Pressing Playoff Question: Which coaches are coaching for their jobs?

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Ken Hitchcock

Hitch has been on notice since last year’s opening-round exit — St. Louis’ second in as many years — and he confirmed it earlier this month, explaining that his future is tied to getting out of Round 1.

“There’s always going to be a question for players and coaches until we win a first round. But it’s a question I’m not afraid to answer,” Hitchcock said, per the Post-Dispatch. “I don’t know the answer right now but this team is built to go long in series, long in games. We’ve won a lot of games late. We’ve been at our best in the second and third periods. We know we can go the distance.

“Like everyone else I won’t know until it plays out but I’m looking forward to answering the questions.”

St. Louis is 8-13 over its last three playoffs, a record that gnaws at management. The Blues have spent plenty of money on its core group of players, and added high-priced free agent Paul Stastny following the Chicago ouster. The pieces are in place for a Cup run — now — which is why Hitchcok was delivered a message in the form of a one-year extension last May.

That message?

“Making the playoffs no longer is good enough,” Blues GM Armstrong said. “There’s some franchises that are losing in the first round that had good years. We’re not one of them.

“We’re a franchise that lost in the first round that did not meet its expectations.”

Mike Johnston

Consider, for a moment, what Johnston said upon getting hired in Pittsburgh:

“The bottom-line expectation for me is that, from training camp through the first part of the season, everything we do is setting the table for the playoffs. The score is relevant, but it’s not as relevant as the habits that we are going to have to make us successful in the playoffs.

“This is a group that wants to win. They’ve won the Stanley Cup, and I believe they want to do it again.”

The first-year bench boss set the bar with those remarks, and it remains to be seen what happens if he falls short.

We almost got a preview of it on the final day of the regular season, only for Pittsburgh to beat Buffalo and secure the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference. While it was hardly the type of qualification many — including Johnston — envisioned, the Pens did make it to the dance (and there is something to be said for that, especially since L.A. and Boston didn’t.)

But as Johnston said, his job wasn’t about getting Pittsburgh into the playoffs. It was about doing something once they got there — and now, things get interesting.

Last week, Pens GM Jim Rutherford didn’t give Johnston a vote of confidence, though that was because Rutherford doesn’t like votes of confidence. Regarding the head coach’s job security, Rutherford said Johnston did “a good job under difficult circumstances.” CEO David Morehouse said much of the same, explaining that “we never even had discussions about people’s jobs,” adding, “we’re very happy to be where we are.”

Management is giving all the right answers, but it’s telling that people are asking the questions.

Bruce Boudreau

Boudreau has a great track record in the regular season, with 363 career wins and a Jack Adams trophy on his resume.

Boudreau does not, however, have the same track record in the playoffs.

His lifetime mark — 27-30, a .474 winning percentage — includes just three series wins and zero appearances beyond the second round.

What’s worrisome this year is that a recurring issue throughout Boudreau’s career — goaltending — is once again a factor. He’s yet to decide between John Gibson or Frederik Andersen as his postseason starter, carrying on a rich and colorful tradition:

• In 2009, his second playoff appearance with Washington, Boudreau yanked Jose Theodore in favor of Semyon Varlamov.

• In 2010, after vowing “there is no short leash” for Theodore, Boudreau yanked him in favor of Varlamov. Again.

• In 2014, he played three different netminders. Andersen started the Dallas series, only for Boudreau to shift to Jonas Hiller. Hiller then beat the Stars, started the L.A. series, only for Boudreau to go back to Andersen… and the Danish netminder promptly got hurt. But instead of going back to Hiller, Boudreau threw in Gibson, fresh off a recall from the AHL.

• The Ducks blew a 3-2 series lead, and lost to the Kings in Game 7.

History, as they say, has a way of repeating itself. Wonder what happens in Anaheim if it does.

Have to mention…

Mike Babcock, who isn’t so much coaching for his job as the Red Wings are playing for him to remain their coach… Jack Capuano, who could be feeling some heat if the Isles don’t show much in the opening playoff round.

PHT Morning Skate: Players with most at stake in Cup Final; Bergeron’s postseason

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Rotoworld’s Gus Katsaros breaks down Patrice Bergeron‘s performance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. (Rotoworld)

• Travis Yost explains why getting an early lead in hockey is a good thing, and it’s not for the reason you might think. (TSN)

• Which team should you root for in the Stanley Cup Final? (ESPN)

• Which players have the most at stake in the 2019 Stanley Cup Final? (NBC Sports Boston)

Mats Zuccarello could be an intriguing addition for the New Jersey Devils. (All About the Jersey)

Nolan Patrick will have to take a big step forward next season. (Broad Street Hockey)

• As good as Morgan Rielly was for the Leafs this season, there’s a chance he might continue to get better. (Leafs Nation)

• There have been rumblings about Phil Kessel being traded to Minnesota, but is that a wise move for the Pens? (Pensburgh)

• D.J. Smith has had to pay his dues on his way to becoming an NHL head coach. (Ottawa Sun)

• Chicago Wolves head coach Rocky Thompson has an interesting strategy when it comes to pulling his goaltender. (Sinbin.Vegas)

• The Winnipeg Jets have to find a way to stop taking so many penalties. (Arctic Ice Hockey)

• The Stars will benefit from the increase in the salary cap this off-season. (Blackout Dallas)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Marchand appears to avert injury scare in Bruins Cup tuneup

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BOSTON (AP) — Boston Bruins scoring leader Brad Marchand returned without missing a shift after appearing to hurt his left hand Thursday night when the team held an intrasquad scrimmage to tune up for the Stanley Cup Final.

Marchand bumped into Connor Clifton in front of the net ”and jammed his … I don’t know what he jammed,” coach Bruce Cassidy said.

”Injury risk was our biggest concern tonight. It will be Saturday when we practice at the regular time, and Sunday,” Cassidy said. ”He’s fine.”

With 10 days off between their sweep of the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference finals and Monday night’s opener of the best-of-seven Cup final against the St. Louis Blues, the Bruins scheduled the scrimmage to stay sharp.

”It was good to get out there, and we appreciate the support,” forward David Pastrnak said. ”It’s starting to feel real.”

Tickets were $20 and the 17,565-seat TD Garden was sold out, with the proceeds going to the Boston Bruins Foundation. Fans chanted ”We Want the Cup!” and ”Let’s Go Bruins!” and gave the team a standing ovation after Patrice Bergeron tipped a puck between his legs during a six-on-five, pulled goalie simulation before the buzzer.

Captain Zdeno Chara and Bergeron, the alternate captain, thanked the crowd after the scrimmage.

Marchand skated off flexing his hand near the end of the first 25-minute half. He appeared to be in discomfort on the bench, but was back for his next shift.

Cassidy left it up to the players to decide how much work they needed.

Goaltender Tuukka Rask played just one half. Chara, who missed the clincher of the East finals for undisclosed reasons, played the entire game. David Krejci showed up at the arena with an illness and was sent home, but he should be fine for Monday’s game, Cassidy said.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Sharks head into uncertain offseason with key free agents

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SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — If Joe Thornton comes back for a 22nd season in the NHL, it would only be with the San Jose Sharks. Captain Joe Pavelski is confident he will get a deal done to stay with the franchise he joined as a draft pick back in 2003.

The situation with the other major potential unrestricted free agent is far less certain. After Erik Karlsson‘s injury-plagued first season in San Jose ended with him sitting at home with an injured groin during a Game 6 loss at St. Louis in the Western Conference final, the star defenseman said he hasn’t thought yet about his plans for the summer.

”I’ve been treated with nothing but class and respect here,” Karlsson said Thursday. ”I’ve seen the best side of what this organization and this city has and I like everything I’ve seen. Now I have to kind of regroup and assess everything. A lot of things can happen. It’s a weird business we’re in. I enjoyed my time here. Whatever happens is going to happen for a reason.”

Karlsson had a less-than-ideal season after being acquired as potentially the final piece needed for a championship in a trade from Ottawa on the eve of training camp. He struggled to adjust to his new team early in the season before playing at an elite level for about six weeks when the Sharks looked as good as any team in the league.

Karlsson then injured his groin and missed 27 of the final 33 regular-season games before returning for the playoffs, lacking his usual burst as a skater. Even at less than 100% in the postseason, Karlsson showed flashes of his playmaking with 14 assists and two goals, including the overtime winner in Game 3 against the Blues.

But he was unable to play for a long stretch late in a Game 4 loss and was limited in a Game 5 loss before sitting out the third period. He couldn’t go at all in Game 6.

In the final game, the Sharks were also without Pavelski, who re-injured his knee in Game 5, and forward Tomas Hertl, who had a concussion. That left little in the tank for a team that won a pair of Game 7s already in the playoffs, including an epic three-goal comeback in the final game of the first round against Vegas after Pavelski left with a bloody concussion.

”If you lose your difference-makers, it’s difficult,” general manager Doug Wilson said. ”But this group always bounced back and found a way, for that we’re extremely proud. No excuses, line up, next man up, all those things that you hear, this group lived that. I’ll be honest: I’ve been in this business 40 years. I think the thing that epitomizes this group is the Vegas game, Game 7 where you see the emotional chaos of your captain going down, being carried off and how the group responded, showed you everything you needed to know about this group. I’ll remember that moment forever.”

Pavelski and Thornton have been integral parts of the Sharks for years. Pavelski was a seventh-round draft pick in 2003 and has scored 355 goals in 13 seasons, becoming captain and a fan favorite during his journey.

Thornton arrived in a franchise-altering trade from Boston on Nov. 30, 2005, turning the Sharks into a perennial Cup contender that can never quite win it all.

”They drive the environment,” coach Peter DeBoer said. ”They drive the messaging every day in here. From a coach’s perspective, those guys are invaluable people for us.”

Whether they come back is not yet certain.

The Sharks opted not to extend Pavelski’s contract last summer when he came off a 22-goal season hampered by injuries. But his level of play rose this year with a team-leading 38 goals and he will be eligible to hit the open market in July, shortly before his 35th birthday.

”I know I’m going to be playing hockey next year. Hopefully it’s going to be here,” he said. ”We love it here. I think something will happen, who really knows, but coming off a lot of emotions coming through the playoffs and that round, we’ll sit down and take a look at what will happen here.”

The situation with Thornton is simpler. If he wants to come back for another season at age 40, it would only be with the Sharks. He plans to sit down with his family and Sharks management before making his decision.

Thornton finished this season for a change after needing major knee surgery the past two years. He’s accomplished almost everything in a career, ranking eighth all-time with 1,065 assists and 14th with 1,478 points but hasn’t won a championship.

His teammates and coaches talked all postseason about wanting to win for Thornton and came close before ultimately falling six wins short.

”I didn’t buy into that,” Thornton said. ”I think that was more for you guys. I think this whole area needs a Cup. They’re definitely on the right track, and just disappointing for this area not to be playing, like I said, next week, but this was a really fun team to watch, entertaining team to watch, and an inspirational team to watch.”

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Arbitrator upholds Voynov suspension but says he served half

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — An arbitrator upheld Slava Voynov’s one-season NHL suspension Thursday but is giving him credit for serving half of it in 2018-19.

Commissioner Gary Bettman suspended the former Los Angeles Kings defenseman for the upcoming season and the 2020 playoffs after determining he committed acts of domestic violence. The NHL Players Association appealed the ruling.

Arbitrator Shyam Das upheld Bettman’s decision that Voynov should be suspended for the equivalent of one NHL season but found he should be credited with having already served 41 games of the suspension last season. So Voynov will now be eligible to return midway through next season.

This marks the third time Das has reduced a suspension in the past eight months. He reduced Nashville forward Austin Watson‘s suspension for domestic violence from 27 to 18 games and later shortened Washington enforcer Tom Wilson‘s suspension by six to 14 games for repeated on-ice hits to the head.

The Kings, who terminated Voynov’s $25 million contract in 2015 but retain his rights due to his status on the voluntary retired list, said in a statement Thursday that he will not play for Los Angeles.

”We will now determine the impact of the arbitrator’s decision on our rights to the player and consider our options going forward,” the team said.

The league said in a statement that it was satisfied the arbitrator supported the penalty in regards to the severity of Voynov’s actions.

The league added that ”while we do not believe Mr. Voynov was entitled to any ‘credit’ for time missed, we accept Arbitrator Das’ conclusion that the precise factual context here was unusual – including the fact Voynov has not played in the NHL since October 2014, and that he did not play professional hockey at all during the 2018-19 season.”

The NHLPA said in a statement that ”this fundamental due process right is designed to ensure that, even in difficult cases involving domestic violence, the NHL’s disciplinary procedures and decisions are fair and consistent. The NHLPA continues to work with the NHL to educate players about domestic violence.”

Voynov’s agent, Roland Melanson, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.

Voynov was suspended indefinitely in October 2014 after being arrested and accused of abusing his wife. He pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor, left the United States to go back to Russia and in July had the conviction dismissed by a judge in Los Angeles. His most recent suspension was imposed in April after he applied for reinstatement.

The 29-year-old Russian last played an NHL game on Oct. 19, 2014. He won a pair of Stanley Cup titles with the Kings in 2012 and 2014.

Since his last NHL game, Voynov played three seasons in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League and won a gold medal at the 2018 Olympics. NHL players didn’t compete at the Pyeongchang Games.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports