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Capitals’ Nicklas Backstrom set for return

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The Washington Capitals best center and one of the best set-up men in the NHL will make his debut in this season’s Eastern Conference Final on Thursday.

After taking the morning skate, getting rotated in on line rushes and working with the top power-play unit, Nicklas Backstrom will make his return to the Capitals lineup after a two-week layoff with a hand injury he sustained in Game 5 of second round against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Backstrom’s return comes at just the right time as the Capitals look to bounce back from a Game 3 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning and earn a split at home. The Capitals lead the best-of-7 series 2-1.

It appears Alex Chiasson will make way for Backstrom’s return.

Backstrom’s usage will be front and center in the game.

He didn’t skate with his familiar second line during line rushes and could get someone else to take faceoffs as to not put his hand through any more stress than it needs to, per the Washington Post.

Even without Backstrom in the dot, his return is only slightly less of a boost than it already was.

Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin together again on the power play could spell disaster for the Lightning if they’re undisciplined in the game. And Backstrom’s overall vision and passing skills, even at less than 100 percent, are elite.

MORE:
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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

Kane leads U.S. into semis, Canada knocks out Russia

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HERNING, Denmark (AP) — Captain Patrick Kane scored two goals to lift the United States to a 3-2 win over the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals of the ice hockey world championship on Thursday while Canada beat Russia 5-4 in overtime.

Switzerland pulled off a surprise by eliminating Finland 3-2 and defending champion Sweden edged out Latvia 3-2.

Kane claimed the third-period winner to take the outright lead in the scoring table on 19 points, a U.S. record, with eight goals and 11 assists and set up a semifinal against Sweden on Saturday.

”It’s my job to produce,” Kane said. ”It’s always nice to contribute offensively.”

The U.S. is looking for its first medal since picking up bronze in 2015.

”We came here to put ourselves in a position to try to win the gold,” Kane said. “We’re on the right path.”

The U.S. took control with a couple of goals in the span of 1:43 midway through the first period in Herning.

Kane beat goaltender Pavel Francouz from the right circle before Nick Bonino fed Cam Atkinson in front of the net to stretch the lead with a backhand shot.

The Czechs hit back in the second period. Michal Repik reduced the advantage on a slap shot and Martin Necas netted the tying goal on a power play.

”It’s a pity,” Czech forward Tomas Plekanec said. ”We created enough chances to win.”

In Copenhagen, Ryan O'Reilly scored 4:57 into overtime to knock out Russia while captain Connor McDavid had three assists, including on the winning goal.

Hunting its third title in four years, Canada will face Switzerland in the semis.

”Canada are a great team, they always are,” defenseman Roman Josi said after his Switzerland team beat Finland for the first time since 1972.

Defenseman Colton Parayko blasted a slap shot past goaltender Igor Shestyorkin on a power play to give Canada a 1-0 lead in the first period before Ryan Nugent-Hopkins doubled the advantage on another power play.

But Alexander Barabanov and Ilya Mikheyev scored in the second period to tie the game.

Kyle Turris made it 3-2 to Canada in the third before Sergei Andronov leveled. Pierre-Luc Dubois put Canada ahead again but Russia answered with a goal from Artyom Anisimov.

Finland looked to be heading for victory after Markus Nutivaara‘s first-period goal, but Switzerland rallied with goals from Enzo Corvi, Joel Vermin and Gregory Hofmann in less than four minutes midway through the second.

”We didn’t start the way we wanted but we reacted in the second period and played very well from then on,” Josi said.

Mikko Rantanen cut the deficit to one goal in the third period.

”This wasn’t what we were looking for,” Finland captain Mikael Granlund said. ”They had the momentum in the second period and we were not able to turn it around.”

Sweden, which won all seven of its preliminary round games, beat Latvia thanks to goals from Filip Forsberg, Viktor Arvidsson and Oliver Ekman-Larsson. Teodors Blugers and Rudolfs Balcers replied.

Bruins address Marchand licking, future plans

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The Boston Bruins’ brass addressed the media on a wide range of issues Wednesday. If you want to keep your humor Brad Marchand-topical, you might call it an appetizer for the offseason.

After at least one lick/personal bubble-bursting moment in each round of their 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs run (Leo Komarov and Ryan Callahan ranking among his … run-ins), Marchand eventually got a talking-to. Management addressed as much today, and they generally kept it from getting too salty.

“Brad should be contrite,” Cam Neely said (see around the minute mark). “ … He’s gotten to the point now where his game on the ice – without the antics – should speak for itself.”

You know it’s a serious headache – not just a punchline and strange routine – when Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs needs to weigh in. His comments give the impression that Marchand doesn’t have much of a margin of error.

More teaching, less licking

As refreshing as it is to discuss “Zen and the Art of Licking,” some might view it as empty calorie content.

Luckily, the Bruins also shed some light on how they view the 2017-18 season (mostly positive, especially when it comes to integrating young talent, while the ending was bittersweet) and how they might approach free agency and the summer. If you’re the type who shuddered at the idea of targeting a Rick Nash upgrade in free agency – and the comments indicate that quite a few people did – then you’d probably be glad to hear some of the reactions.

Bruins CEO Charlie Jacobs spoke highly of players who could make a future impact on the B’s (“from Providence and Europe”), so Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy might be tasked with much of the “teaching” Cam Neely spoke of today.

Backup plan

Curiously, as NBC Sports Boston’s Joe Haggerty points out, the Bruins might make the backup goalie position an area they’re aiming for improvement with.

There are a few factors to consider in that regard.

For one thing, Anton Khudobin‘s $1.2 million contract expires. The 32-year-old played well enough at times – finishing with a nice-for-backup .913 save percentage – to drum up some minor goalie controversies (depending upon who you asked during 2017-18) when Tuukka Rask struggled. The Bruins are committed to Rask at $7M through 2020-21, yet they might want to at least attempt to get a No. 2 who could moonlight as a No. 1.

Beyond perusing trade opportunities, free agency, or even bringing back Khudobin, you wonder how long of a look the Bruins might give Zane McIntyre as Rask’s backup in 2018-19. After all, McIntyre’s already 25, and could be feeling a little restless (after a dominant AHL season in 2016-17, his numbers were solid but a bit more modest last season).

Other considerations, and a warning

There were discussions of other possible tweaks, such as possibly adding more size at the left D position behind Zdeno Chara. Even then, you wonder how deeply they’ll probe in that area; after all, Torey Krug had a strong season and Matt Grzelcyk came along nicely.

Broadly speaking, it sounds like the Bruins will lean more toward “improving from within” instead of pursuing more established players. Considering the way GM Don Sweeney’s been drafting and the team’s been developing lately, that doesn’t sound like such a bad idea.

Then again, perhaps some bolder opportunities might surface? As promising as some of the future pieces in Boston seem to be, the B’s must also realize that the window could start to close on their core. Zdeno Chara’s in the clearest battle with Father Time at 41, but sometimes the aging curve can dilute the dominance of guys like Patrice Bergeron (32) and Brad Marchand (30) with troubling speed. Considering how frightening Bergeron and Marchand were on most nights alongside young stud David Pastrnak, a slip – even from “elite” to merely “quite good” – could alter Boston’s trajectory, or force them to lean on younger talent even more.

***

So, there are some factors to juggle, but can you really blame management for feeling so optimistic compared to the mixed feelings that were likely on display during last year’s pressers regarding the team’s outlook?

Jacobs himself spoke of the Bruins being spry in keeping up with league trends, and justifiably so. If the NHL’s smartest teams continue this rapid evolution, then Boston must remain just as nimble this summer. At least if they want to maintain their status as a revitalized heavy-hitter in the NHL.

MORE:
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Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• 
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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.

Finland top US, Swiss make quarters at IIHF worlds

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HERNING, Denmark (AP) — Finland handed the United States its first defeat at the ice hockey world championship in a 6-2 thumping on Tuesday.

The Finns supplanted the U.S. to top Group B in Herning, and will face Switzerland in the quarterfinals on Thursday. The Swiss clinched a quarterfinal berth by beating France 5-1 to finish fourth in Group A in Copenhagen.

Canada shut out Germany 3-0 to secure third place in Group B and set up a quarterfinal matchup against Sweden or Russia, who will clash over the top spot in Group A.

”We didn’t leave ourselves in a great spot after the group stage but we’re going to have to play them at some stage,” captain Connor McDavid said about the potential opponents.

The Americans’ first defeat in seven games dropped them to second in the group and a quarterfinal against the Czech Republic, the third team in Group A.

”It’s not a good feeling losing,” U.S. captain Patrick Kane said. ”It could be good for us to make sure we won’t deal with this again and stay positive. We’re a good team, we’ve had a good tournament to this point.”

”(The Czechs) have some talents, it will be a tough game against them.”

Host Denmark will fight with Latvia over the last quarterfinal berth in the same group to play the winner of Group A.

Sebastian Aho scored a couple of opening-period goals for Finland and added one more into an empty net to finish the scoring to become the championship leader with nine goals and eight assists. Kane also has 17 points with six goals and 11 assists.

”We’ve played really well,” Aho said. ”We just try not to think who we play against, focus on our own system and play our game.”

Kane got a power play goal to reduce the deficit to 4-1 in the final period. Derek Ryan added another one for the U.S.

Brayden Schenn gave Canada an early goal just 20 seconds into the game. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins made it 2-0 in the second and Tyson Jost sealed it in the third.

McDavid had two assists and goaltender Darcy Kuemper made 12 saves for his shutout.

”Everyone played hard and everyone played really responsible, so a good momentum for us,” Kuemper said.

Gregory Hofmann, Enzo Corvi, Ramon Untersander, Kevin Fiala Simon Moser had a goal apiece for the Swiss. France replied with one from Guillaume Leclerc.

Also, Slovakia beat already relegated Belarus 7-4 in their last game.

U.S. routs South Korea, Czechs blank Belarus at IIHF Worlds

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ERNING, Denmark (AP) — Captain Patrick Kane scored two goals and added three assists as the United States demolished South Korea 13-1 at the ice hockey world championship on Friday for a fifth straight victory.

The Czech Republic shut out Belarus 3-0, and Denmark closed in on a quarterfinal berth after beating Norway, also 3-0.

Also, France defeated newcomer Austria 5-2 to stay in contention.

Charlie McAvoy, playing his first game for the U.S. after being knocked out of the NHL playoffs last weekend, made his presence felt with two goals and two assists. Derek Ryan and Cam Atkinson also scored a couple each.

”It was a long day, got here a couple hours ago,” McAvoy said. ”We have such a good team. It was a great opportunity for me to go out there and just feel the puck and get ready for the rest of tournament.”

When the U.S. won its first five games in 1933, it claimed its only world championship. But there were no more games then.

Jin Hui Ahn scored South Korea’s third goal at the worlds for a 1-0 surprise lead. It was South Korea’s first lead in any of its five games.

Libor Sulak, Roman Horak and Michal Repik scored for the Czechs against Belarus. Goaltender Pavel Francouz stopped all 11 shots.

Defenseman Nicklas Jensen scored twice and Frederik Storm added one all on power plays against Norway for Denmark’s third victory in the first world championship on home ice.

The players sang the national anthem after the match along with the Jyske Bank Boxen arena crowd mostly wearing red and white national jerseys.

Goaltender Frederik Andersen made 21 saves for his first shutout.

”The crowd delivered again,” Andersen said.

The United States move into the sole lead of Group B in Herning, three points ahead of Canada which has a game in hand. Finland was four points behind, followed by Denmark. South Korea has yet to win.

The Czechs shared third place in Group A in Copenhagen with Switzerland, trailing group leader Sweden by three points and Russia by one. Then followed Slovakia, France, Austria, and Belarus.