Penguins follow Matt Murray’s lead, take Game 4 over Flyers

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PHILADELPHIA — The Philadelphia Flyers came up short in what head coach Dave Hakstol called the “biggest game of the series, so far.” It was another night where the Pittsburgh Penguins’ offense could not be stopped and their 5-0 victory in Game 4 means they take a 3-1 series lead back home with a chance to close things out Friday night.

It could have been a different game if not for the play of Matt Murray, who stopped 26 shots for his second shutout of the series and fourth shutout in his last seven playoff games. One of the bigger opportunities for the Flyers was a period of extended offensive zone time late in the first, but Murray stood tall, and when the pressure subsided the Penguins transitioned the other way resulting in a Phil Kessel goal.

 

“That’s what’s going to happen in the playoffs,” said forward Carl Hagelin. “There’s going to be momentum swings. You’re going to get pinned in your zone for an extended time and that’s what happened there. But we didn’t give up many Grade A chances.”

That cool demeanor of Murray’s isn’t just effective for him, it also positively affects his teammates.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

“It helps. He’s a confident guy. He calms us down,” said Hagelin. “He’s always a calm guy. It’s one of those things we have a lot of faith in him. He trusts his ‘D’ and his forwards to do the job in front of him.”

“He [makes] saves at key times, too. That’s huge,” said defenseman Jamie Oleksiak. “Not just here and there, but early in the game or when we’re down a goal, he does a good job switching momentum. He’s definitely a special goalie that way.”

Through four games, Murray, who became the fastest goalie in NHL history to reach 25 career playoff wins, is rolling with a .958 even strength save percentage and has allowed only three goals at five-on-five in the series. A hostile Philadelphia crowd wasn’t going to faze the 23-year old goaltender. Before helping the Penguins to the first of back-to-back Stanley Cups in 2016, he was thrown into the fire for his first playoff start on the road in Game 3 of their first-round series against the New York Rangers. He’d win both those games at Madison Square Garden and the rest was history.

So with the first period nearing a conclusion and Travis Konecny on a breakaway after leaving the penalty box, the Penguins had no cuase for concern. Murray would make the save and his teammates would add to the lead in the second period, putting the game, and potentially the series, out of reach.

“When you get those types of saves it certainly helps your team’s chances of winning,” said Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan. “But that’s what Matt does for our group. I thought he was locked in all night long. He made the timely saves for us when we needed him to. Those are big points in the game, but you have to get that save if you’re going to win at this time of year.”

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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.

Rusev and Lana turn Predators stars into WWE superstars

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The Nashville Predators are readying for a heavyweight showdown with the San Jose Sharks on NBCSN tonight, so what better way to hulk up then to get some lessons from WWE’s superstars?

NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Tuesday night’s matchup between the San Jose Sharks and the Nashville Predators at 8 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports App by clicking here.

Being that it’s Rusev Day, it only makes sense that Roman Josi and Ryan Johansen listed two Predators fans/WWE superstars and power couple Rusev and Lana. As you can see in the video above, what resulted was something of a tag team match, as Lana transformed Josi into a new persona (where he evokes the mop-haired guy from “Workaholics”) while Rusev warps Johansen into the sort of cowboy-themed character who would have put butts in seats in the days of territories.

Some highlights of the clip:

  • Lana noting Josi’s handsomeness, and finding ways to make Rusev jealous.
  • Rusev getting jealous.
  • Rusev being a proponent of a leather cowboy vest because it gives Johansen an opportunity to “show a little peck bounce.”
  • Those shorts are probably a little small on Ryan Johansen. Maybe knee pads would have pulled the outfit together?
  • It seems like a little more attention could have been placed on entrance music. Going to have to knock it down from an A+ to an A because they didn’t use the Predators’ terrible-great goal song:

Regardless, it’s great stuff, and perhaps it will inspire the Predators to smack down the Sharks.

Which team and professional wrestler pairings would you like to see next? Maybe Bret Hart can teach the Flames the “excellence of execution?” So many possibilites.

(Oh, and let us add to the best wishes for Roman Reigns, who shared the stunning news that he’s battling leukemia. Here’s hoping he follows in Mario Lemieux’s footsteps by resuming his career after beating cancer.)

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV 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.

Blues keep finding ways to lose

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There isn’t much shame to coughing up a lead against the Winnipeg Jets, a team that can become an offensive locomotive when it really gets going. No, for the St. Louis Blues, it was the way they lost last night’s game, seeing a 3-1 lead evaporate into a 5-4 overtime loss.

“I think we’re scared to lose games right now,” Jake Allen said. “We’re behind in the standings, we know that; we know that each point is crucial, and we’re playing in the third period like we’re scared to lose the game. If you lose, you lose, but you gotta go down swinging. We’re just giving teams opportunities, and a team as good as Winnipeg, they’re going to bury them. This loss is on us.”

” … They didn’t beat us. We beat ourselves.”

The Blues fell to a disappointing 2-3-3 record thanks to a disturbing trend: giving up leads and letting wins and points slip through their fingers. The numbers back that up, extending back to last season, but especially right now:

The Blues have only scored eight third-period goals, by comparison, so it’s a troubling sign.

Now, with any pattern established this early in 2018-19, it’s dangerous to make too many sweeping observations.

That aside, it’s also important to ask questions, or else you risk history repeating itself.

How much of this is on the style of play? To be more precise, is head coach Mike Yeo trying too hard to “sit on leads” rather than enhance them?

Sure, there are risks involved with being aggressive on offense, yet every second you spend with the puck on your stick in the opposing zone is another moment where the opposition isn’t threatening to score.

The Blues were getting rid of the puck as if it was a live grenade often through the third period of that eventual loss to Winnipeg. It got to the point where officiating became crucial in a sad way: borderline icing calls. At one point Jets fans serenaded referees for calling an icing after an earlier call was thwarted in part by an official getting in Jacob Trouba‘s way. Later on, it seemed like an icing might have been too hastily whistled against the Blues.

For all we know, a more aggressive approach might have left the Blues losing to the Jets in regulation, rather than at least getting a point in an overtime loss. Hindsight is 20/20, so it’s easy to armchair QB the Blues’ approach after the fact.

You can still wonder about some coaching decisions, however. Why, for instance, was recently scratched defenseman Jay Bouwmeester on the ice in so many crucial situations?

Such mistakes can come back to haunt the Blues in future games where they’re trying to protect leads.

Plenty has been made about buzzwords like “urgency,” as you can see from this Jeremy Rutherford piece from The Athletic (sub required) about a week ago. But how much of that lack of urgency stems back to Yeo’s system, how he might be playing to the score, and the players he’s putting out on the ice in certain situations.

The Blues boast a wealth of options on defense, from established difference-makers such as Alex Pietrangelo and Colton Parayko to an interesting up-and-coming scorer like Vince Dunn. Is it really wise to hope Bouwmeester can carry such of a workload? Is this a case of outdated thinking? Could it be that Yeo was overreacting to this brutal late-game gaffe by Parayko?

Now, look, it’s not all bad for the Blues. Generally speaking, when you open up a 3-1 lead against the Jets – carrying big chunks of play in the process – you’re probably doing quite a bit right.

For one thing, the Blues might have stumbled onto some nice scoring balance, at least between its top two lines.

Early on, Ryan O'Reilly was anchoring a top line with Vladimir Tarasenko. After starting strong, the combo hit a lull, so Yeo reunited last year’s deadly first line (Tarasenko with Brayden Schenn and Jaden Schwartz) while putting ROR with David Perron. So far, O’Reilly (six points in three games) and Perron (five in three games) have been generating serious offense. If that top trio can rekindle some of last year’s magic, they might just build up leads so robust that they can rest on their heels and still win plenty of games.

Nonetheless, the Blues bring high expectations into this season. They gave up some serious futures to land O’Reilly, along with landing Perron and Patrick Maroon in free agency.

On paper, the Blues seem like they should be a contender, even in the cutthroat Central Division. If St. Louis can’t convert that potential to real-life wins soon, the heat could really start to rise.

It’s up to Yeo and others to find answers, and soon.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV 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.

Crosby looking to jump-start offense vs. McDavid, Oilers

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As fun as the “best hockey player in the world” debate has been through the early weeks of the season, that conversation has deflected some attention from Sidney Crosby not exactly being at his best.

About a week ago, PHT’s Adam Gretz discussed Crosby’s scoring struggles, noting the belief that it’s “only a matter of time” before number 87 finds his offense again. To be more specific, Crosby hadn’t scored a goal yet, and he still hasn’t; he now sits at zero goals and five assists in six games.

Of course, the Penguins have been off since blanking the Maple Leafs 3-0 on Oct. 18, so it’s not as though Crosby’s added many more goal-less games since then. Even so, that’s given him that much more time to stew over any frustrations that might be lingering – as early as we are in the season, Crosby’s nothing if not a perfectionist – which makes Tuesday’s game against the Edmonton Oilers that much more tantalizing.

[More on the best debate from AP; don’t sleep on Crosby’s buddy Nathan MacKinnon]

Could Sidney Crosby finally enjoy a truly transcendent performance against Connor McDavid?

It’s probably bittersweet (and all-too-familiar) for McDavid to review the four Penguins – Oilers games that involved the two superstars:

  • McDavid has been splendid, scoring two goals and five assists for seven points in those four contests.
  • For whatever reason, Crosby hasn’t really taken off in the battle of number 87 vs. number 97, as he’s only generated a single assist.
  • Despite that disparity, the Penguins won all four games.

That last point underscores the fact that hockey is a team sport, and underlines the greatest difference between the two right now: Crosby has a lot more help. After all, Evgeni Malkin (98 points) and Phil Kessel (92) finished last season with more points than Crosby, who generated 89 in 2017-18. That trend has carried over to this early campaign, as Malkin has doubled Crosby’s points (12 to 6) heading into Tuesday’s game.

So, yes, it’s overly simplistic to boil down this poster to a boxing or pro-wrestling style poster of Crosby and McDavid staring each other down.

That said, it’s not just the media and fans who are getting revved up for this one. Milan Lucic ranks among those who acknowledge the buzz around this game, as Sportsnet’s Mark Spector reports.

“It’s really special,” Milan Lucic said of the matchup. “It’s a game a lot of people tune into and I know, as an athlete, it’s a game you want to be in, playing in front of and with greatness. It’s kinda like back in the day when Mario and Wayne would play against each other.”

Interestingly, Crosby is playing more of the Gretzky role to McDavid’s Lemieux, at least in broad strokes.

Crosby’s team is deeper, as Wayne’s was during his Edmonton run; McDavid, meanwhile, might feel the same frustrations Mario did (although at least McDavid has Leon Draisaitl and some other quality players Lemieux lacked for some time). Crosby’s the guy who might be at the twilight of his peak, and he has the rings, while McDavid is that magical, almost-alien talent whose ceiling sometimes seems limitless.

This makes for incredible fodder, but again, there’s the question of whether Crosby can slip out of his funk.

Six games don’t give you anywhere near enough of a sample size to get too worried about anything. Much like Tom Brady, we’ve been down this road about wondering if Crosby’s finally hit the wall, only to have that door emphatically slammed shut. Let’s not forget that he’s close to a point-per-game, anyway.

It is, however, fair to note that – for his standards – Crosby has been pretty quiet.

As much as Crosby’s known as a passer, he tends to affect multiple levels of the game, so seeing barely more than two shots on goal per game (13 in 6, or 2.17 SOG each game) is noteworthy. Crosby’s developed into quite the volume shooter over the years, as his career average is 3.28 SOG per game, and last season’s 3.01 per contest marked his career-low.

Again, six games represent less than 1/15th of a hockey season, and Crosby’s adjusting to a new season, not to mention a mixture of wingers. While he’s clearly developed chemistry with mainstay Jake Guentzel over the years, the Penguins have placed his other winger in the old line blender, spitting out the likes of Derick Brassard, Patric Hornqvist, and Bryan Rust.

You wonder how long the Penguins can ask Crosby’s to carry another forward or two, as he’s managed for so much time. Perhaps this relatively slow start, if nothing else, calls for a little more help.

One way or another, Crosby is almost certain to find answers, and the net. Bonus points if it happens with the spotlight shining during tonight’s game against McDavid and the Oilers.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV 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.

Jack Eichel on Sabres’ changes, Dahlin, life as a top pick (PHT Q&A)

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When Evander Kane was dealt last February, the door was opened for Buffalo Sabres forward Jack Eichel to return to his roots and switch from No. 15 to No. 9.

“For a long time, the number nine has always been a part of my identity as both a person and as a player,” the now Sabres captain said in a July statement. “The opportunity opened up to switch and I felt it was the right time to make the change as I begin the next phase of my career as a Sabre.”

Eichel wore No. 9 during his one year at Boston University and when he represented the U.S. as a youth international. The legendary Maurice “Rocket” Richard also played a role in why he chose the number.

“He played a lot a long time before me, but my dad was a big fan and my uncle, who was a diehard Canadians fan,” Eichel told NBC during the NHL Players Media Tour last month. “I wore 9 as a kid. That’s the 9 I think about when I think about the number 9. So I just think it’s a really good forward number, fast skater, skill guy, shoots the puck, makes a lot of plays, I think it’s just a great hockey number.”

Eichel and the Sabres are off to a good start in 2018-19, taking 10 out of a possible 18 points through nine games. The captain leads the team in scoring with three goals and nine points. He’s enjoyed his time recently centering Jeff Skinner, who was acquired over the summer as part of general manager Jason Botterill’s continued roster reshaping.

We spoke with Eichel about the changes in Buffalo, Rasmus Dahlin and USA Hockey.

Enjoy.

Q. What will it take for the Sabres to make the playoffs this year?

EICHEL: “I think more than anything just consistency. You gotta bring it every night, so it’s that consistency, it’s that coming together as a group, trusting each other, believing in what we’re doing, and I think we can accomplish that.”

Q. Has the culture changed over the last little while? 

EICHEL: “It has. I think it’s changed more so from the end of last season to now. I think whenever you have little success as we did last year, you’re gonna have to step back and look at what you’ve been doing, probably change some things with the team itself and the culture, and change some things. [They] have done a good job of bringing some new guys in that will kinda get rid of that sour taste that we had the last few years, that haven’t been there before. They are excited with that. You bring in the first overall pick, excitement around the team, and I think just starting a new culture, it should be a winning culture; culture where nothing else is accepted other than the best, and it’s something that doesn’t just happen. It’s accomplished over time.”

Q. What strikes you about Rasmus Dahlin, his maturity? 

EICHEL: “I think a lot of things. I think his game speaks for itself. We all know how good a player he is, he’s a very polite, no ego to him, he’s a really nice kid. I enjoy being around him and we’re very lucky to have him.”

Q. You’ve been through a similar situation as a top of the draft guy. Did you talk to him about it? The expectations? 

EICHEL: “Not so much expectations. I’ve spoken to him a bit, but more so how to handle yourself, what to expect. It’s a bit of a change for him. He’s never lived in the United States before, so he’s going through a lot of new things, and on top of that he’s being asked to play in the NHL, as an 18-year-old defenseman. It’s not easy, but I think the easiest thing for him will be the hockey, everything else will take a little bit of time, but I know he’ll do a great job.”

Q. What has the USA Hockey National Team Development Program meant for hockey in this country? 

EICHEL: “I think it’s been probably one of the most important pieces in the United States’ success the last few years in terms of internationally and producing good players. I think the entity would be an amazing program, and [I’m] so fortunate that I was able to go there. If you go there with the right mindset it’s just amazing what they can do for you. You look at some of the players that come through there and it speaks for itself. And it’s not easy by any means, it’s definitely a pretty tough thing to go through. There’s a lot of adversity as a young 16-year-old to go there and go through the things you go through, and I think majority of the people by the end of it would say it was a great experience. To get so close to your teammates, you learn so much about growing up and you’re really prepared well for the NHL and, ahead after that, business or hockey life. Wherever you’re going, it teaches you a lot of life lessons.”

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.