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Penguins learning to be ‘comfortable’ in close games as playoffs approach

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PITTSBURGH (AP) The Pittsburgh Penguins know the freewheeling portion of the regular season – or what passes for it these days – is gone.

If Pittsburgh wants to reach the postseason for a 10th straight year by surviving a chaotic Eastern Conference playoff race, the Penguins understand they’re going to have to play the kind of disciplined hockey they’ve occasionally abandoned.

Three-plus periods against the New York Islanders provided a timely refresher.

Kris Letang scored the only goal of the shootout with a pretty backhand past rookie goalie Jean-Francois Berube as Pittsburgh slipped past New York 2-1 to strengthen its hold on the first wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference.

“Toward the end of the year, it’s going to be games like that, one-goal games,” Letang said. “You have to be comfortable in those.”

The Penguins certainly looked at ease. Pittsburgh controlled play for long stretches and didn’t get rattled after New York’s Kyle Okposo tied it with 5:45 remaining.

The Penguins dominated overtime and Marc-Andre Fleury turned aside Frans Nielsen, Okposo and John Tavares as the Penguins earned a little payback a week removed from a 2-1 loss in Brooklyn.

“Even though we let in a score at the end, we didn’t panic or do anything stupid,” said Fleury, who finished with 25 saves. “We just played good at the end of the third, a great overtime.”

Chris Kunitz scored his 14th goal of the season in the 800th game of his career while Sidney Crosby picked up the secondary assist to extend his points streak to nine games. The Penguins have won three straight and 7 of 10.

Berube made 33 stops in his third NHL start, including several in the extra period after Okposo’s score in the third sent the game to overtime. The Islanders failed to pick up the additional point when they couldn’t solve Fleury in the shootout.

“It would’ve been nice to get two, obviously,” defenseman Travis Hamonic said. “It’s a pretty obvious thing, but you get them the best way you can this year. You try to gather them and I think we battled hard, certainly. It’s not easy battling back in this building against a really good team.”

The Islanders came in riding a 7-2-1 surge, including a raucous three-goal third-period rally on Monday night against Florida that has provided them with a little wiggle room above the frantic fray below as the Penguins, Flyers and Red Wings vie for the final two Eastern Conference playoff spots.

The Penguins will have to make the push for a playoff spot without center Evgeni Malkin, out 6 to 8 weeks with an upper-body injury. His teammates put together an inspired performance in their first game without him on Sunday, a 5-3 triumph over the Rangers that provided a boost in the middle of a nine-game run against Metropolitan Division opponents.

Pittsburgh wasn’t quite as dynamic two days later on home ice thanks in part to the steady play by Berube, who hardly looked like a guy intimidated by being thrust into a playoff-type atmosphere. The Penguins spent the majority of the game in New York’s end. During one sequence in the second period, the Penguins played keep-away in the Islanders’ zone for more than 90 seconds.

Berube’s ability to see the puck through traffic kept Pittsburgh at bay, though he could do nothing to stop Kunitz from getting the type of goal emblematic of his 12-year career. The game was scoreless in the middle of the first when Crosby slipped a pass to Brian Dumoulin at the point.

The defenseman wristed a floater toward the goal and Kunitz – who has spent more than a decade planted in front of the net – reached out and deflected the puck by Berube for his 238th NHL goal, many of them from within a stride or two of the blue paint.

“It’s nice when the (defense) throws pucks there that are tipable,” Kunitz said. “It wasn’t going on net but at least you have a chance to put it on net and it just worked out in our favor.”

Pittsburgh’s defense and another typically solid effort on home ice by Fleury made it stand until late in the third period when Okposo tied it at the end of a scramble in front of the Pittsburgh goaltender.

NOTES: The Islanders went 1 for 3 on the power play. The Penguins were 0 for 3 with the man advantage. … Playing for the second time in as many nights, New York coach Jack Capuano decided to sit centers Brock Nelson and Shane Prince in favor of fresher legs in Steve Bernier and Mikhail Grabovski, out since Feb. 19 with an upper-body injury. … The Penguins scratched center Scott Wilson and defenseman Derrick Pouliot. … Pittsburgh hosts Carolina on Thursday. … New York travels to Nashville on Thursday.

PHT Morning Skate: Comfortable Pacioretty; Fitzgerald joins Devils’ bench

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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.

Jordan Binnington is going old school with his new mask, which is a tribute to Curtis Joseph. [Blues]

Max Pacioretty is feeling more comfortable in his second season with the Golden Knights and it’s showing on the ice. [NHL.com]

• The Devils have put assistant GM Tom Fitzgerald in an assistant coach role on John Hynes’ staff on a temporary basis. [Devils]

David Pastrnak’s four-goal game is another reminder of how he’s one of the NHL’s biggest bargains. [NBC Sports Boston]

• Dallas Eakins is hoping the Ducks’ power play issues won’t spiral out of control. [OC Register]

• How Zack Kassian persevered through personal issues to thrive with the Oilers. [TSN]

• There’s little hope for the Wild to turn around an ugly start. [Yahoo]

• Why it might be time for the Canadiens to cut back on Shea Weber’s special teams ice time. [Eyes on the Prize]

• Why the Coyotes will be this season’s breakout team. [RotoWorld]

• The Blackhawks third line is doing very well against top competition. [NBC Sports Chicago]

Ryan Callahan on post-retirement life and working at the NHL Network. [Sporting News]

• An in-depth look at the Jets’ beautiful Heritage Classic jerseys. [Hockey by Design]

• Chinese billionaire partners with L.A. Kings to bring hockey to China’s youth. [NBC News]

• A fun look at Jaromir Jagr’s time in New York and the impact he made with the Rangers. [The Hockey News]

• Finally, here’s Jagr showing off the guns:

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LAS VEGAS – natáčení klipu #jagr#fun#lasvegas

A post shared by Jaromír Jágr (@jj68jaromirjagr) on

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Our Line Starts podcast: Marleau’s San Jose return; Hughes vs. Kakko

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Jeremy Roenick and Anson Carter reflect on Patrick Marleau re-joining the San Jose Sharks and take a closer look at top picks Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko ahead of their first NHL meeting. Pierre McGuire interviews Montreal Canadiens Owner Geoff Molson, and Eddie Olczyk calls in to break down the fast starts for Edmonton and Colorado. Plus, Edzo tells stories from his newly published memoir: Beating the Odds in Hockey and in Life.

Rundown:
0:00-1:20 Intros
1:20-6:05 Anson’s powerful hockey story from his recent trip to El Paso
6:05-9:40 Patrick Marleau’s impactful return to San Jose
9:40-11:40 Breaking down Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko before 1st NHL meeting
11:40-12:40 “Hungover in a snowstorm” – the story behind JR’s first NHL goal
12:40-14:25 How being on the toilet seat led to Anson’s first NHL goal
15:50-17:45 “Video games and pop tarts” – Anson’s story from Joe Thornton’s rookie year
18:00-36:00 Pierre McGuire interviews Montreal Canadiens Owner Geoff Molson
36:55-41:10 Eddie Olczyk encouraged by Oilers fast start
41:10-45:00 Edzo thinks the Avalanche could win the West
49:50-59:50 Stories from Edzo’s new book

Our Line Starts is part of NBC Sports’ growing roster of podcasts spanning the NFL, Premier League, NASCAR, and much more. The new weekly podcast, which will publish Wednesdays, will highlight the top stories of the league, including behind-the-scenes content and interviews conducted by NBC Sports’ NHL commentators.

Where you can listen:

Apple: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/id1482681517

Stitcher: https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/nbc-sports/our-line-starts

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/7cDMHBg6NJkQDGe4KHu4iO?si=9BmcLtutTFmhRrNNcMqfgQ

NBC Sports on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/nbcsports

The Buzzer: McDavid filets Flyers; Kane raises Sharks

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Three Stars

1. Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers

Look, this is Connor McDavid. He’s at the point where it’s tough to surprise us.

… Yet, I have to admit, he’s begun 2019-20 on an even hotter streak than I imagined, and for all that Edmonton might improve under Dave Tippett, it’s difficult not to chalk most of it up to McDavid, alongside Leon Draisaitl.

McDavid was outrageous on Wednesday, generating a very pretty goal and four assists for five points. Those four assists represent a career-high for McDavid.

Despite that great night, I was leaning toward giving the top star to Evander Kane until I saw this stat, which admittedly steps on the factoids section a bit:

Unless you get really obscure with a stat, it’s usually a great sign when you do something that hasn’t been done since Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky were still lacing up their skates …

2. Evander Kane, San Jose Sharks

After sitting out the first three games of the 2019-20 season thanks to a suspension, Kane generated one goal and one assist in three contests. Wednesday represented an eruption for his fourth game, then, as Kane generated a hat trick during the first period of the Sharks’ 5-2 win against the Hurricanes.

Kane also assisted on a Tomas Hertl goal, giving him a hat trick plus a helper for a four-point night.

If you think Kane deserves the nod over McDavid, I understand.

That said, three stars aren’t just a great opportunity to spotlight one wonderful performance, but also a time where it’s that much more pressing to point out a hot streak and great season. Which is why we pivot to someone whose great start might slip under the radar.

3. John Carlson, Washington Capitals

When the Caps signed Carlson to an eight-year, $64 million contract, it felt like a necessary evil. We’ve seen plenty of players age poorly, and Carlson blew away his previous career totals when he generated 15 goals and 68 points in 2017-18, helping Washington win that coveted Stanley Cup.

And then Carlson put together an even better 2018-19, scoring a resounding 70 points in 80 games.

At some point he has to slow down, right?

Maybe, but so far, it doesn’t feel like that time will be at age 29. Carlson produced three points (one goal, two assists) in Washington’s win against Toronto on Thursday, giving him an eyebrow-raising 14 points in eight games.

Those 14 points leave Carlson in third place behind McDavid and Leon Draisaitl — not just among defensemen. Suddenly, that $8M AAV starts to look like a bargain for the Capitals.

The runner-up to the runner-up for Highlight of the Night

Wednesdays aren’t usually the busiest NHL days, yet this one was ripe with great moments.

The moments have been great enough that Sidney Crosby‘s bedazzling backhander already got its own post, while Sonny Milano provided ample competition with his downright silly goal for the Blue Jackets.

The bronze medal provides gold of its own, though, as Connor McDavid reminded the world why it’s pretty easy to look like a dominant team when you can basically just lob the puck up blindly and assume that it might end up becoming a goal for 97:

Factoids

Scores

PIT 3 – COL 2 (OT)
WSH 4 – TOR 3
CBJ 3 – DAL 2
EDM 6 – PHI 3
ANA 5 – BUF 2
SJS 5 – CAR 2

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Oilers keep on rolling with win over Flyers

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Talent has never been the question in Edmonton, it was always a matter of systems and execution.

Todd McLellan and Ken Hitchcock each saw glimpses in recent years, but Dave Tippett might have unlocked the secret formula for the Oilers to have long-lasting success.

With six wins in the team’s first seven games, including a 6-3 victory against the Philadelphia Flyers on Wednesday Night Hockey, Edmonton is starting to believe that it has what it takes to become a serious contender in the Western Conference.

Jakub Voracek had two goals and an assist for Philadelphia while Carter Hart was pulled after allowing four goals on 14 shots in his first start near his hometown Sherwood Park, Alberta, as the Flyers concluded a three-game road trip through Western Canada where they went 0-2-1. Oskar Lindblom also scored.

Connor McDavid led the way offensively with five points (one goal and four assists), while Leon Draisaitl added two goals of his own as the Oilers bounced back after their first loss of the season against the Chicago Blackhawks earlier this week. Mikko Koskinen stopped 49 shots and picked up his third victory of the season.

The Oilers recorded four consecutive goals, including three in the second that broke the game wide open. McDavid or Draisaitl’s ability to break a game open has rarely been an issue, but slowing down the opposition has been problematic. But through seven games this season, the team has allowed only 17 goals thanks to improved goaltending and more importantly, better team defense.

Last season the Oilers allowed 271 goals, good for seventh worst throughout the NHL. It’s the sole reason Tippett was brought in, to limit the damage in their own end of the ice, and allow their superstars to flourish offensively without ignoring their defensive responsibility.

Tippett has opted to play McDavid and Draisaitl together for most of the season, which has always been a delicate situation. Should a coach load up to form a powerful top line, or spread the wealth throughout the lineup so a high-end player is on the ice for the majority of the game?

The Avalanche have had great success keeping Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen on the ice as a pairing almost exclusively and the Oilers have been trending in that direction.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and James Neal provide options in the middle of the lineup but neither have the top-end talent equivalent to McDavid and Draisaitl.

However, if the Oilers are able to have a prolific first line, combined with strong structure throughout the neutral zone and in front of their goaltender, they will quickly become an elite team that could be a force to be reckoned with.

MORE: Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV Schedule

Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.