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Penguins defense invisible through two games

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PITTSBURGH — As exciting as it would be for fans and for the sport of hockey in general, it’s probably not really possible to win every game in the NHL by a 7-6 margin.

The Pittsburgh Penguins, bless their hearts, still seem intent on trying to do just that. That at least seems to be the case through the first two games of the 2018-19 season, and head coach Mike Sullivan doesn’t really seem thrilled with the approach.

After managing to outscore the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals in their season opener on Thursday, everything fell apart for them on Saturday night in an ugly 5-1 loss to a scrappy Montreal Canadiens team that not only out-worked them from the drop of the puck, but outplayed them in pretty much all phases of the game. Their biggest problems defensively were the same ones that plagued them on Thursday — puck management, not being smart with the chances they were taking, and just not having enough attention to defense.

While the offense was able to bail them out in the opener, they had no such luck on Saturday.

“We’re a team right now that just wants to score instead of just playing the game the right way and playing on both sides of the puck,” Sullivan said in his post-game press conference following Saturday’s defeat. “We aren’t even close to where we need to be. That’s what I learned from this game today.”

“Until we learn how to play defense and become harder to play against we won’t control a lot of outcomes.”

He went on to say that even though he isn’t going to overreact to the first two games of the season, he is not happy with the team’s process, and that at this point in the season they are trying to preach process over results.

The process is quite obviously not yet there.

Through the first two games they have now given up 11 goals and seemingly countless prime scoring chances. If there is a silver lining to be had after that start defensively it’s that they actually gave up 15 goals through their first two games last season and still managed to come back from that still be okay.

So there’s that.

The concern, though, is that this is probably never going to be a great defensive team as it’s currently constructed. Outside of Kris Letang it’s not an overly impressive group on paper, and if Letang doens’t play like superstar, Norris Trophy level Kris Letang it’s not really a defense that is going to impact a lot of games. They are what they are, and that is an incredibly talented team that is not only going to want to play a fast-paced, run-and-gun style, but one that probably has to play that style.

The key is going to be finding the balance between aggressive, and completely reckless. So far, they have been reckless. Not to mention careless.

Following their season-opening, defense optional win over the Capitals, Sullivan talked about preaching puck management to the team, and that it is in their team DNA to instinctively try to make plays. He reinforced that point again on Saturday.

“We play an aggressive style, but it has to be a calculated style,” Sullivan said. “It’s not about throwing caution to the wind.”

And then there is starting goalie Matt Murray.

Even though he is a two-time Stanley Cup champion and is now playing in his fourth season in the league he still feels like somewhat of a mystery because we’ve seen him be great on the biggest stage on more than one occasion, and we’ve also see him be rather ordinary. He battled through a bad year in 2017-18 and is not off to a great start this season with an .830 save percentage through his first two starts. It would be nonsensical to place all of the blame on him for all of those numbers (especially on Saturday, where he was kind of left out on an island on the first four goals before giving up a clunker of a wrap-around goal to Charlie Hudon in the third period) but he is still the last line of defense behind what is probably an average defense.

“Matt’s game is in the same place where our team is,” Sullivan said on Saturday when asked to assess his goalie’s play. “We all have to be better.”

Murray, never lacking in confidence, at least seemed to think Saturday’s game was a step in the right direction for him.

“I can’t control the scoreboard. I can only control what I’m doing,” said Murray. “I honestly felt really good out there today. I was in the right position. Like I said, a couple times, they made some good quick plays and I just have to come up with a save.”

“It’s tough when you’re giving up this many goals, for sure. It sucks. But again, from my point of view, I take the scoreboard out of it and try to see it objectively. And how I felt, I felt like I got better today. So that’s what’s important.”

Maybe he was. But even though it’s just two games it’s pretty obvious both he and the team in front of him have a long way to go before they get to where they want — and need — to be.

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.

NY governor says pro teams can resume training

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New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo says teams in his state can return to their facilities for training after a pause of more than two months.

”Starting today, all the New York professional sports leagues will be able to begin training camps,” the Democratic governor said during a news conference Sunday.

The New York City area was one of the hardest-hit parts of the U.S. by the coronavirus pandemic, but COVID-19 deaths and new infections in the state have been trending downward.

Major League Baseball, the NBA and the NHL are discussing the resumption of their seasons with their players’ unions.

”I believe that sports that can come back without having people in the stadium, without having people in the arena – do it! Do it!” Cuomo said. ”Work out the economics, if you can. We want you up. We want people to be able to watch sports. To the extent people are still staying home, it gives people something to do. It’s a return to normalcy. So we are working and encouraging all sports teams to start their training camps as soon as possible. And we’ll work with them to make sure that can happen.”

WCHA’s Alabama-Huntsville cuts hockey program

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Alabama-Huntsville is dropping men’s hockey and men’s and women’s tennis as part of budget cuts in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

School officials said athletes in those sports who want to join another team’s roster will be released without penalty and free to transfer immediately. If they choose to stay, their current scholarships will be honored for the duration of their academic careers.

Alabama-Huntsville was one of the only southern schools to have a men’s hockey varsity program. The Chargers won Division II national titles in 1996 and 1998 and were Division II runners-up in 1994 and 1997 before making the move to the Division I level for the 1998-99 season.

Men’s hockey had been the lone Division I sport for Alabama-Huntsville. It competes at the Division II level in all other sports.

Canada’s NHL teams offer options to season-ticket holders

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Canada’s NHL teams have offered season-ticket holders rebate or refund options in acknowledgment that no more 2019-20 regular-season games will be played in front of fans in their respective buildings.

In a four-day span May 13-16, all seven teams contacted their season-ticket bases with options and, in some cases, deadlines to make a decision, according to The Canadian Press.

“It has become increasingly apparent, that any possibility will not include any further games being played this season in front of fans at Bell MTS Place,” the Winnipeg Jets said in an email.

That admission may seem anticlimactic given leagues and teams around the world are either playing in empty stadiums, or trying to figure out a way to just resume play during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But season-ticket money is a key element of NHL business. Clubs are loathe to part with it.

Canadian teams are offering refunds, but also are pushing a number of incentives to let them keep the money.

Toronto Maple Leafs season-ticket holders had to declare they wanted their money back by Victoria Day or a credit would be applied to their accounts.

Their Montreal Canadiens counterparts had to make a decision by Friday, while the Vancouver Canucks’ deadline is June 3.

NHLPA board approves 24-team, return-to play-format

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We have our first step towards resuming the 2019-20 season with the approval of the return-to-play format by the NHLPA Executive Board.

The 31 NHL team representatives voted and a majority gave the thumbs up to the 24-team, conference-based proposal.

According to TVA’s Renaud Lavoie, the vote was 29-2 in favor.

Now the plan moves on to the Board of Governors for their approval.

From the NHLPA:

The Executive Board of the National Hockey League Players’ Association (NHLPA) has authorized further negotiations with the NHL on a 24-team return to play format to determine the winner of the 2020 Stanley Cup. Several details remain to be negotiated and an agreement on the format would still be subject to the parties reaching agreement on all issues relevant to resuming play.

If the BOG green lights it, the next steps would include figuring out proper safety protocols for all involved and how the hub city plan would work, among numerous other details.

Based on points percentage at the time of the March 12 NHL pause, the top four teams in each conference (Boston, Tampa, Washington, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Colorado, Vegas, Dallas) will receive a first-round bye. Round 1 will feature eight play-in matchups in a best-of-five series.

As the play-in round takes place, the eight conference leaders could potentially take part in a mini tournament that will determine the seeding for Round 2. Reseeding after the play-in round is another topic likely to be discussed.

Here’s what it might end up looking like:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

ROUND 1 BYES
• Bruins
• Lightning
• Capitals
• Flyers

PLAY-IN ROUND
(5) Penguins
vs.                              — Winner plays No. 4 seed
(12) Canadiens

(6) Hurricanes
vs.                              — Winner plays No. 3 seed
(11) Rangers

(7) Islanders
vs.                              — Winner plays No. 2 seed
(10) Panthers

(8) Maple Leafs
vs.                              — Winner plays No. 1 seed
(9) Blue Jackets

WESTERN CONFERENCE

ROUND 1 BYES
• Blues
• Avalanche
• Golden Knights
• Stars

PLAY-IN ROUND
(5) Oilers
vs.                                — Winner plays No. 4 seed
(12) Blackhawks

(6) Predators
vs.                                — Winner plays No. 3 seed
(11) Coyotes

(7) Canucks
vs.                                — Winner plays No. 2 seed
(10) Wild

(8) Flames
vs.                                — Winner plays No. 1 seed
(9) Jets

Games would be played without fans with teams based in hub cities potentially located in both the U.S. and Canada. Columbus, Las Vegas, and Edmonton are a few of the cities that have shown interested in playing host to playoff games.

Since the 24-team format entered the rumor mill, it’s received a mixed reaction from players.

“Twenty-four teams sounds like a lot of teams to me,” Capitals defenseman John Carlson told Mike Tirico on Thursday. “You have to make sure there is some level playing field in terms of intensity…So while 24 teams sounds like a lot, maybe due to logistics, that makes the most sense.”

“I will say that when it comes to the format I think it is almost impossible to make everyone happy … the situation is what it is,” Lars Eller of the Capitals said via the Washington Post. “It is far from perfect. We are going to manage the best we can and I do think we will come together and find a solution regarding that. It is not going to be easy.”

Kris Letang told Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman that Penguins players voted “yes” on the proposal citing “greater good for everyone.”

“At the end of the day, nobody gets exactly what they want,” Letang said. “But, we all want what is best for hockey and to continue to grow the game.”

MORE:
Predators’ Duchene: ‘You don’t want to have a COVID Cup’
Our Line Starts podcast: Evaluating fairness of 24-team NHL playoff

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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.