Mike Halford

Penguins want to exorcise playoff demons against Rangers


PITTSBURGH (AP) Marc Staal noticed the gaudy record, the highlight reel goals, the unrelenting speed and can’t help but be impressed with the way the Pittsburgh Penguins have ripped through the NHL over the last three months.

Yet the veteran New York Rangers defenseman has seen it before. Many times. So he’s not caught up in the narrative about the new and improved Penguins as their best-of-seven first round series begins on Wednesday.

“They’ve been playing really well, as much as the regular season matters,” Staal said. “I feel like once the puck drops in Game 1 in the playoffs, things change. It’s a different game and a different type of hockey.”

One the Rangers have proven adept at, particularly when facing Pittsburgh.

New York rallied from a 3-1 deficit in the Eastern Conference semifinals in 2014 to beat the Penguins in Game 7, a comeback that led to a full-blown identity crisis in Pittsburgh. The Penguins fired general manager Ray Shero and coach Dan Bylsma in the aftermath, leading to Mike Johnston’s lethargic and brief tenure that included a well-played but ultimately one-sided loss to the Rangers in the opening round last spring.

The professorial Johnston is gone now, jettisoned in mid-December for the decidedly more dynamic Mike Sullivan. After a sluggish transition, Pittsburgh finished with a 14-2 flourish to rocket up to second place in the competitive Metropolitan Division, invigorated by an emphasis on quick feet, better decision making and spectacular play by captain Sidney Crosby and tireless defenseman Kris Letang.

Now it’s time to find out if that responsibly freewheeling style can translate to the postseason, where referee’s whistles tend to get buried in their pockets and the ice tends to get clogged by the kind of tugging and grabbing that typically goes unpunished.

“The playoffs are always tighter,” said Crosby, limited to three goals by New York during the previous two postseason meetings. “Hopefully we can use our speed to create chances and if not, create power plays.”

If not, Pittsburgh’s promising surge may come to an abrupt halt by the guys in blue sweaters once again. Some other things to look for as the Penguins and Rangers get ready for the next chapter in a showdown that’s becoming a rite of spring:

FLOWER POWER? Pittsburgh goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury kept the team afloat through the first three months but is dealing with his second concussion in less than four months. He hasn’t played since March 31, though he did practice in the run-up to Game 1. If Fleury is limited early, the Penguins will turn to lightly used Jeff Zatkoff, relegated to third-string after the rise of rookie Matt Murray, who is recovering from a concussion sustained over the weekend in Philadelphia. Zatkoff has played in just five games since Jan. 1.

LONG LIVE THE KING?: The Rangers earned a sixth straight postseason appearance despite a so-so year by goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, whose 2.48 goals against average was the highest of his remarkable career. He managed to lead the NHL in shots against and saves for the first time, though that’s more a testament to New York’s uneven defense than anything else.

Lundqvist doesn’t exactly enter the run to the Stanley Cup on a hot streak, getting pulled twice in his last five starts. Not that it seems to matter against the Penguins, who have scored more than two goals in a game just once against Lundqvist during their previous two playoff meetings. “Parts of this season he was probably the best goaltender in the league,” New York coach Alain Vigneault said. “His will to win, you can’t measure it.”

ROLLING IN THE DEEP: The Penguins have made it a point to give Crosby and injured center Evgeni Malkin some help last summer, trading for Phil Kessel and bringing in veterans like Nick Bonino, Matt Cullen and Eric Fehr while fresh young legs from the club’s AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. The results have been startling over the final six weeks. Pittsburgh averaged more than four goals a game during its closing stretch by playing with the “desperation” Crosby said was missing until Sullivan came along.

MENTAL ADVANTAGE: The Rangers are trying to downplay their recent postseason mastery over the Penguins, insisting that it won’t matter when the puck is dropped on Wednesday.

“They have different players, we have different players,” Staal said. “Things change. You have to find a way to do it in a new way every year … when you get on the ice, you’re not thinking about last year, you’re thinking about winning that shift.”

Tavares knows Isles fans are ‘dying’ for first series win since ’93


SYOSSET, N.Y. (AP) The New York Islanders are starting to get healthy as they prepare for their third playoff appearance in four years.

After dealing with various injuries to key players over the final weeks of the season, the Islanders hope to build on their depth and resilience to accomplish something they haven’t done since 1993 – win a first-round series.

“I know our fan base is dying for it,” captain John Tavares said Tuesday after the team’s practice. “They’ve been itching for us to obviously get past the first round, get over that hump. Even though it’ll be a third year out of four in the playoffs, we know the expectations are higher than where we’ve gotten to.”

New York could have key defenseman Travis Hamonic back for the series opener at Florida on Thursday night after he missed the last six games of the regular season with a lower-body injury. Hamonic has practiced for several days and appears close to returning.

“I felt good,” he said after taking part in the team’s latest workout. “I’ve been skating for a handful of days. It’s (the) coaches’ decision if they feel I’m ready to go. Personally, I feel fine.”

Islanders coach Jack Capuano is being cautious before committing to Hamonic’s return for Game 1.

“You don’t want to rush guys back,” Capuano said. “I want him to go through some agility drills and see how he feels. But he practiced today, so (Wednesday) if he has a good day, it’s something we’ll think about for Thursday.”

Starting goalie Jaroslav Halak could miss the entire opening round and forward Anders Lee is out indefinitely with a broken leg. But other players who missed time down the stretch are good to go, including forwards Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck – who sat out three games in the final week – and defenseman Calvin de Haan.

The Islanders used 32 players, including four goalies, this season, and Capuano is confident the experience gained while some players were out will be a bonus in the playoffs.

“It’s a tough grind,” Capuano said. “The injuries that we’ve had … it’s been ongoing for the last two months. Guys have missed time and other guys have stepped up and played some really solid minutes for us. That’s the impressive thing about this group. They’ve been resilient.”

The Islanders completed a successful first season at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center after spending their first 43 years at Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale on Long Island. They reached the 100-point mark for the second straight season – something the franchise hadn’t accomplished in consecutive years since 1982. They also earned 55 points at home (25-11-5) – their highest total since also having 55 in 2003-04.

Not every part of the move was smooth. Fans took to social media to vent their frustration at arena management, which handles game-day operations. A lot of the ire was over some obstructed seats in the team’s new home. Some other complaints were appeased, including the easing of restrictions prohibiting fans arriving early to watch warmups up close, and the return of the team’s mascot, Sparky, midseason after being initially scrapped.

New York stumbled late in the season with a 1-4-2 stretch that put their postseason spot in peril before rebounding with seven wins in nine games. Now, the Islanders will be trying to advance to the second round for the first time since reaching the Eastern Conference finals 23 years ago- following that up with one-and-done appearances in 1994, 2002-04, `07, `13 and `15.

“Once you get to the dance, you have to win 16 games (to win the Stanley Cup),” forward Kyle Okposo said. “Gotta start with four here against a pretty good team, and we’re excited for the challenge.”

New York’s chances against the Atlantic Division-champion Panthers could depend on goalie Thomas Greiss, who was 18-6-3 with a 2.20 goals-against average at the time of Halak’s injury, but hasn’t been at his best since. He gave up three or more goals in six of his last 12 starts and finished 23-11-4 with a 2.36 GAA while appearing in a career-high 41 games.

Greiss has made just one playoff start in his career, and Jean-Francois Berube and Christopher Gibson – who had some solid starts down the stretch – have none.

“I’ve been around teams that often enough have made deep playoff runs,” Greiss said. “So I know the atmosphere and that kind of stuff, so it’s not going to be too surprising. … I don’t think you have to overthink it. “

Here’s your Stanley Cup playoffs schedule for tonight


The 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs get underway Wednesday evening, and the NBC Sports Group has you covered with extended coverage across both television and digital platforms.

Here’s the rundown…

Detroit at Tampa Bay (7:30 p.m. ET)

The TV broadcast will be on NBCSN, with Chris Cuthbert and Ray Ferraro on the call. To stream the game using via the NBC Sports Live Extra app, click here.

NY Rangers at Pittsburgh (8 p.m. ET)

The TV broadcast will be on USA Network, with John Forslund and Brian Boucher on the call. To stream the game using the NBC Sports Live Extra app, click here.

Chicago at St. Louis (9:30 p.m. ET)

The TV broadcast will be on NBCSN, with Mike “Doc” Emrick, Eddie Olczyk and Pierre McGuire on the call. To stream the game using the NBC Sports Live Extra app, click here.

Some relevant linkage, to prep you for the playoffs:

Entire Stanley Cup playoffs first round schedule

Rundown of the many, many key injuries teams are dealing with

Goalie dramas to watch

PHT Staff Round 1 picks

PHT Staff Stanley Cup picks

Leafs sign Kadri, Rielly to six-year extensions

NASHVILLE, TN - OCTOBER 10:  Nazem Kadri #43 and Morgan Rielly #44 of the Toronto Maple Leafs congratulate teammate goalie Jonathan Bernier #45 after a victory over the Nashville Predators at Bridgestone Arena on October 10, 2013 in Nashville, Tennessee.  (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)
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Toronto wasted little time executing its offseason plan — on Wednesday, the club announced defenseman Morgan Rielly and Nazem Kadri had signed matching six-year extensions.

Per Sportsnet, Rielly’s contract is worth $30 million — a $5M average annual cap hit — while Kadri’s comes in at $27 million (a $4.5M hit).

From the Leafs:

Rielly, 22, led all Maple Leafs defencemen with a career-high 36 points (nine goals, 27 assists) while skating in all 82 games this year. The native of Vancouver, British Columbia also led the team with 23:13 of average ice time per game.

Kadri, 25, led the Maple Leafs with 45 points (17 goals, 28 assists) in 76 games this season. In parts of seven NHL seasons, the London, Ontario native has registered 197 points (81 goals, 116 assists) and 207 penalty minutes in 326 regular season games.

Financially speaking, the moves are being praised as real wins for the Leafs.

Rielly, who took a big step forward this season after the Dion Phaneuf and Roman Polak trades, was in the last year of his entry-level contract. Toronto had no issues passing over a potential bridge contract in order to secure the services of what could be a future franchise defenseman.

As for Kadri, the club was able to overlook his numerous disciplinary transgressions and commit long-term. Signed to a one-year, $4.1 million deal last summer, this was something of a “prove it” season for Kadri and while he did make most of his headlines due to diving and questionable hits, he also had strong enough possession metrics, and was just three back of his career-high 20 goals.

Sharks confirm it’s Jones over Reimer in goal for Game 1

Martin Jones, Brent Burns
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In late March, we passed along this bit out of San Jose — when CSN Bay Area’s Kevin Kurz asked Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer if he was ready to commit to Martin Jones as his playoff starter, DeBoer replied curiously.

“We think we’ve got two guys that we’re very comfortable with,” he said. “We’ll see where we are when we have to make those decisions.”

Well, today was apparently the day to make that decision.

DeBoer put any potential goalie controversy to bed — at least for now — by confirming it would be Jones in Game 1 versus Los Angeles, with James Reimer serving as the backup.

More, from the Mercury News:

Jones has been the Sharks’ No. 1 goalie all season but San Jose has had one of the NHL’s better goaltending tandems since they acquired James Reimer from Toronto in late February. In eight starts for the Sharks, Reimer, who has played in more playoff games than Jones, is 6-2 with a .938 save percentage and a 1.62 goals against average.

Since the All-Star break, Jones is 14-10-1 with a goals against average of 2.08 and a save percentage of .922.

Jones, of course, has been the guy for San Jose this year. He’s posted solid numbers (37 wins, .918 save percentage, 2.27 GAA) while carrying one of the league’s heaviest workloads. His 65 appearances were fifth-most among goalies.

But Reimer’s arrival made things interesting.

Prior to, the guy Reimer was traded for — Alex Stalock — was mired in a disappointing campaign, and regarded as one of the league’s weaker backups. So with Stalock in the fold, there was a sense Jones almost had to play as much as he did.

Which might explain why DeBoer hesitated before officially naming Jones his Game 1 starter. But what the head coach might’ve done — inadvertently or not — is create a situation where Jones is looking over his shoulder, or plays like he’s on a short leash.