And then there were 7: Penguins eliminated

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For more entries in this series, click here.

For all the regular season successes and stories of resiliency, the Pittsburgh Penguins have seen their postseasons end in very sour ways the last few years. You can now add “the bitterness of coughing up a 3-1 series lead” to that list of recent disappointments as the New York Rangers bounced them in Game 7 by a score of 2-1.

Let’s look at the complete picture, even if there might be some panic in Pittsburgh:

  • Sidney Crosby blew everyone else away in regular season scoring. His 104 points topped everyone by a large margin; no one else even crossed the 90-point barrier (Ryan Getzlaf came in at second place with 87).
  • Of course, things didn’t work out quite so well for Crosby during the postseason. Evgeni Malkin actually enjoyed a fantastic playoff run after “only” scoring 72 regular season points. Expect a mind-numbing array of stories pondering what’s wrong with Crosby … including maybe even a tangible update or two (maybe an actual injury update if applicable?).
  • Marc-Andre Fleury seemed to settle himself down after Mario Lemieux gave him a locker room visit following a tough first-round loss. Still, the questions about “The Flower” will probably persist amid his ups and downs. The interesting thing with Fleury is that unlike Crosby, Malkin and other key cogs, he isn’t locked up long-term … with a contract to expire after 2014-15, he’s approaching a real fork in the road.
  • The questions about head coach Dan Bylsma’s job security will probably be quite a bit louder, however. The amicable coach navigated the challenging waters of another regular season and helped Pittsburgh shake off the typical run of injuries to win their division, but work before mid-April is taken for granted now with the Penguins. He’ll be questioned for a perceived lack of adjustments and a variety of other failings that may or may not be his fault. Many believe this is finally the time that his second chances will run out.
  • While the big names are locked in, the supporting cast could change drastically in Pittsburgh. Matt Niskanen is the biggest free agent name to consider after a breakout season, but Jussi Jokinen joins the likes of Brandon Sutter and Brooks Orpik as the Penguins don’t have many players lacked up outside of the core. That could be intimidating or promising depending upon your opinion of GM Ray Shero (assuming he’s still the general manager).
  • The Penguins were patient after being swept from the 2013 Eastern Conference finals by the Boston Bruins, but will the franchise weather the storm this time? It’s difficult to imagine this team without some significant changes … the question is: how drastic will those alterations end up being?

PHT Morning Skate: 5 players that are off to slow starts this season

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–The Score looks at five players that are off to slow starts in 2017-18. Brent Burns was incredibly productive in the first half of last season, but he’s been awfully quiet so far. (The Score)

–Speaking of players that are struggling, Antoine Roussel is off to a disappointing start with Dallas. He was one of the top possession players on the Stars roster, but the results just haven’t been there. There’s still plenty of time for him to turn things around though. (defendingbigd.com)

–The Montreal Canadiens are off to a rough start this season, but Montreal Gazette columnist Jack Todd believes they have what it takes to turn it around. Carey Price can be better, Jonathan Drouin can contribute more offensively and Max Pacioretty can score more goals. (Montreal Gazette)

–A lot of Nikita Kucherov‘s success comes from being unpredictable. One thing he worked on this off-season was improving his backhander. “It’s a tough league, you have to make chances out of nothing. Look at those guys, Kane, Crosby, watch them and it’s a huge part of their game. It’s something I want to add to my game and be better at.” (Tampa Bay Times)

–Even though the NHL added concussion spotters in 2015-16, their system is far from perfect. On Friday night, Marc-Andre Fleury took a knee to the head and he was allowed to stay in the game. Fleury is now out indefinitely. It’s time for the NHL to improve this whole process. (fanragsports.com)

–The Toronto Maple Leafs are one of the rare teams that are loaded with young depth at the AHL level. They’re so deep that some are wondering if they should loan out some of their prospects to other AHL teams instead of sending them to the ECHL. (faceoffcircle.ca)

–The Nashville Predators were one of the few eight seeds that made a run to the Stanley Cup Final. Before you draw hope for your team based on the Preds’ accomplishments, you might want realize that they weren’t your typical eighth seed based on the numbers they put up last season. (ontheforecheck.com)

–Every fall, EA Sports releases a new NHL video game that gets people excited for hockey season. Operation Sports looks at ways EA can improve game play. Better passing control? More elaborate dekes? Sign us up. (operationsports.com)

Taylor Hall is known for his play on the ice, but his social media game is pretty strong, too. Just ask former teammate Jordan Eberle, who found that out the hard way after he chirped Hall on Twitter. (Sports Illustrated)

–We don’t know if Matt Duchene will ever be traded. But regardless of where he plays this season, what kind of upside does he have? Although Duchene is off to a good start, there’s a good chance his numbers will come down a little bit. (milehighhockey.com)

–NHL.com’s Dave Stubbs sat down with former defenseman Hal Gill to ask him five questions. They discussed how the game has changed, what it’s like to win the Stanley Cup and they also talked about P.K. Subban. (NHL.com)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

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The Buzzer: Nikita Kucherov just keeps scoring goals

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Player of the night. Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning

The Tampa Bay Lightning have played six games this season. Forward Nikita Kucherov has scored a goal in all of them.

He continued that goal scoring streak on Monday night in the Lightning’s 3-2 win in Detroit by scoring a pair of goals, including the game-winner to help lift them to their eighth consecutive win over the Detroit Red Wings.

With that win the Lightning now have the best record in the NHL, while Kucherov’s seven goals are the second most in the league, trailing only Alex Ovechkin (nine).

Kucherov has seen his production increase every year he has been in the NHL. He set a career-high with 40 goals a year ago and seems like he is on track to top that mark this season. Now playing in his age 24 season he should be right in the thick of his prime years in the NHL. When it comes to pure skill and offensive production there are only a handful of players in the league that can top what Kucherov is doing.

Highlight of the Night.

Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilievsky stopped 29 shots on Monday night but perhaps none were better than this pad save to rob Tomas Tatar right on the door step.

Vasilevskiy had a slow start to the season but has been outstanding in his past two games, stopping 57 out of 60 shots in the Lightning’s wins over the St. Louis Blues and Red Wings.

Factoid of the Night.

Justin Abdelkader scored on a penalty shot for the Detroit Red Wings on Monday night becoming the first Red Wings player to do that in nearly 10 years.

Ten years?! That seems like a heck of a long time between penalty shot goals for a team.

Misc.

Mike Green continued his incredible start to the season by scoring his first goal of the season for the Detroit Red Wings. He is now up to nine points in five games this season.

Steven Stamkos picked up a pair of assists in the win for the Lightning, giving him eight on the season. Once he starts scoring goals (he only has one so far) he is going to be a force. His absence a year ago was a big reason why the Lightning fell just short of the postseason. With him back healthy they now have two of the top offensive players in the league (Nikita Kucherov).

Scores

Tampa Bay Lightning 3, Detroit Red Wings 2

Leon Draisaitl lands on injured reserve for Oilers

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After missing his team’s 6-1 loss to the Ottawa Senators on Saturday night, the Edmonton Oilers announced on Monday that forward Leon Draisaitl has been placed on injure reserve.

He was injured one week ago in a game against the Winnipeg Jets and has been sidelined with an eye injury and concussion symptoms ever since. It’s a big blow to an Oilers team that is off to a slower than expected start having won just one of their first four games.

Draisaitl signed an eight-year, $68 million contract over the summer making him a significant part of the Oilers’ core alongside Connor McDavid. He finished the 2016-17 season as one of the top offensive players in the league and is going to be counted on to help carry the offense again when he is healthy. The Oilers don’t have a ton of forward depth and are going to need McDavid and Draisaitl to be the focal points once again if they are going to live up to the preseason hype that made them one of the odds on favorites to win the Stanley Cup.

Before he was injured this season Draisaitl had recorded one assist in three games.

The Oilers host the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday night.

It is not yet known how long he will be sidelined.

SPHL gets creative, adopts ‘pick your opponent’ playoff format

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When discussion about the NHL’s playoff format comes up, there is a section of fans who would like to see the league allow for an even greater reward for top teams other than home-ice advantage.

That idea has become a reality thanks to the Southern Professional Hockey League.

The 10-team SPHL announced on Monday that they are overhauling their opening round and turning it into what’s being dubbed the “Challenge Round.” The top three teams will get to choose their first-round opponent during a “Challenge Round Selection” event which will be broadcast to fans on Sunday, April 8, the day after the regular season concludes. After the top three seeds select their opponents, the No. 4 team will be matched against the leftover side.

Every playoff series, including the President’s Cup Final, will remain best-of-three with re-seeding taking place for the second round.

The idea for this change came to SPHL commissioner Jim Combs over dinner in June with Axel Bammer, Chief Operating Officer of the Erste Bank Eishockey Liga. When Combs heard that the league’s top teams get to pick their opening round opponent, he could imagine the buzz it would generate. (Sweden’s Elitserien did this in the past as well.)

A week after meeting with Bammer, Combs met with the league’s owners and received zero pushback about the idea. The new playoff format was widely embraced as the group felt this was the future of hockey.

Feedback has been mixed on the change. But Mike Campos, who covers the SPHL for The Sin Bin, sees it being a big plus for the league.

One of the benefits of being at the bottom rung of the professional hockey ladder (second-lowest, if you consider the FHL a pro league) is there is flexibility to implement radically new ideas other leagues can not. If the “Pick Your Opponent” format change generates buzz among fans and rivalries between teams resulting in a spirited postseason, the decision could be a winner for the SPHL.

As Campos notes, lower levels of hockey allow for plenty of innovation while not straying far from the fundamentals of running a hockey league. This new format will certainly make the end of the regular season much more interesting and provide bulletin board material for teams and storylines heading into the playoffs. It’s an idea worth exploring, and the SPHL is no stranger to implementing ideas that catch on elsewhere.

It was the SPHL where 3-on-3 hockey began over a decade ago. It was deemed a silly gimmick at first, but now that we’ve seen it at the NHL level for two seasons, it’s clearly a welcomed change — one that’s made overtime hockey must-see television.

Combs said the league will see how this playoff format idea plays out in April before deciding whether to keep or tweak it in the future.

So what do you think? Would you want to see the NHL go in this direction for the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs?

Stick-tap Scotty Wazz

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Sean Leahy is a writer forPro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line atphtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

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