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Blues need to eliminate ‘reactionary penalties’: Hitch

SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) When Peter DeBoer took over as coach in San Jose one of the first tasks he wanted to complete was making sure the Sharks were more than just a power-play team.

Improved depth and 5-on-5 play helped get San Jose back to the postseason after missing it a year ago, but come playoff time that power play has served as an impressive weapon and a barometer for the team’s success.

One game after getting shut out on the man advantage, the Sharks struck twice following St. Louis penalties in a 4-0 win Tuesday night that tied the series at one game apiece heading into Game 3 on Thursday in San Jose.

“It creates momentum for us,” DeBoer said Wednesday. “I think that’s what you’re looking to do with your special teams both ways, is create momentum. I think when our power play scores, that creates momentum. I think when we kill penalties like we did last night, like that four-minute penalty, I think that creates momentum the other way for us. That’s what you’re looking to do as a coach, is get momentum out of your special teams. I think that does that for us.”

The Sharks lead the NHL with 15 power-play goals this postseason and their 30 percent success rate is tops among all teams that have played more than one round. San Jose is 13-for-32 on the power play in nine playoff wins, compared to 2-for-18 in its five losses.

With a five-man top unit that has years of experience together, San Jose is a finely tuned unit. Joe Thornton is the playmaker, spending most of his time along the half-boards or behind the net. He has plenty of options.

Brent Burns scored both power-play goals in Game 2 off one-timers that St. Louis goalie Brian Elliott had little chance to save. Captain Joe Pavelski led the team with 12 power-play goals in the regular season, with many coming on deflections in front of the net or rebounds. Logan Couture and Patrick Marleau bring versatility with the ability to create plays for teammates or score on big shots of their own.

“Our power play’s pretty free-flowing,” Thornton said. “Really just can’t key on one guy. We got five guys that can hurt you. I think for us it’s just the way you move around, it’s really hard to defend.”

The Blues managed to neutralize the Sharks in Game 1 when they killed all three power plays in a 2-1 victory. They were short-handed five times in Game 2, including a slash behind the play by Troy Brouwer that led to the Sharks’ second goal of the game and an interference call on Steve Ott for hitting Pavelski from behind when the puck was not in the area.

“The penalties you don’t like at this time of year are reactionary penalties,” coach Ken Hitchcock. “We had two reactionary penalties yesterday, one in the first game. Those are the ones you don’t like. Doesn’t matter who takes them, veterans, rookies. That’s a sign that the other team has a little bit of an advantage, they’re making you react to anything happening on the ice. Those are the ones you don’t like.”

The other big difference in Game 2 was that the Blues failed to take advantage of their power-play chances. After getting a man-advantage goal from captain David Backes to open the scoring in Game 1, St. Louis went 0-for-6 on the power play Tuesday night, including a weak four-minute chance early in the third period when Marleau was called for a high-sticking penalty and the Sharks lead was only 2-0.

San Jose used 13 of its 18 skaters for more than a minute of penalty-killing time with top defensive pair Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun each spending more than 5 minutes on the ice with the Sharks short-handed.

The Blues managed 12 shots on the power play but were unable to beat Martin Jones as the Sharks did a good job controlling rebounds and keeping St. Louis to the outside.

“You want to use the power play to get momentum,” forward Robby Fabbri said. “Last night we didn’t execute on any of them. Just the way some games go. We got to stay confident and go with our next chances.”

RelatedThe Sharks have ‘got their A game going right now’

It’s Ottawa Senators Day at PHT

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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 Ottawa Senators.

2018-19
29-47-6, 64 points (eighth in the Atlantic Division, 16th in the Eastern Conference)
Playoffs: Did not qualify

IN:
Nikita Zaitsev
Connor Brown
Michael Carcone
Ron Hainsey
Tyler Ennis
Artem Anisimov
Ryan Callahan (LTIR)

OUT
Brian Gibboons
Oscar Lindberg
Zack Smith
Cody Ceci
Ben Harpur
Aaron Luchuk

RE-SIGNED:
Josh Norris
Anders Nilsson
Anthony Duclair

2018-19 Summary

Last year was an eventful year for the Senators organization. Not only did the Senators finish last in their devision, conference and league, they also traded away their best forward, Mark Stone, and their franchise defenseman, Erik Karlsson. That’s rough.

Despite the fact that they traded Karlsson in September, the team got off to a decent start. They weren’t lighting the league on fire, but they had a respectable firsts two months of the season. Things turned after they dropped a pair of games to the Montreal Canadiens on Dec. 4 and 6. In the 10 games following those two losses, the Sens came away with just two victories.

Things ended up getting so bad for Ottawa that they finished in the basement of the NHL. The second-to-last team in the league was the Los Angeles Kings and they finished seven points ahead of the Senators. That’s a significant gap. The big issue, was that the Sens didn’t have their own first-round draft pick because they traded it the Colorado Avalanche for Matt Duchene.

Everyone in the NHL knows that the biggest issue right now is the owner. Eugene Melnyk doesn’t appear to be interested in spending the money to keep his star players in the fold and the fact that he’s turning off the fan base in the process isn’t helping either. Whether or not he’s capable of surrounding his team with the tools to succeed remains to be seen.

The Sens have a lot of good young prospects, but they’re in the middle of a rebuild that should take quite some time. Former Toronto Maple Leafs assistant coach D.J. Smith was hired to be the head coach this off-season and it’ll be up to him to get this group of youngsters ready to perform on the ice.

“Now it’s about trying to push kids to realize their potential,” Smith said, per NHL.com. “There is nothing more satisfying than to watch a guy push himself past the limit and become better than even he thought he could be. It’s in most kids; you just have to find a way to get it out of them. It’s something I really enjoy.

“We’re in a division (Atlantic) with some of the best offenses in the League — the Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning. It’s going to take time, but we’ll learn to get better together. We’re only going to get better by learning to play against teams like that.”

Cutting the goals against will be one of Smith’s biggest challenges. The Sens were the only team in the league that allowed more than 300 goals (302) last season.

Building this team from the ground up isn’t going to be easy and it’s going to take time, but Smith has to get them to take a positive step or two this season.

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

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Marner may practice in Europe; Coyle has success in Boston

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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.

Mitch Marner has reportedly been looking into practicing with the Zurich Lions of the Swiss League. (Swiss Hockey News)

Jesse Puljujarvi is looking for a team where he’ll play on the top two lines. (Oilers Nation)

• Miracle on Ice forward Mark Pavelich has been ordered to undergo a mental health evaluation after he assaulted one of his neighbours. (Duluth News Tribune)

• The NHL 20 video game has added coaches to their Franchise Mode. (PastaPadre)

• Carla MacLeod believes the women’s game is growing every day. (660 City News)

Charlie Coyle‘s short stint in Boston was a big success. (Stanley Cup of Chowder)

• Once he got healthy, Shea Weber was a huge asset to the Montreal Canadiens. (Habs Eyes on the Prize)

Roope Hintz is one of the X-factors for the Dallas Stars. (Defending Big D)

• What can we expect from the 2019-20 Ottawa Senators? (TSN)

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.

Russ Conway, writer who brought down hockey union boss, dies

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LAWRENCE, Mass. — Russ Conway, a hockey writer who was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1992 for his stories about corruption in the NHL Players Association that helped bring down union head Alan Eagleson, has died. He was 70.

His death was reported by the Eagle-Tribune of Lawrence, Massachusetts, where he had started at the age of 18 and later served as sports editor.

A longtime Boston Bruins beat writer, Conway published a series of articles that exposed Eagleson’s lucrative conflicts of interest as the union boss, player agent and organizer of international tournaments. Conway’s reporting spawned investigations in both the United States and Canada that resulted in Eagleson serving six months in prison and forfeiting his Order of Canada.

The Hockey Hall of Fame kicked Eagleson out and gave Conway its Elmer Ferguson Memorial Award in 1999 for bringing honor to journalism and hockey.

Can Henrik Lundqvist bounce back for Rangers?

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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 New York Rangers.

Let’s tackle three questions for the Rangers in 2019-20 …

1. How will the new guys fit in (and how many new guys will fit in)?

Don’t blame head coach David Quinn if he uses phrases like “learning process” a lot next season, as there are a ton of new faces in New York, including players who figure to be top scorers and minute-eaters.

It’s not just about getting the most from Artemi Panarin and Jacob Trouba. Really, it’s not even about integrating likely rookie impact-makers like Kaapo Kakko and Adam Fox.

The Rangers must also decide if prospects like Vitali Kravtsov will make the team out of training camp, and if they’ll stay long enough to eat up a year of their rookie contracts. Quinn must decide if players like Lias Andersson are ready to take another step forward.

From a forwards and defense level, this is a very different-looking team, something that was cemented by the Kevin Shattenkirk buyout. As far as chemistry experiments go, the Rangers are basically mad science.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Under Pressure | X-factor]

2. Is Henrik Lundqvist washed up?

If you had to choose one Ranger to forget all about last season, it would be Lundqvist.

The Rangers’ defense was abysmal in 2018-19, and Lundqvist buckled under the pressure of trying to carry that sorry bunch, suffering through a season where he had a very un-Hank-like .907 save percentage.

When you look a little deeper at the numbers, you’ll see that his 2018-19 season wasn’t that far from normal, or maybe a “new normal.” Via Hockey Reference, you can see that his even-strength save percentage has been nearly identical for the last three seasons, as it was .919 in both 2018-19 and 2017-18 and .918 in 2016-17.

Before that, prime Lundqvist was regularly beyond .930 at even-strength, and so frequently above .920 overall that you almost set your watch to his elite play.

Considering that he’s 37, maybe the window for his elite play has finally closed, but maybe Lundqvist can squeeze out one or two more great years? Let’s not forget that Lundqvist wasn’t exactly protected in Alain Vigneault’s latter years with the Rangers, as those teams were often horrendous from a possession standpoint.

If Quinn can create more of cocoon for Lundqvist (and Alexandar Georgiev), might the Rangers improve at keeping pucks out of their own net? Even with Panarin leading a big boost in offensive punch, you’d think they’d need a lot more than they got from their goalies last season, Swiss cheese defense and all.

3. Will the playoff picture be an open road or treacherous path?

The Rangers aren’t the only team in their division that should be tough to gauge once prediction time rolls around, making it difficult to tell if the Metro will compare to what was a mighty Atlantic Division last season.

The Devils are just about as wildly different as the Rangers, and the Flyers made bold moves in their own right.

It’s easiest to imagine the Rangers falling in the wild-card range, so a lot may hinge on how other teams perform, both in the Metro and Atlantic Divisions. If the Panthers and Sabres take big strides — as they’re paying to do — then the Atlantic teams could gobble up as many as five playoff spots, forcing the Rangers to break into the top three of the Metro. That might be asking too much, so the Rangers have to hope for a little bit of a buffer when it comes to the playoff bubble.

(You know, unless they end up being far better or far worse than expected.)

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• 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.