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

Blockbuster: Rangers send Stepan, Raanta to Coyotes for No. 7 pick, DeAngelo

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Just when you thought Stan Bowman was the busiest man at draft weekend, John Chayka upped the ante.

Just minutes after acquiring Niklas Hjalmarsson from the ‘Hawks, Chayka went out and acquired veteran Rangers center Derek Stepan — along with netminder Antti Raanta — in exchange for the No. 7 overall pick at tonight’s draft, and young d-man Anthony DeAngelo.

The trade was first broken by TSN’s Darren Dreger, later confirmed by fellow TSNer Bob McKenzie.

Phew.

In Stepan the Coyotes get a massive upgrade at the center position, which was bereft of talent for all of last season. It’s why Arizona had been tied to Stepan for most of this week. The 27-year-old has consistently been able to go beyond the 50-point plateau, with 17 goals and 55 points last season, and will certainly be a boost to Arizona’s crop of talented young forwards.

Stepan’s entering the third year of a six-year, $39 million contract that comes with an annual cap hit of $6.5 million. And, importantly, the Rangers moved him prior to his no-trade clause kicking in next season. The money freed up by trading Stepan could be used in free agency to land, say, defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk.

As for the other part of this deal, the Coyotes could also have their starting netminder of the future in Raanta, now that Mike Smith has been shipped off to Calgary. Raanta has been one of the league’s best backups working behind Henrik Lundqvist in New York, and a new No. 2 goalie is probably on the Rangers’ revised shopping list.

This trade also gives New York a pair of first-rounders this evening — the Rangers already held the No. 21 overall selection — which is important, given GM Jeff Gorton is without second- and third-round picks. They Blueshirts also received a good puck mover in DeAngelo, a former first-round pick himself.

DeAngelo, 21, made his NHL debut last year and scored 14 points in 39 games. He’s been described as a skilled offensive defenseman, but one with a history of disciplinary issues. That continued last year in Arizona, when he was suspended three games for abuse of an official.

More to follow…

 

Chicago Fire: ‘Hawks re-acquire Saad, send Panarin to Columbus as massive shakeup continues

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Stan Bowman has made good on his promise for big changes in Chicago.

Just minutes after sending longtime defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson to Arizona, Bowman got the band back together by re-acquiring former ‘Hawk Brandon Saad, who he traded to Columbus two years ago.

Per Sportsnet, the Blue Jackets will receive Artemi Panarin in exchange. Right now it’s unclear if any other pieces are involved in the deal, though earlier the ‘Hawks were reportedly looking to move up to the No. 7 pick in tonight’s draft, a pick Arizona currently holds.

UPDATE: Per TSN’s Pierre LeBrun, Chicago will also get goalie Anton Forsberg and Columbus’ fifth-round pick in 2018. Columbus will get Tyler Motte and Chicago’s sixth-round pick this year.

Saad left Chicago shortly after the 2015 Stanley Cup win, in a deal that landed the ‘Hawks Artem Aninisov and a handful of others. The 24-year-old has since gone on to score 31 and 24 goals in his two years with the Blue Jackets.

Immediately after Saad left, Panarin joined the ‘Hawks and immediately stepped in as a frontline contributor. He’s posted back-to-back 30-goal campaigns — capturing the Calder as the NHL’s top rookie in 2016 — and has been a dynamic offensive player, often alongside Patrick Kane.

As for the money involved, both carry identical $6 million hits. Big difference is that Saad’s locked in through 2021, whereas Panarin is eligible to be a UFA in 2019. So there’s certainly more cost certainty for Bowman with this trade.

More to follow…

After helping ‘change the culture,’ Greene’s Kings career ends with buyout

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The Los Angeles Kings made it official on Friday and bought out the remaining years of defenseman Matt Greene‘s contract.

Greene spent nine years as a member of the Kings, winning two Stanley Cups with the team in 2011-12 and 2013-14.

In a statement announcing the move, team president Luc Robitaille spoke about Greene’s impact on the organization and how he helped change the team’s culture as soon as he arrived.

“Matt has made incredible contributions to our hockey club and we are very grateful for everything he has done since joining our organization including his outstanding leadership,” said Robitaille.

“Upon his arrival to Los Angeles he played a significant role in helping change the culture of the Kings and his contributions to our two Stanley Cups in particular is immeasurable.”

Injuries have completely decimated Greene’s career in recent years, limiting him to just 154 games over the past five seasons.

The buyout will cost the Kings a salary cap hit of $833,333 for the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons.

Trade: Chicago sends Hjalmarsson to Coyotes for Murphy, Dauphin

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One of the key pieces of Chicago’s three Stanley Cup championships is on the move.

Blueliner Niklas Hjalmarsson, who’s spent his entire 10-year career with the Blackhawks, has been dealt to Arizona in exchange for fellow defenseman Connor Murphy, and prospect Laurent Dauphin.

Hjalmarsson, 30, has been a staple of the Chicago defense for quite some time. He’s durable, having only missed 11 games over the last four seasons, and has earned his reputation as a reliable top-four defensive defenseman.

As for the financials, Hjalmarsson has two years remaining on a five-year, $20.5 million deal with a $4.1M average annual cap hit. It’s worth noting he has a modified no-trade clause, in which he had to submit a 10-team trade list.

Murphy, 24, just wrapped the first of a six-year, $23.1 million deal with a $3.85M hit. That he was moved has to come as some surprise, given he signed a lengthy extension just last summer and, at the time, GM John Chayka said Murphy was “a guy we think can be part of our leadership group for a long time moving forward.”

Murphy appeared in 77 games for the Coyotes last year, scoring 17 points. It’s probably worth noting his TOI actually decreased after signing his extension, from 20:30 in ’15-16 to just 19:11 last year.

Dauphin, 22, was the 39th overall pick in 2013. He split last year between Arizona and AHL Tucson, and was a good scorer at the minor league level (28 points in 38 games).