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Shaky starts overshadow Stanley Cup rematch between Penguins, Predators

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PITTSBURGH (AP) Four months ago, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Nashville Predators spent six games trading shots and momentum in a spirited tug-of-war for the Stanley Cup that ended with the Penguins skating away with their second straight title.

A rematch looms Saturday night, though don’t expect either team to get nostalgic. The new season is three days old and both teams appear to be struggling to emerge from a Cup hangover.

The Penguins? Sidney Crosby and company have allowed 15 goals in two games, including the franchise’s worst loss of the Crosby era in a 10-1 meltdown in Chicago on Thursday night that the NHL’s biggest star called “embarrassing.”

Time to table the talk of a “three-peat.” At this point, Pittsburgh would settle for playing three periods of competent hockey.

“It’s a tough lesson but we got to take something from it,” Crosby said. “Hopefully it’s a wakeup call from us.”

Read more: Penguins look to bounce back from early season wake-up call

Nashville didn’t create quite as big of a mess during a 4-3 setback in Boston on Thursday night. Still, the Predators never led and needed a pair of goals in the final 108 seconds to make the final score more competitive than their play.

“We need to be a lot better in a lot of areas,” Nashville coach Peter Laviolette said. “I think our entire group needs to be better.”

The last time the Predators played at PPG Paints Arena, they arrived with the Cup finals tied at 2. Any chance of upsetting the defending champions evaporated in the first period of Game 5, when the Penguins poured in three goals past Pekka Rinne on their way to a 6-0 victory to reclaim control of the series. Pittsburgh clinched its first Cup back in “Smashville” with a taut 2-0 triumph in Game 6, the series decided on Patric Hornqvist‘s goal with just 1:25 left in the third period.

“You have all those things, those memories in your head and I’m sure you think about them before the game,” Rinne said. “But still, it is a huge game right now for us – we are down 0-1 this season so we have to get back on track.”

Maybe, but not nearly as much as the Penguins. Pittsburgh raised its Cup banner Wednesday night but ended up falling to St. Louis 5-4 in overtime thanks in large part to a defense that surrendered wide swaths of the ice to the Blues. A night later, the Penguins were even worse against the Blackhawks. Chicago scored five goals in the first period alone and it only seemed to get worse.

Pittsburgh goalie Matt Murray said his team only needed to “tighten up a bit.” Rather than practice Friday morning, the Penguins spent it reviewing the carnage of their worst defensive performance since allowing 10 goals to San Jose in 1996.

“Right now, more so than results, our coaching staff is concerned or focused on just the mindset or the commitment level to play the game the right way,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “When this team starts there, we’re competitive, we can play with anybody. Sometimes we get in certain modes where we’re trying to outscore teams instead of play the game the right way.”

In some ways Pittsburgh is still adjusting to a considerable roster makeover that saw the departure of a handful of key components to their historic run to consecutive titles, including center Nick Bonino, who signed a four-year deal with the Predators in the offseason.

Bonino admitted it’s going to be a little weird getting ready in the visitor’s dressing room and facing so many familiar faces.

“It’s always fun to try and beat them,” Bonino said. “I’m not dreading it. It should be a fun night. I’m glad it’s over early, there’s no build up for it.”

Golden Knights will have James Neal in the lineup for inaugural game

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The Vegas Golden Knights will soon begin their first NHL regular season game, and they will have James Neal in the lineup, per Steve Carp of the Las Vegas Review Journal.

Neal, taken in the expansion draft following Nashville’s Stanley Cup Final appearance, suffered a hand injury during the Western Conference Final versus Anaheim and missed the beginning of training camp with the Golden Knights as a result.

Neal was placed on the injured-non roster list only three days ago, but has been activated and will be in the lineup versus the Dallas Stars. In fact, he’s listed as one of the starting forwards, as he faces his old team.

That’s good news for the Golden Knights, particularly with the offensive attack, given Neal has reached at least 20 goals scored in each of his nine NHL seasons, no matter where he has played.

Neal, 30, is in the final year of his contract, which carries a cap hit of $5 million. He’s a pending unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.

Quick, Kings shut out Flyers

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The Philadelphia Flyers, playing for the second time in as many nights, just couldn’t find the equalizer in Thursday’s contest against the L.A. Kings.

Despite outshooting the Kings, including by a 17-5 margin in the third period, the Flyers dropped a 2-0 decision on the road in large part because of the play of L.A. netminder Jonathan Quick, who turned aside all 35 shots he faced for the shut out.

There have been a number of skaters scoring hat tricks through the first two days of the new season. In some cases, those hat tricks have made franchise history. Per the NHL, Quick became the third goalie in Kings franchise history to record a shut out in the opener, joining Rogie Vachon and Stephane Fiset in that category.

Trevor Lewis and Tyler Toffoli both scored for the Kings.

The Flyers continue their road trip on Saturday against the Anaheim Ducks, and then Tuesday against the Nashville Predators.

The Kings visit their California rivals, the San Jose Sharks, on Saturday.

Related: Kings ‘have a plan’ to keep Quick healthy this season

Ovechkin makes statement with hat trick vs. Senators

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It’s been a difficult few months for Alex Ovechkin. And we’re not even talking about the fact NHL player — including The Great 8 — won’t be going to the Olympics next year.

No, the difficult times date back to the 2016-17 regular season.

— His goal production was down. He still scored 33 times, but this is a player who has consistently reached the 50-goal mark throughout his career.

— The Capitals made the playoffs as the No. 1 regular season team and then suffered a crushing defeat to their rivals, the Pittsburgh Penguins, in the seventh game of the second round. Another disappointment set forward an interesting offseason in Washington as a number of changes were made to the roster.

— Ovechkin, himself, was even mentioned as part of trade speculation.

— General manager Brian MacLellan wanted Ovechkin, who just turned 32 years old last month, to change his offseason training.

— The Capitals were told by coach Barry Trotz toward the end of the preaseason to “quit with the self pity” after last season’s playoff defeat.

Plenty has happened for the Capitals and Ovechkin in the last year or so.

If there was any worry or doubt about how Ovechkin would respond at the beginning of this season, well, he made a statement about that on Thursday in the Capitals’ season opener versus the Ottawa Senators. He took over the game in the third period, scoring the hat trick — needing not even seven minutes of game time to do so — and helping his team to a come-from-behind 5-4 victory in the shootout. Oh, he also scored in the deciding breakaway competition.

He joins Connor McDavid, Wayne Simmonds and Brandon Saad to open this season with three goals in a game.

That’s also the 18th hat trick of Ovechkin’s career. Until he wins a Stanley Cup (or an Olympic gold medal for that matter), there will always be doubters and naysayers. Of course, many factors in this team sport go into winning a championship and only time will tell if everything falls the Capitals’ way this spring or the next.

Ovechkin obviously won’t sustain this scoring pace. And he’s another year older, now well into his 30s. But would anybody be surprised to see one of the most prolific scorers for more than a decade rebound in spectacular fashion?

Perfect 10: Blackhawks crush Penguins

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This hasn’t been a good start to the season for the defending Stanley Cup champions.

Yes, it’s only been two games. No need to panic. The Pittsburgh Penguins managed a third-period comeback to force overtime versus the St. Louis Blues on Wednesday, before losing in the extra period.

But what occurred Thursday on the road versus the Chicago Blackhawks?

This was a disaster.

The night after raising a Stanley Cup banner to the rafters, the Penguins were thoroughly crushed 10-1 in Chicago. Yes, 10-1.

The Blackhawks had already posted four goals on Pittsburgh before the midway point of the first period, chasing Antti Niemi from the game and forcing last night’s starter Matt Murray back into action. By the end of the second period, Chicago had put an eight-spot on the board and wasn’t done there, as a number of players racked up hefty point totals.

Brandon Saad recorded the hat trick.

Ryan Hartman had a goal and five points.

Patrick Kane had a goal and four points.

You get the idea. In fact, only four Chicago players were unable to register a point in this game.

The Penguins don’t have much time to dwell on this one. They host the Nashville Predators on Saturday, in a rematch of the 2017 Stanley Cup Final.