, extending a first-place tie with Switzerland in Group B.

More AP sports: https://apnews.com/apf-sports and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

The Playoff Buzzer: Blues overcome clutch Couture

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Blues 4, Sharks 2 (Series tied 1-1; Game 3 on Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET on NBCSN; stream here).

The two teams took turns stunning each other during Game 2. First, Schwartz and Vince Dunn stunned the Sharks with two goals, with one coming in the first period and the other happening in the second. Dunn’s goal seemed to awake a sleeping giant, as Logan Couture then stunned the Blues with two goals in two minutes. Bortuzzo’s eventually game-winner was maybe the most stunning moment of the night, while Oskar Sundqvist‘s 4-2 insurance tally seemed to come out of nowhere (although that pass by Alexander Steen was no accident). Binnington was good enough for the Blues to get another road win during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Three Stars

1. Robert Bortuzzo

This was one of those “more than meets the eye” performances, as Bortuzzo transformed into an unlikely hero.

Bortuzzo’s game-winner stands as the number one reason why he snags this spot over players who were more productive during Game 2. He did more than that, though, as Bortuzzo brought attention to a delay of game penalty, landed a thunderous check on Marcus Sorensen, and blocked a Kevin Labanc one-timer that looked like a golden opportunity for San Jose to tie what was at the time a 3-2 game.

In just 10:37 of ice time, Bortuzzo scored that goal, enjoyed a +2 rating, generated two SOG, two blocked shots, and totaled five hits.

2. Logan Couture

Really, Couture was probably the biggest star of Game 2, though he probably wouldn’t argue too hard for that point since his Sharks lost.

Couture beat Binnington twice in slightly less than two minutes, first generating a shorthanded goal and then beating Binnington after a fantastic outlet pass from Timo Meier. Couture only took six faceoffs in Game 2, but won five of them, while also firing four SOG and delivering one hit, one blocked shot, and a +1 rating. Couture did his part – and then some – but most of his teammates just couldn’t really get much going.

3. Joel Edmundson

The only player other than Couture to score two points was a Blues defenseman, and that blueliner was Edmundson, not Bortuzzo.

Edmundson collected two assists in Game 2, giving him five assists and six points during 13 playoff games. Edmundson’s been heating up in general, really, as he’s generated four of his six points (one goal, three assists) in the last four games.

The Blues’ defensive group combined for two goals and three assists overall in Game 2.

Factoids

Tuesday’s game

Game 3: Boston Bruins at Carolina Hurricanes (Boston leads series 2-0; airs on NBCSN at 8 p.m. ET; stream here)

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.

Stanley Cup Playoffs: Fresh teams pave way for new breakout stars

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When Rod Brind’Amour watched pregame shows during the regular season, he didn’t think much thought was put into analyzing his Carolina Hurricanes.

”They’d look at the stat sheet and they’ll say: ‘Oh, Sebastian Aho is a good player. Watch for him,”’ Brind’Amour said recently.

Now that the Hurricanes are in the Eastern Conference final as part of a fresh final four in the Stanley Cup playoffs, Carolina’s Jaccob Slavin is among the breakout stars who are now in the limelight. Boston’s Brad Marchand, San Jose’s Logan Couture and Brent Burns and St. Louis’ Ryan O'Reilly are a bit more established, but they’ve replaced the stars of NHL playoffs past like Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin who aren’t playing anymore.

Even with a lot of hockey’s household names gone, there’s still plenty of star power and story lines for those who look a little closer.

”The more kind of crazy the playoffs get, the more interest is driven, and that’s really exciting,” NHL Network senior coordinating producer Josh Bernstein said. ”There’s so many great story lines going on in the playoffs right now, and I feel like it really piques everybody’s interest. It’s great for the game. ”

Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen dazzled for two rounds, Columbus winger Artemi Panarin showed why he deserves a massive July 1 payday, and Dallas goaltender Ben Bishop put himself back in the conversation among the best in the league. But those guys are gone now, too.

Still in the playoffs, Couture leads all scorers with 11 goals and 17 points. His 45 playoff goals since making his debut in 2010 trail only Ovechkin over that time, and his all-around game has him as a Conn Smythe Trophy candidate this year.

”Logan Couture, if he’s not the top two-way center in the league, he’s in that conversation,” San Jose coach Peter DeBoer said after his team’s Game 1 victory against St. Louis on Saturday. ”He plays a 200-foot game, always on the right side of the puck, always making the right reads. When your centerman is like that, he drives the guys around him to play as honest a game as that.”

Couture isn’t driving the Sharks by himself, of course. Brent Burns, who two seasons ago won the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s top defenseman, is second in the playoffs in scoring and standing out with more than just his offensive acumen.

”He’s always been a good defensive player,” goaltender Martin Jones said. ”He’s always been tough to play against in the D-zone. He’s a big guy, chews up a lot of ice. He swarms you.”

One of the Sharks’ biggest challenges in the West final against St. Louis is containing O’Reilly, who hasn’t put up the points as much as he did in the regular season, but was among the best players on the ice in Game 1. O’Reilly is a finalist for the Selke Trophy as the best defensive forward and said he’s re-energized by this playoff run after missing the postseason each of the past four years.

”It brings back that life and that excitement, for sure,” said O’Reilly, who has 10 points in his first playoffs since 2014. ”This is what it’s all about: playing for the Stanley Cup. That’s what you train for in the summer and every time you touch the ice the goal is to get to playoffs and compete for it.”

No one on the Blues’ active roster has won the Cup, and Jones – as a backup with the Los Angeles Kings in 2014 – is the only Sharks player with his name on the trophy. That’s not true for several core Bruins players who are still around after winning it in 2011.

That includes Marchand, who might be known more outside hockey as the player who licked an opponent last year but is making waves with his play and mostly staying out of trouble now. There was that time against Columbus that he stepped on Cam Atkinson‘s stick and broke it, but there is also an Eastern Conference-best 15 points through 14 games.

”He’s been in these big games,” Boston coach Bruce Cassidy said. ”He’s a Stanley Cup champion, so he understands maybe a little more than meets the eye sometimes. There’s a time and a place where you really have to be disciplined.”

Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask, like Jones, has a Cup ring as a backup and is trying to earn one as a starter. His .938 save percentage is best among playoff goalies who have been in at least four games.

Incredibly in a sport where the aim is to score goals, Carolina’s biggest breakout star is Slavin, who hasn’t scored one. But he does lead the Hurricanes with 11 points – all assists – and averaged over 26 minutes a game while also drawing the toughest defensive matchups.

Slavin is no slouch, and the Hurricanes have known for a while what he’s capable of. Now the rest of hockey is seeing it and lavishing some much-deserved attention on him.

”It’s part of the game,” Slavin said. ”Anyone would be lying if they said it’s not nice, but I’ve still just got to go out there and play well and obviously play for the team.”

Couture once again steps up for Sharks in postseason

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SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — Logan Couture got San Jose started in the opener of the Western Conference final against St. Louis by finishing off a 2-on-1 rush. He sealed the win with an empty-net goal, and in between, he did everything else the Sharks needed on both ends of the ice.

Just another typical standout performance from Couture, who always seems to be at his best at this time of year.

”Logan Couture, if he’s not the top two-way center in the league, he’s in that conversation,” coach Peter DeBoer said after Couture had two goals and one assist in a 6-3 win over the Blues in Game 1 on Saturday night.

”Plays a 200-foot game, always on the right side of the puck, always making the right reads. When your center is like that, he drives the guys around him to play an honest game like that.”

Couture and linemates Timo Meier and Gustav Nyquist once again led the way for the Sharks, with Meier also having two goals and an assist, Nyquist getting two helpers and the trio combining for a plus-seven rating.

This is Couture’s time of year. Ever since his first postseason as a rookie in 2010, he has shined on the big stage. His 45 goals in the playoffs since making his debut that season are second most in the NHL to Alex Ovechkin‘s 50. He leads the NHL this postseason with 11 goals and 17 points and is one of six active players with two postseasons with at least 10 goals.

But four of those other players have won the Stanley Cup – a goal that has eluded Couture and the Sharks despite making it to the conference finals for the fourth time in his 10 seasons.

”We haven’t won,” he said. ”So I don’t care what my numbers get to be. I could go this whole playoffs and have zero points and if we win the Stanley Cup I’ll be the happiest guy in this room.”

Couture led the NHL with 30 points in the 2016 playoffs, when the Sharks got to their first Stanley Cup Final in franchise history, and he scores at a higher rate in the playoffs than the regular season despite the tougher opponents and more defensive approach.

He has eight game-winning goals in the playoffs and two in overtime, earning the reputation as a clutch player.

”His biggest thing is he doesn’t change his game no matter what the situation is,” teammate Erik Karlsson said. ”I think we all know that these games are more important than the regular season, but that doesn’t mean that the game of hockey is changing. You still have to do the same thing out there to be successful. He’s really good at doing that. No matter what happens out there, he doesn’t let anything affect him, and he’s not trying to do things that aren’t normal.”

While the goals and the points get the attention from outsiders, his team respects him most for aspects of his game that don’t always show up on the scoresheet.

He plays in all situations, including the penalty kill, often matches up against top lines, takes faceoffs, blocks shots and is a leader in the dressing room.

”I think Logan is the consummate ‘I’m not going to tell you, I’m going to show you what my commitment level is,”’ DeBoer said. ”He brings that every night. … I know everybody looks at the goals and where he is in the scoring and the production and what he’s brought offensively. For me, he walks the walk at both ends of the rink. Those are the type of guys you can win with.”

TARASENKO’S STRUGGLES

While Couture delivered for the Sharks in Game 1, the Blues know they will need more from one of their top forwards if they want to advance to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1970.

Vladimir Tarasenko, who led the team with 33 goals in the regular season, was once again mostly a nonfactor in the conference final outside of an assist on St Louis’ first goal. Tarasenko managed just one shot on goal and was on the ice for four of San Jose’s goals.

Tarasenko also struggled the last time the Blues made it this far in the postseason back in 2016, when they lost to the Sharks in six games. He had no points and a minus-four rating in the first five games before finally scoring twice in the third period of a 5-2 loss in the clincher.

”Vladi’s got to work without the puck a lot harder and he will,” coach Craig Berube said. ”He’s got to get more involved. You can’t just wait for things to happen, especially in the playoffs. You’ve got to go get it and you’ve got to go make it yourself. It’s about working and it’s about working with your line.”

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports