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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.

The Wraparound: Sharks step up to the plate in back-and-forth series

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The Wraparound is your daily look at the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. We’ll break down each day’s matchups with the all-important television and live streaming information included.

In a series where a loss has been met by a response from the team that most recently fell, it’s the San Jose Sharks turn to answer the bell.

The Sharks had their chance to put the St. Louis Blues on the ropes in Game 4 of the Western Conference Final, but as has been the case throughout this series, winning two straight hasn’t come easy and the Blues prevailed to make this series a best-of-three.

Game 5 goes Sunday afternoon (3 p.m. ET; NBC; live stream).

“Maybe the best I’ve felt about our game in the series so far, even though we lost. We put two goals in our own net off our own guys. Didn’t get the start we wanted, got on our heels the first shift, took a couple penalties … then not finding a way to get a couple more goals. I thought we did a lot of good stuff.”

The Sharks managed 73 shot attempts in the game, more than doubling the Blues output in that regard.

San Jose’s issue? Jordan Binnington. The rookie netminder stopped 29 en route to his 10th playoff win. And men flailing themselves in front of oncoming rubber: the Blues blocked 21 shots in the game. And then misfiring, given the number of shot attempts that never turned into bona fide shots: 22.

“We were trying to keep them to the outside as much as they can,” Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said. “We don’t want those guys up top shooting too. We were trying to limit the rebounds and second opportunities. I thought we did a good job of pushing their guys out.”

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The Sharks are 0-6 in this postseason when leading a series, a number that hardly screams, “clutch.” What they are good at is finding wins when series are tied. They’re 10-2 when trailing or tied in a series, including winning two Game 7s along their journey to the penultimate round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

San Jose lost for the first time when allowed two goals or fewer in a game. Not in the playoffs, but all season. They entered Game 4 with a 39-0-0 record and left with their first blemish.

The Sharks, then, need to find some killer instinct if they’re going to advance to the Final. Martin Jones has given them a chance between the pipes, but he needs a few to start reciprocating.

Tomas Hertl, for instance, doesn’t have a point 5-on-5 in this series. Ditto for Joe Pavelski and likewise for Evander Kane. Kane doesn’t have a goal in his past nine games.

Those 73 shot attempts are encouraging, but they’re meaningless if you manage just a single goal. In wins, the Sharks have managed to score 11 goals in this series across both games. In losses? Just three.

The Blues have embraced the grind from the beginning. The Sharks need to figure out how to match it.

And they may have to go at it without defenseman Erik Karlsson.

Winners of Game 5 when a series is deadlocked 2-2 go on to win 70.3 percent of the time.

There’s no shortage of motivation for either team today.

MORE:
• Conference Finals schedule, TV info
PHT Conference Finals predictions


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Sharks, Blues confident, and even, heading into Game 5

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SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — The San Jose Sharks have been at their best this postseason when they had little margin for error.

That’s probably why they feel comfortable heading home for Game 5 of the Western Conference final against the Blues after a lackluster start led to a Game 4 loss in St. Louis.

Having squandered a series lead for the second time in this matchup, the Sharks know a loss Sunday could mean they won’t get to play on home ice again this postseason.

”It’s a great spot to be in,” coach Peter DeBoer said Saturday. ”This is supposed to be hard. What happened with Boston on the other side, that usually doesn’t happen. Usually these are all six, seven hard-fought games, hard-fought series. We’re right where I expected we would be, in a good spot going home, and we’ve got to get the job done.”

After alternating wins in the first four games, the Sharks and Blues now have a best-of-three to decide who plays the Bruins in the Stanley Cup Final. Boston swept Carolina in the East and will have 10 days off before the start of the next round May 27.

Nothing has come easy for San Jose or St. Louis. The Blues went six games in the opening round against Winnipeg before needing double overtime in Game 7 of the second round against Dallas to make the conference final.

The Sharks, meanwhile, have endured two seven-game series – Vegas and Colorado. That’s happened in part because they have appeared to let up when leading a series before responding with greater desperation.

San Jose is 0-6 this postseason when leading a series. But it is 10-2 when tied or trailing, including four wins in elimination games sparked by a comeback from 3-1 down in the opening round to the Golden Knights.

”There’s a lot of emotion in the playoffs,” Sharks captain Joe Pavelski said. ”We’re in the conference finals. We’ve had overtime wins, we’ve had game sevens. We’ve had emotional games for sure. You just lace them back up next game and you compete.”

The Blues got a goal from Ivan Barbashev 35 seconds into Game 4 and added another late in the first period before hanging on for the 2-1 win Friday.

It was an impressive rebound from a crushing Game 3 loss when the Blues allowed the tying goal with 1:01 left in regulation and then the winner in overtime after the officials failed to see a hand pass by San Jose that set up Erik Karlsson‘s goal.

”We’re in a good spot,” coach Craig Berube said. ”So just pushing and keep fighting and be aggressive. Just be aggressive as a team and be confident as a team. That’s our message. You’re going to have ups and downs in the playoffs and you have to move on from it. You really do. As much as we had to move on from that Game 3 loss we have to move on from last night’s win.”

The Sharks need to come out in Game 5 with the kind of play they showed in the final two periods Friday. They controlled the puck and hemmed the Blues into the defensive end for long stretches.

The only problem was St. Louis rookie goalie Jordan Binnington, who stopped all 11 shots in the second period and then nine of 10 in the third. He allowed only a power-play goal to Tomas Hertl on the way to his franchise-record 10th win this postseason.

Binnington improved to 11-2 this season in games following a loss.

”As soon as people start doubting him, he pulls another sick performance,” Blues forward David Perron said.

Another big concern for the Sharks is the health of Karlsson, who played only one shift in the final 9:24 after an apparent injury. Karlsson missed 27 of the final 33 games in the regular season with groin injuries that have hampered him in the playoffs.

He’s had big moments, with 14 assists and two goals, including the disputed overtime winner in Game 3 against the Blues. But he also seems to labor at times, as he did in the third period before taking an extended break when the Sharks were fighting for the tying goal.

He returned for the final 1:55 game with the goalie pulled but mostly stayed positioned at the point for passes and shots, his skating limited. DeBoer offered no update Saturday on Karlsson’s condition.

The Blues will again be without defenseman Vince Dunn, who took a puck to the face in Game 3.

AP freelancer Joe Harris in St. Louis, Missouri, contributed to this report

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Bruins hope to have a healthy Chara for Stanley Cup Final

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BOSTON (AP) — The Bruins were able to sweep Carolina in the Eastern Conference final without captain Zdeno Chara.

Now they’re hoping 10 days off before the start of the Stanley Cup Final will be enough time for the defenseman to return.

The title round begins May 27 when Boston will face San Jose or St. Louis, with that conference final 2-2. The Bruins completed their sweep Thursday with Chara out with an undisclosed injury.

”We have a lot of time to make the absolute right decision to give him the proper time to get over something that’s been nagging him,” Bruins general manager Don Sweeney said Saturday. ”And we’ll cross our fingers that will be the case. But we’re confident it will be.”

Sweeney stopped short of guaranteeing Chara’s return for Game 1.

”I’m not living in how or where Zee feels. I expect he’ll be fine,” Sweeney said. ”But I’m not going to sit here and make a proclamation in terms of promises. I do believe that time will be used effectively and he’ll be fine. But sometimes those are out of your control.”

Defenseman Kevan Miller and forward Chris Wagner are doubtful for Game 1 of the Final. Miller hasn’t played since April 4 because of a lower-body injury. Wagner injured his right arm blocking a shot in Game 3 against Carolina.

Patrick Roy set to interview for Senators’ coaching vacancy: report

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Interested in seeing more of this?

Or maybe some of this?

Well, you just might be in luck.

Postmedia’s Bruce Garrioch reports that Patrick Roy is set be the last interview done by Ottawa Senators general manager Pierre Dorion as the search for the next bench boss in Canada’s capital continues.

Roy has most recently been coaching the Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. He last coached in the NHL in 2016 with the Colorado Avalanche, a job he resigned from following that season. Two years earlier, he won the Jack Adams Award for the NHL’s best coach after the Avalanche went from last to first in the Western Conference.

Roy is 130-92-24 during his 246-game coaching career in the NHL.

“Those close to Roy believe he’d like to return to the NHL in the right situation and initially the only pressure in Ottawa will be to develop the young players,” Garrioch wrote. “The Senators have the potential to have 17 picks in the first three rounds of the next three drafts and finding the right fit is paramount.”

The Senators, according to Garrioch, have already interviewed several candidates, including fellow former Avalanche coach Mark Crawford, along with former Senators coach Jacques Martin and Dallas Stars assistance Rick Bowness.

Roy’s experience coaching young players, as Garrioch points out, would be appealing for a team as young as the Senators, who also have a litany of draft picks coming their way over the next three years.

Can Roy work under Senators owner Eugene Melnyk? Can he work with Dorion? Roy didn’t exactly have the best professional relationship with Joe Sakic and Roy would likely want some level of control of the direction of the team.

It remains to be seen, but Roy has a decent track record that is appealing, certainly.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck