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Fleury on likely Pittsburgh exit: ‘Matt’s the guy here’

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PITTSBURGH (AP) Marc-Andre Fleury knew this day was coming, though the winningest goaltender in Pittsburgh Penguins history did his best to push the idea of his inevitable departure to the back of his mind. No need to become a distraction with a shot at history on the line.

It was only in the aftermath of Pittsburgh’s second straight Stanley Cup championship that he helped author by playing brilliantly at times during playoff series wins over Columbus and Washington that Fleury let the finality set in.

His eyes moistened as he spoke on Thursday while he and the rest of his teammates packed up for the summer following a giddy downtown parade a day earlier. When the Penguins return to work in September, they’ll try to become the first team in more than 30 years to “threepeat.” Fleury will almost certainly have to watch from afar, probably in Las Vegas as a member of the expansion Golden Knights, as heir apparent Matt Murray minds the net.

“Obviously Matt’s the guy here and he’ll be for many years,” Fleury said.

Just as Fleury was for well over a decade, helping the Penguins to three of their five Cups while collecting more wins (375), saves (17.744) and shutouts (44) than any other goaltender in the franchise’s five decades of existence. Fleury understands he makes too much money ($5.75 million) to be a backup. Besides, he wants to be on the ice every night. That’s not possible in Pittsburgh, where the 23-year-old Murray has the No. 1 job.

“I love to play,” Fleury said. “I love to be in there and compete, the challenge of it. I love everything about it.”

Fleury will just have to love it somewhere else and others are also likely to be here when the Penguins raise another banner to the rafters at PPG Paints Arena in October.

“It’s something I don’t even like having to talk about it,” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. “Playing with someone that long, going through what we did, it’s pretty special.”

So too is the chance at becoming a true dynasty. No team has raised the Cup three straight years since the New York Islanders did it four years running from 1980-83, long before the salary cap came around to make any sort of sustained excellence difficult and fleeting.

That doesn’t mean the Penguins aren’t embracing the challenge. Coach Mike Sullivan issued a challenge during the team’s raucous victory parade. Sullivan wasn’t getting caught up in the euphoria of the moment so much as sending a message to Crosby, Murray, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Phil Kessel that there’s no reason the party can’t continue.

“It was an opportunity to throw out a challenge to our core players right away,” Sullivan said with a grin. “That will be our goal, be our expectation.”

A quick look at what should be a short summer in Pittsburgh.

DECISION TIME

The list of Pittsburgh unrestricted free agents include forwards Nick Bonino, Chris Kunitz and Matt Cullen and defenseman Trevor Daley, Ron Hainsey and Mark Streit. The 40-year-old Cullen is considering retirement. Both Kunitz and Daley could be faced with a choice: make more money elsewhere or make another Cup run in Pittsburgh. General manager Jim Rutherford has encouraged all the pending free agents to check the market then get back to him to see if something can be worked out.

PAY THE MAN

Justin Schultz arrived in Pittsburgh 16 months ago as a reclamation project of sorts. Now the defenseman is primed for a significant raise after putting together the finest season of his career. He will become a restricted free agent and is confident the math will work out that will keep him in Pittsburgh next season.

OFFICE SHUFFLE: The raid on Pittsburgh’s brain trust that helped put together two Cup winners has already started. The Buffalo Sabres lured away Jason Botterill to be their general manager. The trickle-down effect led to the team naming assistant GM Bill Guerin will take over as general manager of the team’s AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

A SECOND ACT

A year ago, Jake Guentzel watched the Penguins win the Cup on TV after finishing his first few months as pro. Now he’ll have to find a way to top a remarkable rookie season that included 21 playoff points, tied for the most-ever in a single postseason by a rookie. The 22-year-old plans on getting stronger during the brief offseason, at least when he’s not taking the Cup back to his native Minnesota.

HARDLY DONE

Crosby will turn 30 in August but he’s hardly feeling “old.” If anything, the chance to make history next year has invigorated him.

“It’s been so long since teams were able to go back to back, to be able to (three-peat) in this era would be pretty tough to beat,” he said. “It’d be cool to shoot for that.”

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

Panthers’ Matheson suspended two games for slamming Pettersson to ice

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The NHL announced on Monday evening that Florida Panthers defenseman Mike Matheson has been suspended two games for “interference and unsportsmanlike conduct” against Vancouver Canucks rookie forward Elias Pettersson over the weekend.

Petterson has been entered in to the NHL’s concussion protocol and is expected to be sidelined for the next 7-10 days as a result of the play.

The incident took place early in the third period of Saturday’s game in Florida and left the Canucks completely furious. Just after Pettersson had dangled around Matheson in the offensive zone, Matheson again encountered the talented rookie along the boards and after checking him, proceeded to slam him to the ice with the puck nowhere near the two players.

Here is the video as well as the NHL’s explanation for the suspension.

Panthers coach Bob Boughner tried to defend his play on Monday by saying that Matheson is an honest player and that he was just attempting to finish his check hard, while Matheson’s agent said that his client was “surprised” by how light Pettersson is and that it all happened very quickly.

On Monday, Canucks coach Travis Green was still upset about the play and how it resulted in his team losing a bright young star to injury on a play that was not necessary.

“Am I mad at the play? Extremely mad. I’m really upset, I still am,” Green said. “We lost a bright young player to an injury that I don’t think was necessary. I’m pissed off right now, still talking about it.”

Matheson forfeits $52,419.36 in salary and is eligible to return to the Panthers’ lineup Saturday against Detroit.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV 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.

Crosby, MacKinnon surprise Kenyan hockey team (Video)

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Sidney Crosby and Nathan MacKinnon have teamed up before to promote Tim Hortons, the Canadian coffee and donut shop, but their latest venture saw them help spread the gospel of hockey.

Tim Hortons flew 12 members of Kenya’s senior men’s hockey team to Canada over the summer for a game. The African team, which was formed in 2012 and has set a goal for future Olympic participation, has only been able to play against themselves back home and this would be a new experience playing against an actual opponent.

As the players gathered inside their locker room, which featured brand new equipment and Kenya hockey jerseys, in came the Pittsburgh Penguins captain and Colorado Avalanche star to join their team.

“It is a dream to not only have the chance to play in Canada, but to play – for the first time – in full gear alongside two of the greatest players of the game,” said team captain Benard Azegere. “When we first started playing in Kenya, we didn’t even have full equipment, but now not only do we have that, we can say we’ve played a real game with some All-Star teammates.”

“That’s the best part about the game, just how it reaches so many people in a place like Kenya where you wouldn’t think there’s even ice,” Crosby said on Monday via the Tribune-Review. “To meet people from different places and to share the game that we love to play, I think I had as much fun as any of those guys today.”

The Kenyan Ice Hockey Federation is coming soon, and the men are not alone in their pursuit of a national team. As ESPN.com documented last week, a group of five women make up the Nairobi Ice Lions, who, like the men, see Olympic participation in their future.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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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.

Alex DeBrincat is Blackhawks’ next rising star

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Alex DeBrincat spent three seasons between 2014 and 2017 absolutely dominating the Ontario Hockey League. He was one of the most productive and prolific scorers in all of junior hockey during his time with the Erie Otters, and never finished a full season with less than 50 goals or 100 points.

That sort of production, combined with his obvious talent level, should have made him one of the first picks in the 2016 draft class.

It didn’t. Mainly because he was listed at 5-7 and under 170 pounds, making him one of the smallest players in the class and, today, one of the smallest players in the NHL. As he slid out of the first round in 2016 there was always the potential for somebody to get a steal of a player.

That somebody turned out to be the Chicago Blackhawks, who ended up snagging him with the 39th overall pick in the draft.

Today, that pick is looking like one of the steals of that draft.

DeBrincat has been one of the offensive stars for the Blackhawks in the early going this season and already has nine points (including six goals) in the team’s first five games. That comes after a rookie season that saw him finish as the Blackhawks’ leading goal scorer. So far, he is one of the most productive players to come out of his draft class as the only players to outscore him have been Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine, Mathew Tkachuk, and Clayton Keller, all of whom were among the first seven players taken in the draft.

Only Matthews, Laine, and Keller have been better on a points per game basis.

All of this is a huge development for the Blackhawks.

Given their current salary cap situation they are going to need young players on cheap contracts to fill in around their big-money stars at the top of the lineup. DeBrincat is well on his way to giving them such a player and should be part of the organization’s next wave of young talent. And that next wave seems to have some promising prospects. Along with DeBrincat the Blackhawks are also getting a ton of production out of rookie defenseman Henri Jokiharju, the team’s first-round pick in 2017, and they also have Adam Boqvist, the No. 7 overall pick from 2018, waiting in the wings.

The lesson that the rest of the teams in the league should take away from this is to never let a player’s size stand in the way of giving them a chance. Over the past decade teams have been far more willing to take “undersized” players than they used to be, but they are still a little too fearful of that lack of size because there was nothing in DeBrincat’s production or play as a junior player that should have resulted in him being anything other than a first-round pick … and probably a very high one. Obviously if all things are equal with players the bigger, more physical player is preferable. But in cases like DeBrincat (and Johnny Gaudreau, and Nikita Kucherov, and so on and so on before him) all things are not usually equal.

DeBrincat has always been a highly skilled player that produced at an obscene level. There was always the potential for him to be a top-line player. A lot of teams couldn’t get past the lack of size and allowed him to slip all the way down to the second round. The Blackhawks were the team to take the “chance” on him and are being rewarded with an emerging star that could be a potential difference-maker for them for a very, very long time.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV 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.

Golden Knights’ Stastny could miss up to two months

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It turns out the injury to Vegas Golden Knights forward Paul Stastny is a lot worse than previously expected.

Originally only thought to be out for a couple of games due to a lower-body injury, Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant announced on Monday that his second-line center could be out of the lineup for up to two months.

“Going to be longer than we thought, probably up to two months. Possibly,” he said.

That, obviously, will be a big blow to a Golden Knights offense that has struggled in the early part of the season.

Stastny joined Vegas over the summer on a three-year contract in free agency and was expected to center the second line alongside the team’s other big offseason acquisition, winger Max Pacioretty.

Now those plans are on hold for the next couple of months.

After reaching the Stanley Cup Final in their debut season the Golden Knights are off to a slow start this season having won just two of their first six games as of Monday. One of the biggest problems has been a lack of offense as the team has managed just 11 goals in six games. They have yet to score more than two goals in any one game this season.

While it is a cause for some concern, the Golden Knights are still controlling the shot attempt numbers in pretty much all of their games and being crushed by a dismal 5.2 team-wide shooting percentage. So there is some hope that things will turn around.

The process is there, even if the early results are not.

Still, they need to get more production from a line that isn’t their top one.

When the trio of William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault, and Reilly Smith is not on the ice this season they have been outscored by a 2-12 margin at even-strength. Whether Stastny is in or out of the lineup, that sort of production from the other three lines is not going to be good enough.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV 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.