Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Assertiveness makes Johansson Capitals' X-factor

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz's most important piece of advice to forward Marcus Johansson was simple.

Shoot the puck more.

It worked. Johansson set NHL career highs in goals (20) and points (47) this season.

"I've always kind of been a 'pass first' guy but I think shooting more, that creates more room for myself," Johansson said. "It's been fun. Scoring is fun and I don't mind doing it."

Coming off last season season when he scored eight goals, two at even strength, Johansson was frustrated but Trotz knew he could help.

"One of the things I thought with Marcus is he needed to shoot more," Trotz said. "I thought Marcus had more to give in his game. He's a tremendously talented, very, very bright player."

As a result, Johansson's confidence skyrocketed. He was tougher to play against and harder to knock off the puck, in addition to being a scoring threat at even strength and on the Capitals power play. During the Eastern Conference First Round against the New York Islanders, Johansson was held to three points in the seven-game series but established his physical presence in a big way.

In Games 5 and 7, Johansson had four hits. That isn't something he would have done last season and he is expected to continue that against the New York Rangers in the second round, just like everyone else.

"One of the lines that we always use is 'hit or be hit' right at the beginning of the game," said defenseman Karl Alzner. "That gets you into the game. When you're throwing your weight around, you just feel like you're more connected. It's great to see a guy like Marcus decking guys. We all play a little different in the playoffs and you don't get to see a whole lot of that during the regular season from some guys. I think it's amazing to see what else a lot of guys have."

With Rangers defensemen Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi keying in on Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, Johansson has the benefit of being able to fly under the radar. He can lead rushes into the offensive zone and can set up slick passes and behind-the net plays, all things the Capitals can use to succeed against a tough Rangers team.

Selected No. 24 in the 2009 NHL Draft, the 24-year old has an aura of a much older player. Johansson is in his fifth season with the Capitals and appearing in the fourth Stanley Cup Playoffs of his career. And Trotz thinks Johansson's goal-scoring renaissance is the beginning of things to come.

"I wanted him to play with a little more fire in his game and shoot more and he has," Trotz said. "He's seeing the dividends of it. Sometimes players plateau at a certain level and we talked about pushing him to the next level. He's just entering the prime of his career. Marcus just bought in and he's been really good -- a gritty, smart, [highly]-skilled, productive player for us, which is exactly what I thought he could be."

Matchups make Vanek Wild's X-factor vs. Blackhawks

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- The Minnesota Wild and Chicago Blackhawks are not strangers when it comes to Stanley Cup Playoff hockey.

For the third consecutive season the Central Division rivals will play in the postseason, with their matchup coming in the Western Conference Second Round for the second consecutive year. Game 1 will be Friday (9:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, TVA Sports) at United Center in Chicago.

Over the course of those series little has changed with Chicago. Captain Jonathan Toews and forward Patrick Kane remain among the best players in the NHL. Forwards Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp and Brandon Saad play terrific support roles up front. Defensemen Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook log big minutes on the back end.

But for the first time the Wild feels it has the depth to compete with the Blackhawks, especially up front.

The Toews line typically has gone against Zach Parise's line and generally they have neutralized each other. This time the Wild's second line, centered by Mikko Koivu, may be in charge of shadowing Kane's line group.

That leaves Minnesota's third line, led by veteran forward Thomas Vanek, with an opportunity to be a major difference-maker in the series.

"There's going to be more chances," Vanek said. "I think against St. Louis the focus for our line wasn't to be creative; we needed to be good defensively. We played a lot against the [Jori] Lehtera, [Paul] Stastny lines and make it hard on them.

"Chicago is different. They have four lines that can score and they can create. I think creating is going to be more of a premium this round."

Creating is what Vanek has done a solid job of most of the season. While his goal-scoring has been down, Vanek has done a good job of trying to get his linemates more involved in the offense. His center for much of the second half of the season, Charlie Coyle, had his best offensive season as a pro with 11 goals and 24 assists.

"I thought Charlie and I were, for the most part, pretty solid [against St. Louis]," Vanek said. "I don't think we got the bounces to score a big goal. But overall I thought our line played a good role. Sometimes you don't get the points and you think the series wasn't great. But overall the lines we were matched up against we did a pretty good job."

Coyle scored the final goal of a 4-1 win in St. Louis in Game 5 on a play where Vanek won a puck battle and passed it to Coyle in the slot. Vanek and Coyle had the assists on Marco Scandella's goal in Game 2.

Wild coach Mike Yeo said he feels Vanek could be a much bigger factor against the Blackhawks.

"He played well against them this year," Yeo said. "As I look at the video, he was a factor offensively and that's what we’re going to need from him again. It might be a different guy every night and there's some tough matchups, for sure. But we think that he's a guy, we think that line is a line, that could factor in for us here."

Blues players, management bracing for change

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- It's a question the St. Louis Blues were hoping to avoid after past Stanley Cup Playoff failures but one that became unavoidable following another defeat in the Western Conference First Round.

What's next?

That's the lingering question the Blues can't seem to shake following a third straight defeat in the first round, this one against the Minnesota Wild, who will face the Chicago Blackhawks in the second round.

According to players, they expect personnel change, which made saying goodbye tougher.

"More saying goodbye to everybody when you know that there's guys that won't be here next year in the locker room," defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. "You just kind of have to deal with that harsh reality that things are going to change. It's never easy to really to deal with that."

The Blues have had a core group in place for four straight playoff seasons and one series victory. General manager Doug Armstrong said after last season's first-round loss to the Blackhawks that it was a missed opportunity but one that included keeping the core group together to see if it can elevate its play.

But another first-round defeat was not what Armstrong had in mind, which raises the question of what will happen to forwards T.J. Oshie, David Backes, Alexander Steen and Patrik Berglund, and defenseman Barret Jackman, the Blues' first-round pick (No. 17) in the 1999 NHL Draft and the longest-tenured athlete in St. Louis.

"I'm sure [Armstrong's] going to sit down and look at every individual from top to bottom," said Jackman, who will be an unrestricted free agent in July. "He's the one that makes the decisions. He's got a good group around him to help him out, but [Armstrong's] going to make changes where he sees fit, and I'm sure there will be quite a few of them."

Coach Ken Hitchcock said Tuesday he needs time to think about his situation. The 63-year-old had a one-year contract that ran through this season. Armstrong, who signed centers Paul Stastny and Jori Lehtera during free agency and traded for defenseman Carl Gunnarsson last year, said he will take his time to go over every possible avenue when it comes to the proper decisions.

"We're not naive of the fact that we let the fans down this year with our postseason play," Armstrong said. "It's something we need to find a way to address, we need to find a way to overcome. The job of the general manager in this situation is to evaluate the hockey operation area in every aspect from scouting, to management, to players, to coaching, to trainers. That's what I'm going to do over the next little while. I'm not going to give a definite timeline on any decisions I will make moving forward. It's a raw time right now I think for everyone in the organization. It's a very raw time for myself right now."

The Blues' core is a young and talented group that includes Shattenkirk, defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, forwards Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz, and goalie Jake Allen. But it hasn't provided the necessary results in the playoffs. That's what Armstrong said needs to change but not at the price of tearing down what's in place.

Steen, Backes, Stastny and defenseman Jay Bouwmeester are among the players with no-trade clauses.

"I think we win as a team, we lose as a team. But the reality is, there's been a number of us, myself included, that have been here through the disappointments," Armstrong said. "We entered a window four years ago and the window doesn't stay open forever. I don't want to diminish the work that Ken and the players do in the regular season. It does bring the people into the building, they're excited, they go home happy. It's a great group to be around. But we're not getting it done at that time of year, and I think that group you just said bears the responsibility, but no more than I bear it and no more than Ken bears it. But they're the leaders. They have to bear the equal responsibility at a minimum to what the rest of us bear.

"... I'm not afraid to make changes if I think it will help the team. But I don't really want to orchestrate an option to the owner to get rid of nine or 10 guys and bring in draft picks. That's an option, I've seen teams do that. ... I'm a steward for the franchise and I'm going to take the direction from ownership, but my recommendation is going to be let's live to fight another day. Let's go back to work, let's prop this group up, let's find out what's holding us back, let's attack it."

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Moved to top line, St. Louis is Rangers' X-factor

GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- It's not new to see New York Rangers right wing Martin St. Louis stay on the ice after practice longer than any of his teammates, as he did Monday and Tuesday. He's built a potential Hall of Fame resume by constantly working on his game, shooting puck after puck after puck to hone his best skill.

This week, though, St. Louis has taken a single-minded approach to the extra work he's putting in before and after practice in preparation for the Eastern Conference Second Round series against the Washington Capitals, which begins Thursday at Madison Square Garden (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports).

"I have to do more," St. Louis said after practice Tuesday. "I'm hoping to have more of an impact on this series than I did in the first round."

If he can it would certainly improve the Rangers' chances of moving on to the Eastern Conference Final for a second straight year.

Rangers coach Alain Vigneault is putting St. Louis in position to deliver.

With Mats Zuccarello expected to be out for at least Game 1 because of an upper-body injury, St. Louis will start the series against Washington on New York's first line with Rick Nash and Derick Brassard. He played late in the regular season and throughout the first round against the Pittsburgh Penguins on the third line with Kevin Hayes and Carl Hagelin.

It's not often a team can promote a former Hart Trophy winner and two-time Art Ross Trophy winner from its third line to its first line, but St. Louis, who turns 40 on June 18, hasn't been playing like an MVP and scoring champ of late.

St. Louis' only point in New York's five-game series win against the Penguins was an assist on Hayes' overtime winner in Game 4. He otherwise was held off the scoresheet and limited to 10 shots on goal, including six in Game 5, which was by far his best game.

He has three goals on 39 shots in his past 21 games.

"I liked that line of him, Hayes and Hagelin, but with [Zuccarello] being out we've got to put players in different spots, and he's probably most suited as far as offensively gifted to play with [Brassard] and Rick Nash," Vigneault said. "He has played with them prior, during the season, and he's very demanding on himself. That's what I want. At this time of the year, you want players who want to do more. You need that to win hockey games."

St. Louis clearly wants to do more. He said it starts with what he does, not what his linemates do for him.

"I've gotta create more for my linemates, more for myself," St. Louis said. "My play with the puck has to be better. I have to help offensively to generate. I don't think I did enough of that in round one."

St. Louis' game is built on getting open and shooting the puck, especially with his one-timer from the right circle. He has scored 391 goals and has 1,033 points in 1,134 regular-season games by playing that way. He has 84 points in 93 career Stanley Cup Playoff games.

But he didn't get open enough against the Penguins and rarely had a chance to unleash his heavy one-timer because he wasn't winning enough puck battles along the walls or doing enough without the puck to create the room he needs in the right circle.

There wasn't anything vintage about St. Louis' performance against the Penguins, and in some ways it was a carryover from his regular season, when he produced 52 points, his lowest output when playing more than 70 games since 2000-01.

"It's the second round of the playoffs, you want to move on, you've gotta elevate your game," St. Louis said. "You've gotta be better than in the first round."

To do that he'll have to find some open space against Washington. That won't be easy, but it can be done.

"He drives hard to the net and he's always got his stick available," Nash said. "He's a player that is always loaded to shoot, and you can always use that to your advantage."

The good news is that St. Louis won't have to work to develop chemistry with Nash and Brassard; he played with them for long stretches during the regular season, especially when Zuccarello was struggling.

Vigneault and the Rangers just have to hope it comes back quickly, and that it brings out St. Louis' scoring touch. They need it. He has to do more.

"They're great players, and hopefully I can feed off of their chemistry and what they've got going, try to add what I do, what I can do," St. Louis said. "Everybody wants to help the team, and I feel I can play better. I'm hoping my best hockey is in front of me."


Rangers brace for new-look, more physical Capitals

GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- The rivalry between the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals is real. There is no denying that.

It's a rivalry built from four meetings in the Stanley Cup Playoffs in a span of five years from 2009-13. It's a rivalry built from three seven-game series, from comebacks and from six postseason overtime games, including one that went three extra periods.

But it's also a rivalry that likely will take on a different look in the 2015 Eastern Conference Second Round, which begins with Game 1 on Thursday at Madison Square Garden (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports).

The Rangers and Capitals have undergone drastic changes in personnel and style since they played in the 2013 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals.

"I can't see it resembling anything from two years ago," Rangers left wing Rick Nash said. "New coaches, new systems, and the game evolves in two years."

Two years ago, when the Rangers came back to win the series by winning Games 6 and 7 by a combined 6-0, New York was coached by John Tortorella and Washington was coached by Adam Oates. Tortorella is out of the League, and Oates is co-coach with the New Jersey Devils.

Rangers coach Alain Vigneault and Capitals coach Barry Trotz have gone against each other once in the playoffs, but never as part of a New York-Washington series. Vigneault led the Vancouver Canucks to a 4-2 series win against Trotz and the Nashville Predators in 2011.

The Rangers have 10 players remaining from the team that played Washington in 2013.

The Capitals have 13, but they have changed their style in a massive way under Trotz. They are still able to outscore teams with the likes of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Mike Green, but they are far more physical and deeper on defense under Trotz than they were under Oates, Dale Hunter or Bruce Boudreau.

Adding Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen, as well as Tim Gleason, has changed the look of Washington's defense. It's as punishing as it is mobile, as the New York Islanders found out, particularly in Game 7 on Monday, when the Capitals limited them to 11 shots on goal.

"You look at their six defensemen and they've changed there," Rangers center Derek Stepan said. "They signed Niskanen and Orpik, and those guys have really helped them. Their defensemen are real big and real strong, and they're going to make sure they make our lives difficult."

The Rangers expect a physical series such as the one the Capitals just finished against the Islanders. The Capitals knocked two Islanders defensemen out of the series because of their physicality.

"I know they're a physical team, and that's going to be expected, but you're in the second round of the playoffs, you should expect some physicality," Rangers right wing Martin St. Louis said. "It's not going to be any different from what a second round [series] should look like."

The Rangers aren't worried about matching the Capitals' physicality, but they'd prefer to counter it by playing fast, which is a staple of their system under Vigneault. That's how they're different from when they played under Tortorella, whose system was geared toward the Rangers protecting the front of their own net instead of attacking the opposition's.

Vigneault's version of the Rangers generates speed out of the defensive zone either with quick D-to-D passes that open room in the middle of the ice or with a stretch pass to a streaking forward.

New York scored two of its goals in the first round because it caught the Pittsburgh Penguins in slow line changes. The Rangers got a goal from center Derick Brassard 28 seconds into the first period of Game 1 because the Penguins were on their heels and mesmerized by New York's speed.

"We have to manage the puck well so they don't get to use their size as much," St. Louis said.

The Rangers did that for the most part against the Penguins and they won the series in five games. They don't expect too much to change against Washington other than the fact that the Capitals are deeper on the back end than the Penguins and have an elite power play.

Washington was 15.4 percent (2-for-13) on the power play in the first round, but it had the No. 1 power play in the NHL in the regular season at 25.3 percent (60-for-237). Ovechkin scored 25 of his League-best 53 goals on the power play, including four of the five goals he scored against the Rangers.

"I think they really take care of their D zone really well," New York defenseman Dan Girardi said. "Watching the game [Monday] night a bit, they held the Islanders to 11 shots, so they're really committed to their defense. All their guys are doing that, and they have the firepower up front to make you pay for their mistakes. They're a really complete team, and we're going to have our hands full in this series."


Late surge has Senators feeling good about future

OTTAWA -- The numbness the Ottawa Senators felt after the abrupt end of their remarkable season Sunday had given way to optimism Tuesday.

After a spectacular rally over the last two months of the regular season to earn a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the young Senators were eliminated in the Eastern Conference First Round in six games by the Montreal Canadiens.

The Senators were 14 points out of a playoff spot on Feb. 10, but backed by the emergence of goaltender Andrew Hammond, a 27-year-old undrafted free agent, they finished the season 23-4-4 to earn the first wild card.

Hammond started his NHL career 20-1-2 in the regular season before giving way to veteran Craig Anderson after the Senators lost the first two games against the Canadiens.

The numbness the Ottawa Senators felt after the abrupt end of their remarkable season Sunday had given way to optimism Tuesday. (Photo: Jana Chytilova/NHLI)

"A lot of great things that happened, but it's always tough coming to the rink when other teams are still playing," Hammond said as the players gathered one last time this season for exit and media interviews. "I think in the big picture, there are a lot of things to be proud of for this team and the way we were able to get into the playoffs and the character we showed throughout.

"To be counted out as much as we were, to come back from 14 points down it was obviously what seemed like an insurmountable hill to climb, but just to show up at the rink the way we did and do what we did was a lot of fun to be a part of."

The Senators fell behind the Canadiens 3-0, losing Games 2 and 3 in overtime, before rallying to win Games 4 and 5 on some strong play by Anderson. Canadiens goaltender Carey Price had a 43-save shutout in Game 6 to eliminate the Senators.

The Senators are optimistic for next season given their finish to the regular season, the experience they got in the playoffs and their opportunity for growth; they counted on 13 players 25 years of age or younger.

Two of those key players are captain Erik Karlsson, 24, a finalist for the Norris Trophy as the League's top defenseman, and forward Mark Stone, 22, who finished the regular season with 47 points in 46 games. He's a finalist for the Calder Trophy as top rookie.

"Seeing hockey on TV and realizing that we weren't going to be a part of it anymore, that's still a little disappointing, but definitely some things to build on going forward, for sure," Stone said.

Stone, who was slashed on the right wrist by Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban in Game 1 and suffered a microfracture and ligament damage, turned down an opportunity to play for Canada at the 2015 IIHF World Championship.

Senators defenseman Patrick Wiercioch will play for Canada.

Karlsson, who played through an undisclosed injury, and center Mika Zibanejad, who injured his kneecap in Game 1 against Montreal, turned down invitations to play for Sweden.

Karlsson, who said his injury only requires rest, was impressed with how the Senators handled the challenges of the season, which included dealing with the death of assistant coach Mark Reeds, who died on the eve of the playoffs after battling cancer.

"We've been through a lot and we've had to deal with a lot of things, even off the ice," Karlsson said. "And most importantly I think everyone has grown since the season started, especially since after Christmas, around there when the games became important. We went on the run we did and got where we are right now."

Forward Clarke MacArthur said this season was a unique experience in his career.

"I've never been on a run like that," he said. "That's something years from now I will remember, having that many Game 7s and winning them."

Looking toward next season, MacArthur said the Senators might have taken the biggest step in becoming a Stanley Cup contender.

"I think just knowing what we are as a team is the hardest part and I think we've got that figured out," he said. "Everyone has a good summer and we come back and we get right back on the horse and see what we can do. I think the next two or three years we really have to make a push for it."

The goaltending situation will be interesting. Hammond, who got his chance because of injuries to Anderson and Robin Lehner, will be an unrestricted free agent July 1.

Lehner sustained a concussion Feb. 16 and did not return.

Anderson, who missed 19 games after bruising his right hand Jan. 21, started Game 3 against the Canadiens and gave up four goals in the final four games of the series.

"My only thought is to come here ready to go in training camp," he said. "Be in the best shape I possibly can and earn my ice time. We have good players; that's a good problem to have. It makes everybody better because we have to push each other."

Hammond said he's proved he can play in the League.

"It's something I always believed and now I've played games in the League it's something you feel comfortable and you feel like you can be an asset to a team," he said. "That's all you can really ask for is to have the ability to prove to yourself that you can play."

Predators optimistic about foundation, future

NASHVILLE – The Nashville Predators feel this season was the first step in what could be the start of something special.

Nashville lost in six games to the Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference First Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs but believes the experience gained by its young core of players will lead to a bright future. The Predators (47-25-10) finished second in the Central Division, made the playoffs after missing it the previous two seasons and have a foundation to build on for next season.

"Through the year and along the way, I think we did a lot of good things," Predators coach Peter Laviolette said. "Certainly our regular season, we finished sixth overall in the National Hockey League. Inside of that, there's always highs and lows, but if you look at it and package it into an 82-game season, certainly that's an accomplishment."

Nashville got off to a fast start and was atop the NHL standings 60 games into the season. The final 21 games didn't go as smoothly. The Predators finished 6-12-3 in their final 21 games but didn't feel like they were playing bad hockey.

"At one point, two-thirds of the way through the year, we were maybe six or seven points in front of everybody in the League," Laviolette said. "I don't think that the last 20 games was a complete reflection of our team not playing well.

"There were certainly some games where sometimes I've seen and I've experienced, and I look around to other teams who are out in front and not playing some games maybe as they should've or as they had in the past in order to be successful. Of the 11 or 12 games that we lost in regulation, when we played and went to a shootout and went to a breakaway skill, I like the way we played. We lost the breakaway skill."

The Predators have a lot to look forward to next season. They have a young, talented defense led by Shea Weber and Roman Josi. Seth Jones is 20 years old, and Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis had career seasons. There is a lot of anticipation in the Predators locker room about what's to come.

"A lot of excitement," forward James Neal said. "We've got a really good group of guys here. Everyone bought in and you obviously saw what we did throughout the year so it's going to be a fun group going forward."

Perhaps the most encouraging sign of Nashville's future is the play of rookie forward Filip Forsberg. He led the Predators with 26 goals and 63 points in the regular season and was their top point producer in the playoffs.

Forsberg is 20 years old and already one of the most dynamic forwards the Predators have ever had. The players are excited about his potential over the next few seasons.

"It's really limitless," Weber said. "You see the talent level. It's ridiculous. Some of the things he does in practice, you're like 'Wow, I could never even think about doing stuff like that.' And he's just like naturally that good to be that young. Same with a lot of guys on our team that are young and good. It's exciting to think what they're going to be able to do in a few more years."

Re-signing center Mike Ribeiro, who will be an unrestricted free agent, will be one of the main priorities for Nashville in the offseason. Ribeiro finished second on the Predators in scoring with 62 points and his 47 assists were 13th in the League. Ribeiro was also a big part of Forsberg's breakout year and Forsberg would like to play with Ribeiro again next season.

"It would be huge," Forsberg said. "He's had a huge part in my success and especially in the team success. To get him back in the lineup for next year would be awesome. I really hope we can get that done."

Center Mike Fisher will also be an unrestricted free agent and said that he wants to remain with the Predators.

"That's the hope for sure," Fisher said. "I love the city and being here, part of this group. It's something that'll have to be worked out here in the next little bit, but I'm pretty confident that something will get done and that I'll be back."

Predators general manager David Poile acquired defenseman Cody Franson and forward Mike Santorelli from the Toronto Maple Leafs prior to the NHL Trade Deadline. The Predators were the best team in the League at the time of the trade but fell off soon after. Poile said he wished the trade would have worked out a little better.

"I think to be very honest, the fact that Franson was a right-handed shot and the lefty-righty all year was working really good for us," Poile said. "The righty-righty thing, not making an excuse, but it wasn't the perfect situation for Franson or for us.

"I think when Shea went down and Franson got in there, and then he got to play in a lefty-righty situation, I think he played a lot better. Our defense was very good this year, and I think in the playoffs he played better than he did maybe sometimes in the regular season. It wasn't a perfect fit to be very honest."

Rutherford sees Penguins headed in right direction

PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford doesn't expect sweeping organizational changes this offseason.

Rutherford said Tuesday he was never concerned with his job status following his first season in Pittsburgh. After replacing Ray Shero last June, Rutherford said he planned on remaining the general manager for a few seasons while younger candidates were groomed.

He now does not have a definite timeline for his stay in Pittsburgh.

"We went through periods of time that were difficult. But it's part of my job," Rutherford said. "But overall, I haven't been here a full year yet and I do have a better lay of the land as to how things work here now. I have a much better handle on the team. How long do I plan on staying here? I don't know.

"But I certainly plan on staying here as we speak, and going into next season."

Mike Johnston's job also seems to be safe. Rutherford was complimentary of the first-year coach's performance amid adversity.

Pittsburgh got off to a quick 22-6-5 start, leading the Metropolitan Division by three points over the New York Islanders on Dec. 23. The Penguins struggled through the second half of the season, clinching a Stanley Cup Playoff berth with a 2-0 win against the Buffalo Sabres on the final day, but Rutherford does not think that was indicative of Johnston's performance.

"I think Mike did a really good job," Rutherford said. "He had really good communication with the players. And based on my meeting with the players [Monday], I had that confirmed. I like to have exit meetings with the players separate from the coach, so if they want to say something, they're comfortable saying it. And I feel very comfortable that we were going in the right direction.

"Mike's getting used to these players and how they work. And he's dealing with superstar players and things like that. But overall, he made adjustments when necessary. He dealt with tough situations at times … I think, overall, Mike and the staff did a pretty good job."

At the 2015 NHL Trade Deadline, Rutherford believed the Penguins were a Stanley Cup contender and felt the acquisitions of defensemen Ben Lovejoy and Ian Cole helped in the short term. Injuries to defensemen Kris Letang and Christian Ehrhoff led to increased minutes and proved detrimental to the blue line, Rutherford said.

Pittsburgh dealt with several significant injuries throughout the season. Forward Evgeni Malkin played on a sprained ankle and forward Patric Hornqvist had a broken rib during the playoffs, Rutherford announced.

But Rutherford admitted some problems were not injury-related. He would have liked the Penguins power play, which fell off drastically after converting at over 40 percent to start the season, to shoot the puck more.

Pittsburgh's top power-play unit includes, when healthy, Sidney Crosby, Chris Kunitz, Malkin, Hornqvist and Letang. Rutherford said there is only so much coaching a staff can do until it is on the players to execute the message.

"I think both the coaching staff and the players have to take some of that responsibility," Rutherford said. "I mean, it's like all of us, we don't get 100 percent of the things right. But overall, I'm saying Mike did a good job. But yeah, some of that responsibility falls back on the coaches and the players.

"You can only tell them so many times, and show them so many times, how other power plays are working until the players need to do that. We have two of the best players in the game, and I believe our defenseman in Letang should be in the voting for the Norris. … So we have the players who can do it."

Because of the talent on their power play, Rutherford said he thinks the Penguins attempt to make a perfect play too often. He believes they should put more pucks toward the net in order to create more rebounds and scoring chances.

Rutherford said he was not pleased with Pittsburgh's lack of discipline, but thought the coaching staff did all it could to diffuse that tendency.

"There was a long period of time, and I think we got better at this in the last month when Mike clamped down on the discipline, but this team wasn't a real disciplined team at times," Rutherford said. "Whether it was taking penalties at the wrong time, or too many penalties in a game or talking back to the officials, and things like that. I think when Mike really clamped down on it with about a month left in the season, our players responded to it. They were much more disciplined.

"That's something we have to be much, much better at next season."

A glaring issue that affected Pittsburgh late in the season and into its Eastern Conference First Round Series against the New York Rangers was the lack of support Crosby and Malkin were given from their wings. Hornqvist played well, scoring two goals and three points in five games, and Kunitz had an impressive Game 2, but they were the exceptions.

Rutherford said a primary goal is to acquire at least one top-six wing during the offseason.

"I do believe we have to continue to look for these players," Rutherford said. "Hornqvist is one. Whether it's with [Crosby] or [Malkin], he's a guy who can help those players. But to try to get a little more skill, and maybe get one or two more wingers that are more complementary of those players, is something that's been a goal of this franchise for a while. And continues to be.

"We will start looking and see what's out there, trade-wise. I think it's going to be more apt to be in a trade than it will be in free agency. But I'm well aware that's something we have to continue to look for and that's what we'll do."

Five reasons Capitals advanced to second round

The Washington Capitals' capability to rebound from losses during the regular season served them well in the Eastern Conference First Round. The Capitals won every game following a loss during their best-of-7 series against the New York Islanders, which Washington won in seven games.

And for the first time since 2012, the Capitals advanced to the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, where they'll play the President's Trophy-winning New York Rangers.

Here are five reasons why the Capitals advanced:

1. Braden Holtby -- Holtby played 73 games and had 41 wins during the regular season. In the playoffs, he's been just as consistent with a 1.63 goals-against average and .943 save percentage in six games. All but two games against the Islanders were decided by more than two goals. Washington won three of the four games that were decided by one goal, a testament to the reliable goaltending at each end of the rink.

"To me it's very important, knowing that you've got a guy back there who's been doing what he's done over the whole year," Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. "If you look at some of the great influences of the guys who have played 70-plus games, they've gone pretty far in the playoffs. They're used to being 'the guy' and not always having a big game. They know that they've got to do it night in and night out. I think that's where having him play so many games is really going to help us."

2. Evgeny Kuznetsov -- Kuznetsov has three goals and four points in seven playoff games, including the game-winner in Game 7. His two-goal performance in Game 5 propelled Washington to a 5-1 victory and a 3-2 series lead. He was the second player in Capitals history to score his first three playoff points in the same game since Sergei Gonchar on May 6, 1995. Kuznetsov transitioned from wing to center in his first full NHL season and hasn't looked back.

"[Kuznetsov] is growing," Trotz said. "He's gotten used to the League. The first 40 games it was little bit of a mishmash of up, down, and not knowing the League quite as well, maybe not as comfortable in his role. Then you sort of get through there, and there's always a glass ceiling for young players. I think he got through that and you're seeing what he's capable of, and he's a terrific player."

3. Islanders depleted defense -- The absence of defensemen Travis Hamonic for the duration of the series, and the loss of Lubomir Visnovsky and Calvin de Haan for part of the series, forced the Islanders to rely on young, untested defensemen Matt Donovan and Scott Mayfield. No Islanders defensemen scored a goal during the series and New York's once stifling forecheck was neutralized by Washington. Sheltering the green defensemen meant even bigger minutes for the Islanders' top pairing of Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk. By the end of the series, Boychuk and Leddy were spent.

"We really felt like we were getting to them," forward Tom Wilson said after Game 2. "We were getting them on the forecheck, we were hitting their 'D,' we were making their lives difficult, and that's what it takes in the playoffs. We didn't score right away, we weren't up right away, we just had to keep pounding the rock and staying on them, and it pays off in the long run."

4. Penalty kill -- Washington's penalty kill was perfect in killing off all 14 Islanders power-play chances and is the only playoff team with a 100 percent penalty kill rate. New York was held without a shot on its power plays in Games 6 and 7. Holtby was indisputably Washington's best penalty killer, making 21 saves through seven games while shorthanded.

"You just do the best you can to get in a shot lane," forward Jay Beagle said. "We've got a great coach who goes through our [penalty kill] in depth a lot with us. Everyone knows their job. Lane [Lambert] does a great job of breaking down their [power play] and helping everyone know what to expect, knowing what their habits are. It is everything from winning a draw, which is crucial in the D-zone, to sticking to what we've worked on all year."

5. Secondary scoring -- Forward Alex Ovechkin was held to two even-strength goals, so the Capitals found other ways to score. Defenseman Karl Alzner scored two goals, a career postseason high, and Kuznetsov scored three. Each of Washington's forward lines contributed at least one goal during the series.

"That's playoff time," Trotz said. "You're going to get a goal from someone who hasn't scored a goal all year. It's going to be Karl Alzner or Brooks Orpik or Tim Gleason when you least expect it. That's the beauty of playoffs, is that every night, there might be a new hero, there might be a new set of circumstances that change."

Flames doing their homework to prepare for Ducks

CALGARY -- After his Calgary Flames eliminated the Vancouver Canucks in six games in the Western Conference First Round, coach Bob Hartley took a moment to savor the victory.

Then he went back to work, scouting the Anaheim Ducks, Calgary's second-round opponent.

"We were at the office all day," Hartley said. "There is no time for celebrations for us. We already started our meetings [Monday]. We're going to have meetings until we leave for California. Our job is to prepare our team. They work so hard for us. Our job is to make sure that we dig for details, try to design a plan that will fit our team the best possible way, and after that, they are the performers.

"They've been the performers all year. It's been fun to watch them, to push them and to be around them. We're not going to change."

The early returns on Hartley's work paint a favorable picture for coach Bruce Boudreau's Ducks.

"We have the utmost respect. They are one of the best teams in the NHL, if not the best team when you look at stats," Hartley said. "You ask any expert or any people around the game; here is a team that, we had two white sheets on the walls in our offices that had strengths and weaknesses of the Ducks. We were running out of paper on the strengths side, while the weaknesses side was still a blank piece of paper."

Hartley added, tongue firmly planted in cheek: "To be honest, I don't even know why we're going there, but we'll do our best."

At 109 points, the Ducks finished first in the Pacific Division and Western Conference, six wins and 12 points up on the Flames. Anaheim also had a League-best 12 wins when trailing after two periods; the Flames were third with 10 victories when facing a deficit heading into the third.

The Ducks won three of the five regular-season games against Calgary, and one of their two losses came in a shootout. Overall, Anaheim outscored the Flames 21-18.

In moving from Vancouver to the Ducks, Calgary's road to the Stanley Cup doesn't get any smoother.

"We know those guys. Western Conference teams, that's our job to know them," Hartley said. "That's our job to get ready. We had some scouts watching the Ducks in the first round and we've played them so many times that we know them and they know us. There aren't many secrets left in playoff hockey."

With four Olympic gold medals and seven all-star game appearances between the two, there's little surprise the Flames are looking to key in on the duo of Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry.

The pair, one of the NHL's most dangerous duos, combined for 58 goals and 125 points in the regular season and added four goals and 11 points in a first-round sweep of the Winnipeg Jets.

After minimizing the damage of Henrik and Daniel Sedin, who totaled three goals and eight points in their six-game series, Calgary's attention is firmly fixed on trying to contain Getzlaf and Perry.

"We know how good they are," Hartley said. "They are world-class hockey players and world-class athletes. They work very well together. It's a great tandem, whether it's (Patrick) Maroon or (Matt) Beleskey who will be playing left wing with them. They're a very dangerous line. They're a very dangerous team."

But Hartley's homework suggests there's plenty more to worry about.

"As much respect as we have for Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, they're a team that throws four lines and six defensemen at you," Hartley said. "They keep coming and coming and they are a very skilled hockey club."

Monday, April 27, 2015

Capitals advance, will face Rangers in playoffs again

The New York Rangers will either stay close to home to play their biggest rival or face a familiar playoff opponent in the Eastern Conference Second Round of the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The Rangers will open the second round at Madison Square Garden against either the New York Islanders or Washington Capitals. The Rangers are guaranteed to start every playoff series at home because they won the Presidents' Trophy with 113 points.

New York advanced with a five-game, first-round win against the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Rangers won Game 5 2-1 in overtime at home on Friday.

Washington has a 3-2 lead in the best-of-7 series against the Islanders with Game 6 Saturday at Nassau Coliseum (3 p.m. ET; NBC, SN, TVA Sports).

The Rangers haven't faced the Islanders in the playoffs since 1994, when they swept them in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. The Rangers have faced the Capitals in the playoffs four times since 2009; they have won the past two series, each in seven games.

The Capitals defeated the Rangers in the 2009 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, coming back from 3-1 to win in seven games. In 2011, Washington won in five games, including overtime wins in Games 1 and 4.

The Rangers defeated the Capitals in seven games in the 2012 Eastern Conference Semifinals. New York won Game 7 at home, 2-1. New York again defeated Washington in seven games in 2013, winning 5-0 in Game 7 at Verizon Center.

Ten Rangers from the 2013 series are on this team. Only goalie Henrik Lundqvist and defensemen Marc Staal and Dan Girardi remain from the loss to the Capitals in 2009.

New York won three of four games against Washington this season, including 4-2 at Verizon Center on April 11 in the regular-season finale. The Rangers defeated the Capitals 3-1 at Verizon Center on March 11, and lost 5-2 at Madison Square Garden on March 29.

Centers Derick Brassard and Kevin Hayes led New York with five points against Washington. Left wing Rick Nash scored three of his Rangers-high 42 goals against the Capitals; he played in three of the four games.

Lundqvist allowed four goals in two wins against Washington, with a .929 save percentage and 2.00 goals-against average. The Rangers outscored the Capitals 7-2 in the first period.

The one issue the Rangers had against the Capitals was on the penalty kill, but almost every team that played them struggled. Washington was 4-for-13 (30.8 percent) on the power play.

Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin scored all of Washington's power-play goals and had five total.

The Rangers played the Islanders eight times in the playoffs from 1975-94; the Islanders won five of the series. Four times the winner of a Rangers-Islanders series has won the Stanley Cup, including three in a row for the Islanders from 1981-83.

The Rangers defeated the Islanders in 1994 before winning the Stanley Cup.

The Islanders had the edge on the Rangers early in this five-game regular-season series, winning the first three games by a combined 13-4. The Rangers responded by defeating the Islanders twice at Nassau Coliseum, 6-5 on Feb. 16 and 2-1 on March 10, with goalie Cam Talbot. Lundqvist started the first three games and was pulled early in a 3-0 loss on Jan. 13 at Madison Square Garden.

Lundqvist was 0-3-0 with an .866 save percentage and 4.88 goals-against average against the Islanders in the regular season.

Nash had three goals and four points in five games. Brassard, Chris Kreider, Martin St. Louis and Derek Stepan each had three points.


Canucks feel aging core can still compete

VANCOUVERVancouver Canucks captain Henrik Sedin was the first to admit he isn’t getting any younger, but after an early exit from the Stanley Cup Playoffs he expects Vancouver is going to.

Facing questions about an aging core that is 3-12 in the playoffs since reaching Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final in 2011, Henrik and Daniel Sedin stressed the importance of a continued influx of youth next season. But neither was ready to entertain a rebuild, not after bouncing back from missing the playoffs last year to finish second in the Pacific Division this season.

"We have no plans of getting any worse," Henrik said. "We’re not young anymore but we showed this year we can still be a big part, we can be productive and I don’t see that changing in the next couple of years. With the young guys coming up I think they are going to give us a chance to win in the next couple of years."

Daniel and Henrik turn 35 shortly before next season starts, the elder statesmen of nine players left over from a 2011 playoff run that ended with a Game 7 loss to the Boston Bruins in the Finals.

"We’re not getting younger but we can still play and we showed that this year, all the guys that have been here a long time," Daniel said.

That list includes linemate Alexandre Burrows, who turned 34 earlier this month, and veteran defensemen Kevin Bieksa, who turns 34 this summer, and Dan Hamhuis, 32. Forward Chris Higgins will be 32 this summer, and the youngest holdovers from the 2011 run, forward Jannik Hansen and defenseman Alexander Edler, will both be 30 before the end of next season.

Like the Sedin’s, most of the veteran forwards bounced back after struggling under coach John Tortorella last season. After finishing with their lowest point totals in a decade, the Sedin’s were rejuvenated under new coach Willie Desjardins, with Daniel finishing ninth in NHL scoring with 76 points and Henrik 13th with 73.

"We took a step in the right direction this year from last year." Henrik said. "It’s a small step but it’s a good step."

The Canucks took a step back in the playoffs, however.

The offense dried up again, and losing in six games to the Calgary Flames has some wondering if Tortorella was right when he called the core “old" and "stale” before being fired last summer.

Vancouver only scored four goals in its first three losses to Calgary, and then blew an early 3-0 lead and a 4-3 advantage in the third period of a season-ending 7-4 loss in Game 6 on Saturday.

Instead of preparing to host Game 7 on Monday, Canucks players cleaned out their lockers, met with management and answered questions about whether the incumbents are still good enough.

"This core is still capable of big things," Bieksa said. "If you don’t win the Stanley Cup you are going to get those questions every year. What is the winning formula? Until you win the Cup who knows what it is. All I know is this core gives us a good chance to win it every single year. … We got younger this year, we had guys like Bo [Horvat] step in with big roles and I’m sure next year there will be a couple other guys stepping up too. I still believe in this core."

Bieksa wasn’t the only one to point to Bo Horvat, a rookie center who turned 20 late in the season, as an example of getting younger and better at the same time. After proving himself defensively in the first half, Horvat scored 10 of his 13 goals and 16 of 24 points after the All-Star Break, and tied for the playoff lead with four points.

"It’s the first time since we came in that I felt excitement with young guys and the prospects," Henrik said. "You could tell this year what the younger guys meant to this team and the excitement they bring. You can bring up those guys and still have expectations of 101 points. I don’t see that drop off if they are good enough to play."

Not that every prospect will be ready as fast as Horvat, who was selected ninth in the 2013 NHL Draft with a pick the Canucks got in a trade that sent goaltender Cory Schneider to the New Jersey Devils.

Vancouver also has forward Jake Virtanen, who was picked sixth in the 2014 draft after they finished 25th in the NHL last season, but the rest of their prospects are from deeper in the draft. And as long as they keep making the playoffs, there won’t be any more top-10 picks like Horvat in the system anytime soon.

"I don’t think you have to rebuild anymore," Bieksa said.

Vancouver also has to find room on the roster for younger players.

All nine holdovers from 2011 all have no-trade clauses in their contracts. New general manager Jim Benning convinced defenseman Jason Garrison to waive his no-trade clause last summer, but neither Bieksa or Hamhuis, who each have one more season remaining on their current contracts, expressed interest in doing the same, making it hard to change a defense that looked slow against Calgary.

Among the forwards, left wing Shawn Matthias appears poised to test the market as an unrestricted free agent after a career-high 18 goals this season. Center Brad Richardson, who needs surgery to repair ligament and tendon damage around a fractured ankle that kept him out of 37 of the final 39 regular-season games and Game 4 of the playoffs, could also depart as a free agent.

Burrows, who missed the final three games against the Flames with "fractured and dislocated rib cartilage", said the remaining veterans are going to be just as important off the ice if the team keeps getting younger.

"We have to mentor the young guys, show them how to approach the game," he said. “That goes a long way too."

The Canucks hope it will be further into the playoffs than the current group has been able to take them for the past four seasons.

Built for playoffs, Ferland is Flames' X-factor

CALGARY -- A sign in Calgary's inner-city tells all that's needed about the impact forward Micheal Ferland has had on the Calgary Flames in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

'Sorry Nenshi, Ferland for mayor.'

Elected in 2010, Naheed Nenshi is the city of Calgary's current mayor, was the first Canadian voted 'World Mayor' prize in 2014 by the City Mayors Foundation and was ranked the second most-important person in Canada by MacLean's magazine.

Making his playoff debut this month, Ferland has quickly become a cult hero in Calgary after delivering 40 hits and scoring two goals and four points in helping eliminate the Vancouver Canucks in six games in the Western Conference First Round.

He's become the most popular man in Calgary.

"That's pretty funny. [Coach Bob Hartley] told me this morning about the mayor sign. He thought it was pretty hilarious," said Ferland, who said he has no plans to challenge Nenshi for office. "It all just seems so surreal. It's all coming at me so fast. I'm just taking it day-by-day. I'm just having a lot of fun right now. It's a good experience.

"It's awesome. I don't even know what to say about that. I'm just grateful for the opportunity. I'm having a lot of fun right now where I am, in my hockey career and my life. It's the way I've wanted it to be, for sure."

Ferland has stepped into the vacancy created by an upper-body injury to forward Lance Bouma, an opportunity that has allowed Ferland to emerge as a full-time and starring role on the Flames.

He hasn't disappointed.

"I remember talking with [general manager Brad Treliving] many months ago, prior to the trade deadline, and we both agreed that we had to make a spot for Ferland," Hartley said. "I felt that he still has a lot to learn, but he brings so much to the game.

"Look at his speed, look at his size, look at the way that he understands the game. Defensively, he is very responsible. His hockey sense is unbelievable. He has a great shot and he will be a big time player for us. He will be what you call a power forward. …He is a big of a power forward as you can find in the NHL right now.

Ferland spent six games playing a major role in establishing Calgary's forecheck, one of the biggest reasons the Flames were able to eliminate the Canucks and advance to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2004 and the second time since winning the Stanley Cup in 1989.

The 6-foot-2, 215-pound Ferland had two goals, Calgary's first and last, in a 7-4 come-from-behind victory in Game 6 to clinch the series.

The physical effort and offensive results aren't lost on teammates.

"He was a huge reason for our success," Flames forward Brandon Bollig said. "I don't know if he would've expected that. Playing his game the way he did, if he keeps playing like that, that's a guy who's built for the playoffs. We do need him to keep playing that way.

"He was huge for us that series and played out of his mind for us. I don't think [Ferland] is going to change his game by any means. He's going to continue to be big for us."

Those are big expectations for a player that skated in 26 regular-season games for the Flames in his second full season of pro hockey.

The job doesn't get any easier, either. After facing Henrik Sedin and Daniel Sedin in a shutdown role with veterans Matt Stajan and David Jones, Ferland could find himself going head-to-head with the bigger, more physical duo of Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry of the Anaheim Ducks. But he's up for the challenge.

"We've just got to take it one game at a time, just be physical on them," Ferland said. "They're going to be physical on us. They're a big, strong team. They're a very skilled team but we've got to take it one game at a time.

"The biggest thing is to try to wear them down. Henrik and Daniel, they're such good players it's hard to even get to those guys. I'm going to go after every guy I can and finish all my checks. At the back end, they've got a few guys. I'm just going to be going after everyone."

Except Calgary's mayor.

Wild get another crack at knocking off Blackhawks

The Minnesota Wild will hope the third time is the charm against the Chicago Blackhawks.

Rivals in the Central Division, this will be the third consecutive year in which the Wild and Blackhawks face each other in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The Wild were the first team the Blackhawks dispatched en route to winning the Stanley Cup in 2013, needing five games to eliminate them in the first round. In 2014 the Wild were fresh off their first series win in more than a decade, culminating in a Game 7 overtime victory against the Colorado Avalanche, when the Blackhawks sent them packing with an OT win of their own to wrap up the series in six.

Now, with the Wild coming off an upset of the Central Division champion St. Louis Blues and the Blackhawks also eliminating a higher seed in the Nashville Predators, each in six games, they're set to do battle again in the Western Conference Second Round.

The biggest difference for Minnesota this time may be the goaltending. The Wild lost starter Niklas Backstrom in warm-ups prior to Game 1 against the Blackhawks two years ago, forcing Josh Harding into the starting role after he played only five regular-season games because of complications resulting from his multiple sclerosis. Last year they relied on veteran Ilya Bryzgalov, who's now out of hockey, after rookie Darcy Kuemper sustained an injury in Game 7 against Colorado.

The Wild now have Devan Dubnyk, a finalist for the Vezina Trophy, who shut out the Blackhawks on Feb. 3 and allowed one goal on April 7 when Minnesota won the final two games of the season series after Chicago won the first three.

The Blackhawks, meanwhile, will turn back to Corey Crawford in Game 1. Crawford was ineffective over the first two games and watched Scott Darling start the final four games against the Predators, but relieved Darling in Game 6 and turned in a shutout performance to help Chicago advance. Crawford had a .948 save percentage in splitting four decisions against the Wild this season.

Wild forward Jason Zucker scored three goals to lead them offensively in the regular-season series while Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane had two goals and eight points.


Look no further than the two biggest names for evidence of the Blackhawks wealth of talent up front.

Jonathan Toews is tied for the scoring lead in the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs with eight points (three goals, five assists), and Kane has seven points (two goals, five assists).

Kane's early return from Feb. 25 surgery to repair his fractured collarbone didn't affect him in the first round. He absorbed a few hits and kept on playing. Among his highlights was setting up a tap-in goal for Kris Versteeg in Game 5 with a spin-o-rama pass, and then pounding a slap shot past goalie Pekka Rinne in Game 6 to tie it 3-3 with six seconds left in the first period.

Patrick Sharp had a strong opening series with three goals and two assists, and he's tied with right wing Marian Hossa for the Chicago lead in shots on goal (24). Hossa hasn't scored, but racked up five assists and dominated play at times.

Forward Bryan Bickell has started to awaken from his regular-season slumber, center Antoine Vermette's faceoff win percentage is back to its usual effectiveness in the mid-50s, and Sharp is looking more comfortable at right wing. Chicago's fourth line won more puck battles starting in Game 3, when center Marcus Kruger was flanked by Andrew Desjardins at left wing and Andrew Shaw on the right.

Rookie Teuvo Teravainen and Joakim Nordstrom are added options, along with Daniel Carcillo (upper-body injury) if he's medically cleared.

Minnesota received a collaborative offensive effort in its Western Conference First Round series victory, managing 17 goals in six games.

Eight players scored at least one goal, but the stars really did their part in helping pull off the upset against the favored St. Louis Blues. Zach Parise led the team in scoring with seven points (three goals), including two goals in a 4-1 victory in Game 6 on Sunday. It was the second straight year Parise came up big in a Game 6 win at home; he scored two goals and had two assists against the Avalanche in the first round last season. Minnesota went on to win the series in Game 7.

Jason Pominville, Mikael Granlund, Nino Niederreiter, and captain Mikko Koivu each had at least three points.

The top line of Granlund between Parise and Pominville did its part in playing well away from the puck. Parise said the Wild were stronger in transition this season and that was certainly the case against the Blues.

The line combined for 17 points. Granlund and Pominville each have five points. Niederreiter, who skated with Koivu and Chris Stewart, had three goals and four points.

Zucker, Kyle Brodziak and Matt Cooke added depth to the bottom six and performed well when called upon. Charlie Coyle centered Vanek and Justin Fontaine. Coyle led the Wild with 16 hits and had a goal and two points. Fontaine scored his second career playoff goal in the second period of Game 6 against Blues rookie Jake Allen to give St. Louis a 2-0 lead. The goal led Blues coach Ken Hitchcock to replace Allen with Brian Elliott.


Chicago doesn't have the same kind of depth along the blue line as it had to win the Stanley Cup in 2010 and 2013.

The Blackhawks have a strong top four with Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson, and Johnny Oduya, but have inconsistency issues with their fifth and sixth defensemen, Michal Rozsival and Kimmo Timonen.

Rather than play them together, coach Joel Quenneville has split up Rozsival, who's 36, and Timonen, who's 40. He played Rozsival with Keith and Timonen with Seabrook during the first round. That provides some balance, but also prevents Keith and Seabrook from playing as the top pair.

Timonen and Rozsival have moments where they contribute, but their lapses often lead to prime scoring chances against, especially Rozsival. He finished with a minus-2 rating and gave the puck away too often.

Timonen's skating is slowly improving, but he's unable to keep up with faster players. He still thinks the game at an elite level and makes sound defensive plays.

Meanwhile, Keith and Seabrook continue to score huge playoff goals. They each scored two goals against Nashville; Keith decided Game 1 in double overtime, and Game 6 late in the third period. Seabrook's goal ended Game 4 one minute into triple overtime for a 3-1 lead in the best-of-7 series.

Oduya and Hjalmarsson are still considered the best defensive pairing, but Oduya's minus-4 rating was tied with center Marcus Kruger for worst on the team in the first round.

Ryan Suter, who averaged 29 minutes and 31 shifts per game during the regular season, was right back at it in the postseason. He averaged 26:05 a game and 32 shifts and played a key part in helping thwart one of the top-scoring teams in the Western Conference.

The Blues, who averaged 2.92 goals per game in the regular season, were limited to 2.33 goals per game against the Wild.

Suter was aided by defense partner Jonas Brodin, who didn't record a point in the series, but averaged 22:31 of ice time per game. He played tough minutes against top forwards, and finished with a team-leading 15 blocked shots. With the exception of Vladimir Tarasenko (six) and Patrik Berglund (two), no St. Louis player had more than one goal.

The Wild defense has allowed 26.5 shots per game in the playoffs.

Defense partners Jared Spurgeon and Marco Scandella logged a lot of ice time and stepped up. Scandella had two goals, three points, 12 blocked shots, and a plus-5 rating. Spurgeon had a goal, three points, 12 blocked shots, and a plus-3 rating.

Matt Dumba partnered with Jordan Leopold and formed a solid third defense pair. Dumba scored a goal and averaged just under 15 minutes a game. He also saw time on the second power-play unit.


Quenneville named Crawford as his Game 1 starter on Monday, meaning Chicago's goaltending situation has come full circle since the start of the playoffs. Crawford began the postseason as the starter, allowed nine goals in his first four periods and was replaced by Darling.

Just when it looked like Darling might become the top option for the playoffs, he allowed four goals in a 5-2 loss in Game 5 and let in three more in the first period of Game 6 before getting pulled. Just as Darling did in Game 1, Crawford came off the bench to earn the win.

Crawford didn't allow a goal on 13 shots, just as Darling didn't allow a goal on 42 shots in relief to win Game 1 in double overtime. Prior to that series, Crawford had never been pulled from a playoff start by Quenneville and started 57 straight postseason games for the Blackhawks before to Darling's start in Game 3.

Darling, a feel-good story from the Chicago suburb of Lemont, Ill., still has the better 2.21 goals-against average and .936 save percentage. Crawford (4.19, .850) appears to have the crease to start out against the Minnesota Wild. Some might view the situation as a weakness, but Chicago knows it now has two playoff-tested goalies.

The biggest question entering the playoffs was how Dubnyk would fare in his first trip. He answered by excelling when the team needed him most, finishing with a 2.32 goals-against average and .913 save percentage.

He proved to be strong when the chips were down too. After allowing six goals on 17 shots and being replaced by Kuemper late in the second period of a 6-1 loss in Game 4, he rebounded with a 36-save performance in a 4-1 victory in Game 5 at Scottrade Center in St. Louis.

"When your goalie's playing confident when the heat is on, I think the rest of the group feeds off of that," Yeo said.

Dubnyk made saves on 66 of the final 68 shots he faced in Games 5 and 6 after being pulled in the Game 4 loss. In the Game 6 clincher, Dubnyk made 14 saves in the second period and 12 more in the third to close out the series.

"I was thinking about it over the last couple days," Dubnyk said. "It just feels right. It feels right for our group to be where we are and to continue to move forward. That's why it's easy to go out and play and feel like we're going to win because we've done it all year. Hopefully we can continue doing that."

Dubnyk was 27-9-2 with a 1.78 GAA, .936 save percentage and five shutouts in 38 straight starts for the Wild in the regular season. Of the losses, seven were by one goal and two were in a shootout.


Quenneville is 103-84 in the playoffs and has guided the Blackhawks into the Western Conference Second Round for the third straight season. Since taking over Chicago's bench in 2008-09, the Blackhawks are 13-4 in 17 playoff series.

Under Quenneville, the Blackhawks have advanced to the conference final four times and won the Stanley Cup twice. Thanks to all that experience, Chicago goes into almost every series with a coaching advantage.

Quenneville's demanding style is behind the Blackhawks' 13-4 record in potential series-clinching games, and the Blackhawks have only lost one series they've led. They've only squandered leads of more than a game within a series three times for Quenneville, and each time they've stormed back to close it out. One of those series was against the Wild last season.

Credit also goes to first-year goaltending coach Jimmy Waite for the Blackhawks beating the Nashville Predators. The goalie switching could've become a disaster, but Waite kept Crawford and Darling engaged and motivated.

Yeo had a good handle on his team, even after a 6-1 loss at Excel Energy Center in Game 4. The six goals were the most ever allowed by the Wild in a playoff game.

After that loss, Yeo saw the Wild outscore the Blues 8-2 despite being outshot 68-40 over the next two games to win the series.

He has complete confidence they can bounce back from tough losses. The Wild have basically been in playoff mode since January, when they were near the bottom of the Western Conference, and Yeo must be given credit for their methodical rise in the standings.

He will look to help lead the Wild beyond the second round of the playoffs for the first time in 11 seasons. The Wild are a stronger, more mentally focused team than the one eliminated in six games by Blackhawks in the second round in 2014.

"We've been playing in tight games," Parise said. "We've been playing in games for a long time that we've had to win. We're comfortable doing that."

Special teams

The Blackhawks would like to improve on the power play, but must improve the penalty kill.

After having the NHL's top-ranked penalty kill most of the regular season, Chicago started backsliding in the stretch run and couldn't shake it in the first round. The Blackhawks allowed six goals in 22 times shorthanded against Nashville for a 72.7-percent success rate tied for 13th among playoff teams.

Their power play produced three goals in 19 chances (15.8 percent), but the Blackhawks have already won the Stanley Cup twice under Quenneville with a middling power play. Each of those title teams had a strong a penalty kill.

Minnesota went 0-for-17 on power plays in their 2013 Western Conference First Round loss to the Blackhawks and went 2-for-17 against Chicago in the second round a year ago.

Specialty teams played a huge part in Minnesota's first round series against the Blues.

The power play, which ranked in the bottom five in the League during the regular season, was exceptional. The Wild finished 4-of-12 with the man advantage and lead the League with a 33.3-percent power-play efficiency in six games.

Four different players chipped in with power-play goals. Parise, who scored one of them, led the Wild with 11 power-play goals in the regular season.

The penalty-killing unit, which finished first in the NHL during the regular season, went 9 of 11 (81.8 percent) against the Blues. Playing significant roles were defensemen Suter, Brodin, Spurgeon, and Scandella and forwards Koivu, Brodziak, and Cooke.

Series changer

Bryan Bickell

Bryan Bickell

Left Wing - CHI

GOALS: 0 | ASST: 2 | PTS: 2
SOG: 4 | +/-: 2

Bryan Bickell -- The big wing has done it the previous two postseasons against the Wild and will likely need to make a big impact in this series for the Blackhawks.

Chicago has struggled getting to the net most of the season, and nobody protects that area like the Wild. They collapse quickly in the defensive zone to prevent second-chance opportunities and make it difficult to get shots from the middle of the ice.

Bickell, who's 6-foot-4, 223 pounds, is built for cracking through the wall. He had three goals and one assist in five postseason games against the Wild in 2013 and followed it last postseason against Minnesota with four goals and two assists.

Zach Parise

Zach Parise

Left Wing - MIN

GOALS: 3 | ASST: 4 | PTS: 7
SOG: 11 | +/-: 3

Zach Parise -- During their 2014 series against the Blackhawks, Parise was held to one goal and four points. It was a frustrating series and one he would like to atone for this spring. The Wild are more offensively fortified this season, so Parise could be due for a breakout series. He leads the Wild in goals and points and has scored one shorthanded goal in six playoff games. He has 12 hits and seven blocked shots. Parise is tied for the franchise postseason lead with 22 points in 24 games, five fewer than Marian Gaborik played.

"I try to be a lead-by-example type of guy,'' Parise said.

Will win if

BLACKHAWKS WILL WIN IF … Their penalty kill gets back to top form and they stay patient against the Wild's frustrating forecheck. They will again need the core group of elite players to lead them, but it's going to take a concerted effort from all of their forwards to charge the net and disrupt Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk. Chicago will also be in good shape if there is a more consistent defensive effort in front of the goalie.

WILD WILL WIN IF … The offense continues to get a consistent effort from all four lines and the star players come through in big spots. The top line of Parise, Granlund, and Pominville combined for 17 points against St. Louis; they will need to carry that over against the Blackhawks. The defense will have its hands full against a crafty, skilled forward group in Chicago, but Suter, Brodin, Spurgeon, and Scandella received a good test against the Blues and proved very effective. If special teams continues to excel, the Wild should expect to be in every game. Last but certainly not least, Dubnyk will need to make the big save when it's needed most. The 28-year-old may need to steal a game or two in order for the Wild to advance to the Western Conference Final.

-- Brian Hedger and Mike Morreale