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Sergei Gonchar continues to work magic with Penguins’ new defensemen

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PITTSBURGH — During his playing days Sergei Gonchar spent five years as a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins and helped play a critical role in the team reaching back-to-back Stanley Cup Finals in 2008 and 2009. His impact was noticeable every time he was in the lineup. He was a 25-minute per night defenseman, the quarterback of the power play, and even scored some huge goals, including a game-winner late in Game 3 of the 2009 Stanley Cup Final to help prevent the team from falling into a 3-0 series hole.

Over the past three years he has played a different sort of role — one that is not as easily noticeable — in helping the Penguins win back-to-back Stanley Cups.

Following the end of his playing career in 2014-15, Gonchar joined the Penguins organization as a “defenseman development coach” and eventually worked his way to full-time assistant on the team’s staff. During that time he has played an influential role in helping the Penguins piece together a Stanley Cup caliber defense with a collection of players that have, at times, been overlooked and even tossed aside by their previous teams.

• During the 2015-16 season they acquired Trevor Daley from the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for Rob Scuderi. At the time, Daley was playing a career-low 14 minutes per game in Chicago and never seemed to fit with head coach Joel Quenneville or the Blackhawks’ style of play after being acquired by the team in exchange for Patrick Sharp.

• A couple of months later the Penguins traded a third-round draft pick to the Edmonton Oilers for Justin Schultz, a defensman that had pretty much become ostracized in Western Canada because he didn’t live up to unreasonable hype and expectations on a bad team. At the time of his trade he was referred to by one pundit as “the worst player in hockey.” Along with Daley, Schultz helped reshape the Penguins’ blue line and then played an even bigger role the following season in the absence of Kris Letang. He had a career year, finished 10th in Norris Trophy voting, and was rewarded with a three-year extension over the summer.

• Earlier this season with the team in a funk and struggling defensively, Rutherford swung another minor deal in sending a fourth-round draft pick to the Dallas Stars for Jamie Oleksiak. Like Daley and Schultz before him, Oleksiak seemed to have fallen out of favor with his previous team, was getting limited ice-time, and didn’t exactly receive strong reviews from those that watched him regularly. Since arriving in Pittsburgh, Oleksiak has played some of the best hockey of his career and has proven to be another strong in-season pickup by the Penguins’ general manager.

He scored his fourth goal as a member of the Penguins on Sunday night in just his 35th game with the team, and it proved to be a big win, going in the books as the game-winner. It also happened to come against the team that traded him.

“It’s always nice to contribute,” said a smiling Oleksiak when asked if the goal had any special meaning. “Just happy for the win.”

Since arriving in Pittsburgh, Oleksiak has been the latest reclamation project for Gonchar and assistant coach Jacques Martin along the team’s blue line. The early returns have been promising.

Listed at 6-foot-7 and 255 pounds, Oleksiak has the sort of size that NHL scouts and executives can lose their minds over, especially for a defenseman. He also possesses a booming slap shot and is a surprisingly swift skater for being such a massive human being. All of the tools are in place to be a solid pro, and when all of that is taken into account it is no surprise he was a 14th overall pick in the draft.

Before he was a member of the Penguins’ coaching staff, Gonchar had a chance to get an up close look at Oleksiak from a different perspective — as a player. During Gonchar’s brief stint with the Stars he spent some time playing as one Oleksiak’s first defense partners in the NHL and it wouldn’t be a surprise if Gonchar, armed with first-hand knowledge of what sort of skill set Oleksiak had, was able to get into the ear of the front office and urge them to take a shot on the player.

A future fourth-round draft pick later, here we are.

Even though Oleksiak downplayed it after Sunday’s game (“I don’t really need to be a guy that scores a lot of goals”), the Penguins seem to have turned him loose a little bit offensively and given him a bit more freedom than he may have had in Dallas. He also seems to be a more confident player and, without any prompting, mentioned the work of Gonchar and Martin on Sunday night in how he has been able to fit in with the Penguins and why it maybe didn’t work in Dallas.

“I wouldn’t say it didn’t work,” said Oleksiak of his time with the Stars. “It’s just been a great fit for me here with the people really helping me out. It’s a great cast here with this defense core and guys like Jacques and Gonch willing to work with us. It’s been a really smooth transition.”

So what is it about Gonchar that has worked for him?

“I think it helps sometimes to have a guy that’s not on the bench,” said Oleksiak. “I think sometimes assistant coaches don’t want to push the wrong buttons or get too hard on guys during games, so it’s kind of nice to have a guy that’s not on the bench, but as an eye on the sky that’s kind of been there. He’s not afraid to tell you you have to be better here, or you have to be better there, so you’re not kind of overthinking things too much.”

Over the past two years other defensemen in the Penguins’ organization have talked extensively about Gonchar’s focus on “little things” like stick position, body position, and foot position along the blue line.

Last year, Schultz told NHL.com’s Dan Rosen about a lot of the video work they did together and the things Gonchar preached to him.

An excerpt (full interview here):

“We were watching guys like Nicklas Lidstrom and Erik Karlsson, some of the things they’ve done offensively. It was when I first got here last year. We watched things they did with the puck, how they played the game. We started focusing on things like that and it helped me out a lot. I would still see video of myself, but that was the first thing, he just wanted to show me with Lidstrom, his position all the time in the defensive zone and he never got beat. He wanted to show me that you don’t have to run over guys or anything, just be in good position, good stick position. Like I said, it’s the little details. We started focusing on that and it helped me. It was just trying to take care of the [defensive] zone, be comfortable in the [defensive] zone, be relied on there. If you take care of that part you’re going to get the puck back and you’ll be on offense.”

It’s not that the Penguins have taken these players and turned them into Erik Karlsson or Nicklas Lidstrom, or even players that might win a Norris Trophy. Not every defenseman has to be play at that level, and not every defenseman can. And the Penguins still are not always a lockdown defensive team. They can be at times, but their style of play and roster construction doesn’t always lend itself to that style of play. They can get into track meets at times and have some break downs.

But what is important is that they have taken players that have some skill, maybe did not fit with their previous teams for one reason or another, acquired them for next-to-nothing, and worked to get a little more out of them.

When you are a team that spends to the upper limits of the NHL’s salary cap and have a significant portion of that money going to a small core of players, there is a ton of pressure on the GM and front office to find ways to still build a competitive roster around the edges. No matter how good your top tier players are, you can not just rely on them to cover up everything else. Otherwise you become, well, Edmonton. You still need to find talent to fill out the rest of the roster, ideally with players that don’t cost a lot to acquire or cost a lot against the salary cap.

In other words: You have to find talent where other teams might be missing it or not utilizing it as best they can.

When it comes to constructing their defense in recent years, the Penguins have been able to find ways to do that, and Gonchar’s work behind the scenes has been a huge part of that.

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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.

Flames-Jets stream: 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers

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NBCSN’s coverage of the NHL’s Return to Play continues with Thursday’s Stanley Cup Qualifier matchup between the Flames and Jets. Coverage of Game 4 begins at 10:30 p.m. ET on CNBC. Watch the Flames-Jets stream at 10:30 p.m. ET on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Calgary scored three goals on the power play en route to a four-goal win. The Flames led 3-2 midway through the game before scoring the final three goals. Winnipeg played a second straight game without Mark Scheifele and Patrik Laine – who were both injured in Game 1.

Calgary has not won a playoff series since 2015 when they defeated Vancouver in the opening round. Last postseason, the Flames were the top seed in the West but were upset in the opening round in five games by Colorado. Calgary could join Carolina as the first teams to win their series.

It’s been 33-year-old Cam Talbot outdueling Vezina Trophy finalist Connor Hellebuyck in this series. This is especially interesting because entering this matchup it wasn’t even clear whether Talbot would be Calgary’s starter. 27-year-old David Rittich started 48 of Calgary’s 70 games during the regular season.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

WHAT: Calgary Flames vs. Winnipeg Jets
WHERE: Rogers Place – Edmonton
WHEN: Thursday, August 6, 10:30 p.m. ET
TV: CNBC
ON THE CALL: Brendan Burke, Pierre McGuire
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Flames-Jets stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

(8) Calgary Flames vs. (9) Winnipeg Jets (CGY leads series 2-1)

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 vs. Jets, 10:30 p.m. ET – CNBC (livestream)
Saturday, Aug. 8: Jets vs. Flames*, TBD

MORE:
2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule

 

Blue Jackets-Maple Leafs stream: 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers

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NBCSN’s coverage of the NHL’s Return to Play continues with Thursday’s Stanley Cup Qualifier matchup between the Blue Jackets and Maple Leafs. Coverage begins at 8 p.m. ET on NBCSN. Watch the Blue Jackets-Maple Leafs Game 3 stream at 8 p.m. ET on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

After being shutout in Game 1, Auston Matthews scored the Leafs’ first goal of the series with four minutes remaining in the second period of Game 2. This snapped Joonas Korpisalo’s 96-minute shutout streak to start the postseason. Captain John Tavares scored on a breakaway in the third period before Morgan Rielly’s empty-netter.

With less than two minutes to play in the third period, Jake Muzzin was taken off on a stretcher after colliding with Oliver Bjorkstrand. Muzzin was down on the ice for an extended period of time before being taken to a local hospital. He was discharged overnight and returned to the team hotel but has been ruled out for the remainder of this series.

Neither team has scored a power play goal in this series, with both teams going 0-for-6 on the man advantage through the first two games. Toronto went 0-for-5 on the PP in Game 2.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

WHAT: Columbus Blue Jackets vs. Toronto Maple Leafs
WHERE: Scotiabank Arena – Toronto
WHEN: Thursday, August 6, 8 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
ON THE CALL: John Forslund, Mike Milbury, Brian Boucher
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Blue Jackets-Maple Leafs stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

(8) Toronto Maple Leafs vs. (9) Columbus Blue Jackets (Series tied 1-1)

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

MORE:
2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule

Flyers keep rolling, will play for No. 1 seed in East on Saturday

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The Philadelphia Flyers were the hottest team in the NHL when the 2019-20 season was paused, and they are not slowing down during the league’s restart.

They kept rolling on Thursday afternoon with a thoroughly convincing 3-1 win over the Washington Capitals in Round-Robin play to take another big step toward the No. 1 overall seed in the Eastern Conference.

After beating Boston on Sunday, the Flyers are now 2-0-0 in the Round-Robin phase and will have a massive game against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday.

The winner of that game will be the No. 1 seed in the East while the loser will be second.

The Capitals and Bruins will play for the No. 3 seed on Sunday.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

A few takeaways from the Flyers’ latest win…

1. The story for Philadelphia on Thursday was their depth, as it wasn’t their top stars driving the win.

Backup goalie Brian Elliott got the start in goal and stopped 16 out of 17 shots in the win, while Scott Laughton scored two more goals to give him three already in the return to play. That does not include the overtime winner he scored in the exhibition game against Pittsburgh. He also added an assist on Travis Sanheim‘s second period goal to give the Flyers a 2-0 lead.

Both goals were scored because of slick passing plays.

The first one was off a ridiculous no-look feed from Travis Konecny.

2. The Flyers raised quite a few eyebrows over the summer when they acquired the RFA rights to Kevin Hayes and then gave him a massive seven-year contract. Hayes is a good player, but it just seemed like a huge commitment for a player that probably wasn’t considered a core forward. Just one year into his contract and he is looking like a huge pickup in the short-term. After a strong regular season performance that saw him score 23 goals in 69 games, he already has four assists in the return to play and factored into all three goals on Thursday. It is still fair to wonder how that contract will look toward the end of it, but if he helps the Flyers bring a championship back to Philadelphia nobody is really going to be concerned about that.

3. And let’s be very clear about something: the Flyers bringing a championship to Philadelphia this season is not an outrageous thought. It could happen. This team looks like a legit contender right now and is still clicking on all cylinders. Before the NHL pause they had won 19 out of 26 games, and since returning to play have completely dominated the Boston Bruins and Capitals, outscoring them by a 7-2 margin in the two games.

There is little to suggest it is a fluke, either. During the regular season they had very strong underlying numbers at 5-on-5 (on the positive side when it came to shot attempts, scoring chances, expected goals), they finally have a solution in goal (Carter Hart), and they have very quietly assembled a strong group of depth players to complement the core of Claude Giroux and Sean Couturier. They were so dominant on Thursday that they limited the Capitals to just 17 shots on goals, including only two from Alex Ovechkin.

4. As for the Capitals, the absolute best they can hope for in seeding is the No. 3 seed in the East if they can beat the Bruins in regulation on Sunday. They had a little bit of a scare on Thursday when center Evgeny Kuznetsov took an awkward fall late in the first period. He was able to return to the game eventually. The Capitals are also still playing without top defenseman John Carlson who has yet to play in Round-Robin play.

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.

Canucks blank Wild, move a win away from advancing

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The Canucks are a win away from their first postseason series victory since 2011 thanks to a 3-0 win in Game 3. Brock Boeser, Antoine Roussel, and Elias Pettersson provided the goals, while Jacob Markstrom stopped 27 to blank the Wild.

Unlike in Game 2, there was no late push from Minnesota. They controlled possession and 5-on-5 scoring chances (per Natural Stat Trick), but Markstrom was there for his first career postseason shutout. After Boeser scored in his second straight game, the Wild continued pressing for a goal. They had five high-danger scoring chances to the Canucks’ one in the second period, but again it was the Canucks goaltender making save after save.

The backbreaker came early in the third period in one of those “good chance at one end, leads to goal at the other end” situations.

There were several opportunities in front of Markstrom, but the Wild couldn’t cash in. Quinn Hughes‘ clearance around the board then flipped over Brad Hunt‘s stick and an anticipating Roussel picked it up for a breakaway before chipping a backhand over Alex Stalock‘s glove for a 2-0 lead.

The shutout was another game where you’re left wondering when the Wild’s offense will show up. They’ve yet to score to at even strength in the series and their power play is 0-for-13 in the last two games.

Vancouver will have a chance to ice the series in Game 4 Friday night (10:45 p.m. ET; NBCSN).

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Hartman with a dangerous hit on Pettersson

Fortunately, Pettersson was not injured on the play. The Canucks forward was involved in a puck battle along the boards and as he bent over Wild forward Ryan Hartman hit him from behind.

Hartman was sent to the penalty box with minors for boarding and roughing after getting involved with J.T. Miller. Will the NHL Department of Player Safety have anything to say about the hit?

Stalock’s fantastic save

The Minnesota netminder has done his best to keep his team involved games. He added to his list of strong saves in the series in the third period to keep the Canucks lead to just 2-0.

Bo Horvat would like a do-over.

(7) Vancouver Canucks vs. (10) Minnesota Wild (VAN leads series 2-1)

Sunday, Aug. 2: Wild 3, Canucks 0 (recap)
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Canucks 4, Wild 3 (recap)
Thursday, Aug. 6: Canucks 3, Wild 0
Friday, Aug. 7: Canucks vs. Wild, 10:45 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Sunday, Aug. 9: Wild vs. Canucks*, TBD

MORE:
2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers 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.