Penguins on the cusp of another Stanley Cup — despite missing Kris Letang for the postseason

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The journey back to the Stanley Cup Final hasn’t been easy for the Penguins.

Injuries plague every team during the two-month tournament. But for the Penguins to make it back to this point is truly a wonder considering they’ve been without their No. 1 defenseman for the entire postseason.

Kris Letang hasn’t played a game since Feb. 21 versus Carolina. Neck surgery in April put him out for four to six months, and although there were rumblings of a very, very small chance he may return in the final, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan quickly quashed those.

Letang scored three goals and 15 points in last year’s playoffs, but also led the team by averaging close to 29 minutes of ice time per game. He was the power play quarterback. He played on the penalty kill. No one else on last year’s team even came close his ice time mark, with Trevor Daley second in that category at more than six minutes fewer than Letang.

That is a huge loss for the 2016-17 Penguins.

Missing a top defenseman for the entire playoffs would be a huge loss for any team. It ultimately might even mark the beginning of the end of a team’s chances.

Pittsburgh’s cast of forwards is, of course, impressive. They’re led by Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel, but they’ve also seen a breakout performance from rookie Jake Guentzel. Having great goaltending — a distinction shared by Marc-Andre Fleury and Matt Murray throughout these playoffs — has been a key factor, as well.

Yet, the Penguins have made it by Columbus in the opening round, before outlasting both the Capitals and Senators in grueling seven-game series with Brian Dumoulin and Ron Hainsey — he’s playing in his first postseason at the age of 36 — now leading the way in ice time at 21:49 and 21:06, respectively, and a group that includes Daley, Olli Maatta, Justin Schultz, Ian Cole, Mark Streit and Chad Ruhwedel.

Those are the defensemen Sullivan has called upon throughout these playoffs. It hasn’t been an easy go. The Predators forecheck had given Pittsburgh’s defense plenty of problems moving the puck out of their own end. But they also managed their best game of this series — and, it can be argued, of the entire playoffs — in the blowout Game 5 victory that put the Penguins on the brink of back-to-back Stanley Cup championships.

A great deal of attention has been placed on the production Nashville has received from its vaunted blue line in these playoffs, and for good reason. On Thursday, it was the Penguins ‘D’ that contributed in a big way.

It started with a power play goal from Justin Schultz and ended with Hainsey finishing off a great rush up the ice on a pass from Malkin. In the end, the Penguins received five points total from their defensemen in the win.

“I’ve said on a number of occasions throughout the course of this playoffs that our defense group is, in a lot of ways, the unsung heroes of this team,” said Sullivan on Friday.

“I think they fly under the radar, for obvious reasons. You know, we have a lot of dynamic forwards that make a lot of great plays through the course of games, that a lot of times on a lot of nights become the story line. But this team doesn’t have success if that group of defensemen doesn’t play the way that they’ve played throughout the course of this playoffs.”

Now, they’re on the cusp of winning another title. No team in the salary cap era has won back-to-back Stanley Cups. To repeat as champion without a true No. 1 defenseman would be an even greater feat for the Penguins.

Malkin on ‘workaholic’ Crosby, Penguins’ chances for three Cups in a row

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Evgeni Malkin shared some interesting observations with Sports-Express’ Igor Eronko this weekend, including that he believes that the Pittsburgh Penguins “have all the tools” to win a third Stanley Cup in a row.

Quite reasonably, Malkin notes that the team kept its core intact.

Of course, Malkin and Sidney Crosby are still the catalysts for the Penguins, so it’s always fun to come across the latest observations from the Russian star.

Good stuff.

It’s not surprising to see Malkin praise Crosby and pump up the Penguins’ chances. Last year, he showed confidence in Pittsburgh’s repeat chances and professed an interest in being on the same team with Crosby for the next “10 years.”

This summer’s been a great one for Geno, with plenty of team honors mixing with some great individual feats. For example:

Habs’ Byron got to skate(board) with Tony Hawk

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Montreal Canadiens forward Paul Byron is so speedy on the ice, his skating can sometimes be intimidating, particularly when he’s on the penalty kill.

Every now and then, we’ll see, say, a floppy-haired snowboarder also show some serious skateboarding acumen, and skateboarding seems to blend well with surfing to boot. So what about ice skating and skateboarding?

Well, Byron apparently got to meet Tony Hawk – along with his kids – and at least made a solid impression, as the Canadiens website notes.

“Paul can hold his own. I bet he’d do better on my board,” Hawk said. “It wouldn’t be so wobbly.”

The only bummer is that it doesn’t seem like footage of Byron skateboarding is available. There is some cute footage of Hawk with Byron’s kids, though:

Little B's turn💙

A post shared by Sarah Byron (@sarahannbyron) on

There’s also Hawk skateboarding in a Canadiens sweater. Fun stuff.

(H/T to Sportsnet.)

Taylor Hall’s remarkable run of bad luck

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This post is a part of Devils day at PHT…

Taylor Hall deserves credit for that great “lottery ball specialist” tweet when the New Jersey Devils landed the top pick of the 2017 NHL Draft, but you could picture the star winger making such a joke while gritting his teeth.

You see, as much as Hall seems to be a luck rabbit’s foot for a team when it comes to landing the top pick of a draft – just consider his Edmonton Oilers days on top of this last bit – but that good fortune hasn’t always come from an individual standpoint.

In hopes that we may some day see Hall in, say, a playoff game, let’s recount some of his unluckiest moments. Keep in mind that he’s still just 25.

Injuries

He became the first pick of the 2010 NHL Draft, which means he’ll be compared to Tyler Seguin (though that discussion mercifully doesn’t come up that often).

Hall’s rookie season was limited to 65 regular-season games thanks to the ill-advised decision to fight Derek Dorsett. His first NHL bout ended his 2010-11 campaign; Hall received criticism for the choice, which sometimes overshadowed debuting with 22 goals.

It was reckless to fight, especially with someone like Dorsett, but we’ve seen plenty of players get through skirmishes without anything major happening. Jarome Iginla endeared himself to hockey fans, in some ways, by doing just that … but Hall wasn’t so lucky.

Even if you chalk that first bit up to poor decisions, Hall’s injury luck has often been poor. He was limited to 61 games in his sophomore season, 53 in 2014-15 and missed significant pieces of 2013-14 and last season, too.

Some of the injuries were just downright-freakish.

Click here if you want to remember the time he caught a skate in the head during warm-ups, which left him with a disgusting “Frankenstein” wound and … it’s just gross. If you haven’t seen it, you’re lucky.

While his speedy, courageous style might leave him susceptible to issues, it seems like Hall catches an unusually high number of bad breaks.

Terrible team to bad team

Taylor Hall has been a productive player, keeping his head up even as he’s played for some miserably bad teams.

The Oilers have been pretty clueless for virtually the entirety of Hall’s career; this National Post article provides a handy rundown of their mishaps in rarely finding decent defensemen.

Those struggles likely inspired the team to trade Hall for Adam Larsson, a steady Swedish blueliner.

It says a lot that Oilers fans voted massively in favor of the Oilers winning that trade in at least one poll, as most hockey people agree that the Devils ended up with the upper hand.

Team success can skew the views of certain players, something Hall knows too well as a frequent scapegoat in Edmonton. If you want to roll your eyes, peruse some of the “not captain material”-type takes that Hall likely became all-too-familiar with.

He didn’t even get to truly benefit from Connor McDavid‘s presence, as Hall’s bad injury luck seemed to transition to McDavid for a brief spell; as you recall, McDavid’s season was greatly limited by an lucky fall that came from the same sort of driving style you’d expect to see from Hall.

Who could blame Hall for being jealous of the Oilers’ success now that he’s gone?

New Jersey is making some nice strides toward being a more competitive team, and Hall’s a big part of that sunnier outlook. It has to sting to take all those steps back to the painfully familiar rebuilding stages after suffering through all of those with the Oilers.

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Look, Hall is nicely compensated for his play. He also was the top pick of a draft, so it’s not like he’s totally anonymous.

Still, it’s difficult not to root for the guy to soak in the accolades that come with greater team success, as Hall has been a fantastic power forward in some not-so-fantastic situations.

In other words, here’s hoping a little more luck goes his way … on the ice rather than in the carousel.

Poll: Nico Hischier vs. Nolan Patrick

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This post is a part of Devils day at PHT…

To some extent, the New Jersey Devils probably don’t care that much if Nolan Patrick ends up being slightly more effective, overall, than Nico Hischier.

As Taylor Hall can attest, the Devils lucked into the top pick of the 2017 NHL Draft, so GM Ray Shero was probably delighted that he would be able to pick between the two prospects. Rather than choosing Patrick or finding a trade, he made Hischier the first Swiss-born number one pick in NHL history.

Sports are about competition and comparisons, so it should be fun to measure the two forwards’ accomplishments and development as time goes along.

We might as well take hockey fans’ temperature now, though. Before we do, a quick “tale of the tape” – and an apology to the other prospects in the 2017 NHL Draft. For the sake of simplicity, we’ll be keeping this poll to Hischier vs. Patrick. Feel free to make a case for Miro Heiskanen (pictured, chosen third by Dallas) or any number of other candidates in the comments, though.

Hischier (draft profile): Scored 86 points in 57 games for the QMJHL’s Halifax Mooseheads in 2016-17. Broadly speaking, Hischier seems to rate as the most creative player and has already impressed the Devils with his skating ability.

Apparently his favorite movie is “Happy Gilmore.”

Patrick (draft profile): The Winnipeg native was on the radar a bit longer than Hischier, in part because he managed 102 points in 71 games in the WHL in 2015-16. Last season hurt his stock quite a bit; while he was able to score well over a point-per-game (46 in 33), injuries limited him in 2016-17. Those issues might have limited more than people even realized, as it turns out he needed two hernia surgeries instead of one.

Generally speaking, Patrick is praised for his two-way play, which could help him be a quick fit for Philly. Both forwards are listed as centers.

Oh yeah, and Reid Duke gave him the nickname “Doctor Pat.”

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OK, so with all of that information, let’s get after it: did the Devils make the right call or should they have selected Patrick at No. 1 instead?