Penguins’ run to Stanley Cup Final filled with challenges

17 Comments

PITTSBURGH — When a team wins the Stanley Cup there is always an expectation that it should be able to come back the next season and contend for it once again. So it shouldn’t be a huge shock that the Pittsburgh Penguins, a team with an All-Star cast of forwards led by Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel, are back in the Stanley Cup Final for a second year in a row (and for the fourth time in 11 years) thanks to their thrilling 3-2, double overtime Game 7 win over the Ottawa Senators on Thursday night.

What is a shock is how they managed to do it.

Getting back to the Stanley Cup Final two years in a row is a heck of a lot easier said than done.

Keep in mind the NHL has not had a repeat champion since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998. It has only had two repeat champions since 1990 (the Red Wings, and the 1991 and 1992 Penguins). Only six teams have even made it to the Finals in back-to-back years. It is a grueling task that requires not only a talented, well-coached team that is playing well at the right time of year, but also a lot of luck.

And luck is not just limited to puck luck or getting the right bounces. It is also about having the right matchups and having the right players healthy all at the same time.

All of that seemed to be working against the Penguins this postseason in what has been a run that has, in a lot of ways, defied the odds. Not only did they have to get through two of the top-three teams in the NHL this season in the first two rounds, but they had to do it with an injury list that seemed to grow by the day, leaving them with what was at times an undermanned defense.

Penguins coach Mike Sullivan talked extensively about their journey so far after their Game 7 win on Thursday night.

“It’s been hard. It’s been a really hard playoffs, and I give this group of players so much credit,” Said Sullivan. “They find ways to win, and we’re not perfect on some nights by any stretch. But this group of players has a will to win as a group more so than any other group I’ve been around.”

“I think it starts with the leadership group we have. We’ve got a group of veteran players. I think they have a certain perspective that they understand the opportunity to play this deep and compete for the Stanley Cup doesn’t come around every year. And when it does, when a team like ours puts itself in the position like we have, we have to maximize this opportunity. It’s a great opportunity. And our veteran guys know it. They’ve been around the game a long time, and they understand when they have something special, and we believe we have that with the chemistry of this team. We did it last year, and we’re finding ways to do it again this year. But it’s hard to win. This is the hardest trophy in sports, in my mind. It’s a war of attrition. And I don’t think any team has endured more injuries than this group of players has endured, and we continue to find ways to win.”

The injury situation has been especially brutal.

After entering the playoffs without their best defenseman (Kris Letang), forcing the team into a defense-by-committee approach that is almost unheard of for teams going this deep into the playoffs, they have also had to spend time without Sidney Crosby, Patric Hornqvist, Bryan Rust, Justin Schultz and Trevor Daley for stretches.

All of that, combined with the daunting path through two of the NHL’s best teams, resulted in a style of play that has not been quite as consistently impressive as their run a year ago.

Until Game 4 of their series against the Senators the Penguins had been dominated on the shot chart and were bleeding chances against, spending the entire postseason to that point defending and relying heavily on the goaltending of Marc-Andre Fleury to get through.

“I mean, just the competition,” said Chris Kunitz, the Game 7 hero on Thursday night when asked about the different challenges they have faced this year.

“It doesn’t matter who you’re playing. It’s tough to overcome them, or sustain maybe that pressure that we had last year. It felt like we were in more of a flow. This year it’s been back and forth. It’s been tough,” he continued. “We’ve had great individual performances. We had great goaltending. It’s something every night. We haven’t dominated the play that maybe we wanted to. Maybe we’ve done a better job these last couple of games. But it’s something we’re going to have to get better at playing a 60-minute game if we’re going to have a chance to beat Nashville.”

The Buzzer: Penguins, Predators advance; West second round set

Getty
1 Comment

2017 Stanley Cup Finalists move on

Penguins 8, Flyers 5 (Penguins win series 4-2)

Despite Evgeni Malkin missing Game 6 and Sean Couturier playing through a torn MCL, these two teams still provided plenty of fireworks including big goal totals, some controversial/nasty moments, and ultimately the end of the series. Jake Guentzel ended up scoring four consecutive goals to erase the Flyers’ lead and then give the Penguins enough of a cushion to close things out.

After beating their in-state rivals, the Penguins await another familiar foe, whether that ends up being the Blue Jackets or the Capitals. The Penguins have to breathe a sigh of relief that they avoided a Game 7, as that was far from a foregone conclusion for much of Sunday (despite the odd final score).

See for yourself:

Predators 5, Avalanche 0 (Predators win series 4-2)

While there was plenty of drama before the Penguins advanced, the Predators turned Game 6 into a formality pretty early on. Former Penguins forward Nick Bonino scored a goal and two assists, Austin Watson continued his strong postseason, and some usual suspects (Filip Forsberg, Viktor Arvidsson) put the game out of reach. Pekka Rinne only needed to make 22 saves to earn a shutout.

Read more about Nashville’s Game 6 win here.

West second round is set:

Nashville Predators [Central first seed] vs. Winnipeg Jets [Central second]

Vegas Golden Knights [Pacific first seed] vs. San Jose Sharks [Pacific third]

PHT will provide schedule and TV information when it becomes available.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Three Stars

1. Jake Guentzel, Pittsburgh Penguins – At one point, the Flyers were up 4-2 during the second period. Patric Hornqvist made it 4-3, then Guentzel went on a dizzying tear where he scored four unanswered goals. Guentzel also grabbed an assist on that Hornqvist goal, so the 23-year-old generated four goals and one assist to help Pittsburgh advance (and thus avoid a Game 7 against Philly). He was a +5 in Game 6, too.

Guentzel’s clutch credentials continue to climb; he now has 19 goals and 34 points in just 31 career playoff games. Wow.

2. Sean Couturier, Philadelphia Flyers – You could make a very strong argument that Couturier deserves the first star, but the tie goes to the runner/guy whose team won. If the regular season didn’t serve as a convincing coronation for Couturier to go from a very good player to a bonafide star, then this postseason should remove any doubt.

Generating a hat trick and two assists with your team’s season on the line is already a ridiculous accomplishment. To do so with a torn-up knee is jaw-dropping. And, hey, Couturier drew penalties, and probably should have drawn another one on what ended up being Guentzel’s game-winner:

3. Nick Bonino, Nashville Predators – Sidney Crosby deserves an honorable mention, as both Crosby and Bonino generated one-goal, two-assist games in helping their teams advance to the second round.

Bonino collected assists on the first two goals for Nashville, then he found the net for his first goal of the night/second tally of the series. This marks the first three-point game of Bonino’s postseason career, which is really something considering how much success he enjoyed with Crosby, Guentzel, and the Penguins during his two Cup runs with Pittsburgh.

Factoids

Guentzel’s night was special in many ways. Here’s one historical angle:

The Predators aren’t the only team going for their first Stanley Cup. But you already knew the Golden Knights haven’t won one yet, of course:

Monday’s games

Boston Bruins at Toronto Maple Leafs, 7 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
Washington Capitals at Columbus Blue Jackets, 7:30 p.m. ET (CNBC)

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.

Predators hammer Hammond, close out Avalanche

5 Comments

Andrew Hammond hamburgled a Game 5 win for the Colorado Avalanche, but the Nashville Predators ended Colorado’s Cinderella season in rancid way by a score of 5-0 on Sunday.

The Presidents’ Trophy winners flexed their muscles in Game 6, and it must be a huge relief to avoid a Game 7. That’s especially true since the scary-good Winnipeg Jets await them in the second round as a rested bunch.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Early on in Game 6, a toss-up of a goalie interference call didn’t go Nashville’s way. That ended up being a mere footnote, however, as Mattias Ekholm made it 1-0 about 16 seconds later. Ekholm’s goal ended up standing as the game-winner, though the Predators eliminated any doubt about the outcome pretty quickly on Sunday.

After channeling the magic of his “Hamburglar” run with Ottawa in 2014-15 thanks to a 44-save performance in Game 5, Hammond suffered in Game 6. The journeyman goalie might lose some sleep over some of the Predators’ goals, including a deflating 3-0 tally by Filip Forsberg.

Credit the Avalanche for making the Predators sweat overall, even if Nashville made things look pretty easy in Game 6.

It would have been prettier for Nashville to dispatch Colorado casually via a sweep or a quick five-game series, but the Predators may get some value from being tested. They also won games in different ways:

  • Nashville advanced despite a disappointing showing from its second line, with Kyle Turris (just one assist in six games) and Kevin Fiala (one goal, one assist in series) being especially quiet. That’s mostly a bad thing, but it also shows that the team can withstand a cold spell from some notable players.
  • The Predators enjoyed some strong work from supporting cast members including Austin Watson and Colton Sissons. Both players generated at least a point-per-game against the Avs, with Watson contributing four goals (including a key tally in Game 6). Nick Bonino was also fantastic in support for Nashville, generating his first three-point playoff game with a goal and two assists. Depth is a calling card for the Predators, and that came through in the first round, although the specific supporting cast standouts might surprise some.
  • Pekka Rinne experienced ups and downs, yet he seems to be heating up lately.

While the Avalanche’s season ended with a whimper in Game 6, they gave the Predators a tougher fight than many expected. There’s a lot of room to improve, but this scrappy bunch has something to build on during the summer.

That said, the Predators showed their higher gear during the last two games in particular, and Hammond could only steal one game for the Avs.

This was a solid squabble to warm Nashville up for the postseason, but the Predators will need to play at a very high level if they want to cool the Jets. After holding off the underdog Avs, the Preds must steel themselves for a heavyweight bout against Winnipeg.

It should be fun … at least for those of us who get to watch. For those on the ice, the second round is expected to feel more like the main event.

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.

Flyers’ once-deadly power play wilted against Penguins

12 Comments

No doubt about it, Flyers fans have a beef about the goal that really set the stage for the Penguins to put Game 6 – and the series – out of reach on Sunday.

Perhaps Sean Couturier would have received an embellishment infraction during the exchange, but either way, it sure seemed like Kris Letang took another penalty on Couturier just moments after leaving the penalty box for a different infraction. No call was made, and just moments later, Jake Guentzel scored to push the score to 6-4.

Things got weird after that as the Penguins eliminated the Flyers via an 8-5 score in Game 6, but plenty of Philly fans probably wonder “What if?” on that goal. Flyers players seem to agree that Letang deserved a penalty.

You can debate that call and different breaking points until you’re blue in the face, but the real “What if?” question might revolve around special teams. To be specific, the Flyers’ power play really let them down in that just-expired series against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

The Flyers were held without a power-play goal in five of the six games during this series. The lone exception was Game 2, when the Flyers went 2-for-3 in a 5-1 win.

Philly went 2-for-21 overall during the series, generating a pitiful power-play percentage of 9.5. Only the Kings and Golden Knights were less productive with the man advantage, and that was during a skin-tight four-game sweep where goals were incredibly hard to come by (that series featured 10 goals total, three fewer than the Flyers and Penguins scored in Game 6 alone).

It’s especially remarkable that the Flyers also went 0-for-13 on the power play at home during this series. With their season on the line, that unit only managed two power-play shots on goal in three opportunities in Game 6, looking especially indecisive despite also receiving a 4-on-3 opportunity.

Now, heading into this series, the Penguins were expected to hold an advantage on special teams because of what could be a historically potent PP unit of their own. Still, it’s troubling that the Flyers rarely exploited what was a far from spectacular Penguins penalty kill. Pittsburgh’s PK unit was in the bottom third of the NHL percentage-wise since February, setting the stage for two strong power plays to trade blows. That didn’t happen as much as expected, with the Flyers’ failures ending up being fatal.

A question of personnel?

If you want to point to one factor, ponder Wayne Simmonds‘ lack of involvement.

The fantastic front-of-the-net presence implied that he might be undergoing surgery soon, which probably explains both his limited usage and limited production. Simmonds failed to score a single goal during this series, finishing with two assists in six games.

(Strangely, that matches his production from his last playoff appearance in 2015-16: zero goals, two assists in six games.)

Blame it on struggles or a lack of health, but either way, the Flyers were turning to different players when a man up.

It’s no surprise to see big PP TOI numbers for Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, Sean Couturier, and Shayne Gostisbehere. The notable swap is Nolan Patrick, who joins those Flyers in the four minutes per game range, while Simmonds was only logging about two minutes per night.

Patrick has come a long way as his rookie season goes along, yet Simmonds is one of the NHL’s true wizards in the dirty areas right in front of the net. Simmonds has generated at least 11 power-play goals for five straight seasons with the Flyers for a reason.

Would things have been different if Simmonds was truly healthy? It’s a fair question, but you also wonder if the Flyers didn’t make enough adjustments to get their once-potent power play back on track.

***

In looking back at this series, the Flyers will certainly want to solidify their goalie situation, a seemingly eternal conundrum for this franchise.

Sometimes it comes down to getting the right players and goalies in place, something that GM Ron Hextall must wrestle with during the summer. Still, there are also questions about putting the right players in the right situations, and in many cases that comes down to coaching.

Ultimately, a lukewarm power play hurt the Flyers’ chances of trading haymakers with the prolific Penguins. Maybe it’s a mere matter of small sample sizes, yet Philly’s failings in that area should at least prompt some soul-searching over the summer.

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.

Sean Couturier played through torn MCL, still had hat trick in Game 6 loss

17 Comments

Sean Couturier was the Philadelphia Flyers’ best player in Games 5 and 6 of their first-round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

In the former, he was a beast on the penalty kill and scored the game-winning goal with a minute to play in regulation. In the latter, he had a hat trick and five total points (factoring in to every single one of the Flyers’ goals) in their 8-5 defeat. He did everything he could have possibly done to try and force a Game 7 in the series.

He did all of that while playing on a torn MCL.

Had this been the regular season that sort of injury probably would have sidelined him for at least four weeks.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Couturier revealed the nature of his injury following the loss on Sunday. He was injured in practice before Game 4 of the series when he was involved in a collision with teammate Radko Gudas. It kept him out of the lineup in what would be a 5-0 loss for the Flyers. He returned for Game 5, and even though he was obviously limited he still played an incredible game.

He was even better on Sunday.

This was a breakthrough season for Couturier as he doubled all of his previous career highs offensively, scoring 31 goals and recording 76 total points.

He is also a finalist for the Selke Trophy which is awarded to the NHL’s top defensive forward. It is the first time he is a finalist for the award.

Related: Guentzel scores 4 goals as Penguins, eliminate Flyers in Game 6

————

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.