Jason Brough

Malkin puts frustration behind him, comes up big for Penguins

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SAN JOSE — It was Sunday morning at Pittsburgh practice, and Evgeni Malkin was looking frustrated.

The Penguins’ superstar was pointless in the first three games of the Stanley Cup Final, and now he couldn’t even make a pass during a 2-on-1 drill. Then he double-clutched on a shot. Then he nearly outright flubbed one.

A couple of times, he halfheartedly swiped the ice with his stick. He shook his head, a lot. At one point near the end of the session, he skated slowly with his head down for a few, long seconds.

Afterwards, Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan said mostly encouraging things, like Malkin had “been a big part of this playoff success,” and stuff like that.

“But certainly I know that there’s another level that he has to help us win,” Sullivan added.

It wasn’t the most aggressive example of a coach calling out one of his players. Perhaps it wasn’t even that at all.

Whatever it was, Malkin got to that other level in Game 4, and now the Penguins can win the Stanley Cup on Thursday.

It started in the first period, when he collected a stretch pass just outside the Sharks’ blue line. Instead of turning and dumping it in, he used his big frame to protect the puck, holding onto it until he found a streaking Phil Kessel with a perfect feed. Kessel raced in and shot. Martin Jones made the save, but the rebound went to Ian Cole, and it was 1-0 Pittsburgh.

“Yeah, great play,” said Kessel. “You watch him there, he slid it through the guy. I came down, kind of got a little hooked, and I was fortunate to get it on net.”

The next period, Malkin made it 2-0 off a sweet Kessel pass on the power play.

“I think G’s playing good all the time,” said Kessel. “He always creates stuff out there. He always has the puck. He makes players better. Obviously, when he gets something done, it’s big for us.”

“He demands a lot of himself,” said forward Matt Cullen, “so to see him come out like that in a big game when he kind of called himself out a bit, it’s pretty impressive. That’s what good players do.”

Malkin said he didn’t change much about his game. He wanted to play a bit more with the puck, that’s about it. And he didn’t take too much credit for scoring.

“My goal is like, Phil give me empty net,” he said.

But whether he’d admit it or not, it can be tough for superstars when they’re not producing and everyone’s wondering what’s wrong. For players like Malkin, there’s a fine line between trying to make plays and forcing things that aren’t there.

“He’s such an instinctive player, when he plays the game the right way and he doesn’t force things, he sees the plays that he needs to make,” Sullivan said.

“When he plays that way, he’s so hard to defend. It seems like the puck follows him around. I just thought he had one of his strongest games of the playoffs at an important time for us.”

Dubois: ‘I think in the long run, I can be a first-line center in the NHL’

SAN JOSE, CA - JUNE 06:  Top Prospect Pierre-Luc Dubois speaks during media availability for the 2016 NHL Draft Top Prospects prior to Game Four of the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Final at SAP Center on June 6, 2016 in San Jose, California.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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SAN JOSE — Pierre-Luc Dubois is still getting used to it, still learning the intricacies of the position.

But if it were up to him, he’d keep playing center.

“I like playing center,” the top prospect said today during a visit to the Stanley Cup Final. “I think in the long run, I can be a first-line center in the NHL.”

That’s worth mentioning, because Dubois could be drafted fourth or fifth overall later this month. Those are the spots currently held by Edmonton and Vancouver, respectively.

This past season, Dubois had 99 points in 62 games for QMJHL Cape Breton. At Christmas, he moved from wing to center when his Russian linemates, Evgeny Svechnikov and Maxim Lazarev, left for the World Juniors.

“And when they came back I was on a different line with two other wingers,” he said. “I played good, so the coaches kept me there.”

Why does he think he’s a good fit in the middle?

“I think my maturity on the ice, my attention to details,” he said. “I think center’s a big position for responsibilities. You have a lot of responsibilities, defensively and offensively. I want to be hard to play against. I like scoring goals, but I like winning the games. Faceoffs. D-zone battles. Stuff like that is key to winning games.”

It doesn’t hurt that Dubois is a big kid — 6-foot-2, around 200 pounds — and he’s not even 18 yet. His birthday is June 24, the day he’ll hear his name called in Buffalo.

But which team will call it?

The Oilers, of course, couldn’t be more set at first-line center; they got Connor McDavid last year. What they need are NHL-ready defensemen, which is why there’s “a real legitimate chance” they’ll end up trading their pick to a team that covets Dubois or winger Matthew Tkachuk or whoever.

Tkachuk was also in San Jose today. He’s read all the speculation.

“Anything could happen on draft day,” he said. “There’s a lot of trades. Especially this year, there’s a lot of rumors and all that.”

If Dubois is still available with the fifth selection, the Canucks may see him as a potential successor to Henrik Sedin. And hey, if it turns out he’s better on the wing, Daniel Sedin will need a successor, too.

Related: Dubois is top-ranked North American skater

UFA of the Day: Mikkel Boedker

DENVER, CO - MARCH 03:  Mikkel Boedker #89 of the Colorado Avalanche celebrates his goal against the Florida Panthers to take a 2-1 lead in the first period at Pepsi Center on March 3, 2016 in Denver, Colorado.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
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Every day until June 30, we’ll write about a pending unrestricted free agent. Today’s UFA of the Day is…

Mikkel Boedker

The Colorado Avalanche were in a playoff spot when they acquired Boedker at the deadline from Arizona. They expected to stay in one.

Now they’re facing the prospect of watching Boedker walk away for nothing, and oh yeah, they missed the playoffs.

The Coyotes, meanwhile, will have the 53rd overall draft pick this summer, as compensation for unsigned former first-rounder Conner Bleackley. They also received prospect Kyle Wood in the trade.

All of which is to say, if the Avs don’t re-sign Boedker, it won’t look particularly good for GM Joe Sakic.

Of course, it won’t look too great if Sakic overpays Boedker, so there’s that to consider as well.

Boedker had four goals and eight assists in 18 games with the Avs. Combined with his Coyotes stats, he had 51 points (17G, 34A) in 80 games last season.

Prior to being dealt to Colorado, the 26-year-old winger reportedly turned down a five-year offer from Arizona worth $5.5 million per. In April, he was noncommittal about signing with the Avs, telling the Denver Post, “There’s no decision as of right now. I’ve enjoyed my time here so far and we’ll see what happens in the summer.”

Of note, if Boedker hits the open market, he’ll be one of the youngest UFA forwards available. Expect his agent to hammer that point home in negotiations, quite possibly pushing for a long-term deal.

Click here for all our 2016 UFA profiles.

Murray won’t dwell on Ward goal, because what would be the point of that?

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SAN JOSE — If Matt Murray was rattled, he sure hid it well in his post-game scrum with reporters. Pittsburgh’s 22-year-old rookie netminder answered questions coolly and calmly after his team’s 3-2 overtime loss Saturday at SAP Center. He didn’t seem to be bothered whatsoever, even about allowing that third-period goal to Joel Ward.

“Yeah, that was a bit of a weird one,” Murray said. “It kind of dipped a little bit at the last second and I just waved at it and missed it. Not a good goal by any means, but I thought I made a couple of good saves after that.”

And the winner by Joonas Donskoi?

“The puck either rolled or it hit something and it just went off the side of my head and just snuck by,” he said.

In other words, those things happen. You can’t control everything. No sense in dwelling on the past.

“After a goal goes in, you can’t take it out of the net, you can’t take it off the scoreboard, you move on,” he said.

It was almost like he couldn’t believe anyone would think otherwise. As if it was just that easy. Think positive. Stay in the moment. Just do it.

He was asked if that mindset was something that came naturally, or if he had to develop it.

“I guess it’s probably developed. I think it comes with experience, comes with age,” he said, possibly forgetting he’d never even been to California prior to traveling here for the Stanley Cup Final.

“I just don’t see the point in dwelling on a goal after it goes in. I felt really good all night, so I don’t want to say one bad goal makes it a bad game necessarily. I felt really good about my game. I made a lot of big saves when I thought we needed it. Unfortunately, that last one goes in, but I think as a whole team, we felt really good about our game.”

Not that his teammates don’t see room for improvement.

“We were good, but we weren’t great,” said defenseman Ben Lovejoy. “We’re a team that thrives on our speed through the neutral zone. We’ve figured it out. When we’re playing smart hockey, we’re making great decisions going through the neutral zone. We didn’t do quite enough of that tonight.”

Penguins captain Sidney Crosby questioned his own decision-making prior to the Ward goal, when Kris Letang‘s pass at the Sharks’ blue line went astray right before Nick Bonino‘s double minor was set to expire. A couple of seconds later, the puck was behind Murray.

“I was just trying to get my stick on the puck,” said Crosby. “It was kind of ahead of me. I saw Tanger to my left so I’m just trying to get something on it, try to poke it into an area.”

In hindsight, might he have tried to get it deep?

“Yeah, at that point, we’re really not sure if Bones is coming out of the box,” he said. “It’s so close, when he’s breaking like that. I guess you could go back and maybe get it deep, if I would’ve known there was two seconds left (in the penalty), maybe I’d try to corral it. It’s always easy after, but I think looking back, it would’ve been a better play at this point.”

But again, there’s no sense in dwelling on the past. The Penguins are still leading the series. They outshot the Sharks again tonight, this time by a 42-26 margin. Win Monday and they’ll head back to Pittsburgh with a chance to hoist the Cup.

“It’s all about the next game,” said Murray. “I think we outplayed them again tonight. We were the better team, so I really liked our game all around. I think we’re in a good spot here heading forward.”

Related: Sullivan lauds Murray’s “ability to stay in the moment”

On the ‘matchup problems’ the Penguins have given the Sharks

PITTSBURGH, PA - JUNE 01:  Phil Kessel #81 of the Pittsburgh Penguins scores a second period goal against Martin Jones #31 of the San Jose Sharks in Game Two of the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Final at Consol Energy Center on June 1, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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SAN JOSE — When the HBK Line struck again in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final, it was worth noting that Roman Polak and Brenden Dillon were on the ice for the Sharks.

That’s San Jose’s third defensive pair, out there against the hottest line in hockey.

In fact, it was Polak’s poor cross-ice pass to Dillon that started the whole scoring sequence. Polak was hurried into passing by the speedy Carl Hagelin, who then raced over and took the puck off Dillon. Hagelin quickly offloaded to Nick Bonino, who eventually slid it across the crease to Phil Kessel, who tapped it in behind Martin Jones.

This is the challenge of playing the Pittsburgh Penguins now. Because don’t forget, in addition to the HBK Line, the Pens have Sidney Crosby on another line, and Evgeni Malkin on yet another. 

Pick your poison.

“They’ve given us matchup problems, not just us, but other teams,” conceded Sharks coach Pete DeBoer. “When you have Kessel, Crosby and Malkin on three different lines, I mean, all three of those guys make more than anybody on our team.”

“It definitely makes their coach think a little about matchups,” said Bonino. “We’ve tried to exploit matchups if we can. But really, we’ve played against almost every pair on every team. We’re not focusing on who’s out against us, just trying to do what we do and hope it works.”

For Bonino, it’s been quite the leap, from a first-round elimination last year with the Canucks, to starring in the Stanley Cup Final and having his name chanted by the fans in Pittsburgh.

He was asked if it’s hard to imagine how it’s all played out.

“No, I don’t think it’s hard,” he said. “I think I had a pretty decent year in Vancouver. Just as a team in the playoffs we didn’t have a great year. I’ve always thought I was an effective player in the playoffs. I don’t think one series changes that for anyone. I’m just happy to be here and in the Cup Final.”

And the Penguins are happy to have him. If they can beat the Sharks twice more, he — along with his two linemates — will be remembered as the key additions that put them over the top.

“One of the things that we really like about the makeup of our forward lines right now is the balance,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan. “We have threats on every line. I think that presents potential challenges for our opponents from a matchup standpoint. Someone is going to get a favorable matchup.”

Related: Who woulda thunk it? Kessel-Bonino-Hagelin line has been quite the accidental discovery for the Penguins