Penguins are heavy favorites, but aren’t taking Senators lightly

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PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Penguins spent the first two rounds of the playoffs engaging in high-stakes games of rope-a-dope with Columbus and Washington, absorbing some hits, avoiding others and counterpunching brilliantly to get halfway to a second straight Stanley Cup.

A very different challenge awaits in the Eastern Conference final in what amounts to the hockey equivalent of switching from boxing to MMA.

The Ottawa Senators dominated Boston then rallied by the New York Rangers on the legs of seemingly tireless defenseman Erik Karlsson, the inspirational play of goaltender Craig Anderson and a neutral zone trap designed to frustrate and suffocate opponents in equal measure.

“We can’t make any bold plays in (the middle of the ice),” Pittsburgh forward Patric Hornqvist said. “That’s exactly what they want.”

Rather than pound away like the Blue Jackets and Capitals tried to do against the Penguins, Ottawa would rather get in Pittsburgh’s head. The Senators’ defense is designed to force the Penguins and their waves of highly skilled playmakers into making sloppy mistakes.

“They’re pretty stingy,” Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby said. “We’ve got to make good decisions.”

The Senators are well aware they’re not supposed to be here. A year ago they didn’t even make the playoffs. Now they’re in the NHL’s final four for the first time in a decade and aren’t being given much of a chance against the dynamic Cup champions, who played their best game of the postseason in a Game 7 victory over the Capitals.

“No one’s picking us for sure,” Ottawa forward Clarke MacArthur said.

That’s fine by the Senators. They understand they’re playing with house money. Just don’t mistake the joy that spilled onto the ice after beating the Rangers in six games with satisfaction. They’re not simply happy to be here.

“We’re very proud of the work that we’ve done but we’ve got lots left,” Ottawa defenseman Dion Phaneuf said.

Then again, so do the Penguins. The team that looked drained while getting booed on home ice in a Game 6 loss to Washington zoomed past the Capitals in Game 7 , a coolly efficient 2-0 victory that served as a three-period clinic on how to close out a series.

Less than 72 hours later, they’ll begin the next step in becoming the first team in nearly 20 years to repeat with the opener on Saturday night. It’s an opportunity that provides all the adrenaline necessary to overcome any sort of physical or emotional fatigue.

“(In Game 7) we had a level of desperation we missed in a couple games prior, we need to keep that,” Crosby said. “This Game 1 is important, we’ve got to turn the page and start off the right way.”

CAPTAIN KARLSSON

Technically, Karlsson is playing with a pair of hairline fractures in his left heel. It’s hardly slowed him down. Karlsson is averaging nearly 29 minutes of ice time in the playoffs and his 13 points (two goals, 11 assists) lead the team.

“He’s unreal to watch,” Pittsburgh defenseman Justin Schultz said. “The way he skates and the vision he has, it’s really impressive. We’ll try to take it away this series as best we can.”

FLOWER POWER

The Penguins beat Washington for the ninth time in 10 playoff meetings behind the spectacular play of goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. Rendered a well-compensated backup at midseason, the starting job is Fleury’s even with Matt Murray fully recovered from a lower-body injury suffered during warmups before Game 1 of the Columbus series.

“I think Marc deserves the opportunity to play,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said. “He’s played so well for us and he’s really at the top of his game.”

BAD BLOOD?

The Senators won two of the three regular season meetings, though their 2-1 shootout victory on March 23 was marred by a slash from Crosby on defenseman Marc Methot left the pinky finger on Methot’s left hand mangled, forcing him to miss 10 games. Methot insisted he won’t be looking for payback. There’s too much at stake.

“Right now it’s about Pittsburgh and Ottawa, our team against their team,” Methot said. “We’re going to have to play at the level we’re capable of.”

STANDING TALL

Ottawa had its own unique goaltending situation during the season, with Craig Anderson and Mike Condon splitting duties during a difficult year that saw Anderson take time off to be with his wife Nicholle as she undergoes treatment for throat cancer. Nicholle is in Florida and will undergo a PET scan later this month to gauge her progress. Meanwhile, her husband and his upstart team are drawing strength from her fight.

“We’ve faced so much adversity,” Ottawa general manager Pierre Dorion said. “Guys have been so resilient this year. We’re a hockey club but we’re also a family.”

HURTING

The Penguins will likely start the series without defenseman Trevor Daley (lower body). Carl Hagelin is also dealing with a lower-body injury that forced him to sit out Game 7 against Washington. The Senators should have everyone available except defenseman Mark Borowiecki, whose lower-body injury is taking longer than expected to heal.

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Hurricanes remain ‘hopeful’ for a Justin Williams comeback

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When Justin Williams announced in September he would be “taking a break” from hockey, he didn’t shut the door entirely on a possible comeback at some point this season.

“Because of my current indecision, and without the type of mental and physical commitment that I’m accustomed to having, I’ve decided to step away from the game,” wrote the 38-year-old Williams.

With the Hurricanes sitting in an Eastern Conference wild card and only two points away from a top three spot in the Metropolitan Division, adding a veteran goal scorer like Williams would only help. What he brings on and off the ice is immeasurable, and it was clear last season just how valuable he was to a budding young team. The team is hopeful he’ll return to play and are keeping the lines of communication open.

“We continue to talk with him. I think he’s working out a little bit more on his own right now,” Hurricanes GM Don Waddell told the team website this week. “I think he’s going to start coming to the gym a little more. That’s a positive sign. What that end result is yet is still a mystery to all of us, but we’re hopeful that maybe there is an opportunity there to have him come back.”

Waddell isn’t the only one who’s unsure of a Williams return. Williams himself sounds like he’s been back and forth on what his future holds, according to head coach Rod Brind’Amour.

“I don’t know. I think we’re getting closer to a time where if he doesn’t, then he’s not,” Brind’Amour said. “He’s got to get in game shape and do all that, so there’s a time frame for that. There’s still time for that. … We talk quite a bit. We mostly talk about kids and how’s coaching going. I’ll ask if he’s staying in shape or getting in shape, and he’ll some days say, ‘Yeah,’ and then say, ‘Ah, maybe.’ So, we’ll see.”

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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.

Kessel returns to Pittsburgh trying to find his game for Coyotes

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When the Arizona Coyotes acquired Phil Kessel from the Pittsburgh Penguins back in August (for forward Alex Galchenyuk and defense prospect Pierre-Olivier Joseph) it gave them the type of player the organization had been lacking for years: a bonafide star forward, and one that was capable of scoring at a level that no Coyotes player had reached in close to a decade.

For a team that was just a couple of games away from the playoffs a season ago — despite an absurd season-long run of injuries that consistently decimated the roster — it was the type of move that could not only generate excitement within the fan base (it did, and they have the season ticket sales to prove it), but also give the team the last extra push it needed to get over the hump and end what is currently a seven-year playoff drought.

With Kessel set to make his first visit to Pittsburgh since the trade on Friday night, the Coyotes have put themselves in a great position to end that drought, sitting on top of the Pacific Division after 30 games thanks to their 3-1 win over the Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday.

What is perhaps most surprising about their current spot in the standings is they have done it while getting minimal offensive impact from Kessel, even with his two-goal effort in Thursday’s win.

The early numbers are kind of staggering given the high bar Kessel has set for himself over the years offensively.

  • His six goals are his fewest through 30 games since his rookie year in 2006-07 (five goals).
  • He has been held without a goal in 26 of the team’s first 30 games.
  • He has just one even-strength goal on the season, with the other five coming on the power play (including both goals on Thursday — one of which was also an empty-net goal).
  • He is on pace for just 16 goals over 82 games. If he does not improve on that it would be his lowest total since his rookie year (11) and the first time since 2007-08 (his second year in the league when he missed 10 games) he did not top 20 goals in a season.

Some decline in his overall production should have been expected.

Not only because he is another year older (32) and another year away from his prime, but because he went from playing on a veteran, star-laden roster in Pittsburgh that plays one of the most up-tempo styles in the league, to a young Arizona team that, while talented, does not have Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin in the middle of its lineup.

Even with all of that in mind this is still a pretty significant drop across the board, but it does not mean all hope is lost for him this season. Like any elite goal scorer Kessel can be notoriously streaky and score goals in bunches (this is not a knock on Kessel; it’s a reality for all players across the league), and it’s also not the first time he’s started a year slow. In his first year with the Penguins back in 2015-16 he had just nine goals through 30 games before getting hot in the second half, then catching fire in the playoffs on the way to the first of back-to-back Stanley Cups.

While Kessel has not exactly lit the world on fire for the Coyotes, the trade has not exactly been a rousing success for the Penguins.

For all of Kessel’s flaws as a player, the Penguins absolutely miss his presence on a power play unit that been mostly dysfunctional this season. A lot of their power play the past few years ran through him, from his ability to gain entry into the zone (a problem for the Penguins this year), to his playmaking, to his ability to finish. Even with all of his struggles in Arizona offensively his five power play goals are more than any player on the Penguins.

They also have not received anything close to what they hoped they would from Alex Galchenyuk, which is starting to become a pretty big issue. He has just two goals through his first 20 games and has mostly been relegated to fourth-line duty. Even with the Penguins missing several regulars in their lineup he has not topped the 10-minute mark in three of the team’s past four games, while general manager Jim Rutherford on Thursday (via The Athletic’s Josh Yohe) that Galchenyuk is not a lock to remain in the lineup when everyone is back. Galchenyuk always seemed like a one-and-done player in Pittsburgh from the very beginning — Joseph is the key long-term piece — but they probably expected more than this.

The funny thing about all of this is the trade has not really done much for either team through the first quarter of the season, but both teams have still managed to put themselves on solid ground.

The Coyotes are healthy and in first place and still have the hope that a Kessel goal-binge is lurking somewhere in the not-too-distant future.

The Penguins are overcoming their injury issues, playing the way they want to play, and finding ways to collect points while they wait for their regulars to return.

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.

Laila Anderson meets bone marrow donor

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Laila Anderson has made us shed a tear or two (or several) over the last year, and she was involved in another touching moment on Thursday night.

It was special to witness the 11-year-old’s journey. We got to see her ups with the St. Louis Blues and we also got to see the emotion behind her battle with a rare auto-immune disease, HLH. Last night, Anderson got to meet the person who helped her get better, as she got to interact with Kenton Felmlee, who ended up being her bone marrow donor.

“I felt a bond with her before we ever met. I think the second I look at her on the stage and saw her face,” Felmlee, who is a sophomore at the University of Kansas, said, per Fox 2 Now St. Louis. “Every emotion that I was feeling all exploded into so much more.”

As you can tell from the above video, their first interaction was incredibly emotional.

“I don’t care if we go to dinner or if we go to Disney World. I don’t care what we do, I just want to spend time with you,” Laila told her new friend on Thursday night.

And, of course, Anderson and Felmlee will be attending Saturday’s game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and St. Louis Blues at Enterprise Center.

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.

Calgary Flames sign deal for new downtown arena

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CALGARY, Alberta (AP) — The Calgary Flames have a deal for a new downtown arena, a 35-year agreement that keeps the NHL club in the city for that time.

The team, the city and the Calgary Stampede rodeo signed an agreement Thursday to replace the 36-year-old Scotiabank Saddledome.

The 19,000-seat arena is to cost more than $417 million. Construction is expected to begin in 2021, just north of the Saddledome. The arena will be demolished between 2024 and 2025.

The project is part of a downtown revitalization. The building will become the home of the Flames and part of a planned entertainment district bordering the Stampede grounds.

The Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corp., which owns the Flames, and the city will split the costs. The Stampede is a not-for-profit community group.