Penguins defense finally played fast in Game 5

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Ron Hainsey avoiding a big hit and carrying the puck from end to end isn’t what the Pittsburgh Penguins ask of him or any other defenseman not named Kris Letang.

Out long term after neck surgery, Letang isn’t a part of this run, but a key adjustment by Hainsey and the other defensemen in the Stanley Cup Final against the Nashville Predators is a major reason why Pittsburgh is one victory away from a second consecutive championship.

For the first four games of the series — even the two they won — the Penguins struggled to hold onto the puck and drive play, something that changed in a 6-0 blowout in Game 5.

Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel played a role in finishing, but it all started from the back end with a style of play that emulates Letang.

“One thing we got going early on was we kind of broke the puck out as a group together,” Hainsey said. “We had good communication in our zone working the puck out quick and with speed.

“If we can get our forwards the puck early in shifts when they got a lot of energy and before they have to stop and play defense, they’re some of the best forwards in the world. They can make some stuff happen out there.”

When the Penguins talk about “playing fast,” this is what they mean. It’s not about blazing speed, though they have some of that, but about moving the puck quickly and forcing even the stingiest of defensive opponents to get back on their heels.

Read more: The Penguins played great defense their own way

The Penguins’ unheralded defense of Trevor Daley, Justin Schultz, Olli Maatta, Brian Dumoulin, Ian Cole and Hainsey lacks the No. 1 anchor present on every Cup winner over the past decade.

Coach Mike Sullivan pointed to Pittsburgh’s transition game and up-ice speed as an area that could improve in the series.

Tweaks made by Sullivan and assistant coach Jacques Martin got the best out of that blue line Thursday with two goals and three assists.

“I thought (Game 5) might have been their best night as a group of six,” Sullivan said on a conference call Friday. “They doing all the little things, I think, that don’t necessarily show up on the score sheet, or you can’t necessarily quantify in a statistic, but those little things add up to helping a team win games.”

Breaking the puck out of the defensive zone is what Sullivan wants from his defensemen, along with blocking shots and defending. Crosby, Malkin, Kessel and those other skilled forwards can’t do anything without the puck.

So the goal was simple: Get it to them quickly.

“We just played simple, moved the puck up quick and our forwards did a good job of using their speed and playing down low, hanging on to pucks,” Schultz said. We were “just trying to move it up to our forwards and play the way we’ve been playing all year.”

It’s not the way the Penguins were playing in the first four games of the series as Nashville negated their speed and controlled the neutral zone. That’s a big reason why the Predators had 123 shots to the Penguins’ 91.

It was all even in Game 5, which didn’t go unnoticed to Peter Laviolette as far as differences in play.

“Speed would be one of it,” Laviolette said. “They were quicker. We’ll look to make those adjustments (in practice). But we’ve got to play a better game.”

The Penguins played almost the perfect tactical game to take a 3-2 lead in the series, which is why Hainsey said they’d be in good shape if they could replicate that performance in Game 6 Sunday in Nashville. That’ll take another team effort from the defense.

“We know we’re no Kris Letangs back here,” Schultz said. “We’re just trying to each step up a little bit and it’s been working so far. We’ve got to get one more win.”

Related: Preds looking forward to next chapter of Stanley Cup Finalv

Stamkos makes brief return as Lightning dominate Stars in Game 3 win

Lightning Game 3
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Steven Stamkos made a very brief appearance for the Tampa Bay Lightning Wednesday night in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final.

He returned to the lineup for the first time in seven months, scored a goal on his only shot, and then spent the rest of the game sitting on the bench, presumably because he was still not 100%.

But that one goal? It helped get the Lightning rolling early in what became a 5-2 rout, giving them a 2-1 series lead over the Dallas Stars.

Game 4 is Friday night at 8 p.m. ET on NBC.

The night began with Stamkos being the big story, and in a way he still kind of is in the aftermath. Not only for his early goal, but also for the fact he managed to play just a handful of shifts before leaving again. It certainly creates more questions as to whether or not he will be able to go in Game 4 or later in the series.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

But while Stamkos was not able to continue, Tampa’s other star players continued to dominate.

Each player on the top line (Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, Ondrej Palat) finished with a goal and an assist, while Victor Hedman continued his stellar postseason by scoring his 10th goal. That is of the highest marks ever for a defenseman in the playoffs. Paul Coffey (12) and Brian Leetch (11) are the only defenders to ever score more goals in a single postseason.

Hedman also made a fantastic defensive play early in the first period — when the game was still tied 0-0 — by chasing Stars’ speedster Denis Gurianov down from behind and disrupting his shot attempt on a breakaway.

Tampa really started to take the game over during a completely lopsided second period that saw them score three goals and own a commanding 21-4 shots on goal edge. The Lightning had 27 total shot attempts while allowing just 9 to the Stars.

That offensive outburst also resulted in the Stars pulling starting goalie Anton Khudobin at the start of the third period. It was one of his worst games of the postseason as he stopped just 24 out of 29 shots.

There is still a long way to go in this series but this is starting to trend in a tough direction for the Stars with back-to-back losses. It is not just the fact that they lost those games that is concerning, but the way Tampa Bay has been able to jump out to huge leads (3-0 in Game 2, 5-1 in Game 3) and just look like a vastly superior team for extended periods of time.

The Lightning are the arguably the most talented team in the league on paper and when they get rolling like they have at times over the past two games it is going to take near perfection — with great goaltending — to slow them down. The Stars fell short in both areas on Wednesday. They have to figure out how to get back closer to that level before Game 4 on Friday night.

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

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

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 Final

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The Stanley Cup Playoffs continue on Saturday, Sept. 19 in the hub city of Edmonton. Now that we are through the conference finals, the full 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Final schedule has been announced.  

The top four teams during the regular season in both conferences played a three-game round robin for seeding in the First Round. The eight winners of the best-of-5 Qualifying Round advanced to the First Round.  

Rogers Place in Edmonton will host 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Final.  

Here is the 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Final schedule.

2020 STANLEY CUP FINAL (Rogers Place – Edmonton)

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

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

CONFERENCE FINAL RESULTS

EASTERN CONFERENCE FINAL
Lightning beat Islanders (4-2)

WESTERN CONFERENCE FINAL
Stars beat Golden Knights (4-1)

***

SECOND ROUND RESULTS

EASTERN CONFERENCE
Lightning beat Bruins (4-1)
Islanders beat Flyers (4-3)

WESTERN CONFERENCE
Golden Knights beat Canucks (4-3)
Stars beat Avalanche (4-3)

***

NHL QUALIFYING ROUND / ROUND-ROBIN RESULTS

EASTERN CONFERENCE
Philadelphia Flyers (3-0-0, 6 points)
Tampa Bay Lightning (2-1-0, 4 points)
Washington Capitals (1-1-1, 3 points)
Boston Bruins (0-3-0, 0 points)

Canadiens beat Penguins (3-1)
Hurricanes beat Rangers (3-0)
Islanders beat Panthers (3-1)
Blue Jackets beat Maple Leafs (3-2)

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

Blackhawks beat Oilers (3-1)
Coyotes beat Predators (3-1)
Canucks beat Wild (3-1)
Flames beat Jets (3-1)

***

FIRST ROUND RESULTS

EASTERN CONFERENCE
Flyers beat Canadiens (4-2)
Lightning beat Blue Jackets (4-1)
Islanders beat Capitals (4-1)
Bruins beat Hurricanes (4-1)

WESTERN CONFERENCE
Golden Knights beat Blackhawks (4-1)
Avalanche beat Coyotes (4-1)
Stars beat Flames (4-2)
Canucks beat Blues (4-2)

Steven Stamkos scores in return to Lightning lineup

Stamkos Game 3
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For the first time in nearly seven months Steven Stamkos was back in the lineup for the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday night for Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final.

He wasted no time in making an impact.

Just 6:58 into the first period, and on his third shift of the night, Stamkos scored to give the Lightning a 2-0 lead over the Dallas Stars. It is the first Stanley Cup Final goal of his career and it came on his very first shot this postseason.

Here is a look at the play.

Stamkos had been sidelined since the end of February due to a lower-body injury and surgery to repair a core muscle injury.

He has been with the team throughout the entire 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs but has not yet been able to return to the lineup. That changed on Wednesday when he started the game on the fourth line with Cedric Paquette and Patrick Maroon. He replaced Carter Verhaeghe on that line.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

But while he was able to score early in the game, Stamkos did not take a single shift during the final seven minutes of the first period and was not on the team’s bench for the start of the second period. He eventually returned to the bench but was not taking a regular shift with his line.

Stamkos was having another monster season for the Lightning — recording 66 points (29 goals, 37 assists) in 57 regular season games — before his injury knocked him out of the lineup. Injuries have been an issue for Stamkos throughout his career and this was just the latest one to knock him out of the lineup for a significant period of time through the playoffs. His return on Wednesday is reminiscent of when he missed all but one game of 2015-16 Stanley Cup Playoffs, returning for the Lightning’s Game 7 loss in the Eastern Conference Final.

He had a 15-game point streak going at the time of his injury this season and with his goal on Wednesday has now recorded at least one point in each of his past 16 games played.

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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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs continues with Wednesday’s Stanley Cup Final matchup between the Lightning and Stars. Pre-game coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. Watch the Lightning-Stars stream on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Tampa scored three goals in the first 15:16 minutes of the game, including two on the power play, and held off a late push by Dallas to win 3-2 and even the Stanley Cup Final at one game apiece. Brayden Point opened the scoring by netting his 10th of the postseason and Ondrej Palat and Kevin Shattenkirk each scored to give the Lightning a three-goal lead they would not relinquish.

Since the beginning of their First Round series against Columbus, the Lightning are a perfect 5-0 following a loss this postseason. Tampa last lost consecutive games on March 8th and 10th – its final two games before the pause. Andrei Vasilevskiy has not lost consecutive starts since dropping three straight from Feb. 20-25.

After going 0/14 on the power play in their previous four games, the Lightning scored twice on the man-advantage in Game 2, with both tallies coming in the first period. Point and Palat scored power-play goals 2:59 apart in the first period in the win. Dallas took three penalties in the first 14 minutes of play and the Lightning were able to take control by scoring twice.

Tyler Seguin, who is making his third appearance in the Stanley Cup Final, has struggled mightily in the 2020 playoffs. The 28- year-old has gone 11 consecutive games without a goal and has just one assist over that span. His last goal came in Game 3 of the Second Round vs. Colorado.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

WHAT: Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars
WHERE: Rogers Place – Edmonton
WHEN: Wednesday, September 23, 8 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
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