Jason Brough

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

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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

Sharks looking forward to ‘adrenaline-pumping’ return home

SAN JOSE, CA - MAY 19:  The San Jose Sharks salute the fans after their 3-0 win over the St. Louis Blues in game three of the Western Conference Finals during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at SAP Center on May 19, 2016 in San Jose, California.  (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
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SAN JOSE — Joel Ward can’t say for sure why the San Jose Sharks have been so much better at home during the playoffs.

“I really don’t know, to be honest,” the veteran forward said today after practice. “We just started clicking. I think the crowd’s just more into it maybe. I don’t really know.”

It doesn’t really matter why. The fact is, the Sharks are 7-2 at SAP Center in the postseason. This after going 18-20-3 during the regular season, the worst home record of all 16 playoff teams, worse than even non-qualifiers like Edmonton, New Jersey, and Carolina.

Down 2-0 to the Penguins, the Sharks could use a boost.

“I think the fans have been waiting a long time to have a Stanley Cup Final in our building,” said longtime San Jose forward Patrick Marleau. “It’s going to be exciting. It’s going to be adrenaline-pumping. Everyone’s going to be pumped up for the game, for sure.”

Of course, it can’t just be the crowd that helps turn the tide in this series. The Sharks need to help themselves with better execution. At practice, they did a number of drills that emphasized breaking the puck out under pressure, something they struggled with in Pittsburgh.

It wasn’t just practice for the defensemen, either. The forwards also need to be part of mitigating the Penguins’ speed and aggressiveness.

“The support on the breakouts is big,” said captain Joe Pavelski. “We need to get back to doing that a little bit more. The d-men looks up and they’re coming down on him, we gotta be in a spot to be open and ready for the puck.”

Once again, the Sharks insisted the first two losses came down to a lack of execution on their part. They weren’t particularly interested in singing the Penguins’ praises.

“I think we’ve made a few mistakes and opened up a few things for them,” said Ward. “We’ve played against some pretty quick teams. They are a quick team. I think there’s more onus on us to do our deed and make the right plays.”

UFA of the Day: Brad Richards

Brad Richards
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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…

Brad Richards

Last summer, having just won the Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks, Richards was a fairly hot commodity in free agency. The veteran center signed a one-year deal with the Red Wings as soon as the market opened, for a cap hit of $3 million.

But Richards, now 36 years old, didn’t produce much for Detroit. He finished with just 10 goals and 18 assists in 68 regular-season games. He had one goal and was a minus-4 in five playoff games. The Red Wings have already told him they won’t be re-signing him before July 1, if at all.

A season like last might’ve convinced some players his age to consider retirement. But not Richards. Not yet.

“I want to look at free agency and see who calls and what opportunities are there, but I haven’t made my mind up with what I want to do yet,” he told The Guardian, a newspaper in his home province of Prince Edward Island.

“I’ve been fortunate to do a lot of great things in hockey, and hockey has been great to me. If it was time, I wouldn’t feel cheated, but I’m not there yet.”

Richards added that Detroit “just probably wasn’t a great fit for me,” and he believes a longer summer of rest and recuperation (compared to his previous two offseasons that followed long playoff runs) will help “quite a bit mentally and physically.”

It’s hard to imagine there won’t be at least one team that’s interested in adding the former Conn Smythe Trophy winner. Experience is still valued in the NHL, and Richards has plenty of that.

The question for any potential suitor is how much Richards can still contribute on the ice, in a league he admits is “a young, fast game now.”

Click here for all our 2016 UFA profiles.

Composed Penguins didn’t get rattled by late Sharks equalizer

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PITTSBURGH — Let’s face it, the Pittsburgh Penguins haven’t always been known for keeping their composure. In fact, prior to this playoff run they’re on, they’d developed quite the reputation for losing their cool in pressure situations.

But nobody could say the Penguins got knocked off their game tonight. Even after giving up a late equalizer to the San Jose Sharks, they stuck with it. The result was a 2-1 overtime victory and a 2-0 series lead in the Stanley Cup Final.

“I think that’s been our mindset since Christmas,” said veteran winger Patrick Hornqvist. “We’ve been through so much this team. That’s one of the things we’ve always talked about. We can’t get too high, we can’t get too low. We can’t control some things out there. You can control your work ethic and your attitude, and that’s what we do.”

“It’s the playoffs. I mean, it’s going to be tight,” added captain Sidney Crosby. “I think we’ve been through a lot of different situations, throughout the season, throughout the playoffs. We believe in one another. We’ve just got to keep working, keep trying to play our game, and if we do that, we trust we’ll get the result we want.”

A more fragile team might’ve started expecting the worst when Justin Braun scored with less than five minutes remaining. Lose in overtime, after all, and the Sharks would’ve stolen home-ice advantage.

“If we would have lost that game, it would have been — not devastating — but it would have been tough,” admitted forward Carl Hagelin.

Make no mistake, it’s still going to be tough. The Sharks did not play their best here in Pittsburgh, but they’re 7-2 at SAP Center in these playoffs, and that crowd of theirs can be energizing.

“Going to San Jose, they have a hell of a home record,” Hornqvist said. “It’s only going to be tougher out there. We’re playing good right now, but I still think we need to get it up another level to win there.”

Crosby also knows this series is far from over. Actually, he knows from experience.

“Their desperation level is going to be high,” he said. “I’ve been to two finals and been down pretty quickly 0-2.”

And in 2009, the Penguins fought back from that deficit to beat the Red Wings in seven, giving Crosby his first and only Stanley Cup ring.

In other words, the Penguins’ composure isn’t done being tested.

“One of the things I’ve really liked about our team, and this is something that I think we’ve evolved over the last five months or so, but our guys just play,” said head coach Mike Sullivan.

“That’s what we told them on the bench when it went in the net. You know what? San Jose is a good team. They’re going to get some scoring chances. We liked how our team was playing. We felt like we controlled the majority of the play. We just have to keep playing.”

NHLPA to discuss salary cap at this week’s meetings

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 13:  Don Fehr, executive director of the National Hockey League Players Association meets with the media at the Marriott Marquis Times Square on September 13, 2012 in New York City. Joining him from left to right is Ruslan Fedotenko, Henrik Lundqvist, Zdeno Chara and Sidney Crosby.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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The NHLPA is meeting this week in Chicago, and what’s discussed could impact next season’s salary cap.

As you may know, the players’ association has the right under the CBA to propose a different growth factor than the standard five percent. That’s only happened once, ahead of the 2006-07 season, when the union and league agreed on a growth factor of zero percent. But a decade later, with escrow topping the list of players’ concerns, and after league revenues were hurt by a weakened Canadian dollar, there are at least the ingredients for it to happen again.

Following this week’s meetings, which will include a presentation and discussion on the growth factor, player reps will discuss the matter with their teammates, and then an Executive Board vote will be held. An agreement with the NHL then needs to be reached ahead of the June 30 deadline. Free agency opens on July 1.

On Monday, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said he expects the salary cap to remain “relatively flat” for next season. It’s currently at $71.4 million. In March, it was projected to rise to $74 million, though that was under the assumption the NHLPA would approve the full growth factor.

The consensus is that the NHLPA will, indeed, vote to accept the full five percent.

This year’s crop of free agents will be happy if that’s the case, though players like Duncan Keith might not be so thrilled.