Why to keep an eye on Golden Knights’ Jack Eichel, Oilers’ Connor McDavid

The 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs are here, and the best hockey players in the world will be battling for the sport’s ultimate prize. There are certain players who will have an especially big impact on how this postseason plays out, and we have highlighted a number of them.

Superstars like Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews are playing at an elite level, and they are hungry for their first Stanley Cup. Those two have already shown that they can put on a show in the postseason, but a couple of key players will be making their playoff debuts.

Jack Hughes and Jack Eichel have never suited up in a playoff game, but that is about to change. It will be interesting to see whether those players can get the job done when the pressure is at its highest.

Here are some important players to watch in the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Maple Leafs’ ability to win a postseason series leads the way

The 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs are set to begin, but first, we have some questions. Every NHL postseason comes with a plethora of unknowns, and that’s part of what makes the tournament so much fun to watch.

Can a seemingly cursed team get over the hump? Will a player making his postseason debut live up to the hype or will he wilt in the spotlight? Will the Cup favorites get tripped up on their path to a championship?

Over the next couple of months, players and teams will provide answers to questions like those, for better or worse. Until then, let’s take a look at which players and teams face the biggest questions this year.

Here are six burning questions about the 2023 NHL Playoffs.

Will anyone knock off the Avalanche?
The Avalanche have fought the injury bug all season, and yet they still look poised to defend their title as Stanley Cup champions. Will any team be able to end Colorado’s reign?

The Avs have dealt with a slew of injuries in 2022-23, but they have really rounded into form down the home stretch. In the last month, Colorado has been among the league’s best teams with a 13-2-1 record and an expected goals share of 53.5% at five-on-five, per Natural Stat Trick.

They’ve been able to do all of that without captain Gabriel Landeskog, who has yet to suit up this season as he deals with an injury. With Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Cale Makar leading the way, the Avs are still one of the deeper teams in the league. Having said that, the departure of Nazem Kadri in the offseason left a hole in the middle of the second line that the Avs haven’t really been able to fill consistently this year.

The Avalanche will also face a tougher journey to the Cup in 2023. The Dallas Stars have been at or near the top of the Central Division all season, the Edmonton Oilers and Los Angeles Kings have both improved since last year, and the Vegas Golden Knights are back to being one of the conference’s best teams. Those teams have the right ingredients to knock off the defending champions this spring. –Nivison

Can the Maple Leafs finally win a series?
It’s been the only question in recent years when it comes to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Will they finally break through the proverbial glass ceiling and advance past the opening round of the postseason?

The Maple Leafs had a terrific regular season in which Mitch Marner had a career-best 99 points. Still, all of that will be for nothing if Toronto can’t get out of their own way and come away with a series win.

This time around, the Maple Leafs will be facing the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round for a second consecutive season. The Maple Leafs had the Lightning on the ropes last postseason with a 3-2 series lead, but they dropped back-to-back one-goal games over the final two contests of the series.

The Maple Leafs front office was extremely active at the trade deadline as they acquired veteran winger Ryan O’Reilly, forward Sam Lafferty and defenseman Jake McCabe. General manager Kyle Dubas clearly wasn’t trying to be complacent and leave anything to chance this time around. Will those moves be enough to defeat the defending Eastern Conference champions? We will find out in a matter days. –Bengel

Can Jack Eichel lead the Golden Knights to a Stanley Cup?
For the first time since he was drafted No. 2 overall by the Buffalo Sabres in 2015, Jack Eichel will take the ice in a playoff game. Eichel won’t be able to dip his toe into the postseason pool either. He’ll have to dive in headfirst because the Golden Knights need to capitalize on their championship window while it’s still open.

Prior to the 2021-22 season, Eichel and his $10 million salary cap hit were traded to the Golden Knights, but he missed most of the season while recovering from surgery. Now fully healthy, Eichel has been great for Vegas in 2022-23. He has recorded 65 points in 66 games and is currently riding an eight-game point streak.

Now that Eichel has powered the Golden Knights to the top spot in the Western Conference, it’s time to see what he can do in the playoffs. Throughout his first seven years in the league, Eichel watched peers like Connor McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon and Auston Matthews get multiple cracks at a Stanley Cup.

Eichel will be in that mix this year, and he has the team around him to make a special run. –Nivison

Will the Rangers deadline additions result in a Stanley Cup Final appearance?
The New York Rangers definitely made the biggest splash leading up to the NHL trade deadline last month. The team acquired a pair of talented wingers in the form of Patrick Kane and Vladimir Tarasenko.

The Rangers came just two wins away from reaching the Stanley Cup Final during the 2022 postseason. After being eliminated by the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Rangers went out and signed Vincent Trocheck to be the franchise’s second-line center. Trocheck has certainly paid dividends with a 64-point campaign, which was the second-highest total of his 10-year career.

New York was obviously having a terrific season even before landing Kane and Tarasenko. However, those moves signaled the fact that the Rangers were willing to do whatever it takes to get to the Stanley Cup Final. Both Kane and Tarasenko have a Stanley Cup under their respective belts and have thrived when the lights are brightest.

The Rangers’ opening round playoff series against the Devils isn’t going to be a walk in the park, but it’s one that New York is certainly capable of winning. The true test will likely be when the Rangers would eventually have to face off with the Boston Bruins. They’ve yet to beat the Bruins this season, but they also only played one game against them with Kane and Tarasenko on their roster.

The Rangers are going for it all in 2023, but will it be enough? –Bengel

How will the Wild handle their goaltending situation?
Minnesota Wild head coach Dean Evason has a big decision to make ahead of Game 1. Barring a sudden and jarring rule change from the NHL, Evason must pick one of Filip Gustavsson or Marc-Andre Fleury to get the start between the pipes.

Frankly, his initial decision shouldn’t be too difficult. Gustavsson has been the better goaltender all season, and he has established himself as a Vezina Trophy contender. Gustavsson has posted a GAA of 2.05, which is second in the NHL, and his 32.2 goals saved above average rank third, per Natural Stat Trick.

Still, having Fleury on the bench makes this situation a fascinating one. For starters, Gustavsson has never appeared in a playoff game, and Fleury has a long and impressive postseason resume. Fleury has started 107 playoff games, played in three Stanley Cup Finals, and has three rings in his trophy case.

With that in mind, how patient will Evason be with Gustavsson if the 24-year-old netminder starts to struggle? Given the urgency that a seven-game series creates, it might be tempting for Minnesota to go with the more experienced Fleury if Gustavsson turns in a poor outing, even if the latter has been rock solid throughout the regular season. –Nivison

Will any team be able to solve Linus Ullmark?
Very few teams have had much success when facing Boston Bruins netminder Linus Ullmark throughout the 2022-23 season. We’re talking about a goaltender that leads the league in wins (40), goals-against-average (1.89) and save percentage (.938).

Ullmark has continued to play some of his best hockey entering the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Bruins goalie has yielded one goal or fewer in five of his last seven starts and has been victorious in six of those outings. According to MoneyPuck, Ullmark has a league-leading .966 save percentage when facing unblocked shots during the regular season.

When facing Boston’s first-round opponent in the Florida Panthers, Ullmark has looked a little more human. The 29-year-old has allowed a grand total of six goals in two starts and surrendered three goals apiece in those two contests. It’s certainly going to be a tough battle for the Panthers, but they’ve had some success against Ullmark.

When facing an elite offense like the Devils, Maple Leafs or Rangers, it’ll be interesting to see if Ullmark can continue to close the door on the opposition. Ullmark did lose his only two career playoff starts in the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs and recorded a shocking 4.16 goals-against-average in those starts.

Best bets for the opening round of the postseason

The 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs get underway on Monday with four games on the docket. It’s always the most exciting time of the year for the sport, as the NHL postseason traditionally offers a tremendous amount of theater over the season’s final two months.

The Boston Bruins enter the postseason as the very clear favorite after racking up an NHL record 135 points during the regular season. While the Bruins are a convincing favorite in their opening round series against the Florida Panthers, there are plenty of matchups that figure to be profitable from a betting standpoint.

Here are three NHL picks for the first round that are worth wagering on.

Stars (-150) to win series against Wild
The Stars are one of my favorite teams entering the Stanley Cup Playoffs. I honestly almost put them in the Stanley Cup Final in my postseason predictions. While I like the Oilers to reach the Stanley Cup Final, the Stars look like an exceptional bet to make a deep playoff run.

They’re one of the more dangerous offensive units that the NHL has to offer. Throughout the regular season, the Stars ranked seventh in scoring with 3.41 goals-per-game. The reason for that is the absurd amount of depth that this team possesses up and down their roster. Jason Robertson has become one of the league’s top goal scorers and the trade deadline addition of Max Domi really has made Dallas even stronger up the middle. Calder Trophy candidate Wyatt Johnston has also burst onto the scene with a 24-goal regular season while Radek Faksa also is no slouch as the team’s fourth-line center.

Meanwhile, the Wild did have a great season and were even in the running with the Avalanche and Stars late in the year for the Central Division crown. However, I just don’t see the Wild having near the amount depth of forward group that the Stars do. Kirill Kaprizov put together an impressive 75-point season and continues to be one of the top wingers around. Young winger Matt Boldy also played extremely well down the stretch with three goals and three assists over his final six regular season games. However, I just don’t think the Wild will have enough firepower to take down the Stars.

Maple Leafs -1.5 games (+118) against Lightning
Yes, I know what many of you are going to say. And yes, the Maple Leafs losing in the opening round in six consecutive postseasons/not winning a playoff series since 2004 is going to continue to be a storyline until they break through.

I believe that time is now.

This is the most talented Toronto team that we’ve seen in recent years. The Maple Leafs added veteran forward Ryan O’Reilly to be the team’s second-line center at the trade deadline and also added defensemen Jake McCabe and Luke Schenn into the fold. Neither of those latter two are particularly flashy options on the blue line, but give the defensive unit some incredible depth. I’m expecting Mitch Marner to continue on his career season, while Auston Matthews will put the puck in the net as he always does.

On the other hand, I’ll admit it is really hard to bet against the Lightning. But I think all the wear-and-tear may finally catch up to them. It’s a lot to play that many additional games in three consecutive seasons like Tampa has. This also isn’t the same group that fell to the Avalanche in last year’s Stanley Cup Final. Ondrej Palat is no longer around and I think his presence will be missed on the second and third line during the postseason. Yes, the Lightning still have a world class goaltender in Andrei Vasilevskiy, but I simply think that the Maple Leafs offense is too talented not to win this series convincingly.

Avalanche to beat Kraken in 5 games (+230)
Listen, the Kraken are a phenomenal story. And unfortunately for them, their reward is getting to face the defending Stanley Cup champion Avalanche.

We know the Avs no longer have center Nazem Kadri, and his presence in the middle of the ice has certainly been missed. In addition, Colorado had a big change in net since winning the Cup last year, as they weren’t willing to pay up to keep goalie Darcy Kuemper. However, Alexandar Georgiev in his first season with the Avalanche has been perhaps better than Kuemper was a season ago. While not having captain Gabriel Landeskog for the entire postseason is a huge disadvantage, this is still an extremely talented roster featuring the likes of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Cale Makar.

Especially with those three, the talent gap between the Avalanche and Kraken is very evident. Seattle obviously had a great season, as they tallied 100 points and grabbed the top Wild Card spot in the Western Conference. Jared McCann had a career year in which he scored 40 goals and Matty Beniers is a top candidate to win the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie. Still, the talent gap is just too vast. On top of that, the Kraken don’t exactly have a stable presence in net with Philipp Grubauer and Martin Jones struggling throughout the regular season. The Avalanche could easily run away with this series. I do expect the Kraken to steal a game at home, but that’s about it.

Golden Knights captain activated off LTIR, will play in Game 1 vs. Jets

The Vegas Golden Knights are getting a huge asset back in their lineup for the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. On Monday, the team announced that captain Mark Stone has been activates off of long-term injured reserve and will play in Game 1 of their opening round series against the Winnipeg Jets.

Stone has been out of the lineup since Jan. 12 and underwent back surgery on Jan. 31.


— z – Vegas Golden Knights (@GoldenKnights) April 17, 2023
Due to the fact that Stone was placed on LTIR earlier this season, the roster move gave Vegas an additional $9.5 million in cap space. That extra cap room allowed the team to add players at the league’s trade deadline in early March.

In 43 games this season, Stone had registered 17 goals and 21 assists before suffering the back injury. It marked the second consecutive campaign in which the Golden Knights captain dealt with a back injury. He missed 26 games a season ago.

Stone will likely skate on Vegas’ second or third-line upon his return to the ice for Tuesday’s Game 1.

Stone was named the Golden Knights’ captain back in January 2021 after originally being acquired by the team in a trade with the Ottawa Senators in 2019.

Stars center’s status uncertain for Game 2 after being knocked out by Wild’s Matt Dumba

Dallas Stars center Joe Pavelski was leveled by Minnesota Wild defenseman Matt Dumba during the second period of Monday’s Game 1 and, as a result of the collision, Pavelski ended up leaving the game.

Dumba received a two-minute minor penalty for roughing, but following a lengthy review, he wasn’t given a major penalty for the hit.

Matt Dumba lays a late hit on Joe Pavelski and receives a 2-minute minor penalty for roughing. pic.twitter.com/a6XTWf4Hup

— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) April 18, 2023
Immediately after Pavelski fell to the ice, Stars forward Max Domi went after Dumba and threw a few punches. Domi was given a 10-minute misconduct penalty for his retaliation.

“To be honest, I thought it was a clean hit. I figured (the refs) were going to see the same. Shoulder on shoulder,” Dumba said following the game. “I don’t even know why I got the roughing, probably because I was just in the box already.”

Stars head coach Pete DeBoer said after the game that Pavelski’s head hit the ice when he fell.

“We have the best officials in the world. They called a five, they reviewed it, which is the right thing to do. If they reviewed and decided it wasn’t a bad hit then, you know, I guess it’s not for me to argue with that,” DeBoer said. “They got to look at it at multiple different angles and that was the decision they made, so we’ve got to live with that.”

DeBoer added that he wasn’t feeling confident about Pavelski being available to play in Game 2 on Wednesday night.

Pavelski does have a history of concussions throughout his career. In the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Pavelski, who was then a member of the San Jose Sharks, suffered a very physical hit at the hands of Vegas Golden Knights forward Cody Eakin in Game 7 of an opening-round series.

Eakin was assessed a major penalty on that play, and the NHL later determined that it wasn’t the correct call. The Sharks ended up scoring four times on the major penalty and won 5-4 in overtime.

Jets’ Morgan Barron receives more than 75 stitches after taking skate to the face

Winnipeg Jets center Morgan Barron had his face clipped by a skate and needed more than 75 stitches as a result during Tuesday’s Game 1 against the Vegas Golden Knights. Somehow, Barron actually returned to the ice less than a period after sustaining the injury.

Barron’s gruesome injury occurred during a chaotic scene in front of the Golden Knights’ net in the first period. During a battle for a loose puck, Vegas goaltender Laurent Brossoit was attempting to scramble back into the crease and inadvertently cut Barron on the face with one of his skates.

Warning: the video of the injury below is graphic

Morgan Barron required 𝟳𝟱 𝗦𝗧𝗜𝗧𝗖𝗛𝗘𝗦 after being cut in the face by a skate …


Hockey players are different 😳 pic.twitter.com/XH87wHoTDF

— B/R Open Ice (@BR_OpenIce) April 19, 2023
“I was trying to figure out if the puck went in because it was pretty close,” Barron said regarding the play, via TSN. “I saw the skate coming. It was an unlucky play. The first thought was that I could see out of the (right) eye was the main thing.”

Barron was immediately escorted to the Jets’ locker room after he was cut. Upon his return, Barron wore a full cage helmet for the remainder of the game

“Looks like he got attacked by a shark,” teammate Adam Lowry added. “It’s a scary thing. We’re all so worried about the puck crossing the line, and all of the sudden we see a trail of blood all the way from the crease to the bench.”

Barron ended up logging 10:44 of ice time, registering three shots-on-goal and dishing out five hits — all despite suffering a scary injury.

The Jets produced a dominant effort throughout Game 2, as they received second-period goals from forwards Kyle Connor and Pierre-Luc Dubois en route to a 5-1 to take a 1-0 lead in the opening round series.

First impressions from Game 1 of every first-round series

Now that we’ve seen Game 1 of every Stanley Cup Playoff series, teams have given us an idea of what to expect. It is just one game, but every game is critical in the NHL playoffs.

With road teams winning six of the first eight games, underdogs have gotten off to a surprisingly strong start. In particular, the New York Rangers and Winnipeg Jets made statement road wins to begin their playoff runs.

Other teams, like the Edmonton Oilers and Colorado Avalanche encountered some issues. And, yes, even in a big win over the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Tampa Bay Lightning have reason to be discouraged.

Here are the first impressions from each Stanley Cup Playoff first-round series.

Islanders need to fix anemic power play
The New York Islanders’ power play was among the NHL’s worst in the regular season, and that didn’t change during Game 1 against the Carolina Hurricanes. The Isles lost, 2-1, and they missed several chances to flip the script with the man advantage.

The Islanders failed to convert on all four of their power plays
They only generated four shots and 0.82 expected goals on them, per Natural Stat Trick.
With under five minutes remaining in the third period, the Isles got a power play with an opportunity to tie the game, and they didn’t even get a shot on goal.
This should be a low-scoring series regardless, and the Islanders have a shot to pull off the upset, but they need to get some kind of production from their power play unit. The Hurricanes are an elite defensive team, and they were first in the NHL in five-on-five expected goals against in the regular season. If the Isles can’t light the lamp with the man advantage, their postseason appearance may be brief.

Panthers missed golden opportunity against Bruins
If the Florida Panthers are going to pull off the upset against the Boston Bruins, they can ill afford to drop winnable games. That is exactly what happened in Game 1.

The Bruins were without captain Patrice Bergeron, and the Panthers outplayed Boston for stretches. According to Natural Stat Trick, Florida controlled 61.0% of the expected goals at five-on-five, and they even did a decent job of holding Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak in check.

The Panthers just couldn’t solve Bruins goaltender Linus Ullmark, and Alex Lyon coughed up an inexcusable goal in his playoff debut for Florida. There was a lot to like about the Panthers’ game, and perhaps they can build on that as they try to even the series before heading back to Florida. This game, however, was there for the taking, and the Panthers failed to capitalize on a subpar effort from the Bruins. They may not get many more chances like that the rest of the series.

Joe Pavelski’s injury could tilt balance of the series
In the second period of Game 1, Dallas Stars veteran forward Joe Pavelski left the game when Minnesota Wild defenseman Matt Dumba laid a heavy hit on him. Pavelski struggled to get off the ice, even with help, and Dallas may be without him for at least a couple of games.

Matt Dumba lays a late hit on Joe Pavelski and receives a 2-minute minor penalty for roughing. pic.twitter.com/a6XTWf4Hup

— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) April 18, 2023
Pavelski, 38, is still one of the most reliable forwards in the NHL, and he’s been a key cog in the Stars’ top line for the last few seasons (he just tallied 28 goals and 49 assists in the regular season). Taking him out of the Dallas lineup only tilts the odds more in favor of the Wild after their double overtime win in Game 1.

Minnesota is an excellent defensive team, but they struggle to score goals at five-on-five. In order for the Wild to win this series, they’ll probably have to win some low-scoring defensive battles. With Pavelski out of the lineup for Dallas, that becomes a much more attainable goal.

Goaltending remains a giant question mark for Oilers
Stuart Skinner proved to be a solid starting netminder for the Oilers in the regular season, but there were still questions about his lack of experience coming into those playoffs. After Game 1, those questions remain.

To be clear, Skinner was not the only reason the Oilers dropped Game 1 at home to the Los Angeles Kings. It’s just that Skinner didn’t do much to help his team lock up a victory after Edmonton went up 2-0 in the first period.

He surrendered a somewhat soft goal to Adrian Kempe to start the second period.
In total, he wound up allowing 0.65 goals above average, per Natural Stat Trick.
The Oilers’ goalie faced 35 shots in nearly 70 minutes of game time and allowed four goals.
That won’t do it, especially when Joonas Korpisalo was on top of his game for the Kings. The good news for Skinner is that Edmonton played fairly well overall in Game 1, and he should have a decent shot to redeem himself and get back on track with a win in Game 2.

Devils cannot let Rangers win special teams battle
The New Jersey Devils have been a better five-on-five team than the New York Rangers all season, but that edge was erased — and then some — in Game 1 because the Rangers dominated the special teams battle.

In the first 10 minutes of the game, the Devils got two power plays and failed to score on both. New Jersey didn’t even put a shot on Rangers goaltender Igor Shesterkin. New Jersey had a chance to seize the momentum early, but instead New York gained a lot of confidence on the road.

POWER PLAY KREIDS IS BACK AGAIN. pic.twitter.com/ncrvmO2iL8

— New York Rangers (@NYRangers) April 19, 2023
Then, on their own first power play of the game, which came with just over 10 minutes remaining in the opening frame, the Rangers cashed in and took a 1-0 lead. Things wouldn’t get any better for the Devils after that.

New Jersey finished the game 0-for-4 on the power play as the New York penalty kill was completely stifling. On the flip side, the Rangers capitalized on two of their three power plays and cruised to a 5-1 win. As good as the Devils are at five-on-five, they simply cannot afford to get torched on special teams and expect to beat this loaded Rangers team.

Lightning win big, but at an even bigger cost
Just from looking at the scoreboard, you would think everything went right for the Tampa Bay Lightning in their Game 1 blowout of the Toronto Maple Leafs. The injury report tells a very different story.

While the Bolts rolled to a 7-3 win over the Leafs in Toronto, they lost a pair of key defenders.

Victor Hedman left the game with an undisclosed injury after the first period.
Erik Cernak appeared to suffer a head injury after taking a high hit from Toronto’s Michael Bunting in the second period.
If those two can’t return to the series, it presents a steep mountain to climb for the Lightning, even with a 1-0 lead.
Although he’s had a down year in 2022-23, Hedman is still one of the best defensemen in the NHL when he’s at his best, and Cernak eats up tough minutes while playing a huge role on the penalty kill.

Losing those two against a Maple Leafs team loaded with firepower up front is a worst-case scenario for Tampa. Mikhail Sergachev can play the role of No. 1 defenseman for the Bolts, but he doesn’t have much help around him. Rookie Nick Perbix will likely play a larger role, and Zach Bogosian and Haydn Fleury will now slot into the lineup after tough regular seasons for both.

As long as Hedman and Cernak are out, it is the Maple Leafs’ series to lose — regardless of the final score of Game 1.

Jets send a message in domination of Golden Knights
It wasn’t surprising to see the Winnipeg Jets take Game 1 against the Vegas Golden Knight, but the way in which they won was shocking. The Jets simply dismantled the Golden Knights in their own barn, 5-1.

This wasn’t a case of the game being closer that it appeared on the scoreboard. Outside of a short stint in the second period, Winnipeg was in full control of this matchup. According to Natural Stat Trick, the Jets limited the Golden Knights to just 1.2 expected goals at five-on-five. Vegas couldn’t get any kind of sustained possession in the offensive zone.

With the Golden Knights trailing 2-1 to start the third period, everyone watching the game expected a big push from the Pacific Division champs, but it never came. Instead, the Jets came out swinging, and Blake Wheeler doubled his team’s lead less than five minutes into the period. Defensively, Winnipeg held Vegas to 10 shots on goal in the final frame, and many of those came with the net empty at the other end.

The Jets sent a message in Game 1, and the Golden Knights must find an answer before they head up to Winnipeg down 2-0 in the series.

Philipp Grubauer, Kraken silence doubters
Coming into this postseason, I was very skeptical about Philipp Grubauer’s ability to hold up against a Colorado Avalanche offense that can fill the net when they’re rolling. After Game 1, Grubauer is well on his way to proving me wrong.

In the process of leading the Seattle Kraken to a Game 1 win over the defending champs, Grubauer stopped 34 of the 35 shots he faced and saved 2.52 goals above average. The Kraken netminder did get support from a tremendous defensive effort in front of him, but Grubauer alson came up with some huge saves at key points in the game.

By the time the final buzzer sounded to end the third period, Grubauer’s detractors and the sellout crowd in Ball Arena were dead silent. If Seattle is going to pull off one of the biggest upsets in recent Stanley Cup Playoff history, Grubauer will have to turn in a couple more performances like this. It is just one game, and that’s important to remember, but it’s hard not to be encouraged by what Grubauer did in Game 1.

Maple Leafs’ Michael Bunting suspended three games for illegal hit on Lightning’s Erik Cernak

Toronto Maple Leafs forward Michael Bunting has been suspended three playoff games for an illegal hit to the head of Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Eric Cernak in the second period of Game 1. The NHL Department of Player Safety announced its decision on Wednesday, and the Leafs will be without Bunting through Game 4.

Late in the second period, Bunting and Cernak were going for a loose puck when Bunting launched into Cernak’s head. The Tampa defenseman left the game with a head injury and did not return, and Bunting was assessed a five-minute major.

Michael Bunting has received a 5-minute match penalty for an illegal check to the head on Erik Cernak. pic.twitter.com/aY8TnNZgWl

— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) April 19, 2023
In its video explaining decision, the NHL said that both criteria for an illegal hit to the head were met on the play.

“First, the head is clearly the main point of contact,” the NHL said in its explanation. “Bunting’s arm and elbow make direct and forceful contact with the head of Cernak, and it is the head that absorbs nearly all of the force of the check.

“Second, the head contact on this play is avoidable. Bunting unnecessarily extends his body upward into Cernak’s head to deliver this check, missing his core completely and picking his head.”

The league also noted that Cernak was “particularly vulnerable” because there was clear interference on Bunting’s part. The puck was still far away when Bunting initiated the contact.

Lightning head coach Jon Cooper has already ruled Cernak out for Game 2, and Toronto will be without Bunting while facing a 1-0 deficit in the series.

Bunting is coming off a 2022-23 season in which he tallied 23 goals and 26 assists in 82 games. His absence will make the Maple Leafs’ attempt to get out of the first round for the first time since 2004 an even more difficult task.

Five-star C Flory Bidunga, 2024’s No. 4 recruit in nation, commits

Five-star center Flory Bidunga committed to Kansas on Saturday, giving the Jayhawks a major start to their 2024 class. Bidunga ranks as the No. 4 overall prospect and the top-ranked center in the 247Sports Player Rankings. The announcement was made during the UAA Elite 24 game, which was delayed due to weather.

The 6-foot-8 Kokomo (Indiana) High School star committed to Kansas over finalists Auburn, Duke and Michigan. Bidunga took an official visit to Kansas in May and Duke in June before making a final decision. Bidunga is the Jayhawks’ first commitment of the clycle after they reeled in the No. 12 class — and no. 1 transfer class — nationally in 2023.

Duke and Auburn also had strong chances to land Bidunga, the Indiana Gatorade Player of the Year as a junior. That season, he averaged a double-double with 20.2 points and 13.8 rebounds per game to go along with 4.5 shots blocked per game. As a sophomore, Bidunga averaged 17.5 points, 13 rebounds and 5.3 blocks per game.

ROCK CHALK 🗣️ pic.twitter.com/VojvCF0AtB

— Kansas Men’s Basketball (@KUHoops) August 13, 2023
Though the Blue Devils probably feel as if they missed out on a blue-chip big, they are also pursuing Cooper Flagg, the top player in the 2024 class after reclassifying.

Zhang Weili and Marlon Vera among top picks to consider this weekend

Two titles are on the line at UFC 292 in Boston on Saturday night. In the night’s main event, Aljamain Sterling defends his bantamweight championship against Sean O’Malley. Meanwhile, Zhang Weili will put her women’s strawweight belt on the line against Amanda Lemos in the co-main event.

Sterling has hinted that the fight with O’Malley is the end of his time at 135 pounds and he’s looking to close out that period of his career with a big title defense.

O’Malley, meanwhile, has built up a cult following with his brash style and flair for the dramatic, walk-off KO. Of his 10 UFC appearances, seven have ended in KO/TKO. One of those includes a no contest due to an eye poke. “Suga” has finished the likes of Raulian Paiva, Thomas Almeida, Eddie Wineland and Jose Alberto Quinonez. He’s coming off the biggest win of his career when he outpointed former titleholder Petr Yan by split decision in October.

In addition to the pair of title fights, there is plenty of action worth watching. The next Irish star on the rise gets his chance in the spotlight in front of a raucous Boston crowd when Ian Machado Garry takes on Neil Magny. Garry, 25, is undefeated at 5-0 so far in his UFC career with three knockouts. He’s coming off a brutal quick finish of Daniel Rodriguez in May and now gets his toughest test to date in the veteran Magny, who is getting the call on short notice after Geoff Neal was forced to withdraw.

With so many intriguing fights on the UFC 292 card, there will be plenty of action at sportsbooks around the country. As always, we are looking at each main card fight to identify the “best bet” for each bout. After a 1-3 result at UFC 291, our record for the year now stands at 21-21.

Can’t get enough boxing and MMA? Get the latest in the world of combat sports from two of the best in the business. Subscribe to Morning Kombat with Luke Thomas and Brian Campbell for the best analysis and in-depth news.

Let’s take a look at what we’ve identified as our choices for the best bets on the UFC 292 pay-per-view main card.

Marlon Vera vs. Pedro Munhoz
Marlon Vera to win via decision/technical decision (+100)

This is a tough, fairly evenly-matched bantamweight clash. It certainly is possible for Munhoz to take advantage of Vera’s tendency to get off to slow starts to edge out a win. That depends on Vera not stepping it up in Round 2, however, and he’s slightly more technically sound and does have the better power. While taking the Vera moneyline may be slightly safer, Munhoz is very durable and should be able to last the distance. As long as Vera doesn’t let Munhoz outwork him over the first two rounds, things should go Vera’s way on the final scorecards.

Mario Bautista vs. Da’Mon Blackshear
Mario Bautista moneyline (-210)

While it may not look like it provides a ton of inherent value, this fight is totally slanted in one direction. Blackshear scored a rare twister submission on last week’s card and now is stepping in for former champion Cody Garbrandt. While Blackshear deserves admiration for taking a tough opponent on short notice, this is probably a step too far at this point in his career. Bautista is coming into this fight on a full camp and ready to peak this weekend, while Blackshear is having to reset quickly. Bautista should get the job done, one way or another.

Ian Machado Garry vs. Neil Magny
Total rounds: Under 2.5 (-130)

Garry has been confident to the point of cocky in his young UFC run. While three of Garry’s five UFC bouts have gone over 2.5 rounds, it’s hard to not notice how faded Magny has looked from his peak years in the UFC. He barely escaped his most recent fight with a win, edging Philip Rowe by split decision. Garry is peaking while Magny is fading. Garry can likely find the finish before the final 2:30 against the 2023 version of Magny and the under 2.5 rounds leaves a bit of space if Garry happens to get his chin checked by Magny.

Zhang Weili vs. Amanda Lemos
Zhang Weili via KO/TKO/DQ (+110)

Lemos is a very inconsistent fighter. At times she is very impressive and overwhelms her opponents, other times she gets outworked and struggles on the feet against fighters you’d expect her to clearly defeat. Weili, on the other hand is very consistent. Lemos has been stopped before and Weili has stopped some of the best the division has to offer. Ultimately, just look at how Lemos struggled on the feet against Michelle Waterson and Angela Hill to see why Weili getting the knockout is an enticing bet.

Aljamain Sterling vs. Sean O’Malley
Under 3.5 rounds (-150)

Sterling’s bantamweight title defense against O’Malley feels like the kind of fight that will become clear very shortly after the opening bell. Either Sterling is going to use striking to find an opening and put O’Malley on the canvas with a takedown, or O’Malley is going to blast Sterling in the stand-up and show he can stay standing. Either way, once one man begins imposing his will, this fight likely ends quickly. O’Malley hasn’t consistently stopped opponents, but Sterling’s desperation if he can’t get takedowns will open him up more. And, if Sterling can put O’Malley down with any regularity, he’s likely to either score a submission or use ground and pound to end the fight.