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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

Oilers coach on Draisaitl negotiations, cap crunch and more

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As NHL.com reports, Edmonton Oilers head coach Todd McLellan doesn’t seem too worried about Leon Draisaitl‘s contract negotiations.

“I’m confident we’re going to see Leon in an [Oilers] uniform,” McLellan said at a charity golf tournament. “We want him to be there, he wants to be there, and it’s just a matter of getting a few things done over the summer.”

Granted, as confident as McLellan is, he also admits that he doesn’t really get involved in that side of the hockey business, preferring to leave that to GM Peter Chiarelli.

On that note, McLellan said he’s aware that locking down Drasaitl, Connor McDavid, and other key members will likely leave the Oilers with a “tight wallet … and that’s not going to change for many years.”

(For an in-depth look at the Oilers’ salary structure, check out this deep dive.)

McLellan faces the challenge of aligning those big-ticket items with bargain signings, something that’s likely only to become a more common situation as time goes along. He also must deal with an obstacle that isn’t new to him considering his Sharks days, but will be unusual for many Oilers: no longer slipping under the radar.

“Expectations make it a little harder on a hockey club, mentally and physically, and we haven’t experienced that as a group yet and that’s why I still consider our team a growth team,” McLellan said. “We’ve got to go through that now. Teams will be ready for the Oilers. They’ll be prepared to play against us night in and night out, and people expect us, our fans in particular, to win on a more regular basis than we have in the past. Our task just gets tougher.”

If they fail, McLellan will shoulder much of the blame, even if management makes some poor decisions with that “tight wallet.”

Blues re-sign goalie Binnington

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Jordan Binnington, the netminder taken 88th overall by the Blues in 2011, has signed a one-year, two-way extension, the club announced on Friday.

Binnington, 24, has played almost exclusively with St. Louis’ AHL affiliate since turning pro four years ago, though he did spend some time in the ECHL.

Last year he worked alongside Ville Husso and Pheonix Copley in the Wolves’ goal, and will likely do so again with Husso moving forward (Copley was traded to Washington as part of the Kevin Shattenkirk deal.)

Binnington’s NHL body of work is brief — one 13-minute relief appearance during the ’15-16 campaign. Right now he’s jockeying with Husso to be the organization’s No. 3 netminder, a potential call-up should either Jake Allen or Carter Hutton get hurt.

Chris Neil wants a one-way deal, and says he’s received offers

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Here’s what we know about veteran tough guy Chris Neil.

He won’t be back in Ottawa, the city where he’s spent his entire 15-year career. But he does want to keep playing. What’s more, he’s not ready to accept a two-way deal or training camp PTO, because offers for a one-way deal have already come in.

“The offers I’ve had so far haven’t been [two way or PTO]. They’ve been a one-way deal,” the 37-year-old forward said, per the Ottawa Sun. “For me, that’s what I’d be looking for.

“It’s up in the air right now. There’s some interest. There’s some teams you’d prefer over others.”

Neil was informed by the Sens last month that he wouldn’t be brought back next season, which marked the end of an era. Ottawa took Neil in the sixth round of the 1998 draft, and he made his NHL debut three years later. He went on to become one of the club’s most recognizable players, in large part to his pugilistic ways — during the 2003-04 campaign, he fought a remarkable 24 times.

That trademark toughness could be something teams are interested in bringing aboard. There were rumblings St. Louis was eyeing him after trading Ryan Reaves to Pittsburgh, with Fox Sports Midwest reporting that Neil had three offers on the table.

If there’s one thing that’s for certain, it’s that Neil believes he can still play. After learning that he wouldn’t be brought back to the Canadian capital, he had some choice words for Sens head coach Guy Boucher and the perceived lack of opportunity Boucher afforded him.

“I have a lot of respect for Randy [Lee, Sens assistant GM] and Pierre [Dorion, GM] … I think, if it was up to them, I’d be back,” Neil explained, per the Citizen. “But they kind of put it in the coach’s hands and that had a lot to do with it. For whatever reason, Guy [Boucher] never really gave me the chance to show I can play.

“Even before I got hurt, I was a healthy scratch for a couple of games and I saw the writing on the wall.”

After tough year in Florida, Smith ready to reunite with ‘players-first’ Gallant

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For Reilly Smith, the anticipation of playing for Las Vegas next season goes beyond playing for the league’s newest team.

It’s also about playing for his old coach, Gerard Gallant.

“I think he kind of embodies the motto that it’s a players-first league and everything kind of revolves around that,” Smith said, per the Golden Knights website. “I know particularly last year in the Florida Panthers organization, there was a lot of change and things going on and I know one of the main messages that he always put forth was that whatever goes on outside, make sure you guys are a tight-knit group inside and play for each other.

“That was one thing that he definitely tried to convey to the team and try to get us to rally behind.”

Smith’s time in Florida was a two-part tale.

After coming over from Boston as part of the Jimmy Hayes swap — Marc Savard’s contract was also shipped to Florida — Smith had a terrific ’15-16 campaign under Gallant, posting career highs in goals (25) while helping the Panthers qualify for the playoffs.

In the postseason, he was a consistent scoring threat, finishing the series with four goals and eight points in six games.

Year two wasn’t nearly as successful.

Gallant was fired early on — controversially so — and Smith’s production dropped off. He ended with just 15 goals and 37 points, disappointing figures that were exacerbated by the big five-year, $25 million extension he signed in the offseason.

Reading between the lines, fair to suggest Smith struggled with the coaching change from Gallant to Tom Rowe. Things came to a head in early March, when Rowe called out Smith following a loss to Dallas.

On the Stars’ first goal, Smith seemed to lose his man in front of the net. Rowe was asked about it, and responded.

“We went over that exact play in team meeting and we haven’t learned our lesson yet,” he said. “That is the problem.”

Rowe wasn’t done there. Later, he was asked about Dallas’ winning goal, which may have been deflected in off a skate. The criticism went back to Smith.

“I don’t know,” said Rowe. “All I know is Reilly Smith was blowing the zone doing exactly what he is not supposed to be doing.”

Smith will certainly be a guy to watch this season. He’s still only 26 years old, looking for a bounce back, and noted that Gallant gave him the opportunity to play a larger role than he had with the Bruins (and, prior to that, the Stars).

One wonders if that’ll happen again, this time in Vegas.