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The Penguins are finding a new way to win, but can they keep doing it?

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Through their first seven playoff games the results for the Pittsburgh Penguins are matching what they did one year ago on their way to the franchise’s fourth Stanley Cup.

A lot of goals. A lot of wins.

The manner in which they are reaching those results could not be more different.

When the Penguins went through the playoffs a year ago they did it by bludgeoning their opponents with a dominating possession game that kept every other team pinned in their own end for extended shifts. They overwhelmed teams with speed, they came at them in waves, and they essentially played shut down defense by playing offense. They kept the puck 200 feet away from their net, and ended up outshooting their opponents on average by a commanding 35-28 margin. It was a truly dominant performance, and the type we have come to expect from every Stanley Cup winner over the past decade. The play on the ice almost always matched the result.

It hasn’t always been as convincing this postseason.

While the Penguins are still winning, it hasn’t always been as convincing of a performance. They have had stretches where they have been pinned in their own zone, forcing them to spend more time defending. They have spent significant periods of time chasing the play, particularly early in games. They are being outshot on average by a 37-30 margin, while those 37 shots against are two more per game than any other team in the playoffs.

Some of this change should have been expected.

From the moment it was revealed that defenseman Kris Letang would not be available in the playoffs it was obvious the Penguins were going to have some trouble exiting their zone.

Letang is arguably their most important player and they were never going to be able to replace the 28-29 minutes he can play in the playoffs with anybody else on the roster. There are only two or three other players in the world at his position that can do the things he does and control the pace of the game the way he does. It is a massive loss, and even though the defense doesn’t really have any glaring weaknesses, they are clearly lacking that go-to No. 1 guy, and maybe even a No. 2 guy. It’s basically a bunch of second-and third-pairing defensemen pieced together trying to make it work.

There was always going to be an adjustment that needed to be made.

So how are the Penguins making it work?

The first — and perhaps biggest — key is that Marc-Andre Fleury has, to this point, been able to remove the doubts that have always followed him around come playoff time. Outside of two games in Columbus in the first-round he has been a rock in net in place of the injured Matt Murray and held off the early onslaught of shots he has faced in almost every game so far.

The Penguins will probably argue that the scoring chances against haven’t always been as lopsided as the total shots and shot attempt numbers would indicate, but it has still at times been an exceedingly heavy workload, and even a little slip in any of those games could have sent them in a completely different direction.

When you break their games down on a period-by-period level the difference is striking.

  • In the first period this postseason the Penguins have been outshot by a 93-48(!) margin. That is astonishing. It is almost a 2:1 disadvantage. And despite that, they have only been outscored by a 5-3 margin and have only trailed coming out of the first period in two of the seven games. They are basically scrambling for the first 20 minutes and taking punch after punch, holding on for as long as they can.
  • The second period is where they tend to turn things around. Quickly. After getting dominated in the first period on the shot chart, the Penguins own a 90-82 shot edge in the second period of games and a commanding 15-6 edge on the scoreboard. This is actually a continuation of what they did a year ago when the second period was when they started to distance themselves from teams. It’s the period of the long line change, and they can use their speed to cause havoc. What’s most amazing is about this is how quickly they have been able to strike in the second period. They have already scored six goals in the first three minutes of the second period this postseason, including five within the first 1:15. In three of those games those early goals were breaking scoreless ties after they had been dominated for much of the first period. That has to be demoralizing for an opponent to fail to capitalize on their early chances, then come right out and find themselves in a deficit on the scoreboard.
  • The third period is basically just finishing the job they started in the second period. The shots are a little closer (they have been outshot 81-71) and they own an 11-6 goal advantage.

Basically, the Penguins have gone from being a team that does the initial attacking offensively and sustaining it for 60 minutes to being more of a counter-punching team.

It works because their goaltender has allowed them to stay in games to get an opportunity to punch back, and because they have the type of high-end talent on their roster to make teams pay for their mistakes.

As big of a loss as Letang has been for the defense, the one thing this Penguins team has going for it is an incredibly deep group of forwards that, when healthy, is probably better than the team that won the Stanley Cup a year ago (the only change is swapping Jake Guentzel, currently the NHL’s leading goal-scorer this postseason with seven, in for Eric Fehr). When you have players like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel up front you don’t need a ton of chances. They are going to be able to convert a higher percentage of their shots into goals.

Look, it’s not an ideal way to play, and it’s probably not the way they want to be approaching this. They don’t want to be a team that has to defend and they probably don’t want to give up 38 shots per game and start slow every single night. Just because it’s working now doesn’t mean it’s always going to work in the future. All it takes is a couple of those early shots in the first period to end up in their own net and things can get quickly turned upside down. But as long as Fleury can keep them in games long enough for them to wait for that one mistake to open the floodgates the other way, they are going to have a chance.

It’s not conventional based on what we have seen in the NHL in recent years. It is not what we have seen from the Penguins when they are at their best. But for right now it is working.

NHL on NBCSN: Bruins hope trade deadline additions get going vs. Stars

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Thursday’s matchup between the Dallas Stars and Boston Bruins. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Despite holding the NHL’s best record, the Bruins added some nice pieces at the trade deadline. They weren’t big-budget blockbusters, but Nick Ritchie and especially Ondrej Kase could serve as “sleeper hits.”

Now they just need to stop hitting the snooze button.

Ritchie faced some growing pains in first Bruins game after trade deadline

Ritchie (traded for Danton Heinen) and the Bruins didn’t exactly earn rave reviews from Bruce Cassidy as they fell 5-2 to the Flames on Tuesday.

“[It was] clearly not good enough. I thought some guys came to play and some guys didn’t. [Some guys] didn’t break a sweat, some of them it looked like,” Cassidy said following that loss, via NBC Sports Boston. “I’m sure there was effort [and that] they were trying. They were just in-between, couldn’t execute or whatever. At the end of the day, it wasn’t good enough.”

A challenging upcoming schedule won’t make it easier to acclimate, either.

The Bruins host the Stars in Boston on Thursday, but then things get bumpy. They play three in a row and five of their next six on the road. Actually, there’s almost a month of road-heavy play, with eight of 11 away from home from Feb. 29 through March 21.

Ritchie noted that everything’s new when you get traded to a new team, and that’s a fair point for any trade deadline addition.

Actually … that concept might be where the Bruins hold a leg up. After all, the Bruins got both Ritchie and Kase from the Ducks, so they have familiarity with each other. (Kase didn’t get to debut yet, but may play on Thursday.)

That familiarity could benefit Ritchie, in particular.

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6:30 P.M. ET ON NBCSN]

Adding Kase to Bruins is a cause for excitement

If you’re a bit of a “fancy stats” nerd (raises hand), then you’ve looked at Kase as a hidden gem for quite some time. Pick your chart, and Kase will probably come out looking great.

With that in mind, a possible line of Kase, Ritchie, and David Krejci strikes as quite interesting. Especially in tandem with that buzzsaw Brad MarchandPatrice BergeronDavid Pastrnak line, and getting depth from the likes of Charlie Coyle.

Krejci provided some insight into playing with Kase a few days ago, noting that Kase is “fast and can score.”

“You kind of have to adjust your game a little bit, but you have to get a feel for each other,” Krejci said, via NBC Sports Boston’s Nick Goss. “You’ve got to be on the same page with the breakouts, neutral zone. He’s a right-handed shot, so — I’m not sure what’s going to happen (Tuesday vs. the Flames) — but it’s always nice to have a right-handed shot on your line.”

There might be some room for frustration, mind you. Ritchie may create some groans with an ill-timed penalty. Kase’s a player to get excited about, although he might not always get the bounces. The Ducks traded Kase as his shooting percentage was mired at a career-low 5.2 percent, and his career average is modest at 9.5.

But … overall, the possibilities are exciting. Maybe Jake DeBrusk will end up being a better option than Ritchie, but we’ll see.

If they can score against the stingy Stars, that would present one heck of a first (or for Ritchie, second) impression.

John Forslund, Pierre McGuire and analyst Mike Milbury will have the call from TD Garden. Thursday’s studio coverage will be hosted by Liam McHugh alongside analysts Keith Jones and Patrick Sharp.

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.

Coronavirus could hinder NHL plans for China preseason games

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The NHL has not announced plans to hold preseason games in China this fall as they continue to keep an eye on the spread of coronavirus.

“We’re monitoring,” said NHL Deputy Commissioner Daly this week, via NHL.com. “It’s hard not to monitor it. It seems to be coming closer to us every time, every day that goes by. Certainly, it impacts what our plans will be in China in the future and in the relatively near future.”

According to NBC News, China’s National Health Commission reported on Thursday 29 new deaths linked to coronavirus, bringing the total number of deaths on the mainland to 2,744. The Centers for Disease Control has said the the outbreak has been found in 37 locations around the world, including the U.S.

The NHL last went to China in 2018 when the Flames and Bruins played games in Shenzhen and Beijing. Due to celebrations marking the 70th anniversary of the country’s founding, the NHL did not send teams there this past fall. In August, Alex Ovechkin of the Capitals visited Beijing as an ambassador for the league.

Player stick supplies have been affected and a planned PWHPA tour has been canceled due to coronavirus. Two Friday games in Switzerland will be played in front of empty arenas in order to prevent spreading.

As the NHL continues to plan for the 2020-21 season, the longer a lack of an announcement takes, the less of a hope the league returns to China this coming fall for preseason games.

“Obviously we haven’t announced any games there for next year,” Daly sad. “I think there was certainly a hope that we would be able to play preseason games there next year. I would say that hope probably continues to exist, but as time goes on, it becomes far more problematic.”

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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.

PHT Morning Skate: ‘No easy fix’ for emergency backup goalie situations like Ayres’

David Ayers NHL tries to fix emergency backup goalie situations EBUGS
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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.

• Bill Daly told reporters that there “are no easy fixes” for the NHL regarding emergency backup goalie situations like David Ayres suiting up for the Hurricanes. Ah yes, the league definitely must do something about the scourge that is getting a feel-good story that landed on outlets such as “Today Show” and “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.” Why would any league want scores of cheap attention if it comes with even an ounce of embarrassment? Preposterous! (Sportsnet)

• You’d think hockey people didn’t need to hear this, but stories like Ayres’ is why we love sports. (The Portage Citizen)

• Great stuff from William Douglas on memorable former NHL player Mike Grier, who ranks among four black assistant coaches in the NHL. Grier explains that his father Bobby Grier inspires his work ethic, as the elder Grier once was an assistant coach for the New England Patriots. (NHL.com celebrates Black History Month)

• Plenty of big names for the U.S. roster heading into the women’s world championship, including Hilary Knight, Kendall Coyne Schofield, and Brianna Decker. If a familiar face isn’t there, it might be due to them having children. (Olympic Talk)

• Great news for the Blues, and really for hockey: Vladimir Tarasenko may return sooner than expected. As in, before the end of the regular season. (NHL.com)

• Blues GM Doug Armstrong explains why the team was quiet at the trade deadline. Frankly, Armstrong’s made enough splashes over the years that it’s understandable to sit one out. Plus, the Blues can make people roll their eyes by saying Tarasenko is their “trade deadline acquisition.” (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

• If you only look at points, John Carlson ranks as the next Erik Karlsson when it comes to seemingly easy Norris Trophy calls. That said, the Capitals experienced a high-scoring blueliner getting downgraded before when Mike Green was at his fauxhawk’d peak. Could it happen again? Kevin Klein went into deep, fascinating detail on that question. (Japers Rink)

• Speaking of Capitals-related no-brainers, what about Alex Ovechkin playing a game in front of a Russian crowd? Daly says the league is working on it. (NBC Sports Washington)

• Adam Gretz argues that Conor Sheary can score enough to stick with Sidney Crosby on the Penguins’ top line. Pittsburgh showed off its new look in a narrow loss to the Kings on Wednesday. (Pensburgh)

• When Viktor Arvidsson is rolling, the Predators often roll with him. Amid a turbulent season, it seems like Arvidsson is finding his way. That’s extremely promising for Nashville’s chances. (A to Z Sports Nashville)

• Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman lays out his plan, explaining that the draft and young players are “the lifeblood of your team.” (NBC Sports Chicago)

• Senators fans waved goodbye to key players in multiple trades now, from Karlsson to Mark Stone to now Jean-Gabriel Pageau. Could Pageau be the end of that line? (TSN)

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.

The Buzzer: Fleury’s shutout helps Golden Knights win 7th in a row

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Three Stars

1. Marc-Andre Fleury, Vegas Golden Knights. Fleury is starting to get on a roll for the Golden Knights and continued that on Wednesday night with his fifth shutout of the season in a big 3-0 win over the Edmonton Oilers. The win extend stheir lead in the Pacific Division. Fleury has now won each of his past five starts and is starting to get back on track after a mid-season slump. Vegas acquired Robin Lehner just before the NHL trade deadline to give the team some goaltending depth, and with Fleury playing the way he has lately they should have one of the best duos in the league going into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Golden Knights’ winning streak now sits at seven consecutive games.

2. Cal Petersen, Los Angeles Kings. Petersen was the difference in the Kings’ 2-1 win over the Penguins on Wednesday, extending their losing streak to four games. He stopped 35 shots in the win including some great scoring chances in the closing seconds to secure the win. With Jack Campbell now in Toronto, Petersen is going to get an opportunity to be the primary backup for the Kings and he put on a great show against the Penguins. Read more about the Kings’ win right here.

3. J.T. Compher, Colorado Avalanche. With the Avalanche’s current injury situation they need their depth to come through. It did so again on Wednesday night in a 3-2 win over the Buffalo Sabres, and it was Compher making the biggest impact with a goal and an assist. His goal late in the third period ended up being the game-winner to help the Avalanche extend their winning streak. Read more about their win right here.

Highlight of the Night

Avalanche rookie Martin Kaut scored his first NHL goal in their win over the Sabres.

Blooper of the Night

Dustin Brown accidentally crushed his own teammate.

Suit of the Night

Avalanche coach Jared Bednar really got into the spirit of military night in Denver. This camo, though, seems more suited for duck hunting night.

Factoid of the Night

Scores

Colorado Avalanche 3, Buffalo Sabres 2
Vegas Golden Knights 3, Edmonton Oilers 0
Los Angeles Kings 2, Pittsburgh Penguins 1

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.