Category: NHL (page 1 of 9)

Stanley Cup Outlook Before Conference Finals

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By Alec Nathan – Bleacher Report

The NHL‘s conference finals are set following a pair of Game 7s on Wednesday night.

In the evening’s first tilt, the Pittsburgh Penguins dispatched the Washington Capitals 2-0 in hostile territory to set up an Eastern Conference showdown against the Ottawa Senators—who sent the New York Rangers packing thanks to a 4-2 win in Game 6 on Tuesday night.

The nightcap, meanwhile, featured the Anaheim Ducks taking home a 2-1 win over the Edmonton Oilers to snag a spot in the Western Conference Final against the Nashville Predators.

With those matchups locked in, here’s an overview of what to expect as the chase for the Stanley Cup heats up.

Eastern Conference: Ottawa Senators vs. Pittsburgh Penguins

If the regular season were any indication, the Penguins and Senators may well engage in an explosive set of contests.

In the teams’ first meeting, on Dec. 5, the Penguins captured a whopping 8-5 victory at PPG Paints Arena thanks to a hat trick from Bryan Rust. However, the Senators counterpunched a month later by thrashing the Penguins 4-1 back at Canadian Tire Centre.

The rubber match on March 23 wasn’t quite as high-scoring, but it was a nail-biter that saw the Senators escape with a narrow 2-1 shootout victory.

Now primed for a postseason collision, the Penguins appear to have a slight edge on the Senators as Game 1 approaches.

Although Ottawa will have the benefit of extra rest after they escaped Round 2 in six games, Pittsburgh is coming off a statement win over the top-seeded Washington Capitals.

Combine that triumph with home-ice advantage and the fact the Penguins have been able to stave off injury-induced adversity, with Matt Murray, Trevor Daley, Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang all banged up to varying degrees, and the defending champions should be a force to be reckoned with.

That’s not to say the Senators won’t put up a fight.

Not only is Erik Karlsson—who tallied seven points against the Penguins in the regular season—dialed in and playing as well as any player left in the playoffs, but goaltender Craig Anderson has proved brilliant at times—including Game 6 against New York, when he racked up 37 saves to send the Rangers packing.

“He was extremely calm,” head coach Guy Boucher said of Anderson in Game 6, per the Ottawa Citizen‘s Don Brennan. “If you look at his saves, a lot of them, they’re right in his stomach. And it’s not necessarily shots that were thrown at his stomach. It’s because he was there. He made it look sometimes easier than it was.”

Anderson should propel the Senators to a couple of wins, but the Penguins simply have too much firepower to be contained for extended stretches.

Prediction: Penguins in 6

Western Conference: Nashville Predators vs. Anaheim Ducks

The lone division champion remaining in the playoffs, the Ducks will be tasked with holding their ground against a Predators team that has been scalding since the postseason started.

As if a first-round sweep of the Chicago Blackhawks weren’t impressive enough, the Predators dispatched the St. Louis Blues in six games and have enjoyed an extended rest following Sunday’s 3-1 series-clinching victory.

“I don’t think I can stress it enough,” defenseman Mattias Ekholm said of the rest and short travel times to this point in the playoffs, per Brooks Bratten of the team’s official website. “I really felt that in the Game 7 [against the San Jose Sharks] last year, the gas kind of ran out. Right now, two short series with travel, four games, six games, it’s almost too good to be true. We’ve really got to emphasize that we’re in a good spot and take advantage of the rest that we’re getting.”

However, the Predators are in for a shakeup now that they’ll have to travel to California to face a Ducks team that will enjoy home-ice advantage after shaking off some historical postseason woes by virtue of Wednesday’s win over Edmonton, according to NHL Public Relations on Twitter:

Thanks to their resilience, the Ducks will enter the Western Conference Final riding a wave of positive momentum as they seek a return to the championship series for the first time since 2007. 

That said, they’ll have to solve a stingy Predators defense that has allowed a grand total of 14 goals through 10 playoff games.

To put that number in perspective, the other two teams that allowed 14 goals in the playoffs—the Montreal Canadiens and Calgary Flames—participated in 10 playoff games combined before bowing out of this year’s proceedings. 

The Predators are in for a lengthier battle as the scene gets set to shift to the Golden State, but with P.K. Subban and Pekka Rinne leading the charge, they should be able to put the clamps on the Ducks just enough to slip by. 

Prediction: Predators in 7  

Golden Knights expect major production from Vadim Shipachyov

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By Jesse Granger – Las Vegas Sun

Vegas Golden Knights General Manager George McPhee found the first real contributor for his team’s upcoming inaugural season last night, but he had to fight for him.

 Russian forward Vadim Shipachyov could be the first star player for the Golden Knights. He will certainly be paid like one, signing a 2-year, $9 million deal with the club last night.

McPhee said there was a bidding war between multiple NHL teams for the rights to Shipachyov.

“I don’t know who specifically was involved but there were many NHL teams trying to get him,” McPhee said today on a conference call. “We were comfortable with ($4.5 million per year) because the player was in demand and was going to get that or more elsewhere.”

The Montreal Canadiens were among Shipachyov’s suitors, according to tweets from Rogers Sportsnet reporter Eric Engels, but moved on when the offers got too high.

The Golden Knights were willing to pay a premium because they know it will be difficult to find premier offensive players like Shipachyov in the upcoming expansion draft.

“He’s a skilled center iceman and those are very, very hard to get,” McPhee said. “They are rare. They are hard to find. Now we have one and we expect that he’ll be a great fit for our hockey club.”

Shipachyov finished third in the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia with 26 goals and 50 assists for SKA Saint Petersburg. The 30-year-old center led the team to league championships in two of the last three seasons (2015 and 2017).

For comparison, players around the league with similar contracts to Shipachyov’s include stars like the Washington Capitals’ T.J. Oshie, the Boston Bruins’ Brad Marchand, the Canadiens’ Max Pacioretty and the Panthers’ Roberto Luongo.

“It’s an important acquisition for us,” McPhee said. “We are going to need skill and trying to get that position in the expansion draft would be difficult. I’ve seen him play at the World Championships. We thought it would be a big addition to our club.”

Shipachyov will also bring much-needed leadership to an inevitably young Golden Knights’ team. He served as either a captain or an alternate captain in the last three years for SKA St. Petersburg. In his entire KHL career, he registered 137 goals and 275 assists for 412 points in 445 games split between Saint Petersburg and his hometown team, the Severstal Cherepovets.

“He is prepared to play a lot and sees that there could be a lot of ice time,” McPhee said. “We fully expect him to be one of the top-6 forwards, as well as a major contributor on play on power plays and the penalty kill.”

The chance to be a premier player may be what drove Shipachyov to Las Vegas, but it certainly wasn’t the only factor.

Brand new facilities like T-Mobile Arena and the soon-to-be completed practice facility in Summerlin are great bargaining chips for the Golden Knights, but above all is Nevada’s no state income tax.

“I think it will be a factor if we’re doing everything else right,” McPhee said. “If we are building a good team people will want to come to Las Vegas to play. It’s easy to get around, the cost of living is great and the weather is excellent.

“No state income tax is basically like getting a free house, because what you’re saving in taxes can pay your mortgage.”

Reid Duke will always be the Golden Knights’ first player in franchise history, but he’ll be fighting for a roster spot during training camp. Duke has yet to take the ice since joining the Chicago Wolves of the American Hockey League in early April.

Shipachyov won’t face the same uncertainty with his role. It’s more than likely he’ll end up with the letter “C” stitched onto his jersey than not being on the Golden Knights’ opening night roster.

“This is a case of seeing a really good player and trying to bring him in,” McPhee said. “We want a talented, up-tempo, fast paced team. When you see talent you sure love to acquire it. I’ve never had a problem of having too much talent.”

2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs second-round preview: Blues vs. Predators

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By Jared Clinton – The Hockey News

THE BLUES WIN IF…

The Wild understood following their first-round defeat that the difference-maker in the first-round against the Blues was Jake Allen. Minnesota out shot St. Louis in all but one of the five first-round games, but it was the Blues who emerged victorious thanks to the standout play from their starting netminder. No one should have been surprised ‘Jake the Snake’ played so well, though.

Heading into the post-season, Allen was playing the best hockey of his campaign. Of course, when measured on a personal scale, that’s not saying all that much. Allen was terrible in the early part of the season and even an average performance in the back half would have made him look vastly improved. But the truth is that over the final months of the season, few netminders were as sound as Allen. Since coach Mike Yeo took over on Feb. 1, no goaltender who played at least 1,000 minutes at 5-on-5 had a better save percentage or stopped a higher percentage of high-danger shots than Allen. He was outstanding. And if the Blues are going to get through to the Western Conference final, it’s likely going to have to be the Allen show once again.

Nashville, like Minnesota, has a balanced attack with plenty of scoring throughout the lineup. That means beyond Allen, a lot of pressure is going to be on the St. Louis defense to slow things down. In the first round, the Blues had a tough time shutting down a deep Wild team, but the possession numbers in the one meeting between the Predators and Yeo’s Blues seems to indicate the teams are fairly evenly matched. That wasn’t the case against the Wild. It’s also going to be key for St. Louis to stop the counter-attack and odd-man rushes that Nashville generates. As good as Allen has played, he’s going to have a tough time if he’s consistently seeing 2-on-1s or 3-on-2s.

What the Blues do with the opportunities they do get against a stingy Predators club might be what eventually separates St. Louis, though. In shutting down Chicago in the opening round, Nashville showed a smothering, suffocating defensive structure that didn’t offer many — or really any — options to an attacking team. The Blues are going to face a similar structure, no doubt, but if they can break it down and get to the net, chances will arise. At that point, it’s going to be up to the Blues to do what the Blackhawks couldn’t: capitalize. 

THE PREDATORS WIN IF…

One would be hard-pressed to find a single hole in Nashville’s first-round game plan. The execution was perfect. The Predators shut down everything through the neutral zone and made a star-studded Blackhawks team look pedestrian in a four-game sweep of the Western Conference leaders. Beyond that, Nashville showed strength in the possession game, ability to turn the puck up ice in a hurry and the Predators got contributions from up and down the lineup. And if the second round is a continuation of the first, Nashville might be on their way to the first conference final in franchise history.

Defensively, the Predators are going to have their hands full once again. The Blues aren’t lacking for high-end offensive talent, but luckily for Nashville coach Peter Laviolette, his team has a stable of defenders that might be able to do what Minnesota couldn’t and shut St. Louis’ offense down. Laviolette isn’t afraid to trot his top four our regularly, either. In the four-game series against the Blackhawks, the Predators’ top four defenders all averaged more than 25 minutes per game. The combined averages of Matt Irwin and Yannick Weber, fifth and sixth in the rotation, didn’t match that.

It’s going to be important, too, that Nashville somehow manages to beat Allen, who was seemingly impenetrable in the Blues’ first-round win. The best way might not be through the Predators’ most noteworthy stars, however. Filip Forsberg, Viktor Arvidsson and Ryan Johansen are going to see big minutes against the likes of Alex Pietrangelo, Colton Parayko and Jay Bouwmeester, the best defenders St. Louis has at the ready. The same goes for James Neal and Mike Fisher. They’ll still be important to the attack, but Nashville’s edge might come from the bottom six.

There were a few games during the opening round where Kevin Fiala, who played little more than half the season with the big club, looked like as terrorizing as any other Predators forward. In Game 2, he scored a power play marker and followed that up with a Game 3 in which he put seven shots on goal and scored the overtime winner after having a few chances to end the game. It was proof of the type of offensive punch Fiala can provide when he gets free, and the focus put on Nashville’s top six might give Fiala a shot at making some noise. Don’t sleep on the rest of the third and fourth lines, either. The Predators got nine points out of the bottom half of their lineup. 

X-FACTOR:

Blues: Someone eventually needs to break down the Predators’ defense and who better than Vladimir Tarasenko? Tarasenko has the speed and skill to go around defenders, but the first round was evidence that Nashville won’t let that happen easy. Luckily for the Blues, then, that Tarasenko also isn’t opposed to going right through defenders. He didn’t exactly have an earth-shattering performance against the Wild, but he did score one goal and three points while generating 21 shots. Tarasenko is the perfect example of an attacker that defenders simply hope to contain, but that’s hard to do for long. If he breaks out this series, expect the Predators to be shoveling a few pucks out of the back of the net courtesy of the Russian sniper.

Predators: If the first round was any indication, Allen better get ready for a goaltending duel with Pekka Rinne. Nashville’s veteran netminder didn’t just win all four games against Chicago, he blanked the powerful Blackhawks offense twice and allowed only three goals against across the four-game series. His .976 save percentage and 0.70 goals-against average are the best marks of any starter in the post-season. That said, St. Louis was far better at generating scoring chances during the regular season than Chicago, so Rinne could be set to see more rubber from in close. If he can carry his first-round performance on to the second round, though, Nashville might not have a problem getting past the Blues. 

KEY MATCHUP:

Two young snipers square off and they’ll be the heart of the offense in this series. Both teams are coming in with goalies that stole series and broke hearts in Round 1 and it’ll be up to Vladimir Tarasenko and Filip Forsberg to solve those puzzles in net. They’ve got the skills to do it as they were each one of the league’s best scorers this season. The depth on both these teams at forwards leaves a bit to be desired, but the top lines are amazing and more than make up for it. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the two teams go power on power here and trade goals in this series, so it’ll fall on these two stars to carry the load. Both look to be close in value, with Tarasenko being the more dynamic offensive threat while Forsberg looks more responsible defensively. That defensive edge might be the difference maker if he can at least match him offensively. Jake Allen and Pekka Rinne had magnificent first rounds, but with these two guys on the ice, I’m expecting some regression in round two. 

THN’s PICK:

PREDATORS in six games.

2017 Stanley Cup playoffs second-round preview: Penguins vs. Capitals

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By Matt Larkin – The Hockey News

THE PENGUINS WIN IF…

The Penguins are the NHL’s best team at sticking to a system. They play endlessly fast under coach Mike Sullivan, relying on their forwards’ superb wheels. Doing so means quick puck movement from the Pens’ defensemen, and that makes the team effective despite having no go-to blue liner right now. Kris Letang is out for the playoffs, yet the Pens ousted the NHL’s No. 6 offensive club in five games. As long as they follow their style, they can get by without Letang and rely on the veteran group of Justin Schultz, Ian Cole, Olli Maatta, Trevor Daley, Brian Dumoulin and Ron Hainsey. Every one of those blueliners except Hainsey played on the Pens’ 2015-16 championship squad, which eliminated the Capitals in Round 2.

And let’s face it: the Pens’ defense corps only has to be adequate. It’s the forwards pushing the play. Pittsburgh led the NHL regular season and the first round of the playoffs in goals per game. Not even probable Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky could handle the Pens’ blitz in Round 1, which included 11 points from Evgeni Malkin and the usual heroics from Sidney Crosby and Phil Kessel, but also some surprising contributions. The Pens just keep unearthing speedy, effective scoring wingers from AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Conor Sheary and Bryan Rust have duplicated last year’s success and then some – and Jake Guentzel enjoyed a coming-out party this season. After racking up 16 goals and 33 points in 40 games, he led the first round of the playoffs with five goals in five games. He became the first rookie since Rocket Richard to score five in his first four post-season contests.

The Penguins overwhelm their opponents with speed, and that’s scary news for the Washington Capitals. The Toronto Maple Leafs gave Washington quite a scare in Round 1, forcing a crazy-close series that included five overtime games and six one-goal games. How did Toronto do it? Wheels. The Leafs were at their best when moving their young, fleet feet and causing chaos. Toronto faltered when the jitters kicked in and caused the young group to stop skating and start watching Washington dominate down low. The Penguins are like a better, more mature, more experienced version of the Leafs. The Penguins play a similar style but won’t be intimidated by the Caps. They’re in Washington’s head, not the other way around. If the Leafs turned out to be a surprisingly dangerous match-up for the Caps, the Penguins are the Leafs on steroids. 

THE CAPITALS WIN IF…

Do we view the Capitals through an optimistic or pessimistic lens? If we choose the former, we see a team that got pushed to the brink in six consecutive nail-biter games, spent very few minutes of the series leading and still ground out four victories. Washington could’ve choked and instead delivered in the clutch more often than not, with three overtime wins, including a series-ender from Marcus Johansson after he tied the game in the latter half of the third period. Washington showed mental toughness.

The Caps also won the Presidents’ Trophy for a reason. They are hockey’s deepest, most complete all-around team. They have a clear advantage in goal with icy-nerved Braden Holtby. They have a powerhouse top line of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie, plus great secondary scoring options in Johansson, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky and, of course, Justin Williams, ‘Mr. Game 7.’ The bottom-six forward group boasts some big, heavy players, from Tom Wilson to Jay Beagle to shutdown center Lars Eller. The Caps forecheck as well as any team in the game, and that’s the one thing Columbus did pretty effectively against Pittsburgh in Round 1. Washington can hem a team in for many minutes at a time, as Toronto learned the hard way.

The Caps also enjoy a deep defense corps, even if Karl Alzner isn’t healthy enough to return yet. Matt Niskanen was particularly effective in Round 1, and speedy Nate Schmidt held his own replacing Alzner. Brooks Orpik and Kevin Shattenkirk struggled at times but are still an experienced pair that should iron out their game in time. All that and we haven’t mentioned John Carlson and Dmitry Orlov. This is a loaded group. 

X-FACTOR:

Penguins: It doesn’t look like Matt Murray, who sustained a lower-body injury in the Game 1 warmup against Columbus, will return to the Penguins’ crease anytime soon. He hasn’t even resumed skating. That puts Pittsburgh’s fate in Marc-Andre Fleury’s hands again. ‘Flower’ flashed his early-career playoff form in Round 1, with a .933 save percentage against the Jackets, but what if the ugly recent-career playoff Fleury returns against Washington? Holtby gives Washington the edge in goal no matter what, but Fleury has to be at least average to keep the series competitive. If his game goes in the tank, it will change the series dramatically.

Capitals: Justin Williams is so universally revered as an X-Factor that he hardly qualifies as one anymore. He’s not a sleeper. Instead, watch out for Tom Wilson. Because he’s such a brute, 6-foot-4, 217 pounds and known for devastating hits on the forecheck, it’s easy to forget he was a first-round pick in 2012. Wilson can play. He showed that in Round 1 with three goals against the Leafs, earning himself a promotion to the third line from coach Barry Trotz. If Wilson can chip in some offense while putting licks on an already-weakened Penguins D-corps, look out. 

KEY MATCHUP:

The Crosby-Ovechkin rivalry gets all the headlines, but the story of this series might come on the “second” line and that’s in name only as both teams pretty much have two first lines. That’s mostly because of the star centers on both sides, Evgeni Malkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov, who’d be No. 1 guys on any other team. It’s an Evgeni(y) battle for the ages here, though Kuznetsov is really going to have to step up if he wants to match up to Malkin. He’s been a bit lackluster in the playoffs during his career and had just three points in the first round – nothing compared to Malkin’s 11. Neither is all that great at possessing the puck (though they’re unfairly penalized by being compared to superstar top lines), so it all comes down to production here where there’s a sizeable chasm between the two players. With deficiencies elsewhere throughout the lineups, this is one battle the Pens have to win as their forward depth is the only thing they’ve got on Washington. It starts here with Geno. Let’s see if he’s got some more playoff magic up his sleeve. (Dom Luszczyszyn

THN’S PICK:

PENGUINS in six games.

NHL playoffs: How the Canadian teams stack up in Round 2

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By Tim Wharnsby – CBC Sports

Ottawa vs. New York Rangers

This series will be low scoring. Both teams play patient, defensive-oriented systems … The Senators and Rangers swapped key centers last July, with Ottawa sending Mika Zibanejad to Broadway in exchange for Derick Brassard. Both were impactful in the first round. Zibanejad scored the overtime winner in Game 5 of the Rangers’ six-game series against Montreal, while Brassard continued his outstanding playoff legacy with two goals and eight points to lead the Senators in their six-game win against the Boston Bruins … A big concern for the Senators will be how veteran defenceman Dion Phaneuf will deal with the Rangers’ team speed … A big concern for the Rangers has to be their leading goal scorer, Chris Kreider. Although he helped set up Zibanejad’s winner, Kreider had no goals and only 11 shots on goal against the Habs … Senators captain Erik Karlsson and Joel Lundqvist, the twin brother of Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist, were briefly teammates with Frolunda HC in Sweden during the 2012-13 lockout season … When Senators associate coach Marc Crawford was fired as head coach of the Vancouver Canucks after the 2005-06 season, his replacement was Alain Vigneault, who was coaching the Canucks’ AHL affiliate in Winnipeg … It’s difficult not to pull for the Senators and the feel-good stories of goalie Craig Anderson, whose wife battled a rare form of throat cancer this season, and Clarke MacArthur, who successfully returned to action after 18 months on the sidelines with concussion problems.

Player to watch: After an unproductive 13-goal regular season — his lowest output in a non-lockout-shortened regular season — Senators right wing Bobby Ryan has come to play in the playoffs, with four goals, including two game winners, in the first round. Ottawa needs Ryan to continue to produce.

Prediction: Rangers in seven. They have an unrelenting, four-line, grind-it-out mentality that works in the playoffs, plus strong goaltending and speed that can turn a mistake into a goal, and on many occasions a goal is all New York needs with Lundqvist in net.

Anaheim vs. Edmonton

The Ducks are red hot. They finished the regular season with four wins and opened the playoffs with a four-game sweep of the Flames. The last time they suffered a loss was a 3-2 overtime defeat to the Oilers on April 1, when Leon Draisaitl scored 86 seconds into the extra period off a Connor McDavid pass … Draisaitl scored six times in five regular-season outings against the Ducks … When Draisaitl played junior in Prince Albert, his assistant coach was former NHL defenceman Dave Manson. Manson’s son Josh is a Ducks defenceman … Oilers goalie Cam Talbot is showing no signs of slowing down after his league-leading 73 starts and team-record 42 wins. He improved his .919 regular-season save percentage to .927 with two shutouts in the first round … Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf picked up his play in the second half with 11 goals and 44 points in his final 40 games and continued to produce in the playoffs with two goals and five points in four first-round games … The Ducks could get back two of their top defencemen in this series. Cam Fowler has been out with a knee injury and Sami Vatanen suffered an upper-body ailment in the Ducks’ opener against Calgary … Oilers forward Patrick Maroon will have some motivation. The Ducks gave up on him and traded him to Edmonton on Feb 29, 2016. All he did was score six times in 16 playoff games for the Ducks in 2015 … Can Ducks rookie Shea Theodore continue to turn heads after his two goals and five points in the first round? … Theodore, and Edmonton’s McDavid and Darnell Nurse were teammates on Canada’s 2015 gold-medal-winning junior team.

Player to watch: Edmonton second-line center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has to step up. McDavid is going to receive heavy attention from Anaheim’s defensive nuisance Ryan Kesler. Nugent-Hopkins needs to produce to give the Oilers a chance in this series. He led Edmonton with 17 shots on goal in the first round, but was held without a point and had a plus-minus rating of minus-one.

Prediction: Anaheim in six. It’s hard to bet against a team that has Getzlaf and Corey Perry leading the way and has gone a combined 15-0-3 in its last 14 regular-season games and four playoff outings.

Golden Knights officially name Gerard Gallant 1st head coach

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By

The Vegas Golden Knights officially announced the hiring of Gerard Gallant as the franchises first head coach Thursday.

Gallant, 53, has been linked to the gig since his dismissal from the Florida Panthers in November, and the speculation became all but a certainty Wednesday, as reports surfaced that general manager George McPhee was closing in on his target.

“We are proud to announce Gerard as the first head coach in Vegas Golden Knights history,’ McPhee said. “He is an experienced head coach, has had success at multiple levels and has a great reputation amongst the players who have played for him.

“Being named the first head coach in Vegas Golden Knights history is such a tremendous opportunity and one I am extremely grateful for,” said Gallant. “There is a great deal of excitement in the hockey community regarding what is happening with the Golden Knights and I am glad to now be a part of the team.”

Gallant led the Panthers to the Atlantic Division title in 2015-16, and owns a record of 152-141-4-31 as an NHL head coach. He’s also been named to Team Canada’s coaching staff for the 2017 World Championship, and was an assistant for Team North America at September’s World Cup.

8 series, 8 numbers: Key statistics for the NHL’s first round of playoffs

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By John Matisz – Postmedia Network

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Washington (1st Metropolitan) vs. Toronto (2nd wild card)

Key number: 60.5

The most lopsided matchup of the opening round has the potential to entertain the masses. Toronto has no issue generating shot attempts (60.5 per 60 5-on-5 minutes, good for third in the NHL), yet they’re awful at suppressing attempts (28th). Combine this high-event brand of hockey — surely, a byproduct of the Maple Leafs icing so many rookies every night — with the Capitals’ enviable firepower and it’s not difficult to envision the amusement. Otherwise, Washington trumps Toronto in almost every category, namely goaltending, depth and playoff experience, and should have no problem advancing. Prediction: Capitals in 5.

Pittsburgh (2nd Metropolitan) vs. Columbus (3rd Metropolitan)

Key number: 3.9

Pittsburgh is shorthanded as stud blueliner Kris Letang nurses a neck injury that will keep him out of the lineup for the entire post-season. The club has been okay in his absence, winning 13 of 23 games to close out the regular season, but playoff hockey is another beast. Letang’s impact on how the Penguins’ ‘D’ operates is immense, from both a workload (25-30 minutes a night) and puck-possession perspective. When Letang’s usual first-pairing partner, Brian Dumoulin, is apart from Letang, for instance, the Penguins’ 5-on-5 shot attempts differential swings the other way, dropping 3.9 per cent to below the 50-50 mark. While the odds are stacked against Columbus, in general — winning four of seven games over the Sidney Crosby-led defending Stanley Cup champs is no easy task — the Letang injury certainly thickens the plot. Prediction: Penguins in 6.

Montreal (1st Atlantic) vs. New York Rangers (1st wild card)

Key number: 20

New York, with its rapid, off-the-rush attacking offence, has come at teams in waves all year. Head coach Alain Vigneault has nine forwards at his disposal who in the regular season combined for 179 goals for an average of 20 goals apiece — Chris Kreider (28 goals), Michael Grabner (27), Rick Nash (23), J.T. Miller (22), Kevin Hayes (17), Derek Stepan (17), Jimmy Vesey (16), Mats Zuccarello (15) and Mika Zibanejad (14). No world-beaters in that group, not even a 30-goal scorer, just heaps of opportunistic scorers. Montreal swept the season series, 3-0, but might have trouble containing the up-tempo Rangers in a high-energy environment like the NHL playoffs. All-world goalie Carey Price is the series’ X-factor. Prediction: Rangers in 6.

Ottawa (2nd Atlantic) vs. Boston (3rd Atlantic)

Key number: 42

The Bruins boast the NHL’s best line (Brad Marchand-Patrice Bergeron-David Pastrnak) and an elite goalie (Tuukka Rask), but enter the post-season dangerously low on capable bodies on the back end. Torey Krug and Brandon Carlo, Boston’s No. 2 and No. 3 defencemen, are inactive for Game 1 vs. Ottawa. Together, they eat up more than 42 minutes a night. This is a huge development for the Senators, who finished 22nd in the league in regular-season goal scoring. Conversely, Ottawa is in the midst of a lineup revival, as several players prepare to return from injury, including its entire first pairing of Erik Karlsson and Marc Methot. Prediction: Senators in 7.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Chicago (1st in Central) vs. Nashville (2nd wild card)

Key number: .783

Thanks to strong play at the end of an underwhelming regular season and a drool-worthy defence corps, the Predators seem to be the first round’s trendy sleeper pick. Yet, to beat Chicago, a legitimate Stanley Cup favourite, Nashville must play a perfect game, every game. And that includes steady performances from Pekka Rinne, who is not the goalie he used to be. Rinne finished 16th in quality starts percentage among goalies with 30 or more appearances and his .783 save percentage on 5-on-5 shots in and around the slot (often referred to as the “high danger” area) ranked 36th among regular goalies. Simply put, the 34-year-old Finn is an average NHL goalie with a consistency problem. Prediction: Blackhawks in 7.

Anaheim (1st in Pacific) vs. Calgary (1st wild card)

Key number: 7.6

Calgary and Anaheim finished the regular season with the worst even-strength shooting percentages among the West’s eight playoff teams. What does this mean? The Flames (7.6 SH%) or the Ducks (7.8%) — both? — are due for an offensive explosion. It may come in this series, it may not; either way, it’s something to keep an eye on. Particularly unlucky players include Calgary’s Sam Bennett, TJ Brodie and Alex Chiasson, as well as Anaheim’s Andrew Cogliano, Ryan Garbutt and Nick Ritchie. Someone who has been both lucky and extremely good? Undercover Anaheim superstar Rickard Rakell (33 goals on 177 shots in 71 games). Prediction: Ducks in 6.

Edmonton (2nd in Pacific) vs. San Jose (3rd in Pacific)

Key number: 29

The Sharks are vulnerable down the middle, with Joe Thornton and Logan Couture tending to injuries ahead of Game 1. The Oilers, on the other hand, boast a healthy one-two punch in Art Ross winner Connor McDavid and soldier Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. The tide changer, if he plays at his highest level, is Brent Burns. Lost in the tremendous second-half performances of fellow Norris Trophy candidates Erik Karlsson and Victor Hedman is Burns’ wire-to-wire production in the puck-possessing and point-getting departments (53.6% at 5-on-5; 29 goals and 76 points in all situations). Clearly, a perfect storm is brewing for Edmonton, but San Jose’s core, which is on its last legs, will not go down without a fight. Prediction: Oilers in 6.

Minnesota (2nd in Central) vs. St. Louis (3rd in Central)

Key number: 82.9

Probably the least sexy first-round series, the most intriguing storylines may be behind the bench. The Wild’s Bruce Boudreau, whose 10-season NHL coaching career now includes nine playoff appearances, is desperate to advance to the Stanley Cup final for the first time. The Blues’ Mike Yeo, who took over as head honcho mid-season after Ken Hitchcock joined the unemployment line, is desperate to show Minnesota, the team that fired him last winter, what they’re missing. Both clubs, no doubt boosted by new instruction, have improved or stayed the course on special teams this season. The most impressive progression: the Wild’s penalty kill rocketing up the league ranks, from 27th (77.9%) to eighth (82.9%) over a season. Prediction: Wild in 6.

Canada, U.S. preparing for Olympic ‘Plan B’ without NHLers

By The men in charge of the Canadian and American hockey programs expressed disappointment with the NHL’s decision to forgo the 2018 Olympic Games, but made it clear they’re prepping alternate plans.

“Today’s statement by the NHL is not what we were hoping for because, ultimately, we want best-on-best at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games which, for us at Hockey Canada, includes the participation of NHL players,” Hockey Canada president and CEO Tom Renney said in a statement Monday, according to TSN.

“This does not change our preparation for the Games – we have developed both a Plan A and a Plan B, and will be ready to move forward. However, for the next month, our priority is the 2017 IIHF World Championship, and we will be ready to advance the required plan following that event.”

USA Hockey is also readying a backup plan.

“We knew it was a very real possibility for many months and certainly respect the decision of the NHL,” executive director Dave Ogrean said in a statement.

“The good news is that because of our grassroots efforts over the course of many years, our player pool is as deep as it has ever been and we fully expect to field a team that will play for a medal.”

“We respect the NHL’s decision and will examine our player pool options and plan accordingly,” added Jim Johannson, assistant executive director of hockey operations for the American hockey governing body. “In the end, we’ll have 25 great stories on the ice in South Korea and will go to the Olympics with medal expectations.”

NBC, which has the broadcast rights to the Games, claims the tournament will still be worth watching without near-full NHL rosters.

“The Olympics have been the world’s greatest international hockey tournament irrespective of whether professionals or amateurs are playing,” the network said in a statement, according to Mike Halford of NBC’s Pro Hockey Talk.

“Although we’re disappointed that NHL players will not get the chance to experience and compete at the 2018 Winter Olympics next February, we’re confident that hockey fans and Olympic viewers will tune in to watch the unique style of play that occurs at the Olympic Winter Games when athletes are competing for their country.”

Swedish Ice Hockey Federation wants NHL GMs to keep their prospects in Sweden rather than the AHL

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By SB Nation

As the GMs meeting wrapped up, plenty of information has come out about a number of things you’ll be hearing about in the next couple of days. One interesting wrinkle that’s come out for this is what the Svenska Ishockeyförbundet (Swedish Hockey Federation) wants for the NHL’s young swedish prospects.

Namely, for them to not play in the AHL.

….Well that kinda came out of left field.

Currently, Boston has two players from Sweden in their AHL affiliate, with a host of Swedes outside the semi-pro system (Oskar Steen, Johansson, Forsbacka-Karlsson) that, once they hit a certain level, have to make a choice in regard to their development. Move to Rhode Island, or return to their Sport Clubs in Sweden.

On the one hand, it’s not hard to understand why Sweden might want their young players to come home every once in awhile. The time difference to see these talents in their prime is sometimes very prohibitive, and having them playing on Swedish teams means more revenue for said teams. It also has precedent for the development perspective, as Peter Forsberg and Mats Sundin took a season off from NHL play to return to their previous teams in Sweden, and both came back just as good, if not better, than they were. Sometimes players still need a better transition period that doesn’t always come with playing in the AHL. A more recent example that Swedish officials got word of was that of Alex Nylander (brother of William) struggling mightily in the AHL where he previously…didn’t. Artturi Lehkonen wasn’t exactly a bad player, but after a stint in Frolunda he came to the NHL and has been a promising (and infuriating) prospect for Montreal. There’s plenty of precedent for improvement being made from the SHL.

On the other hand…there are plenty of players who can say the opposite has been working out for them in the NHL because they went to the AHL instead of Sweden. Oscar Sundqvist in Wilkes-Barre has improved his point-getting immensely from any season he had at the highest level of play for Skellefteå in Sweden. To say nothing of course of Boston’s own David Pastrnak, whose currently blowing any previous season he’s ever had in Europe out of the water. His time in the AHL put him at a point-per-game no matter what sample size they threw him in. 25 games? 28 points. 3 games for conditioning? 4 points. Anton Blidh at the SHL level had less than 10 points in his 60+ career. In Providence? Much more consistent with at least 12-15 points a season.

On top of all of that there’s still that whole “North America doesn’t play on Olympic ice“ thing that can be kind of an issue sometimes? It’s not that much of one anymore, but it can still take some getting used to. The Bruins have gotten around this mostly by having players who’ve already made the transition to North American leagues by choice or have been playing on NHL level ice for awhile now. Oh…and probably a much more pressing matter: whole “Geography” thing. If you’d like to get a player called up? You’re gonna have to wait on a plane that at the absolute least 10 hours or more while they get on a flight.

Sweden didn’t come down hard on the NHL so it’s still up to player and team discretion to what comes next in their development before they have a chance to make the NHL roster, but it does leave one wondering who will take their home country up on the offer or what GM will consider the proposition.

NHL poised to enter China, hockey’s next frontier

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By Canadian Press

When Andong Song started playing hockey in China at age 6, he wore figure skates on his feet and had to use the straight parts of short-track speedskating rinks for practice.

His father brought back equipment from his travels one piece at a time, and his family moved to Canada a few years later so he could pursue a career in the sport. Song, the first Chinese player selected in the NHL draft, envisions a day when that sort of cross-global exodus is no longer necessary for kids growing up in China.

That could be coming soon with the NHL looking at China as hockey’s next great frontier. With the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, China is eager to step up its game and the league is intrigued by the potential of a new nontraditional market with 1.4 billion people that might take to hockey like it did basketball.

“It’s a place that hasn’t had that much of an opportunity to be introduced to what everybody acknowledges is a great game,” commissioner Gary Bettman said. “Because of the size of the market and the fact that lots of sports haven’t been developed there, it’s a good opportunity to expand the sport even further.”

This week, Bettman is expected to announce NHL preseason games in China between the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks, along with grassroots programs to build a hockey foundation where the NBA has laid one for decades. It’s the first big step toward the NHL making inroads in China, whether or not players participate in the 2018 Olympics in neighboring South Korea.

NHL Players’ Association executive director Don Fehr said showcasing the NHL, running clinics and getting more broadcast coverage all figure into the long-term strategy. Even though Russia’s expansive Kontinental Hockey League now has a team based in Beijing, NHL exhibition games — and potentially regular-season games as early as fall 2018 — will have a bigger impact.

“Even with the KHL there, they know it’s not the best league,” said Song, a Beijing native and sixth-round pick of the New York Islanders in 2015 who now plays for the Madison Capitols of the United States Hockey League. “They know it’s not the NHL.”

According to the International Ice Hockey Federation, China only has 1,101 registered players and 154 indoor rinks. Despite having a quarter of China’s population, the U.S. has 543,239 players and 1,800 indoor rinks.

By October , 14 different NBA teams will have played 24 preseason games in greater China since 2004, so the NHL has some catching up to do. The Boston Bruins sent an envoy on a Chinese tour last summer that included players Matt Beleskey and David Pastrnak, and Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis recently said his team could be next after hosting youth players from China in January.

“There will be about 200 new rinks being built in China and we would expect China being a very, very formidable force in the Olympics,” said Leonsis, who called China the next great hockey market. “And also we’ll see that China will be producing players and I would expect that we’ll have NHL players that were born and trained, just like we’ve seen in the NBA, and China will be able to bring players here.”

The NBA gained popularity in China in part due to Yao Ming, the first pick in the 2002 draft. The NHL is going into China hoping to develop homegrown stars. Chinese broadcaster and producer Longmou Li, who has worked the Stanley Cup Final and helped families move to North America for hockey, said 500 to 600 new families are joining the Beijing Hockey Association each year, which could mean churning out an NHL first-round pick every five to six years.

Song said because the sport is still in its infancy in China and centralized in the northeast and in big cities, keeping the best players there instead of seeing them leave for North America is the biggest challenge.

About 200 Chinese hockey families currently live in North America, Li said, and the return of those players, coupled with the KHL’s Kunlun Red Star’s presence and a commitment to skill development, will help the national team grow in preparation for the 2022 Olympics. With a broadcasting deal already in place to air four NHL games on state-owned China Central TV and 10-12 online through Tencent each week, his keys to the growth of Chinese hockey are players reaching the NHL and the national team competing at the top level of the world championships.

Stanley Cup-winning coach Mike Keenan was recently tapped to take over Kunlun and oversee the men’s and women’s national teams, so the process is underway.

“If NHL can help China to get that, I think we can at least get 100 million fans from China,” Li said. “Because hockey is just so passionate a game, is so fast a game, it’s so easy to get people to get involved. But they will need to attract them to watch.”

Although being awarded the Olympics was impetus for the Chinese government to pour resources into hockey, it’s getting some help from the private sector in the form of Zhou Yunjie, the chairman of of metal can manufacturing company ORG Packaging. The goaltender-turned-billionaire is at the forefront of hockey’s growth in China through NHL partnerships and sponsorship’s.

“As long as (TV networks) in China broadcast many more games in China, it will attract more people to notice the NHL, especially the youth hockey player,” Zhou said through an interpreter. “Because there are many Chinese kids that have started learning hockey there, and there is a good population of the people that will develop hockey in China.”

When Chris Pronger famously plastered Justin Bieber into the boards during a celebrity game at NHL All-Star Weekend in January, not only was Zhou playing goal but an ORG Packaging patch was on players’ jerseys. Talking about spreading the “gospel” of hockey, Leonsis called Zhou “the greatest evangelist.”

Zhou can’t do it alone, and NHL integration in China is also connected to the 2022 Olympics. After NHL players participated in the past six Olympics, there’s pessimism about the league going to Pyeongchang next year. Discussions about Beijing will happen later.

By then, the league should know if the experiment is working.

“If we can get in on the ground floor, help them with that (and) bring our expertise,” deputy commissioner Bill Daly said. “You can’t argue with the population or the economy, so if we’re able to do that it could be a great opportunity for us.”

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