Mike Johnston, Jim Rutherford, Rick Tocchet

Under Pressure: Mike Johnston

17 Comments

Mike Johnston is 57 years old and has never been a NHL head coach before.

Which makes his first gig a bit of a doozy.

Johnston, who in June was named Dan Bylsma’s successor as the bench boss in Pittsburgh, inherits a team loaded with expectations. Pittsburgh is the NHL’s only team with two former Hart Trophy winners — Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin — and is clearly in Stanley Cup-or-bust mode; to show how serious they were on that front, the Pens conducted a major overhaul this offseason.

— Bylsma and GM Ray Shero fired, replaced by Johnston and Jim Rutherford.

— Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik allowed to walk in free agency, Christian Ehrhoff signed.

— James Neal traded to Nashville for Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling.

The Pens also addressed one of the biggest weaknesses from a year ago — depth — by agreeing to terms with the likes of Steve Downie, Thomas Greiss and Blake Comeau. All of the moves, it seemed, were designed to help turnaround the club’s recent lack of postseason success; last year’s second-round exit at the hands of the Rangers marked the fifth straight time Pittsburgh had fallen short of the Cup Final, and the fourth time in five years the Pens failed to advance to the Eastern Conference Final.

As such, Johnston knows what the stakes are for his first season on the job, and he didn’t bother trying to sugar coat it.

“The bottom-line expectation for me is that, from training camp through the first part of the season, everything we do is setting the table for the playoffs,” Johnston said. “The score is relevant but it’s not as relevant as the habits that we are going to have to make us successful in the playoffs.”

The big question for Johnston now is, how will he handle this pressure?

One would think he’ll lean on his assistants for help. Rick Tocchet’s presence will likely loom large, as the longtime NHLer and coach has a wealth of experience and familiarity with players — he was still lacing them up as recently as 2001-02 and actually coached Downie to the most productive season of his NHL career (Downie scored 22 goals and 46 points for Tampa Bay in 2009-10, with Tocchet behind the bench.)

Johnston will also rely on some of his past experiences. He was an assistant for the Canadian Olympic team at the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano — a pressure-cooker situation if ever there was one — and has worked on a pair of NHL benches in Vancouver and Los Angeles.

He’ll also look to block out external pressure by keeping intently focused on the goal at hand. And give Johnston credit — he really knows what this Pittsburgh job is all about:

Winning it all.

“This group wants to win,” he said. “They’ve won the Stanley Cup [in 2009], and I believe they want to do it again.”

NHL On NBC: Penguins, Flyers meet in Stadium Series

PHILADELPHIA, PA - OCTOBER 29: Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins skates up the ice with the puck against Philadelphia Flyers during the third period at Wells Fargo Center on October 29, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Getty
Leave a comment

NBC’s coverage of the 2016-17 NHL season continues on Saturday night with the final outdoor game of the season when cross-state rivals the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers meet at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh in the NHL Stadium Series.

It’s only the second meeting of the season between the two rivals after the Penguins won aa 5-4 decision earlier this season in Philadelphia.

 

The Penguins come into the game fighting through some recent injury woes that have decimated their defense. Olli Maatta and Trevor Daley are likely to miss the remainder of the regular season, while Justin Schultz is recovering from a concussion that has sidelined him for the past three games. As if that wasn’t enough, Kris Letang, the Penguins’ best defenseman and arguably their most irreplaceable player given the role he has, the minutes he plays and the impact he makes, is day-to-day with an injury of his own. That recent rash of injuries forced the team to make a trade with the Carolina Hurricanes earlier this week to acquire veteran defenseman Ron Hainsey, who is expected to make his debut with the team on Saturday at Heinz Field.

The Penguins have also been dealing with injuries to forwards Conor Sheary and Bryan Rust.

Even with all of that the Penguins have managed to remain in second place in the Metropolitan Division and are 6-1-3 in their past 10 games.

The Flyers, meanwhile, are struggling.

With only nine wins in their past 27 games they have lost a hold on a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and enter Saturday five points back of a wild card spot. A loss on Sunday could even lead to them starting to sell off assets in advance of the NHL trade deadline this week. They have one more game (Tuesday at home against the Colorado Avalanche) between now and the trade deadline.

So it could pretty big game for them on Saturday night.

Faceoff is 8 p.m. ET and can be seen on NBC or our live stream.

Giroux: ‘It’s all business’ between Penguins and Flyers at Heinz Field

PHILADELPHIA, PA - OCTOBER 29: Claude Giroux #28 of the Philadelphia Flyers skates past Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins during the second period at Wells Fargo Center on October 29, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Getty
3 Comments

PITTSBURGH (AP) Mother Nature appears ready to make a kick save on spring ahead of the Stadium Series game between the Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday night at Heinz Field.

After a week of temperatures more suitable for early May than late February gave NHL vice president of facilities operations Dan Craig some anxious moments, a cold front expected to move in early Saturday morning should have things feeling a bit more seasonal when the puck drops between the cross-state rivals.

There’s even a chance of snow before game’s end, a startling contrast from pleasant mid-70s that greeted the Penguins when they arrived for their skate Friday.

“I’m not watching (the weather) too much now,” Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby said. “It can change. There’s a lot of different things going into the decision. I think with the game being at night, that should help.”

The Penguins are hardly newcomers when it comes to dealing with the unpredictability of a western Pennsylvania weather. When the Winter Classic visited Heinz Field on Jan. 1, 2011, the NHL pushed the start time back from 1 p.m. until 8 p.m. due to concerns about rain.

The game between the Penguins and the Washington Capitals went off without a hitch. It also altered Crosby’s career arc. The superstar suffered a concussion after taking a hit to the head from Washington’s David Steckel.

Crosby leads the NHL in goals (33) and is second in the NHL in scoring (66 points) for the defending Stanley Cup champions, though he’s hardly in the mood to wax nostalgic Penguins’ previous game at the home of the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers.

“I’m looking for a bit better outcome than last time,” Crosby said with typical understatement.

This is the fourth outdoor game in the NHL this year and the fourth the Penguins have played in since the league introduced the Winter Classic on Jan. 1, 2008, though Crosby insists donning a sweater and skating outside in an unorthodox venue is hardly losing its luster.

“Playing outside is something that’s special no matter where it is,” Crosby said. “That’s kind of the way I’m looking at it. I think we’re pretty lucky. There are teams that would love to play as many outdoor games as we have.”

The timing also provides a heightened sense of urgency. At the Winter Classic, the season hasn’t even reached its midway point. This weekend is the start of a six-week sprint to the playoffs. The Penguins have already started making preparations, acquiring defenseman Ron Hainsey from Carolina on Thursday. Hainsey is expected to be in the lineup for a team with designs on becoming the first team in nearly 20 years to win back-to-back Stanley Cups.

While Pittsburgh, currently second in the Metropolitan Division behind Washington, is in pretty good shape, the Flyers are not. Philadelphia is just 3-6-1 in its last 10 and sits five points out of the second wild-card spot.

Inside. Outside. Hot. Cold. Rain. Shine. It doesn’t matter to the Flyers.

“I think we really need to get going,” forward Dale Weise said. “That’s really probably more of a concern right now. It kind of takes away from the novelty of the outdoor game. We need the points more than anything. I know it’s going to be a fun experience and guys are excited to play, but we need the points more than anything right now.”

While Craig is accustomed to rapidly changing conditions during his long tenure as the league’s de facto “ice doctor” he also won’t be the one who has to try and play on it. The surface may be softer than what’s typically found indoors. Not exactly a welcome development for a team that relies on crisp passing and creativity like the Penguins.

“You try not to overhandle (the puck) too much,” Crosby said.

Get it and get rid of it might be the order of the day. Outside of all the pageantry and weather uncertainty, following the opening faceoff it’s just another game.

“If it was earlier in the season, I think we could take it in a little bit more,” Flyers forward Claude Giroux said. “It’s all business now. For us it’s about finding a way.”

Senators, Panthers fail to gain in Eastern playoff races

OTTAWA, CANADA - FEBRUARY 7: Jay Harrison #44 of the Carolina Hurricanes celebrates his game winning overtime goal with team mate Jeff Skinner #53, during an NHL game at Scotiabank Place on February 7, 2013 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images)
Getty
1 Comment

PHT already touched on the Florida Panthers falling to the Calgary Flames on Friday, but in tandem with the Ottawa Senators losing to the Carolina Hurricanes, it makes for a night of teams failing to gain valuable points out East.

With the Montreal Canadiens failing lately, the Senators had a chance to take first place in the Atlantic by tying the Habs in points while holding games in hand. Instead, they’ll need to wait.

For the sake of simplicity, here are the Atlantic rankings, with emphasis on the top five.

1. Canadiens – 72 points in 61 games played
2. Senators – 70 in 59
3. Maple Leafs – 68 in 60

Bruins – 68 in 61
Panthers – 66 in 60
Sabres and Lightning have 62 in 60, Red Wings have 58 in 60

You can see the Panthers hanging around the perimeter of the top three; a point or two would have made them a bigger threat to Toronto and Boston. Alas, even with a heavier slate of home games lately, Florida has lost two straight at home.

Here’s an updated look at the wild card races after the Panthers failed to make up some ground:

1. Blue Jackets – 79 in 58, more concerned with Metro races
2. Islanders – 68 in 60

Bruins – 68 in 61
Panthers – 66 in 60
Flyers – 63 in 60

Tiebreaker situations would have meant that the Panthers would have ended tonight technically outside of the playoffs anyway, but a win or even a “charity point” congests an already snug situation. Instead, they stayed put and wasted a game.

Ottawa’s still in a solid situation to overtake Montreal or at least maintain a round of home-ice advantage as the second seed in the Atlantic. So while both teams are kicking themselves for their losses, the Panthers¬†have more to be upset about.

Ultimately, some of the biggest winners in the East were teams that didn’t play or that have a lot less to play for.

(Perhaps the Hurricanes feel a little more optimistic, by the way, as 58 points in 57 games played means they could at least theoretically fight their way back into the discussion.)

Road warriors: Flames move to first West wild card spot with win vs. Panthers

SUNRISE, FL - FEBRUARY 24: Troy Brouwer #36 of the Calgary Flames celebrates his second period goal against the Florida Panthers with Lance Bouma #17 and Matt Stajan #18 at the BB&T Center on February 24, 2017 in Sunrise, Florida. (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)
Getty
1 Comment

The road has been doing both the Calgary Flames and Florida Panthers quite a bit of good lately.

Calgary moved to the first wild card spot on Friday after beating the Panthers in Florida by a score of 4-2. So far, they’ve grabbed at least a point in every game during a road trip that ends in Carolina on Sunday:

Feb. 18: 2-1 OT loss at Vancouver
Feb. 21: 6-5 OT win at Nashville
Feb. 23: 3-2 win at Tampa Bay
Tonight: 4-2 win at Florida

You can’t totally blame the Panthers if they almost miss their road trip.

They rattled off five straight wins through what seemed like a brutal road haul on paper, but now they’ve lost back-to-back home games in regulation. With five of six and six of seven slated in Sunrise, the Panthers need to make the most of these opportunities. So far … not so good.

Here’s how the West wild card situations look now:

1. Flames – 68 points in 62 GP
2. Predators – 67 points in 60 GP

Kings – 62 in 60 GP
Jets – 62 in 63 GP

(The Blues could easily slip below the Predators into the wild card spot, as they also have 67 points in 60 games but hold wins and ROW tiebreaker advantages.)

So, Calgary might not manage to maintain its hold over the first wild card spot, but this streak makes a playoff berth look far more likely.