Crosby, Penguins deliver blow to Flyers’ playoff chances in Stadium Series

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PITTSBURGH — The first time the Pittsburgh Penguins played a game at Heinz Field, Sidney Crosby was on top of the NHL and having one of the most dominant offensive seasons in recent history. That was the game he was on the receiving end of the Dave Steckel hit that started the chain of events that basically cost him two of the prime years of his career.

The Heinz Field experience was significantly better for him and the Penguins this time around.

Crosby opened the scoring midway through the first period with his league-leading 34th goal of the season — finishing a slick feed from rookie forward Jake Guentzel — to help lead the Penguins to a 4-2 in the 2017 NHL Stadium Series game.

“We were thrilled for him,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan when asked about Crosby scoring a goal in his return to Heinz Field.

“I am sure the experience of coming back here probably brought back some memories that he probably would like to forget. So to have a night like tonight, and an opportunity to play in such an exciting venue and start the game off the way he did, it did probably just helped him put that experience behind and move forward. I thought he played a solid game, his line was really good all night long and he scored a huge goal for us.”

Crosby’s goal is only part of the story in this one.

Nick Bonino, Matt Cullen and Chad Ruhwedel also scored goals in the win, while Matt Murray stopped 35 of the 37 shots he faced.

First, for Pittsburgh, it was a huge win given the status of an undermanned defense that was playing without three of its top players. With Trevor Daley and Olli Maatta already sidelined, they were also without Kris Letang on Saturday night due to an upper body injury that currently has him listed as day-to-day. That meant they had to rely significantly on their depth.

Ron Hainsey, playing in his debut with the team after being acquired in a trade earlier this week from the Carolina Hurricanes, played more than 20 minutes in the win, including more than three minutes on the penalty kill. They also received a huge goal from Ruhwedel in the third period to help put the game away.

It wasn’t a flawless effort by the group (37 shots against illustrates that) but considering who was out of the lineup and the situation they were facing it was a huge performance to remain ahead of the New York Rangers for the second spot in the Metropolitan Division and improve their record to 7-1-3 in their past 11 games.

Things are not quite as optimistic for the Flyers at the moment.

The loss on Saturday is a pretty damaging blow to their already fading playoff chances as they remain five points out of a playoff spot — with three teams ahead of them — with only 21 games to go.

They are also just 9-16-4 in their past 29 games since their 10-game winning streak ended on Dec. 14.

“It’s a tough result, walking away,” said Flyers coach Dave Hakstol after the game. “It’s a pretty close, tight hockey game where I thought our team played well, battled extremely well, and did a lot of good things but we walk away with the wrong result.”

That has happened a lot lately for the Flyers.

So why are they not getting the results? Well, the problem on Saturday was a familiar one for the Flyers — goaltending and defensive zone breakdowns.

Crosby’s goal to open the scoring was the result of a breakdown in defensive zone coverage that allowed the game’s best offensive player to be left wide open along the side of the net for an easy one-timer. Even though Michal Neuvirth didn’t have much of a chance on that play, he didn’t exactly play a strong game, allowing four goals on 29 shots.

The Matt Cullen goal to give the Penguins a 3-1 lead in the third period was a particularly tough one for Neuvirth to give up.

It is already the 10th time in 24 games this season he has given up at least three goals in a game, while his save percentage on the season remains well below the .890 mark. For a goalie that was one of the best values in the league last season in terms of performance and salary cap hit, it has been a massive regression this season.

Even though the results are not going their way at the moment Hakstol remains convinced the team is doing the right things and that the key to turning things around is just sticking with what they are doing.

“Couple little things within the game tonight,” said Hakstol. “We haven’t been able to score a whole lot. There has been a lot made of that, and fairly so. You look at the opportunities tonight, the type of opportunities we generate were pretty reasonable. You have to stick with it. We have gone through a tough stretch here, but for the vast majority we have played some pretty good hockey and we need to stick with it. We have to stay together as we have and we have to keep pushing the envelope.”

The Flyers are back in action on Tuesday against the Colorado Avalanche.

PHT Morning Skate: Terrell Owens owns Kris Letang during training session

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–Minnesota Wild head coach Bruce Boudreau is now the owner of a junior hockey team. “This may sound corny, but I feel I was put on this Earth to promote hockey. So the idea of being involved in a junior team that is the middle void between high school hockey and college was very exciting to me.” (Minneapolis StarTribune)

–The Chicago Blackhawks traded Niklas Hjalmarsson to the Arizona Coyotes this offseason. The ‘Hawks were the only team Hjalmarsson has ever played for, and changing teams has been emotional for him. He showed exactly how difficult it is for him to play in a different city in a heartfelt Instagram post. (CSN Chicago)

Phil Kessel conducted a “I Will & I Won’t” interview. Will he bring the Stanley Cup to Toronto for the second offseason in a row? Uhhhh not exactly. Also, he’ll be rooting for one of Mayweather or McGregor, but he just doesn’t know who yet. (BarDown)

–Despite the fact that the Rangers and Mika Zibanejad agreed to a long-term contract on Tuesday, The Score believes the Senators still won the trade that saw them ship Zibanejad to New York for Derick Brassard. (The Score)

–The Hockey News continues their “2020 Vision” series on each NHL team. Their most recent piece focuses on the Chicago Blackhawks and what the team will look like in three years. Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith will likely still be around, but youngsters like Nick Schmaltz and Alex Debrincat will take on bigger roles. (The Hockey News)

–Penguins defenseman Kris Letang was working out with former NFL wide receiver Terrell Owens in Montreal. For a guy in his 40s, Owens can still move pretty well:

EA Sports rolls out NHL 18 closed beta, with a lot of 3-on-3 focus

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EA Sports released a closed beta for “NHL 18” today, which gives players on Xbox One and Playstation 4 the chance to test three modes out from July 25 – Aug. 1.*

It sure seems like the beta – if not the full game – will focus on 3-on-3 overtime, and extending that experience beyond the confines of normal NHL action.

For one thing, the established EA Sports Hockey League mode will apparently include 3-on-3 overtime in the beta, and maybe more interestingly, also through full games. EA Sports explains as much:

Bringing authentic NHL 3-on-3 overtime to EA SPORTS Hockey League, you can now choose to play 3-on-3 full matches, opening up more ice for you and your teammates to get creative, pull off big plays, and showcase brand new skill moves. With more space to attack – and to make mistakes – 3-on-3 EASHL is higher stakes with more competition and skills.

Fans of the ailing sub-genre of arcade-style sports video games should take note that “NHL 18” introduces “NHL Threes.” The format hearkens back to the 16-bit days by turning off offside and icing calls, while a penalty will give a player a chance at penalty shot. Interesting. EA provided a little more information about the mode here, and it sure sounds like it could be fully featured upon release. The beta at least provides a taste of that.

(It wouldn’t be surprising if “NHL Threes” apes the previous generations “3 on 3 NHL Arcade,” which became something of a cult classic for some hockey game fans.)

Along with EA Sports Hockey League (note: a mode where you control a single player rather than a full team) and “NHL Threes,” the beta also includes the more vanilla Online Versus Play mode.

While the beta appears to be closed, EA’s NHL account is tweeting out ways to get codes on Tuesday, so it might not be too late if you’re lucky.

Without taking the beta for a test run personally just yet, this sounds like a nice opportunity for people to give the near-complete “NHL 18” a trial before the full game comes out on Sept. 15.

* – Or, as Kotaku’s Jason Schreier recently noted, maybe for a longer period of time.

Streit on Canadiens return: ‘Montreal always had a special place in my heart’

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Whether he’s Andrei Markov‘s replacement or a depth addition, the bottom line is that Mark Streit is slated for his second run with the Montreal Canadiens.

Streit, 39, would be justified in feeling like this signing could really tie his career in a nice bow.

MORE: Canadiens sign Streit

(Amusingly for everyone beyond his accountant, with a reported $700K cap hit for 2017-18, Streit is drawing almost the exact same salary as he did from the start; Streit received $600K in 2006-07 and 2007-08, according to Cap Friendly/Cap Geek.)

Back in 2004, the Canadiens drafted him … barely. He was a ninth-round pick, going 262nd overall in 2004.*

All things considered, Streit jumped to the NHL remarkably quickly, playing more than half a season in 2005-06. He would bounce from the Canadiens to the Islanders, Flyers, Penguins, and now back to Montreal. Despite him pretty well-traveled, the Swiss-born blueliner feels most at home with the Habs, as he told the team website.

“Montreal always had a special place in my heart because I started there,” Streit said. “One thing I really always missed was playing at the Bell Centre. It’s a unique rink with unique fans and a unique atmosphere. If you get the chance to play in front of them every night – with the atmosphere and the life in the city – I think it’s very motivating.”

Streit acknowledged the pressure that comes with playing there, and he’d certainly feel some if Canadiens fans are expecting a player who struggled to even crack the Pittsburgh Penguins’ postseason lineup to replace Markov.

Considering his $700K cap hit, Canadiens fans should keep expectations reasonable, especially since Streit tends to really blossom when people don’t expect much from him.

* – In case you’re wondering, that was a respectable ninth round. Danniel Winnik (717 games played, 265th overall), Grant Clitsome (205 GP, 271), Adam Cracknell (203, 279), and Jannik Hansen (580 GP, 287) all made solid careers for themselves. Not bad for guys who were drafted in rounds that wouldn’t even take place today.

Canada would consider Doan, Iginla for 2018 Winter Olympics

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When discussing the construction of Canada’s possible roster heading into the 2018 Winter Olympics, Sean Burke can be almost frustratingly coy. Still, in leaving virtually every available avenue at least conceivably open, he leaves room for some fascinating scenarios.

It might be tough to top this one discussed on TSN’s Overdrive 1050: if NHL teams pass on signing Jarome Iginla and Shane Doan, perhaps the Olympics could be their swan song?

Yes, there are quite a few “ifs” involved, but it’s an intriguing thought during the dog days of the hockey summer.

Burke likely presented more realistic possibilities in acknowledging that professional players plying their trade in Europe, particularly the KHL, might be the greatest source for talent.

“Most of our players will be guys that come from Europe playing in the KHL,” Burke said to TSN’s Overdrive 1050.

When pondering possible entries, recent international tournaments could be helpful.

Looking at Canada’s 2016 Deutschland Cup roster and who they’re sending to the 2017 Sochi Open, NHL castoffs such as Derek Roy, Gilbert Brule, Nigel Dawes, Andrew Ebbett, Chris Lee, and Mason Raymond all seem likely logical choices. College players such as Cale Makar make things more complicated – both for Canada and the U.S. – as well.

In a separate interview with TSN, Burke noted that he would rather not supply specific names himself. Even in being vague, he provided an additional interesting detail: upcoming tournaments may illuminate what Canada lacks on its roster as much as who could have a leg-up on making the team.

And, if nothing else, they’ll get a good look at some players through a rigorous process.

Wow.

That notion makes you wonder if AHL players will be at a significant disadvantage to make both Team Canada and the United States rosters. As the Associated Press notes, AHL teams look poised to loan certain players, but only for a window of Feb. 5-26.

Burke notes that he’ll want a significant chunk of his roster more or less settled around December, and he already pointed to a preference for those who are playing in Europe.

Now, that doesn’t mean Canada or the U.S. will ignore an obvious AHL talent – if available – yet it sounds like those players would face an uphill battle to making the 2018 Winter Olympics.

That said, a lot can change, especially considering how often injuries can throw a wrench in things.

As much as we’d all love to watch a “best-on-best” tournament featuring NHL players, the alternative is also intriguing: seeing how different teams construct rosters from a variety of other leagues/resources.

And, hey, it could be awfully fun to see the likes of Iginla and/or Doan leading a motley crew of young players and former NHLers. Such a thought might even get Doan to admit that he was out of bounds in blaspheming “Miracle.”