Nugent-Hopkins to play Monday

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As it turns out, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins will only miss the first two games of the regular season. The 20-year-old star center is expected to be in the lineup Monday when his Edmonton Oilers host the New Jersey Devils.

Nugent-Hopkins had shoulder surgery on April 23 and didn’t play during the preseason. (What he did do, though, was sign a $42 million contract extension.)

Even with the return of Nugent-Hopkins, head coach Dallas Eakins reportedly wouldn’t rule out Taylor Hall remaining at center. The Oilers are still without their other true top-six center, Sam Gagner (broken jaw), for a while.

Edmonton plays Saturday in Vancouver before returning home for the Devils game.

Related: Oilers coach Eakins says bad habits have to ‘die’

Fleury trying not to think about if this is his last run with Penguins

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PITTSBURGH — With Matt Murray reclaiming his starting spot in the Pittsburgh Penguins’ net, the topic of Marc-Andre Fleury‘s future with the team was again a talking point during Sunday’s Stanley Cup Final media day.

Specifically, whether or not this series against the Nashville Predators will be his final games with the only NHL team he has ever known.

Given the expansion draft situation this summer, as well as the fact Murray has clearly passed him in the eyes of the coaching staff, it seems even more inevitable than ever that his time with the team is limited.

On Sunday, he was asked if he ever lets his mind go there and think about it.

“I try not to,” said Fleury. “I try to live, day-by-day, go like that. We will see what happens at the end of the season.”

For Fleury, the circumstances for his status as Murray’s backup are vastly different from a year ago when he started the playoffs on the bench due to injury and, outside of one Game in the Eastern Conference Finals, never really had an opportunity to contribute to the team’s playoff run.

That has not been the case this year.

Fleury has not only been a major contributor, he is probably the single biggest reason they escaped the first two rounds against the Columbus Blue Jackets and Washington Capitals.

He was also asked if it would be easier to potentially leave Pittsburgh after this season having been able to contribute to a deep playoff run after not really getting a chance to play a year ago.

“Yeah, those are memories I will always keep,” said Fleury. “The support from the fans, the atmosphere in the building, the fun I had winning those games. But still another championship would be even better.”

His play through the first two rounds is what made Mike Sullivan’s decision to go back to Murray such a bold — and even controversial — move.

Fleury was not only playing extremely well, he was playing what was perhaps the best hockey of his career. Given that performance, along with the fact Murray had not played in more than a month due to injury, it was a move that most coaches probably would not have made.

“The decision that was made in goal was a very difficult decision,” said Sullivan on Sunday.  “Our coaches discussed it at length. That was a very difficult decision because we have so much respect for both players. Both of these goaltenders that we have are Stanley Cup-winning goaltenders. I’ve said all year long that we believe that we have two No. 1 goalies. That’s a unique challenge to our team, because most teams don’t have that.”

He continued: “Part of my responsibility is to try to decide which guy on a particular game is going to give this team the best chance to win. There are a lot of factors that go into it. Quite honestly, I like to keep those decisions within the confines of our hockey team. But there are a lot of factors that go into it.”

Fleury was asked on Sunday what the change was like but declined to go into much detail, instead focussing on how much he has enjoyed this postseason.

“I don’t think I want to get into it really,” said Fleury. “I was having a lot of fun winning some games. It’s a coaches decision and I have to respect it.”

“Not being in net I just try to encourage the guys, cheer the guys on and if I ever get another opportunity I will be ready.”

Penguins can become first repeat champs of NHL’s salary-cap era

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PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Penguins will make history if they can beat the Nashville Predators in the 2017 Stanley Cup Final.

No team has been able to win back-to-back Cups since the NHL instituted a salary cap in 2005. The Detroit Red Wings nearly did it in 2009, only to be beaten by the upstart Pens.

Since 2009, no defending champ had even made it back to the final, until the Penguins knocked off the Senators Thursday.

According to captain Sidney Crosby, the chance to become the first repeat champs of the salary-cap era is just one of the things that’s driving his team.

“I think when you get here you have a ton of motivation, regardless if it’s trying to go back-to-back,” said Crosby. “The motivation comes from a lot of different things for a lot of different guys. Maybe (repeating) is one of them, but it’s not something that we talk about a whole lot. This is a new year. It’s a new opponent.”

And the Predators will be a tough opponent, even without their No. 1 center, Ryan Johansen. Nashville’s strength is on the back end, with Roman Josi, P.K. Subban, Ryan Ellis, and Mattias Ekholm comprising arguably the strongest top four in the league.

“You have to be aware of where they are,” said Crosby. “They’re so good at joining the rush, they’re so good at leading the rush.”

But the Pens have the clear advantage down the middle. Crosby on the first line, Evgeni Malkin on the second. That combination has helped Pittsburgh win seven straight series, with a chance to make it eight.

“I can’t tell you how rewarding it’s been to have the opportunity to coach this team,” said head coach Mike Sullivan. “I’m so grateful to have been given this opportunity. We believe we’ve got such a competitive group of players. They’re high-character people. They have an insatiable appetite to win. They’re a privilege to coach.”

Winger Bryan Rust was on last year’s team. For him, the opportunity to win two straight Cups, in a league that loves to brag about its parity, is energizing.

“I think it does motivate us to be able to do something that is so hard, and be able to accomplish a goal that hasn’t been done in a very long time,” said Rust. “It gives us an extra spark. Winning it once is hard enough, but trying to do it twice in a row is even harder.”

Game 1 of the series goes Monday in Pittsburgh.

The Red Wings were the last team to repeat as champions. They won the Cup in 1997 and 1998, back when teams had no limits on their spending.

Related: For Penguins’ defense, it’s been a group effort to replace Kris Letang

 

Kunitz, Cullen know this might be their last kick at the can

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PITTSBURGH — Matt Cullen and Chris Kunitz are the oldest forwards on the Penguins roster. Both are without contracts for next season.

Those facts are not lost on either guy.

“I’m 40 here, and I understand where the world of hockey is at,” Cullen said Sunday at Stanley Cup media day. “I know very well that this could be my last chance.”

Talking of savoring the moment isn’t new for Cullen. He did this exact same dance last year, explaining that he knew his future was uncertain, but also how he wanted to focus on the present.

For Kunitz, though, this was new.

The 37-year-old is in the last of a three-year deal, set to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1. He, too, trotted out the usual cliches on media day — take it one game at a time, focus on the present, embrace the opportunity at hand — but there was more.

Kunitz, who’s been a Penguin since 2008, acknowledged the special bond developed with his teammates over the last nine years, and how it could soon be over.

“We’ve been together for so long,” Kunitz said. “Our families are close, the kids are getting older and you realize that we’ve been really fortunate to have this great group of guys that have stuck together for so long. It’s rare to have guys stay for that long.

“So you just want to capitalize and make the most of it. [We’ve] all gone out for dinner together before the trade deadline, never knowing where your hockey career’s going to go. It’s something you put into your mind, but you’ve got to go out there and achieve your success every time you can.”

This was a down year for Kunitz. He finished the regular season with just nine goals — one of the lowest totals of his career — and went a staggering 35 games without finding the back of the net before his Game 7 heroics against Ottawa.

It was a huge moment against the Sens, to be sure. The first double-OT winner in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final since 1994. It’s one of the biggest goals in Penguins franchise history.

“[Kunitz] played his best game of the playoffs when it matters the most,” Carl Hagelin said following the game. “That’s the type of guy he is and that’s the reason he has three Stanley Cup rings already. He’s just one of those guys you love having on your team.”

Though he can still contribute and remains a good depth forward, it’s unclear if this is the end of Kunitz’s time in Pittsburgh. His role has decreased significantly over the last few seasons, and the club has enjoyed good success implementing younger, speedier forwards like Bryan Rust, Jake Guentzel and Conor Sheary.

But like Cullen, maybe Kunitz and the Pens can find a way.

Cullen went nearly all of last summer without a contract, eventually agreeing on a one-year, $1 million extension to come back to Pittsburgh. It was a relatively modest pay bump — up from the $800,000 he made the season prior — but befitting for a guy that had 16 goals and 32 points in the regular season, and another seven in 19 games to help the Pens win it all.

As mentioned above, this may be it for Cullen. Especially if he wins another Cup. The allure of going out on top is strong, and he says he really can’t envision himself playing anywhere other than Pittsburgh.

“I’ve been through this enough that I know I need to give it some time,” he said. “It’s a decision for me that means a lot, and carries a lot of weight.

“Pittsburgh has just been a perfect fit, in all regards. The community’s been awesome and, for me, the hockey has been unbelievable and couldn’t have gone any better. When you’re sitting here and it’s your second Stanley Cup Final in two years, obviously it’s been a dream.”

For Penguins’ defense, it’s been a group effort to replace Letang

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PITTSBURGH (AP) The handful of men who carry out the most thankless of tasks for the Pittsburgh Penguins are a rag-tag group thrown together by circumstance and a touch of foresight by general manager Jim Rutherford.

They are largely anonymous and blissfully so, only too happy to work in the considerable shadows created by the stars who play in front of them and their unquestioned leader, the one forced to watch the franchise’s run to a second straight Stanley Cup Final in immaculately tailored suits from the press box while he recovers from neck surgery.

When defenseman Kris Letang‘s star-crossed season ended for good in early April when he abandoned any hope of a comeback from the injuries that limited him to just 40 games this season, the chances of the Penguins becoming the first team to win back-to-back titles was supposed to vanish along with him.

Yet here they are hosting Nashville in Game 1 on Monday night, four wins away from a repeat that seemed improbable seven weeks ago. And they’ve done it with a group of blue liners who lack Letang’s unique talents or the undeniable dynamic charisma of the defensemen like P.K. Subban who have helped power the Predators’ dominant sprint to the final.

“That’s fine with us,” said Brian Dumoulin, who leads the Penguins in ice time during the postseason. “They’re great players and stuff like that. No chip on our shoulder. We know who we are as a D core.”

They might be one of the few. A quick introduction.

There’s well-traveled Ron Hainsey, the 36-year-old who needed to wait a record 907 games before reaching the postseason for the first time in his 14-year career.

There’s Trevor Daley and Olli Maatta, the battle-tested veteran and the baby-faced kid from Finland, both of whom spent significant chunks of time on the injured reserve this season only to develop an unquantifiable chemistry during the playoffs.

There’s Dumoulin, who has become Pittsburgh’s new iron man with Letang out. There’s Ian Cole, the thoughtful well-bearded conscience who revels in the more physical aspects of his job.

There’s 39-year-old Mark Streit, who like Hainsey was brought in as insurance at the trade deadline then spent six weeks as a healthy scratch only to fill in capably when another spate of injuries struck in the Eastern Conference finals against Ottawa.

Mostly, however, there’s Justin Schultz. Considered a disappointment during three-plus underwhelming seasons in Edmonton, Schultz has spent 15 months in Pittsburgh remodeling his game.

It’s Schultz who has taken over as the quarterback on the Penguins’ potent power play. It’s Schultz who has found a knack for the big moment. He delivered the winning goal in Game 4 of the second round against Washington. He put the Penguins ahead in the third period of Game 7 against Ottawa and ended up with the secondary assist on Chris Kunitz‘s knuckler that finally put away the Senators in double overtime.

Schultz is reluctant to talk about his transformation or the upper-body injury that sidelined him for four games during the Ottawa series. He returned for the decider to play more than 24 minutes, gritting his teeth all the way through.

When asked if the injury limited his ability to get off the shot that became his third goal of the postseason, Schultz responded with typical modesty.

“Not full but like I said, those guys did such a good job screening … it didn’t have to be the hardest shot to get through,” said Schultz, who set a career -high with 51 points during the regular season and has added another 10 in the playoffs.

Schultz, however, could always shoot. That’s never been the problem. It’s at the other end of the ice where he’s truly matured and likely made him one of the most coveted free agents to be in the process.

The defenseman who never had any trouble jumping into the play has not become adept at thwarting them too.

“He’s always had ability to excel on the offensive side,” said Penguins assistant Jacques Martin, who coaches the defense. “He’s got tremendous vision. He’s been able to replace Kris on the power play. The area (of growth) that’s most noticeable has been his defensive side … his positioning. He’s improved his compete level, his use of his stick, his position. All areas he’s grown in over the season.”

The Penguins have needed every last ounce of it as they have from the rest of their defensemen who has spent the last four months trying to replace the seemingly irreplaceable Letang.

It’s been a group effort. More than once Pittsburgh has been forced to go long stretches in games with only five defensemen because one of them went down. When Shultz left Game 2 against the Senators, Dumoulin played 26 minutes, Hainsey nearly 25 and Maatta 22. The Penguins survived 1-0 to even the series.

“If you look at last year in playoffs it was Kris Letang and then the rest of us,” Dumoulin said. “That’s not the case right now. Obviously whatever role that you’re asked to do, whatever opportunity is there, you’re going to do it. We’re not going to be the offensive guy Kris Letang was. Nobody is going to be in that aspect.”

The object is to make sure it doesn’t matter. So far, it hasn’t.

“I think we have a group back there that cares about each other, that are really playing within their limitations,” Martin said. “I think that’s the key.”

Related: Penguins’ run to Stanley Cup Final filled with challenges