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Sullivan wants Kessel to have a shoot first mindset

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Since arriving in Pittsburgh before the 2015-16 season Phil Kessel has proven to be an important piece to the Penguins’ puzzle. He hasn’t been the 35-or 40-goal scorer that he was expected to be upon his arrival, he has still been an extremely productive player and especially in the playoffs where he has always been at his best.

But while the production is there once again this postseason (he has 20 points in 22 games, good enough for third best in the league) he hasn’t looked quite as dominant as he did a year ago, and he has even faced some pretty harsh criticism for his play from some in the Pittsburgh media.

He has also had his ice-time drop a bit over the past couple of weeks, logging less than 16 minutes of ice-time in five of his past seven games, nearly two minutes off of his postseason average the past two years.

Held without a goal in Saturday’s Game 3 loss to Nashville, Kessel has now gone five games without a goal and has just one in his past seven. Granted, that really isn’t that huge of a slump because even the elite players run into dry spells when it comes to putting the puck in the net. Big picture, five games really isn’t that long of a slump.

Even so, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan was asked on Saturday night if he sees anything in Kessel’s game that indicates if he might be on the verge of breaking out of that mini-slump and if Kessel is playing with confidence.

“Well, he’s an elite shooter,” said Sullivan. “He can score goals. We always try to encourage him to shoot the puck more because he has one of the best shots in the game, we believe. He had a couple looks tonight. He had a breakaway late in the game.

“I think Phil is a guy, if one goes in for him, it certainly gives him a boost of confidence. We’re trying to encourage him to shoot the puck and think shot first. I think, you know, he’s certainly at his best when he’s in that mindset.”

And that starts to drill down to where some of the concern might be coming from. He’s not getting shots at the same rate as he has in the past, something that started even during the regular season when he averaged just 2.79 shots on goal per game. That was his lowest total since his second year in the league. In the playoffs, he is averaging 2.86 after averaging more than four in the playoffs a year ago. It’s almost as if he made an effort this season to become more of a playmaker (and he has always been an underrated passer) instead of taking full advantage of his opportunities to use his elite shot.

Kessel is always going to be an interesting case, and this postseason is no different. He is paid to score goals because that is what he does best, and given his style of play (not physical, considered “one dimensional”) he is going to face criticism when he isn’t doing that, even if the overall production is still there.

Without NHL players, Olympic tournament is ‘wide open’

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When Willie Desjardins coached Canada’s 2010 world junior team stacked with future NHL players Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Brayden Schenn, Alex Pietrangelo and goaltenders Jake Allen and Martin Jones, it took a wild final game with John Carlson scoring in overtime to win the gold medal for the United States.

Just like Canada was the most talented team back then, Russia is likely to have that role at the upcoming Winter Olympics. Desjardins isn’t concerned about that.

”In this tournament, anybody can win,” Desjardins said.

Goodbye, NHL players. Hello, unpredictability.

No NHL participation for the first time since 1994 threatens to upset the traditional world hockey order after Canada has won the past three best-on-best tournaments: the 2016 World Cup, 2014 Sochi Olympics and 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Russia is considered the favorite because it has former NHL players Ilya Kovalchuk, Pavel Datsyuk and Andrei Markov, though Finland could make gold its sixth medal in the past five Games or Sweden could win for the first time since 2006.

Coach Tony Granato’s American team was put together with players from European professional leagues, the NCAA and American Hockey League.

”This Olympics is wide open for a lot of reasons,” Granato said. ”Russia’s got the most talented players in the world. They’re going to have the team that steps on the ice with the most talented players. Does that make them the best team for two weeks? No. We all know that. We all know how sports works. All you’re looking for is an opportunity to make the most and be the best that you can be for that period of time.”

Because it’s such a short tournament with three pool-play games, a qualifying round and then quarterfinals, it could come down to which team gels first after limited preparation time. Or maybe another goaltender will pull off what Latvia’s Kristers Gudlevskis almost did when making 55 saves to give Canada a scare in the quarterfinals in Sochi.

”The goaltending matters, too, in an event like this,” NBC Sports analyst Pierre McGuire said. ”It always matters, but I think in this one, the underdog – if you have an elite goalie – can really do some damage.”

Who’s the underdog? It’s fair to say host South Korea, in its first Olympics in men’s hockey, fits that bill, along with Slovenia, Slovakia, Switzerland, Germany and Norway.

Yet being in a group with Slovenia, Slovakia and Russia is no easy task for the U.S., which boasts 38-year-old semi-retired captain Brian Gionta as its most experienced player. Granato said the U.S. ”has lots of pieces that other teams and countries don’t know about” and wonders if his team will be overlooked.

Mistake-prone play seems likely, though Gionta doesn’t think there will be any lack of sizzle.

”I know there’s been some talk that not having the NHL guys in, you don’t have your high-skilled guys,” Gionta said. ”I think that’s a bad representation of the people that are going over there and competing in these games. There’s a lot of great hockey players.”

ALL EYES ON DAHLIN

One of the most dynamic and offensively talented players is also the youngest: Sweden defenseman Rasmus Dahlin, who’s projected to be the No. 1 pick in the NHL draft in June. Dahlin has 11 points in 29 games playing against grown men in the Swedish Hockey League and had six points in seven games at the world juniors. He’s just 17.

WHO ARE THESE GUYS?

When the NHL announced it was out of these Olympics, executives from USA Hockey and Hockey Canada were quick to say every team would have 25 great stories. There are players on almost every team who are familiar because they played in the NHL at one point. Most of the rosters are made up of journeymen plying their trade in pro leagues in Europe, such as Czech Republic captain Martin Erat, Germany’s Christian Ehrhoff and Canada’s Ben Scrivens. Americans Troy Terry, Jordan Greenway, Ryan Donato and Will Borgen are currently playing college hockey.

”The tournament in general is going to be built with teams with lots of guys that this is the greatest event for them and they didn’t necessarily think they were going to get this opportunity,” Canada GM Sean Burke said.

BIG ICE

If the Sochi Games proved anything, it was that the international-sized ice that’s 15 feet wider than NHL rinks doesn’t create more offense. The U.S. and Canada built rosters with the bigger ice in mind, prioritizing skating and mobility and playing a more European style. That doesn’t mean European teams won’t have an advantage, but it won’t be such a stark change as when North American NHL players need a few games to get used to it.

OAR PRESSURE

The Olympic Athletes from Russia team is a favorite to win gold, which would be the first since the Unified Team in 1992. But Russia hasn’t medaled since 2002, including a disappointing showing on home ice four years ago. The chance to draw all its players from the Kontinental Hockey League should benefit Russia, which has won four of the past 10 world hockey championships. But something about this stage has made Russia play like less than the sum of its parts before, which makes even a star-studded team beatable.

Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

More AP Olympic coverage: https://wintergames.ap.org

The Buzzer: Pacioretty continues hot streak

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Players of the Night:

Max Pacioretty, Montreal Canadiens: Here’s a name you haven’t seen often in these parts this season. But Pacioretty had two goals tonight, the opener for the Canadiens and the game-winner with 1:18 left in the third period to give the Canadiens a 3-2 win over the Washington Capitals. He also added an assist on Montreal’s other goal. Truth be told, Pacioretty has been sizzling lately with six goals and an assist in his past six games.

John Gibson, Anaheim Ducks: Gibson had a quiet night for the most part until the third period, but he was stellar when called upon and made 23 saves, including a second-period beauty (which you will see below) to help his team to a 2-1 win against the Los Angeles Kings.

Highlights of the Night:

James Neal had all the moves to help the Vegas Golden Knights secure a point on the road in a 4-3 overtime loss to the Florida Panthers.

John Gibson got just enough on this puck to redirect it off the post and out for quite the save:

Factoid of the Night:

MISC:

Scores:

Panthers 4, Golden Knights 3 (OT)

Canadiens 3, Capitals 2

Ducks 2, Kings 1


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Henrique, Kesler too much for Quick, Kings in 2-1 Ducks win

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Jonathan Quick did all he could.

The posts behind him helped on a couple occasions, but Quick was everything the Los Angeles Kings needed to break out of their five-game losing streak, which they entered Friday wearing like a ball and chain.

But while Quick was solid in the crease, making 29 saves, the men in front of him couldn’t replicate their goalie’s performance in a 2-1 loss to the Anaheim Ducks.

The Kings have now lost six straight and just two of their past 10 and are tied with four teams, including the Ducks, who sit on 53 points and just outside the final wildcard spot in the Western Conference.

The Ducks-Kings rivalry has become quite the grind ’em out slugfest over time, and despite their recent downward spiral, the Kings weren’t going to roll over and die when the puck dropped, even if they played 24 hours earlier.

This rivalry doesn’t allow for one team to not show up, despite whatever mitigating circumstances may be available.

And neither team was giving the other any allowances, evidenced by a 0-0 scoreline after 40 minutes.

The Ducks struck first in the third frame as Adam Henrique finally willed a puck behind Quick, who had puzzled Anaheim’s offense for 42 minutes and change.

Henrique’s individual effort on the goal began a few seconds earlier as he won a foot race to the puck to get it into the Ducks’ zone, dove to make sure it stayed there and they got up and went to the net, where he picked up a loose puck that and put it in the back of the net for a 1-0 lead at the 17:55 mark.

That lead was shortlived, however.

The Kings struck back two-and-a-half minutes later as some extended offensive zone time by the Kings resulted in Alex Iafallo flicking a puck up and over John Gibson off a rebound to ruin his shutout bid at 4:48.

The Ducks would get the final say.

Jakob Silfverberg‘s excellent forecheck kept the Kings from clearing the puck out of their zone.

The puck found its way to the point, where Francois Beauchemin unleashed a high point shot that was redirected down and under Quick by Ryan Kesler for the eventual game-winner.

Gibson’s night may have been a little quieter than his counterpart 200-feet away, but he was on point when he needed to be, making 23 of 24 saves, including getting just enough on Iafallo’s second-period shot to steer it off the post and out to keep the game 0-0 at that point.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

WATCH LIVE: Los Angeles Kings vs Anaheim Ducks

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CLICK HERE TO WATCH LIVE

PROJECTED LINES

Los Angeles Kings

Adrian KempeAnze KopitarDustin Brown

Tanner PearsonTrevor LewisTyler Toffoli

Alex IafalloNick ShoreMarian Gaborik

Kyle CliffordTorrey MitchellAndy Andreoff

Derek ForbortDrew Doughty

Jake MuzzinAlec Martinez

Kevin Gravel– Christian Folin

Starting Goalie: Darcy Kuemper

NHL on NBCSN: Kings look to end losing streak vs. Ducks

Anaheim Ducks

Rickard RakellRyan GetzlafCorey Perry

Andrew CoglianoRyan KeslerJakob Silfverberg

Nick RitchieAdam HenriqueOndrej Kase

Chris WagnerAntoine VermetteJ.T. Brown

Cam FowlerKevin Bieksa

Hampus LindholmJosh Manson

Francois BeaucheminBrandon Montour

Starting Goalie: John Gibson