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‘Heavy lifting:’ West is big, tough, deep and wide open

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The top of the Western Conference features the defending Stanley Cup champion, a 2018 finalist with even more talent and an MVP front-runner.

Good luck picking a favorite.

The Vegas Golden Knights earned the top seed in the West by winning all three of their games in a round-robin tournament against the Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars and St. Louis Blues. But the Avalanche still have Nathan MacKinnon and are healthier and deeper than before, and there’s no sleeping on the Blues after they muscled their way to the Cup.

”It’s deep,” Vegas coach Peter DeBoer said. ”There are no easy paths. … We’re happy to be a part of it, we’re happy we have the No. 1 seed, but we know there’s a lot of heavy lifting here left to do.”

Heavy is the name of the game out West, where size is as big an element of success as scoring. St. Louis is the standard, but the Calgary Flames bruised their way into the first round by beating up Winnipeg and present an obstacle for the third-seeded Stars.

”The West, there’s a lot of heavy, hard teams that play a pretty simple game and the Blues are obviously the best at it being the champs,” Dallas captain Jamie Benn said. ”I think Calgary’s pretty similar. They got some pretty rugged forwards that play the game hard, so we have to be prepared for that.”

Reigning playoff MVP Ryan O'Reilly said the Blues are aware of the difficult road back to the final but are only preparing for their first-round opponent: the faster and smaller Vancouver Canucks. He and Canucks coach Travis Green mirrored each other minutes apart Monday by each saying his team must play its best hockey to win.

The same goes for the eighth-seeded Chicago Blackhawks going up against Vegas, and the seventh-seeded Arizona Coyotes against Colorado. Hart Trophy finalist Nathan MacKinnon is among the best players in the world and has a strong supporting cast with captain Gabriel Landeskog, winger Mikko Rantanen and rookie defenseman Cale Makar.

”They’re built to win right now,” Arizona coach Rick Tocchet said. ”They’re highly skilled, they’re hard on the puck. … They got arguably one of the best players if not the best player in the league. Just a well-rounded team.”

MacKinnon showed his value in the regular season by carrying the banged-up Avalanche to second in the West. Now he’s ready to try to push them toward the Cup.

”Every year you play in the NHL, you realize you don’t have many chances,” MacKinnon said. ”For me, this feels like my first real chance to win, which really excites me and I think it excites everyone.”

INJURY CONCERNS

There are injury questions surrounding three Western teams’ leading scorers, including Vegas winger Max Pacioretty‘s anticipated playoff debut for Game 1 against Chicago. Pacioretty hadn’t entered the Edmonton bubble until last week, though general manager Kelly McCrimmon said the 31-year-old cleared quarantine in time to skate four days in a row and practice Monday.

Pacioretty being ready to go makes the Golden Knights even scarier.

”It gives us more depth,” DeBoer said. ”It adds our leading scorer back into our lineup. It helps our power play. He helps us in a lot of different areas.”

Dallas Stars coach Rick Bowness said ”everyone’s healthy,” which seems to be good news for 50-point producer Tyler Seguin and starting goaltender Ben Bishop, who each missed the round-robin finale Sunday.

Tocchet said forward Nick Schmaltz had gotten a full practice under his belt and was feeling better. He might not be ready for Game 1 against Colorado on Wednesday, but Schmaltz is ”definitely getting close.”

GOALIE CAROUSEL

The top three teams in the East could all employ something of a goaltending tandem in the first round. That’s not common among the NHL’s best, but this is an uncommon format that includes one set of back-to-back games in every series.

”We’ve got two starters – a great luxury to have,” DeBoer said of the Golden Knights’ Marc-Andre Fleury and Robin Lehner. ”How we’re going to roll them out is to be determined.”

Colorado has Philipp Grubauer and Pavel Francouz to roll out however coach Jared Bednar sees fit. He has chosen his Game 1 starter but won’t say. The same goes for the Stars between Bishop and Khudobin, who split time in the round-robin.

OH, CANADA

With the (empty arena) hosts Edmonton Oilers and Toronto Maple Leafs out and with all due respect to the East’s eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens, the best hopes of ending Canada’s 27-year Cup drought are the Flames and Canucks.

Vancouver faces the tall first task of needing to knock off the reigning champs, and Calgary is considered an underdog as the No. 6 seed against No. 3 Dallas. The Winnipeg series made the Flames look ready for playoff hockey.

”What probably people mean when they talk about being an underdog and being in a position to upset, I think really they’re really they’re probably referring to how hard the team plays and how good they are away from the puck,” Flames coach Geoff Ward said. ”If you get those two attributes in your game, you’re always going to find that you’re in a game and you’re going to be a difficult team to beat.”

Familiarity breeds respect among NHL East playoff teams

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TORONTO (AP) — Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper took exception to the Columbus Blue Jackets being referred to as ”a blue-collar” team.

”Is that a positive or a negative?” Cooper said Monday, a day before his Eastern Conference second-seeded Lightning open the first round of the NHL playoffs against the seventh-seeded Blue Jackets.

”If blue-collar means a hard-working team, they are. But they don’t have blue-collar talent,” he added. ”They have blue-chip talent.”

Cooper and the Lightning know just how good the Blue Jackets are in a rematch of last season’s first-round series in which Columbus swept the Presidents’ Trophy winners in four games.

”What happened last year, happened last year. That’s in the history books forever,” Cooper said, noting how both teams have made various changes to their lineups. ”I wouldn’t call them a blue-collar team. I’d call them a really good team.”

Familiarity is breeding respect among the East opponents entering the first round.

Fourth-seeded Boston and Carolina open on Tuesday, a year after the Bruins swept the Hurricanes in the conference finals.

The other two series, which begin Wednesday, feature coaches facing their former teams.

Two years removed from coaching the Capitals to win the Stanley Cup, Barry Trotz is now behind the New York Islanders bench in preparing to face third-seeded Washington.

”That group has a lot of pedigree, they’ve got a lot of star power,” Trotz said of the Alex Ovechkin-led Capitals. ”I think it’ll be a hell of a series.”

The top-seeded Philadelphia Flyers have two former Montreal coaches – Alain Vigneault and assistant Michel Therrien – on their staff in preparing to face the upstart Canadiens. Montreal was the last team in the East to qualify for the expanded playoffs, and then needed four games to win its best-of-five series over Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins.

”Yeah, 2020 has been really weird for many people, for the whole hockey world, and that’s why we’re here, too,” Canadiens forward Phillip Danault said, noting how a year ago Montreal fell one point short from qualifying for the postseason. ”Yes, we had a bit of luck to be in the playoffs. But obviously, I think anything can happen.”

The Flyers and Canadiens have split their previous six playoff meetings, with Philadelphia most recently beating Montreal in five games in the 2010 conference finals.

BAD-NEWS BRUINS

Bad enough the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Bruins looked flat at times in losing all three round-robin games to finish as the East’s fourth seed. Injuries continue to be an issue.

Vezina Trophy finalist goalie Tuukka Rask and leading scorer David Pastrnak both missed practice Monday after being deemed unfit to participate. Without going into detail, coach Bruce Cassidy said both are expected for Game 1.

”Of course I would have liked another day, just to rest,” Cassidy said, noting how Boston is coming off a 2-1 loss to Washington on Sunday. ”Maybe, for us, in this case it’s good to get back at it right away, because we haven’t been involved in the sort of sudden-death playoff atmosphere.”

The Bruins have won four of five series against Carolina/Hartford.

LIGHTNING STRUCK

Tampa Bay faces the possibility of opening its series against Columbus minus its two top players.

Captain Steven Stamkos has been out since sustaining a lower body injury before the start of training camp last month. And defenseman Victor Hedman‘s status is uncertain after the Norris Trophy finalist appeared to twist his right ankle in a 4-1 loss to Philadelphia on Saturday.

”It’s a tough job to fill and we have to do it collectively,” defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. ”It’s not just going to be one person coming in and trying to emulate Victor Hedman.”

Columbus coach John Tortorella ruled out Blue Jackets goalie Elvis Merzlikins from Game 1. That means the Blue Jackets will start Joonas Korpisalo, who is coming off a 33-save outing in Columbus’ 3-0 Game 5 win over Toronto on Sunday night. Korpisalo also shut out Toronto in Game 1, but was yanked for Merzlikins after allowing three goals on 15 shots in Game 3.

RESTED VS TESTED

Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour hopes Carolina hasn’t lost its edge since completing its three-game sweep of the New York Rangers on Aug. 4.

And whatever advantage the Hurricanes might have had in playing meaningful games as compared to the Bruins playing in a round-robin series might also have been negated.

”If we had started a day or two after that series, then I would’ve said, yes, for sure, there would’ve been maybe a little advantage there,” he said. ”Now, I think that probably went away with us sitting for a week.”

On the bright side, defenseman Dougie Hamilton could be in position to make his playoff debut in Game 1 for Carolina.

MEMORIES

Trotz was behind the Capitals bench in 2015, when Washington eliminated the New York Islanders in seven games of a first-round series.

”It was a highly competitive emotional series and I expect a lot of the same,” Trotz said.

Capitals coach Todd Reirden played down the notion of facing his former boss.

”It’s not Barry Trotz versus Todd Reirden or any of those type of things,” he said.

The Islanders hold a 5-2 playoff series edge over Washington.

Offseason goals for Wild topped by goaltending improvement

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The Minnesota Wild returned home from the Western Conference bubble with regret, dismay and another postseason defeat.

Despite the spark that was on display after the change in head coaches up until the pandemic put the sport on a four-plus-month pause, their performance in the qualifying round against Vancouver provided more evidence that this is an incomplete if competitive team.

The goaltending, so steady for so much of the franchise’s 20-year history, has reached the top of the offseason to-do list. General manager Bill Guerin announced Monday the dismissal of goaltending coach Bob Mason, who’d held his post for 18 years.

”I consider Bob a friend. He’s a wonderful person. He’s got a great track record. He had an incredible run here. I have nothing negative to say about him,” Guerin said. ”Sometimes you just need change.”

The question now for the Wild, who were eliminated Friday in four games by the Canucks in their best-of-five series in the empty arena in Edmonton, is whether change will come in the net, too.

Alex Stalock overtook Devan Dubnyk as the primary goalie this season. Guerin would not to commit to the status quo with that tandem. Prospect Kaapo Kahkonen could be ready for full-time status on an NHL roster after appearing in five games this season, and there will be plenty of accomplished free agents available whenever the market opens.

As a team, the Wild were third-worst in the league with an .897 save percentage after ranking 18th in 2018-19, 12th in 2017-18 and seventh in 2016-17. The only other time in club history they were below .900 was in 2001-02 at .896. Minnesota was 24th in the NHL in goals against per game (3.14), after placing 12th, 11th, seventh, ninth and sixth over the previous five seasons.

”The hierarchy’s not clear. Whoever’s playing well is going to play. I was disappointed in the goaltending this year,” Guerin said on a video conference call with reporters. ”Al had a tremendous year, and Devan had an off year, and it needs to be better.”

Here are some other key angles to the end of the Wild’s season:

MONEY TALKS: Dubnyk, who took more than a month off from mid-November to mid-December for support for his wife as she dealt with a medical condition, finished with a 3.35 goals against average that was the third-worst of his career. His .890 save percentage was his lowest in 10 years.

Dubnyk will enter the final season of his contract with a $4.33 million salary cap hit, but Guerin said he’s not keen on buyouts. The 34-year-old Dubnyk said he’s determined to become the No. 1 goalie again.

”As much as people like to talk and create storylines in this, I think we can probably all agree that I didn’t forget how to stop the puck this season,” Dubnyk said. ”I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I’m very competitive and fully prepared to come into camp next year ready to get back to playing the majority of the games.”

OH, CAPTAIN? The only unrestricted free agents of consequence this fall will be center Alex Galchenyuk, defenseman Carson Soucy and, of course, center Mikko Koivu. The only full-time captain the club has had – he was appointed in 2009 after the role was rotated monthly over the first nine years of the franchise – and the all-time Wild leader in games, assists, points and several other categories, Koivu said he’s not ready yet to decide about retirement.

He returned from reconstructive right knee surgery for a 15th season and had four goals and 17 assists in 55 games while playing mostly on the fourth line.

COMING SOON: The long-awaited debut of Russian phenom Kirill Kaprizov will be the featured attraction for the Wild and their fans whenever the 2020-21 schedule commences. The 23-year-old forward signed his entry-level contract last month.

”We’re all hoping he comes in and just lights the world on fire,” Guerin said. ”That’s what we hope, but this is a very good league.”

SUTER SORE: The Wild still have five seasons each remaining on the landmark deals they gave left wing Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter, who are both 35. They’re still durable – nobody on the roster played in more games (69) than them in 2019-20 – and productive, but over eight years with the duo the Wild have won only two playoff series and none since 2015.

Suter, for his part, said he believes the team remains on the cusp of cracking the league’s elite. He missed Game 4 against Vancouver after blocking a shot with his right foot in Game 3.

”It’s the worst feeling ever,” Suter said. ”You battle and prepare to be in situations like that, and you’re not able to be in it. Then you see how the game is going, and you know you could’ve helped.”

Predators remain confident despite early postseason exit

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Nashville Predators are pretty confident considering their season came to its earliest end since missing the 2014 postseason when Barry Trotz was allowed to leave.

The Predators insist they liked how they played despite losing their best-of-five qualifying series to Arizona in four games. They have been on a downward spiral: losing the Stanley Cup Final in 2017, slipping to a second-round loss in 2018, a first-round loss in 2019 and now unable to reach the first round after the NHL’s pandemic restart.

Foward Filip Forsberg said they earned their first-round exit a year ago but played well enough to win against Arizona.

”We’ve got to find the way to win these close games …,” Forsberg said. ”Everybody came ready to play for this short season, whatever comeback, and we got to find a way to win. But we definitely did enough good things for it to fall our side.”

The Predators have some contract and roster decisions to make before the next season starts. Their early loss also gave them a 12.5% chance at the No. 1 overall pick in the NHL draft, a pick this franchise has never had. The chance at Alexis Lafreniere would make some moves easier.

”I love our core, love my teammates,” captain Roman Josi said. ”There’s a lot of belief in our room.”

At least Nashville won’t be dealing with another coaching change with John Hynes hired in January.

DAVID POILE IN CHARGE

The only general manager this franchise has ever known faces his biggest challenge after building this team from its expansion start to Western Conference champ in 2017. The NHL’s winningest GM has several players signed to long-term contracts.

The last was Josi, who’s under contract through June 2028. Goalie Pekka Rinne, who lost his net in March and never got it back, is under contract for another season at $5 million. Combined with what’s expected to be a very short offseason, Poile will be limited in the moves he can make.

GOALIE CHANGE

Juuse Saros appears to be the Predators’ goalie moving forward after starting every game against Arizona. He will be a restricted free agent after next season. Nashville also must decide if Rinne, who turns 38 in November, should continue as the backup another season.

BIG MONEY, BIGGER EXPECTATIONS

Poile gave Matt Duchene a seven-year deal worth $56 million last July, finally landing a center the Predators had been linked to for a couple years. But Duchene followed a disappointing season with an underwhelming performance in the qualifying series. He had one goal and an assist with a minus-4 rating. He also was caught offside erasing a go-ahead goal by Kyle Turris in the Game 3 loss.

Duchene has company. Turris, who also hit a post in Game 3, also was a minus-4 with no points. He’s under contract through 2023-24 at $6 million a year. Craig Smith and Mikael Granlund, who combined for one assist, will be free agents.

DEFENSIVE WOES

The Predators fixed at least one area. Shut out on the man advantage in their first-round playoff loss to Dallas a year ago, they ranked fourth through the qualifying and round-robin rounds scoring an average of 28.6% on the power play.

But they gave up 3.5 goals a game to Arizona after being 20th during the regular season allowing 3.1 goals a game. That’s a high number for a franchise originally built on defense from the net out.

COACHING COMFORT

The Predators all agreed they are much closer to playing how Hynes wants. He took over Jan. 7 after Poile fired Peter Laviolette, and the NHL’s restart gave Hynes the training camp he missed as a midseason replacement. He reunited the JOFA line, and Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen and Viktor Arvidsson came through with 13 points in the series loss to Arizona.

Defenseman Ryan Ellis believes the Predators are mentally tougher under Hynes than they used to be.

”We were our own worst enemy at times,” Ellis said. ”If it was the old team, and a lot of the situations we were put in, we wouldn’t have played as hard as we do.”

‘Wild’ NHL playoffs move into next stage with final 16 teams

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Derek Stepan gave some words of advice to his Arizona Coyotes teammates not used to the bright lights of playoff hockey.

”It’s the best time of the year to be playing,” he said.

The time of year is different than usual, but the NHL’s Stanley Cup playoffs haven’t lost any of their luster or penchant for surprises.

After a qualifying round full of upsets, overtime heroics and comebacks, the traditional first round that starts Tuesday with 16 teams left is primed to feature even more entertainment and unpredictability.

”It’s wild,” said Barry Trotz, whose New York Islanders will next face the Washington Capitals he coached to the title in 2018.

”It’s made for TV, really. We didn’t know what was going to happen. We knew that there was going to be some strange things happen in this strange, unusual time and format. But it’s captivating.”

The Chicago Blackhawks that ranked 23rd out of 31 teams in the regular season are still playing, along with the Montreal Canadiens, who were 24th and not given much hope of moving on.

Chicago has a tough task against the Western Conference No. 1 seed Vegas, and Carey Price‘s Canadiens face the Philadelphia Flyers that earned top billing in the East by going 3-0 against Boston, Tampa Bay and Washington.

”It was a tall task to get that No. 1 seed and we did it,” Flyers defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere said. ”We came in here and have been strictly business. I think for us to go out there and get three big wins in a row and get that No. 1 seed is huge for us.”

In a very 2020 turn of events, the Bruins that won the Presidents’ Trophy as the top regular-season team went winless since the restart and now must take on the Carolina Hurricanes that swept their way to this point. It’s a rematch of the 2019 East final but with Carolina looking more prepared for this showdown.

”They swept us last year, which definitely is going to be good opportunity for us to kind of give back what they gave us last year,” Hurricanes forward Nino Niederreiter said.

The Hurricanes, Islanders and Golden Knights look scary, the Lightning could be without top players Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman for at least the start of their series, and the Bruins and Blues that met in last year’s Cup Final haven’t recaptured the dominance they showed until the season was halted in March and combined to go 0-6.

”It doesn’t matter what seed you’re in because you’ve got to beat every team anyways if you want to advance,” Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask said. ”It’s over now and start real hockey.”

Half of the remaining field has been playing real hockey for more than a week now. After knocking off the Nashville Predators, captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson said the Coyotes are ”up for the challenge” of taking on the Colorado Avalanche. The Canucks and Flames should also be feeling good after emotional series victories, though Vancouver must face an angry St. Louis bunch that blew leads in all three games.

”We’re not playing aggressive enough in my opinion,” Blues coach Craig Berube said. ”Getting the real thing going here will be important, for sure.”

It’s all best-of-seven until the Stanley Cup is handed out in late September or early October, though the prospect of playing in quarantined bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton could change the psychological dynamic of the playoffs.

”It’s one of those years it’s easier once you’re down to say, ‘Well, I do miss my kids, it’s not our year,”’ Boston coach Bruce Cassidy said. ”You can sort of have that in the back of your mind and certainly some players are going to go through it, and that’s why I feel that maybe some series will be closed out quicker than previous years.”

Only one qualifying round series went to a deciding Game 5: Columbus-Toronto, which also featured two shutouts and each team erasing a 3-0 deficit and winning in overtime. Over nine days, 44 games showed why the league and NHL Players’ Association worked hard to resume the season, and that was just the start of summer hockey madness.

”I’m sure it’ll continue,” Flames coach Geoff Ward said. ”Everybody’s healthy and there’s been extreme parity, but all the teams are playing extremely, extremely hard and that makes for whoever you play a very tough out and a very tough opponent. And I think as these playoffs go on, you’re just going to see more of the same.”