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.

Hitch: ‘I see the devastation in our locker room’

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Despite a late comeback attempt, the 2015-16 season came to an end for the St. Louis Blues, as they lost the Western Conference Final in six games to the San Jose Sharks.

And with Wednesday’s loss, the off-season will settle upon the Blues. It will be an intriguing one in St. Louis, starting with their head coach Ken Hitchcock. He’s on a one-year deal and he has already outlined that he’s fine with taking short-term contracts. But is an appearance in the conference final enough to solidify his place behind the St. Louis bench for next year?

The Blues have, according to General Fanager, five pending unrestricted free agent forwards, including Scottie Upshall, Kyle Brodziak, Steve Ott, and most notably Troy Brouwer and David Backes.

Backes, 32, is the team’s captain and coming off a 21-goal, 45-point regular season, which is a decline from the numbers — 26 goals and 58 points — he posted the year before. Brouwer, 30, enjoyed the best post-season of his career, with eight goals and 13 points in 20 games, and he could potentially cash in on that this summer.

However, while there are questions ahead for the Blues, the emotional toll this loss took was clear.

“I see the devastation in our locker room right now. Guys aren’t even able to speak. I’m more worried about our guys right now, to be honest with you. We got some guys that are pretty shook up right now,” said Hitchcock to reporters.

“I’m not going to talk to them for a day or two. They need their space with each other. They’ve bonded together here better than any team I’ve coached in the last 10 years. They need their time together. They don’t need me interrupting them right now. We’ll talk at an appropriate time. But right now they need to be with each other.”

 

Video: So, Joe Thornton is pretty stoked about playing in the Stanley Cup Final

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‘Jumbo’ Joe Thornton is off to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in his career. The San Jose Sharks are off to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in franchise history.

And yeah, the 36-year-old Thornton, a veteran of 1,367 regular season games with 1,341 career regular season points, is pretty excited for both himself and his team when it comes to this feat.

It hasn’t been easy in San Jose. It hasn’t been easy for the franchise, for the fans, for the players, for Thornton or for Patrick Marleau, who is also 36 years old and has played his entire career (1,411 regular season games) in San Jose.

There have been playoff failures and a regular season disappointment last year. There has been a coaching change and harsh words exchanged between Thornton and management — more specifically, GM Doug Wilson — and an organizational decision to remove the captaincy from Thornton.

After all that, however, the Sharks are four wins away from hoisting the Stanley Cup.

Did we mention Joe Thornton is excited about the final?

Franchise history: The Sharks are off to the Stanley Cup Final

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For the first time in franchise history, the San Jose Sharks are off to the Stanley Cup Final.

This, after a monumental and historical collapse in the first round to the L.A. Kings two years ago. This, after they failed to make the playoffs a year ago, resulting in a coaching change. There have been other post-season disappointments along the way before that, too.

Those difficult times may never be forgotten. But the Sharks have rebounded, and it culminated with a 5-2 victory over the visiting St. Louis Blues in Game 6 of the Western Conference Final on Wednesday. Fans at SAP Center could feel it, too, especially after Joel Ward scored his second goal of the night, giving San Jose a three-goal lead early in the third period.

The Blues attempted a furious comeback but couldn’t quite complete it.

The Sharks this year have eliminated the Kings, Nashville Predators and now the Blues in that order. They await the winner of the Eastern Conference Final between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Pittsburgh Penguins.

 

The Sharks got off to the perfect start in the series clincher versus St. Louis. Joe Pavelski recorded his 13th goal, which leads all players in this post-season, and the Sharks continued to roll from there.

Ward increased the lead in the second period and again in the third. His second of the night proved to be the winner. Joonas Donskoi‘s goal, making it 4-0 San Jose before the midway point of the third period, proved critical as the Blues tried to spark a desperation comeback.

The Blues’ leading scorer Vladimir Tarasenko (40 goals, 74 points in the regular season) was held off the score sheet through the first five games of this series, before finally striking for both St. Louis goals in Game 6.

Penguins, Lightning prepare for the ‘roller coaster’ of Game 7

TAMPA, FL - MAY 24:  Ryan Callahan #24 of the Tampa Bay Lightning checks Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game Six of the Eastern Conference Final during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Amalie Arena on May 24, 2016 in Tampa, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images)
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PITTSBURGH (AP) Sidney Crosby is in no mood to get caught up in his own personal narrative, the one eager to attach whatever happens to the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals on Thursday against Tampa Bay to the superstar’s legacy.

Forget that Crosby has the game-winning goal in each of Pittsburgh’s victories in its entertaining back-and-forth with the resilient Lightning. Forget that he hasn’t been on the winning side of a post-series handshake line this deep into the playoffs since his glorious night in Detroit seven years ago, which ended with him hoisting the Penguins’ third Stanley Cup.

Yes, he’s playing well. Yes, his dazzling, imminently GIF-able sprint through the Tampa Bay zone late in the second period of Game 6 added another signature moment to a career full of them. Yet lifting Pittsburgh back to the Cup final for the first time since 2009 does not rely solely on him so much as the collective effort of all 20 guys in his team’s retro black and Vegas gold uniforms.

Related: Vasilevskiy ‘is the big reason we’re in Game 7,’ says Bolts coach Cooper

Depth has carried the Penguins this far. Crosby insists Game 7 will be about the team, not him.

“You give yourself the best chance of winning by keeping it simple and not putting too much emphasis on kind of the story line around it,” Crosby said.

Even if it’s easy to get lost in those story lines. The Lightning are on the verge of a second straight berth in the final despite playing the entire postseason without captain Steven Stamkos and losing Vezina Trophy finalist Ben Bishop in the first period of the conference finals when he twisted his left leg awkwardly while scrambling to get into position.

Yet Tampa Bay has stuck around, ceding the ice to the Penguins for significant stretches but using their speed to counterattack brilliantly while relying on 21-year-old goaltender Andrei Vasilevski. The Lightning are hardly intimidated by having to go on the road in a series decider. They did it a year ago in the Eastern final against New York, beating the Rangers 2-0 in Madison Square Garden.

“You’ve got to go back to a tough environment, just like the Garden was last year,” Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said. “And you’ve got to have your A-game.”

The Lightning hoped to avoid revisiting this spot. They could have closed out Pittsburgh at home but fell behind by three goals and didn’t recover, fitting for a series that appears to be a coin flip as a whole but not so much night to night. The team that’s scored first is 5-1 and there’s only been a single lead change in 18-plus periods spread out over nearly two weeks: Tyler Johnson‘s deflection in overtime that gave Tampa Bay Game 5.

“You always want to play with the lead, and always the first goal is big,” said Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman, who is 7-0 in Game 7s. “But, again, we were down 2-0 in Game 5 and came back from that. So it’s not cut in stone, the outcome of the game, no matter if you’re down a goal or two.”

Maybe, but it’d be cutting it pretty close. Tampa Bay’s rally in Game 5 was Pittsburgh’s first loss when leading after two periods all year. The Penguins responded by going back to rookie goaltender Matt Murray – who turned 22 on Wednesday – and putting together perhaps their finest hockey of the postseason. Their stars played like stars while Murray performed like a guy a decade older with his name already etched on the Cup a few times.

The Penguins will need to rely on Murray’s precocious maturity if it wants to buck a curious trend that started well before Murray was born. Pittsburgh hasn’t won a Game 7 on home ice since Mario Lemieux and company beat New Jersey in the opening round of the 1991 playoffs to escape from a 3-2 series deficit and propel the Penguins to their first championship. The Penguins have dropped five straight winner-take-all matchups since then, including a loss to Tampa Bay in the first round in 2011, a series Pittsburgh played without either Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, who sat out with injuries.

They’re healthy now and showing extended flashes of the form that seemed to have the Penguins on the brink of a dynasty when they toppled Detroit. And the Lightning, who are 5-1 in Game 7s, are hardly comfortable but hardly intimidated as they play on the road.

“I think it’s a roller coaster,” Cooper said. “But Game 7 is Game 7. There’s no two better words than that.”