When Vladimir Sobotka left the KHL to rejoin the St. Louis Blues, it came with a tinge of guilt.
Despite not skating for 10 days and practicing with his new (and old) teammates just once, Sobotka jumped right into the lineup for the final game of the regular season and knew he was pushing someone out. Then he scored a goal in Game 1 against the Minnesota Wild, added an assist in Game 3 and showed he deserved to play.
”I thought it was going to be a little harder for me to get on smaller ice,” Sobotka said. ”I thought it was going to be hard winning battles and stuff like that.”
It hasn’t looked hard at all, and Sobotka is one of a handful of late-season surprise additions making an impact for his team in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Late March recall Kasperi Kapanen scored twice for the Toronto Maple Leafs, including the overtime winner , in Game 2 against the Washington Capitals, and college star Charlie McAvoy is earning every bit of the 25 minutes a game he’s playing on defense for the Boston Bruins.
”No reservations playing him in any situation,” interim Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said of McAvoy, who finished his career at Boston University, played four games in the American Hockey League and got plugged in for Game 1 against Ottawa because of injuries. ”We don’t want to overuse him, either. He had a little more confidence offensively, jumped into the play more and I expect more of that. We need more offensive play from our blue line.”
Offense is typically difficult to generate in the playoffs, but not for these newcomers.
Kapanen didn’t make his Maple Leafs’ season debut until March 28 but scored the tying goal against the Pittsburgh Penguins during the final weekend of the regular season as Toronto was scrambling to make the playoffs. After the son of longtime NHL forward Sami Kapanen scored twice to help beat the Capitals on Saturday, defenseman Morgan Rielly ended their news conference by reminding everyone that Kasperi also had the overtime winner to give Finland the world junior gold medal in 2016.
Kapanen credited his production to teammates and said he has ”a lot of energy” to make a difference. Quickly developing a knack for clutch performances, he’s fifth in the entire playoffs in goals per 60 minutes, taking advantage of his opportunities on Toronto’s fourth line.
”He puts a lot of pressure on himself to perform,” linemate Brian Boyle said. ”He doesn’t have a ton of experience, but he’s playing phenomenal.”
McAvoy had no NHL experience before being thrown onto the Bruins’ top defensive pairing with 6-foot-9 captain Zdeno Chara for Game 1. His quick signing two days before the start of the playoffs was necessary because of injuries to Torey Krug and Brandon Carlo.
After nervously texting Columbus defenseman and U.S. world junior teammate Zach Werenski before his first AHL game, the 19-year-old McAvoy has looked like a polished pro blue-liner averaging 25:34 of ice time against the Senators.
”He’s here for a reason, he’s a good player and just to go out and play his game and he’s definitely done that,” Bruins center Patrice Bergeron said. ”He’s handled his situation well, played with poise and gave us big minutes we’ve needed.”
McAvoy is one of four players from the 2016 U.S. world junior team in the playoffs along with Werenski, Toronto’s Auston Matthews and the Calgary Flames’ Matthew Tkachuk. The difference is that the other three spent this entire season in the NHL as some of the top rookies.
”They’ve had tremendous years and got the jump on me there,” McAvoy said, ”but to see their success, it’s really cool to talk to those guys and, wow, we all played together once upon a time.”
Once upon a time Sobotka played for the Blues until spending the past three seasons in Russia. He came back, signing a $10.5 million, three-year extension.
St. Louis captain Alex Pietrangelo said players watched Sobotka play in the KHL playoffs and that he fit in seamlessly.
”We know what to expect because we’ve played with him before,” Pietrangelo said. ”A lot of guys have followed him. So to add a guy like that it’s almost like a big trade-deadline acquisition. This one’s a little bit different because we all know him. We know the person and the player so it makes it a lot easier.”
AP Sports Writer Dave Campbell in St. Paul, Minnesota, contributed.
More AP NHL hockey at https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey
Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SWhyno