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Penguins’ Sullivan believes resiliency is ‘strength of this team’

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PITTSBURGH (AP) Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Chris Kunitz stood shoulder to shoulder at center ice as midnight approached, crowd on its feet, Prince of Wales Trophy in hand. Another shot at the Stanley Cup in the offing.

On the surface, it could have been a scene ripped from 2008 when the longtime Pittsburgh Penguin teammates earned their first crack at a championship together, the one that was supposed to be the launching pad for a dynasty.

A closer look at the weary, grateful smiles told a different story.

This team has learned over the last decade that nothing can be taken for granted. Not their individual greatness or postseason success, even for one of the NHL’s marquee franchises. Not the cohesion it takes to survive the crucible of the most draining championship chase in professional team sports or the mental toughness (along with a dash of luck) needed to stay on top once you get there.

So Crosby paused in the giddy aftermath of Pittsburgh’s 3-2 victory over Ottawa in Game 7 of the helter-skelter Eastern Conference finals to do something the two-time Hart Trophy winner almost never does. He took stock of the moment, aware of how fleeting they can be.

“Every series you look at, the margin for error is so slim,” Crosby said. “We’ve just continued to find ways and different guys have stepped up. We trust in that and we believe in that and whoever has come in the lineup has done a great job. That builds confidence. We’ve done it different ways, which is probably our biggest strength.”

And they’ll have to do it one more time in the final against swaggering Nashville if they want to become the first team in nearly 20 years and the first in salary-cap era to win back-to-back championships.

It’s a daunting task. When the puck drops in Game 1 on Monday night in Pittsburgh, the Penguins will be playing in their 108th game in the last calendar year, and that doesn’t count another half dozen for those who played in the World Cup of Hockey and a handful of exhibition games.

Pittsburgh, however, has survived to do something even Chicago and Los Angeles – who have combined for five of the seven Cups awarded since 2010 – could not in putting itself in positon for a repeat.

Credit coach Mike Sullivan’s ever-prescient tinkering with the lineups, including his decision to throw Kunitz back into the fray with Crosby as Game 7 wore on, an experiment that ended with Crosby feeding Kunitz for the winner 5:09 into the second overtime .

Credit goaltender Matt Murray, thrust back into the lineup when Marc-Andre Fleury‘s hot play that helped carry the Penguins through the opening two rounds finally cooled.

Credit a maturity – or maybe it’s wisdom – from the team leaders who watched the first half of the decade come and go with plenty of gaudy regular-season numbers but no Cup banners to join the one they captured in 2009.

Pinning down what changed is difficult. General manager Jim Rutherford’s ability to remake the team on the fly to build one of the fastest lineups in the league helped. So did Sullivan’s ability to cut through the noise when he replaced the professorial Mike Johnston in December 2015.

Yet the Penguins understand there’s something else at work too, a resiliency and accountability they lacked while falling to lower-seeded teams every year from 2010-14.

“I believe that the resolve and the resilience of this team is the strength of this team,” Sullivan said.

Both were on full display in Game 7.

Kunitz, who missed the first-round series against Columbus with a lower-body injury, returned to see himself bumped from the first line to the fourth, scored his first two goals of the playoffs. Conor Sheary, a blurring revelation last spring who suddenly found himself a healthy scratch in Games 5 and 6 against the Senators, returned to set up Kunitz’s first goal .

Justin Schultz, who has assumed the as the minute-hogging, puck-moving defenseman role held by the injured Kris Letang, returned from his own health scare and scored a go-ahead goal in the third period.

If the Penguins were a force of nature last spring while earning the franchise’s fourth Cup, this one is more of a throwback. More blue collar. More anonymous.

Some of the key cogs that helped Pittsburgh get to this point – rookie forward Jake Guentzel, 37-year-old playoff newcomer Ron Hainsey and career grinder Scott Wilson – weren’t even around last spring. Yet they and so many others not named Crosby or Malkin have become equal partners in pursuit of a title.

“This year it’s been back and forth, it’s been tough,” Kunitz said. “We’ve had great individual performances. We had great goaltending. It’s something every night.”

It hasn’t been pretty. So what? Perhaps the biggest sign of the team’s growth is it has abandoned the pursuit of style points for something far more tangible. Like a 34-pound piece of hardware, one Pittsburgh has no intention of handing off anytime soon.

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

Penguins, Kings among teams with notable waiver moves

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If an NHL team wants to add a big winger with two Stanley Cup rings,* they merely need to make a waiver claim.

TVA’s Renaud Lavoie tweeted out Tuesday’s list of waived players, with the Los Angeles Kings and Pittsburgh Penguins making some of the most interesting moves.

In the case of the Kings, they waived Jordan Nolan and former Penguins backup Jeff Zatkoff. Here’s the full list, via Lavoie:

There are some bullet points that can sell Nolan, but the 28-year-old’s production was quite limited at the NHL level. Nolan’s never scored 10 goals in a single season; in fact, he’s only reached 10 points once in his career (six goals and four assists in 64 regular-season contests back in 2013-14).

Overall, it wouldn’t be surprising if a team targeted Nolan as a depth guy, even if his ceiling is limited.

While the Penguins’ entries seem notable for sheer volume as much as anything else, Frank Corrado is another name that stands out.

Corrado was often the catalyst for debates about his playing time (or lack thereof) with the Toronto Maple Leafs, but it doesn’t seem like the defenseman is having much success catching on with the Penguins, either.

Zatkoff, meanwhile, fits in with quite a few other names on this list: possibly prominent in the AHL, only likely to get the occasional cup of coffee in the NHL, at this point.

* – Yes, it’s OK to think of Jaromir Jagr before that sentence ends.

Red Wings are ‘excited’ about Michael Rasmussen’s offensive upside

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The Detroit Red Wings missed the playoffs for the first time in 25 years, but there appears to be something good that came from that.

Instead of drafting in the back half of the first round, the Wings were able to get a top 10 selection in last June’s NHL Entry Draft. With the ninth overall pick, they chose power forward Michael Rasmussen.

Rasmussen is listed at 6-foot-6 and 215 pounds. NHLers of that size are a rare breed. Add the fact that he’s gifted offensively, and it looks like the Red Wings may have a gem coming through the pipeline.

In his first three career preseason games, the 18-year-old has already picked up two goals. His play hasn’t gone unnoticed by the organization.

“I’m excited about him as a prospect,” head coach Jeff Blashill said, per MLive.com. “He’s big, he’s smooth, he’s got good hands, he’s got good offensive sense.”

With all big forwards, a lot of their success will be determined by their skating ability. In today’s NHL, it’s pretty clear that you need to be able to move if you’re going to have a long and productive career. But according to Blashill, skating isn’t a big issue with Rasmussen.

“I think he skates well. People have questioned that, but I don’t see that at all. I think he covers lots of ground in a hurry. I think he needs to move his feet a little bit more at times in the D-zone, but overall I’ve been happy with his play.”

No matter what he does between now and the end of training camp, it sounds like Rasmussen will be heading back to the WHL’s Tri-City Americans, where he’ll look to improve his numbers from last year (32 goals, 55 points in 50 games).

Luongo pushes through ‘mental, physical grind’ in comeback from hip injury

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Roberto Luongo is back, taking part in the preseason for the Florida Panthers, in preparation for when the games begin to count in the standings.

However, his latest comments suggest he didn’t know if that would indeed be the case, after suffering a hip injury that resulted in surgery following the 2015-16 season and then shut him down in March last season.

“For a good two- to three-month period it was a battle mentally to just figure out if I could be able to ever come back,” Luongo told NHL.com. “I didn’t feel like I was getting better and it was constantly bothering me, so it was as much a mental grind as a physical grind from March until almost June if I could ever fully recover and feel good on the ice.”

Luongo is now 38 years old and the rigorous demands of playing that position for more than 960 career regular season games — not to mention playoffs or international duty — can surely take a toll on the body. The Panthers have a good tandem in net with Luongo and James Reimer, but what will be intriguing as the season progresses is how head coach Bob Boughner divvies up playing time between the two, with Luongo appearing to be healthier and as Florida looks to get back into the postseason.

The past several weeks, though, have been encouraging for Luongo. He returned to the ice well ahead of training camp and gave an optimistic report, saying there weren’t “any issues.” That was just over a month ago. He stopped all eight shots he faced during 31:26 of ice time in his preseason debut last week, which was a good start.

Auston Matthews puts on a show in preseason tilt vs. Habs

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Auston Matthews and William Nylander are showing no signs of any sophomore slump so far through the pre-season.

Matthews had a hat trick and an assist and Nylander had a goal and two assists as the Toronto Maple Leafs defeated the Montreal Canadiens 5-1 in an NHL preseason game on Monday night.

Matthews scored his first goal of the game 47 seconds into the first period. His wrist shot from just inside the blue line went over the right shoulder of Canadiens goaltender Al Montoya.

Matthews made it 2-0 at 4:56. Nylander’s initial shot went high, and Matthews batted down the rebound and into an open side of the net.

He scored his third goal in the third period. While on a breakaway, Matthews shot the puck between the legs of Montoya at 3:46.

Matthews has four goals and two assists in three preseason games.

Jeff Petry scored for Montreal while on the power play at 11:37 of the second period.

Nylander scored at 6:03 of the third period to give Toronto a 5-1 lead.

Patrick Marleau also had a goal for Toronto while Frederik Andersen made 20 saves.