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Praise for Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan

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PITTSBURGH (AP) The Pittsburgh Penguins looked like they needed a day off. Maybe more than one.

And yet there the defending Stanley Cup champions were on Tuesday morning, dressed and skating barely 12 hours removed from a listless Game 6 loss to Washington that put Pittsburgh’s bid for a repeat in serious peril.

The Penguins weren’t there to get loose. They weren’t there as punishment. Mike Sullivan had a point to make. Several actually. And the coach owner Mario Lemieux hired nearly 18 months ago to be the voice that cut through the noise figured it was time to remind his players of a few things.

Namely, to stop being passive bystanders while the Capitals attacked and attacked some more. So for more than half an hour Sullivan zipped around the ice at the rink named after his boss, whistle at the ready. Intermittently he’d head to the whiteboard hanging against the glass then call his players over to join him so he could loudly – and repeatedly – make a point, his thick Boston accent ping-ponging off the walls and over the din.

“There’s times where you need rest, there’s time where you’ve got to work on some things and try and get better,” forward Bryan Rust said. “And that was our goal (Tuesday) and we accomplished it.”

The proof came in Game 7 on Wednesday night, a clinical 2-0 victory over the Capitals that sent Pittsburgh to the Eastern Conference finals against Ottawa. While Sullivan deflected any praise in the aftermath – preferring instead to pepper his answers with words like “leadership” and “character” and noting the spectacular play of goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury – the Penguins understand their ability to summon their best when they absolutely need it is due in no small part to the guy with the immaculate suits, blunt demeanor and knack for saying the right thing at the right time.

“Xs and Os, he’s one of the very best coaches I’ve played for,” said 40-year-old forward Matt Cullen, who has bounced between seven teams during his 19-year career. “(As for) motivation, he does a heck of a job. He’s got a real feel for the pulse of our group.”

One that was visible at his first practice after taking over for Mike Johnston in December 2015. The Penguins and their star-powered lineup led by Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were treading water. Sullivan wanted them to play faster. He wanted them to play smarter. He wanted them to be more accountable to each other. While general manager Jim Rutherford went about getting Sullivan the pieces he needed to – as Sullivan is so fond of saying – “play the right way,” the coach turned the focus from the big picture to a smaller one.

Just worry about today. Not about winning the Cup that won’t be determined in six months. Not about their place in the standings. Not about the outside pressures that come when you happen to have two of the best players in the league on your roster. Just today.

It’s a message he hasn’t wavered from. Not after Pittsburgh brilliantly sprinted to the franchise’s fourth Cup last June. Not during what could have been a difficult regular season as injuries devastated the blue line. Not after a 3-1 series lead against Washington fell apart amid a smattering of boos inside PPG Paints Arena.

Sullivan didn’t panic. It’s not his thing. While Washington took Tuesday off after its win, Sullivan put his players back to work.

“His ability to stay calm and refocus us is something I think our team feeds off of,” defenseman Ian Cole said.

There were noticeable adjustments before Game 7. Carter Rowney and Scott Wilson in the lineup in place of Carl Hagelin and Tom Kuhnhackl. It was more than that, however. After spending the better part of six games letting Washington dictate the terms, Sullivan challenged the Penguins to get back to what made them nearly unstoppable last summer. Put the puck in deep. Forecheck. Take educated gambles.

“It wasn’t one big thing,” Cole said. “It’s little things all over the ice. It’s chipping bodies. It’s being physical and being tough to play against. Taking away their ice.”

Pittsburgh did more than that. The Penguins sapped Washington’s will. Rust’s goal near the midway point gave the Penguins the lead. Hornqvist’s backhand flip by Braden Holtby following a sloppy play by Capitals star Alex Ovechkin pushed the advantage to two. And Pittsburgh kept on coming, outshooting the Capitals over the final 20 minutes, playing with desperation and precision while Washington watched the clock tick away one last time.

“It’s about compete level, a mindset,” Sullivan said. “It’s about heart and soul.”

And the steady hand behind the bench, too.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

Swedish League champ sees another sign in NHL

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It’s an offseason of change for SHL champion HV71.

In the days following the league title, HV71 saw No. 1 goalie Linus Soderstrom sign his ELC with the Isles and d-man Andreas Borgman — the league’s rookie of the year — ink with the Leafs.

Earlier today, HV71 winger Filip Sandberg signed a two-year deal with San Jose. Shortly after that, Columbus announced it inked Sandberg’s running mate up front, Kevin Stenlund, to a three-year, entry-level deal.

Stenlund, 20, was the Blue Jackets’ second-round pick (58th overall) at the 2015 draft. He’s coming off a good year, setting career highs in goals, assists, points and games played during the regular season, then adding 10 points in 16 playoff appearances.

And he might have a chance to build on that campaign.

Per the Dispatch, the Blue Jackets expect Stenlund to play next year in Sweden, rather than try to make the move overseas. It’s possible the Isles could make the same decision with Soderstrom — meaning it’s not all bad for HV71.

 

Oilers re-sign Pakarinen for one year

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The Edmonton Oilers have given winger Iiro Pakarinen a one-year contract extension.

From the release:

Pakarinen just finished his third season with the Oilers organization, appearing in 14 regular season games in 2016-17, posting four points (2 goals, 2 assists).  The 25 year old forward missed 53 games due to an injury suffered during the pre-season. He appeared in one playoff game against the San Jose Sharks.

The Oilers brought Pakarinen over from Finland in 2014. Since then, he’s split his North American career between the AHL and NHL while drawing praise for his versatility and hard-nosed style.

Per CapFriendly, Pakarinen’s cap hit will be $750,000 in 2017-18. It’s a one-way deal.

Market heating up for prized Czech d-man Rutta

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Coming off an impressive performance for the Czech Republic at the World Hockey Championship, Jan Rutta is now being courted by a number of NHL clubs.

Per The Athletic, the Blackhawks are in contention for securing Rutta’s services. That comes on the heels of earlier reports from TSN’s Darren Dreger, who said there are “multiple” offers for the 26-year-old, including ones from Edmonton and Calgary.

“He’s a steady defenseman with size, and he had a strong finish of the season,” an NHL scout told The Athletic. “He was very good in the playoffs and played his best at the Worlds.”

Rutta, who was never drafted by an NHL club, has spent his professional career with Czech League outfit Pirati Chomutov. He’s blossomed into a talented offensive defenseman — finishing second among Czech League d-men with 32 points in 46 games this year — and, as mentioned above, has good size at 6-foot-3, 200 pounds.

Last week, Rutta’s agent — longtime Octagon Hockey representative Allan Walsh — tweeted that his client would make a decision on NHL offers soon.

 

Sharks keep stockpiling European free agents, land Sandberg

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Doug Wilson is at it again.

On Thursday, the Sharks GM confirmed yesterday’s news — the signing of Czech d-man Radim Simek — and announced that Swedish forward Filip Sandberg had agreed to a two-year deal.

“Filip is a very creative player who sees the ice well and can create offense in limited space,” Wilson said in a release. “He plays a high-pressure, puck-pursuit game and his battle level is something we have been impressed with, especially against older players.

“We are excited for him to join our organization.”

Sandberg, 22, is fresh off a Swedish League title with HV71. The club announced Sandberg would be headed overseas last week, but didn’t divulge what team had signed him.

It wasn’t surprising NHL clubs had interest. Sandberg had a good offensive campaign in Sweden, scoring 25 points in 52 regular season games, then broke out for six goals and 14 points in 16 playoff contests.

Prior to this year, Sandberg twice represented Sweden at the World Juniors, including the 2013 tournament where the country won silver. He finished with two goals in six games playing alongside the likes of Filip Forsberg, Viktor Arvidsson, Elias Lindholm and Victor Rask.

As for Simek, he inked a one-year deal.

“Radim is a quick transition defenseman who drives the play offensively and plays with a physical edge,” said Wilson. “We like his offensive instincts especially on special teams and think his game will translate well in North America.”

Simek just finished representing his native Czech Republic at the World Hockey Championship, where he had two points in eight games.

According to a report from Radio Praha, the Sharks beat out the Rangers to acquire Simek. Passed over in his draft year, the 24-year-old has spent his entire pro career with Liberec Bili Tygri.

As mentioned above, Wilson has done well finding European skaters in their early-to-mid-20s, ones that can contribute right away at the NHL level: Melker Karlsson, Joonas Donskoi and Marcus Sorensen, most specifically.

The hope now is that Simek and Sandberg will continue that trend.