2010-11 NHL season preview: Pittsburgh Penguins

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Thumbnail image for crosbyandmalkinunder25.jpgLast season: (47-28-7, 101 points, 2nd in Atlantic Division, 4th in Eastern Conference) It’s a little bit much to expect an NHL team to make it to the Stanley Cup finals three seasons in a row, so the beauty of the Penguins’ 2009-10 campaign is in the eye of the beholder. Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury had some low moments, but the team fell just a few strides short of their first Atlantic Division title in the Sidney Crosby Era. It seemed like they just ran out of gas against the Montreal Canadiens, who beat them in an ugly Game 7.

Head coach: Dan Bylsma enters his third season as coach, although this will only be his second full campaign. No NHL coach has complete job security, but I’m guessing that his 2008-09 Stanley Cup ring will keep him off the hot seat for this season. His coaching skills will be put to the test in a tough Atlantic Division, featuring division champ New Jersey and Eastern Conference champion Philadelphia.

Key departures: D Sergei Gonchar, F Bill Guerin, F Ruslan Fedetenko, D Mark Eaton, F Alexei Ponikarovsky, D Jordan Leopold. People are underestimating the loss of Gonchar. The Penguins’ power play rarely operated on the level people expected from their collection of talent, but Gonchar was a key motor and logged huge minutes. Guerin and Fedetenko weren’t elite wingers, but the team’s now even weaker in that area.

Key arrivals: D Paul Martin, D Zbynek Michalek, F Mike Comrie, F Arron Asham, F Brett Sterling. GM Ray Shero threw down the gauntlet by spending big money on Martin and Michalek, two good defensemen whose best work often goes unnoticed. Comrie and Asham should be decent depth players while Sterling gets the chance to play the role of Petr Sykora. I don’t think he has the stuff to pull that off, though.

Thumbnail image for fleurybad.jpgUnder pressure: Marc-Andre Fleury needs to justify his $5 million salary while Malkin has a lot to prove after struggling with injuries (and maybe a little fatigue?) last season. They were two of the biggest reasons the Penguins won the Cup in ’09 because as they go, so goes the team.

Protecting the house: Unlike their cross-state rivals in Philly, the Penguins are making a huge investment in one goalie. Fleury’s a scapegoat often enough in Pittsburgh that it’s a go-to joke among beat writers, but the bottom line is that ‘MAF’ needs to improve his play this season. Backup Brent Johnson is a solid (but clear) No. 2.

They don’t have a Norris-worthy guy like Chris Pronger, but the Penguins are strong along the blueline … and with good reason, because they’ve certainly invested a lot of clams in that area. They have a headhunting hitter (Brooks Orpik), offensive flash (Kris Letang, Alex Goligoski, Ben “Dr.” Lovejoy) and steady all-around guys (Martin, Michalek). I wouldn’t rank them as the best in the league, but they might be the most versatile.

Top line we’d like to see: Malkin-Crosby-Chris Kunitz. Even in my imagination, I cannot put Malkin, Crosby and Jordan Staal on the same line. That hypothetical team would be too thin at center, after all. Instead, I’d have Kunitz doing all the forechecking and dirty work while Crosby and Malkin pick apart the defense with cruel efficiency.

You never know, that line might actually see the light of day on occasion, too.

Oh captain, my captain: I always picture Crosby as the type of guy who would yell at me for running at half-speed during wind sprints during football practice. While I hated that guy, I’d imagine that personality type works better for people who actually have athletic ability.

erichandsofgodard.jpgStreet fighting man: While Mike Rupp can take care of himself, it’s all about Eric ‘Hands of’ Godard. Those hands aren’t around to finish a Crosby/Malkin one-timer. Instead they exist to hurt people. Considering that other Atlantic Division teams loaded up on pugilists, Godard might need to hire another cook to prepare all of those knuckle sandwiches.

Best case scenario: Prized prospect Eric Tangradi turns out to be the second coming of Kevin Stevens and gives the Penguins a genuine power forward. Martin seamlessly replaces Gonchar’s power-play productivity while Michalek proves to be a heightened version of Rob Scuderi (with a little offensive punch). Crosby keeps scoring goals, Malkin stays healthy and racks up 100 points and Fleury plays like an elite goalie. Cut to the Penguins’ second Cup parade in three years.

Worst case scenario: The Penguins end up third in the division and eighth overall in the East, face off against their kryptonite (the Devils) and get booted out of the first round. Malkin and Crosby can’t get it done without quality wingers while Fleury allows a bonehead goal every three games. Martin and Michalek either underachieve or get injured. Bylsma gets food poisoning from a bad burrito.

Keeping it real: The Penguins are a team built for the playoffs rather than the regular season. Without Gonchar or proven scoring on the wings, they won’t score many “easy” goals. I see them coming in second in the Atlantic, sliding into their typical 4th or 5th seed and getting booted out of the conference finals by a deeper team like Washington, New Jersey or Philadelphia.

But, really, they could grind out another Cup win. They’re a rugged, deep and talented group but also have some disturbing weaknesses.

Stanley Cup chances: On a scale from 1-5, with a one being the worst and a five being the best, you have to think they’re a 5, right? When you’re that strong down the middle, have a defense that deep and employ a goalie who can stand on his head (when the lights are on, at least), it’s tough to discount that team’s chances. They have just as good a shot as any team in the East.

Penguins stun Capitals with Game 1 comeback

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With the Pittsburgh Penguins entering Game 1 of their second-round series without Evgeni Malkin and Carl Hagelin, it looked like a great opportunity for the Washington Capitals to jump on them early.

Through 45 minutes it seemed like that was going to happen.

Braden Holtby was stopping everything in net. Alex Ovechkin scored 25 seconds into the third period to give the Capitals a two-goal lead. They were in a great position to take the first game of the series.

Then, for already the third time this postseason, the Capitals allowed a two-goal lead to turn into a loss when the Penguins scored three consecutive goals in four minutes to storm back for a 3-2 win.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

The Pittsburgh comeback started with a Patric Hornqvist deflection of a Justin Schultz shot to finally beat Holtby.

Then the Sidney CrosbyJake Guentzel connection took over.

Crosby tied the game just three minutes after Hornqvist’s goal when he one-timed a shot off the rush that beat Holtby through the five-hole, and then Guentzel gave the Penguins the lead when he was able to get his stick on a Crosby shot to beat Holtby. Both Crosby and Guentzel have seven goals on this postseason, while Guentzel has factored into eight of the Penguins’ past nine goals over the past two games. He has scored five of them. Overall this postseason he has 15 total points (seven goals, eight assists) in seven games. This after after leading the league in postseason goal-scoring a season ago.

The Penguins have now won consecutive games without Malkin after taking Game 6 in Philadelphia on Sunday. That game also saw the Penguins erase a two-goal deficit thanks to four third period goals. Malkin traveled with the team to Washington, skated with the team on Thursday, and could be available for Game 2 on Sunday afternoon. The extra day off between games could be helpful for him.

Meanwhile, Penguins goalie Matt Murray was tremendous when he needed to be on Thursday night and played a huge role in the comeback, even if it might get lost in the third period goal-scoring outburst. The two goals he gave up were on odd-man rushes following defensive breakdowns in front of him (including one just 17 seconds into the game when Evgeny Kuznetsov was able to walk in alone), but other than that he was nearly flawless the rest of the way, stopping 32 of the 34 shots he faced.

Game 2 is Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m. ET on NBC.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

NHL reportedly asked Brad Marchand to stop licking opposing players

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Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman regals readers with many great nuggets in his regular “31 Thoughts” column, but this bit on how the NHL reportedly responded to Brad Marchand‘s obnoxious kissing/licking of Leo Komarov from Game 1 (see the video above) might just take/taste the cake:

22. After Game 1 of the Toronto/Boston series, the Bruins got a, “We’d prefer if you could tell Brad Marchand to stop licking people” phone call from the NHL.

Seems fair enough?

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

That said, you wonder if the NHL might have sent the Boston Bruins pest a better message by, say, handing him a fine for unsportsmanlike conduct? The league could have attached a helpful message, such as: “There are better ways to tell Leo Komarov that you like his cologne.”

(One can only imagine how harsh the discipline might have been if Sean Avery was the one committing this … infraction.)

As a reminder, Marchand addressed his actions after that Game 1 win, not exactly apologizing for his actions:

You could say that Marchand had the last laugh being that the Boston Bruins ended up winning the series in Game 7 thanks to last night’s 7-4 win. Then again, Komarov didn’t get to dress for that game, so it doesn’t seem totally fair.

The bottom line is that Marchand revels in this sort of controversy, even as he’s gone from a good player with bad habits to an elite one who still makes questionable decisions.

Even last night’s Game 7 was an example of the kind of competitor he is. While Kasperi Kapanen shook him off for a memorable shorthanded go-ahead goal, Marchand got the last laugh, celebrating after an empty-netter that sapped any remaining drama from the game.

While Marchand surely gives the Bruins headaches with his antics and sometimes suspensions – don’t forget that there were years of rumors that his behavior might get him traded, at least before he jumped another level or two – he’s a huge part of a dominant line with Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak. For all we know, Marchand wouldn’t be the same player if he avoided some of the uglier stuff. Hockey is a violent, emotional sport, after all.

Still, if you’re the Tampa Bay Lightning, you must be wondering: “Could we be the team to get the better of Marchand?” Few teams have the firepower to match that top line (not to mention a defender to make life tougher for them in Victor Hedman), so maybe the Bolts will find a way to push Marchand closer to becoming a net-positive?

One thing’s for sure: the NHL will be keeping an eye on what Marchand does, so he better … watch his mouth.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Hall, MacKinnon, McDavid are 2018 Ted Lindsay Award finalists

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Taylor Hall, Nathan MacKinnon, and Connor McDavid were named the three finalists for the 2017-18 Ted Lindsay Award.

This award often stands as a fascinating alternative (or supplement) to the Hart Trophy, as this is essential the players’ choice. The NHLPA votes on who is “most outstanding player in the regular season,” while hockey media (The PHWA) determines the Hart based on wording (“player judged most valuable to his team”) that fuels many obnoxious debates.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

The Case for Taylor Hall: Hall carried the Devils on his back this season, with the most obvious evidence being the gulf between his point total (93) and the second-best total on the team (Nico Hischier‘s 52). That might carry a bit more weight in Hart discussions, but it’s still very impressive.

Hall didn’t just hit 30 goals for the first time in his career, he nearly hit 40 at 39. His 54 assists also mark a new career-high, and it’s not as though he didn’t light up scoreboards even when he was scapegoated in Edmonton.

Hall brought his team up with him, certainly making life easier for Hischier during his rookie season.

The Case for Nathan MacKinnon: Nathan MacKinnon was right there (1.31) with Connor McDavid (1.32) in putting up point-per-game numbers relative to this era of scoring, generating 97 points in just 74 games. He mixes McDavid’s per-game brilliance with Hall’s “carrying his team to a playoff spot” factor.

The speedy center tied Brayden Point for the NHL’s most game-winning goals at 12.

Avalanche coach Jared Bednar rightfully gets kudos for turning the Avs around, but MacKinnon is the guy who made it easier to say goodbye to Matt Duchene (and move on from a historically bad 2016-17 season).

The Case for Connor McDavid: For the second straight season, McDavid broke 100 points, setting a new career-high with 108 (41 goals, 67 assists). Consider how he scored those points, too; while other 100+ point men Claude Giroux (103) and Nikita Kucherov (100) both scored 36 of their points on the power play, McDavid only generated 20 that way.

McDavid instead was an even-strength maestro, and even threw in four shorthanded points on top of that.

Much like Crosby and other star athletes adding wrinkles to their skill sets as time goes along, McDavid keeps getting better. That’s a frightening thing for the league, as he’s already the best.

McDavid was last year’s winner, by the way.

2018 NHL Award finalists
Jack Adams Award
Mark Messier NHL Leadership Award
King Clancy Trophy
Calder Trophy

Bill Masterton Trophy
Lady Byng Trophy
Norris Trophy
Selke Trophy
Vezina Trophy

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

WATCH LIVE: Second round begins with Crosby vs. Ovechkin, Sharks vs. Golden Knights

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Game 1: Pittsburgh Penguins at Washington Capitals, 7 p.m. ET
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Call: Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk, Pierre McGuire
Series preview
Stream here

Game 1: San Jose Sharks at Vegas Golden Knights, 10 p.m. ET
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Call: John Forslund, Joe Micheletti
Series preview
Stream here

More:
NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: Second round schedule, TV info
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
PHT 2018 Stanley Cup Playoff Roundtable: Slowing the Sharks, X-factors