Penguins trying to stay the course during bumpy start

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By WILL GRAVES (AP Sports Writer)

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Mike Sullivan’s regular film sessions with the Pittsburgh Penguins don’t lack for clues on why one of the NHL’s marquee franchises is in the midst of its bumpiest stretch in more than a decade.

The defense can morph into a disjointed mess under sustained pressure, particularly right in front of the net. The crisp breakouts that used to trigger odd-man rushes featuring some of the league’s most skilled players moving at warp speed have largely vanished and been replaced by something significantly sloppier.

Oh, and the NHL at large has caught up to the frenetic tempo Sullivan introduced when he took over nearly three years ago, a hiring that – combined with a roster makeover authored by general manager Jim Rutherford – helped power the Penguins to consecutive Stanley Cups. In that way, Pittsburgh’s current struggles are a byproduct of its not-so-distant glory.

”For the most part it’s a copycat league and teams tend to try to emulate the teams that have success,” Sullivan said Tuesday. ”When you look at our team over the last handful of seasons, we’ve had pretty good success with a certain style of play.”

A style Sullivan has no plans to abandon even with Pittsburgh mired in a 1-7-2 funk that has dropped his club into a tie for the fewest points in the wide-open Eastern Conference a quarter of the way through the season.

”You look at the core of our players, (Sidney) Crosby, (Evgeni) Malkin, (Phil) Kessel, (Kris) Letang, all those guys can skate,” Sullivan said. ”They can still skate.”

The thing now is, so can everyone else.

The proof came to life over the last 30 minutes against Buffalo on Monday night, when the Sabres reeled off the final four goals, including Jake Eichel’s game-winner 45 seconds into overtime at the end of a sequence that began with a Malkin giveaway in the offensive zone.

It was the kind of miscue Pittsburgh used to pounce on with ruthless efficiency. Now it’s the Penguins who are making the crucial mistakes, ones that are ending up in the back of their own net with alarming regularity.

”I think we’ve been doing some really good things the last handful of games but we’ve been shooting ourselves in the foot a little bit with a few plays,” forward Bryan Rust said. ”We’ve got to be a little bit more mindful of that and just dig down a little bit deeper and the bounces will eventually go our way.”

There is a fair amount of ”puck luck” that’s abandoned Pittsburgh at the moment. The Penguins were up two goals late in the second period against Buffalo when Pittsburgh defenseman Jack Johnson locked up Sabres forward Conor Sheary in front of the net. No matter. Casey Nelson‘s shot from the point deflected off Johnson’s skate and by goaltender Casey DeSmith.

Watching from afar while sitting out a third straight game nursing an upper body injury, Crosby could only scratch his head.

”I think the thing for us that’s probably been a little more difficult is, it’s not necessarily the same thing,” said the two-time MVP, who hopes to play on Wednesday when Pittsburgh hosts Dallas. ”We’ve found different ways to lose games and you know, we’ve probably corrected one thing and something else has been a factor in another game we lost.”

One thread, however, has been a constant: defense. The Penguins – particularly early in the season during the Crosby era – have occasionally been slow to tighten things up because they are so talented offensively that the finer points of playing responsibly in their own end can be lost.

In past years, Pittsburgh has been able to outscore opponents even on nights it didn’t particularly play well. That’s not happening at the moment. The loss to Buffalo marked the eighth time in 19 games the Penguins have allowed at least five goals, something they did 13 times all of last season.

While Sullivan is quick to point to the number of quality chances Pittsburgh created against Buffalo, he’s well aware his team was far too generous in front of DeSmith. Pittsburgh dominated the first period but only had a 1-1 tie to show for it after forward Dominik Simon lost his footing while attempting to help clear a puck. Buffalo kept it in the zone and a cross-ice pass led to a one-timer that Tage Thompson buried to even the game.

”We’ve got to do a better job defending and making sure we stay on the right side of the puck and the right side of people in the critical areas of the rink,” Sullivan said. ”That’s an area we can all improve as a team.”

Pittsburgh hasn’t missed the playoffs since Crosby’s rookie year in 2005-06 and Crosby stressed it is far too early to panic.

”It’s tight but we just have to make sure we eliminate our mistakes and give ourselves the best chance and I thought for the most part (against Buffalo) we were pretty in control of that game,” Crosby said. ”I think if we keep trending that way, we’ll learn from that one and get a lot more wins.”

Three quarters of the season remains. Though the Penguins have been ”meh” at best, the rest Metropolitan Division hasn’t exactly been lights out. Only eight points separate the Penguins from first-place Columbus. One good consistent stretch of hockey and things can change very quickly.

”You can’t control the ones you’ve let slip away,” Crosby said. ”Ten games from now, you don’t know where you’re going to be.”

Full AP NHL coverage: http://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

The Playoff Buzzer: Two series headed to Game 7 after Jones, Marchand star for respective teams

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  • Brad Marchand had three points to help the Boston Bruins force a Game 7 on Tuesday against the Toronto Maple Leafs
  • Martin Jones made 58 saves and Tomas Hertl scored shorthanded in double overtime to also set a Game 7 date Tuesday between the San Jose Sharks and Vegas Golden Knights. 

Bruins 4, Maple Leafs 2 (Series tied 3-3)

The Maple Leafs had a chance to rid themselves of their demons when it comes to the Bruins. Instead, they’ll have to face them head on in Game 7 for the third time in six years on Tuesday. Brad Marchand had a three-point game, including two goals, as the Bruins ensured TD Garden will see at least one more game this season. The Maple Leafs have two Game 7s to the Bruins since 2013. It will either be a hat trick for Boston or redemption for Toronto on Tuesday night.

Sharks 2, Golden Knights 1 [2OT] (Series tied 3-3)

An all-time heroic performance by a goalie that spurned a tired team to victory. These aren’t stories that are commonly written in the annals of hockey history, but Martin Jones produced something special and Tomas Hertl obliged his goalie, scoring a shorty in double overtime in one of the craziest games in this playoffs.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Three stars

1. Martin Jones, San Jose Sharks

Something about 58 saves over four-and-a-half periods of hockey. Jones should be shrouded with love and gifts by his teammates after giving them every reason to forge ahead and find a winner when the Sharks looked dead tired.

Jones set a franchise record with those 58 saves in one of the greatest goaltending performances in years. Jones made 88 saves over Game 5 and Game 6 to help pull San Jose back from being 3-1 down in the series to now have a chance to close it out in Game 7 on Tuesday. It’s remarkable, given Jones was yanked in two of the first four games and gave up six in another.

2. Brad Marchand, Boston Bruins

Three points for hockey’s favorite pest/superstar. Marchand scored off a faceoff in the first period to tie the game 1-1 and then drove the final dagger to force Game 7 on an empty netter with less than two minutes to go.

3. Tomas Hertl, San Jose Sharks

Someone needed to be a hero at the other end of the ice while Jones was playing the role in San Jose’s zone. Who knew it would come on shorthanded?

Whatever it was, Hertl found the energy to will a wrist shot past Marc-Andre Fleury with the Sharks down a man after a slashing call on Barclay Goodrow around the midway point of the second overtime period.

Highlight of the night

How could it be anything other than a Game 6 double-overtime, shorthanded game-winning goal?

Factoids of the night

Monday’s games

Game 6: Capitals at Hurricanes (WSH leads 3-2), 7 p.m. ET, NBCSN (Live Stream)
Game 6: Predators at Stars (DAL leads 3-2), 8:30 p.m. ET, CNBC (Live Stream)


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

Jones stops 58, Hertl scores shorthanded in double OT as Sharks force Game 7 vs. Golden Knights

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Martin Jones wouldn’t face the media following a Game 4 benching following a disastrous first period.

The official story from the San Jose Sharks’ public relations team was that the couldn’t find the embattled goaltender. This was hardly surprising after Jones had been chased twice in the first four games of the series, including Game 4 after two goals on seven shots led to his benching.

However long Jones was lost for, he emerged as the starter for Game 5 and began what would become a mini redemption tour, one that will make a stop in Game 7 on Tuesday after the Sharks battle back from a 3-1 series deficit against the Vegas Golden Knights, winning Game 6 on Sunday night 2-1 in double overtime at T-Mobile Arena.

And what theatrics he had to make getting there, stopping 58 shots total to set a new franchise record in any game in their history, and a shorthanded snipe by Tomas Hertl just when it looks like Vegas might finally breach Jones’ defenses.

Part of sticking with Jones came down to not having a better alternative. Aaron Dell, San Jose’s backup, fared no better between the pipes as Mark Stone et al crushed the Sharks.

Vegas, of course, knows a thing or two about incredible goaltending — it carried them to the Stanley Cup Final last season. On Sunday, it obstructed them from taking another step toward hockey’s holy grail.

The Sharks really had no business being in a tie game when the clock read zeroes after three periods. Jones made it possible.

Jones has worn a couple hats in this series. He’s a big reason why the Sharks found themselves trailing 3-1 in the series. He allowed a whopping 11 goals on 54 shots between Game 2 and Game 4, a save percentage that is almost unfathomable.

Somewhere between his disappearance after Game 4 and being located in time for Game 5, Jones had some sort of epiphany. Horrible regular-season save percentage be damned, he was going to show everyone.

And he has.

Jones made 30 saves while facing elimination in Game 5 a couple of days ago to pull a game back for the Sharks. On Sunday, Jones had to be sharp again, stopping 17 shots in each of the second and third periods as the Sharks were wildly outplayed.

Somehow Hertl found the oomph needed to work Shea Theodore, sniping a wrister from the top of the left circle.

As crazy as this series has been, it gets more nutzo knowing that there’s yet to be a lead change through six games. The Sharks are also 35-0 this season when allowing two goals or fewer. Vegas set a new record for shots on goal in a game with 59. They had 119 shot attempts, which is all sorts of madness.

And it all sets up for a brilliant Tuesday night where the Sharks and Golden Knights will join the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs for a Game 7 extravaganza.

The hockey world can hardly wait.


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

Marchand, Bruins top Maple Leafs to force Game 7

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We will have at least one Game 7 in Round 1 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The Boston Bruins were able to avoid elimination and pushed their series against the Toronto Maple Leafs to a decisive seventh game with a rock solid 4-2 win on Sunday afternoon.

Brad Marchand was the big offensive star for the Bruins, finishing with a pair of goals and an assist in the win.

His power play goal at the 11:23 mark of the first period came just two minutes after the Maple Leafs had scored to taken an early lead and proved to be a turning point in the game.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Torey Krug scored another power play goal just a few minutes later to give the Bruins the lead, and from that point on they dominated for much of the day.

At one point Toronto went more than nine minutes without registering a shot on goal and spent most of the second period stuck in its own zone defending a relentless Bruins forecheck that seemed to be winning every battle and dictating the pace of the game.

The Bruins were able to eventually pad their lead in the second period when Jake DeBrusk scored on a beautiful 2-on-2 rush with David Krejci to give them a two-goal advantage.

That goal would prove to be the game-winner as Auston Matthews was able to bring the Maple Leafs to within one mid-way through the third period, but they were never able to get the equalizer despite a flurry of chances late in the game.

Marchand added an empty-net goal, his second goal of the game, to secure the win.

While special teams played a huge role on Sunday (the Bruins scored two power play goals; the Maple Leafs’ power play was shut out) it would be oversimplifying it to say that was the only difference in the game. The reality is that Boston was superior team in all situations and was dominating Toronto from territorial standpoint all afternoon. After two periods the Maple Leafs were attempting only 32 percent of the even-strength shot attempts and rarely tested Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask.

Had it not been for a handful of highlight reel saves by Maple Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen this game could have easily gotten out of hand in the Bruins’ favor.

Now the Maple Leafs find themselves in a situation where they have to head back to Boston to play a Game 7 for the second year in a row. If they are going to flip the script from a year ago, they are going to need a significantly better performance than the one they had on Sunday.

Game 7 of the Bruins-Maple Leafs series will take place on Tuesday night in Boston.

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.

Burns, Giordano, Hedman are 2019 Norris Trophy finalists

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NHL awards season rolls on with Sunday’s announcement of the three finalists for the Norris Trophy, which is handed out annually to the defense player that demonstrates the greatest all-around ability at the position throughout the entire season.

The three finalists for the award this year are Mark Giordano of the Calgary Flames, Brent Burns of the San Jose Sharks, and Victor Hedman of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Hedman and Burns have won the award the past two seasons, while Giordano is a finalist for the first time in his career. He has finished in the top-10 of the voting three times. Before this season sixth was the highest he ever finished.

The Norris Trophy is named after former Detroit Red Wings owner James E. Norris and has been handed out annually since the 1952-53 season. Red Kelly was the first player to win it, while Bobby Orr won it an NHL record eight times during his career.

The winner will be announced on June 19 (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN) at the 2019 NHL Awards in Las Vegas.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The case for Giordano: Probably the favorite to win the award for much of the season due to his dominance at both ends of the rink. The 35-year-old Giordano had a career year in Calgary that saw him play a shutdown defensive game on the top pairing for the best regular season team in the Western Conference, while also finishing with a career-best 74 points in 78 games. Among defenders that logged at least 1,000 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time, Giordano finished in the top-five in shot attempt differential, scoring chance differential, and goal differential (all via Natural Stat Trick). He is trying to become the first Flames defender to ever win the award.

The case for Burns: Simply the best and most productive blueliner in the NHL this season offensively. Burns appeared in all 82 games for the fifth year in a row, logged more than 25 minutes of ice-time per game and finished with 83 total points. He not only finished as the top-scoring blue-liner in the NHL this season, he was the only defender to average more than a point-per-game and just the fourth to do so since 1995-96 (minimum 70 games played), joining a list that includes only Erik Karlsson, Mike Green, and Nicklas Lidstrom. He won the award during the 2015-16 season and is trying to become just the 14th player to win it multiple times.

The case for Hedman: The reigning Norris Trophy winner, Hedman was limited to just 70 games this season due to injury but still finds himself in the top-three of the voting due to his consistently brilliant play. When he was on the ice, he was once again the driving force for one of the league’s best teams, helping the Lightning tie the NHL record for most regular season wins. Hedman played more than 22 minutes per night and scored 12 goals, making it the sixth year in a row he scored at least 10 goals in a season. He is trying to become the first defender since Nicklas Lidstrom to win the Norris Trophy in back-to-back seasons. This is his third consecutive year as a finalist for the award.

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.