The Penguins are going to need Marc-Andre Fleury to steal one more game

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PITTSBURGH — When looking at the results it is easy to conclude that the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals have been pretty evenly matched through the first six games of their second-round playoff series.

Both teams have won three games.

Both teams have scored 18 goals.

In the two areas that matter the most, it is exactly what you might expect from the two best teams in the league during the regular season.

Yet when you watch the teams play against one another on the ice, and when you look at all of the underlying numbers (mostly the shots on goal and the shot attempts), it is clear that the Capitals have completely dictated the pace of the series and have been the better team.

And not by a little, either.

Hockey is a funny sport, and when you put an entire season down to a best-of-seven series, crazy things can happen that can completely flip everything upside down. When that happens, it usually results in swift overreactions that either see a great team get gutted far too soon, or an ordinary team get saddled with unrealistic expectations and then face the disappointment that comes from not meeting them.

Nothing can do that quite like goaltending can.

Through the first four games of this series (when the Penguins held a seemingly commanding 3-1 lead) that is exactly what was happening.

Marc-Andre Fleury was standing on his head in the Penguins’ net and masking all of the flaws that existed in front of him defensively. In the Washington net, Braden Holtby was off of his game as the Penguins were opportunistic and capitalized on the chances the Capitals presented them.

It was every postseason nightmare the Washington Capitals have experienced over the past few years. Play well. Do everything right. Run into a goalie that plays out of his mind and ruins everything.

It was also pretty much a continuation of what we saw from the Penguins in their first-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets, and it was worth asking if they could continue to scratch out wins playing that way (and we did ask it).

It was basically going to come down to Fleury’s ability to keep stealing them games because right now he is probably the single biggest reason they are still playing hockey this season. If he doesn’t hold down the fort in pretty much every game the Penguins came out flat in, or post a .930 save percentage, who knows what direction their postseason goes in. Probably not a good one.

He has, quite simply, bailed them out.

If they are going to play beyond Wednesday night and advance to the Eastern Conference Final for the second year in a row and continue their defense of the Stanley Cup, they are almost certainly going to need him to do it one more time.

Given the way this series has been played, there really doesn’t seem to be another path for the Penguins to win it. Anything else would require them reaching a level they have not yet shown they are capable of this postseason as currently constructed.

The problem is simple: Without Kris Letang the Penguins are missing arguably their most important player. He is not only one of the five or six best defensemen in the entire league, he is one of the best players in the entire NHL regardless of position. On their way to the Stanley Cup one year ago he played, quite literally, half of every playoff game and did so at a level that only a handful of other players are capable of.

Without him they are not only lacking that presence, they have had to see players that are in the lineup get over-extended into roles they are not really cut out for or used to playing. Instead of having Letang play the most minutes — and the most meaningful minutes — their ice-time leader this postseason has been 36-year-old Ron Hainsey. With all due respect to Hainsey, a fine NHL defenseman for 13 seasons, he is not Kris Letang.

The Penguins’ ability to exit their zone has been a constant issue this postseason. They are unable to make plays through the neutral zone. The offense tends to fizzle out quickly on the rare occasion they do get into the offensive zone. It has shown on the shot chart where the Penguins have been bleeding an almost unheard of number of shots against and have been the worst possession team in the playoffs.

It is not the way they won the Stanley Cup one year ago, and it has put a ton of pressure on their goaltender to be at his best every single night.

“Obviously I think our team is at its best when it’s in the offensive zone,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan following Monday’s game.

“Three games ago you guys were praising our team for our counter-attack. The reality is we are trying to keep our eye on the right ball. We know how we play. There are areas we have addressed almost daily, certainly game in and game out, where we know we can be better as a group and we work on that. Tonight is no different. It did not go the way we wanted it to go. We have to have a short memory, we have to go back to work tomorrow, we have to go back to Game 7.”

When they are not on the power play or getting an opportunity on a counter-attack, they are simply not creating much in the way of offense.

That all starts with the defense.

So far, the Capitals have feasted on that with a dominating territorial edge that they are finally starting to be rewarded for. There is little reason to believe they will not continue to have that edge in Game 7 because they have had it for pretty much every minute of the previous six games.

This isn’t to say that the Capitals are guaranteed to win their third game in a row (they are not), or that the Penguins have no chance on Wednesday (they do).

But that chance is going to rest almost entirely on Fleury being able to do something he has already done multiple times this postseason for the Penguins: Steal a game for them.

Kraken add some size, acquire Jaycob Megna from San Jose

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SEATTLE — The Seattle Kraken acquired defenseman Jaycob Megna from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for a 2023 fourth-round draft pick.

Megna is in the midst of his best season with 12 points in 48 games for the Sharks while averaging more than 19 minutes per game.

“Jaycob has shown with his play this season that he is a responsible defenseman that can be relied on in all situations,” Seattle general manager Ron Francis said. “He provides welcome depth to our defensive group and we are happy to have him join our organization.”

The 6-foot-6, 220-pound Megna will add some size and bulk to Seattle’s lineup. Megna ranked fifth for San Jose in both blocked shots and hits.

Megna previously played for Anaheim for parts of three seasons between 2016-19. The 48 games played this season is a career-high for the 30-year-old.

Seattle is tied for the lead in the Pacific Division and will return from the All-Star break beginning against the New York Islanders.

Islanders sign Bo Horvat to 8-year deal after trading for him

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The New York Islanders signed center Bo Horvat to an eight-year contract less than a week after acquiring him in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks.

The team announced the contract after their first practice following the All-Star break. Horvat’s deal is worth $68 million and carries a $8.5 million salary cap hit through the 2030-31 season.

General manager Lou Lamoriello joked to reporters at practice on Long Island that Horvat’s contract was “too long and it’s too much money.”

The Islanders sent forward Anthony Beauvillier, prospect Aatu Raty and a protected first-round pick to the Canucks for Horvat . He was set to be an unrestricted free agent after the season, and the trade was a result of Vancouver and Horvat’s camp being unable to reach a deal last summer.

Lamoriello and Horvat expressed confidence about getting a deal done after the trade. The 27-year-old has scored more than 30 goals for a second consecutive season.

Horvat was chosen as an All-Star and played for the Pacific Division despite the trade. He played with longtime Canucks teammate Elias Pettersson and combined on one last goal together before parting ways.

“I want to get going,” Horvat said after the All-Star 3-on-3 tournament. “That’s enough. Let’s start playing some games and getting to know the guys. I just want to start playing hockey again.”

Horvat was on vacation with his family in Orlando when he was traded. He said coach Lane Lambert wanted him to enjoy All-Star festivities before getting rolling with the Islanders, who play at the Philadelphia Flyers.

“Obviously getting my legs under me is going to be No. 1 and getting systems down and obviously chemistry with the new linemates and stuff like that,” Horvat said.

After facing the Flyers and Seattle, Horvat will play against his former team when Vancouver visits UBS Arena.

Bruins rolling, rest of NHL making final push for playoffs

John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
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SUNRISE, Fla. — Bruce Cassidy’s Vegas Golden Knights lost eight of 10 games going into the All-Star break after leading the Pacific Division at the midway point of the NHL season.

They’re still safely in a playoff spot in the Western Conference, but they can’t keep it up.

“We’re still in a good position – that’s the way we look at it,” Cassidy said. “There’s not too many teams that can cruise home the last 30 games in this league, and we’re certainly not one of them.”

Cassidy’s old team, the Boston Bruins, probably could. They’re atop the NHL and running away with the Atlantic Division.

With 39 wins and 83 points through 51 games, Boston is on pace to break the record for the best regular season in NHL history. The Carolina Hurricanes, who beat Boston in seven games in the first round last year, are next in the standings at 76 points.

“Top to bottom, there’s no weaknesses,” Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour said.

The Bruins are in a class of their own, but the playoff races behind them in the East and West should be hot down the stretch with roughly 30 games to go before the chase for the Stanley Cup begins.

METROPOLITAN DIVISION

The Hurricanes rode a seven-game winning streak into the break, putting some fear into the Bruins in the race for the Presidents’ Trophy and home-ice advantage through the postseason. Winger Max Pacioretty re-tearing his right Achilles tendon five games into his return didn’t slow them down, and if their goaltending holds up, Carolina stands a good chance of reaching the East final.

“This team, it’s a special group of guys,” said Brind’Amour, who captained Carolina to the Cup in 2006 and is in his fifth year as coach. “We kind of show that nightly. It’s just very consistent, and they take their job real serious. They do it right.”

The second-place New Jersey Devils are contending for the first time since 2018. Bottoming out the next season helped them win the lottery for No. 1 pick Jack Hughes, a two-time All-Star who has them winning ahead of schedule.

“Much better than being out of the mix,” Hughes said. “We’re really excited because it’s going to be a lot of important hockey, and it’s going to be really competitive and we’re really pumped to be where we are.”

They’re followed by the New York Rangers, Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Islanders. All three New York-area teams could make it, which was the expectation for the Rangers after reaching the East final last year.

“I think the run last year really taught us a few things and stuff that we obviously could build on for the rest of this year,” 2021 Norris-Trophy winning defenseman Adam Fox said.

ATLANTIC

The Rangers lost to the Lightning in six games last spring, when two-time champion Tampa Bay reached the Stanley Cup Final for the third consecutive season before getting beat by the Colorado Avalanche.

The Lightning are almost certain to face the Toronto Maple Leafs – who haven’t won a playoff series since the NHL salary cap era began in 2005 – in the first round and remain a threat to the Bruins.

But Boston has separated itself despite starting the season without top left winger Brad Marchand and No. 1 defenseman Charlie McAvoy. The Bruins have lost only 12 games under new coach Jim Montgomery.

“You just keep winning,” said All-Star right winger David Pastrnak, who’s tied for third in the league in scoring. “Every single line and every single guy is going and it obviously builds our confidence. It’s funny sometimes what confidence can do in hockey.”

The Islanders should have some more confidence after acquiring 30-goal scorer Bo Horvat from Vancouver, but still need to make up ground to get in.

CENTRAL

Defending champion Colorado climbed in the standings – winning seven of eight going into the break despite an injury-riddled first half of the season. Captain Gabriel Landeskog still has not made his season debut since undergoing knee surgery. It would be foolish to bet against the Avs coming out of the West again.

“It’s up to us: We control our own fate,” All-Star center Nathan MacKinnon said. “We need to definitely keep playing the way we were before the break. No matter who’s in the lineup we were playing well, playing hard, so it would definitely help with healthy bodies.”

They still trail the Dallas Stars, Winnipeg Jets and Minnesota Wild in the Central, and the Nashville Predators are on their heels. Only the Stars and Jets are essentially guaranteed a spot.

“Every point, you grind for it,” Stars leading scorer Jason Robertson said. “Every point’s going to be a dog fight, so it’s going to be a fun 30 games down the stretch.”

PACIFIC

Undisputed MVP favorite Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers, who were swept by Colorado in the West final, have a little bit of catching up to do in the Pacific Division.

The top spot is held by the Seattle Kraken, who surprisingly are on pace to make the playoffs in their second season but still need to fend off the Los Angeles Kings and the Vegas Golden Knights.

Edmonton – and the Battle of Alberta rival Calgary Flames – have the talent to not only get in but make a run. McDavid leads the league with 41 goals and 92 points, 16 more than No. 2 scorer and teammate Leon Draisaitl, and is producing unlike anyone since Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux in the mid-1990s.

Now he’ll try to carry the Oilers into the playoffs and beyond.

“It hasn’t been easy at all for our group. We’ve kind of had to battle for everything that we’ve got,” McDavid said. “We’ve always been a second-half team for whatever reason. Even since my first year, we’ve always been better in the second half, so we’ll definitely look to continue that. That being said, we’re not going to hang our hat on that and expect that to carry us to the playoffs. There’s a lot of work to be done.”

Capitals sign Sonny Milano to 3-year, $5.7 million extension

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ARLINGTON, Va. — The Washington Capitals signed winger Sonny Milano to a three-year extension worth $5.7 million.

General manager Brian MacLellan announced the contract, adding to an already busy All-Star break for taking care of future business. The Capitals extended forward Dylan Strome for five years, $25 million.

Like Strome, Milano has fit in as a new addition for Washington. He’s now set to count $1.9 million against the salary cap through the 2025-26 season.

The 26-year-old Milano has been a near-perfect bargain signing for the Capitals after joining them on an NHL veteran one-year deal after this season got underway. He has eight goals and 14 assists for 22 points in 40 games since getting called up from Hershey of the American Hockey League.

Originally drafted by the Columbus Blue Jackets 16th in 2014, Milano split his first eight seasons in the league with them and the Anaheim Ducks. He went unsigned as an unrestricted free agent last summer despite putting up 34 points in 66 games with Anaheim.