Mike Halford

Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper signals to one of his players during the third period of an NHL hockey game against the New Jersey Devils in Newark, N.J., Thursday, April 7, 2016. Tampa defeated New Jersey 4-2. (AP Photo/Rich Schultz)

Cooper praises Pens, but still expects ‘long, tough’ series

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TAMPA, Fla. (AP) Few NHL teams have the quickness, speed, skill and depth to overwhelm the Tampa Bay Lightning, which the Pittsburgh Penguins have done through three games of the Eastern Conference finals.

Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and a talented supporting cast that includes the sizzling line of Phil Kessel, Carl Hagelin and Nick Bonino have outplayed the speedy Lightning for significant stretches of each game to gain a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven matchup.

Game 4 is Friday night at Amalie Arena, and the Penguins are looking to turn up the pressure even more.

“When you’re playing such good teams at this point, you know you can’t afford to look past the game in front of you,” said Crosby, who’s scored the past two games after going eight straight without a goal.

Malkin assisted on Crosby’s power-play goal that proved to be the winner in Game 3 on Wednesday night, Malkin’s first point since Game 2 of Pittsburgh’s second-round victory over Washington.

While the Penguins’ biggest stars were trying to get back on track, Kessel, Hagelin and Bonino heated up at precisely the right time.

The trio had a huge impact Wednesday night, as well, with Kessel delivering his team-leading seventh goal of the playoffs off a nifty pass from Bonino after earlier setting up Hagelin’s goal that snapped a scoreless tie.

“You don’t win consistently without (depth). That line’s been great all playoffs long,” Crosby said. “You look at the way Phil’s playing … he creates so much. Haggy’s got a ton of speed. And Bones is a really smart player. He works really well with those two guys. They’ve given us a lot of momentum.”

Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper acknowledged line has been tough matchup for a team that’s accustomed to wearing opponents down with its own deep roster.

“You look at their team, Phil Kessel probably doesn’t get near the respect he deserves. I mean, he’s scored a ton of goals in this league. Bonino’s kind of one of those underrated players. … You look at the teams he’s playing, and there’s always been named stars ahead of him. Hagelin’s won everywhere he’s gone, the teams he’s played on. But they get overshadowed by the big name guys,” Cooper said.

“When you can go three and four lines deep – and something we’ve been able to do – it’s a tough matchup for teams,” the coach added. “They’re just another case – and plus they’re feeling it, too. They’re in one of those playoff runs where they’re feeling it, and when you are going like that, good things are going to happen for you.”

The Penguins have outshot Tampa Bay 124-70, a trend the Lightning can’t allow to continue if they expect to win the series.

Andrei Vasilevskiy has filled in admirably since replacing the injured goalie Ben Bishop during Tampa Bay’s victory in Game 1. In addition to generating more scoring chances, Cooper stressed the Lightning also have to play better in front of Vasilevskiy, who faced 41 shots in Game 2 and 48 Wednesday night.

“That’s unacceptable. I just feel bad for the kid that he’s keeping us in there and we’re not finding a way to bail him out,” Cooper said. “The way things have gone these (last) two games, it doesn’t matter who’s in net. You know, we could have Bish and Vasi both playing at the same time, and they might have squeaked a couple in.”

Tampa Bay won all three regular seasons meetings between the teams before taking Game 1 of this series on the road, so coaches and players say there’s no need to panic.

Cooper reunited the “triplets” line of Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat during the third period of Game 3, and the trio that was instrumental to Tampa Bay’s run to the Stanley Cup final a year ago produced two late goals.

Bishop practiced Thursday and said he remains hopeful he’ll return at some point in the series. Cooper said he doesn’t expect it to be for Game 4.

With Vasilevskiy playing as well as he has, and Tampa Bay’s track record as a resilient team, the coach remains confident this still will be a “long, tough” series.

“It’s not something where we’re sitting here saying: `Oh, we can’t beat this team.’ We couldn’t beat them in the last two games, and that’s the way we’re looking at it,” Cooper said.

“But in saying that, Pittsburgh’s put us in a position to be like that,” the coach added “Now it’s we served, they volleyed back. Now it’s our turn to send it back to them.”

Datsyuk’s agent shoots down reported KHL deal

Detroit Red Wings center Pavel Datsyuk (13) celebrates his empty net goal against the Edmonton Oilers in the third period of an NHL hockey game in Detroit Monday, March 9, 2015. Detroit won 5-2. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

The agent representing Pavel Datsyuk says reports from Russian “sports portal” Sportfakt.ru — ones claiming Datsyuk will sign in the KHL after playing in the world hockey championships — are false, adding that his client still intends to meet with Red Wings management following the tournament.

The Sportfakt report claimed Datsyuk had agreed in principle to a two-year deal with SKA Saint Petersburg. It was believed the club wanted to get Datsyuk’s deal done now, amid rumblings that two of its top scorers — Vadim Shipachyov and Evgeny Dadonov — were asking to be released from their contracts, in order to secure new deals elsewhere.

(Shipachyov, currently tearing it up at the worlds for Russia, is receiving a ton of NHL interest, per Eilliotte Friedman.)

Earlier this month, we passed along news that Datsyuk would, as his agent said, return to Detroit following the worlds and discuss his playing future with Wings GM Ken Holland.

Based on today’s development, that plan still appears intact.

Hornqvist (hand) in Pens lineup for Game 4

Pittsburgh Penguins' Patric Hornqvist, left, celebrates his goal with teammate Conor Sheary (43) during the first period of a first-round NHL playoff hockey game against the New York Rangers in Pittsburgh, Wednesday, April 13, 2016. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

First-line winger Patric Hornqvist will be back in the mix tonight as the Pens look to take a 3-1 Eastern Conference Final lead on Tampa Bay.

Hornqvist, who was shook up after getting hit in the left hand by a shot on Wednesday night, was declared “available” for Game 4, per head coach Mike Sullivan (by way of the Post-Gazette).

Hornqvist has six goals and nine points through 14 games this postseason, and is Sidney Crosby‘s running mate on the top unit. So needless to say he’s an important contributor for Pittsburgh.

The 29-year-old Swede was especially good in the opening round against the Rangers, with five points in five games.

Hoffman: Boucher hire ‘a bonus’ in extension talks with Sens

Mike Hoffman

Mike Hoffman has led Ottawa in goals in each of the last two seasons — scoring 56 all told — which should play a key factor in negotiations for a contract extension this summer.

Know what else might play a role?

The presence of Guy Boucher.

Boucher, Ottawa’s new bench boss, coached Hoffman in the QMJHL Drummondville a few years back. After a tough rookie campaign, Hoffman responded with a banner 52-goal, 97-point campaign in 2008-09.

Not surprisingly, the two are quite fond of each other.

Upon being hired, Boucher told reporters he was excited about getting to work with Hoffman again and, in speaking with the Ottawa Sun this week, Hoffman shared similar sentiments.

“This is awesome,” Hoffman said. “I’m looking forward to having him behind the bench and leading us.”

Hoffman, 26, pulled in $2 million last season. Theoretically, he should be in line for a sizable raise. He found the back of the net 29 times last year despite clashes with former head coach Dave Cameron, and the Sun went to far as to suggest Hoffman is “the one forward on the team capable of posting a 40-goal season.”

In that light, it’s interesting to note how both Hoffman and Sens GM Pierre Dorion referred to Boucher’s presence as a “bonus” in terms of contract negotiations.

“I think it’s a bonus,” Dorion said on Ottawa radio earlier this month. “I think our fans know that the relationship between Mike and the previous coaches wasn’t the greatest.”

“Obviously I want to play in Ottawa, that’s my first priority,” Hoffman told the Sun. “Having him as a coach is obviously a bonus.”

Video: Backes proves his worth to Blues

The St. Louis Blues are the only team David Backes has ever known.

And now, in what could be his final season with the club, he’s marking arguably the biggest impact of his career.

Backes, who has spent all 10 of his NHL seasons with the Blues — and the last five as team captain — is enjoying a terrific postseason and scoring at an unprecedented clip. The 32-year-old leads St. Louis with 13 points through 16 games and has three game-winning goals, putting him on par with Joe Pavelski for the playoff lead.

The way Backes has scored his goals has become a story.

At 6-foot-3 and 221 pounds, he has the ideal frame to be an effective net-front presence… which is exactly what he’s done. Backes has done most of his damage atop the blue paint, tipping point shots and banging in rebounds.

It’s something his head coach, Ken Hitchcock, has come to admire.

“First of all, he’s a baseball player, [so his] hand-eye coordination is a little bit different than other people,” Hitchcock told Sports Illustrated. “He’’s good at it. As he said to us, it’s like taking batting practice. That’s what he did as a kid. He was obviously a good ballplayer. He feels that the more he does that, the more confident he is.

“I think the other thing [is]…I haven’t coached many players that hang in there on the shot. Most of them jump out of the way.”

The Blues could certainly use some of Backes’ goalscoring at the moment. They’ve been shut out in consecutive games by the Sharks, and now trail the two games to one in the Western Conference Final.

If this is Backes’ last season in St. Louis, he’ll want a better ending than this.

Which means he might need to rediscover those baseball skills once again.