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For Penguins’ defense, it’s been a group effort to replace Letang

PITTSBURGH (AP) The handful of men who carry out the most thankless of tasks for the Pittsburgh Penguins are a rag-tag group thrown together by circumstance and a touch of foresight by general manager Jim Rutherford.

They are largely anonymous and blissfully so, only too happy to work in the considerable shadows created by the stars who play in front of them and their unquestioned leader, the one forced to watch the franchise’s run to a second straight Stanley Cup Final in immaculately tailored suits from the press box while he recovers from neck surgery.

When defenseman Kris Letang‘s star-crossed season ended for good in early April when he abandoned any hope of a comeback from the injuries that limited him to just 40 games this season, the chances of the Penguins becoming the first team to win back-to-back titles was supposed to vanish along with him.

Yet here they are hosting Nashville in Game 1 on Monday night, four wins away from a repeat that seemed improbable seven weeks ago. And they’ve done it with a group of blue liners who lack Letang’s unique talents or the undeniable dynamic charisma of the defensemen like P.K. Subban who have helped power the Predators’ dominant sprint to the final.

“That’s fine with us,” said Brian Dumoulin, who leads the Penguins in ice time during the postseason. “They’re great players and stuff like that. No chip on our shoulder. We know who we are as a D core.”

They might be one of the few. A quick introduction.

There’s well-traveled Ron Hainsey, the 36-year-old who needed to wait a record 907 games before reaching the postseason for the first time in his 14-year career.

There’s Trevor Daley and Olli Maatta, the battle-tested veteran and the baby-faced kid from Finland, both of whom spent significant chunks of time on the injured reserve this season only to develop an unquantifiable chemistry during the playoffs.

There’s Dumoulin, who has become Pittsburgh’s new iron man with Letang out. There’s Ian Cole, the thoughtful well-bearded conscience who revels in the more physical aspects of his job.

There’s 39-year-old Mark Streit, who like Hainsey was brought in as insurance at the trade deadline then spent six weeks as a healthy scratch only to fill in capably when another spate of injuries struck in the Eastern Conference finals against Ottawa.

Mostly, however, there’s Justin Schultz. Considered a disappointment during three-plus underwhelming seasons in Edmonton, Schultz has spent 15 months in Pittsburgh remodeling his game.

It’s Schultz who has taken over as the quarterback on the Penguins’ potent power play. It’s Schultz who has found a knack for the big moment. He delivered the winning goal in Game 4 of the second round against Washington. He put the Penguins ahead in the third period of Game 7 against Ottawa and ended up with the secondary assist on Chris Kunitz‘s knuckler that finally put away the Senators in double overtime.

Schultz is reluctant to talk about his transformation or the upper-body injury that sidelined him for four games during the Ottawa series. He returned for the decider to play more than 24 minutes, gritting his teeth all the way through.

When asked if the injury limited his ability to get off the shot that became his third goal of the postseason, Schultz responded with typical modesty.

“Not full but like I said, those guys did such a good job screening … it didn’t have to be the hardest shot to get through,” said Schultz, who set a career -high with 51 points during the regular season and has added another 10 in the playoffs.

Schultz, however, could always shoot. That’s never been the problem. It’s at the other end of the ice where he’s truly matured and likely made him one of the most coveted free agents to be in the process.

The defenseman who never had any trouble jumping into the play has not become adept at thwarting them too.

“He’s always had ability to excel on the offensive side,” said Penguins assistant Jacques Martin, who coaches the defense. “He’s got tremendous vision. He’s been able to replace Kris on the power play. The area (of growth) that’s most noticeable has been his defensive side … his positioning. He’s improved his compete level, his use of his stick, his position. All areas he’s grown in over the season.”

The Penguins have needed every last ounce of it as they have from the rest of their defensemen who has spent the last four months trying to replace the seemingly irreplaceable Letang.

It’s been a group effort. More than once Pittsburgh has been forced to go long stretches in games with only five defensemen because one of them went down. When Shultz left Game 2 against the Senators, Dumoulin played 26 minutes, Hainsey nearly 25 and Maatta 22. The Penguins survived 1-0 to even the series.

“If you look at last year in playoffs it was Kris Letang and then the rest of us,” Dumoulin said. “That’s not the case right now. Obviously whatever role that you’re asked to do, whatever opportunity is there, you’re going to do it. We’re not going to be the offensive guy Kris Letang was. Nobody is going to be in that aspect.”

The object is to make sure it doesn’t matter. So far, it hasn’t.

“I think we have a group back there that cares about each other, that are really playing within their limitations,” Martin said. “I think that’s the key.”

Related: Penguins’ run to Stanley Cup Final filled with challenges

 

NHL Return to Play: Round-robin standings, scenarios

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While the 16 teams in the qualifying round play for the right to move on, the No. 1 seeds in the Eastern Conference and Western Conference are still up for grabs in the round-robin format of the NHL’s return to play.

The round-robin schedule resumes on Saturday with a pair of games (Lightning vs. Flyers and Golden Knights vs. Avalanche) and here we take a look at the impact those games can have on the standings.

Below is a look at the current round-robin standings and everything at stake on Saturday.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Current standings (tiebreaker is regular-season points percentage)

Tampa Bay Lightning (2-0-0, 4 points)
Philadelphia Flyers (2-0-0, 4 points)
Washington Capitals (0-1-1, 1 point)
Boston Bruins (0-2-0, 0 points)

Sunday, Aug. 2: Flyers 4, Bruins 1 (recap)
Monday, Aug. 3
:
Lightning 3, Capitals 2 (SO) (recap)
Wednesday, Aug. 5:
Lightning 3, Bruins 2 (recap)
Thursday, Aug. 6:
Flyers 3, Capitals 1 (recap)
Saturday, Aug. 8:
Flyers vs. Lightning,  8 p.m. ET – NBC
Sunday, Aug. 9:
Bruins vs. Capitals, 12 p.m. ET – NBCSN

• Winner of TB/PHI will be #1 seed; the loser will be #2
• Winner of BOS/WSH will be #3 seed; the loser will be #4

• Carolina will face either Boston or Washington in First Round.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Standings (tiebreaker is regular-season points percentage)

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

Sunday, Aug. 2: Avalanche 2, Blues 1 (recap)
Monday, Aug. 3: Golden Knights 4, Stars 3 (recap)
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Avalanche 4, Stars 0
Thursday, Aug. 6: Golden Knights 6, Blues 4 (recap)
Saturday, Aug. 8: Golden Knights 4, Avalanche 3 (OT) (recap)
Sunday, Aug. 9: Stars vs. Blues, 3 p.m. ET – NBC

• Vegas will play Chicago, while Colorado will play Arizona in the First Round.
• Winner of STL/DAL will be #3 seed; the loser will be #4

MORE:
• 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule


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.

NHL schedule for 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers in league’s Return to Play

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It’s time to focus on the NHL games, including the 2020 NHL playoffs schedule. The 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers began on Saturday, Aug. 1 in the hub cities of Edmonton and Toronto.

The top four teams in both conference will play a three-game round robin for seeding in the First Round. The Stanley Cup Qualifiers will be best-of-5 series with the losing teams being entered into Phase 2 of the NHL Draft Lottery.

Below is a full 2020 NHL playoffs schedule of both the round-robin and the Stanley Cup Qualifiers.

EASTERN CONFERENCE (Scotiabank Arena)

Round-robin [Standings, scenarios]

Sunday, Aug. 2: Flyers 4, Bruins 1 (recap)
Monday, Aug. 3
:
Lightning 3, Capitals 2 (SO) (recap)
Wednesday, Aug. 5:
Lightning 3, Bruins 2 (recap)
Thursday, Aug. 6:
Flyers 3, Capitals 1 (recap)
Saturday, Aug. 8:
Flyers vs. Lightning,  8 p.m. ET – NBC
Sunday, Aug. 9:
Bruins vs. Capitals, 12 p.m. ET – NBCSN

(5) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (12) Montreal Canadiens (MTL won series 3-1)

Saturday, Aug. 1: Canadiens 3, Penguins 2 (recap)
Monday, Aug. 3: Penguins 3, Canadiens 1 (recap)
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Canadiens 4, Penguins 3 (recap)
Friday, Aug. 7: Canadiens 2, Penguins 0 (recap)

(6) Carolina Hurricanes vs. (11) New York Rangers (CAR won series 3-0)

Saturday, Aug. 1: Hurricanes 3, Rangers 2 (recap)
Monday, Aug. 3: Hurricanes 4, Rangers 1 (recap)
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Hurricanes 4, Rangers 1 (recap)

(7) New York Islanders vs. (10) Florida Panthers (NYI won series 3-1)

Saturday, Aug. 1: Islanders 2, Panthers 1 (recap)
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Islanders 4, Panthers 2 (recap)
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Panthers 3, Islanders 2 (recap)
Friday, Aug. 7: Islanders 5, Panthers 1 (recap)

(8) Toronto Maple Leafs vs. (9) Columbus Blue Jackets (Series tied 2-2)

Sunday, Aug. 2: Blue Jackets 2, Maple Leafs 0 (recap)
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Maple Leafs 3, Blue Jackets 0 (recap)
Thursday, Aug. 6: Blue Jackets 4, Maple Leafs 3 (OT) (recap)
Friday, Aug. 7: Maple Leafs 4, Blue Jackets 3 (OT) (recap)
Sunday, Aug. 9: Blue Jackets vs. Maple Leafs, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

WESTERN CONFERENCE (Rogers Place)

Round-robin [Standings, scenarios]

Sunday, Aug. 2: Avalanche 2, Blues 1 (recap)
Monday, Aug. 3: Golden Knights 4, Stars 3 (recap)
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Avalanche 4, Stars 0
Thursday, Aug. 6: Golden Knights 6, Blues 4 (recap)
Saturday, Aug. 8: Golden Knights 4, Avalanche 3 (OT) (recap)
Sunday, Aug. 9: Stars vs. Blues, 3 p.m. ET – NBC

(5) Edmonton Oilers vs. (12) Chicago Blackhawks (CHI won series 3-1)

Saturday, Aug. 1: Blackhawks 6, Oilers 4 (recap)
Monday, Aug. 3: Oilers 6, Blackhawks 3 (recap)
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Blackhawks 4, Oilers 3 (recap)
Friday, Aug. 7: Blackhawks 3, Oilers 2 (recap)

(6) Nashville Predators vs. (11) Arizona Coyotes (ARZ won series 3-1)

Sunday, Aug. 2: Coyotes 4, Predators 3 (recap)
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Predators 4, Coyotes 2 (recap)
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Coyotes 4, Predators 1 (recap)
Friday, Aug. 7: Coyotes 4, Predators 3 (OT) (recap)

(7) Vancouver Canucks vs. (10) Minnesota Wild (VAN won series 3-1)

Sunday, Aug. 2: Wild 3, Canucks 0 (recap)
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Canucks 4, Wild 3 (recap)
Thursday, Aug. 6: Canucks 3, Wild 0 (recap)
Friday, Aug. 7: Canucks 5, Wild 4 (OT) (recap)

(8) Calgary Flames vs. (9) Winnipeg Jets (CGY won series 3-1)

Saturday, Aug. 1: Flames 4, Jets 1 (recap)
Monday, Aug. 3: Jets 3, Flames 2 (recap)
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Flames 6, Jets 2 (recap)
Thursday, Aug. 6: Flames 4, Jets 0 (recap)

————

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.

Flyers-Lightning stream: NHL Return to Play round-robin game

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NBC’s coverage of the NHL’s Return to Play continues with Saturday’s round-robin matchup between the Flyers and Lightning. Coverage begins at 8 p.m. ET on NBC. Watch the Flyers-Lightning stream on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

A year after becoming the first Presidents’ Trophy winner to be swept in the opening round of the playoffs, Tampa has an opportunity to earn the top seed in the East. The winner of this game will become the #1 seed in the East; the loser will be the second seed.

Teams will be re-seeded after each round of the playoffs, so the #1 seed will play whichever remaining team had the lowest points percentage from the regular season: either Montreal or the winner of the Maple Leafs-Blue Jackets series. The #2 seed will play either the Maple Leafs/Blue Jackets or Islanders.

The Lightning finished second in the Eastern Conference, their third straight season finishing in the top-two in the East. Philadelphia earned the fourth seed after winning nine of their final 10 regular season games before the pause.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

WHAT: Philadelphia Flyers vs. Tampa Bay Lightning
WHERE: Scotiabank Arena – Toronto
WHEN: Saturday, August 8, 8 p.m. ET
TV: NBC
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Flyers-Lightning stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

Current standings (tiebreaker is regular-season points percentage)

Tampa Bay Lightning (2-0-0, 4 points)
Philadelphia Flyers (2-0-0, 4 points)
Washington Capitals (0-1-1, 1 point)
Boston Bruins (0-2-0, 0 points)

Sunday, Aug. 2: Flyers 4, Bruins 1 (recap)
Monday, Aug. 3
:
Lightning 3, Capitals 2 (SO) (recap)
Wednesday, Aug. 5:
Lightning 3, Bruins 2 (recap)
Thursday, Aug. 6:
Flyers 3, Capitals 1 (recap)
Saturday, Aug. 8:
Flyers vs. Lightning, 8 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
Sunday, Aug. 9:
Bruins vs. Capitals, 12 p.m. ET – NBCSN

• Winner of TB/PHI will be #1 seed; the loser will be #2
• Winner of BOS/WSH will be #3 seed; the loser will be #4

• Carolina will face either Boston or Washington in First Round.

MORE:
2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule

Golden Knights earn West’s top seed; Avalanche settle for second spot

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Despite a bumpy regular season that included a coaching change, the Golden Knights enter the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs with the top seed in the Western Conference after beating the Avalanche 4-3 in overtime. Alex Tuch scored the game-winner for the Golden Knights.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Golden Knights win West top seed; Round-robin, NHL playoff matchup updates

With that, the Golden Knights take on the Blackhawks, while the Avalanche face the Coyotes in the First Round.

If you want more top-seed action, you’re in luck on Saturday. We’ll also see which team will claim the top spot in the East, as the Flyers joust with the Lightning. (You can watch on NBC at 8 p.m. ET; stream it live here).

While the Avalanche and Golden Knights determined the top two seeds in the West, Sunday’s round-robin game will determine spots three and four. The same will happen for the East’s third and fourth seeds, while Sunday also presents Game 5 of the exhilarating Blue Jackets – Maple Leafs series.

The eight-seed Flames take on the winner of Blues – Stars, while the seventh-seed Canucks face the loser of Blues – Stars.

Here’s that Alex Tuch OT-GWG:

Updated NHL Round-robin standings (ties broken by regular-season points percentage)

EAST
Lightning (2-0-0, 4 points)
Flyers (2-0-0, 4 points)
Capitals (0-1-1, 1 point)
Bruins (0-2-0, 0 points)

WEST
Top Seed: Golden Knights (3-0-0, 6 points)
Second Seed: Avalanche (2-0-1, 5 points)
Blues (0-2-0, 0 points)
Stars (0-2-0, 0 points)

SUNDAY‘S NHL PLAYOFF SCHEDULE

Round-robin: Bruins vs. Capitals, 12 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Round-robin: Stars vs. Blues, 3 p.m. ET – NBC
Game 5: Blue Jackets vs. Maple Leafs, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN

Some Golden Knights – Avs notes

  • Ryan Reaves helped set a nasty tone — at least by round-robin standards. It wasn’t “playoff-level,” but the Avs and Golden Knights brought a greater energy to this one. Not shocking with home-ice advantage on the line, but noteworthy.
  • Nathan MacKinnon displayed passion — maybe too much. He received an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, which preceded a Vegas power play goal. Naturally, MacKinnon redeemed himself by … being Nathan MacKinnon.
  • Interestingly, Robin Lehner started for the Golden Knights, not Marc-Andre Fleury. Lehner played in two of the three round-robin games. This doesn’t guarantee that Peter DeBoer leans toward Lehner being the starter for Game 1, yet it gives that impression.
  • Alex Tuch scored the overtime game-winner after a nice defensive play by Mark Stone. Tuch had a nice round-robin run, and could be crucial to Vegas, especially if Max Pacioretty continues to be “unfit to play.”

MORE:
• 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule

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.