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Caps hoping roster improvements can get them past Pittsburgh

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ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) The Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins arrive at their latest showdown looking very much like they did a year ago.

It’s the little things that might matter most this time around.

The Capitals added center Lars Eller and defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk as a direct response to losing their second-round series last season, hoping the depth will help against the defending Stanley Cup champions. The Penguins have a different goaltender with Marc-Andre Fleury replacing injured Matt Murray and are without injured defenseman Kris Letang.

Aside from those changes and a few other tweaks, the teams that take the ice Thursday night for Game 1 in Washington are strikingly similar to those who played for six games last spring.

“This is a unique situation — both teams have a lot of guys back,” Penguins center Matt Cullen said. “It’s not often with the salary cap and everything that you bring a similar team back. It makes for an interesting matchup.”

The stars are again aligned for Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Braden Holtby and the Capitals to face off against Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and the Penguins. Familiarity should breed quick contempt, but Washington’s changes are what players think will flip the script.

“I feel better about our team going into it this year than I did last year, that’s for sure,” Capitals defenseman John Carlson said. “We can attack from different ways, and we can find ways to score throughout the lineup. I just think a lot of guys are playing better than they did last year.”

That’s a shout out to second-line center Evgeny Kuznetsov, who struggled after March last year but played an essential part of the first-round series this season against the Toronto Maple Leafs by defending Auston Matthews. Defensemen Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt are also much improved after being scratched during the 2016 playoffs.

The Penguins are rolling again after eliminating Columbus, but the absence of Letang is significant after he logged 31:36 of ice time per game last year.

“Obviously they lost key player, Letang,” Ovechkin said. “It’s good for us, bad for them … (but) it doesn’t matter who’s in the lineup. We just have to pressure them, and we don’t have to give them any chances to get success.”

Pittsburgh exposed Washington’s lack of speed a year ago and has the potential to do so again even if winger Carl Hagelin isn’t ready to start the series. The Maple Leafs’ up-tempo style challenged the Capitals, something coach Barry Trotz called “a good warmup” for the Penguins, but it remains to be seen how his team will play faster this time.

Who’s better off after a year of no change? Watch and find out.

“I think I guess the series will show that more than anything,” Crosby said.

FLOWER POWER

Fleury went 4-1 with a 2.52 goals-against average and .933 save percentage against the Blue Jackets in the first round after replacing Murray because of a warmup injury prior to Game 1. The Capitals didn’t see him last year because Murray didn’t cede the net, but the Fleury has been so good there has been no drop-off.

OSHIE, PENGUINS KILLER

T.J. Oshie had five goals and an assist in last year’s series and three goals and seven assists in four games against the Penguins this season. Facing Pittsburgh’s top competition seems to get Oshie clicking.

“Typically we’re going against Crosby’s line and that’s a tough task, he’s a great player,” Oshie said. “You can get motivation from that and kind of the game within the game. Last few years, the puck found the net for me and hopefully it will be the same.”

PUT IT IN PENCIL

Penguins coach Mike Sullivan shifted his lines, putting Patric Hornqvist on right wing with Crosby and playoffs leading goal-scorer Jake Guentzel and dropping Conor Sheary down to skate with Nick Bonino and Scott Wilson. Pittsburgh again has four scoring lines with Malkin, Kessel and Bryan Rust together and Cullen centering Chris Kunitz and Tom Kuhnhackl.

“Sometimes when certain line combos have history of success together, we tend to give those lines a little bit more time to work through the challenges,” Sullivan said. “That’s something we have daily discussions about, (a) question I always ask, which combinations are going to give us the best chance to win.”

STOP, ELLER TIME

The Capitals sent two second-round picks to the Montreal Canadiens for Eller specifically for this kind of series. Pittsburgh got five goals at even strength from its third line of Hagelin, Bonino and Kessel and two more from Cullen and his fourth-line mates last year, while Washington’s bottom six combined for two goals.

Enter Eller, who is a good penalty killer and should be an offensive upgrade over Mike Richards.

“I can’t wait for that challenge,” Eller said. “I think a lot of guys in here have pictured that this is a spot we could end up being in, facing this team sometime in the playoffs and now is that time.”

Related: A rebuild third line has been key for Caps

Young Mitch Marner meme isn’t lost on Auston Matthews, Maple Leafs

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A couple of days ago, Mitch Marner was spotted at Pearson Airport in Toronto with a backwards baseball cap after flying back from a very impressive and productive run at the World Hockey Championship.

Hockey Twitter exploded with well-meaning laughter as the dazzlingly talented 20-year-old looked even younger than 20.

Even a few days later, it really is a sight to behold, whether you need a respite from politics or biting your nails about Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final:

As much as many of us deride this age of social media, it’s been a goldmine for self deprecating comedy from hockey players; as it turns out, Roberto Luongo doesn’t have that market completely cornered, either.

Not long ago, Auston Matthews jumped in on the Marner meme, and it was glorious:

To his credit, Marner himself joined in:

Is anyone else eager to see what these young stars come up with both on and off the ice during the next, oh, couple decades?

Johansen wishes he was there to shake Kesler’s hand after Predators won

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Ryan Johansen isn’t backing down about his criticisms of the way Ryan Kesler plays. Not after the Nashville Predators eliminated the Anaheim Ducks. Not as he recovers from emergency surgery.

That was the top bulletin-board material from a great interview Johansen participated in with TSN 1040 Vancouver on Wednesday, as the refreshingly candid forward discussed a wide array of topics.

For instance, Johansen:

  • Praised the hockey acumen of Nashville fans, backing up P.K. Subban‘s praise of the market.
  • Went into detail about his harrowing injury. Johansen explained that, at first, the seemingly innocent hit by Josh Manson would just be one of those “that’s going to leave a bad bruise” moments. Toward the end of the game, he was a shift or two from telling Peter Laviolette that he’d be a liability to his team. After the contest, he couldn’t even walk out of the shower, and that’s when medical staff determined that a painful injury required emergency surgery.
  • The bittersweet feelings of seeing his team advance to a Stanley Cup Final without him.
  • He spoke about how confident he felt during a postseason run that’s drawn rave reviews.

Still, the juicy stuff was about Kesler. That comes at around the 10:50 mark of an interview worth listening to in its entirety.

Nice. That’s basically the opposite of Detroit Red Wings players regretting shaking Claude Lemieux’s hand and maybe the other extreme of Martin Brodeur snubbing Sean Avery, right?

(It feels necessary to discuss Milan Lucic getting weird during the handshake lines, too. Ah, memories.)

Johansen admits that he was a Vancouver Canucks fan growing up, and while Kesler wasn’t one of his favorite players, he certainly cheered his endeavors. That … won’t happen again anytime soon, as you can note.

Johansen expects a full recovery from that surgery, so yes, we can all pencil in the rematch between those two Ryans in 2017-18.

Hot take: there won’t be handshakes.

Blues add Darryl Sydor as assistant coach

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The St. Louis Blues continued to assemble the coaching staff for Mike Yeo on Wednesday when they announced the hiring of former NHL defenseman Darryl Sydor.

Sydor previously served as an assistant on Yeo’s staff for several years when he was the head coach of the Minnesota Wild. Before joining the Blues, Sydor was an assistant coach for the AHL’s Chicago Wolves this past season.

“I am excited to have Darryl back on my staff,” Yeo said in a statement released by the team. “He was an outstanding teacher during our time in Minnesota and will add a wealth of experience and knowledge to our team.”

Before joining the coaching ranks Sydor was a defenseman in the NHL for 18 seasons, playing 1,291 games for the Los Angeles Kings, Dallas Stars, Pittsburgh Penguins, Tampa Bay Lightning, Columbus Blue Jackets and Blues. The Blues were his final stop in the NHL, playing 47 games for the team during the 2009-10 season. He was a member of two Stanley Cup winning teams, winning it with the Stars in 1998-99 and then with the Lightning in 2003-04.

The Blues hired Yeo to be their coach-in-waiting to work alongside Ken Hitchcock before the start of the 2016-17 season, but when Hitchcock was fired in the middle of the season Yeo was promoted a few months earlier than expected.

The Blues eliminated the Wild in the first-round of the playoffs this season but were defeated by the Nashville Predators in the second round.

For fourth time in five years Sergei Mozyakin is the KHL’s MVP

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The KHL handed out its awards for the 2016-17 season on Wednesday and it was Magnitogorsk Metallurg forward Sergei Mozyakin taking home the Golden Stick Trophy as the league MVP.

Given the season he had, and the career he has had in the KHL, this should not really be much of a surprise.

Mozyakin turned in one of the greatest performances in the history of the league this season by scoring 48 goals and recording 85 total points (both league records) in only 60 games.

Since the KHL formed in 2008-09 only three different players have won the Golden Stick award. Danis Zaripov won it during the inaugural season, while Alexander Radulov won it four times (three years in a row between 2009-10 and 2011-12, then again in 2014-15).

Mozyakin won it in 2012-13 and 2014-15, then in each of the past two seasons.

The 36-year-old forward was drafted by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the ninth-round (No. 262 overall) of the 2002 draft by never played a game in the NHL. He has spent his entire professional career playing in Russia where he has consistently been one of the best, most productive players in the league.

Among the KHL’s other award winners, Vasily Koshechkin was named the league’s top goalie, Oleg Znarok was the coach of the year, while Vladimir Tkachyov is the rookie of the year.