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Penguins ponder Brassard at wing; best fit for Jack Johnson?

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While it’s fair to warn against reading too much into NHL training camps, sometimes they indeed provide a helpful preview for the coming season. If nothing else, they present a worthwhile opportunity for coaches to experiment.

The Pittsburgh Penguins come into 2018-19 with slightly fresher legs, as their title defense fell short in two rounds. They also have some players to work into the mix, whether they landed them at the trade deadline (Derick Brassard) or through free agency and amid salty drama with their former team (Jack Johnson, Torts, and the Blue Jackets).

Tinkering with Brassard

Last year, the Penguins’ hated rivals from Philly yielded a rebound year from Claude Giroux, as he seemed to be revitalized by a move to the wing. Maybe a lot of that revolved around reduced defensive responsibilities, but it was enough of a success story that it makes sense for the Penguins to ponder such a possibility in hopefully getting more out of Derick Brassard.

Mike Sullivan discussed such experiments on Friday.

“We’ve given a lot of thought into it and it’s something that we’ll explore,” Sullivan said of trying Brassard out on the wing. “We know he’s a center by nature but we also know he’s a versatile player. It’s an option that’s on the table.”

With a fully staffed group of Penguins forwards, it’s somewhat challenging to picture how Brassard would work better on the wing than he would as – ideally – a third center who could leverage certain matchup advantages.

Of course, the Penguins know as much as any other team that injuries strike. Brassard himself missed the first week of camp due to a minor chest infection.

The Penguins might as well gather as much data as they can for how Brassard might work with Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin in the event that their customary wingers suffer injuries. Via Natural Stat Trick, Brassard played just 7:01 of even-strength ice time with Crosby during the regular season, and he didn’t even reach two minutes with Malkin. (Phil Kessel was far and away his most common forward partner.)

In the flow of regular-season competition, it makes sense that the Penguins didn’t enjoy a ton of opportunities to tinker with different combinations for Brassard. Now’s the time to see what works, what does not, and what might merely need time to marinate.

The most important thing is that the Penguins are exploring avenues to get the most out of the veteran forward, rather than giving up on Brassard.

And make no mistake about it, this is a crucial season for the 30-year-old, as Brassard approaches 2018-19 as a contract year. Such drive could really manifest itself if he got the chance to play with Crosby and/or Malkin, and for all we know, the next phase of his career could be as a “winger to the stars.”

A formidable pairing

Penguins fans owe it to themselves to read this Johnson-related article from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Jonathan Bombulie for a host of reasons:

  • An amusing slight of privilege regarding Johnson’s adjustment to Pittsburgh. Gasp in terror at the thought of Johnson not finding a good sushi joint and possibly suffering from a bad hair style.
  • Enjoy a subtler form of shade at John Tortorella, as Johnson spoke about Torts’ grueling training camp, which apparently begins with a two-mile run that must be completed within 12 minutes. Johnson mostly dismissed such concerns, although it’s funny to see him describe the runs as activities that “don’t necessarily translate into how you’re playing or how hockey is.”

The most pertinent information, however, is that the initial plan is to pair Johnson with Justin Schultz.

That gnarly howl you just heard was analytics-minded people recoiling in terror, and possibly seeing their charts break. Seriously, Johnson – Schultz is a duo with the potential to get caved-in possession-wise at a level we rarely see.

Bill Comeau’s SKATR comparison tool brings a lot of the data to the forefront:

One can only picture – again, maybe in horror – the sort of defensive misadventures such a pairing might endure. (Granted, the Penguins can mostly point to Schultz as a relative success story, and the two could at least bring something to the table from a transition standpoint.)

Maybe the Johnson tinkering has just begun, as Sullivan instead paired him with Olli Maatta today:

Frankly, it might be difficult to find the right fit for Johnson because … well, if his career so far provides any evidence, he carries some deep flaws in his own end, and his offensive contributions rarely make up for such issues. The deeper you dig into “fancy stats,” the worse Johnson tends to look, but even simple measures tend to be less-than-flattering.

The Penguins are dug in here, considering the jarring five-year, $16.25 million commitment they made to Johnson. For a team that’s perpetually tight to the cap ceiling, squandering $3.25M per season could be agonizing.

For what it’s worth, GM Jim Rutherford shook off analytics worries about Johnson (not to mention Matt Cullen and Derek Grant) in an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Jason Mackey.

“The same as any player, analytics play a role,” Rutherford said. “Our personal opinions and viewings play a role. And where they might fit into what we’re looking for. You look at different players in a different way. What are you looking for in your team? What are some of your needs and how do they fit? All those things. These are guys who fit for us.”

[Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule]

Of course, the risks with Cullen and Grant are pretty minimal, as each player’s only carrying a $650K AAV in 2018-19.

For a team that already struggles when it comes to turning the puck over in dangerous situations and allowing a ton of odd-man rushes, Johnson may only exacerbate such issues. It’s not surprising that management is resolute in defending the signing – what else can they say? – but there’s a strong chance Pittsburgh will regret this expensive reclamation project.

Then again, Schultz’s career was in a dire place when he was traded from Edmonton, so maybe the Penguins really do “see” something others do not? They’ve pulled off the unlikely before.

***

As much attention is lavished on stars like Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, and Kris Letang, the Penguins – and other contenders – need other players to step up.

When Pittsburgh landed Brassard, the expectation was that he’s provide that additional pop. Some NHL GMs outright groaned at the Penguins landing him, and Vegas GM George McPhee’s logic in helping to aid a trade to Pittsburgh revolved around keeping the center off of a West contender.

In the post-deadline rush, Brassard didn’t meet positive expectations. Meanwhile, the Penguins are gambling big-time that Johnson will defy pessimistic expectations.

Training camp tinkering will likely be forgotten in the long run, yet either way, it’s crucial for Pittsburgh to find the optimal lineups and strategies to contend after falling short last season.

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.

NHL Bubble Wrap: Stunning Game 3 upsets for Penguins, Oilers, and more

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  • There were some serious NHL Game 3 upsets, and even the way the upsets happened must have been extra-upsetting for the favorites.
  • It wasn’t always pretty, but the Panthers live to fight another day.
  • Breaking the underdog trend, powerful round-robin teams the Avalanche and Lightning won. (Then again, the Presidents’ Trophy winners won’t be the East’s top seed, so maybe that underdog trend still tracks …)

NHL Scores

Panthers 3, Islanders 2 (NYI leads series 2-1)

For the first time in more than four years, the Panthers won a playoff game. They avoided being swept by the Islanders in the process, riding some quick strikes in the third period. Florida protected Sergei Bobrovsky reasonably well, and may feel a little more confident after Wednesday. Of course, it would help if Jonathan Huberdeau can play in Game 4 after being shaken up by a collision with a Panthers teammate.

Coyotes 4, Predators 1 (ARI leads series 2-1)

Despite carrying much of the play — especially when the “JOFA” line of Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg, and Viktor Arvidsson were on — the Predators could only beat Darcy Kuemper once. Kuemper bounced back from a bumpy Game 2 to hold down the forth for Arizona. Taylor Hall ended up scoring the insurance goal and added an assist to give the Coyotes a chance to advance in Game 4.

Lightning 3, Bruins 2 – Round Robin Game

After losing their first two games of the Eastern Conference Round Robin, the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Bruins won’t be able to secure the top seed in their conference. Tough break for the only NHL team to reach 100 standings points, but that’s the nature of the beast as COVID-19 disruptive both life and sports. The Lightning, meanwhile, won their first two of three round-robin games, so they have a strong chance to take the top seed.

Avalanche 4, Stars 0 – Round Robin Game

Following a buzzer-beat win against the defending champion Blues, the Avalanche didn’t leave their second round-robin game to chance. Cale Makar kicked off the scoring with a power-play goal 3:19 into the game, and the Avalanche never really looked back. So far, the Avalanche look as speedy and scary as hockey diehards were hoping.

Canadiens 4, Penguins 3 (MTL leads series 2-1)

This time around, this wasn’t about Carey Price standing on his head (or nearly doing so). In a dramatic affair, the Penguins built a 3-1 lead early in the second period. That lead, and the Penguins themselves, would absolutely fall apart. The Canadiens surged back to win Game 3, and did so convincingly. Yeah, wow.

Blackhawks 4, Oilers 3 (EDM leads series 2-1)

The Oilers and Blackhawks raise that “Yeah, wow” to … I don’t know, a “Super wowzers?” Wednesday featured some lower seeds stunning favorites, and while the Penguins carry far more clout than the Oilers, Edmonton still lost in a more staggering way. In another game of swings, Connor McDavid gave the Oilers a 3-2 lead in the dying seconds of the second period. The Oilers protected that lead for a decent portion of the third, until it all fell apart with two late Blackhawks goals. Just like that, Edmonton is on the brink of elimination. Hockey can be pretty wild, gang.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

NHL Round Robin Standings

Eastern Conference Round Robin Standings

Tampa Bay Lightning (2-0-0, 4 points)
Philadelphia Flyers (1-0-0, 2 points)
Washington Capitals (0-0-1, 1 point)
Boston Bruins (0-2-0, 0 points)

Western Conference Round Robin Standings

Colorado Avalanche (2-0-0, 4 points)
Vegas Golden Knights (1-0-0, 2 points)
St. Louis Blues (0-1-0, 0 points)
Dallas Stars (0-2-0, 0 points)

NHL’s Three Stars from Wednesday

1. Darcy Kuemper, Arizona Coyotes

As Wednesday went along, NHL Game 3 upsets became a pattern, and the results became increasingly shocking. A higher seed Predators team falling to the Coyotes feels less jarring when you compare it to the other stunning NHL Game 3 upsets of the day.

Still, this was the standout effort.

Kuemper helped the Coyotes author a familiar version of this one, an upset far more typical than the Blackhawks and Canadiens more or less matching the Oilers and Penguins respectively. In the case of the Coyotes beating the Predators, much of the result had to do with a goalie standing on his head.

After a tough Game 2, Kuemper stopped 39 out of 40 shots to snare Game 3 from the Predators. Kuemper’s best work came early, as the Coyotes took a 1-0 lead into the first intermission despite Nashville managing a 19-9 SOG advantage.

2. Shea Weber, Montreal Canadiens

You can definitely ding Weber a bit when he might have let up a bit during a delayed penalty, which would have been called on him if Patric Hornqvist didn’t bury a beautiful assist by Evgeni Malkin. But, overall, Weber was fantastic in Montreal’s flabbergasting 4-3 win against the Penguins. Along with scoring one goal and two assists for three points, Weber was stout defensively. That included two goals for and zero against at even-strength. Weber likely played a prominent role in the Habs making sure the Penguins’ third-period comeback attempt was generally, shockingly feeble.

3. Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers

If you feel like Jonathan Toews should get the nod, that’s understandable. Toews scored two goals, and played a big role in the Blackhawks’ win. (So did a torrent of deflections, but still, Toews was great.)

Toews will feel fine taking the win and being a victory away from the formal 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Yet, Leon Draisaitl looked like the 2020 Art Ross winner out there. Draisaitl factored into all three Oilers goals (two goals, one assist) and carried the sort of underlying stats he doesn’t always generate.

Hockey Twitter might want to “free Connor McDavid,” but some sympathy should be saved for Draisaitl, too.

2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers — top highlights from Monday

Honestly? It’s probably wise to plunk down those Oilers – Blackhawks highlights, wholesale:

If you need a single highlight, the decisive goal from Predators – Coyotes could do the trick. Derek Stepan made a fantastic pass, then Conor Garland completed the highlight-reel-game-winner by stupefying the Predators:

What a fabulous, unexpected breakout season from Garland …

Factoids

  • By grabbing an assist in Game 3, Sidney Crosby broke a tie with Doug Gilmour and Joe Sakic for eighth all-time in scoring with his 190th playoff point. Telling him that after Game 3 would probably mainly earn you a frown, though.
  • Jeff Petry already has two postseason game-winning goals for the Canadiens. Via NHL PR, he’s the sixth Canadiens defenseman to generate at least two in a single playoff run.
  • Avalanche goalie Pavel Francouz carried his sneaky-strong regular season into the Round Robin. By pitching a 27-save shutout, Francouz is the first Avalanche goalie in franchise history to earn a shutout in their playoff debut. Take that, Peter Budaj.

Thursday NHL schedule:

Game 3: Canucks vs. Wild, 2:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN (Series tied 1-1)

Round-robin: Capitals vs. Flyers, 4 p.m. ET, NBCSN

Round-robin: Golden Knights vs. Blues, 6:45 p.m. ET, NBCSN

Game 3: Maple Leafs vs. Blue Jackets, 8 p.m. ET, NBCSN (Series tied 1-1)

Game 4: Flames vs. Jets, 10:30 p.m. ET, CNBC (CGY leads 2-1)

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.

Blackhawks take 2-1 series lead by stunning Oilers late in Game 3

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For much of Blackhawks – Oilers Game 3, it seemed like the story would be Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl using their star power to overcome Edmonton’s sloppiness, and Chicago’s veteran savvy. Instead, the old dog still has tricks, and Chicago’s magic stunned Edmonton. The Blackhawks shocked the Oilers with a late surge to win Game 3 by a score of 4-3, and push Edmonton to the brink of elimination via Chicago’s 2-1 series lead.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

McDavid and Draisaitl not enough for Oilers vs. Blackhawks in Game 3

Yes, you could throw the word “sloppy” around for every game in this Blackhawks – Oilers series so far, but Edmonton teetered on the edge of self-destruction early in Game 3. Then, after seemingly righting the ship, the Oilers instead saw it sink in a shocking stretch.

From late in the first period to early in the second, the Oilers kept going to the penalty box. Edmonton took four straight penalties, and five of six, during a span that could have derailed them. In particular, Kailer Yamamoto made some potentially lethal unforced errors.

But Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl were there to bail their teammates out.

Draisaitl scored Edmonton’s first two goals, helping the Oilers stay in the portions of Game 3 where the Blackhawks seemed primed to pull away.

Then, after Alex DeBrincat bafflingly received an additional penalty after a scrum with Matt Benning, McDavid scored a huge 3-2 in the dying seconds of the second period.

For a significant stretch in the ensuing third period, it seemed like the Oilers might actually protect a lead. There was the impression that, for once, this series wouldn’t be about merely “outscoring your problems.”

Oops.

Toews, Blackhawks win Game 3 with late goals

To start the last collapse, the Blackhawks made it 3-3 with less than six minutes remaining in the third period when Matthew Highmore tipped a hard Slater Koekkoek shot. Then, with 1:16 left, Jonathan Toews was credited with a shocking 4-3 goal when a puck deflected off of the stick of Oilers defenseman Ethan Bear and past goalie Mikko Koskinen.

(Even if Toews might have been lucky to get credit for the game-winner, the Blackhawks captain was a beast in Game 3. He finished with two goals, and Toews came close to scoring on other opportunities. In other words, the star power isn’t just on Edmonton’s side.)

It was stunning enough for the Oilers to see the Blackhawks potentially push Game 3 into overtime. Obviously, they didn’t even it make it that far. Just like that, the Oilers’ season is on the line.

So much for the Penguins dealing with the most stunning Game 3 loss from Wednesday, eh?

Scary injury for Ennis?

After two games full of wild scoring, Game 3 of Blackhawks – Oilers was close enough that tensions were able to climb.

There was some of that playoff nastiness, for sure. That nastiness may climb after Tyler Ennis appeared to suffer a rough-looking leg injury awkwardly bracing for a hard Kirby Dach hit.

Later on, Dach was shaken up by a Josh Archibald hit, but was able to return to Game 3.

If Ennis is out, consider that a tough injury loss stacked upon the Oilers’ gut-punch Game 3 defeat. In Game 4 on Friday, the Blackhawks get a chance to deal the final blow to a season that at times seemed special for the Oilers.

If patterns hold, the Oilers will once again call upon McDavid and Draisaitl — while Toews and the Blackhawks are sure to make things interesting.

(5) Edmonton Oilers vs. (12) Chicago Blackhawks (CHI leads series 2-1)

Friday, Aug. 7: Oilers vs. Blackhawks, 6:45 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Saturday, Aug. 8: Blackhawks vs. Oilers (if necessary), TBD

MORE:
2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers 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 push Penguins to brink of elimination after Game 3 stunner

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The Canadiens keep giving the Penguins all they can handle, and in Game 3, Pittsburgh couldn’t merely shake their heads and shrug their shoulders at a dominant Carey Price. Instead, after squandering a 3-1 lead, the Penguins must look inward, and get things together quickly, as the Canadiens lead the series 2-1 following a 4-3 win in Game 3.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Canadiens take 2-1 series lead against Penguins after a Game 3 of twists and turns

If you enjoy twists and turns — and maybe chaos? — then Penguins – Canadiens Game 3 was your tonic.

To start things, Shea Weber showed some aggression to give the Canadiens a 1-0 lead. Special teams worked out well for the Penguins early, as Pittsburgh not only killed a delay of game penalty from challenging that Weber goal, but also caught the Habs flat-footed.

In less than a minute, Patric Hornqvist fired home a 1-1 power-play goal thanks to a beautiful pass by Evgeni Malkin. Jason Zucker then connected on another power-play goal 59 seconds later:

Once Teddy Blueger made it 3-1 early in the second period, the Penguins looked like they might be headed toward a big, authoritative win.

Maybe it would have stayed that way in a less dramatic contest, but not Game 3 of Penguins – Canadiens. Maybe a hard, un-penalized hit by Brandon Tanev on Jack Evans gave the Habs the righteous anger to rally:

Or maybe the Canadiens merely took advantage of some sloppiness from the Penguins, from Matt Murray to Jack Johnson. Either way, the Canadiens stunned the Penguins with two quick second-period goals to enter the intermission 3-3, and then Jeff Petry scored yet another huge goal in this best-of-five series.

Even with a late power-play opportunity, the Penguins couldn’t get much going once they fell behind 4-3.

Tough Game 3 for Penguins defense; Murray struggles vs. Canadiens

So, again, the main story doesn’t boil down to the Penguins vs. Carey Price, but that doesn’t mean goalies weren’t a talking point in Game 3. To be more exact, the Penguins might need to wonder a bit about Matt Murray.

Earlier in the Penguins – Canadiens series, it seemed like Matt Murray shook off some of his profound struggles from 2019-20. Mike Sullivan or others have more reason to worry about Murray after Game 3, though. Goals like another big Jeff Petry tally will leave people wondering if the Penguins might be wise to turn to Tristan Jarry now that they’re on the brink of elimination.

It wasn’t all on Murray, mind you. Other Penguins struggled, including polarizing defenseman Jack Johnson.

While Weber got caught on that Malkin-to-Hornqvist goal, he enjoyed one of the best performances of any Canadiens player, collecting a goal and two assists. But Game 3 was very much a team effort, and team win, for the Canadiens against the Penguins.

The Canadiens generally acquitted themselves very well against the Penguins at even-strength. Two of the Penguins’ three goals came on the power play, while the Canadiens scored all four of their Game 3 goals at even-strength. Plenty of storylines will revolve around the 12th-seed Canadiens being underdogs pushing the Penguins, and understandably so. But the Habs haven’t always played like traditional underdogs. At times during Game 3, they absolutely outplayed the Penguins.

For better or worse, this isn’t one of the recent back-to-back game situations, so the Penguins get until Friday to shake off the shock of this Game 3 loss to the Canadiens. They might need that time to find some answers against the Habs, too.

(5) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (12) Montreal Canadiens (MTL leads series 2-1)

Friday, Aug. 7: Penguins vs. Canadiens, 4 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Saturday, Aug. 8: Canadiens vs. Penguins*

* – If necessary

MORE:
2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers 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.

Blackhawks-Oilers stream: 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers

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NBC’s coverage of the NHL’s Return to Play continues with Wednesday’s Stanley Cup Qualifier matchup between the Blackhawks and Oilers. Coverage begins at 10:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. Watch the Blackhawks-Oilers Game 3 stream at 10:30 p.m. ET on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Connor McDavid scored his first career playoff hat trick, including two goals in the game’s opening five minutes, to lead the Oilers to a 6-3 win over Chicago in Game 2. McDavid scored with all three of his shots on goal. Edmonton scored twice in each period and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins had three assists to even up the series.

After finishing the regular season with the league’s best power play (29.5%), the Oilers have continued to impress on the man advantage. Connor McDavid scored on the power play in Game 2 to take their PP up to 44.4% in this series (4/9).

Even without fans, the Oilers continued to sell raffle tickets for their 50/50 draw. In Game 2, the total pot grew to more than $3.2 million, reportedly a new world record for a raffle. One lucky fan took home the jackpot of $1,629,722.50.

WHAT: Chicago Blackhawks vs. Edmonton Oilers
WHERE: Rogers Place – Edmonton
WHEN: Wednesday, August 5, 10:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
ON THE CALL: Brendan Burke, AJ Mleczko, Pierre McGuire
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Blackhawks-Oilers stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

(5) Edmonton Oilers vs. (12) Chicago Blackhawks (Series tied 1-1)

Saturday, Aug. 1: Blackhawks 6, Oilers 4 (recap)
Monday, Aug. 3: Oilers 6, Blackhawks 3 (recap)
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Oilers vs. Blackhawks, 10:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN (Livestream)
Friday, Aug. 7: Oilers vs. Blackhawks, 6:45 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Saturday, Aug. 8: Blackhawks vs. Oilers*, TBD

MORE:
2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule