Defense optional: Penguins, Capitals combine for 13 goals

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PITTSBURGH — It was the perfect storm for the kind of wildly entertaining, completely insane game that can leave fans endlessly entertained and both coaching staffs absolutely fuming. That ended up being exactly the game the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals delivered in the Penguins’ 7-6 season-opening win on Thursday night.

On one side you had the Penguins, perhaps the most reckless run-and-gun team in the league playing in its season opener against one of its fiercest rivals — not to mention the defending champions — that knocked them out of the playoffs a year ago, looking to deliver a big win to kick off the year.

On the other side you had the Capitals, another obscenely deep and talented offense that was not only playing in the second half of a back-to-back, but also coming down from the high that was a complete, systematic dismantling of the Boston Bruins on banner-raising night.

Attention to detail? Good defense? This game had absolutely none of it, and if you like scoring chances, odd-man rushes, and a heck of a lot goals, it was absolutely glorious to watch. Even if, again, neither coach was as entertained by it as, say … me. 

“You always struggle in back-to-backs with your attention to detail,” Capitals coach Todd Reirden said after the game. “Our commitment to playing defense was nowhere near what we did last night. Last night we had zero high danger chances against, and that is the standard we set for ourselves, but tonight our detail wasn’t the same and our commitment to play defense as a five-man unit just wasn’t there.”

While the Capitals weren’t playing up to the defensive standard they set for themselves, the Penguins were handling the puck like it was a grenade, handing scoring chance after scoring chance to the Capitals.

Many of them ended up in the back of the net.

“We preach it daily,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan when asked about preaching puck management to his team during games. “One of the conversations we’ve had with our team  is we’re talking a lot about our team identity and we’re trying to define what that is. What i’ve said to our guys, part of the fabric of our team identity has to be becoming a team that’s hard to play against and becoming a team that doesn’t beat itself, otherwise it’s hard to win in our estimation. Our coaching staff feels strongly about that.”

He continued: “One of the easiest ways to beat yourself is to mismanage the puck. This is an ongoing conversation with our players because part of our DNA is that we have playmakers. We have players that instinctively want to make plays. They are difference makers. We are trying to challenge them that they are diligent and they have situational awareness in mind.”

The goals started filling the net right from the beginning when the two teams scored on five of the game’s first seven shots, with the Capitals scoring on three of their first four. That included goals from the usual suspects like Alex Ovechkin, and the unexpected … like Brooks Orpik, scoring his second goal in his past six games after going more than two full seasons without scoring one.

Perhaps the craziest thing about this game is there could have very easily been even more offense had it not been for some brilliant goaltending, specifically from Washington’s Braden Holtby.

And yes, there was some brilliant goaltending in a game where the two teams combined for 13 goals. Not only did Holtby make spectacular saves on Penguins superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on partial breakaways, he made the save of the night in the second period when he was somehow able to get his toe on this Jake Guentzel shot, taking away what looked to be a sure goal.

Shortly after that Penguins offense erupted again with three consecutive goals to give them a 6-4 lead that they were able to hold until late in the third period.

Just when it seemed they were going to settle things down and cruise to a win, that pesky puck management showed up and helped the Capitals score two goals — both from T.J. Oshie — just 22 seconds apart to tie the game.

The first came off of a dreadful giveaway by Malkin that left Oshie wide open in the slot, while the second was a mid-air deflection that was initially waved off by referee Eric Furlatt for what he thought was a high-stick on the puck. But after the four on-ice officials huddled they changed the on-ice call to a goal which was upheld upon review.

In the final seconds, the Penguins’ big offseason addition, defenseman Jack Johnson, had an opportunity to end the game in regulation when he somehow found himself in alone on a breakaway against Holtby. Instead of scoring, or even getting a shot on goal, he had the puck roll harmlessly off his stick into the corner, ultimately sending the game to overtime.

It was there that Crosby drew a hooking call from Evgeny Kuznetsov, setting the stage for Kris Letang‘s winner — his second goal of the game — on the power play.

In the end this isn’t a game that either coach is going to hold up as a masterpiece of hockey excellence, especially when it comes to playing the type of systematic, disciplined game they crave. It was also clear that both teams were shaking off some early season rust and haven’t yet found their complete games. That is kind of what made it all fun to watch. Just two great teams, filled with some of the world’s best and most talented players, simply trying to see who could score the most goals instead spending the entire night focussed on preventing them.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV 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.

It’s New York Islanders Day at PHT

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New York Islanders.

2018-19
48-27-7, 103 points (2nd in the Metropolitan Division, 4th in the Eastern Conference)
Playoffs: Eliminated in four games in the second round by the Carolina Hurricanes.

IN:
Semyon Varlamov
Jared Coreau

OUT: 
Robin Lehner
Luca Sbisa
Dennis Seidenberg
Valtteri Filppula

RE-SIGNED: 
Tanner Fritz
Jordan Eberle
Tom Kuhnhackl
Anders Lee
Brock Nelson

2018-19 Summary

Did your team lose the captain/best player on the roster? Do you feel like you have no hope? Well if you’re looking for a reason to be optimistic, look no further than the 2018-19 Islanders. After John Tavares walked to Toronto in free agency, many predicted that the Isles would be one of the bottom-feeders in the NHL. Instead, they ended up being one of the greatest stories of the year.

The Islanders’ top point-getter last season was sophomore forward Mathew Barzal, who picked up 62 points in 82 contests. They had four players hit the 50-point mark (Josh Bailey, Brock Nelson and Anders Lee). They also had just three players surpass the 20-goal mark (Lee, Nelson and Casey Cizikas). Despite those limited offensive numbers, the Islanders found a way to finish second in the Metropolitan Division which, again, no one expected.

How did they do it? Structure, structure and more structure.

Bringing in Barry Trotz as head coach proved to be a wise move for a team without an offensive superstar. Trotz’s defensive-minded approach ended up giving the Isles an identity. They weren’t very fun to watch, but they found a way to get the job done on most nights.

They also found a way to sweep the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs before they were swept by the Carolina Hurricanes in the second round.

Now, the question is whether or not they can do it all over again.

“We know other teams will take us maybe more serious than they did last year,” Lamoriello said, per NHL.com. “But that’s where we have to grow and that’s where our character that I have tremendous confidence in comes through, plus the coaching staff that we have.

“This is the first time that a lot of our players have ever gone through the playoffs, first time they experienced success, and then the lack of success in the second round and how it’s approached. You learn by experience. You never know what experience is until you acquire it.”

The Islanders brought back three core players in Eberle, Lee and Nelson. The biggest change will occur between the pipes, as they let Vezina Trophy nominee Robin Lehner hit free agency. Lehner had the best year of his career, as he posted a 25-13-5 record with a 2.13 goals-against-average and a .930 save percentage. Despite those awesome numbers, the organization wasn’t ready to commit to Lehner long term. Clearly, they felt that Trotz’s system helped the veteran netminder succeed (it probably did).

In fairness to the team, no other squad was willing to give Lehner a long-term deal, so he ended signing a one-year, $5 million contract with the Chicago Blackhawks.

With him no longer in the picture, Lamoriello had to sign a new starting goaltender. In the end, they settled on former Colorado Avalanche goalie Semyon Varlamov (he inked a four-year, $20 million deal). The 31-year-old has struggled over the last couple of seasons, but playing in Trotz’s system could help revitalize his career like it did for Lehner.

Whether or not he fits in as well as Lehner did remains to be seen.

This whole group proved a lot of people wrong last year. Can they do it again?

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

PHT Morning Skate: Top 20 defensemen; Canucks believe in Benning

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• NHL.com breaks down the Top 20 defensemen in the NHL right now. (NHL.com)

• The Hockey News projects ahead to who the Canucks will protect come the 2021 expansion draft. (The Hockey News)

• The fact that the Canucks are extending Jim Benning shows that they believe in his plan. (Sportsnet)

• How can every team’s jersey be improved? (Puck Prose)

• Can Evan Bouchard crack the Oilers’ defense this year? (Edmonton Journal)

Charlie McAvoy continued developing during a big 2018-19 season. (Stanley Cup Chowder)

• How much can the Predators expect from Dante Fabbro? (Predlines)

• Here’s a list of forwards the Vegas Golden Knights could opt to sign late in the summer. (SinBin.Vegas)

• What would the Penguins front office look like without Bill Guerin? (Pensburgh)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Hughes has potential to take Devils to next level

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New Jersey Devils.

Given all the changes in New Jersey this offseason, there’s no shortage of x-factors heading into the 2019-20 campaign.

One could argue, for instance, that P.K. Subban‘s arrival on the blue line is the biggest change of the offseason. I would disagree and a team that gave up as many goals as the Devils did could use a boost on the backend to take the pressure off their goaltending situation, which is suspect at best heading into the season.

But, in this scribe’s opinion, it’s the arrival of Jack Hughes who has the potential to make the biggest difference.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Three questions | Under Pressure]

The Devils need offense, plain and simple. Getting by on a leading point-producer who had just 50 points isn’t going to cut it in the NHL these days.

And while a healthy Taylor Hall will make a big difference as well, we know how big the gap can be between himself and the rest of the scoring on the team (see: 2017-18 season.)

With the potential for a breakout season for Nico Hischier — and one not limited by injuries — the addition of P.K. Subban to the power play and Nikita Gusev and Hughes to the forward contingent, the Devils should be miles ahead of their 25th-ranking in goals-for from last season.

And the expectation is Hughes will play a big role in that. He could start the season as the team’s second-line center and depending on usage, could easily hit the 20-goal mark, if not more.

“Jack’s play will determine to us what he can handle and how much,” coach John Hynes told NHL.com. “We’re not going to put pressure on him and we’re not going to put limits on him right away. We continue to put young players in situations they can handle while also challenging them in the right ways where they can have success but also see how they respond outside their comfort zone.”

Hughes does everything so well. His vision, speed and knack for scoring are all welcome additions to the Devils who sorely need more in each of those areas.

The key will be to find him the right linemates in training camp and let some chemistry develop. If it does, an 80-point season may take shape providing he’s healthy.

And, perhaps, a Calder Trophy for his efforts.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule


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

Hischier set to face pressures of contract year

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New Jersey Devils.

The guys at the Spitting Chiclets podcast did an excellent interview last week with Nathan MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche.

Why are we talking about MacKinnon on Devils Day at PHT? Just keep reading.

MacKinnon spoke about his sophomore season being a tough one with just 14 goals after winning the Calder Trophy a year before.

It took him two more seasons before he’d flip a switch in his head, one that would take him from a mid-50-point guy to the near-100-point player he’s been for the past two seasons.

MacKinnon said he was starting to feel like he was a bust after being taken first overall in the 2013 NHL Draft.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Three questions | X-factor]

Now, I’m not saying that Hischier feels the same way. Both are different players. But both are first-overall picks with a tremendous amount of expectations levied upon them, ones that will last throughout their respective careers.

So if MacKinnon was battling mental demons, one could come to the conclusion that Hischier may do so at some point as well.

Hischier dealt with injury in his second year, much like MacKinnon, and was limited to 17 goals and 47 points — down from the 20 goals and 52 points in his rookie season. That said, his points per game rose in his second campaign even if the overall number didn’t.

And none of this is to say that Hischier has been a bust at all. He’s far from that and an excellent two-way center who, now given some tools around him, a great candidate to have a breakout season.

But the pressure is, nevertheless, going to be there for the Swiss kid. There’s a lot of money waiting on the table for him next offseason when his entry-level deal comes to a close.

Hischier remains a massive piece for the Devils moving forward.

The team now has him and Jack Hughes as their 1-2 punch down the spine of the team, a better defense with the addition of P.K. Subban and a greater supporting cast with Nikita Gusev and Wayne Simmonds.

And while the point totals may not jump off the page, the fact is the Devils outscore opponents and create more high-danger scoring chances when Hischier is on the ice.

Hischier is far from being labeled a bust, much like MacKinnon was.

The pressure is on, however, as he enters a season where a big impact could lead to a bigger contract next summer.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule


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