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Sharks better, faster and deeper than last year’s Cup finalist, says DeBoer

LOS ANGELES — One of the central themes going into last year’s Stanley Cup Final was the speed of the Penguins and Sharks.

But once it was over, all anyone could talk about was how much faster Penguins were.

It’s something Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer remembered with a chuckle at Saturday’s All-Star media session, as he prepped to coach the Pacific Division.

“We were fast… until we saw Pittsburgh,” DeBoer said with a laugh. “That’s obviously something we talked about, and I think we are faster.”

To hear the head coach explain it, speed isn’t the only thing San Jose’s upgraded.

DeBoer says this year’s team is notably improved compared to the ’15-16 group — a team that finished with 46 wins, 98 points and advanced to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in franchise history.

(A scary proposition for the rest of the Western Conference, this.)

“I like our team,” DeBoer explained. “I think we’re better than last year, sitting where we are right now. The young guys have added a dimension to our team. I think we’re deeper.

“The big question here is going to be health, and energy. There’s no secret and there’s no hiding from the fact that you go to the Final and then find a way to get back there. That’s just reality. But I think if there’s a group that can do it, we’re set up to do it.”

DeBoer’s comments come after GM Doug Wilson made several unheralded-yet-significant changes to the club’s makeup. The speed upgrade was most evident — highlighted by the free agent acquisition of Mikkel Boedker, one of the quickest guys in the league — but getting faster wasn’t just limited to skating ability.

“Speed isn’t just pure speed, it’s puck movement speed too,” DeBoer explained. “We’ve added [David] Schlemko on defense, who’s a puck-moving defenseman. So I think all those factors make us definitely faster than we were a year ago.”

Changes didn’t just happen in the offseason, either. Already this year, the Sharks have parted ways with young veterans Matt Nieto (waived, claimed by Colorado) and Tommy Wingels (traded to Ottawa).

In doing so, Wilson has embraced a youth movement, implementing the likes of Timo Meier and Kevin Labanc.

Labanc, 21, worked his way into the Sharks lineup after starring with the club’s AHL affiliate and has emerged as a regular, with 14 points in 37 games. Meier, the ninth overall pick in 2015, is a little less polished and playing in a smaller role — but both he and Labanc have impressed the veteran core.

“[Labanc], just the ability to get in position to score – I think he’s a very, very smart hockey player. He wants to score every night, which is fun to see as an older player,” Joe Thornton said in late December, per CSN Bay Area. “Timo, just his speed stands out, and how strong he is.

“Both guys are playing huge roles on our team right now.”

The club has also been buoyed by the return of Tomas Hertl.

Hertl, who was one of San Jose’s best forwards in last year’s playoffs, missed nearly the entire Cup Final with a knee injury, then missed almost all of the last two months with more knee problems.

Hertl returned to the lineup in San Jose’s final game before the All-Star break, which essentially put the team at full strength.

That, plus a burning desire to repeat last year’s run — only with a different ending — could make the Sharks a very dangerous team over the next few months.

“The guys are hungry to get back,” DeBoer said. “And I like how we’re positioned.”

Ovechkin shrugs off Caps’ Game 1 loss in very Ovechkin way

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You know, it happens. Maybe not always in those exact words.

The Washington Capitals carried the play during portions of their 3-2 Game 1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins, and even down 1-0 in the series, just about every player seemed happy with their overall game.

(Granted, Braden Holtby picked apart two of the three goals he allowed, and so on.)

Still, Alex Ovechkin shrugged off the disappointment in a way that wasn’t quite Rated R, but probably ranks in the PG-13 range:

The penalty element is interesting, though.

When asked after the loss about the lack of power plays, Matt Niskanen merely offered a “no comment.”

The Penguins experienced some sprawling moments, yet they avoided taking a penalty each time. Often, when a team carries long sequences of play, they’ll go on the PP (especially with home-ice advantage) … but not the Capitals in Game 1.

via Natural Stat Trick

It’s a situation to watch as the Capitals hope to even the series against the Penguins with Game 2 coming on Saturday at 8 p.m. ET on NBC. (You can watch online, via the NBC Sports App and follow the livestream here).

Holtby takes blame for two big goals in Caps’ loss to Pens

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It’s just about a consensus that the Washington Capitals believed that they generally played a strong game despite falling 3-2 to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Braden Holtby‘s teammates likely wouldn’t agree with his assessment that the Game 1 loss is on his shoulders, but the perennial Vezina candidate took the blame for Sidney Crosby‘s first goal of the night and Nick Bonino‘s game-winner.

Noting that the Penguins are a dangerous rush team – making them a different threat than the Toronto Maple Leafs – Holtby believes that he should have had his glove in position to stop the 1-0 goal. He said he’s capable of making such a stop and “will next time.” Check out Crosby’s two goals below, with Holtby having a beef with the first one:

It’s really difficult to place too much blame on Holtby for giving up Nick Bonino’s game-winner, as it seemed like a great rush play that few goalies would be able to stop.

Judge for yourself in the highlights:

The Penguins were ultimately able to take a 1-0 series lead, but the Capitals seem capable of shrugging off questions about frustrations, even with naysayers starting to gain confidence in claiming that there will be more than the same.

If Washington’s going to get over this big hurdle, Holtby is likely to be a big part in doing so.

Fleury, Penguins hang on for Game 1 win against Capitals

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The Pittsburgh Penguins pulled off a 3-2 Game 1 win against the Washington Capitals, but Thursday’s thriller probably prompted a sigh of relief.

(Washington, meanwhile, might have uttered a sigh at such unpleasantly familiar feelings.)

The first period ended 0-0 in part thanks to Jake Guentzel‘s sprawling “kick save.” Business really picked up in the second after Sidney Crosby raced off to two quick goals, only for Alex Ovechkin to give Washington a shot thanks to a booming goal and some physical play.

It sure felt like this one might head to overtime, especially after Evgeny Kuznetsov was tying things up and flapping his arms like wings. That was not to be, however, as Nick Bonino took advantage of a pretty area pass to beat Braden Holtby for the decisive tally.

Now, it was only decisive because Marc-Andre Fleury was at the top of his game. Oh, and also because the Penguins did a collective Guentzel impression in frantically denying a tying tally.

Makes you want to wipe some sweat from your brow, eh?

The Capitals dominated by just about every statistical measure … except, of course, goals on the scoreboard. Pittsburgh will gladly take that 1-0 series lead, then.

Expect a desperate Washington team in Game 2, which airs at 8 p.m. ET on Saturday. You can watch it online and via the NBC Sports App (click here for the livestream link).

Karlsson makes difference for Senators vs. Lundqvist, Rangers

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Swedish superstars Henrik Lundqvist and Erik Karlsson were both stupendous in Game 1 between the New York Rangers and Ottawa Senators.

Still, it was Karlsson’s game-winning goal (from a seemingly impossible angle) against Lundqvist that made the difference as the Senators beat the Rangers 2-1 on Thursday. With that, the Senators are up 1-0 in the series.

That Karlsson goal really deserves a special look.

Whether you blame that 2-1 tally on Lundqvist or not, the Rangers would be foolish to do anything but praise their red-hot franchise goalie. He stopped all 21 Senators shots in the first period and ultimately made 41 out of 43 stops in defeat.

Craig Anderson was strong in his own right, mind you, stopping 34 out of 35 shots (including all 28 at even-strength) to help Ottawa take that tight contest.

Anderson’s strong play highlights the fact that Rangers – Senators doesn’t merely come down to Lundqvist vs. Karlsson … but even so, both Swedish superstars really did stand out in this one.

Game 2 airs on NBC at 3 p.m. ET on Saturday. You can also watch online and via the NBC Sports App; click here for the livestream link.