The Penguins are going to need Marc-Andre Fleury to steal one more game

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PITTSBURGH — When looking at the results it is easy to conclude that the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals have been pretty evenly matched through the first six games of their second-round playoff series.

Both teams have won three games.

Both teams have scored 18 goals.

In the two areas that matter the most, it is exactly what you might expect from the two best teams in the league during the regular season.

Yet when you watch the teams play against one another on the ice, and when you look at all of the underlying numbers (mostly the shots on goal and the shot attempts), it is clear that the Capitals have completely dictated the pace of the series and have been the better team.

And not by a little, either.

Hockey is a funny sport, and when you put an entire season down to a best-of-seven series, crazy things can happen that can completely flip everything upside down. When that happens, it usually results in swift overreactions that either see a great team get gutted far too soon, or an ordinary team get saddled with unrealistic expectations and then face the disappointment that comes from not meeting them.

Nothing can do that quite like goaltending can.

Through the first four games of this series (when the Penguins held a seemingly commanding 3-1 lead) that is exactly what was happening.

Marc-Andre Fleury was standing on his head in the Penguins’ net and masking all of the flaws that existed in front of him defensively. In the Washington net, Braden Holtby was off of his game as the Penguins were opportunistic and capitalized on the chances the Capitals presented them.

It was every postseason nightmare the Washington Capitals have experienced over the past few years. Play well. Do everything right. Run into a goalie that plays out of his mind and ruins everything.

It was also pretty much a continuation of what we saw from the Penguins in their first-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets, and it was worth asking if they could continue to scratch out wins playing that way (and we did ask it).

It was basically going to come down to Fleury’s ability to keep stealing them games because right now he is probably the single biggest reason they are still playing hockey this season. If he doesn’t hold down the fort in pretty much every game the Penguins came out flat in, or post a .930 save percentage, who knows what direction their postseason goes in. Probably not a good one.

He has, quite simply, bailed them out.

If they are going to play beyond Wednesday night and advance to the Eastern Conference Final for the second year in a row and continue their defense of the Stanley Cup, they are almost certainly going to need him to do it one more time.

Given the way this series has been played, there really doesn’t seem to be another path for the Penguins to win it. Anything else would require them reaching a level they have not yet shown they are capable of this postseason as currently constructed.

The problem is simple: Without Kris Letang the Penguins are missing arguably their most important player. He is not only one of the five or six best defensemen in the entire league, he is one of the best players in the entire NHL regardless of position. On their way to the Stanley Cup one year ago he played, quite literally, half of every playoff game and did so at a level that only a handful of other players are capable of.

Without him they are not only lacking that presence, they have had to see players that are in the lineup get over-extended into roles they are not really cut out for or used to playing. Instead of having Letang play the most minutes — and the most meaningful minutes — their ice-time leader this postseason has been 36-year-old Ron Hainsey. With all due respect to Hainsey, a fine NHL defenseman for 13 seasons, he is not Kris Letang.

The Penguins’ ability to exit their zone has been a constant issue this postseason. They are unable to make plays through the neutral zone. The offense tends to fizzle out quickly on the rare occasion they do get into the offensive zone. It has shown on the shot chart where the Penguins have been bleeding an almost unheard of number of shots against and have been the worst possession team in the playoffs.

It is not the way they won the Stanley Cup one year ago, and it has put a ton of pressure on their goaltender to be at his best every single night.

“Obviously I think our team is at its best when it’s in the offensive zone,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan following Monday’s game.

“Three games ago you guys were praising our team for our counter-attack. The reality is we are trying to keep our eye on the right ball. We know how we play. There are areas we have addressed almost daily, certainly game in and game out, where we know we can be better as a group and we work on that. Tonight is no different. It did not go the way we wanted it to go. We have to have a short memory, we have to go back to work tomorrow, we have to go back to Game 7.”

When they are not on the power play or getting an opportunity on a counter-attack, they are simply not creating much in the way of offense.

That all starts with the defense.

So far, the Capitals have feasted on that with a dominating territorial edge that they are finally starting to be rewarded for. There is little reason to believe they will not continue to have that edge in Game 7 because they have had it for pretty much every minute of the previous six games.

This isn’t to say that the Capitals are guaranteed to win their third game in a row (they are not), or that the Penguins have no chance on Wednesday (they do).

But that chance is going to rest almost entirely on Fleury being able to do something he has already done multiple times this postseason for the Penguins: Steal a game for them.

WATCH LIVE: Lightning at Devils

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The Tampa Bay Lightning visit the New Jersey Devils on Tuesday, in a match-up of the early season Atlantic and Metropolitan division leaders.

It shouldn’t really surprise anyone to see the Lightning, with Steven Stamkos in their lineup, among the higher scoring teams so far. The Devils, on the other hand, have enjoyed a great start to their season and are currently third in the league with 4.20 goals-for per game. You can check out tonight’s game on NBCSN (7:30 p.m. PT) or online via the live stream.

CLICK HERE TO WATCH LIVE

Here are some links to check out for tonight’s game:

The Buzzer: Nikita Kucherov just keeps scoring goals

Kucherov’s star continues to rise, Stamkos sharp as Lightning beat Penguins

‘Fun to watch’ Devils rookie Jesper Bratt off to hot start

Hischier ‘played his way’ into top-six role with Devils

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Cam Tucker is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @CamTucker_Sport.

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Test your might: Buckle up for fascinating night in NHL

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With 11 games on the schedule and a doubleheader on NBCSN, Tuesday provides a veritable buffet for hockey fans.

That volume opens up opportunities, such as getting closer to seeing where the Carolina Hurricanes and Florida Panthers really are at, and which one of the struggling San Jose Sharks and Montreal Canadiens can get their second win of the season (note: Montreal at San Jose closes off that NBCSN doubleheader).

It says a lot that a Penguins – Rangers game is intriguing, but not necessarily headline-grabbing.

Oh yeah, and we also get to see how the stubborn Ottawa Senators look now that Erik Karlsson is returning to lineup. There’s really something for everyone tonight.

For the sake of brevity, let’s limit this to four games that should be especially fascinating on Tuesday.

Toronto Maple Leafs at Washington Capitals

Remember that fantastic first-round series? The one that ended up being uncomfortably close for the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Caps?

Tuesday could be another thriller, as Alex Ovechkin‘s off to a heck of a start for the up-and-down Capitals (3-2-1), who host the dumb, fun Maple Leafs (4-1-0). It says a lot that, despite only playing five games, Toronto leads the NHL with 26 goals scored. Ovechkin vs. Auston Matthews is rarely not a fun time, in general.

This game may answer some questions, including: “How long can Mike Babcock really push Mitch Marner down the lineup?”

Tampa Bay Lightning at New Jersey Devils

These aren’t your older brother’s boring Devils, but this is increasingly looking like your older brother’s very good Lightning.

Anyway, Tampa Bay (5-1-0) already beat a surprisingly hot Red Wings team on Monday, and now they look to cool off another dark horse in the Devils (4-1-0).

Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos are doing their usual suspects act for the Lightning, while the Devils are off to the sort of start that has made them one of the most entertaining teams of this early season. It’s not just obvious guys like Taylor Hall or even 2017 top pick Nico Hischier, either, as Will Butcher already has eight assists and Jesper Bratt is currently second on NJ in scoring.

Tampa Bay is closing off a back-to-back, which might make it tougher for them to keep up with this young team in Newark.

This potential barnburner begins NBCSN’s doubleheader at 7:30 p.m. ET. To watch the game online, click here.

MORE: Full preview for Lightning – Devils, Canadiens – Sharks

Colorado Avalanche at Nashville Predators

Nashville isn’t too impressive just yet with a 2-2-1 record, but do note that they’re 2-0-1 in their last three games. They’re also getting a chance to eye Matt Duchene, whose feelings might not be totally soothed even though the Avs are off to a 4-2-0 start.

This one stands as an interesting test for the upstart Avalanche, but the Duchene angle might be most interesting. Is he facing his future team here? Could the two squads pull a “Moneyball” and have him change locker rooms tonight? (OK, that’s probably going too far.)

Columbus Blue Jackets at Winnipeg Jets

John Tortorella’s loaded, “safe equals death” group featuring the likes of Zach Werenski versus the ridiculously loaded Jets (Patrik Laine, Nikolaj Ehlers, Mark Scheifele, so much more)? Yes, please.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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Debuts, Returns: Penguins may get Cole back, Rinaldo ends suspension

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There are quite a few interesting lineup notes heading into a busy, fascinating Tuesday night of games. Let’s cover some of them in lightning round fashion.

(This collection isn’t necessarily comprehensive. If you need even more updates, Rotoworld’s NHL news section is your friend.)

  • Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan announced that defenseman Ian Cole is healthy enough to play and a game-time decision. In related news, Cole has relatives who are dentists, which might be the funniest profession for family members of hockey players.

  • Keep your heads up, Dallas Stars. Zac Rinaldo’s five-game suspension has ended, so he’ll make his Arizona Coyotes debut on Tuesday.

Rinaldo, 27, hasn’t made an NHL appearance since the 2015-16 season with the Boston Bruins. He spent last season with the Providence Bruins.

(See the bottom of this post for Rinaldo’s most recent suspension … in the NHL, at least.)

  • Rinaldo isn’t the only debut to watch in Arizona. With Antti Raanta injured and Louis Domingue unable to give the Coyotes their first win of the season, the team turns to Adin Hill for his first-ever NHL start.

Who is Adin Hill, you might ask?

Well, he’s a 21-year-old goalie with some pedigree, as the Coyotes selected him in the third round (76th overall) in 2015. Hill spent most of last season in the AHL, going 16-14-0 with a .906 save percentage for the aptly named Tucson Roadrunners. As you can see from this Sportsnet profile, Hill sports the sort of size NHL teams look for these days.

Left Wing Lock places Tippett on a third line with Jamie McGinn and Jared McCann. Is that enough of an opportunity to get a look at him?

“I have the upside of Phil Kessel—the speed, the shot, the way he can make plays. I also have some things I need to work on to be a 200-foot player,” Tippett said before Panthers training camp, via Sportsnet’s Luke Fox.

Panthers fans should already bat around nickname ideas. Perhaps “Big Red” would work for soda pop fans? Should he steal “Red Rocket” from Bengals QB Andy Dalton?

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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Rangers, Sharks need to wake up from early slumps

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It’s already bad news that the New York Rangers (1-5-0) and San Jose Sharks (1-3-0) enter Tuesday’s games with a single win apiece.

There’s a simple reason why those slow starts should sting a little extra, though: these teams are squandering home-heavy stretches, or at risk of doing so.

More on the Rangers’ slow start here

Rangers need to wake up at MSG

There are some reasons to believe in both the Sharks and Rangers, with their long track records of recent regular-season success headlining such arguments. It’s worth noting that the Rangers have played two road contests versus four at home, so the situation isn’t too extreme. Yet.

Things could get ugly in a hurry, starting with a real challenge in hosting the Pittsburgh Penguin at Madison Square Garden tonight:

Tue, Oct 17 vs Pittsburgh
Thu, Oct 19 vs NY Islanders
Sat, Oct 21 vs Nashville
Mon, Oct 23 vs San Jose
Thu, Oct 26 vs Arizona
Sat, Oct 28 @ Montreal
Tue, Oct 31 vs Vegas

By the end of October, the Rangers will have played 10 of 41 home contests. At best, a creaky start could cost them seeding. At worst, they may look back at this when pondering how they missed the postseason.

(It doesn’t help their cause that they’re in the brutal Metropolitan Division, either.)

Beyond the established track record, the Rangers can also point to recent history as an act that travels well. In 2016-17, the Rangers boasted a better record on the road (27-12-2) than at home (21-16-4). While they were better at home in 2015-16, they were also 19-17-5 in away games then, too.

So, it’s not all bad for Alain Vigneault & Co., but they could make life much easier for themselves (and maybe see openings to rest Henrik Lundqvist more often) if they take advantage of these opportunities.

Sharks face erratic runs

San Jose ends a five-game homestand against the mercurial Montreal Canadiens tonight. A 2-3-0 mark in such a run wouldn’t be the end of the world, while going 1-3-1 or 1-4-0 would hurt.

While the Rangers look to October as a time where they need to create some breathing room, the Sharks need to take better advantage of future homestands, as their schedule seems to rotate road trips and runs of home games.

This veteran group readies for a five-game road trip, then they play eight of nine at home from Oct. 30 – Nov. 20.

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Significant members of both the Sharks and Rangers have “been there before.” Players such as Joe Thornton, Lundqvist, and Rick Nash might view October as insignificant; they’ve each likely been on teams that shook off bad starts, even if it meant squandering bountiful opportunities at home.

You can understand a certain level of complacency, but you never know when you’ll no longer have the spring in your step to make it up that hill once again.

The next month or two isn’t “make-or-break” for the Rangers or Sharks, at least in a literal sense. Then again, wins and standings points weigh the same during an 82-game season, so why not stock up while the schedule bends in your favor?

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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