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No real surprise Penguins are trailing Senators

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The Pittsburgh Penguins romped through the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs, winning 16 games against just eight losses while outshooting their opponents by an average margin of 34.9 to 28.0.

Suffice to say, it has been a much different run a year later.

This time, it’s the Pens who are being outshot by a wide margin, 34.0 to 27.7 after 15 games. They’ve still managed to get to the Eastern Conference Final, but given the way things are going against Ottawa, it’s worth remembering how they got there.

In the first round against Columbus, the big difference was goaltending. Marc-Andre Fleury was excellent and Sergei Bobrovsky struggled so badly that, after it was over, he was reportedly open to seeing a sports psychologist.

In the second round against Washington, the big difference was again goaltending. Fleury was excellent and Braden Holtby wasn’t. The Penguins as a team only played one really strong game, and that was Game 7 at Verizon Center.

Let’s face it, without Kris Letang, it was always going to be tough to match last year’s dominance, and now the Penguins find themselves trailing the Senators, 2-1.

“He’s an elite player,” head coach Mike Sullivan said of Letang, who had neck surgery last month. “He’s not an easy guy to replace. He’s one of those special players that can really take your team to another level. But the reality is what it is. This is the circumstance we’re in. We’ve been in it for a long time. We know we have capable guys that can step in and get the job done, and we’ve got to find ways to win.”

In last night’s 5-1 loss, the Pens were also without defenseman Justin Schultz and forwards Bryan Rust and Patric Hornqvist. Those are three important players for Pittsburgh, and at some point a team simply can’t withstand any more injuries.

The Senators have already taken advantage of one banged-up squad in these playoffs. In the first round, they beat a Boston Bruins team that was missing a number of key defensemen.

That’s the playoffs. Injuries happen. Some teams get lucky, some don’t.

And it’s not just luck that has Ottawa two wins from the Stanley Cup Final. The Sens believe in their system, they’re committed to it, and it’s working for them.

“We were just alive,” coach Guy Boucher said after Game 3. “I think, if you followed all of our games here, that’s how we were. I mean, we’ve had a lot of those games in the playoffs. Just in front of our fans, I think we’ve got a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of energy. And our pressure has paid off against Boston. It’s paid off against the Rangers, and it’s paid off tonight. Our fans love the way we play, and they love the enthusiasm that our players are displaying. They showed it again tonight.”

Game 4 goes tomorrow in Kanata. A Penguins loss and the defending champs will be in serious trouble. Find a way to win, however, and they’d regain home-ice advantage in what would become a best-of-three series.

“We just have to stay with it,” said Sullivan. “This is the nature of, when you’re playing a seven-game series, you have to have the ability to respond. There’s no doubt in my mind this group of players will.”

Related: Fleury or Murray for Game 4? Sullivan won’t say

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.

Avs dismiss three from coaching staff, but Bednar remains

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Colorado GM Joe Sakic said there would be turnover this offseason, but that head coach Jared Bednar was safe.

On Tuesday, Sakic followed through.

The Avs have parted ways with two of Bednar’s assistants — Tim Army and Dave Farrish — and also relieved goalie coach Francois Allaire of his duties.

Army, 54, has been with the club for the last six years, having previously served as the head coach at Providence. He served under three different head coaches in Colorado — Bednar, Patrick Roy and Joe Sacco — and was largely tasked with running the team’s power play (which finished 30th in the NHL this year).

Farrish, 60, just wrapped his second year on the job with the Avs after coming over from Toronto. A veteran of nearly 30 years in coaching, Farrish was brought aboard by Roy, and brought “a wealth of experience and hockey knowledge to our organization.” A journeyman blueliner who playecd 430 games at the NHL level, Farrish ran the club’s defense last season.

Allaire, 57, has been coaching goalies at the NHL level for over 25 years, with previous stops in Montreal, Anaheim and Toronto. His ties to Roy ran deep — he mentored the former Avs coach with the Canadiens, and the pair won two Stanley Cups together (in 1986 and ’93). Allaire has been with the Avs for the last four years, on the heels of an acrimonious departure from Toronto.

Today’s shakeup is a significant one, but it didn’t come out of nowhere. Bednar was essentially forced into retaining all of Roy’s staff following the latter’s shock resignation last August, and probably wants to bring in some of his own guys.

Sakic, meanwhile, had to make some sort of changes after the worst regular season in franchise history — and today’s could just be the tip of the iceberg.

Related: Avs president gives Sakic vote of confidence