Penguins defense finally played fast in Game 5

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Ron Hainsey avoiding a big hit and carrying the puck from end to end isn’t what the Pittsburgh Penguins ask of him or any other defenseman not named Kris Letang.

Out long term after neck surgery, Letang isn’t a part of this run, but a key adjustment by Hainsey and the other defensemen in the Stanley Cup Final against the Nashville Predators is a major reason why Pittsburgh is one victory away from a second consecutive championship.

For the first four games of the series — even the two they won — the Penguins struggled to hold onto the puck and drive play, something that changed in a 6-0 blowout in Game 5.

Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel played a role in finishing, but it all started from the back end with a style of play that emulates Letang.

“One thing we got going early on was we kind of broke the puck out as a group together,” Hainsey said. “We had good communication in our zone working the puck out quick and with speed.

“If we can get our forwards the puck early in shifts when they got a lot of energy and before they have to stop and play defense, they’re some of the best forwards in the world. They can make some stuff happen out there.”

When the Penguins talk about “playing fast,” this is what they mean. It’s not about blazing speed, though they have some of that, but about moving the puck quickly and forcing even the stingiest of defensive opponents to get back on their heels.

Read more: The Penguins played great defense their own way

The Penguins’ unheralded defense of Trevor Daley, Justin Schultz, Olli Maatta, Brian Dumoulin, Ian Cole and Hainsey lacks the No. 1 anchor present on every Cup winner over the past decade.

Coach Mike Sullivan pointed to Pittsburgh’s transition game and up-ice speed as an area that could improve in the series.

Tweaks made by Sullivan and assistant coach Jacques Martin got the best out of that blue line Thursday with two goals and three assists.

“I thought (Game 5) might have been their best night as a group of six,” Sullivan said on a conference call Friday. “They doing all the little things, I think, that don’t necessarily show up on the score sheet, or you can’t necessarily quantify in a statistic, but those little things add up to helping a team win games.”

Breaking the puck out of the defensive zone is what Sullivan wants from his defensemen, along with blocking shots and defending. Crosby, Malkin, Kessel and those other skilled forwards can’t do anything without the puck.

So the goal was simple: Get it to them quickly.

“We just played simple, moved the puck up quick and our forwards did a good job of using their speed and playing down low, hanging on to pucks,” Schultz said. We were “just trying to move it up to our forwards and play the way we’ve been playing all year.”

It’s not the way the Penguins were playing in the first four games of the series as Nashville negated their speed and controlled the neutral zone. That’s a big reason why the Predators had 123 shots to the Penguins’ 91.

It was all even in Game 5, which didn’t go unnoticed to Peter Laviolette as far as differences in play.

“Speed would be one of it,” Laviolette said. “They were quicker. We’ll look to make those adjustments (in practice). But we’ve got to play a better game.”

The Penguins played almost the perfect tactical game to take a 3-2 lead in the series, which is why Hainsey said they’d be in good shape if they could replicate that performance in Game 6 Sunday in Nashville. That’ll take another team effort from the defense.

“We know we’re no Kris Letangs back here,” Schultz said. “We’re just trying to each step up a little bit and it’s been working so far. We’ve got to get one more win.”

Related: Preds looking forward to next chapter of Stanley Cup Finalv

Roberto Luongo leaves game with apparent injury, as Panthers fall to Penguins

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The Florida Panthers lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Friday. Making matters worse was the fact their goalie Roberto Luongo left the game in the third period with an apparent hand injury.

The injury occurred after a collision in the crease with Penguins forward Conor Sheary.

Luongo immediately went down to the ice in pain. A replay from above the net showed Luongo’s right hand getting caught in an awkward position against the post after coming into contact with Sheary as he cut through in front of the crease in pursuit of the puck.

The injury forced James Reimer off the bench and into the game with the Panthers trailing by a goal. MacKenzie Weegar tied the game for Florida before Sheary scored the eventual winner about eight minutes later, on a night when the Penguins fired 48 shots on the two Panthers goalies.

Luongo gave up three goals on 36 shots before leaving the game. The Panthers now head out on the road. They’ll visit the Washington Capitals on Saturday.

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Cam Tucker is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @CamTucker_Sport.

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Video: More offside drama had Sabres coach Phil Housley up in arms

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Just hours after the NHL admitted to an offside challenge error, there was another controversy during the Sabres-Canucks game on Friday.

Vancouver appeared to take the lead on a Daniel Sedin goal. However, Buffalo coach Phil Housley challenged the play for offside, after replays showed Jake Virtanen may not have had complete control of the puck as he broke in over the blue line.

The following challenge resulted in a brutally long review. For Buffalo, it was also unsuccessful as, surprisingly, officials deemed Virtanen did have control of the puck as he entered the zone. The goal counted, Vancouver took the lead.

Housley was not happy about it.

Not only was the challenge unsuccessful, but the Sabres were penalized for delay of game as a result.

From the NHL:

After reviewing all available replays and consulting with the Linesman, NHL Hockey Operations staff confirmed that Vancouver’s Jake Virtanen had possession and control of the puck as he entered the attacking zone prior to the goal. According to Rule 83.1, “a player actually controlling the puck who shall cross the line ahead of the puck shall not be considered ‘off-side,’ provided he had possession and control of the puck prior to his skates crossing the blue line.”

Therefore the original call stands – good goal Vancouver Canucks.

It took 4:27 to come to a decision, too.

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Cam Tucker is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @CamTucker_Sport.

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Devils place goalie Cory Schneider on injured reserve

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NEWARK, N.J. (AP) The New Jersey Devils placed goalie Cory Schneider on injured reserve with a lower-body injury suffered Thursday night in a 5-4 overtime victory at Ottawa.

Schneider left after the second period. Keith Kinkaid replaced him and stopped all nine shots he faced to earn the victory.

With Schneider sidelined, Kinkaid was expected to start Friday night at home against San Jose.

The Devils recalled goalie Scott Wedgewood from Binghamton of the American Hockey League.

The Devils catch a scheduling break with a week off until their next game Oct. 27, the first day Schneider is eligible to return.

Schneider is 4-1-0 in six games this season with a 3.30 goals-against average.

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Andreas Athanasiou, Red Wings finally settle on one-year deal

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The contract stalemate between the Detroit Red Wings and Andreas Athanasiou is finally over.

On Friday, TSN’s Bob McKenzie reported that the two sides struck a deal that will see the 23-year-old forward back in the lineup, at least for this season. It’s a one-year deal worth $1.387 million.

Due to Detroit’s tight salary cap situation, the deal has not been officially registered with the NHL because general manager Ken Holland needs to free up space in order to fit Athanasiou’s contract.

Athanasiou, who was a restricted free agent this summer, was seeking a two-year deal worth around $2.5 million per season. The Red Wings, meanwhile, were holding firm on a one- or two-year deal carrying a $1.9 million AAV. As the stalemate dragged on, he began practicing with Swiss side HC Lugano, but did not sign a contract. He had until Dec. 1 to make an NHL return in order to be eligible to play this season. The KHL card was played, but as Torey Krug showed, that move is always a clear bluff.

The one-year pact is essentially a “show-me” deal for Athanasiou, who scored 18 goals and recorded 29 points last season. He finished second on the Red Wings in even strength goals (17) in 2016-17 and tallied a pair of overtime winners. A good year and with some salary off the books next summer, he can cash in with a longer-term contract. He’ll once again be an RFA next summer, so Detroit will control his rights, but he’ll have arbitration rights.

According to MLive.com’s Ansar Khan, along with the contract Athanasiou has been promised a minutes bump from the 13:27 he played last season, as well as regular time on both special teams units.

Detroit is off to a 4-3-0 start and averaging 3.14 goals per game. Once Athanasiou arrives from Switzerland and gets up to speed — possibly with an AHL conditioning stint — his presence will certainly be a boost to the Red Wings’ lineup.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.: