Five Thoughts: Relaxing on Jumbo Joe’s “choker” label and Canucks collective madness

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After a wild night that saw yet another series move on to a Game 7 and another series wrap up in dramatic fashion, we’re left with a lot to ponder and it’s good if your name is Joe Thornton and not so good if you’re a member of the Canucks or Penguins.

1. Look who decided to show up in a big spot, none other than Joe Thornton. For all the needling Thornton’s gotten for his lack of big play ability in the playoffs (97 games, 17 goals, 53 assists, 70 points) he shows up in overtime of an elimination game and puts away the Kings with the game winning goal.

For all the undue crap Thornton’s gotten in his career from his days in Boston on through to San Jose now (both fair for disappearing at times and unfair for playing through broken ribs), he gets the goal that moves the Sharks on to the next round where they’ll either be rewarded with a Predators team on fire or a Red Wings team that looks terrifying. Some reward. Still, Thornton’s play in this series made him one of the Sharks top producers (two goals, three assists). We’re not saying that Thornton’s reputation should be forgotten about or wiped clean, we’re just saying that maybe we should cut the guy a break.

2. It almost didn’t happen for Joe Thornton though as the Sharks had to kill off a five minute major at the end of regulation and to start in overtime after Jamie McGinn was sent off for charging Brad Richardson. At full speed and on first glance, the hit looked and sounded terrible. McGinn streaked in at Richardson from about 40-50 feet away and didn’t slow up at all in taking Richardson out. It’s as historically a dumb penalty as you’ll ever see but was it major worthy? After replays it certainly didn’t look that way and much of that is in part due to Richardson ducking his head out of the way at the last second.

That said, the ferocity of the hit, the speed of the play, and McGinn launching himself into Richardson all makes that initial call the right one even though hindsight says it was an overreaction. Officials don’t get that benefit though. The Sharks had the hockey gods on their side though as they killed off the penalty and won the game, but with everyone eager to condemn players for bad hits

3. As for people that might be due to eat a lot of criticism and for good reason, there’s Alain Vigneault, Mike Gillis and Roberto Luongo in Vancouver. Vigneault in announcing that Luongo would start Game 7 said that he told Luongo that he was starting the next game no matter what whether that was Game 7 or Game 1 of the second round. That’s awfully curious all things considered and it’s a bit of a peek at his confidence in Luongo. He’s either saying he felt that Cory Schneider would win Game 6 for them and Luongo was getting a quick vacation before the second round or that he was teaching him a lesson about sucking it up and dealing. Nice time of the year to do that. Luongo’s quotes in interviews yesterday sure made it seem like he wasn’t too eager to take the reins. Hoo boy.

As for Gillis, his tirade about how the officiating has been unfair all series (and Vancouver has been called for more penalties) is both a means for him to distract from the goaltending circus and a poorly timed effort to get the officials ears to call more in their favor. Good grief. If it works out, good for him. If not, the Canucks will have found a brand new way to embarrass themselves against Chicago.

4. Was it me or did Pittsburgh look awfully tired during Game 6 against Tampa Bay? Pittsburgh had good jump for about half the game but as time rolled along, the Lightning seemed to get stronger as the game moved along while the Penguins lost that ability to keep up. In Game 7 on Wednesday it’ll be a different setting and a desperate game for both teams, but given the way Tampa has looked in the last two wins, it’s not shaping up well for Pittsburgh. The Pens will need to play aggressive and on the edge of nasty the way Tampa did last night in defending home ice.

5. If Tampa Bay is to move on to the second round, the guy that will end up being the unsung hero for them after the first round is Ryan Malone. Malone, a former Penguin and Pittsburgh native, is playing with a certain edge and nastiness the rest of the Lightning team doesn’t necessarily have (aside from Steve Downie) and he’s relishing in the role of torturing and pestering his former teammates.

Whether he’s mixing it up after the whistle, committing questionable hits on Maxime Talbot, or shoving Penguins defensemen into Marc-Andre Fleury he’s gotten under their skin. Whether or not he has to hear from the NHL for his hit on Talbot remains to be seen, but we’re expecting he’ll not be suspended, especially for a Game 7. We’re sure that there’s nothing more that Malone would love to do than oust his former team.

Tavares says ‘no rush’ to sign extension with Isles

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John Tavares keeps saying all the right things about his future with the New York Islanders.

But that doesn’t change the fact he still doesn’t have a contract extension in place.

Tavares, who can become an unrestricted free agent next summer, spoke with Newsday yesterday, telling the newspaper he was in “no rush” to sign and that he’s comfortable to just “let the process run its course, keep the lines of communication open, keep it all internal.”

It’s been reported that the Isles’ uncertain arena situation could be complicating matters. It’s still not clear where the team will call home for the long term.

On that topic, Tavares chose to avoid making any definitive statements.

“The possibility with Belmont and that RFP coming out, there’s great potential there,” the 26-year-old said. “We’ll see where it goes. A lot of those things are out of my hands. Some things I don’t try to worry about them too, too much. I’m just a hockey player. I try to be as best prepared as I can be. It’s a big decision obviously because it’s eight years of my career, really entering into my prime years and a great opportunity for myself to achieve what I set out to achieve when I was a kid, making it to the NHL, wanting to win a Stanley Cup and wanting to do that with the Islanders.”

There’s more in the interview, including his thoughts on the Isles’ offseason moves. Click here to give it a read.

Tavares also spoke with Newday about the thumb surgery he had in April. All’s well on that front, according to the captain.  

“I felt I didn’t want this reoccurring and the recovery time was only six weeks,” he said, “so it was the right thing to do once the season ended.”

Related: Tavares open to signing contract extension this summer

Under Pressure: Derrick Pouliot (again)

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This post is part of Penguins Day on PHT…

For the second straight year, Derrick Pouliot is our pick for the Pittsburgh player under the most pressure heading into the season.

Perhaps we should just focus on someone else, but the Penguins gave the 23-year-old defenseman a one-year contract extension in July. The eighth overall pick in the 2012 draft, Pouliot knows time is running short to prove Pittsburgh didn’t make a big mistake.

It should be compelling to watch how he fares.

“I’ve got to make an impact right away and show that I belong in the NHL,” he said, per the Post-Gazette. “It’s been three years now. I haven’t fully established myself yet. I want to take it one step at a time and build as the year goes on.”

Pouliot felt he had a strong finish to his AHL season, and perhaps that will help his confidence heading into camp.

But it’s worth noting that he’s no longer exempt from waivers. So unless he earns a spot, that could mean a change of scenery, with the Penguins either losing him for nothing or trading him for pennies on the dollar.

Pouliot could feasibly crack the opening roster as Pittsburgh’s eighth defenseman, behind Kris Letang, Justin Schultz, Brian Dumoulin, Olli Maatta, Ian Cole, Chad Ruhwedel and new addition Matt Hunwick.

He could then languish on that roster until an injury gives him a chance to play.

The first step, though, is coming into camp and building off the back half of last season.

“For me to establish myself as an NHL defenseman, a regular guy in the lineup, it’s kind of playing how I ended the season: solid defensively, consistent in that regard,” Pouliot said, per the Tribune-Review. “That’s been one thing that’s always been brought up about me, inconsistency. So I think it’s starting with that and building each game.”

Looking to make the leap: Zach Aston-Reese

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This post is part of Penguins Day on PHT…

With a number of departures from a roster that won back-to-back Stanley Cups, it’s imperative that the Pittsburgh Penguins get a push from some of their prospects in 2017-18.

One of the top candidates to earn a regular spot is forward Zach Aston-Reese, a 23-year-old who just wrapped up an impressive career at Northeastern University.

Aston-Reese signed with the Pens in March, hoping to follow in the footsteps of fellow undrafted NCAA products Chris Kunitz and Conor Sheary.

In a twist, Kunitz is one of those departed players that Aston-Reese may help replace.

“He was a college free agent, too, and kind of a goal scorer his last couple years in college,” Aston-Reese said of Kunitz, per NHL.com. “Just made a career for himself playing with good guys and being able to put the puck in the back of the net.”

Aston-Reese scored 31 goals in 38 games for the Huskies last season, making him a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award.

But despite all the accolades, he knows he’s still just a prospect, with a lot left to learn, and a lot left to prove.

“Whether we start up top or down in Wilkes-Barre, I think it’s important to be in the same mindset that, you’re trying to get better every day you show up to the rink,” he said, per the Post-Gazette. “If we do get that opportunity, we need to have a good mindset, produce and do what they ask of us.”

Poll: Who will the Penguins miss the most?

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This post is part of Penguins Day on PHT…

After winning back-to-back Stanley Cups, the Pittsburgh Penguins have been forced into making some changes to their roster.

It’s only normal that championship teams won’t be able to bring all their players back, especially in a salary cap world.

This offseason, the Penguins lost Marc-Andre Fleury in the expansion draft and Chris Kunitz, Nick Bonino, Trevor Daley, Ron Hainsey, and Matt Cullen in free agency. Each one of those players played an important role in at least one of the two title runs.

Fleury may not have been between the pipes when the Penguins hoisted the Stanley Cup in each of the last two seasons, but he played a crucial part in each victory. On top of playing 38 games during the regular season, he also compiled a 9-6 record with a 2.56 goals-against-average and a .924 save percentage during the 2017 postseason.

Without Fleury on the roster, the pressure will fall squarely on Matt Murray‘s shoulders. Murray may own two rings, but he has yet to go through the challenges of an 82-game season plus playoffs. New backup Antti Niemi probably won’t be capable of filling in as well as Fleury did.

One of the major reasons the Pens were able to go on two championship runs was because of the depth they had accumulated at center. Any team would love to have one of Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, but Pittsburgh is fortunate enough to have both. The Penguins’ depth didn’t stop there. They also had Nick Bonino on their third line and Matt Cullen on their fourth, which is pretty impressive.

Both Bonino and Cullen will play in the Western Conference next year. Finding competent players to play on the third and fourth line isn’t as difficult as getting top line talent, but those two losses will probably hurt them pretty badly.

Bonino had 18 goals and 37 points during the 2016-17 regular season and he added a modest seven points in 21 games during the postseason before being ruled out with a lower-body injury. Last year, he put up less points in the regular season (29), but he had an impressive 18 points in 24 games during the playoffs. He was also capable of playing a solid two-way game.

Cullen, who signed with Minnesota yesterday, also found a way to contribute, despite playing a bottom-six role on such a deep team. The 40-year-old scored 32 and 31 points in his two years with the Penguins and he also added six and nine points during the playoff runs. He also won plenty of key faceoffs and played well without the puck.

Trevor Daley was unable to finish the 2016 playoffs because of an ankle injury, but he also played a vital role during Pittsburgh’s impressive accomplishment. Daley, who is now with the Red Wings, was able to hold down the fort while Kris Letang was out. He averaged over 20 minutes of ice time during the regular season and 19 more in the spring.

Ron Hainsey was a smart, underrated trade deadline acquisition by GM Jim Rutherford. The veteran stepped into the lineup and played 21 minutes per night for his new team. He also chipped in with eight points in 25 games. He got himself a nice contract with the Maple Leafs on July 1st.

Chris Kunitz had been a big contributor for the team, but his production fell off dramatically. After scoring 35 goals during the 2013-14 season, he added 17, 17 and nine during his last three years in Pittsburgh. It became pretty clear that he wasn’t able to play at the same level he had been in previous years, so it wasn’t surprising to see him go elsewhere (Tampa Bay) when free agency opened.

It’s your turn to vote. Make sure you make a selection in the poll below and feel free to leave your opinion in the comments section.