‘We stopped checking’: Hitch vents as Blues lose for fourth time in five games

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ST. LOUIS (AP) It was probably fine that Claude Giroux couldn’t remember how he scored his goal on Thursday night. It should be all over the highlight shows for him to see.

Giroux’s 11th goal of the season capped Philadelphia’s three-goal second period and the Flyers beat the St. Louis Blues 4-2 on Thursday night for their fourth straight road win.

Giroux made it 3-1 with by blowing past two St. Louis defenders and scoring with a forehand-to-backhand deke. He finished with a goal and two assists.

“It was a nice goal,” Giroux said. “To be honest, I don’t really remember what happened, but we were up 2-1 there and we wanted that third goal. I was pretty happy.”

Michael Raffl and Matt Read also scored in the second and Ryan White added an empty-net goal to help the Flyers snap a two-game skid. Michal Neuvirth made 35 saves.

“What I see tonight is we had good goaltending, we had a good four-line effort, all six defensemen did a good job,” Philadelphia coach Dave Hakstol said. “… It’s a tough place to win and it’s a good team win for us.”

Robby Fabbri and David Backes scored and Brian Elliott made 25 saves for the Blues. St. Louis has lost four of five games in December.

“We stopped checking,” St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock said. “I’m sure the players said the same thing. Stopped checking. Stopped checking, opened up gaps, had some soft plays in the scoring areas against us and that gave them the three goals.”

The Blues are 2-3-2 over their last seven games and 5-6-3 over their last 14 after starting the season 11-3-1.

“This is a league, the more you check, the more you have the puck,” Hitchcock said. “The more you stay on the hunt, the more you play on your toes, the more you close gaps, the more you have the puck. When you’re inconsistent in that level, you open it up. This has been an ongoing theme for a little while and we’ve got to get it solved.”

After Fabbri opened the scoring 1:35 into the second period, the Flyers responded with three consecutive goals.

Raffl scored just 2:20 after Fabbri when he tipped in a centering pass from Brayden Schenn for his third of the season and first goal in 11 games. Giroux also picked up an assist on the goal.

Read scored his fifth at 6:39 when he collected a rebound of a long shot from Michael Del Zotto and was able to wrap it around Elliott while falling to the ice. Wayne Simmonds‘ secondary assist was his 100th assist with the Flyers and 300th career point.

Giroux scored with 1:54 remaining in the second when he skated around Magnus Paajarvi and faked out Elliott. Schenn and Nick Schultz assisted on the goal.

“That’s pretty amazing to watch him put it under the D-man’s stick and was able to make the deke at full speed,” Schenn said. “That’s a nice goal and I’m sure you’ll see that one on the highlight reel many times.”

Fabbri scored his fifth goal after he was left alone in the slot. Dmitrij Jaskin found the rookie forward with a centering pass from behind the net.

Backes scored on the Blues’ first power play of the game, 7:37 into the third period, after Simmonds went off for hooking. Backes redirected a shot from Alexander Steen and then slipped the rebound past Neuvirth for his eighth of the season.

Giroux assisted on White’s empty-netter with 1.7 seconds left.

NOTES: The win was the first for the Flyers in St. Louis since Dec. 17, 2005. … Flyers D Radko Gudas returned after serving a three-game suspension for an illegal check to the head of Senators F Mike Zibanejad. He finished plus-4 in 22:53 minutes of ice time after being minus-1 in his first 22 games. … Elliott was making his first start at home since Oct. 24. … The Blues have not won two straight games since Nov. 7-10, a span of 14 games. … The attendance of 14,428 was a season low for St. Louis.

What the Penguins need to become a championship team again

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There is going to come a point in the next few years where the Pittsburgh Penguins are no longer a playoff team.

Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang are all over the age of 32 and probably only have a handful of high-level years ahead of them. When they start to decline or retire there is going to be no replacing them and no matter what moves the Penguins make today there is not going to be anything that stops them from needing an extensive rebuild in the not-too-distant future. That future is not quite here yet.

After barely making the playoffs and getting swept in Round 1 with a roster that seemed to lose its way, it is not unfair to say that the team has slipped a bit in its standing as a Stanley Cup contender. What do they need to get back closer to the top?

We know the Sidney Crosby-Jake Guentzel duo is going to excel on the first line and the Kris Letang-Brian Dumoulin pairing is going to be great. After that it is a bunch of questions. The obvious keys focus on Alex Galchenyuk fitting in, Evgeni Malkin being better (especially at even-strength), and Matt Murray playing at his best (all things we already looked at today).

But that alone will not be enough.

[MORE: 2018-19 Summary | Under Pressure | X-Factor | Three Questions]

1. Rediscover their identity. I touched on this immediately after their Round 1 loss but the single biggest flaw the Penguins have is their sudden fascination with having players that provide “push back.” For a team that won two Stanley Cups under the mantra of “just play” it was a needless overreaction to some perceived injustices from a select few opposing players. The result was a shift away from what made team so tough to play against (balanced offense, mobile defense, speed, four scoring lines) and a rapidly growing collection of long-term, pricey contracts for depth players (Jack Johnson, Erik Gudbranson, Brandon Tanev). The big thing that would help address this: Another mobile, puck-moving defender that can play on the second pair. The big intangible thing: Go back to “just play” instead of worrying about pushing back.

2. A resurgence from a (hopefully) healthy Patric Hornqvist. Hornqvist’s status as a team leader and gritty forward with a non-stop motor masked the fact that his play rapidly deteriorated in the second half of the season, to the point where he was a complete non-factor offensively. It was a stunning slump after a strong first half. The thing that stands out about that is there is a pretty firm line that separated his season. That line was another head injury that kept him out of the lineup midway through the season. Was it a fluke slump? Was it a result of the injury? Was it a sign of things to come for him in the future now that he is 32 years old? A combination of all three? Whatever it was, the Penguins have Hornqvist signed for four more years at more than $5 million per season. The work ethic and effort are great, but at that price the Penguins need him to produce more than he did this past year or that contract will quickly turn into another drain on the salary cap.

3. Some young players need to emerge. The big focus during their mid-season turnaround in 2015-16 was on the coaching change. But there was another element at play: A bunch of young players became impact players at the same time (Murray, Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust, Tom Kuhnhackl; Guentzel a year later). The Penguins need that again. While the farm system is thin, there are some candidates to take big steps forward at the NHL level. Dominik Simon is polarizing because he is a favorite of the coaching staff and struggles to score goals, but he is a good defensive player and playmaker. Jared McCann is a favorite of the front office because they love his potential and he had a strong showing after the trade from Florida. He needs to show it was not a fluke. Dominik Kahun is an intriguing add from Chicago and is coming off a solid rookie season. And even though this might be for a couple years down the line, Pierre-Oliver Joseph is the exact type of defender they need to emerge and become a regular.

The three superstars at the top are the most important ingredient. But they are only part of the recipe. These three keys are just as important.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

It’s a big year for Penguins’ Matt Murray

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Matt Murray has a lot to prove this season.

He has to prove to the NHL that he is still the goalie that backstopped his team to back-to-back Stanley Cups, and he has to prove to the Penguins that he is worthy of a significant long-term commitment after this season when his current deal expires.

Murray is an interesting player because he has already accomplished more in his first four years than most goalies will accomplish in an entire career. But for all of that team success there is still some debate as to what type of goalie he is and what his long-term prospects are as a No. 1 goalie.

His first two years in the league where as good as any goalie in the history of the league, maintaining a save percentage over .925 (regular season and playoffs) and winning two championships.  He regressed during the 2017-18 season and playoffs and then stumbled badly out of the gate this past season before catching fire when he was finally healthy in mid-December, playing some of the best hockey of his career between mid-December and the end of the regular season.

Looking at his career from a big picture perspective, he has been mostly outstanding when healthy and his play over the final four months of the 2018-19 season was probably one of the biggest reasons, if not the biggest reason, the Penguins were even able to make the playoffs. He masked a lot of flaws the team had defensively and their success was driven mostly by how he played.

[MORE: 2018-19 Summary | Under Pressure | 3 Questions]

When he was good, the Penguins won. When he was not good, they did not win.

Barring something unforeseen he is going to continue to be the Penguins’ starting goalie for years to come because, 1) he is good, and 2) they have zero organizational depth behind him. It is his spot. So while it is a little odd that have not made a new contract a priority (Jake Guentzel, Mike Sullivan, Jim Rutherford all signed long-term contracts within the organization over the past year — but the starting goalie has not) they still have time to get it done.

And Murray has time to show just exactly what type of goalie he is and what he is worth.

He is definitely the Penguins’ biggest X-Factor this season because with the makeup of their defense he is probably going to be tested often. Again. The Penguins are not as strong in front of him as they were two or three years ago and have a much smaller margin for error, finishing just four points clear of the first non-playoff team this past season. Even playing on a team that has Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang as the core there is probably not a single player that will impact what they are capable of more than Murray. They all showed this past season how much his play impacts them in the standings.

If he plays like he did from December-March of this past season, which is pretty close to how he played in 2015-16 and 2016-17 when he was lifting the Stanley Cup, he is going to be in line for a huge contract.

If he plays like he did between 2017 and the end of November in 2018, it might create a little more uncertainty for the Penguins and make his next deal a little more complicated.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Penguins questions include defense, trade bait, and Malkin’s bounce-back

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Three pressing questions for the 2019-20 Pittsburgh Penguins

1. Is the defense good enough?

In the opinion of general manager Jim Rutherford, yes. He has repeatedly defended the construction of his defense and at one point even went as far as to call it the best defense he has had during his time in Pittsburgh. High praise considering he has been in Pittsburgh for two Stanley Cup winning teams.

This team, though, is not coming off of a Stanley Cup win and there is little objective evidence to suggest this defense is anything better than ordinary. They were 12th in the NHL in goals against this past season and even that ranking was driven significantly by the performance of Matt Murray in net thanks to some of the best play of his career from mid-December on.

As a team, the Penguins were one of the worst teams in the league at preventing shots, average in preventing scoring chances, and a little below average on the PK. They have one great defense pairing in Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin (one of the best pairings in all of hockey) and then a bunch of flawed players and question marks after that. Other than shipping out Olli Maatta over the summer, the Penguins have done nothing else to change the look of their defense. Rutherford obviously believes in this group, and he is taking a pretty big bet that he is right.

2. Who is the next salary cap casualty or trade chip?

This is probably more of a preseason question than a question for the season, but somebody has to go.

Trading Phil Kessel was supposed to alleviate some of the salary cap crunch, but taking Alex Galchenyuk as part of the return and signing Brandon Tanev in free agency quickly erased that savings. Add that to the returning contracts for Jack Johnson and Erik Gudbranson and the Penguins have a significant chunk of money going to depth players that probably are not moving them closer to another championship. It has put them in a position where they have to move out someone else.

As it stands, they are slightly over the salary cap and still have to re-sign RFA Marcus Pettersson. After this season, Galchenyuk, Justin Schultz, Jared McCann, Dominik Simon and starting goalie Matt Murray will be in line for new contracts. So who goes?

[MORE: 2018-19 Summary | Under Pressure | X-Factor]

Johnson or Gudbranson could be an option to go off the blue line and would probably the ideal trade bait, while Bryan Rust or Nick Bjugstad seem like logical candidates at forward.

3. Will Evgeni Malkin bounce back?

It is a good bet that he will.

The final offensive numbers from this past season look good (better than a point-per-game average) and he had a great start to the season, but his production really slumped over the final three quarters of the season and especially at even-strength. His defensive game was also lacking and he will be the first to say the 2018-19 season was not his best. He can be better, and the Penguins need him to be better. Malkin is a proud player and will no doubt be motivated to show this past season was a fluke and that he is still one of the league’s best and most dominant players. A driven Malkin playing at his best is a season-changing player, and if he gets back to that level it will be more valuable to the Penguins than any other potential offseason addition could have been.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

P.K. Subban, Lindsey Vonn announce engagement

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Lindsey Vonn and P.K. Subban are engaged, according to U.S. Ski & Snowboard.

Vonn, who retired in February with a female record 82 World Cup wins, and Subban, a New Jersey Devils defenseman, have dated for more than one year.

Vonn was previously married to fellow Olympic skier Thomas Vonn in 2007. They announced divorce plans in late 2011.

Vonn reportedly grimaced when asked in 2013 if she would get married again.

“No, thanks!” she said, according to Vogue then. “I am definitely not getting married. To anyone.”

After her divorce, Vonn dated Tiger Woods and NFL assistant coach Kenan Smith before dating Subban, going public in June 2018.

“Right off the bat, I knew he was different,” Vonn said, according to a Vogue magazine announcement of the engagement. “But I’d been married before, so I was pretty hesitant to let myself think that I could find someone that I would want to be married to again. After a few months of dating, I knew he was the one I wanted to be with, though.”

Subban, 30, also owns an Olympic gold medal playing for Canada in Sochi.

“Lindsey’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” Subban said, according to Vogue. “There are people in life that deserve to be with good people. They have that person who takes care of them and makes them smile, and she deserves to be with someone who loves her more than anything else in the world, and I do.”

Vonn and Subban would become one of the most prominent married Olympic champion couples, joining the likes of tennis players Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf and gymnasts Nadia Comaneci and Bart Conner.

For more from Nick Zaccardi check out Olympic Talk on NBC Sports