Pittsburgh’s run fueled by ‘Baby Pens’

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Thursday night was big for Pittsburgh.

But it was also big for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

After the Penguins defeated Tampa Bay 2-1 in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final, head coach Mike Sullivan praised four key players that spent parts of this year with the club’s minor-league affiliate: Matt Murray, Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust and Tom Kuhnhackl.

Lest we forget, Sullivan is a WBS guy too. He was coaching in the AHL prior to replacing Mike Johnston midway through the year, and seemed to know his minor league guys — the ‘Baby Pens’ — could produce at the NHL level.

“Those guys were huge,” Sullivan said in his presser. “I told our players after the game that one of the things I really loved about this game was it
took every single man in the lineup to win, and everybody made a significant contribution to helping us win, regardless of how many minutes they played.”

The most obvious hero was Rust, a rookie that scored both goals in the Game 7 win. The Notre Dame product had five goals in 55 career regular season games, but now has five goals in 17 playoff games this year.

“I love what he brings to this team and couldn’t be  happier  for him for his effort and his contribution as far as how he’s helped this team win for four or five months now,” Sullivan said of Rust. “To see him get rewarded with a couple of goals is a thrill for all of us because he’s such a great kid and he plays so hard.”

Murray, who turned 22 earlier this week, was also a key factor. He was remarkably solid after regaining the starter’s net from Marc-Andre Fleury in Game 6, stopping 44 of 47 shots over the final two games of the series.

Sheary, the diminutive speedster, had two points through Games 5-7 and fired an impressive five shots on goal tonight. Kuhnhackl was a little quieter, but still chipped in with five points this postseason, and provided a physical presence.

Overall, the quartet provided something that Pittsburgh’s lacked in previous playoffs. The knock was always that if Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin weren’t producing, the Pens weren’t winning. They just didn’t have the depth at forward to compensate when their star players went quiet.

That’s not a problem anymore.

“Guys made key plays at key times, subtle plays — plays on the wall, blocked shots, won face-offs, decisions with the puck, a good save, a big hit,” Sullivan explained. “There was a lot of those subtle plays throughout the course of the game that, I think, makes us the team that we are.”

Oilers coach on Draisaitl negotiations, cap crunch and more

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As NHL.com reports, Edmonton Oilers head coach Todd McLellan doesn’t seem too worried about Leon Draisaitl‘s contract negotiations.

“I’m confident we’re going to see Leon in an [Oilers] uniform,” McLellan said at a charity golf tournament. “We want him to be there, he wants to be there, and it’s just a matter of getting a few things done over the summer.”

Granted, as confident as McLellan is, he also admits that he doesn’t really get involved in that side of the hockey business, preferring to leave that to GM Peter Chiarelli.

On that note, McLellan said he’s aware that locking down Drasaitl, Connor McDavid, and other key members will likely leave the Oilers with a “tight wallet … and that’s not going to change for many years.”

(For an in-depth look at the Oilers’ salary structure, check out this deep dive.)

McLellan faces the challenge of aligning those big-ticket items with bargain signings, something that’s likely only to become a more common situation as time goes along. He also must deal with an obstacle that isn’t new to him considering his Sharks days, but will be unusual for many Oilers: no longer slipping under the radar.

“Expectations make it a little harder on a hockey club, mentally and physically, and we haven’t experienced that as a group yet and that’s why I still consider our team a growth team,” McLellan said. “We’ve got to go through that now. Teams will be ready for the Oilers. They’ll be prepared to play against us night in and night out, and people expect us, our fans in particular, to win on a more regular basis than we have in the past. Our task just gets tougher.”

If they fail, McLellan will shoulder much of the blame, even if management makes some poor decisions with that “tight wallet.”

Blues re-sign goalie Binnington

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Jordan Binnington, the netminder taken 88th overall by the Blues in 2011, has signed a one-year, two-way extension, the club announced on Friday.

Binnington, 24, has played almost exclusively with St. Louis’ AHL affiliate since turning pro four years ago, though he did spend some time in the ECHL.

Last year he worked alongside Ville Husso and Pheonix Copley in the Wolves’ goal, and will likely do so again with Husso moving forward (Copley was traded to Washington as part of the Kevin Shattenkirk deal.)

Binnington’s NHL body of work is brief — one 13-minute relief appearance during the ’15-16 campaign. Right now he’s jockeying with Husso to be the organization’s No. 3 netminder, a potential call-up should either Jake Allen or Carter Hutton get hurt.

Chris Neil wants a one-way deal, and says he’s received offers

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Here’s what we know about veteran tough guy Chris Neil.

He won’t be back in Ottawa, the city where he’s spent his entire 15-year career. But he does want to keep playing. What’s more, he’s not ready to accept a two-way deal or training camp PTO, because offers for a one-way deal have already come in.

“The offers I’ve had so far haven’t been [two way or PTO]. They’ve been a one-way deal,” the 37-year-old forward said, per the Ottawa Sun. “For me, that’s what I’d be looking for.

“It’s up in the air right now. There’s some interest. There’s some teams you’d prefer over others.”

Neil was informed by the Sens last month that he wouldn’t be brought back next season, which marked the end of an era. Ottawa took Neil in the sixth round of the 1998 draft, and he made his NHL debut three years later. He went on to become one of the club’s most recognizable players, in large part to his pugilistic ways — during the 2003-04 campaign, he fought a remarkable 24 times.

That trademark toughness could be something teams are interested in bringing aboard. There were rumblings St. Louis was eyeing him after trading Ryan Reaves to Pittsburgh, with Fox Sports Midwest reporting that Neil had three offers on the table.

If there’s one thing that’s for certain, it’s that Neil believes he can still play. After learning that he wouldn’t be brought back to the Canadian capital, he had some choice words for Sens head coach Guy Boucher and the perceived lack of opportunity Boucher afforded him.

“I have a lot of respect for Randy [Lee, Sens assistant GM] and Pierre [Dorion, GM] … I think, if it was up to them, I’d be back,” Neil explained, per the Citizen. “But they kind of put it in the coach’s hands and that had a lot to do with it. For whatever reason, Guy [Boucher] never really gave me the chance to show I can play.

“Even before I got hurt, I was a healthy scratch for a couple of games and I saw the writing on the wall.”

After tough year in Florida, Smith ready to reunite with ‘players-first’ Gallant

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For Reilly Smith, the anticipation of playing for Las Vegas next season goes beyond playing for the league’s newest team.

It’s also about playing for his old coach, Gerard Gallant.

“I think he kind of embodies the motto that it’s a players-first league and everything kind of revolves around that,” Smith said, per the Golden Knights website. “I know particularly last year in the Florida Panthers organization, there was a lot of change and things going on and I know one of the main messages that he always put forth was that whatever goes on outside, make sure you guys are a tight-knit group inside and play for each other.

“That was one thing that he definitely tried to convey to the team and try to get us to rally behind.”

Smith’s time in Florida was a two-part tale.

After coming over from Boston as part of the Jimmy Hayes swap — Marc Savard’s contract was also shipped to Florida — Smith had a terrific ’15-16 campaign under Gallant, posting career highs in goals (25) while helping the Panthers qualify for the playoffs.

In the postseason, he was a consistent scoring threat, finishing the series with four goals and eight points in six games.

Year two wasn’t nearly as successful.

Gallant was fired early on — controversially so — and Smith’s production dropped off. He ended with just 15 goals and 37 points, disappointing figures that were exacerbated by the big five-year, $25 million extension he signed in the offseason.

Reading between the lines, fair to suggest Smith struggled with the coaching change from Gallant to Tom Rowe. Things came to a head in early March, when Rowe called out Smith following a loss to Dallas.

On the Stars’ first goal, Smith seemed to lose his man in front of the net. Rowe was asked about it, and responded.

“We went over that exact play in team meeting and we haven’t learned our lesson yet,” he said. “That is the problem.”

Rowe wasn’t done there. Later, he was asked about Dallas’ winning goal, which may have been deflected in off a skate. The criticism went back to Smith.

“I don’t know,” said Rowe. “All I know is Reilly Smith was blowing the zone doing exactly what he is not supposed to be doing.”

Smith will certainly be a guy to watch this season. He’s still only 26 years old, looking for a bounce back, and noted that Gallant gave him the opportunity to play a larger role than he had with the Bruins (and, prior to that, the Stars).

One wonders if that’ll happen again, this time in Vegas.