Roundtable: Expanding the NHL playoff format; Penguins’ woes


1. The Pittsburgh Penguins are near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings and things don’t appear to be getting better. Is there cause for concern or can this be chalked up to of an early-season slump?

SEAN: The Penguins can’t just say ‘Oh, well, we’ve done this before’ and expect to rally themselves into a playoff spot. They play in a competitive conference and a tough division, so digging themselves out of their current hole will not be easy. It helps when you have the talent on board that they do, but injuries and sub-par goaltending had led them to their current predicament.

What we likely will see is another trade or two by Jim Rutherford, a GM who’s known for being aggressive well before the NHL trade deadline. This is a team that he constructed, with many pieces owners of two Stanley Cup rings. His patience is already run thin and further struggling will only see more faces shipped out of Pittsburgh in hopes of bringing in new blood.

JAMES: Look, when you’re about a quarter through a season and in last place, it’s cause for some concern.  

But there’s a difference between being concerned and panicking, and the Penguins don’t need to panic. Consider that the Penguins had 41 points in 40 games by Jan. 1, 2018, ranking them 22nd in the NHL. They waded through that wilderness, and they’ve done it before. Dan Bylsma won a Stanley Cup taking over a floundering group in-season, and Mike Sullivan did the same. Pittsburgh has experience fighting through lousy starts.  

That said, you can only beat the odds so many times, and the Penguins’ core is only getting older. They’re eventually going to fail at walking that tightrope, but I think they can bounce back, and it’s heartening to see some projections fall in line with such inklings.

ADAM: I think there is definitely cause for concern. I know they have overcome slow starts in the past, but this slow start is a heck of a loss worse than a lot of the ones they overcame. I mentioned this the other night, but the year they fired Mike Johnston they were 15-10-3 the day they made the coaching change. That was considered unacceptable and a season that was headed toward being a waste. Unless they go something like 8-1 over their next nine games they will not even reach that record. The rest of the league has caught up to them speed-wise, they look a little older, a little slower, not as deep, they have questions on defense and I’m not sure what they are going to do in net because neither Matt Murray or Casey DeSmith inspires much confidence right now. There is not really a quick and easy fix here. What they really need is another mid-season overhaul of the roster like they had in 2015-16, but that is going to be easier said than done. They can not trade the core players (Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, Kris Letang) because those players are the franchise, and the rest of the team is either a bad contract or a player that does not have a ton of trade value. 

JOEY: There should be some concern because they haven’t. been this bad as a team in quite some time, but I honestly can’t imagine Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and company missing the playoffs. They’ll struggle to get in, but in the end, they’ll be able to get it done by going on a crazy run at some point during the second half of the season. We’ve already seen GM Jim Rutherford make one trade, and I don’t think he’ll be shy about pulling the trigger again if he feels it’s necessary.

The biggest issue for the Penguins right now is the goaltending. Casey DeSmith has played well at times, but it’s time for Matt Murray to get his season back on the rails. Even with all the superstars on the roster, they still need a goalie to come up with saves at some point. I don’t think Murray will be able to be as solid as he was during those two Stanley Cup runs, but he has to be better than he is right now. The 24-year-old has a 4-5-1 record with a 4.08 goals-against-average and a .877 save percentage this season. If he can’t get the job done, Rutherford will find someone who can.

SCOTT: The Penguins have too much talent to count them out just yet. Sure, I know about the U.S. Thanksgiving curse, but not every bad team around this time of the year has a Crosby and a Malkin. 

That said, there’s more than just a slump here. There are some growing concerns. Matt Murray’s save percentage has gone from a .930 to a .923 to a .907 to .877 over the past four seasons. You don’t win with his current numbers. 

As a team, the Pens’ 5-on-5 save percentage is abysmal and they’ve allowed the second most shorthanded goals against at four. Perhaps bad luck on the last one, but breakdowns and implosions seem to be happening with greater frequency in Pittsburgh this season. 

Pittsburgh has the talent to still make the playoffs. The question now is, can they find it before it’s too late?

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2. We’re at the quarter mark of the season. Which pre-season prediction are you currently regretting?

SEAN: While I can tout the Blues missing the playoffs or Mikko Rantanen as most underrated prediction, if I could go back and change one now it would be putting the Wild in the postseason. I thought Bruce Boudreau’s regular season magic would run out but his team is delivering balanced scoring and getting solid goaltending from Devan Dubnyk and Alex Stalock. That’s all led to a second place start in the Western Conference.

JAMES: Just one? While I wonder if I was right to discount the Avalanche’s chances of backing up last season, picking the Penguins to win the Metro isn’t looking so hot right now. Like I said before, I think they have a chance of making the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, yet the most logical path would be to grab the third spot in the division, or see the Atlantic teams settle down and grab a wild-card spot.

ADAM: There are a couple, but two really stand out for me. I thought Montreal would be horrible because I hated their offseason moves. Those offseason moves, so far, are working out, especially the Max Domi addition. Did not see that performance coming at all. I was also a believer in Vegas not being a fluke, mostly because I loved the Paul Stastny and Max Pacioretty additions and thought that Marc-Andre Fleury would at least be decent again. Maybe not the best hockey of his career that he played a year ago, but still pretty good. Maybe in time they will still work, especially once they get Stastny back and get Pacioretty going again, but for right now those are not looking great. 

JOEY: I said the Vegas Golden Knights were among the under appreciated teams in the NHL, and that simply hasn’t panned out to this point. Sure, they didn’t have Nate Schmidt in their lineup for the first 20 games of the season because of a suspension, and Paul Stastny’s been out with an injury, but the magic that surrounded the Golden Knights last year seems to be gone. General manager George McPhee did his best to upgrade the roster over the summer, but the Max Pacioretty acquisition hasn’t worked out well so far.

It’s still early enough that they can work themselves back into playoff contention, but teams on the outside of the playoffs at this point of the season typically don’t get in. There are some exceptions to rule, but I’m just worried that they won’t be able to recreate that “us against the other teams that let us go” mentality from last year.

I could be wrong, but it’s not looking good for this team.

SCOTT: I thought Vegas wouldn’t regress. That’s all they’ve done. I feel shame. 

3. Would you like to see the NHL expand the playoff format as was discussed on Hockey Night in Canada earlier this month?

SEAN: Why do we want to add bad teams to the playoff mix? This isn’t like the play-in games in the NCAA basketball tournament where there are so many teams in Division I that some smaller school who have good seasons may get overlooked. We don’t need 88-point teams playing a mini series to see who will get swept by the conference’s No. 1 seed.

JAMES: The NHL needs as many dramatic, made-for-TV events as it can get, so an March Madness/MLB-style wild card play-in would be GOLD, Jerry, GOLD.  Just don’t drag it out much longer than a few extra days, because the playoffs basically last longer than our natural lives at this point.

ADAM: My answer to this is always the same whenever it gets mentioned: No. Even with a 32-team league once Seattle enters you are still at half of the league making the playoffs. That is fine. That is more than enough, and you had 82-games to put yourself in a playoff position. If you are not in one by the end of the season you should not get an extra play-in game to get yourself in. The only thing I would change is the format to go back to the 1 vs. 8 matchup and then re-seed in each round instead of the divisional format we have now. 

JOEY: I don’t like it. If you’re not among the top eight teams in your conference after 82 games, you don’t deserve to have a spot in the playoffs. When it comes to adding playoff teams, my worry is always that it will diminish the value and importance of the regular season. Sure, you’ll always have playoff races, but how many teams is too many.

Let’s take a look at the Eastern Conference standings from last year. The Florida Panthers missed the playoffs by a single point, which is heartbreaking for a team in a market that could have used a postseason jolt. But the gap between Florida and the 10th place team in the East (Carolina) was 13 points. Can you imagine if the Hurricanes were to get into the playoffs with 83 points, and they end up advancing because they won a short series or a one-off game in the opening round? It doesn’t make any sense. I know this is an extreme example that doesn’t happen every year, but it happened as recently as last year, which means it could happen again in the near future.

I don’t want to live in a world where a team with 83 points potentially gets a chance to play in the postseason. No way.

SCOTT: More playoff games? More seven-game series? Sign me up. 

I’m not one of those people who bemoans how long the playoffs last. If hockey was on year-round, I would watch it. Playoff hockey is the best hockey so more of it can never be a wrong move.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Dellandrea scores twice in 3rd, Stars stay alive with 4-2 victory over Golden Knights

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LAS VEGAS — With Dallas’ season on the line, the Stars got two critical goals from a player who was a healthy scratch the first two games of the Western Conference Final.

Ty Dellandrea‘s goals came within a 1:27 span midway through the third period, and the Stars beat the Vegas Golden Knights 4-2 to keep alive their hopes of advancing to the Stanley Cup Final to face the Florida Panthers.

“He’s one of the best guys I’ve ever played with,” said Stars goalie Jake Oettinger, who made 27 saves. “He deserves every opportunity he gets, and there’s no one happier for him than the guys in this room. It shows how special you are when you get taken out. He didn’t make it about him. He needed the opportunity to step up, and that’s what he did.”

The Stars escaped elimination for the second game in a row and head to Dallas for Game 6 down 3-2. Dallas is attempting to become the fifth team in NHL history to win a series after being down 3-0.

And look who’s back for the Stars? Captain Jamie Benn returns after a two-game suspension for his cross-check to the neck of Vegas captain Mark Stone in Game 3. That was the only game in this series that was decided early, and the Stars hadn’t even had a multigoal lead.

“I know our group, and we weren’t happy about being in the hole we were in, and they decided to do something about it,” Stars coach Pete DeBoer said. “And now we’re rolling.”

The only problem for DeBoer was waiting two days to play Game 6.

“Drop the puck,” he said.

DeBoer said before the game if his team won, the pressure would shift to the Knights. Now it’s up to them to respond after twice being a period away from playing in the Stanley Cup Final and letting both opportunities slip away.

“I don’t think we brought our best the last two games,” Stone said. “We were still in a good spot to win the game. We’ve got to bring a little bit better effort and start playing a little more desperate.”

Vegas coach Bruce Cassidy said “it’s a very good question” why his team didn’t play with more desperation, but he also wasn’t thrilled with the Knights’ execution.

“We had 24 giveaways,” Cassidy said. “I’m not sure you’re beating the Arizona Coyotes in January with 24 giveaways. That’s no disrespect to Arizona, but it’s not the right way to play.”

Dellandrea found the right way to play and put together the first multigoal playoff game of his career. Jason Robertson and Luke Glendening also scored, and Thomas Harley had two assists.

Chandler Stephenson and Ivan Barbashev scored for the Knights, and Jonathan Marchessault had two assists to extend his points streak to four games. Adin Hill made 30 saves.

Dellandrea scored from the right circle to put Dallas ahead, the puck deflecting off Vegas defenseman Alex Pietrangelo with 9:25 left for a 3-2 lead. Then, Dellandrea scored from the slot with 7:58 remaining.

Dellandrea said the older players kept him motivated when he was temporarily sidelined.

“There’s no denying it’s hard,” he said. “I’m thankful for a good group of character guys, and you’ve just got to stay ready.”

The teams traded goals in the first two periods.

Jack Eichel battled two Stars players for the puck in Vegas’ offensive zone, and then Barbashev swooped in and made a fantastic move to glide past Oettinger and score with 6:24 left in the first period. The Stars wasted little time in answering when Glendening scored on a deflection less than two minutes later.

Dallas was robbed of what looked like a sure goal when Hill snagged a point-blank shot from Roope Hintz, who then threw his back in disbelief.

Like in the first period, the Knights had a goal in the second quickly answered by one from the Stars. Stephenson scored from the left circle at 16:40 of the period, and Robertson knocked his own rebounds 2:09 later to make it 2-2. Stephenson tied the Knights’ record with his eight playoff goal this year, and Robertson had his fifth of the series.

Sabres sign Minnesota defenseman Ryan Johnston to 2-year rookie contract

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres ended a lengthy wait by signing Ryan Johnston to a two-year, entry level contract more than a month after the defenseman completed his senior college season at Minnesota.

Johnston will report immediately to the Sabres’ American Hockey League affiliate in Rochester, whose best-of-seven Eastern Conference final playoff series against Hershey is tied at 1.

From Southern California, Johnston is listed at 6-feet and 170 pounds and was selected 31st in 2019 draft.

His puck-moving skills fit Buffalo’s style of play, Johnston finished his college career with nine goals and 59 points in 143 career games, including four goals and 18 points in 40 games this year. He reached the NCAA’s Frozen Four in each of his final two seasons, with the Gophers losing in the semifinals last year, followed by a 3-2 overtime loss to Quinnipiac in the championship game last month.

He also had a goal and three assists in seven games representing the U.S. team that won gold at the 2021 world junior championships.

Johnston, who turns 22 in July, had the option to wait until August when he would’ve become an unrestricted free agent and eligible to sign with any team. Because Johnston was first-round pick, the Sabres would’ve been compensated with a 2024 second-round selection had he signed elsewhere.

Both sides are banking on the player’s age and college experience to enable Johnston to make the jump to the NHL within the next two seasons. The Sabres will still control Johnston’s rights as a restricted free agent once his entry-level contract expires.

Joe Pavelski scores on OT power play, Stars beat Golden Knights 3-2 to avoid West sweep

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DALLAS — Joe Pavelski admits that he probably appreciates the big playoff goals more the later he gets in his career. But they all still feel just as good, and his latest kept the season alive for the Dallas Stars.

“Just really living in the moment,” Pavelski said. “A tremendous feeling for sure, and glad we could play another game, and go from there and try to extend it.”

The 38-year-old Pavelski scored on a power play at 3:18 of overtime – a one-timer from the middle of the left circle to the far post – and the Stars avoided a sweep in the Western Conference Final with a 3-2 victory over the Vegas Golden Knights.

Jason Robertson scored twice for his first career multigoal playoff game for Dallas, which played without suspended captain Jamie Benn.

“We’re looking for goals and that’s kind of my responsibility I put on myself,” Robertson said. “I know these playoffs have been tough. … I was able to get the bounces that we needed tonight.”

Jake Oettinger had 37 saves, two nights after the 24-year-old Stars goalie was pulled 7:10 into Game 3 after allowing three goals on five shots.

The Stars had the man advantage in overtime after Brayden McNabb‘s high-sticking penalty on Ty Dellandrea. Fifty seconds into the power play, Pavelski scored on a pass from Miro Heiskanen. They won for the first time in their five OT games this postseason – Vegas won the first two games of this series past regulation.

It was only the second Vegas penalty of the game, both high-sticking calls against McNabb. His penalty on Pavelski late in the first period set up the power play when Robertson scored his first goal with some nifty stickwork.

Pavelski, in his 15th NHL season and still looking for his first Stanley Cup, scored his ninth goal in 12 games this postseason, but his first in five games. He has 73 career postseason goals – the most for U.S.-born players and the most among all active players.

“He’s ageless. … I’ve seen that movie over and over again. Never gets old,” Stars coach Pete DeBoer said. “He lives for those moments and he wants to be in those situations. Always has, and delivers almost every time.”

Benn was suspended two games by the NHL on Wednesday for his cross-check with his stick landing near the neck of Vegas captain Mark Stone in the first two minutes of Game 3 on Tuesday night. Benn also will miss Game 5 on Saturday night in Las Vegas.

William Karlsson and Jonathan Marchessault scored for Vegas. Adin Hill had his five-game winning streak snapped. He made 39 saves, including a game-saver with his extended left leg without about two minutes left in regulation on rookie Fredrik Olofsson’s swiping try in his first career playoff game.

“Our effort wasn’t good enough. Closing a series is probably the hardest game in a series, right, so it just wasn’t good enough from our group,” Marchessault said. “It was still a one-goal game in overtime. It was right there for us.”

Karlsson and Marchessault are among six of the original Vegas players still on the team from the inaugural 2017-18 season that ended with the Knights playing for the Stanley Cup, though they lost in five games to the Washington Capitals after winning the first game.

Vegas missed a chance to complete a sweep, a night after the Florida Panthers finished off a sweep of the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference Final.

Vegas took a 2-1 lead midway through the second period when Marchessault, after whacking his stick on the back of Ryan Suter in front of the net, scored on a pass between the Stars defenseman’s legs from McNabb, another original Golden Knight.

Robertson’s tying goal late in that period came on a ricochet off the back board just seconds after he had another shot hit the post. That was the fourth goal of this series, and sixth in the playoffs, after this regular season becoming the first Dallas player with a 100-point season.

On his first goal late in the first that tied it 1-1, Robertson deflected Heiskanen’s shot from just inside the blue line up into the air. As Hill was trying to secure the puck into his glove, Robertson knocked it free and then reached around and swiped the puck into the net with his stick parallel to the ice.

With former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson and wrestling great Ric Flair both in the building wearing Stars jerseys Dallas was avoided being swept in the playoffs for the first time since 2001 against St. Louis in the second round. This was the Stars’ 21st playoff series since then.

The Golden Knights scored first again – though not like those three quick goals in Game 3 that led to the earliest exit ever for Oettinger.

Karlsson pushed the puck up and skated to the front of the net after passing to Nicolas Roy, whose pass through traffic went off a Dallas stick before Reilly Smith got it just inside the right circle and took a shot. Karlsson’s deflection past Oettinger only 4:17 into the game was his eighth goal this postseason.

“There were a lot of rush chances,” said Smith, also with Vegas since the beginning. “I don’t think we did a good enough job of making it difficult on them. So we get another opportunity in two days.”

Tkachuk sends Panthers to Stanley Cup Final, after topping Hurricanes 4-3 for sweep

panthers stanley cup final
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SUNRISE, Fla. — Matthew Tkachuk delivered for Florida, again. Sergei Bobrovsky denied Carolina, again.

The wait is over: After 27 years, the Florida Panthers – a hockey punchline no more – are again going to play for the game’s grandest prize.

Tkachuk got his second goal of the game with 4.9 seconds left, lifting the Panthers past the Carolina Hurricanes 4-3 and into the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1996 after sweeping the Eastern Conference final.

The Panthers will play either Vegas or Dallas for the Stanley Cup starting sometime next week; Vegas currently leads the Western Conference title series 3-0.

“This was pure joy,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said.

Bobrovsky stopped 36 shots to cap his stellar series – four games, four one-goal wins, three of them basically in sudden death, a .966 save percentage after stopping 174 of the 180 shots he faced. The first two wins were in overtime, and this one may as well have been.

The Panthers scored 10 goals in the series, and Bobrovsky ensured those were all they needed. They were the No. 8 seed, the last team in, the longest of long shots – which is consistent with their history, after not winning a single playoff series in 26 years, a drought that ended last season.

And now, beasts of the East. Tkachuk arrived last summer saying he wanted to bring Florida a Cup. He’s four wins away.

“It’s amazing,” Bobrovsky said. “We showed the resilience … and we’re lucky to have Chucky on our side. He knows how to score big goals.”

NHL Senior Vice President Brian Jennings was the one tasked with presenting the Prince of Wales Trophy. After some photos, Aleksander Barkov – the captain who had two assists, one of them on the game-winner – grabbed it, and skated it away. Some teams touch it. Some don’t. A few of the Panthers did, but Barkov didn’t pass it around.

That’ll wait for the big prize.

“It’s hard to explain right now. Everything just happened so quick,” Barkov said. “It means a lot. It definitely does. … It hasn’t been easy and nobody said it’s going to be easy.”

Added Tkachuk: “We earned that thing, and definitely didn’t do it the easy way. We earned it.”

Ryan Lomberg and Anthony Duclair had the other goals for Florida, which swept a series for the first time in franchise history.

Jordan Staal – his brothers Eric and Marc play for the Panthers – took a tripping penalty with 57 seconds left in regulation, setting up the power-play that Tkachuk finished off after getting into the slot and beating Frederik Andersen to set off a wild celebration.

“Eastern Conference champions,” Florida defenseman Aaron Ekblad said. “It’s really cool. No doubt about it. But you know, at the end of the day, we have our eyes on something different.”

Toy rats – the Panthers’ tradition, a nod to the unwanted locker room guests from Florida’s old arena in 1996 – sailed down from the stands, and the goal needed to survive an official review. But the rats were picked up, the goal was deemed good, and 27 years of waiting was officially over 4.9 seconds later.

Jesper Fast seemed like he might have saved the season for Carolina, getting a tying goal with 3:22 left in regulation. Paul Stastny and Teuvo Teravainen had the first two goals of the night for the Hurricanes, while Brady Skjei and Jordan Martinook each had two assists. Andersen stopped 21 shots.

“Everyone’s going to say, ‘You got swept.’ That’s not what happened,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “I watched the game. I’m there. I’m cutting the games. We’re in the game. We didn’t lose four games. We got beat, but we were right there. This could have went the other way. It could have been four games the other way.”

That wasn’t sour grapes. He was right. A bounce here, a bounce there, a Bobrovsky not here, a Bobrovsky not there, and this series could have gone much differently.

But Bob was his best. Tkachuk was clutch, over and over. And Florida is as close to a Cup as it has ever been; the Panthers were swept by Colorado in the 1996 final.

Towels waved, strobe lights flashed, and the fans wasted no time letting the Panthers know that they were ready to a clincher.

Tkachuk made it 2-0 on the power play midway through the first. Carolina – a 113-point, division-championship-winning team in the regular season – made it 2-1 later in the first on Stastny’s goal, and Teravainen tied it early in the second.

Lomberg’s goal midway through the second gave Florida the lead again. It stayed that way until Fast got the equalizer with 3:22 left, and then Tkachuk finished it off – getting the Panthers to the title round in his first season.

“It’s been unbelievable since July since I got here,” Tkachuk said. “And hopefully we can cap off this amazing year.”


Panthers general manager Bill Zito was announced earlier Wednesday as a finalist for NHL GM of the year. … Tkachuk’s two goals gave him 21 points in the playoffs – extending his Florida single-season postseason record, which was 17 by Dave Lowry in 1996. … Slavin was quickly ruled out for the remainder of the game after Bennett’s hit, with what the Hurricanes said was “an upper-body injury.” Slavin wobbled as he tried to get to his feet. … Miami Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel – who has also been a regular at Miami Heat games during their playoff run this spring – banged the drum before the game. When done, without a mic to drop, he simply dropped the mallet instead.


Tkachuk’s goal midway through the opening period put Florida up 2-0 – and marked the first time, in nearly 14 periods of play to that point, that a team had a two-goal lead in this series. Every bit of action came with the score tied or someone up by one in the first 272 minutes (including all the overtimes) of the series.