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.

Avalanche reportedly settle with Nieto, avoiding arbitration

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Matt Nieto won’t need his arbitration hearing on Monday.

According to Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman, Nieto has agreed to a one-year, $1 million contract with the Colorado Avalanche.

Nieto split last season between San Jose and Colorado, which claimed him off waivers in January.

In 43 games for the Avalanche, the 24-year-old forward scored seven goals with four assists.

Nieto was the only Colorado player on this summer’s arbitration list. However, the Avs still have a restricted free agent in Nikita Zadorov, who could be off to the KHL next season.

3 KHL players suspended after testing positive for banned substances

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The International Ice Hockey Federation has announced that three KHL players have been suspended after testing positive for banned substances.

Here’s an excerpt from the KHL’s website:

The IIHF has informed the KHL that three players – forward Danis Zaripov (then with Metallurg Magnitogorsk), defenseman Andrei Konev (Admiral Vladivostok) and defenseman Derek Smith (Medvescak Zagreb) – have tested positive for banned substances.

Derek Smith tested positive for a category S6.а stimulant.

Andrei Konev tested positive for a category S6.b stimulant.

Danis Zaripov tested positive for a category S6.b stimulant plus category S5 diuretics and masking agents.

Zapirov, who was part of Team Russia at the 2010 Olympic Games, has been banned from suiting up in “competitive hockey” until May 22, 2019. Konev will be unable to play until Nov. 19, 2017, while Smith, who is Canadian, will be suspended until Sep. 2, 2018.

Smith, 32, played in 94 NHL games with the Ottawa Senators and Calgary Flames between 2009-10 and 2013-14.

Report: John MacLean could join Tocchet’s coaching staff in Arizona

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The Arizona Coyotes have a new head coach, but Rick Tocchet still has to fill out the rest of his staff.

According to Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman, the ‘Yotes might be looking to add John MacLean to their coaching staff.

MacLean, 52, spent six years as an assistant coach with the New Jersey Devils (2002-2009) before becoming the head coach of their AHL affiliate. After one year of coaching in the minors, MacLean was promoted to head coach of the Devils. His tenure didn’t last very long, as he was fired after just 33 games (they were 9-22-2 under his watch).

He spent the following three seasons as an assistant in Carolina, but he was let go after the 2014 season.

MacLean hasn’t been back behind an NHL bench since being let go by the ‘Canes. Instead, he’s served as a hockey analyst on various television networks.

Related:

Tocchet wants Coyotes’ young players to be ‘creative’ and ‘calculated’

Tocchet brings lessons from past mistakes (and successes) to Coyotes

Sabres re-sign Robin Lehner to one-year, $4 million deal

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The Buffalo Sabres avoided salary arbitration with goalie Robin Lehner, as they inked him to a one-year, $4 million contract on Tuesday morning.

Lehner and the Sabres were scheduled to have their hearing on July 27, but that obviously won’t be necessary anymore.

The 26-year-old played a career-high 59 games in 2016-17. He finished the year with a 23-26-8 record, a 2.68 goals-against-average and a .920 save percentage.

There’s no doubt that he’s a talented netminder, but he’s had his share of struggles when it comes to staying healthy and being consistent. Of course, the team in front of him hasn’t been very good either.

Both of Buffalo’s goalies (Lehner and Chad Johnson) will have something to prove this season because they’re both on one-year contracts. When their deals expire next summer, Lehner will be a restricted free agent again, while Johnson will be free to test the market on July 1st.

The Sabres now have just over $10.9 million in cap space with RFAs Zemgus Girgensons, Nathan Beaulieu and Evan Rodrigues still needing new contracts.

A huge extension for Jack Eichel is also on the horizon, but his new salary won’t count on the cap until 2018-19.