Worrying about the depth of the Pittsburgh Penguins

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penguinslogo.gifIt’s Sunday morning and that sometimes means I get to thinking a bit wacky, but hold steady with me here through this one. There’s a very popular NHL team that, outside of a couple of signings, has been relatively very quiet. They improved one area that needed strengthening rather badly and that will certainly help them improve greatly. There was another nagging area that still hasn’t been fully addressed, and it’s an area that seen them even lose helpful players and it makes me worry a bit about them.

So who is this perplexing yet highly talented team? It’s the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Pens made their big splashes of the off-season by signing Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek to help offset the loss of Sergei Gonchar and strengthen their back line. While neither Martin nor Michalek have the offensive prowess of Gonchar, they’re outstanding players nonetheless and Martin will take over Gonchar’s role as the team’s puck-moving defenseman.  Aside from those two players, the only other signing of note they’ve made is the one made just the other day to lock down forward Arron Asham. The Penguins’ forward depth, as it stands now, looks to be worrisome.

Yes, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Jordan Staal are brilliant players and the amount of offense they bring to the table is more than impressive. With Staal and Malkin tentatively set to be playing on the same line together. That’s uniting Staal and his 49 points from last year (21g, 48a) with the other-worldly Malkin (28g, 49a in 65 games) in a partnership that should see both their numbers rise.Throwing a guy like Matt Cooke next to those two might even help him snap out of being more of a distraction than a helper.

Sidney Crosby, at the moment, seems like a man on an island. He’s looking at Pascal Dupuis as his main man on right wing now that Bill Guerin has seemingly moved on. Having a 51-goal scorer and annual MVP candidate find ways to make other players around him better is nothing new, but getting that complimentary piece on the right wing for him would be great. Chris Kunitz does a fine job playing the physical winger has its toll. He played in just 50 games last year for the Pens and scored 13 goals. Maybe it’s just a signal of what it’s like for the Pens in the salary cap world, but a potential Kunitz-Crosby-Dupuis first line doesn’t really grab you by the collar and shake you up.

What’s working for the Pens is that their third and fourth lines are going to be real pains to deal with. Maxime Talbot, Tyler Kennedy, Arron Asham, Craig Adams,  helps balance out their bottom two lines and gives them a bit more skill there. What the Pens have waiting in the wings in guys like Chris Conner and Mark Letestu make for decent depth players to fill holes when needed.

The Penguins are built like a team that will be a major pain in the rear-end come playoff time and there’s little doubt that they will be a playoff team, but is there enough offensively talented depth here to help them sustain a series against a team that throws the clamps down defensively? After all, we saw what an other-worldly goaltending performance and a defensive-centric approach did against the Pens in the playoffs last year.

While Staal’s time on the ice won’t suffer from being on the third line anymore, stressing time with just two lines, one of which that sees the team’s best player become even more of a target to clamp down on has to be a bit of a worry. This isn’t to say that the Pens are going to suffer, they won’t. You can’t suffer when you’ve got two of the best players in the league on your roster. Things might just not be as simple as they’ve always seemed is all.

US tops Canada 4-1 to claim bronze at hockey worlds

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COPENHAGEN, Denmark (AP) — The United States topped Canada 4-1 to claim the bronze medal at the world ice hockey championship on Sunday.

Chris Kreider led the U.S. with two goals.

Forward Nick Bonino scored the winner on a rebound during a power play in the final period. Anders Lee and Kreider added empty-net insurance goals to give the U.S. its third bronze in six years.

”It’s important for the team but it’s also important for USA Hockey,” U.S. captain Patrick Kane said. ”Now, we can build up off this level and try to keep being better and better.”

Kane had an assist in the game to finish the tournament with 20 points for eight goals and 12 assists, the first player to do so since 2008.

”Obviously I’m here to produce and try to create offense and make plays out there,” Kane said. ”Overall, I’m happy … it was a fun tournament and a great experience for me and I hope it will help me with my career going forward too.”

Canada had to settle for a disappointing fourth-place finish.

”We wanted to win gold,” Canada forward Bo Horvat said. ”We wanted to be in the final. It’s not a result we wanted. But we have to take the positives from this experience and bring it to next year.”

Kreider scored the go-ahead goal for the U.S. in the second period, capitalizing on a mistake by Canada captain Connor McDavid.

Canada answered with a Marc-Edouard Vlasic shot that went in between the pads of goaltender Keith Kinkaid.

Sweden plays Switzerland for gold later Sunday.

Captained by McDavid, the NHL scoring leader, Canada was considered a contender for gold.

Chasing its third title in four years, Canada suffered losses in the preliminary round to the U.S. and Finland and was stunned by Switzerland 3-2 in the semifinals.

The U.S. had a great start to the tournament with six straight wins. It knocked out the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals but was trashed 6-0 by Sweden in the semis.

Jets tweak defense for Game 5 vs. Vegas

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As “stay the course” as Paul Maurice’s message seemed with the Winnipeg Jets facing elimination in Game 5, he’s making quite a few lineup changes against the Vegas Golden Knights.

In particular, their defense will look quite different. Ben Chiarot and Toby Enstrom are being replaced by Joe Morrow and Dmitry Kulikov (pictured). On the offensive side, Joel Armia is returning to the lineup in place of Andrew Copp.

While this might feel like swapping lower-end parts (especially in Armia taking Copp’s spot), it’s worth noting that Morrow is likely to pair with Dustin Byfuglien on what is technically Winnipeg’s first duo, so these changes could make a difference. They also shine a spotlight on the gulf in talent between Winnipeg’s left and right sides on defense.

Winnipeg will ask the two returning defensemen to shake off some significant rust. Morrow, 25, hasn’t played since April 20 during the Minnesota Wild series. Kulikov, 27, has been sidelined and/or scratched since March 8.

No pressure.

At least Morrow’s already contributed a big goal during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs:

Game 5 is about to air on NBC (at 3 p.m. ET). You can also stream the action live here.

MORE:
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

WATCH LIVE: Vegas eyes Stanley Cup Final berth with Game 5 win

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Game 5: Vegas Golden Knights at Winnipeg Jets, 3 p.m. ET (Golden Knights lead series 3-1)
NBC
Call: Kenny Albert, Joe Micheletti, Brian Boucher
• Stream here
Series preview

• Fleury, secondary scoring biggest issues facing Jets
Nate Schmidt is underrated star of Golden Knights
These playoffs belong to Marc-Andre Fleury
Jonathan Marchessault, Golden Knights enjoying lucky Lamborghini

MORE:
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

Vegas looks to continue fairy tale with conference title

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LAS VEGAS (AP) — Just saying the Vegas Golden Knights are one win away from advancing to the Stanley Cup Final has a magical ring to it.

But what’s even more mystical is thinking the Knights are a mere five wins from hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup in its inaugural season.

Five more wins, over a potential 10 games.

And while this might be a first-year team writing a fantastical Hollywood screenplay nobody could’ve scripted last summer when the roster was constructed, the NHL playoffs are nothing new to a core of characters in this cast.

Everybody knows about three-time Stanley Cup champion Marc-Andre Fleury, a key figure during Pittsburgh’s reign the last two years, and 10-year veteran James Neal, who was with Nashville for last year’s run to the final against the Penguins.

But between guys such as David Perron, Luca Sbisa, Deryk Engelland, Ryan Reaves, Reilly Smith, Cody Eakin and Tomas Tatar, the Golden Knights aren’t as new to the playoffs as people may believe.

The players’ individual postseason pedigree could be part of the reason the team is one game from clinching the Western Conference. Another reason is the eagerness of Fleury and Neal’s co-stars in this feel-good story.

”We don’t see ourselves as an expansion team for a long time now,” said Perron, a 13-year veteran who is playing in his seventh postseason. ”But at the same time, it’s always nice to keep proving people wrong and we know that even at this point, I don’t feel like people believe we’ll close it out. So, we’ve got to find a way.”

Coach Gerard Gallant has shown he has confidence in all his players, as they’ve all experienced pressure situations and performed well in all three round of the playoffs, including seven one-goal games. Not including Fleury’s 129 career playoff games, or Neal’s 94, the players who skated in Friday night’s 3-2 Game 4 victory now have a combined 489 games of postseason experience to their credit.

”It’s not new for those guys, I don’t think you get here if you don’t use your hockey players,” Gallant said. ”We’ve done it from Day One and there’s no reason not to use them because everybody competes, everybody battles and everybody’s a part of our team. That’s what we do. Guys work hard and compete hard and do your job and you’ll play. I feel comfortable putting most of our guys on the ice. There’s no issues there.”

And that’s because the Golden Knights have always done a good job of living in the moment, and not looking past each game.

Erik Haula spent his first four seasons in Minnesota and went to the playoffs every year, but it didn’t take long for him to realize he was with a special group of players.

”We got off to a great start, won two on the road (to open the season),” said Haula, who has three goals and four assists in the postseason. ”Right after that first home game, that was special. It was a special night for the whole community. Right there, I think we came together as a community, as a team. We never looked back. We just kept going.

”We just have a close group. We respect every single person in here. We need every single person in here.”

Luca Sbisa has been in the league nine years and been to the postseason five times. His presence on defense has bolstered the crew on the blueline, helping to neutralize Winnipeg’s depth on offense.

”Coming in I just wanted to help this team and do what I could, especially on the ice,” said Sbisa, who went to the playoffs in four of the five seasons he was with Anaheim. ”I wanted to give our team a chance to win every night and here we are. We can’t look too far ahead, you gotta take it one game at a time. If you think about the next game you’re probably going to shoot yourself in the foot. We just have to find the balance of being aggressive and being smart. It’s been a long and fun ride so far.”

The fun continues Sunday, when the Jets host Game 5 and will look to stay alive against the fairy tale Knights from Vegas.

”I would say that winning and having fun go hand-in-hand,” said Eakin, now in his seventh year and playing in his third postseason. ”I’ve been on a few teams that have been pretty good, won a few times. We know we got to play our best hockey. Especially this time of year, there’s not a team that is going to roll over and die.”