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.

No-NHL 2018 Olympics makes for unique preparation strategies

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When Brian Gionta last played in the Olympics in 2006, his final NHL game before the break allowed him just three days to fly to Italy and get acclimated before suiting up for Team USA.

This time around, the semi-retired U.S. captain and his Olympic teammates will get four whole practice days before opening the tournament against Slovenia on Feb. 14.

”With the NHL setup, you fly over there, you have a small window to practice in and then you’re right into the games,” Gionta said. ”We’ve had the added benefit of being able to go over to the Deutschland Cup and be together for that week. A lot of the guys that were there are on the team and have a good understanding of each other. But I think that’s a nice change, I guess, from previous Olympics.”

Still, the U.S. lost all three games at that tournament in November and didn’t score more than two goals in any of them. Preparation under a new coach, learning the nuances and habits of new teammates are certainly key, but every men’s hockey team going to South Korea is in a much different situation from any previous Olympics.

Before NHL players began participating in 1998, national teams were centralized and spent months together – much like women’s teams do now. In contrast, the past five Olympics featured quick turnarounds when it came to training because so many players were also in the NHL, which decided this time around not to pause its 82-game regular season.

However, no NHL didn’t automatically translate into more practice time as the teams were put together.

Almost everyone on an Olympic roster is playing professionally or in college, so there isn’t much of an opportunity for training camps – though Canada, Russia and other countries are making the most of any time they have to get together. Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League has its final games before the Olympic break Jan. 28, and other European leagues will release players shortly after that so they can prepare.

Chock full of stars from the KHL, including former NHL players Ilya Kovalchuk and Pavel Datsyuk, Russia should be the first to have its full team together and will play exhibition games in Moscow on Jan. 30 and Feb. 4. Canada is gathering as many players as possible in Latvia on Jan. 28 and will play two exhibition games there and one more in South Korea before the Olympics begin as it tries to win a third consecutive gold medal.

”We have access to our players very early, and we’re going to take advantage of that,” said Scott Salmond, Hockey Canada’s vice president of hockey operations and national teams. ”We’re actually going to simulate the first two games of the Olympics with the ice times and the game times and try to get used to that kind of quick turnaround from a 9 p.m. game and a day off and a noon game.”

Sweden, which has a handful of former NHL players and projected 2018 No. 1 draft pick Rasmus Dahlin , will gather in Seoul for four days of practice before facing Canada on Feb. 12. The Czech Republic will hold training camp in Prague from Jan. 29-Feb. 6 before practicing in Seoul and playing an exhibition game against Finland on Feb. 11, while the Swiss are scheduled to play Germany in Kloten, Switzerland, on Feb. 6 and Norway in Goyang, South Korea, five days later.

USA Hockey general manager Jim Johannson said his team won’t play any exhibition games with most U.S. players arriving in South Korea on Feb. 8. Johannson said the U.S. will practice Feb. 10-13 and get in a game-day skate Feb. 14, which coach Tony Granato feels will be enough preparation.

”We’ve all been parts of multiple tournaments like this, so we’re not unfamiliar with them,” said Granato, who played 49 games with the U.S. national team prior to the 1988 Olympics and currently coaches at the University of Wisconsin. ”A lot of the excitement and build-up leading up to it makes it that much better – you’re going to get there, we’re going to jump on the ice, we’re going to practice and then a few days later we’ll be center stage and ready to play.”

Seventeen of the 25 U.S. players were at the Deutschland Cup in November and won’t be back on the ice together until nearly three months later. The U.S. women’s team? They gathered in Florida in September, played a series of games against top Olympic rival Canada and have been together since.

”It’s a huge bonus and a huge advantage to be together all year,” forward Meghan Duggan said. ”(It’s ) a difference from a world championship year, a non-Olympic year where we play with our pro teams and our club teams or college teams and get together for certain periods of time whether it be for world championships or Four Nations Cup or training camp.”

Canada’s men’s team took part in several Olympic tune-up tournaments for evaluation purposes. GM Sean Burke, who played in goal for Canada in the 1988 and 1992 Olympics, is trying to make the most of this hybrid schedule to put coach Willie Desjardins and his team in the best position to succeed.

”We’ve had a lot of time to not only evaluate our players but have them together to do some team-building and we’re going to get a good two-week training camp. I like the process,” Burke said. ”Our coaching staff can really get down to working on our systems and having everything in place that they’re comfortable with. That’s a real nice luxury to have.”

AP Sports Reporters Teresa M. Walker and James Ellingworth contributed.

Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

PHT Morning Skate: Kane talks future; NHL responds to Kid Rock backlash

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Likely-to-be-traded Evander Kane on his future with the Buffalo Sabres “One thing I’ve always said is that I’ve really really enjoyed my time here and will continue to do so for as long as I’m here.” [Buffalo News]

• The NHL explains the decision behind having Kid Rock perform during next weekend’s All-Star Game, which has garnered a bit of backlash. [ESPN]

Jack Johnson and John Tortorella talk about the Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman’s decision to request a trade. [Dispatch]

• Before he became one of the league’s top scorers, Anders Lee was chucking the pigskin as a top high school quarterback in Minnesota. [Sports Illustrated]

• How has Willie O’Ree not been inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame? [Stanley Cup of Chowdah]

• With Paul Martin in the AHL, Brent Burns has a lot of lifting to do to improve his game. [NBC California]

• It’s taken some time, but Kyle Okposo of the Buffalo Sabres is finally feeling comfortable following a concussion suffered last season. [Buffalo Hockey Beat]

• It’s time that Phil Kessel gets more respect around the league. [FanRag Sports]

Sebastian Aho is out of the lineup indefinitely. How can the Carolina Hurricanes replace him? [Canes Country]

• The Olympic rosters for South Korea’s men’s and women’s teams have a touch of North America on them. [Olympic Talk]

• A look at the good and bad of the NHL partnering with women’s hockey teams. [The Ice Garden]

• Why Adam Lowry is important to the Winnipeg Jets. [Arctic Ice Hockey]

• Solid breakdown of Eric Nystrom’s lawsuit against the Nashville Predators. [On the Forecheck]

• Trying to explain why some players missed out on the 2018 NHL All-Star Game. [Featurd]

• Finally, here’s Eddie Olczyk telling the story of the time the Toronto Maple Leafs traded him to the Winnipeg Jets while he was in the delivery room with his wife:

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

The Buzzer: Bergeron’s at it again, Nash’s resurgence continues

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Players of the Night:

Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins: Bergeron did it again. The perennial Selke contender showed off his scoring prowess (again), scoring his second hat trick in 12 days. He now has nine goals and five assists in his past eight games. The Bruins have run up a 15-game point streak (11-0-4).

Rick Nash, New York Rangers: Nash scored twice for the second consecutive game in a 4-3 win over the Buffalo Sabres. Nash now has four goals in this past two games after putting up a goose egg in his previous 12.

Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche: MacKinnon’s successes this season have been well documented, and he kept that narrative going with two more goals — his 21st and 22nd — and an assist in the Avs 5-3 win over the San Jose Sharks.

Highlights of the Night:

Bergeron’s hat trick came after some trickery by Brad Marchand:

A Double Dustin:

Robin Lehner made this dandy of a save. Unfortunately, he allowed a goal moments later. Still, this save.

Bonehead play of the Night:

Dustin Brown strikes again. This time in the wrong category. Someone’s getting suspended.

Factoids of the Night:

MISC:

Scores:

Devils 4, Capitals 3 (OT)

Bruins 5, Islanders 2

Blue Jackets 2, Stars 1 (SO)

Rangers 4, Sabres 3

Blues 4, Senators 1

Golden Knights 4, Lightning 1

Flyers 3, Maple Leafs 2 (OT)

Predators 3, Coyotes 2 (SO)

Avalanche 5, Sharks 3

Penguins 3, Kings 1


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Hornqvist, DeSmith help lift the Penguins past the Kings 3-1

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The Pittsburgh Penguins annual jaunt up the west coast didn’t start according to plan on Wednesday.

The Pens dropped a 5-3 decision to the Anaheim Ducks and had to quickly rest and recover for a date with the Los Angeles Kings 24 hours later.

The odds weren’t favoring them, but the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions pulled one out of their hats in a 3-1 win in the City of Angels on Thursday, handing the Kings their fifth straight loss.

The Penguins handed Casey DeSmith his first NHL start and the New Hampshire native stepped up in the absence of Matt Murray, who missed his first game after the passing of his father on Tuesday.

DeSmith filled in admirably making 28 saves in his first NHL win, and he got some timely goal support, including two markers from Patric Hornqvist.

Hornqvist alleviated some of the first-start jitters on DeSmith as he opened the scoring 43 seconds into the first period.

The lead lasted until the 14:10 mark of the second period when Adrian Kempe made a slick deke on DeSmith to tie the game 1-1.

Evgeni Malkin broke the deadlock with another early period goal for the Penguins.

Pittsburgh went on the offensive off the opening faceoff, and after a point shot was blocked in front, Malkin grabbed the rebound in the slot and fired his 21st home on a wrist shot past Jonathan Quick.

Malkin finished the game with a goal and an assist.

Hornqvist added some insurance just after the midway point of the third, making it 3-1 on the power play with his second of the night.

Meanwhile, Dustin Brown was given a five-minute major and a game misconduct after boarding Justin Schultz in the third period.

Schultz had to leave the game and did not return.

Schultz said he was fine after the game and that he did not suffer a concussion on the play.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck-