PHT Morning Skate: Bruins, Sharks seek series wins

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If your idea of a perfect Saturday is to spend all day watching playoff hockey, you’re in luck. Four games, including two possible elimination games, get started at 3:00 p.m. ET and carry you deep into the night.

Today’s action is bookended by possible elimination games when the Boston Bruins host the Detroit Red Wings in Game 5 in Boston and the San Jose Sharks hosting the Los Angeles Kings. The home teams there have 3-1 series leads and would love to get done now to rest up. In the Bruins’ case, they’d like to not give the Montreal Canadiens more time to rest up.

Game 5: Boston Bruins vs. Detroit Red Wings [Boston leads series 3-1] (3:00 p.m. ET — NBC)

The Bruins would love to not copy what they did last season when they were up 3-1 in a series in the first round. In other words, they want to close the door on the Red Wings and not allow a team with their experience any room for hope.

Henrik Zetterberg’s return in Game 4 provided a lift for Detroit and it nearly carried them to victory. But close is only good in horseshoes and hand grenades and the Bruins took the game in overtime. The Bruins get another crack at Jonas Gustavsson who gets the start once again for Detroit as Jimmy Howard is out with the flu. Either he’s got a really nasty bug or he’s dealing with something a bit more serious than the flu to be ruled out a day in advance.

The Bruins’ top line of David Krejci-Milan Lucic-Jarome Iginla was a force in Game 4. Look for more of the same with the Bruins getting last change at home.

Game 5: Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Columbus Blue Jackets [Series tied 2-2] (7:00 p.m. ET — NBCSN)

What to say about the Penguins? They played a brilliant Game 4 in Columbus and looked poised to head home up 3-1… And then the final minutes of the game happened and it all went to heck for the Pens and Marc-Andre Fleury. His misplay that led to the game-tying goal and Nick Foligno’s knuckling shot from 50-feet out helped all the ill feelings about the Pens netminder come roaring back.

Now with the game back in Pittsburgh, the Pens and Fleury could stand to have a lights-out game if for no other reason than to keep the fans from revolting.

One upside for the Blue Jackets is they may get defenseman Fedor Tyutin back in the lineup and that will go a ways to helping out Sergei Bobrovsky in goal. Bob could stand to have some more help defensively and he’s yet to really steal a game in this series. Having that as well as Sidney Crosby’s goal drought hanging over things helps make this Game 5 fascinating.

Game 5: Colorado Avalanche vs. Minnesota Wild [Series tied 2-2] (9:30 p.m. ET — NBCSN)

Is it possible the Avs losing Tyson Barrie was the injury that broke the Avs’ back? Colorado hasn’t been the same team since he’s gone out and Game 4 summed things up pretty clearly that they need help getting outshot 32-12.

Even in spite of that, the Avs aren’t getting blown out by the Wild, but that’s mostly thanks to Vezina Trophy finalist Semyon Varlamov. If there was any doubt that Varlamov was the team MVP during the regular season, he’s answered that in the playoffs as he’s needed to be brilliant to keep the Wild at bay.

Minnesota is hoping the success they have had to this point will help them steal a game in Denver. The home team has won each game in the series. Zach Parise leads the Wild in points with five but has yet to score a goal. Get the feeling he’s due?

Game 5: San Jose Sharks vs. Los Angeles Kings [San Jose leads series 3-1] (10:00 p.m. ET — CNBC)

The fact the Sharks earned a split in Los Angeles is big news and now that they’re back home with a chance to wrap up the series, you have to like their chances.

San Jose looked like world beaters in taking out Jonathan Quick and the Kings in Games 1 and 2. With the way Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski have piled up points with ease, you’d never know the Kings were also one of the better teams in the league this season. The fact the Sharks are also doing it with their depth players is also impressive. Matt Nieto is third in points and Tomas Hertl’s return to action has spurred them on.

That said, the Kings’ effort in Game 4 was impressive enough to make more than a few pundits wonder if maybe this series has more juice in it. Justin Williams’ strong play was reminiscent of his effort during the Kings’ Stanley Cup run and you know Quick is capable of stealing games. The Sharks would very much enjoy putting that talk to bed tonight.

WATCH LIVE: Anaheim Ducks at Nashville Predators – Game 6

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Will we see a Game 7 in the Western Conference Final or will the Nashville Predators stamp their ticket to the franchise’s first-ever Stanley Cup Final?

We’ll find out soon enough on Monday, as the Predators host the Anaheim Ducks in Game 6.

Ryan Getzlaf and the Ducks will get their chance to beat the Ryan Johansen-less Predators once again on NBCSN. You can watch online and via the NBC Sports App.

Here’s what you need to know:

Anaheim Ducks vs. Nashville Predators (Preds lead 3-2)

Time: 8:00 p.m. ET

Network: NBCSN (Stream live here)

Check out the highlights from Nashville’s 3-1 win in Game 5

Related:

Ducks will be without Eaves and Rakell in Game 6

Pontus Aberg ‘face planted’ before scoring game-winning goal in Game 6

Report: Sharks sign Czech d-man Simek

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San Jose’s had good success scouting European leagues in recent years, and the club is hopeful that trend continued on Monday.

The Sharks have signed d-man Radim Simek out of the Czech League, per NBC Sports California. It’s a one-year, two-way pact for the 24-year-old, who just finished representing his native Czech Republic at the World Hockey Championship.

Simek had two points in eight games for the Czechs.

According to a report out of Radio Praha, the Sharks beat out the Rangers to acquire Simek. Passed over in his draft year, Simek has spent his entire pro career with Liberec Bili Tygri.

As mentioned above, Sharks GM Doug Wilson has done well finding European skaters in their early-to-mid-20s, ones that contribute right away at the NHL level: Melker Karlsson, Joonas Donskoi and Marcus Sorensen, most specifically.

Smith could re-up with Rangers, agent expects Gorton meeting soon

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Earlier this month, we wrote about how pending UFA d-man Brendan Smith impressed his Rangers teammates with his strong postseason play.

It was clear the Rangers wanted to keep Smith, a trade deadline pickup, in the fold. And now it sounds like the interest is mutual.

“He’s more than open to coming back,” agent Anton Thun told the New York Post. ““I’m sure I’ll be speaking to Jeff [Gorton, Rangers GM] in the next week or so and we’ll see if we can work something out.”

Smith, 28, just wrapped a two-year, $5.5 million deal with a $2.75M average annual cap hit. His stock certainly rose following the move from Detroit to New York, thanks in large part to a playoff in which he had four points through 12 games, and averaged just under 20 minutes per night.

Add it all up, and a raise is in the cards.

Helping Smith’s cause is a relatively weak crop of free-agent defensemen this summer. Kevin Shattenkirk will be the top dog, while the second tier includes under-30s like Smith, Karl Alzner and Michael Stone.

The Post estimated a $4M AAV could be on the horizon for Smith, which makes sense. Thun didn’t talk specific numbers, but did suggest the Rangers weren’t going to get any sort of discount.

“To pass up free agency,” he explained, “Brendan’s going to need a contract that reflects market value.”

 

 

Penguins redefining defense by committee

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When the Pittsburgh Penguins lost defenseman Kris Letang for the entire postseason it was thought be a crushing blow to their chances to repeat as Stanley Cup champions. Especially with a path that was likely to include two of the NHL’s best teams in the first two rounds of the playoffs.

Not only is Letang one of the best defensemen in the world, he is one of the most important cogs in the Penguins’ machine. During last year’s Stanley Cup run he played close to 29 minutes per game and did so at an incredibly high level. Losing that sort of workhorse is nearly impossible to replace.

But even with Letang’s absence (and even additional injuries to defensemen Trevor Daley and Justin Schultz) the Penguins find themselves one win away from returning to the Stanley Cup Final without really having a true No. 1 defenseman to turn to.

This is almost unheard of in today’s NHL.

Every team that goes on a deep run in the playoffs has a minute-eating defenseman that can be counted on to play a significant portion of the game. Letang. Drew Doughty. Duncan Keith. Erik Karlsson. Zdeno Chara. Players like that.

When it comes to the playoffs, teams tend to roll with their top-four defensemen the most and do their best to hide or shelter their third pairing by limiting their minutes as much as they can. The Penguins have not had that luxury without Letang.

That means everybody has had to step up and take on an expanded role. Just about everybody is playing more than they are used to while there is virtually no difference between each role.

First, consider that every team (22 of them) that has reached the Stanley Cup Final since the 2005-06 season has had at least one defensemen average more than 22 minutes of ice-time per game. Twenty-one of those 22 teams have had at least two players log more than 22 minutes, while 18 of them have had at least one player average more than 25 minutes of ice-time per game.

The 2016-17 Penguins currently have none.

Brian Dumoulin is currently their ice-time leader, playing just over 21 minutes per game.

Let’s take a look at what that looks like from a usage perspective.

The table here looks at this year’s Penguins, the remaining final four teams this season, and every Stanley Cup Finalist dating back to 2011-12 and what percentage of a 60-minute game each of their top-six defensemen played on an average night. This year’s Penguins should stick out as a massive outlier.

 

Other than the 2014-15 Lightning and 2011-12 Devils every other team on here had a No. 1 defenseman that was on the ice for more than 40 percent of the game on a given night. And the Lightning and Devils were very close to it.

All of them had a No. 2 defenseman that played more than 36 percent of the game on a given night.

Again, the Penguins currently have nobody taking on that sort of a workload in either spot.

Every team on there was able to limit their playing time of their third pairing (some more than others) while there was a significant gap between the ice-time for their No. 1 and No. 6 defenseman.

For Pittsburgh, their third pairing plays almost as much as their second pairing, while there is minimal difference between the workload for their top pairing and their third pairing. Last year, as an example, Letang averaged more than 13 additional minutes per game than their No. 6 defenseman.

This year Dumoulin is only averaging three more minutes than their No. 6.

It really is a defense by committee approach and it has been kind of fascinating to watch.

They are clearly lacking the elite puck-moving presence that a player like Letang can provide, and at times their ability to smoothly and efficiently exit the defensive zone has been a struggle.

It is also a situation where a lot of players are being thrust into roles they are not used to playing.  This has at times led to extended zone time for their opponents and put them in a situation where they are giving up way more shots per game than they want. They are also fortunate to have two outstanding goalies in Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury that have been fantastic this postseason to keep pucks out of the net. But overall it is a unit that has seemingly taken on a whatever it takes approach to get the job done.

It runs counter to everything we have seen from contending teams in recent years when it comes to the makeup of a defense, but they have somehow found a way to make this patchwork unit work. Now here they are, just one win away from getting back to the Stanley Cup Final.