Penguins’ run to Stanley Cup Final filled with challenges

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PITTSBURGH — When a team wins the Stanley Cup there is always an expectation that it should be able to come back the next season and contend for it once again. So it shouldn’t be a huge shock that the Pittsburgh Penguins, a team with an All-Star cast of forwards led by Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel, are back in the Stanley Cup Final for a second year in a row (and for the fourth time in 11 years) thanks to their thrilling 3-2, double overtime Game 7 win over the Ottawa Senators on Thursday night.

What is a shock is how they managed to do it.

Getting back to the Stanley Cup Final two years in a row is a heck of a lot easier said than done.

Keep in mind the NHL has not had a repeat champion since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998. It has only had two repeat champions since 1990 (the Red Wings, and the 1991 and 1992 Penguins). Only six teams have even made it to the Finals in back-to-back years. It is a grueling task that requires not only a talented, well-coached team that is playing well at the right time of year, but also a lot of luck.

And luck is not just limited to puck luck or getting the right bounces. It is also about having the right matchups and having the right players healthy all at the same time.

All of that seemed to be working against the Penguins this postseason in what has been a run that has, in a lot of ways, defied the odds. Not only did they have to get through two of the top-three teams in the NHL this season in the first two rounds, but they had to do it with an injury list that seemed to grow by the day, leaving them with what was at times an undermanned defense.

Penguins coach Mike Sullivan talked extensively about their journey so far after their Game 7 win on Thursday night.

“It’s been hard. It’s been a really hard playoffs, and I give this group of players so much credit,” Said Sullivan. “They find ways to win, and we’re not perfect on some nights by any stretch. But this group of players has a will to win as a group more so than any other group I’ve been around.”

“I think it starts with the leadership group we have. We’ve got a group of veteran players. I think they have a certain perspective that they understand the opportunity to play this deep and compete for the Stanley Cup doesn’t come around every year. And when it does, when a team like ours puts itself in the position like we have, we have to maximize this opportunity. It’s a great opportunity. And our veteran guys know it. They’ve been around the game a long time, and they understand when they have something special, and we believe we have that with the chemistry of this team. We did it last year, and we’re finding ways to do it again this year. But it’s hard to win. This is the hardest trophy in sports, in my mind. It’s a war of attrition. And I don’t think any team has endured more injuries than this group of players has endured, and we continue to find ways to win.”

The injury situation has been especially brutal.

After entering the playoffs without their best defenseman (Kris Letang), forcing the team into a defense-by-committee approach that is almost unheard of for teams going this deep into the playoffs, they have also had to spend time without Sidney Crosby, Patric Hornqvist, Bryan Rust, Justin Schultz and Trevor Daley for stretches.

All of that, combined with the daunting path through two of the NHL’s best teams, resulted in a style of play that has not been quite as consistently impressive as their run a year ago.

Until Game 4 of their series against the Senators the Penguins had been dominated on the shot chart and were bleeding chances against, spending the entire postseason to that point defending and relying heavily on the goaltending of Marc-Andre Fleury to get through.

“I mean, just the competition,” said Chris Kunitz, the Game 7 hero on Thursday night when asked about the different challenges they have faced this year.

“It doesn’t matter who you’re playing. It’s tough to overcome them, or sustain maybe that pressure that we had last year. It felt like we were in more of a flow. This year it’s been back and forth. It’s been tough,” he continued. “We’ve had great individual performances. We had great goaltending. It’s something every night. We haven’t dominated the play that maybe we wanted to. Maybe we’ve done a better job these last couple of games. But it’s something we’re going to have to get better at playing a 60-minute game if we’re going to have a chance to beat Nashville.”

Canadiens re-sign Jeff Petry to 4-year, $25 million extension

Jeff Petry extension
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The Montreal Canadiens are making sure one of their most important defenders is going to be sticking around.

The team announced on Friday that it has re-signed Jeff Petry to a four-year, $25 million contract extension that will run through the end of the 2024-25 season.

That comes out to an annual salary cap hit of $6.25 million. Petry is currently entering the final year of a contract that pays him $5.5 million per season. He would have been eligible for unrestricted free agency after next season without a new contract.

He has been with the Canadiens since the middle of the 2014-15 season when he was acquired for two draft picks and become one of their best all-around players. It has turned out to be a wildly one-sided traded in the Canadiens’ favor. He is a possession-driving defenseman that can play a solid defensive game and also make a significant contribution offensively. He has scored at least 10 goals and 40 points in each of the past three seasons.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

It makes sense that the Canadiens would want to keep him around.

Just about the only risk here is age. Petry turns this December and will be 34 when the new contract actually kicks in. Right now Petry is without a question a $6.25 million dollar per year player, and he has not really shown any signs of an immediate decline. But will he still be that good of a player between the ages of 34 and 37?

Starting with the 2021-22 season the Canadiens will have $24.5 million in cap space going to the trio of Petry, Shea Weber, and Carey Price, all of whom will be over the age of 33. And that does not include the $4.6 million that then-33 Karl Alzner‘s contract has (assuming he is still on the team). That is a lot of money and a significant chunk of your salary cap space going to players that are closer to the end of their careers than their primes.

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.

Lightning-Stars stream: 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Final

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NBC’s coverage of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs continues with Friday’s Stanley Cup Final matchup between the Lightning and Stars. Coverage begins at 8 p.m. ET on NBC. Watch the Lightning-Stars stream on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Boosted by the long-awaited and “inspirational” return of Steven Stamkos, the Tampa Bay Lightning got goals from all three of their first-line forwards, their top defenseman and their captain in a threee-goal win to move within two wins of the franchise’s second Stanley Cup. For the second straight game, Tampa jumped out to a multi-goal first-period lead before the Stars got on the board. The Dallas Stars cut the deficit to one entering the second period, but the middle frame was all Lightning, outscoring Dallas 3-0 in large part thanks to a 21-4 shot differential.

After Game 2, Kevin Shattenkirk said, “when we play our best game it’s hard for teams to win.” In Game 3, Tampa played one of its best games this postseason, getting major contributions from its usual suspects in the top line trio and Hedman and also a quantifiable (one goal from Stamkos) and unquantifiable lift from the return of its captain.

The top line of Palat, Point and Kucherov carried the day once again, combining for three goals and six points in Game 3, their second straight game with four-plus points. Point leads all players this postseason with 11 goals and with Palat and Hedman also reaching double-digit goals in Game 3, the trio make Tampa the first team in a decade to have three players with 10-plus goals in the same postseason.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Tyler Seguin has struggled mightily in the 2020 playoffs. The 28-year-old has now gone 12 consecutive games without a goal and has just one assist over that span (which was six games ago). His last goal came in Game 3 of the Second Round vs. Colorado

Along with Seguin, some of Dallas’ other forwards have been quiet recently as well:

Jamie Benn: Zero points this series after ending West Final on a three-game goal streak
Denis Gurianov: Zero points, three shots this series (OT goal and assist in series-clincher vs. Vegas)
Alex Radulov: Zero goals, three assists this series

Tampa can become the first team in the NHL expansion era (1967-present) to win the Stanley Cup the season after being swept in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

WHAT: Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars
WHERE: Rogers Place – Edmonton
WHEN: Friday, September 25, 8 p.m. ET
TV: NBC
ON THE CALL: Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk, Brian Boucher
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Lightning-Stars stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars (TB leads 2-1)

Stars 4, Lightning 1 (recap)
Lightning 3, Stars 2 (recap)
Lightning 5, Stars 2 (recap)
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

Stars need to find way to get their top line going

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While the Tampa Bay Lightning’s top line spent the past two games filling the back of the net, the Dallas Stars are still waiting for theirs to make a noticeable impact in the Stanley Cup Final.

Entering Game 4 on Friday night (8 p.m. ET, NBC; livestream), the Stars’ top trio of Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, and Alexander Radulov has combined for zero goals in the series, while only Radulov (three assists) has recorded a single point.

Seguin’s scoring funk this postseason has already been well documented. He has just two goals (both early in their Second Round series against Colorado) since the playoffs began and has managed just a single assist over his past 12 games. But while his offense has gone cold, Radulov and Benn had continued to help drive the offense.

Benn entered the series as one of the Stars’ most productive forwards, while Radulov hasn’t been far behind and had already scored four game-winning goals.

But so far against Tampa everyone on that line has gone cold.

There are a few factors at play.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

For one, this is the best team that Dallas has had to play this postseason and the Lightning present several matchup problems. While they are known for their offense and have been the highest scoring team in the league for three consecutive years, they are also a fierce defensive team and one of the best lockdown teams in the league.

Victor Hedman is on the short list of best all-around players in hockey and is going to play close to half the game every night. He presents a challenge.

The Lightning have two forwards lines at the top of their lineup that have dominated in very different ways. The Nikita KucherovBrayden PointOndrej Palat duo is a tidal wave of talent that has overwhelmed every team they have faced this postseason. Behind them, the Lightning have the Blake ColemanYanni GourdeBarclay Goodrow line that has been a brick wall defensively.

Even if Stars coach Rick Bowness wants to try and pick and choose his matchups he can’t keep his top line off the ice forever waiting for one of those two lines to leave. At some point they are going to have to play against one of them.

Then in the event that the Stars do break through one of those lines, and do get by Hedman, they still have to deal with an elite goalie in Andrei Vasilevskiy.

So the matchup is part of it.

One way to potentially get around that is to split up the top line and spread them throughout the lineup. That way you could potentially get one or two of them into a more favorable matchup. Bowness was asked about that possibility on Friday afternoon, but would not commit to it one way or the other.

[Lightning vs. Stars: 2020 Stanley Cup Final schedule]

One option that might be worth looking at would be to put Seguin alongside Denis Gurianov in an effort to get the former going again. They haven’t spent a lot of time together the past two seasons, but when they have they mostly dominated during the regular season. They did play 22 minutes together earlier this postseason with less success, but I wouldn’t let that small sample size stop me from trying something new in an effort to jumpstart things. Especially when Gurianov probably deserves more ice-time anyway.

There is also an element of puck luck at play here because it’s not as if the trio hasn’t been able to generate shots. Together they have combined for 23 shots on goal through the first three games of the series with zero goals between them. Given their shot rates during the regular season they would have been expected to score at least two goals as a group on that same number of shots. Nobody wants to hear about luck and bad bounces in the Stanley Cup Final, but to ignore it would be ignoring reality. Sometimes the puck just doesn’t go in the net for you.

One of the biggest problems the Stars have had in recent years was always the fact they had a great top line and little secondary scoring behind them. With the addition of Joe Pavelski, as well as the emergence of players like Gurianov and Roope Hintz they have definitely helped address that. And it has paid off in a big way this postseason.

Now they need that top line to find a way to get rolling again. It has not happened yet in this series, but it only takes one game to help change that narrative in their favor.

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars (TB leads 2-1)

Stars 4, Lightning 1 (recap)
Lightning 3, Stars 2 (recap)
Lightning 5, Stars 2 (recap)
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

MORE: Conn Smythe Watch: Victor Hedman makes his move

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.

Stanley Cup Final: Stamkos to miss Game 4, not ruled out for series

Stamkos Game 4
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Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper announced that captain Steven Stamkos will not be available for Friday’s Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final (8 p.m. ET, NBC; livestream) against the Dallas Stars.

Stamkos has been battling a lower-body injury for months and has only played in one game since the end of February.

That one game was the Lightning’s Game 3 win over the Stars, and his appearance lasted just a little less than three minutes. He made the most of that time on the ice by scoring a goal on his only shot before leaving the game shortly after. He did not return.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Cooper said that even though Stamkos is not playing on Friday the team is not ruling him out for the remainder of the series.

Of course, the series may not have many games left. If the Lightning win on Friday they would have a chance to clinch the series on Saturday night (8 p.m. ET, NBC). If Stamkos could not finish Game 3, and is out for Game 4, it would seem to be a stretch to assume he would suddenly be ready for Game 5 on Saturday.

In Stamkos’ absence the Lightning have been carried by All-Star defenseman Victor Hedman, as well as their top two forward lines. The top line, led by Nikita Kucherov and his consistent production, has been especially dominant, as has their newly formed second line that was pieced together at the trade deadline.

Including the Round-Robin phase the Lightning are 16-6 this postseason.

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars (TB leads 2-1)

Stars 4, Lightning 1 (recap)
Lightning 3, Stars 2 (recap)
Lightning 5, Stars 2 (recap)
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

MORE: Conn Smythe Watch: Victor Hedman makes his move

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.