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Five Q’s: Penguins-Islanders series preview

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1. When will Sidney Crosby return?

This question will linger over this series until No. 87 is on the lineup card.

Crosby has been out of action since Mar. 30 — when he suffered a broken jaw against the Islanders, ironically enough — and the dynamic of this matchup depends largely on his availability.

Why? Crosby’s scoring exploits against the Isles, mostly.

In 41 career games, Sid the Kid’s racked up 75 points against New York — the most he’s scored against any NHL club.

He also has a history of making big returns against the Isles. In Nov. 2011, he triumphantly returned from a concussion by scoring four points (2G, 2A) in a 5-0 whitewashing — his first game back after a 10-month layoff.

Update: Crosby has officially been ruled out for Game 1.

2. Is it Tavares’ time?

The second major subplot in this series will be the playoff debut of John Tavares, the 22-year-old phenom that led the Isles in scoring this year and has garnered serious Hart Trophy consideration.

This has been the most successful campaign of Tavares’ four-year career. He dominated the Swiss League during the lockout and was a point-a-game player in Team Canada’s Spengler Cup win.

When NHL play resumed, he continued that point-per-game clip and finished as the league’s third-leading goalscorer (28), pushing the Isles to their first playoff appearance since 2007.

All that said, this is Tavares’ first postseason. It’ll be interesting to see how he adjusts to the increased physical play and (presumably) being shadowed for the entirety of the series.

3. Can Iginla and Morrow be difference-makers?

Pens GM Ray Shero was the undisputed power broker at April’s trade deadline, bringing in a quartet of veterans: Jussi Jokinen, Douglas Murray, Brenden Morrow and Jarome Iginla.

It’s the latter two that will draw the most attention.

Morrow, 34, and Iginla, 35, are both looking for their first Stanley Cups, but will be counted on to play different roles than they did in Dallas and Calgary, respectively.

They used to be captains and front-line players. Now, they’re being asked to provide veteran experience and compliment a forward group featuring young stars like Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and James Neal.

That’s not to say there aren’t big expectations.

Iginla has 49 points in 54 career playoff games and led the Flames to the 2004 Cup final, scoring 13 times.

Morrow’s last playoff run saw him notch 15 points in 18 games as he led the Stars to the Western Conference finals.

4. Will Fleury bounce back?

There are two Marc-Andre Fleurys.

The first is the acrobatic, flair-for-the-dramatic guy that backstopped the Pens to the 2009 Stanley Cup.

The other is the shaky, erratic guy that finished last postseason with a 4.63 GAA and .834 save percentage.

If Pittsburgh has any hopes of hoisting Lord Stanley’s Mug, the first Fleury will need to show up.

The 28-year-old acknowledged as much in speaking with NHL.com.

“That [’09 Cup] was a lot more fun than last year, that’s for sure,” he explained. “But you just learn from it. You learn from what happened in the past and try to use it to improve and be ready for these playoffs coming up.”

5. Can the Isles steal one (or more) on the road?

The top-seeded Penguins have home ice advantage, which might suit New York just fine.

The Isles have been road warriors this year, posting a 14-6-4 record away from Nassau — the third best road mark in the Eastern Conference.

The No. 8 seed knows that in order to capture this series, it’ll need to win at least one game at Consol Energy Center, where the Penguins are a stellar 18-6-0 this year.

It’s a challenge head coach Jack Capuano recognizes, and is ready to take on.

“[Pittsburgh] is ranked where they are for a reason. They’ve got some of the best players in the world,” Capuano told CBS New York. “But your ultimate goal is to win the Stanley Cup.

“If you’re going to get to the Stanley Cup you’ve got to beat the best teams.”

For all the first-round playoff previews, click here.

On his third team in three years, Bonino has ‘found a home for sure’ in Pittsburgh

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PITTSBURGH — In Anaheim, Nick Bonino was good, but not quite good enough to be the Ducks’ second-line center. So two summers ago he was traded to Vancouver as part of a package for Ryan Kesler.

In Vancouver, Bonino had one decent enough season, but the Canucks ultimately decided he wasn’t the kind of “foundation piece” they were looking for. So last summer he was traded to Pittsburgh as part of a package for Brandon Sutter.

In Pittsburgh though?

In Pittsburgh, Nick Bonino is a playoff hero, verging on folk hero. The 28-year-old scored the winning goal in the final minutes of Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final. The chemistry he’s developed with linemates Phil Kessel and Carl Hagelin has helped take the pressure off Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. It’s given the Penguins what they’ve needed for so many years.

“He’s had some huge goals in the playoffs, come up really big,” said teammate Matt Cullen. “Obviously playing in the middle of that line, he’s been huge for us all playoffs. It just brings another element of depth to our team.”

And if you think Cullen had nice things to say about Bonino, that was nothing compared to head coach Mike Sullivan.

“I think he’s a terrific player in every aspect of the game,” said Sullivan. “We use him in so many key situations, both offensively and defensively. I think he’s a guy that has a real high hockey IQ, sees the ice really well. He has real good hands. His awareness defensively I think, the use of his stick to take passing lanes away, it’s impressive.

“He’s brave. He blocks shots. He’s one of our better shot-blockers. He’s a good faceoff guy. He’s done so much for this team to help us get to this point. I don’t know what other praise I can shower on him right now. We think he’s a terrific player.”

Signed through next season, after which he can become an unrestricted free agent, Bonino was asked if he’s finally found a long-term home in Pittsburgh.

“I don’t know about long-term, you never know. Especially me, the last few summers,” he said.

“[But] I think I found a home for sure. I enjoy the guys, enjoy the team. Organization is first class. Definitely feels nice to be in the Cup final playing with these two guys. It’s been a lot of fun for me.”

Despite rough start, the Sharks ‘know we’re going to get better’

PITTSBURGH, PA - MAY 30:  Nick Bonino #13 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates after scoring a third period goal against Martin Jones #31 of the San Jose Sharks in Game One of the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Final at Consol Energy Center on May 30, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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PITTSBURGH — It’s only been one game of the Stanley Cup Final and the San Jose Sharks are already tired of hearing about the Pittsburgh Penguins’ speed.

“It’s an NHL team,” said defenseman Brent Burns. “They’re fast. So is St. Louis. It’s not like St. Louis has got boots on.”

“They’re a good rush team, they’ve got some speed, they make some plays,” captain Joe Pavelski grudgingly conceded. “I don’t know, those teams we’ve played before are pretty good. I think Nashville was probably one of the better rush teams that we saw.”

In other words, the Penguins’ speed was no big deal. Nothing new. Nothing to panic about. The Sharks can play better than they showed in Game 1, a 3-2 loss that wasn’t decided until the final few minutes.

“They definitely came out with some speed and were skating, created some chances,” said Pavelski. “But we helped that out along the way, too.”

After getting outshot 15-4 and outscored 2-0 in the first period, the Sharks fought back in the second. They cut down the turnovers, outshot the Penguins 13-8, and tied the game.

“They carried the first, obviously. We carried the second I think, and then the third was two good teams going at it,” said Burns, calling the opening 20 minutes a “Holy [expletive] we’re here” experience for a San Jose group that has never been this far in the playoffs.

“You make the Stanley Cup finals, you dream about it for a long time,” he said. “You probably used more energy the last couple of days thinking about it than playing in a game. … I think we’ll be better second game.”

Head coach Pete DeBoer agreed.

“They’re a fast team,” he said. “They dictated play in the first. I thought when we played our game in the second, they had trouble with us. It’s the first game of the series. It reminds me a lot of St. Louis Game 1. I know we’re going to get better. Our execution’s got to get better. Part of it was some of the pressure they put on, but part of it was self-inflicted.”

He added, “There’s nothing that I saw tonight that I’m going out of here thinking that we can’t come out and compete and play much better on our end.”

Sullivan calls it a ‘blindside hit to the head,’ but Marleau doesn’t think suspension’s coming

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PITTSBURGH — It didn’t take long for the first controversial incident of the Stanley Cup Final.

Patrick Marleau‘s illegal check to the head on Bryan Rust — one that earned Marleau a minor penalty, and forced Rust to exit the game — left Rust day-to-day with an upper-body injury, per Pens head coach Mike Sullivan.

When asked what he thought of the hit, Sullivan was blunt.

“It’s a blindside hit to the head,” he said. “[Marleau] gets a penalty and I’m sure the league will look at it.”

Marleau wasn’t saying much about the incident following the game, but did suggest he wasn’t expecting supplemental discipline:

“I just tried to keep everything down,” Marleau added. “I didn’t want to get too high on him.”

It’ll be interesting to see what transpires. There hasn’t been a suspension in the Stanley Cup Final since Vancouver’s Aaron Rome was given a four-game ban for his massive hit on Boston forward Nathan Horton.

Marleau has no history with the NHL’s Department of Player Safety.

It should be mentioned the DoPS has been fairly active this spring, handing down five suspensions, including a pair of three-gamers to Brooks Orpik and Brayden Schenn.

Bonino scores late, role guys star again as Pens take Game 1

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PITTSBURGH — If this playoff run has proven anything, it’s that the Penguins are more than Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

Tonight only reaffirmed it.

Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary and Nick Bonino did all the scoring on Monday, with Bonino’s late marker the winner as Pittsburgh defeated San Jose 3-2 in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final.

Bonino’s goal, his fourth of the playoffs, came with just over two minutes remaining, capping off a quality opener in which both teams carried play for long stretches.

Rust and Sheary punctuated a dominant opening period for the Penguins — they out-shot the Sharks 15-4 — but the Sharks replied with a stellar second frame, equalizing on goals from Tomas Hertl and Patrick Marleau.

That set the stage for a dramatic third, and the Bonino goal.

That he, Rust and Sheary did the scoring for Pittsburgh was fitting. There’d been plenty of talk heading into this series about role players coming up large, to the point where the American Hockey League sent out a press release noting that 23 of 25 Penguins that’ve played in the playoffs thus far came through the AHL, highlighting the “big four” from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton: Rust, Sheary, Tom Kuhnhackl and Matt Murray.

Rust etched himself into Pittsburgh lore in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final, scoring both goals in a 2-1 win over the Lightning.

Murray’s exploits are pretty well-known. The 22-year-old was remarkably solid after regaining the starter’s net from Marc-Andre Fleury in Game 6 of the ECF, stopping 44 of 47 shots over the final two games of the series.

He was good again on Monday, with 24 saves on 26 shots.

Sheary, the diminutive speedster, scored his third goal of the playoffs tonight. Kuhnhackl tied a team high with five hits.

As such, Pittsburgh has to be thrilled about how tonight went. They held up home ice and got contributions from across the board — the only downer has to be the health of Rust, who twice exited the contest after taking a hit to the head from Marleau.

As for the Sharks… well, this one will sting a bit. The club did remarkably well to rally from a two-goal deficit and carried play in the second period, but can’t be pleased.

They were beaten in the possession game and out-shot badly (41-26), things head coach Peter DeBoer wanted to control against Pittsburgh, a team he considers the fastest in the league.

That said, there are positives moving forward. Martin Jones was outstanding in his Stanley Cup Final debut, with 38 saves on 41 shots, and there’s still a chance to get the split on Wednesday night.

Of course, to do that, the Sharks will have to figure out how to slow down Pittsburgh’s role players.