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Penguins look like a bad hockey team right now

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PITTSBURGH — Now that they are officially into the second half of the season we have seen enough from the Pittsburgh Penguins to confidently say, at this point, they might actually be a bad hockey team.

A bad hockey team that only seems to be getting worse. At least as they are currently constructed.

On Thursday night they were completely and thoroughly dominated by a Carolina Hurricanes team they are currently chasing in the standings. The game not only had no business being as close as the 4-0 score might indicate (and it really doesn’t even indicate that of close game a game), it was also their second loss to the Hurricanes in less than a week.

They scored a total of one goal in those two games, surrendered six, and were outshot by a 66-49 margin.

Against a team that they are, again, in direct competition with for a playoff spot.

Given the context of where they are in the standings and what the game meant, Thursday’s performance was, simply put, ugly.

Really, really, really ugly.

It was also not a fluke. They have had too games this season where they have completely laid an egg on the ice for it to be considered one.

It was such a lackluster effort that Hurricanes goalie Cam Ward, after stopping all 21 shots he faced to record his first shutout of the season, called it a “relatively comfortable night” for himself.

Most goalies do not talk about having comfortable nights against the Penguins.

Here is where this puts the Penguins as they head into Friday’s game against the New York Islanders (another team they are chasing in the standings and another big game they can not afford to lose).

  • The Penguins find themselves three points behind Carolina for the second Wild Card spot while the Hurricanes still have two games in hand.
  • The Penguins have not won back-to-back games since Dec. 1 and 2. Since the start of December they have played 16 games. They have won only seven of them, with only three coming in regulation.
  • The Penguins have the worst points percentage of any team in the Metropolitan Division, and as I noted on Tuesday heading into their game against the Philadelphia Flyers, they are going to need to play at an extraordinarily high level the rest of the way to secure a playoff spot. After Thursday’s loss they will need 52 points in their final 40 games to reach 95 points, usually the low point for what it takes to get a playoff spot. That is a .650 points percentage. Their current points percentage on the season: .511.

“I don’t think it’s any one thing, I think it’s a combination of things,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said after Thursday’s game when asked about his team’s current struggle to piece together consecutive wins.

“It could be something different every night. It starts with a compete level, a mindset, and a willingness to win puck battles, things of that nature.”

Captain Sidney Crosby echoed a similar sentiment.

“We just haven’t put games together We’ve had one good game, then it’s exactly the way our record shows. If we knew the reason I think we would find a way to put them together. I think the main thing is our compete level and finding that nightly we haven’t been able to do it.”

Earlier this season there was a lot of talk about how tough the early schedule was given the number of back-to-backs they had and the number of games they had to play the past two seasons. Including playoffs the Penguins played 213 games during the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons, more than any team in the history of the league has played over a two-year stretch. It is a lot, and there is a reason so few teams are able to repeat as Stanley Cup champions and why winning more than two in a row is almost impossible: It takes a lot, and it can be a mental and physical grind.

But the Penguins are not the first team that has played a lot of hockey over a two-year stretch by going on Stanley Cup Final runs. Since the start of the 1990 season the Penguins are the seventh team to have played in consecutive Stanley Cup Finals.

The 1991 and 1992 Penguins played 209 games over their two-year stretch. The 1997 and 1998 Red Wings played 206. The Dallas Stars played 210 over the 1999 and 2000 seasons. The New Jersey Devils played 212 between 2000 and 2001. The Penguins and Red Wings played 208 and 209 respectively during their back-to-back runs in 2008 and 2009.

Every single one of those teams not only came back the third year to make the playoffs, all but one (the Devils) won at least one round in the playoffs. They averaged more than 45 wins in the third season.

As mentioned above, the Penguins are going to need to pretty much match their 2016-17 regular season performance the rest of the way just to get in.

The problem isn’t necessarily the schedule or fatigue. It isn’t necessarily a mindset or a compete level. Those factors might be a part of it, but it’s not all of it.

A big part of it is still simply a lack of talent in a lot of key areas, and it all stems from an offseason of inactivity that saw the depth that made them so lethal the past two seasons get ripped apart while they did nothing to counter it. As currently constructed the Penguins are right back to where they were toward the end of the Ray Shero-Dan Bylsma era — a top-heavy team of superstars that doesn’t have enough complementary pieces to really be a true force.

If you wanted to argue that Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are not playing as well as they did the past two years, you would not be wrong. It’s not an unfair observation, at least when it comes to their point production. Both players are down and when so much of your team is built around two players that is going to hurt. But they are still performing at a top-line level. Their numbers might be sub-par for them, but they are still more than most teams will get out of their top players.

The Penguins didn’t win the past two Stanley Cups because Crosby or Malkin did anything more than they used to do — they won because the team had four lines that could all score on any given night. On the nights where their top players were shut down (and that will happen quite a bit over an 82-game season plus playoffs) they still had other players that could score. Depth matters.

A year ago when the Penguins did not get a goal from Crosby or Malkin in a game (whether because one or both was out of the lineup, or because they simply did not score) the Penguins still had a .466 points percentage and averaged 2.5 goals per game. Certainly not dominant, but still somewhat passable considering how important those two players are.

So far this season when neither Crosby or Malkin score the Penguins have a .333 points percentage and are averaging only 1.9 goals per game.

Say it with me again: Depth matters.

Given what the Penguins lost and what they did to replace it this should not be a surprise, but it’s back to the 2011-2015 days of hoping that one or both of them can carry the offense all on their own.

Over the summer the Penguins lost Nick Bonino, Matt Cullen and Chris Kunitz off of that forward group. That trio of players scored 40 goals for them a year ago.

The three players that are currently replacing them on the roster (Riley Sheahan, Carter Rowney and Ryan Reaves) are on pace to score 12.

That is going to make a significant dent. I’ve written about the Penguins’ lack of depth before this season and it’s not about whether or not the Penguins should have tried to keep the players they lost, because financially they simply could not do it. There was no way they could fit Bonino under the salary cap, while Cullen had family ties to Minnesota.

Sometimes things just don’t work out.

But they had to do something more than what they did.

They had to have a better backup plan than just assuming Carter Rowney or Greg McKegg could adequately come close to replacing what Bonino and Cullen did for them.

They had to do something more than trade for Ryan Reaves, a complete 180 turn from the type of player that used to make up their fourth-line, and essentially turn themselves into a three-line team because they don’t even trust the fourth line to play any sort of meaningful minutes. They didn’t have to use what available cap space they had on Matt Hunwick, Reaves and Sheahan.

For as many times as general manager Jim Rutherford pushed the right buttons in 2015 and 2016, he pushed all of the wrong ones this summer.

Now, having said all of that, the question the Penguins have to answer is whether or not they try to salvage this season and make a couple of more trades, or if they just ride it out, see where the current roster takes them, and regroup with a better offseason?

For as bleak as things look right now this season as long as they still have Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and Kris Letang on the roster they owe it to themselves to try and win. You only get players like that for so long, and you almost never get a chance to make history by winning multiple Stanley Cups in a short period of time. You never want to punt on any season with that core, especially when we saw how a few changes mid-season sparked them just two years ago.

Sometimes that spark comes with a price when it comes to giving up young talent or a part of your future, and that can be risky. On the other hand, banners hang forever.

If there is any glimmer of hope the Penguins can cling to at this point in the season it’s that Crosby, Malkin and Letang can — and probably still should — be a little better than they have been. That will help. We also haven’t even gotten into the struggles of Matt Murray this season because he too can (and needs to) be better.

But even if all of that happens they are still going to need to address the obvious deficiencies they have with their scoring depth and perhaps even a little on the blue line. Unless they do that it’s hard to envision them making any sort of noise in the playoffs again.

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.

Avalanche overcome Kuemper, beat Coyotes in Game 1

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For much of Game 1, it looked like Darcy Kuemper would steal a win for the Coyotes, but the Avalanche eventually broke through. The Avs exploded in the third period to win 3-0 against the Coyotes, giving Colorado a 1-0 series lead.

Avalanche dominated — but the Game 1 score is misleading in some ways for Coyotes

If you look at the final score, you’d get a mixed reading on Game 1 between the Avalanche and Coyotes.

On one hand, the Avalanche dominated possession throughout Game 1. The Avs managed a lopsided 28-7 shots on goal advantage through the first two periods of Game 1, but Kuemper allowed nothing, keeping the Coyotes tied 0-0.

That 0-0 tie lasted quite a while through the third period, too.

As it seemed increasingly likely that another Game 1 would enter overtime, Nazem Kadri came up big for the Avalanche once again. Kadri connected on the power play with 6:55 remaining in the third. Then, just 10 seconds later, J.T. Compher increased that lead to 2-0.

Gabriel Landeskog took a hit to make a play, then Nathan MacKinnon sent a nice pass to Mikko Rantanen, who adjusted nicely for the 3-0 goal.

If you merely decided to walk your dog or make a restroom break at the wrong time, you might have missed Avalanche – Coyotes Game 1 breaking wide open. Colorado scored three goals against Kuemper in less than 90 seconds. It was a reminder that, as well as Kuemper played, the Avalanche can threaten with quick-strike offense as much as any team in the NHL.

Rick Tocchet must consider some tweaks. After all, you’re not going to win many games while being outshot 39-14 overall (you also won’t enjoy many easier playoff shutouts than Philipp Grubauer did in Game 1).

Yes, you want to contain that deadly Avalanche offense. And, yes, Kuemper’s been outstanding. But you also have to do something to try to score some goals, right? Then again, trying to win with defense, Kuemper, and some counter-punching might just have to be the way for the Coyotes. (Frankly, it’s generally how they beat the Predators, as they relied upon Kuemper a ton during the 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers.)

No. 2 Colorado Avalanche vs. No. 7 Arizona Coyotes (Avs lead series 1-0)

Wednesday, Aug. 12: Colorado 3, Arizona 0
Friday, Aug. 14: Arizona at Colorado, 2 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Saturday, Aug. 15: Colorado at Arizona, 3 p.m. ET – CNBC
Monday, Aug. 17: Colorado at Arizona, 5:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
*Wednesday, Aug. 19: Arizona at Colorado – TBD
*Friday, Aug. 21: Colorado at Arizona – TBD
*Sunday, Aug. 23: Arizona at Colorado – TBD

*if necessary

MORE:
• Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round 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.

Canadiens-Flyers stream: 2020 NHL Stanley Cup First Round

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs continues with Wednesday’s First Round matchup between the Canadiens and Flyers. Coverage begins at 8 p.m. ET on NBCSN. Watch the Canadiens-Flyers stream at 8 p.m. ET on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Flyers were the hottest team in hockey at the time of the pause and they carried that momentum with them in the Round Robin. Philly won all three games in regulation, including Saturday’s game against Tampa, to earn the top seed in the East. Montreal was the last club to make the 24-team expanded playoff field. The Habs had a regular season points percentage of .500 and were awarded the 12th seed in the East. Led by Carey Price, Montreal took down the Penguins in four games to clinch a spot in the First Round against Philly.

Price has been one of the best netminders since making his debut in 2007 and played one of his best playoff series of his career in the Qualifying Round. His 1.67 GAA and .947 SV% against Pittsburgh were both career bests for a single-series in his playoff career, and his Game 4 shutout was the sixth postseason shutout of his career.

After setting an NHL record for most goalies to start a game in a single season last year with eight, Philly has finally found their franchise goalie. Carter Hart will be making his third career playoff start (2- 0) in Game 1 of this series and it will be coming against his childhood idol – Price.

WHAT: Montreal Canadiens vs. Philadelphia Flyers
WHERE: Scotiabank Arena – Toronto
WHEN: Wednesday, August 12, 8 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
ON THE CALL: John Forslund, Mike Milbury, Brian Boucher
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Canadiens-Flyers stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

No. 1 Philadelphia Flyers vs. No. 8 Montreal Canadiens

Wednesday, Aug. 12: Montreal at Philadelphia, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN (livestream)
Friday, Aug. 14: Montreal at Philadelphia, 3 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Sunday, Aug. 16: Philadelphia at Montreal, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
Tuesday, Aug. 18: Philadelphia at Montreal, 3 p.m. ET – NBCSN
*Wednesday, Aug. 19: Montreal at Philadelphia – TBD
*Friday, Aug. 21: Philadelphia at Montreal – TBD
*Sunday, Aug. 23: Montreal at Philadelphia – TBD

*if necessary

MORE:
• Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round schedule

Islanders score four straight to take Game 1 over Capitals

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A three-goal third period helped the Islanders take Game 1 of their First Round series over the Capitals, 4-2.

Washington had earned a 2-0 lead thanks to a pair of power play goals from T.J. Oshie, but New York’s possession dominance eventually brought the goals.

The comeback began when Jordan Eberle cut the lead to 2-1 late in the second period. The opening 12 minutes of the third continued to be all Islanders. Anders Lee, Josh Bailey, and Anthony Beauvillier all scored, putting the Capitals on their heels.

Bailey’s first of the postseason was an especially tough one for Washington as it came shorthanded following a miscommunication between Braden Holtby and Alex Ovechkin. The Capitals goaltender caught a Brock Nelson dump in but his pass attempt to Ovechkin didn’t go as planned, allowing Nelson to steal it and find Bailey in front to give New York a 3-2 lead.

 

Beauvillier continued his hot run with his fourth goal of the postseason five minutes later to double the lead. Washington continued to chase the game, and their efforts came to an end when Tom Wilson took a holding call with their net empty and under a minute to play.

“In the third period we can’t start like that,” Ovechkin said. “We get the lead, we just have to play our game. We stop playing and you can see result.”

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The Capitals may have won Game 1, but they did suffer a loss as well. Nicklas Backstrom took a hit from Lee just two minutes into the game. He played 7:21 in the first period, but did not return to the game. That hit led to Lee dropping the gloves with both John Carlson and Wilson on separate occasions.

Islanders head coach Barry Trotz defended his player.

“Anders is making a hockey play,” he said. “I don’t know if Nick [Backstrom] was ready or not. Anders is a strong guy. The hit was made and they responded. He and Wilson fought and that was probably the end of it. We’ll see.”

The Capitals were obviously not happy with Lee’s hit and the outcome.

“It was a late hit on a player who wasn’t expecting it. It was predatory,” said head coach Todd Reirden, who did not have an update on Backstrom.

“It looked extremely late,” said Oshie. “In the frame I saw there wasn’t even a puck and it still looked late.”

“It looked real dirty to me,” said Carlson.

Game 2 is Friday at 8 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

No. 3 Washington Capitals vs. No. 6 New York Islanders (NYI lead 1-0)

Wednesday, Aug. 12: Islanders 4, Capitals 2
Friday, Aug. 14: NY Islanders at Washington, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Sunday, Aug. 16: Washington at NY Islanders, 12 p.m. ET – USA Network
Tuesday, Aug. 18: Washington at NY Islanders, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN
*Thursday, Aug. 20: NY Islanders at Washington – TBD
*Saturday, Aug. 22: Washington at NY Islanders – TBD
*Sunday, Aug. 23: NY Islanders at Washington – TBD

*if necessary

MORE:
• Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round 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.

NHL fines Rod Brind’Amour for ‘crime scene’ officiating critique after Hurricanes – Bruins Game 1

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The NHL fined Hurricanes head coach Rod Brind’Amour $25K after Brind’Amour blasted officiating from the Bruins’ 3-2 double OT win in Game 1 on Wednesday. Echoing what they did with John Tortorella before, the NHL also hung a conditional additional $25K fine over Brind’Amour that “will be collected, in addition to any subsequent discipline, in the event of similar inappropriate behavior through Aug. 12, 2021.”

Odd? Draconian? Yeah, but the NHL — and other sports leagues, to be honest — tend to go to great lengths to defend officials. Tortorella kept his mouth shut, even after his Blue Jackets maybe should’ve gotten a power play or penalty shot during the fifth OT of their epic loss to the Lightning in that Game 1. We’ll see if the $25K (and a threat of another $25K) might inspire “Rod the Bod” to censor what comes out of his mouth.

If you missed the Bruins 3-2 double OT win against Brind’Amour’s Hurricanes in Game 1, you might want some added context. Let’s take a look.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

NHL fines Brind’Amour; The plays and comments in question from Game 1 Bruins – Hurricanes

As you can see starting at the 1:10 mark of the video above, a Charlie Coyle 2-1 goal counted despite what could have been either a hand pass or goalie interference call. The Bruins received a power play after a failed challenge — amid serious confusion from Brind’Amour and the Hurricanes — but Carolina responded with a shorthanded goal.

After the game, Brind’Amour vented about the call, and the entire process.

“This is why the league’s a joke, in my opinion, on these things,” Brind’Amour told The News & Observer’s Luke DeCock, among other media members. “That one is a crime scene.”

The Athletic’s Sara Civian transcribed some passionate quotes from Brind’Amour as well. Some are flat-out NSFW:

Wow.

On one hand, you can see where the NHL is coming from. Officiating isn’t easy, and saying this shows an area where the league is a “joke” won’t do Brind’Amour any favors.

But, at the same time, the NHL demands that coaches and players make themselves available to the media. Sometimes when their blood is still boiling after losing a game. And more than a few people will agree that Brind’Amour has a point, not to mention Tortorella and others before Brind’Amour.

As difficult as it must have been for Tortorella to bite his tongue, it’s easy to see why. Sadly, it seems like you can only make these sort of comments behind the scenes.

Maybe some public pressure may eventually lead to a smoother and/or more transparent process? Who knows. Meanwhile, Brind’Amour must contemplate other questions.

” … I know we weren’t the better team, but if that goal doesn’t go in, do we win that game?” Brind’Amour said, via DeCock. “I don’t know.”

No. 4 Boston Bruins vs. No. 5 Carolina Hurricanes (BOS leads 1-0)

Wednesday, Aug. 12: Bruins 4, Hurricanes 3 (2OT)
Thursday, Aug. 13: Carolina at Boston, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Saturday, Aug. 15: Boston at Carolina, 12 p.m ET – NBC
Monday, Aug. 17: Boston at Carolina, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN
*Wednesday, Aug. 19: Carolina at Boston – TBD
*Thursday, Aug. 20: Boston at Carolina – TBD
*Sunday, Aug. 23: Carolina at Boston – TBD

*if necessary

MORE:
• Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round 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.