Greed could be good for Winnipeg Jets goalies next season

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When people imply that the Winnipeg Jets are playing with house money this season – or, in other words, that they can have a rough season on the ice but will be spared because of the mere presence in Winnipeg – they’re mostly correct. Of course, those statements cover the team at the box office and in the hearts of fans, but the actual players suiting up during games will face a season-long audition to prove to new GM Kevin Cheveldayoff that they’re a part of the club’s future.

That might be especially true when it comes to their duo of goalies: Ondrej Pavelec and Chris Mason.* They’d be facing enough pressure just by the regime change alone and their own up-and-down moments during the 2010-11 season, but the interesting thing this is that both goalies are in contract years, so next season will determine their future with the Jets and the NHL overall.

Pavelec’s pressure

Pavelec will go into the 2011-12 season as the probable No. 1 goalie, but he might face more pressure since this is his chance to prove that he has the chops to be a top guy. As you may remember, Pavelec’s season started in a scary way with his out-of-nowhere fainting spell. Amazingly, he played his best hockey shortly after that frightening episode, but his play tapered off toward the end of the season to match the Atlanta Thrashers’ own struggles.

Still, he put up a solid .914 save percentage and 2.73 GAA while going 21-23-9, the best individual numbers of his short NHL career. Pavelec definitely showed some potential during last season, but he’ll need to put together a consistently strong 2011-12 season to convince the Jets’ brass to keep him in the fold.

Mason’s place

Mason has been one of the league’s most underrated 1b/backup goalies the last few seasons, but he fell on his face pretty badly in 10-11, sporting ugly individual numbers (.892 save percentage and 3.39 GAA) with a mediocre 13-3-3 record.

The stakes are probably lower for the journeyman goalie who can grow an all-world beard, although another .892 save percentage-type year might convince many that his days of being NHL-relevant are over. It wouldn’t be surprising if Mason finds himself in another uniform next season, because his main goal is simple: secure an NHL job.

***

For what it’s worth, Mason seems confident that the duo will have a strong season in 2011-12.

Mason, who is in Winnipeg training, says fans can expect goaltending to be a strong point.

“I really think we can be a top-notch talent,” he said after skating with local NHL players at the MTS IcePlex Tuesday. “Pav’s an unbelievable talent, a good young goaltender and a great guy. I really enjoyed playing with him last year and this summer I worked a lot on my strength conditioning and I plan to try to push him.”

(snip)

“Last year (Pavelec) had a two-month stretch where, in my opinion, he was a top goaltender in the league,” Mason said. “The last half of the season was different for our whole team … we kind of fell off … but he definitely has the potential to be a great goaltender in this league.

“I’ve been around long enough to know that every year you never know what’s going to happen. I’ve played as little as 10-11 games to 60-some games. I just have to work on performing when it’s my turn.”

Ultimately, I think the dangling carrot of a contract year should propel at least one (if not both) goalies to reach their highest potential. When you consider the fact that they’ll be playing in a hockey hotbed like Winnipeg instead of a struggling market like Atlanta, it’s quite possible that the sheer excitement might help carry them on tougher nights as well. (Of course, the heightened pressure might break them down, instead.)

Either way, it’s one of the more interesting goalie duos to watch since the Jets rank as one of the few teams who haven’t determined their mid-to-long-term future in net just yet. We’ll have to see if greed is good for those goalies.

* This is assuming that David Aebischer doesn’t pull off a serious upset by stealing one of the jobs during a training camp tryout, of course.

The Penguins know they got away with one

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PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Penguins have made a habit this postseason out of struggling through games, getting outplayed for long stretches, and then somehow finding a way to scratch out a win. They did it against Columbus. They did it against Washington. They did it at times against Ottawa.

They did it again on Monday.

It hasn’t always been pretty. It hasn’t always been the way they want to play. Heck, it hasn’t always seemed like a sustainable method for winning.

But here they are after their 5-3 win on Monday night sitting just three wins away from winning the Stanley Cup for the second year in a row.

This latest win was perhaps their most absurd the postseason and one of the most bizarre Stanley Cup Final games you will ever see.

They took a three-goal lead after an early Nashville goal was negated on a razor thin offside review, they allowed that three-goal lead to eventually slip away, they managed only 12 shots on goal (the lowest total ever for a winning team in a Stanley Cup Final game) and went an almost unimaginable 37 minutes — nearly two full periods! — without recording a single shot on goal.

The most common question asked after the game simply seemed to be, “how?”

As in, how does a team this good, on this stage, go that long without putting a puck on net?

The most common answer?

They just didn’t play well.

Just ask coach Mike Sullivan.

“We weren’t very good,” said Sullivan. “We weren’t very good. When you’re playing a team like Nashville that has a balanced attack you have to have some pushback, and I don’t think in the second period we had any pushback.

“It seemed like we had a discussion between periods about staying on our toes, and playing the right way, and not trying to defend the lead or sit on the lead, we wanted to go out and try to get the next goal. And this team for the most part is usually pretty good about making sure we continue to play the game the right way. Tonight it wasn’t the case, we just weren’t very good.”

Not very good is probably an understatement.

Other than a five-minute stretch late in the first period where the Penguins were able to score three goals (one on a full two-minute, 5-on-3 power play; another the result of an own-goal off the body of Predators defenseman Mattias Ekholm) they spent most of the night defending a relentless Nashville attack while being unable to generate anything against the NHL’s best defense.

The Penguins pointed to not doing enough of the little things to create any sort of a territorial advantage.

“We weren’t hard enough, weren’t skating, just didn’t play the way we normally play or the way we know how,” said defenseman Justin Schultz. “We have to be a lot better the rest of the series.”

Sullivan went into a little more detail.

“I didn’t think we were stiff enough in the battle areas,” said Sullivan. “As far as when we were defending we have to get into peoples bodies, we have to hit and stick, we have to stay engaged.

“It seemed like we were coming off of checks and giving them time and space with a little bit of separation and so we ended up with extended time in our end zone where we had opportunities where if we played a little stiffer we could create separation from the puck and give our guys an opportunity to win a puck battle. So much of this game boils down those thankless jobs, it’s about winning puck battles along the walls and gaining lines and gaining zones and that is how you control territory, if you’re losing your fair share of those it is hard to get to puck the back.”

Forward Conor Sheary, who ended a lengthy goal-scoring drought by scoring his first goal of the playoffs during that five-minute outburst in the first period, acknowledged they may have been a little too comfortable with that early lead.

“We could have been,” said Sheary. “We could have been caught up in that because we didn’t play a great first period but we came out with a 3-0 lead, and we might have come into the locker room a little comfortable, but we’ll move on from that and move forward.”

Still, what’s almost as unbelievable as the Penguins going more than half of a game without recording a shot is the fact they were able to do that and still come away with a win. In a best-of-seven series sometimes you need to steal one, and at this point in the season nobody is going to apologize for the method in which they win.

The Penguins were happy to accept the result but know they can not repeat that performance if they want to keep going.

“Yeah, we’ll take it but we know it wasn’t our best,” said Schultz.

Sullivan was a little bit more direct.

“What I love about about our group is we got a favorable result tonight,” said Sullivan. “But we know we need to be much better in order to continue to get to where we want to go. So none of us in our dressing room are fooled by the score tonight, so that is an important takeaway. We have a mature group, we have great leadership, and they understand it.”

Disallowed goal didn’t ‘deflate’ Preds

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PITTSBURGH — Given all that transpired on Monday night, there were plenty of topics to discuss in the aftermath of Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final.

Yet one seemed to rise above the rest.

P.K. Subban’s disallowed goal in the first period — wiped out after Pens head coach Mike Sullivan successfully challenged that Filip Forsberg was offside — was a huge talking point, with several Predators pressed for their thoughts on the matter.

“It never deflated us,” captain Mike Fisher said, when asked if the call took the wind out of Nashville’s sails. “We’ve had that happen twice in one game [versus Anaheim in the Western Conference final].

“It doesn’t change our mindset, but it’s unfortunate — we thought it was a goal.  What do you do? From there, we played solid. We just didn’t find that way to win.”

While Fisher said all the right things, it’s hard to suggest the call didn’t have a profound impact on the eventual 5-3 Penguins victory. The Subban goal seemed a just reward for Nashville after a good start, yet it was taken off the board under somewhat dubious circumstances, depending who you ask. (On social media, arguments are still ongoing as to whether video review showed conclusive evidence that Forsberg was offside.)

Fisher’s coach admitted the call changed the tone.

“The impact of that moment, and the chain of events that happened after that — the penalty kills, I think, changed the course of the game,” Peter Laviolette said. “[But] I thought our guys played well, from start to finish. I thought we played a good game. We hate the score, we hate the result, but we move forward.”

There’s another interesting angle in all this. The Pens certainly reaped the benefits from the overturned goal, and not just because it dug them out of a hole. PPG Paints Arena roared with approval upon hearing the announcement — the in-house video board quickly fired up one of those noise meter things — and, shortly thereafter, Pittsburgh exploded for three goals in a 4:11 span.

It was a turning point in a game filled with them. Afterward, Sullivan took time to praise video coordinator Andy Saucier, who was responsible for spearheading the challenge.

“He does a great job,” Sullivan said. “He’s smart. I think he has a really good eye for some of the challenges versus the no challenges. Those timeouts are really important, so we don’t want to use that challenge frivolously. We’re trying to be calculated about it. We’ve sat as a coaching staff at the beginning of the season, and we discussed the criteria so that we’re all on the same page. Sauce does a terrific job for us.”

Read more: A ‘weird game’ and a tough loss, but Preds feel good about their chances

A ‘weird game’ and a tough loss, but Preds feel good about their chances

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PITTSBURGH — “It was a weird game,” said Pekka Rinne, pretty much nailing it.

The Nashville Predators had just lost, 5-3, after keeping the Pittsburgh Penguins without a shot for almost two full periods of Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final.

Just think about that for a moment.

Consider the odds against it.

Rinne, the Conn Smythe Trophy favorite heading into the series, only saw 11 shots the whole night. Four of them beat him, including one that bounced off his own defenseman to put the Preds down, 3-0, in the first period.

Nashville eventually battled back to tie it at three, thanks to a couple of power-play snipes and an even-strength tally by Frederick Gaudreau. But Jake Guentzel‘s goal at 16:43 of the third, on a shot that broke the Penguins’ unfathomably long stretch without one, proved to be the winner. Minutes later, an empty-netter sealed it for the defending champs. 

“At the end of the day, my job is to make the save,” said Rinne, “and at the end of the game I’m disappointed I couldn’t help my team. We showed a lot of character. I thought that we played a great game. I think we have a lot of things that we can take away from this game, a lot of positives.”

Captain Mike Fisher had no idea that his Preds had held the Penguins shotless for 37 minutes, a stretch that went from 19:43 of the first, when Nick Bonino‘s one-handed pass was cleared by Rinne into Mattias Ekholm‘s pads and then into the net, all the way to Guentzel’s winner.

“I knew they weren’t getting too many chances and we were playing pretty strong,” said Fisher. “We found a way to get back in it, but it wasn’t our night.”

Defenseman P.K. Subban, who had a goal called back in the first after video review determined that Filip Forsberg was a hair offside, was characteristically positive afterwards.

“That’s hockey,” said Subban. “That’s just what it is. And if we just play the way we did, minus some of the mistakes that we made, I like our chances. We’ll be better next game, that’s for sure. I’m sure they’re going to be better. … This is going to be a long series.”

Read more: The Penguins know they got away with one

Penguins avoid collapse, beat Preds in crazy Stanley Cup Final opener

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PITTSBURGH — The game of hockey can be crazy at times.

Then you have nights like Monday, when it gets really crazy.

In a game that often made no sense at all, the Penguins built up a 3-0 lead, blew that lead, then rallied late to beat Nashville 5-3 in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final.

So, uh, where to even begin with this?

Let’s start with the game-winner. Jake Guentzel, who was on the verge of being a healthy scratch for tonight’s affair, scored with less than four minutes remaining to snap an eight-game goalless drought.

Now, consider the circumstances under which this goal was scored.

Guentzel was facing tremendous pressure to get his offense going. And the shot he scored on was Pittsburgh’s first in 37 minutes of action. During that time, the Pens recorded the first zero-shot playoff period since NHL began tracking SOG in 1957-58.

Guentzel’s goal also came after Nashville had staged a furious, wild three-goal rally to even things up.

Ryan Ellis, Colton Sissons and Frederick Gaudreau scored for the Preds, with Sissons and Gaudreau finding the back of the net less than four minutes apart in the final frame. Gaudreau, who up until a few weeks ago was playing in the Calder Cup playoffs, looked as though he was primed to become the next unlikely postseason hero.

But it wasn’t to be.

Because there were other equally unlikely developments on the night.

Heck, we haven’t discussed the first period yet. Evgeni Malkin, Conor Sheary and Nick Bonino scored in a span of 4:11 in the opening frame, a flurry filled with fortuitous bounces and breaks. Malkin’s tally came on a 5-on-3 man advantage, after Calle Jarnkrok and James Neal were whistled for simultaneous penalties. Bonino’s marker was an own goal, knocked in by Preds d-man Mattias Ekholm.

Oh, and there was that disallowed marker.

Perhaps you heard? It was an ignominious start for the NHL on its biggest stage. Seven minutes in, the Preds looked to have taken a 1-0 lead when P.K. Subban‘s blast beat Matt Murray. But hold on. Pens head coach Mike Sullivan quickly challenged and, upon review, it was deemed that Filip Forsberg entered the Pittsburgh zone illegally.

More, from the NHL’s situation room blog:

After reviewing all available replays and consulting with the Linesmen, NHL Hockey Operations staff determined that Forsberg preceded the puck into the attacking zone, nor did he have possession and control before crossing the blue line.

This ruling came just hours after NHL commissioner Gary Bettman defended offside challenges in his state-of-the-league address.

Crazy is right. And fitting, given what transpired tonight.