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Mirtle: Injuries tip the scale in NHL conference finals

They didn't win, but the Los Angeles Kings certainly showed up in Game 1 in Chicago.

More importantly, they were relatively healthy to start the series, with defenceman Willie Mitchell finally back in the lineup for the first time since Game 6 in the first round against San Jose.

He played well. And they'll need him.

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The Kings found a way to somehow slip past Anaheim last round down two top-six defencemen (the other being Robyn Regehr) but the Blackhawks are a different animal, one capable of preying on weakness and picking apart a thin blueline.

They have also owned Los Angeles the last couple of years, with a five-game steamrolling in last year's Western Conference finals and a 3-0 record during the season, making Chicago the clear favourite again.

Minus Mitchell – essentially the Kings No. 3 d-man all year – the Kings didn't have a hope.

Those are the kind of margins teams are dealing with at this point in the playoffs, with so little separating the final four teams that an injury, any injury, can be what decides the series.

What's happening with the Montreal Canadiens and goaltender Carey Price's knee obviously qualifies.

The tough thing for the Habs is they don't have a great option to start if Price can't in Game 2. Peter Budaj's limited playoff track record is terrible (.843 save percentage), and youngster Dustin Tokarski's NHL experience overall is very limited.

If Price is anything less than 100 per cent, the Rangers have a game in their back pocket and become the overwhelming favourites to advance.

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The Blackhawks aren't quite that yet, but there are a lot of factors in their favour, with several Kings playing hurt after two gruelling seven-game series.

It's awfully early in Round 3 to start projecting but the arrows are pointing in the direction of a dream final for NBC, with the Original Six Rangers and Hawks facing each other for the first time in the Stanley Cup final.

As is so often the case in the postseason, health may be one of the biggest reasons why.

Penguins power struggle

The bloodletting in Pittsburgh raised eyebrows with how it went down last week, and more curious details were still trickling out over the weekend.

Chief among those was the fact outgoing GM Ray Shero had negotiated an arrangement with the Penguins where he reported directly to owner Mario Lemieux instead of team president David Morehouse, something that's not expected to continue for the next general manager.

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The big winner, then, ends up being Morehouse, a former Bill Clinton advisor and pal of billionaire co-owner Ron Burkle, as his influence in the organization (and league) grows substantially.

Sidney Crosby's role in all this has been downplayed by those involved, but the fact his agent, Pat Brisson, is a leading candidate to replace Shero speaks to No. 87's power as well. Under contract with a no-movement clause for the next 11 years, Crosby continues to have Lemieux's ear, and there have been rumours for months that he was unhappy with the organization's lack of forward depth, which put a target on the GM.

As for coach Dan Bylsma, he remains far from safe. The fact there were reports Friday from reputable folks such as Bob McKenzie that he had been let go reveals the fragility of his position.

Bylsma may be under contract through 2016, but few expect him to stay with the team once Morehouse picks his GM. Keeping Bylsma for now appears to be a power play to prevent Shero and his coach from both jumping right to a rival – with the Washington Capitals one very real possibility.

It's all a little unseemly, even if Shero was partially culpable for the latest flameout. One of the most stable and successful franchises in the NHL the past five years, the Penguins need to be careful that they're not letting dysfunction win here.

Ovechkin down

Speaking of the Capitals, the extent of the knee injury Alex Ovechkin suffered at the world championship on Sunday could have ramifications well beyond Russia's bid for gold in Belarus.

As with the Penguins and Crosby, this is a franchise so heavily invested in Ovechkin that where he goes, they go. But he turns 29 this fall and is moving out of what are generally a star's peak productive years.

This latest injury may be nothing – early indications are it is less severe than it looked – but it may also be remembered as part of an overall decline, especially given Ovechkin's already seen his stock fall along with that of his team.

One thing's for sure: Washington's on edge right now, waiting for more information from overseas.

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About the Author
Hockey Reporter

James joined The Globe as an editor and reporter in the sports department in 2005 and now covers the NHL and the Toronto Maple Leafs. More


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