Sullivan pushing all the right buttons with Penguins one win away from the Stanley Cup

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PITTSBURGH — There is no magic button, even if the correlation between Mike Sullivan’s deft attempts to a get player’s attention and that player almost immediately elevating his game is unmistakable.

The Pittsburgh Penguins coach insists he’s just doing his job, one that has brought the underachieving team to within three periods of a Stanley Cup that seems as inevitable now as it seemed unlikely when he took over in mid-December.

Pittsburgh headed home Tuesday with a firm 3-1 lead over the San Jose Sharks in the tightly contested but ultimately one-sided best-of-seven after Evgeni Malkin picked up a goal and an assist in a 3-1 victory on Monday night. Malkin’s performance came barely 36 hours after Sullivan praised the star center for his hard work while adding the team needed even more from him if the Penguins wanted to close out the franchise’s fourth title.

Related: Sullivan excited to work with Penguins stars Crosby, Malkin

And just like that, it happened.

There was Malkin getting the secondary assist on Ian Cole‘s opening goal. There was Malkin redirecting Phil Kessel‘s pass from the circle into the net for a 2-0 advantage. There was Malkin skating with purpose, breaking up passes on one end of the ice and looking for his shot at the other. His first goal of the Cup final came when he darted for the far post on the power play and found himself all alone when Kessel threaded it to him.

“It’s not like great goal, but it’s just go to net, you know, and stay close to net and try play around net,” Malkin said. “When I have puck, I’m try shoot. It’s simple game tonight for me.”

A vintage one too. Ditto Sullivan, whose knack for drawing the best out of his players during Pittsburgh’s thrillingly arduous playoff run is becoming so frequent it’s tempting to ask him for lottery numbers.

He noticed rookie Conor Sheary looking fatigued during the Eastern Conference finals against Tampa Bay and sat him for Game 5. Sheary, rested and still confident after a brief talk with Sullivan, returned to his pest-like self and has scored twice during the Cup final, including the overtime winner in Game 2.

Sullivan pulled struggling defenseman Olli Maatta in the second round against Washington yet stressed to the 21-year-old Maatta he would eventually get another chance, one that arrived when Trevor Daley went down with an ankle injury. All Maatta has done since his return is become the best Pittsburgh defenseman not named Kris Letang.

A sluggish night by rookie goaltender Matt Murray in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals led to Sullivan’s most risky decision. He awarded the Game 5 start to veteran Marc-Andre Fleury, a move he made after taking 10 minutes to explain the reasoning behind it to Murray. It made all the difference. When Fleury slipped late in an overtime loss, Sullivan went right back to Murray. The 22-year-old is 5-1 since returning to the lineup.

“Every player goes through their ups and downs, times when they’re at the top of their game, and times where it can be a bit of a challenge,” Sullivan said. “I think that’s just human nature. Our players are no different. It never changes our opinions of these guys or how we feel about them. It’s our responsibility as their coaching staff to try to help them through the process.”

A responsibility that Sullivan takes seriously. The hyper-competitive forward who spent 11 seasons grinding out a career developed an appreciation for coaches who didn’t mince words. He places a premium on transparency. There is very little guessing about what’s on his mind, mostly because he doesn’t hesitate to say what needs to be said and if you don’t like the tone, well, that’s on you though Sullivan makes it a point to never make it personal.

“When he needs to he can call you out and tell you that he wants more from you,” Murray said.

And no one is immune, regardless of status. When Malkin failed to register anything on the scoresheet through the first three games of the Cup final, Sullivan decided it was time to speak up.

“He’s been a big part of this playoff success,” Sullivan said. “But certainly I know that there’s another level that he has to help us win.”

The comments came only after Sullivan spoke to Malkin, the new father – his daughter Nikita was born last Tuesday – well aware of his own inability to transfer his power and creativity into points. Given an opportunity to lift Pittsburgh to the cusp of a title, Malkin looked like the force of nature who bulled his way to the Conn Smythe Trophy the last time the Penguins won it all in 2009.

“When he turns it on, obviously what he can do for us is huge for our team,” Cole said.

Then again, in Sullivan’s mind that makes Malkin no different than any of the other 20 guys in black-and-gold. He tries to work phrases like “play the right way” and “our group” in to nearly every answer. His team’s rise over the last six months is a collective effort, not a star-driven one.

“I’ve told these guys from day one that we believe in this group,” Sullivan said. “We believe in our players, and we know when the stakes are high, they’re going to be at their best.”

No magic button required.

 

3 Takeaways: Lightning top Stars in Game 2 of 2020 Stanley Cup Final

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The Stars nearly erased a 3-0 deficit in Game 2 of the 2020 Stanley Cup Final, but the Lightning held on for a 3-2 win to tie the series 1-1. Let’s mull over three takeaways from the Lightning’s narrow Game 2 win vs. the Stars.

The Stars and Lightning face off in Game 3 of the 2020 Stanley Cup Final on Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET on NBCSN (livestream).

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

1. Injuries, fatigue haven’t totally blunted the Lightning attack.

More than once early in Game 2 of the 2020 Stanley Cup Final, it sure seemed like Nikita Kucherov was hurting. Some of us might have felt an impulse to suggest resting the seemingly banged-up winger after Kucherov suffered through this collision with Jamie Oleksiak:

(And that wasn’t even the only scare for Kucherov, although it was the biggest one from Game 2.)

Despite accruing more bumps and bruises, the Lightning showed that their skill can take over against the Stars during the 2020 Stanley Cup Final. Promisingly, Brayden Point rifled home a key 1-0 power-play goal. Being that Point missed significant chunks of the 2020 Eastern Conference Final, seeing Point score was a welcome sight even beyond the scoreboard.

But Kucherov was especially impressive. He made a nice play to set up that Point goal, and the real treat was Kucherov’s tremendous slap-pass to set the stage for Ondrej Palat. Palat almost seemed handcuffed by that great Kucherov feed:

With both Kucherov and Point banged up, and Steven Stamkos still not in the lineup, it doesn’t always look like the Lightning are at full-strength. Apparently they’re pretty dangerous even when they’re not at 100 percent.

2. The Stars are better off in a Game 1-type situation than Game 2.

On one hand, the Stars showed that they’ll fight hard in Game 2. No, it wasn’t enough to erase that 3-0 deficit, but that was a strong push.

And a nasty style? That’s probably in the Stars’ more rugged wheelhouse.

Still, Game 2 served as a reminder that if the Stars had the chance to choose between control or chaos, they’re better off coloring inside the lines.

Recall that, through the first two periods of Game 1, the Stars largely bottled the Lightning. Dallas actually won the SOG fight 18-14 over the opening 40 minutes, then saw the Lightning bombard a keyed-in Anton Khudobin during the third period.

In Game 2, both teams kept streaming to the box, and that burned the Stars like the Texas sun during summer time. It made for wilder, more compelling hockey, but Dallas is better off avoiding the dangerous game of trading chances with Tampa Bay.

To some extent, that problem might sort itself out quite a bit since officials are notorious for avoiding calling just about any subjective penalty as a series goes on. That said, there were unforced errors in Game 2, such as Blake Comeau taking a foolish interference penalty during the second period.

Ultimately, the Stars need to find the right balance between taking away the Lightning’s time and space, while also not having that physical edge push them into the penalty box. That rhythm was off – for Dallas – in Game 2.

3. Andrei Vasilevskiy deserves some attention, too.

It’s only natural for Anton Khudobin to draw a ton of attention. Beyond playing exceptional hockey, his journeyman story just begs for headlines, and probably glossy video features.

Don’t forget about the guy in the other end, though. Even if he’s a prototypically sized goalie who bucked the larger trend and was selected as a first-round pick.

We’re through Game 2 of the 2020 Stanley Cup Final, and Vasilevskiy hasn’t suffered consecutive losses during this Lightning run.

Tampa Bay needed Vasilevskiy to have a stellar second period, and he didn’t disappoint. Only a Joe Pavelski tip ended up in the Lightning net despite the Stars generating an 18-5 shots on goal advantage in the middle frame. Overall, Vasilevskiy stopped 27 out of 29 shots in Game 2.

It’s not as sexy of a story as Khudobin beating the odds, yet Vasilevskiy living up to huge expectations isn’t exactly chopped liver in narrative form, either.

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars (Series tied 1-1)

Game 1: Stars 4, Lightning 1. (recap)
Game 2: Lightning 3, Stars 2. (recap)
Game 3: Wednesday, Sept. 23, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN (livestream)
Game 4: Friday, Sept. 25, 8 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
Game 5: Saturday, Sept. 26, 8 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
*Game 6: Monday, Sept. 28, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
*Game 7: Wednesday, Sept. 30, 8 p.m. ET – NBC

*if necessary

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.

Lightning ride hot start in Game 2 to tie 2020 Stanley Cup Final vs. Stars

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The Lightning almost watched a 3-0 lead evaporate before their eyes, but they did enough to beat the Stars 3-2 in Game 3, tying the 2020 Stanley Cup Final 1-1.

From here, the two teams approach Game 3 (Wednesday, Sept. 23, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN – livestream) with the 2020 Stanley Cup Final series looking like a coin flip.

Lightning win Game 2 of 2020 Stanley Cup Final thanks to strong start vs. Stars

Back in Game 1, the Lightning failed to score during a busy third period, but they put a lot of pressure on Anton Khudobin.

This time around, the Lightning broke through. Tampa Bay received three consecutive power-play opportunities to begin Game 2, and chasing in with PPG played a big role in taking that crucial 3-0 first-period lead.

Nikita Kucherov sent tremendous passes to Brayden Point (1-0 PPG) and Ondrej Palat (2-0 PPG) to set up those first two goals. Considering the bumps and bruises Kucherov already was dealing with, it’s impressive that he managed that after painful falls like these:

We’re not that deep into the 2020 Stanley Cup Final, yet the Stars and Lightning are already building up some serious bad feelings. Things boiled over more than once in Game 2, including after Ryan McDonagh ended Blake Comeau‘s night early with a bone-rattling hit.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Chalk it up to sitting on a lead or the Stars unleashing the hounds, but either way, Dallas made a serious push to get back into this one. The Stars managed an 18-5 shots on goal advantage during the second period, a frame where there stream of penalties turned into a geyser. Joe Pavelski‘s nice tip for a PPG gave the Stars a shot, and then Mattias Janmark cut the Lightning lead to 3-2 early in the third thanks to a tremendous feed by John Klingberg.

Anton Khudobin’s been getting a lot of attention, yet Andrei Vasilevskiy has been strong during these 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. He was sharp when he needed to be on Monday.

Once the Lightning’s lead diminished to 3-2, it seemed like they rose to the task. The Lightning actually managed a significant third-period SOG advantage (12-5), even though the Stars was trying to get back into Game 2.

Mikhail Sergachev seemed to score a 4-2 insurance goal, but a successful offside review pushed it back to 3-2.

That didn’t end up being a turning point in Game 2, as the Lightning shut the door against the Stars, tying the 2020 Stanley Cup Final 1-1.

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars (Series tied 1-1)

Game 1: Stars 4, Lightning 1. (recap)
Game 2: Lightning 3, Stars 2.
Game 3: Wednesday, Sept. 23, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN (livestream)
Game 4: Friday, Sept. 25, 8 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
Game 5: Saturday, Sept. 26, 8 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
*Game 6: Monday, Sept. 28, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
*Game 7: Wednesday, Sept. 30, 8 p.m. ET – NBC

*if necessary

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.

NHL schedule for 2020 Stanley Cup Final

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The Stanley Cup Playoffs continue on Saturday, Sept. 19 in the hub city of Edmonton. Now that we are through the conference finals, the full 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Final schedule has been announced.  

The top four teams during the regular season in both conferences played a three-game round robin for seeding in the First Round. The eight winners of the best-of-5 Qualifying Round advanced to the First Round.  

Rogers Place in Edmonton will host 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Final.  

Here is the 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Final schedule.

2020 STANLEY CUP FINAL (Rogers Place – Edmonton)

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars (Series tied 1-1)

Game 1: Stars 4, Lightning 1 (recap)
Game 2: Lightning 3, Stars 2 (recap)
Game 3: Wednesday, Sept. 23, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN (livestream)
Game 4: Friday, Sept. 25, 8 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
Game 5: Saturday, Sept. 26, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
*Game 6: Monday, Sept. 28, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
*Game 7: Wednesday, Sept. 30, 8 p.m. ET – NBC

*if necessary

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

CONFERENCE FINAL RESULTS

EASTERN CONFERENCE FINAL
Lightning beat Islanders (4-2)

WESTERN CONFERENCE FINAL
Stars beat Golden Knights (4-1)

***

SECOND ROUND RESULTS

EASTERN CONFERENCE
Lightning beat Bruins (4-1)
Islanders beat Flyers (4-3)

WESTERN CONFERENCE
Golden Knights beat Canucks (4-3)
Stars beat Avalanche (4-3)

***

NHL QUALIFYING ROUND / ROUND-ROBIN RESULTS

EASTERN CONFERENCE
Philadelphia Flyers (3-0-0, 6 points)
Tampa Bay Lightning (2-1-0, 4 points)
Washington Capitals (1-1-1, 3 points)
Boston Bruins (0-3-0, 0 points)

Canadiens beat Penguins (3-1)
Hurricanes beat Rangers (3-0)
Islanders beat Panthers (3-1)
Blue Jackets beat Maple Leafs (3-2)

WESTERN CONFERENCE
Vegas Golden Knights (3-0-0, 6 points)
Colorado Avalanche (2-1-0, 4 points)
Dallas Stars (1-2-0, 2 points)
St. Louis Blues (0-2-1, 1 point)

Blackhawks beat Oilers (3-1)
Coyotes beat Predators (3-1)
Canucks beat Wild (3-1)
Flames beat Jets (3-1)

***

FIRST ROUND RESULTS

EASTERN CONFERENCE
Flyers beat Canadiens (4-2)
Lightning beat Blue Jackets (4-1)
Islanders beat Capitals (4-1)
Bruins beat Hurricanes (4-1)

WESTERN CONFERENCE
Golden Knights beat Blackhawks (4-1)
Avalanche beat Coyotes (4-1)
Stars beat Flames (4-2)
Canucks beat Blues (4-2)

Leon Draisaitl becomes first German to win Hart Trophy, also takes Ted Lindsay

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Edmonton Oilers forward Leon Draisaitl became the first German player to ever win the NHL’s MVP, taking the 2019-20 Hart Trophy. This capped quite a haul for Draisaitl, who ran away with the Art Ross Trophy (110 points) and also won the player-voted answer to the Hart, taking the 2019-20 Ted Lindsay Award.

Draisaitl finished first ahead of Nathan MacKinnon (Colorado Avalanche) and Artemi Panarin (New York Rangers).

Along with becoming the first German player to win the Hart Trophy, Draisaitl became the fourth Oilers player to nab the award. Draisaitl joined Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, and Connor McDavid (who won in 2016-17).

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Oilers’ Leon Draisaitl wins 2020 Hart Trophy over MacKinnon, Panarin

Draisaitl ended the truncated 2019-20 season with 110 points. Not only did he lead all scorers, but Draisaitl was the only player to cross the 100-point threshold. Draisaitl’s Oilers teammate Connor McDavid finished second in scoring with 97 points.

Panarin, meanwhile, tied David Pastrnak for third in scoring with 95 points. MacKinnon ranked as the only other player above 90 points in 2019-20, collecting 93.

While Panarin and MacKinnon managed large edges in points scored over their next-highest-scoring teammates, some will ding Draisaitl for the boost he received playing with McDavid. Even so, Draisaitl showed that he can carry his own line at times, and put up bonkers numbers. Managing 110 points in an 82-game season is already impressive in this tight-checking era. Doing it in 71 games is pretty flabbergasting.

The Hart Trophy debate among members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association would have been interesting to hear, as MacKinnon wasn’t that far behind Draisaitl:

It’s also interesting to see Connor Hellebuyck received some — though not a ton — of Hart Trophy votes.

NHL announces All-Star teams, All-Rookie teams

Naturally, Draisaitl also made the 2019-20 NHL First All-Star Team. With Draisaitl taking the center spot, Nathan MacKinnon actually settled for a second-team nod, with David Pastrnak sliding in at RW.

Vezina winner Connor Hellebuyck, Norris winner Roman Josi, and Norris runner-up John Carlson joined Draisaitl, MacKinnon, and Panarin on the 2019-20 NHL First All-Star Team:

2019-20 NHL First All-Star Team including Hart winner Draisaitl

MacKinnon joined Brad Marchand and Nikita Kucherov as the forwards on the 2019-20 Second All-Star Team. Tuukka Rask got the nod as the goalie, while Victor Hedman and Alex Pietrangelo made up the two defensemen.

Finally, the 2019-20 NHL All-Rookie Team is an impressive group. You almost wish they would have listed more than the usual two defensemen, as Calder Trophy winner Cale Makar made it alongside Quinn Hughes. Elvis Merzlikins got the goalie spot, while Nick Suzuki, Victor Olofsson, and Dominik Kubalik took the forward selections.

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.