Tomas Hertl

Lineup shuffling benefits Blues in Stanley Cup Final

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ST. LOUIS (AP) — Had Oskar Sundqvist not gotten suspended and Robert Thomas ruled out with a nagging injury, Zach Sanford might never have gotten a chance to show his stuff on hockey’s biggest stage.

If Vince Dunn not taken a puck to the mouth during the last round, Robert Bortuzzo might not have had the chance to score a key goal in the Stanley Cup Final.

This is the magic of the St. Louis Blues in the playoffs and even more specifically their series against the Boston Bruins. They’ve dressed a lottery ball machine amount of lineup combinations this postseason and because of suspensions and injuries in the final will have their sixth different lineup in six games.

Instead of interrupting continuity that’s usually paramount in the playoffs, the Blues’ game of musical jerseys with players in and out of the lineup has given them a variety of looks for the Bruins to contend with and contributed to St. Louis being on the verge of winning the Stanley Cup.

”You never want to see guys get suspended or go down with an injury,” forward Patrick Maroon said Saturday. ”But Zach Sanford, Sammy Blais and Robby Fabbri have done a really good job filling in. Thomas was playing until he went out. They’ve been here all year, and they know what it takes to win.”

Maroon is one of only 12 skaters plus goaltender Jordan Binnington to play in all 24 of St. Louis’ playoff games so far. That number will dip to 11 with Ivan Barbashev suspended and the very real possibility Thomas is ready to return after missing the past four games with what’s believed to be a hand/wrist injury.

Injury attrition can take its toll this time of year, something the San Jose Sharks found out when the Blues eliminated them without Erik Karlsson, Joe Pavelski and Tomas Hertl. The Blues have kept on chugging through the injuries and gotten impressive performances from players shuffling in and out of the lineup like Bortuzzo or returning off a long layoff like Sanford and Fabbri.

Barbashev isn’t available for Game 6, and coach Craig Berube said other decisions will be made closer to puck drop. Top-line forward Vladimir Tarasenko and bottom-six grinder Alex Steen are expected to play after missing practice for maintenance, but there are other questions about who’s in and out and St. Louis won’t have much of a drop-off either way.

”We have good depth, which is very important on the back end and up front,” Berube said. ”A guy like Sanford coming in and doing a good job for us after being out for some time, and Sammy Blais, just different guys. It’s really important.”

Sanford has had some significant jump in his legs the past three games after sitting out six weeks as a healthy scratch. Dunn showed little rust from missing almost three weeks before getting back in for Game 4.

And there has been no pouting from guys like Bortuzzo and fellow defenseman Joel Edmundson trading places on the ice and in the press box.

”There’s been different circumstances for different things,” Bortuzzo said. ”You’re going to get in there and you’re going to be excited to play. You’re going to be refreshed regardless of what’s going on.”

The Blues had already done a strong job in the first three rounds of wearing down opponents as series dragged on, and they’re in the process of doing the same to Boston. They play the same style, but the Bruins never seeing the same St. Louis team twice in a playoff series that usually breeds familiarity and contempt makes it even more difficult to prepare.

Boston could dress its same lineup from Game 5 because forward Noel Acciari is expected to play after leaving in the third period Thursday and Marcus Johansson had no lingering effects from the hit on him Barbashev was suspended for.

While the Bruins promoted Johansson to their top power-play unit to get that unit going, the Blues have to adjust without Barbashev, who’s a key penalty killer.

”He’s physical for us,” forward Brayden Schenn said. ”He does a good job on the PK, scoring some goals. We can’t worry about him being out. You’ve got to worry about someone else stepping up, stepping in and filling his role.

That has been key to the Blues’ run the past two months, in large part because of injuries and Berube shaking things up with coach’s decisions for performance. The suspensions of Sundqvist and now Barbashev forced Berube’s hand even more, but it hasn’t led the Blues to abandon their bruising approach.

”If that was a thing, then we’d have slowed down on our physical game and that’s not us,” Carl Gunnarsson said. ”I think we’ve just got to keep on going, just going to keep it clean and keep doing what we’re doing.”

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

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

Sharks head into uncertain offseason with key free agents

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SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — If Joe Thornton comes back for a 22nd season in the NHL, it would only be with the San Jose Sharks. Captain Joe Pavelski is confident he will get a deal done to stay with the franchise he joined as a draft pick back in 2003.

The situation with the other major potential unrestricted free agent is far less certain. After Erik Karlsson‘s injury-plagued first season in San Jose ended with him sitting at home with an injured groin during a Game 6 loss at St. Louis in the Western Conference final, the star defenseman said he hasn’t thought yet about his plans for the summer.

”I’ve been treated with nothing but class and respect here,” Karlsson said Thursday. ”I’ve seen the best side of what this organization and this city has and I like everything I’ve seen. Now I have to kind of regroup and assess everything. A lot of things can happen. It’s a weird business we’re in. I enjoyed my time here. Whatever happens is going to happen for a reason.”

Karlsson had a less-than-ideal season after being acquired as potentially the final piece needed for a championship in a trade from Ottawa on the eve of training camp. He struggled to adjust to his new team early in the season before playing at an elite level for about six weeks when the Sharks looked as good as any team in the league.

Karlsson then injured his groin and missed 27 of the final 33 regular-season games before returning for the playoffs, lacking his usual burst as a skater. Even at less than 100% in the postseason, Karlsson showed flashes of his playmaking with 14 assists and two goals, including the overtime winner in Game 3 against the Blues.

But he was unable to play for a long stretch late in a Game 4 loss and was limited in a Game 5 loss before sitting out the third period. He couldn’t go at all in Game 6.

In the final game, the Sharks were also without Pavelski, who re-injured his knee in Game 5, and forward Tomas Hertl, who had a concussion. That left little in the tank for a team that won a pair of Game 7s already in the playoffs, including an epic three-goal comeback in the final game of the first round against Vegas after Pavelski left with a bloody concussion.

”If you lose your difference-makers, it’s difficult,” general manager Doug Wilson said. ”But this group always bounced back and found a way, for that we’re extremely proud. No excuses, line up, next man up, all those things that you hear, this group lived that. I’ll be honest: I’ve been in this business 40 years. I think the thing that epitomizes this group is the Vegas game, Game 7 where you see the emotional chaos of your captain going down, being carried off and how the group responded, showed you everything you needed to know about this group. I’ll remember that moment forever.”

Pavelski and Thornton have been integral parts of the Sharks for years. Pavelski was a seventh-round draft pick in 2003 and has scored 355 goals in 13 seasons, becoming captain and a fan favorite during his journey.

Thornton arrived in a franchise-altering trade from Boston on Nov. 30, 2005, turning the Sharks into a perennial Cup contender that can never quite win it all.

”They drive the environment,” coach Peter DeBoer said. ”They drive the messaging every day in here. From a coach’s perspective, those guys are invaluable people for us.”

Whether they come back is not yet certain.

The Sharks opted not to extend Pavelski’s contract last summer when he came off a 22-goal season hampered by injuries. But his level of play rose this year with a team-leading 38 goals and he will be eligible to hit the open market in July, shortly before his 35th birthday.

”I know I’m going to be playing hockey next year. Hopefully it’s going to be here,” he said. ”We love it here. I think something will happen, who really knows, but coming off a lot of emotions coming through the playoffs and that round, we’ll sit down and take a look at what will happen here.”

The situation with Thornton is simpler. If he wants to come back for another season at age 40, it would only be with the Sharks. He plans to sit down with his family and Sharks management before making his decision.

Thornton finished this season for a change after needing major knee surgery the past two years. He’s accomplished almost everything in a career, ranking eighth all-time with 1,065 assists and 14th with 1,478 points but hasn’t won a championship.

His teammates and coaches talked all postseason about wanting to win for Thornton and came close before ultimately falling six wins short.

”I didn’t buy into that,” Thornton said. ”I think that was more for you guys. I think this whole area needs a Cup. They’re definitely on the right track, and just disappointing for this area not to be playing, like I said, next week, but this was a really fun team to watch, entertaining team to watch, and an inspirational team to watch.”

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

PHT Power Rankings: Conn Smythe favorites entering Stanley Cup Final

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Now that we are through the first three rounds of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs the race for the Conn Smythe Trophy is really starting to sort itself out.

It is down to just two teams and both the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues have several worthy contenders that have stood out as potential postseason MVPs.

Some of them have been dominant from the start, while others have started to make their presence known over the past couple of weeks.

It is time once again to check in on the top contenders in the PHT Power Rankings.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

1. Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins. It is not a stretch to suggest that this is the best hockey Rask has ever played in the NHL. After allowing just five goals in the Bruins’ four game sweep of the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference Final, he now has a .942 save percentage in the playoffs and is helping to make what was an already great team a downright dominant team. He is one of just six goalies in NHL history to have a save percentage of .940 or better through their first 17 games in a single postseason, joining a list that includes only Jean-Sebastien Giguere (2002-03), Jonathan Quick (2011-12), Olaf Kolzig (1997-98), Henrik Lundqvist (2013-14) and … Rask himself once before (2013).

2. Brad Marchand, Boston Bruins. Simply one of the most impactful skaters in the NHL. Love him or hate him, he is a total force on the ice in all three zones and he is putting together another tremendous postseason performance for the Bruins. His 18 points are second only to San Jose Sharks forward Logan Couture (he finished the playoffs with 20 points in 20 games; Marchand’s per-game average is still higher) and he has already recorded six multi-point games (tied with Tomas Hertl for the most). That includes three games with at least three points, also tops in the league.

3. Jaden Schwartz, St. Louis Blues. Schwartz has followed up what was one of the worst regular season performances of his career with a postseason that could be worthy of the Conn Smythe Trophy if the Blues end up winning the Stanley Cup. After scoring just 11 goals in 69 regular season games, Schwartz enters the Cup Final having already eclipsed that mark (12 goals) in the Blues’ first 19 playoff games. That includes a league-leading 10 even-strength goals, two game-winning goals, and two hat tricks. Yes, a lot of that goal-scoring spike is due to a 22 percent shooting percentage that certainly will not continue forever, but his underlying numbers are outstanding across the board. When he is on the ice the Blues are attempting more than 57 percent of the total shot attempts and generating more than 55 percent of the scoring chances. He is playing extremely well and when combined with a positive change in his shooting luck it has produced a huge postseason.

4. Vladimir Tarasenko, St. Louis Blues. After a somewhat slow start to the playoffs, at least as it related to his point production, Tarasenko went on a tear at the absolute perfect time by recording at least one point in all six games of the Western Conference Final, finishing the series with eight total points, including three goals. He remains one of the most productive postseason goal-scorers in league history and is currently in the top-25 all-time in goals per game (among players with at least 40 postseason games). Is it a case of recency bias to have him so high at this point? Maybe, but that is how the Conn Smythe voting tends to go. He is the Blues’ best player and when he gets on a roll he can be nearly impossible to stop. Right now he is on a roll.

5. Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins. It has been business as usual for Bergeron this postseason as he plays big minutes, dominates possession, shuts down other team’s top scorers, and chips in some offense of his own. Maybe the only surprise from him in the playoffs is that six of his eight goals have come on the power play. Before this season he had scored just seven power play goals in 112 postseason games.

6. Jordan Binnington, St. Louis Blues. His overall numbers for the playoffs are not great, and are definitely lower than what he did during the regular season, but that does not mean he has not played extremely well at times. Like Tarasenko, he is doing so at just the right time to get noticed in the Conn Smythe race. He is 6-2 with a .925 save percentage in his past eight starts and has allowed just five goals in the four knockout games he has played (three games where the Blues could eliminate a team; one game where the Blues faced elimination).

STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW
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Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Magical playoff ride ends in more disappointment for Sharks

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SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — Magical comebacks, dramatic wins and the most talented roster in San Jose Sharks history weren’t enough to deliver the franchise its first Stanley Cup title.

A team depleted by several key injuries ended its season with a 5-1 loss in Game 6 of the Western Conference final Tuesday night, turning the drama of Game 7 wins in the first two rounds into footnotes on a season that was ultimately a disappointment.

”We didn’t make it easy for ourselves the whole playoffs,” defenseman Brent Burns said. ”We always battled back. We got through a lot as a team. A lot of guys just battled. Just to get this far a lot of things have to go right. We battled together but came up short. It’s crushing to come this far and not get the job done.”

The goal for the Sharks was clear ever since they acquired two-time Norris Trophy winning defenseman Erik Karlsson from Ottawa just before the start of the season. Coach Peter DeBoer told his team the ingredients were in place for that elusive first championship in San Jose. It appeared like that could be the case after the Sharks rallied from three goals down in the third period of Game 7 in the opening round to beat Vegas in overtime and followed that up with another Game 7 win against Colorado in round two.

But with Karlsson unable to play the final four periods of the postseason because of a groin injury that slowed him since January, and captain Joe Pavelski and two-way center Tomas Hertl also out after taking high hits, the Sharks didn’t have enough to handle the Blues.

This season ended like so many others for the Sharks, who have won more games than any other team and the second-most playoff series the past 15 seasons but still are seeking a first championship.

”They all hurt,” said center Logan Couture, who tied a franchise record with 14 goals in the playoffs. ”It doesn’t matter what the roster is. When you get this far in the playoffs or you make the playoffs it hurts. You get in the playoffs you believe you can win.”

Here are some other takeaways from the season:

JUMBO JOE: One motivating factor for the Sharks this postseason was delivering a title for beloved leader Joe Thornton. The greatest player in franchise history turns 40 in July and has not decided whether he wants to come back for another season. Thornton dealt with injuries early in the season, then had a strong stretch as a third-line center late before struggling a bit the final two rounds outside of a two-goal performance in Game 3 at St. Louis.

”He’s the face, he’s the heartbeat of the organization,” DeBoer said. ”I think like all the players in that room, as coaches we’re disappointed for not helping him get there. Because he gives you everything he’s got and should be there.”

CAPTAIN PAVELSKI: No player personified the Sharks’ grueling journey this spring more than Pavelski. His postseason started with a puck that deflected off his face for a goal. The injuries only got worse when his helmet violently crashed to the ice, leading to a bloody concussion in Game 7 against Vegas. That led to the epic comeback with four goals on one disputed major penalty that will go down as the greatest moment in franchise history until the team wins a Cup. Pavelski made a triumphant return in Game 7 of the second round but got hurt again in Game 5 against the Blues. Pavelski turns 35 and heads into an uncertain summer of free agency following a 38-goal season.

KARLSSON’S FUTURE: It was a somewhat disappointing first season in San Jose for Karlsson and now the question is whether it will be his only one. He took about two months to find his groove and then played at an elite level for about six weeks. He hurt his groin in January and was never the same. He missed 27 of the final 33 regular-season games and was never completely healed in the playoffs. He heads into free agency in July and his decision will impact what the Sharks will be able to do with Pavelski and other key pieces.

STEPPING UP: The biggest positive for San Jose this season was the emergence of Hertl and Timo Meier as building blocks for the future. The 25-year-old Hertl was the top-scoring forward for the Sharks with 74 points and showed the capability of manning a top line as a center. The 22-year-old Meier had 30 goals and looks like a long-time fixture as a top-six forward.

BETWEEN THE PIPES: Martin Jones was one of the worst starting goalies in the league during the regular season in his first year of a $34.5 million, six-year contract. He had a career-low .896 save percentage in the regular season and was pulled early in two of his first four postseason starts. He rebounded and was a key part of the first-round win over Vegas but finished the playoffs with an .898 save percentage.

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

The 10 dates from the ’18-19 season that led Blues to Stanley Cup Final

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The Cinderella story for the St. Louis Blues continued on Tuesday night.

A convincing 5-1 win pushed the Blues past the San Jose Sharks and into the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in 49 long years. St. Louis will get its chance at redemption, nearly a half-century in the making, when they face the Boston Bruins beginning next Monday.

But while it is a little less than a week’s wait for the Cup Final to begin, it’s as good a time as any to reflect on just where the Blues came from over the past five months. Truly, the Blues started from the bottom and now they’re here, competing for hockey’s grandest prize.

Here are 10 dates from the 2018-19 NHL season that changed the course of history for the Blues.

Nov. 19, 2018

We’re going to skip back a month and a half before things really kicked off for the Blues on the ice, and look back at the date they made a change behind the bench. A troubling 2-0 loss to the Los Angeles Kings — their third shutout defeat in their past four games at the time — and limping along with a 7-9-3 record despite going guns a-blazin’ in the offseason, attracting the likes of Ryan O'Reilly, general manager Doug Armstrong pulled another trigger, this time firing Mike Yeo as head coach and replacing him with Craig Berube, who was an associate coach of Yeo’s.

Jan. 3, 2019

Things under Berube didn’t get off to the best start. The Blues lost their first game with him behind the bench 4-1 to Nashville and two games later got obliterated by Patrik Laine and the Winnipeg Jets in an 8-4 rout. Losses to Arizona (6-1) and Edmonton (3-2 SO) is how the Blues began December. They’d go on to fall twice to Vancouver in 2018’s final month and came back from the Christmas break to post a 6-1 loss to Pittsburgh and a 2-1 loss to the New York Rangers. All the losing meant that when the Blues awoke on Jan. 3, they were wallowing in last place in the NHL. Happy New Year.

Jan. 6, 2019

A few players ventured to a bar in Philadelphia the night before they were set to face the Flyers. Presumably, we could assume they were drowning their sorrows of a season that had gone completely off the rails. Instead, Laura Branigan came on over the speakers during the Philadelphia Eagles’ playoff game against the Chicago Bears. The song, “Gloria,” would end up turning into their victory anthem. Who knew it would be played so many times in the weeks and months to come. “When I hear it, that’s a good thing, right. That means we’ve won the game,” Berube would later say.

Jan. 7, 2019

The Blues lost Carter Hutton to free agency several months earlier and had placed all their faith in starter Jake Allen. Allen’s play certainly hadn’t helped the team in the first half of the season, a stretch summed up quite succinctly by a .896 save percentage. Enter Jordan Binnington, a 25-year-old career minor leaguer who played a grand total of 13 minutes in the NHL, and had never started a game. By now you know the name, but back then, you didn’t. Nevertheless, Binnington started to push his way into the spotlight, first by blanking the Flyers in a 3-0 win. Binnington stopped 25 shots that night. The next several days and weeks, even, everyone wondered if the skinny kid with the iceman demeanor was just the next Andrew Hammond. We know the answer to that now.

[RELATED: Jordan Binnington’s incredible, season-saving run for Blues]

Jan. 23, 2019 – Feb. 21, 2019

Twelve St. Louis skaters figure into the points in a 5-1 win against the lowly Anaheim Ducks on a Wednesday night in late January. The game by itself isn’t especially important but is the start of something much more grandiose. The Blues began that day four points adrift from the league’s basement but would go on a season-defining 11-game winning streak over the next month that would eventually end in a 5-2 loss to the Dallas Stars on Feb. 21. The Blues gained a whopping 12 places in the overall league standings, going from 25th to 13th. More importantly, they went from sixth place in the Central Division to third.

March 6, 2019

If we’re looking for a date where the Blues announced their intentions to the rest of the league, it may have been an early March game against the Anaheim Ducks. The Blues owned a 3-1 lead midway through the game when a very poor Ducks team staged a comeback. They scored twice to close out the second period to tie the game and then Adam Henrique gave the Ducks a 4-3 advantage. Knowing the Ducks, no lead is safe, and sure enough, Robert Thomas found the back of the net to tie the game. Overtime, surely:

April 6, 2019

The final day of the regular season for the Blues, who won 3-2 in a shootout win against the Vancouver Canucks. For a brief moment, they were first in the Central Division before the Nashville Predators eventually won it later in the day and the Winnipeg Jets slotted into the second spot, tied on 99 points with the Blues. They closed out the season winners of 14 of their final 16 games and narrowly missed out on going from worst to first in a four-month stretch. Still, U.S. Thanksgiving statistics be damned, the Blues were headed to the Stanley Cup Playoffs and were the hottest team entering the postseason.

May 7, 2019

The Blues had won Game 6 two nights earlier to force a Game 7 against the Dallas Stars in Round 2. Two third period goals, including one after a Colton Parayko point shot that drilled Stars goalie Ben Bishop, sealed Dallas’ fate on that night. Two days later, they had to do it all over again. Bishop was shaken up, but the Vezina Trophy finalist dressed for Game 7 and was spectacular. A 1-1 deadlock after 60 minutes meant overtime, and the first period of play solved nothing. Bishop had made 52 saves in the game up until the 5:50 mark of double OT. It was then that Bishop didn’t get all of a puck that dropped behind him, allowing St. Louis native Patrick Maroon to get his stick on it to push it over the goal line. The Blues, in front of a sold out Enterprise Center, were off to the Western Conference Final.

May 15, 2019

The San Jose Sharks had caught a tremendous break in Game 7 of Round 1 against the Vegas Golden Knights. Essentially, a missed call resulted in a major penalty for Vegas’ Cody Eakins. The Sharks, who trailed 3-0, scored four on the ensuing power play and would go on to win in overtime. Fast forward a couple of weeks and the Sharks were on the receiving end of what could have been another series defining missed call. This time, the Sharks are in overtime against the Blues in Game 3 of the Western Conference Final. Timo Meier appears to bat the puck (a blatant hand pass) into the front of the net where an anxiously awaiting Erik Karlsson sits. Karlsson makes no mistake, winning the game to take a 2-1 series lead. The Blues were irate on the ice but Berube went into the dressing room after the game and calmed the troops. Unlike Vegas, the Blues had a chance to right that wrong.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

May 21, 2019

The Blues kept a level head after Game 3’s debacle and came out and took Game 4 by a 2-1 margin. Now a race to two wins, the Blues took the path of least resistance, beginning with a 5-0 blanking of the woeful Sharks in Game 5. Injuries began to mount for San Jose, who were without Karlsson, Joe Pavelski and Tomas Hertl for parts of Game 5 and all three for Game 6. There, the Blues secured a 5-1 win, putting themselves into the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in 49 years.

From Jan. 3, where they sat last, to discovering “Gloria,” and finding their diamond in the rough in Binnington, the Blues have put together one of the most memorable and impressive comebacks in NHL history. Now, they have one more hurdle in the Bruins (minus Bobby Orr), the team they last faced in the 1970 Cup Final. Does redemption, nearly 50 years in the making, await?

It would add the final chapter to what’s been a storybook season in St. Louis.

MORE: Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck