Five Q’s: Penguins-Senators preview

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Will Tomas Vokoun still be the man?

It was hard to imagine Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma not going back to the 36-year-old backup that won Games 5 and 6 versus the Islanders after regular starter Marc-Andre Fleury stumbled rather badly. Vokoun stopped all but three of the 69 shots he faced, registering a save percentage of .957. Fleury, on the other hand, finished the first round with a .891 save percentage. If Bylsma still feels his best chance of winning the Stanley Cup is with Fleury, or if there’s a sense of loyalty there, he can always wait for Vokoun to slip up. And if Vokoun doesn’t slip up, all the better.

Can the Penguins get out of their end?

When Pittsburgh escaped Long Island, Pens captain Sidney Crosby said his team needed to do a better job of breaking out of its own end of the ice. That’s mostly on the defensemen, but it also falls on the forwards to help the blue-liners by being in better position to receive passes. If the Sens are smart, they’ll be getting in hard on the forecheck and trying to force turnovers. Kris Letang, Paul Martin, Brooks Orpik and company will have to manage the puck better than they did in the first round.

Will Matt Cooke be a target?

Or, do most Senators — unlike their owner — feel he didn’t intentionally injure Erik Karlsson back in February? Maybe it won’t even matter. According to Crosby, the Cooke-Karlsson narrative is one that could quickly become a distant memory. “You’ve got to win games,” said Crosby. “There are always storylines in a playoff series. This one’s easy because of what happened, but there’ll be something else after Game 1. It’s the playoffs.”

Will Jason Spezza be back?

Ottawa’s leading scorer from last year didn’t make the trip to Pittsburgh as he continues to rehab from back surgery. It’s possible he could play at some point in the series, but there’s no timeline for his return. “I want to play, I want to back out there,” he said on Sunday. “I don’t want to have any pain. I wish I could the play the next game. It’s all going to be about how I respond. I’ve got to push myself. That’s why we’re really going to try and push forward in the next three days. It might tell me that it’s not time to play and it might respond real well, but I would be lying if I tried to give you a straight answer (on a return date).”

Pens’ power play or Sens’ penalty kill?

Led by the likes of Crosby, Letang, Evgeni Malkin, Chris Kunitz and James Neal, Pittsburgh boasted the NHL’s second-best power play (24.7%) during the regular season and scored seven times with the man advantage versus the Islanders. Ottawa, though, had the league’s top-ranked PK in 2013 (88.0%), helped in large part by the great goaltending it received from Craig Anderson, Robin Lehner, and Ben Bishop.

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

Related: Pens stick with Vokoun for Game 1 vs. Ottawa

Huge step? Doctors may find a way to identify CTE in living NHL players

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Pro Football Talk’s Josh Alper and TSN’s Rick Westhead pass along what could be a breakthrough Boston University study  – or at least the early stages of a breakthrough – in how concussions/CTE are handled in sports.

The key: after only being able to study brains of deceased athletes, there’s a chance that living athletes with CTE might eventually be identified.

On face value, that’s great news for player health. Hockey, like other contact sports such as football, is no stranger to careers and lives being derailed by brain injuries.

Of course, the NHL and NHLPA would need to cooperate to make the most of potential progress. If you’ve watched hockey long enough, particularly postseason hockey, you know that certain protocols can stand as great concepts met with hesitant execution.

Westhead expounds on such thoughts, and some of his findings aren’t very pretty.

The league is embroiled in a class-action lawsuit regarding concussions, and its actions have been elusive enough that politicians have gone as far as to accuse Gary Bettman and the NHL of being “delusional” about the issue.

Don’t just put this on the league, though.

Players might be hesitant to take such tests if it means that they’ll miss playing time (or even see their careers end). It brings back memories of Peyton Manning willfully sandbagging his baseline concussion test. For better or worse, these guys want to play.

Not great, yet you can also understand the human element.

Of course, it’s crucial to realize that potential breakthroughs from this study could take quite some time to trickle into functional practices, even if leagues and players end up being more willing to comply than expected.

Overall, this is promising news. Hopefully such changes could help athletes during their careers and into retirement.

Sprong continues to impress, just not enough to make Penguins (yet)

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The Pittsburgh Penguins frequently give prospect Daniel Sprong rave reviews, yet it seems like they believe that he still needs some seasoning before making a dent at the NHL level.

Sprong and fellow intriguing forward Zach Aston-Reese headlined a group of 21 players the Penguins demoted to the AHL on Tuesday.

Here is the full list:

Forwards Zach Aston-Reese, Teddy Blueger, Jean-Sebastien Dea, Thomas Di Pauli, Adam Johnson, Sam Miletic, Dominik Simon, Colin Smith, Daniel Sprong, Christian Thomas, Freddie Tiffels and Garrett Wilson; defensemen Lukas Bengtsson, Frank Corrado, Kevin Czuczman, Ethan Prow, Chris Summers, Jarred Tinordi and Zach Trotman; and goalies Casey DeSmith and Tristan Jarry have all been returned to WBS.

Sprong, 20, was the 46th pick of the 2015 NHL Draft. He’s been generating solid numbers at the OHL, so it will be interesting to see how he converts that to AHL work. Sprong played 18 regular-season games for the Penguins back in 2015-16, notching two goals.

Sprong discussed that experience with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette this summer.

“I played [in the NHL] at 18 for a reason,” Sprong said. “With the shoulder surgery last year, that was kind of a setback. But I’m excited for this year and hopefully I can start the season here.”

That won’t happen, but perhaps we’ll see Sprong in 2018-19 … or maybe sooner?

Aston-Reese, 23, already showed some promise in that regard; he scored eight games in a 10-game audition at the AHL level in 2016-17.

These moves narrow the Penguins’ training camp roster down to 26 players. They have until Oct. 3 to settle on 23.

Penguins, Kings among teams with notable waiver moves

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If an NHL team wants to add a big winger with two Stanley Cup rings,* they merely need to make a waiver claim.

TVA’s Renaud Lavoie tweeted out Tuesday’s list of waived players, with the Los Angeles Kings and Pittsburgh Penguins making some of the most interesting moves.

In the case of the Kings, they waived Jordan Nolan and former Penguins backup Jeff Zatkoff. Here’s the full list, via Lavoie:

There are some bullet points that can sell Nolan, but the 28-year-old’s production was quite limited at the NHL level. Nolan’s never scored 10 goals in a single season; in fact, he’s only reached 10 points once in his career (six goals and four assists in 64 regular-season contests back in 2013-14).

Overall, it wouldn’t be surprising if a team targeted Nolan as a depth guy, even if his ceiling is limited.

While the Penguins’ entries seem notable for sheer volume as much as anything else, Frank Corrado is another name that stands out.

Corrado was often the catalyst for debates about his playing time (or lack thereof) with the Toronto Maple Leafs, but it doesn’t seem like the defenseman is having much success catching on with the Penguins, either.

Zatkoff, meanwhile, fits in with quite a few other names on this list: possibly prominent in the AHL, only likely to get the occasional cup of coffee in the NHL, at this point.

* – Yes, it’s OK to think of Jaromir Jagr before that sentence ends.

Red Wings are ‘excited’ about Michael Rasmussen’s offensive upside

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The Detroit Red Wings missed the playoffs for the first time in 25 years, but there appears to be something good that came from that.

Instead of drafting in the back half of the first round, the Wings were able to get a top 10 selection in last June’s NHL Entry Draft. With the ninth overall pick, they chose power forward Michael Rasmussen.

Rasmussen is listed at 6-foot-6 and 215 pounds. NHLers of that size are a rare breed. Add the fact that he’s gifted offensively, and it looks like the Red Wings may have a gem coming through the pipeline.

In his first three career preseason games, the 18-year-old has already picked up two goals. His play hasn’t gone unnoticed by the organization.

“I’m excited about him as a prospect,” head coach Jeff Blashill said, per MLive.com. “He’s big, he’s smooth, he’s got good hands, he’s got good offensive sense.”

With all big forwards, a lot of their success will be determined by their skating ability. In today’s NHL, it’s pretty clear that you need to be able to move if you’re going to have a long and productive career. But according to Blashill, skating isn’t a big issue with Rasmussen.

“I think he skates well. People have questioned that, but I don’t see that at all. I think he covers lots of ground in a hurry. I think he needs to move his feet a little bit more at times in the D-zone, but overall I’ve been happy with his play.”

No matter what he does between now and the end of training camp, it sounds like Rasmussen will be heading back to the WHL’s Tri-City Americans, where he’ll look to improve his numbers from last year (32 goals, 55 points in 50 games).