Roundtable: Expanding the NHL playoff format; Penguins’ woes

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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

Hughes has first NHL hat trick, Devils beat Capitals 5-1

Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports
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NEWARK, N.J. – Jack Hughes had his first career NHL hat trick, Vitek Vanecek made 38 saves against his former team and the New Jersey Devils beat the Washington Capitals 5-1 on Saturday for coach Lindy Ruff’s 800th victory.

“It’s exciting,” Hughes said. “Couple of two-goal games in my career, so nice to cap it off with the third one tonight.”

Ruff became the fifth NHL coach to reach the 800-victory mark. The former Buffalo player won 571 games with the Sabres from 1997-2011. He had 165 wins in five seasons with Dallas and has 64 in two-plus seasons with New Jersey.

“It means I’ve been around a long time,” Ruff cracked. “Great to win the game. Again, you got to do a lot of right things, have good teams, and the way our team is playing I have to give them a lot of credit for getting me there.”

The Atlantic Division-leading Devils have won two in a row after seeing their franchise-record 13-game winning streak snapped by Toronto.

Devils captain Nico Hischier and Fabian Zetterlund also scored.

John Carlson scored for Washington and Charlie Lindgren made 24 saves.

“Not scoring goals, not capitalizing on our chances,” Carlson said. “We’ve had our chances, especially today, but we only walked away with one goal. We could have had five or six. It’s just not going in right now.”

Vanecek, meanwhile, was hoping for the shutout against a familiar foe.

“That would have been nice, but that’s hockey,” Vanecek said, “For sure you’re trying, but not every time; the win is more important.”

Hischier opened up the scoring with his 10th goal of the season midway through the first period on a power play after Alexander Ovechkin was called for slashing.

Hughes wrapped the puck around goalie Lindgren’s right leg and the goal post to put the Devils up 2-0 5:59 into the second period. Hughes appeared to have lost his angle on the goal when he ripped a shot off Lindgren’s face mask and into the net midway through the period for his 10th goal of the season to give New Jersey a 3-0 lead.

The 2019 No. 1 overall draft pick added his third midway through the third period as hats rained down on the ice with New Jersey up 4-0.

“You want to continue to play the right way, but if an opportunity comes you want to definitely put it in the back of the net with authority,” Hughes said. “So tonight, I was able to cap it off and it was nice.”

Fabian Zetterlund capped the scoring for New Jersey late in the third period.

NOTES: The Devils improved to 16-0-0 this season when Hischier has a point. New Jersey’s Nathan Bastain (upper body) did not return after the first period. . Ovechkin is still nine goals away from 800 and 11 from passing Gordie Howe for second place on the NHL goals list.

UP NEXT

Capitals: At Vancouver on Tuesday night.

Devils: At the New York Rangers on Monday night.

Bruins set NHL record with 12 straight home wins to start season

Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports
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BOSTON — The Boston Bruins set the NHL record for most home victories to start a season with their 12th straight, topping the Carolina Hurricanes 3-2 in overtime with a power-play goal from David Pastrnak.

The Bruins broke the mark of 11 that was set by the 1963-64 Chicago Blackhawks and equaled by the Florida Panthers last season.

“That felt awesome,” Bruins first-year coach Jim Montgomery said. “We talked about it after the second (period) going into the third. There’s been a lot of great teams in this league and you’re able to set a precedent, break a record. It’s pretty special and it doesn’t happen if those guys don’t believe in themselves like they do.”

Boston, which trailed 2-0 late in the second period, tied it with 9:33 left in regulation when David Krejci scored his second of the game on a shot from the right point.

“It’s never fun being down going into the third, you’re sitting in here (in the locker room) trying to figure it out,” Krejci said. “You want to come out and do the job, something special on the line. It’s hard to win in this league. To get 12 in a row at home is pretty special.”

In overtime, Carolina was playing shorthanded after being called for too many men on the ice when Pastrnak one-timed a pass from Brad Marchand inside the far post from above the left circle.

“It was a big win for us, obviously, coming from behind,” Pastrnak said.

Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Stefan Noesen each scored a power-play goal for Carolina, and Pyotr Kochetkov made 38 saves. The Hurricanes lost their fifth straight.

In a rematch of last spring’s opening-round playoff series that the Hurricanes won in seven games, Carolina shutout the NHL’s highest scoring team for nearly two periods and jumped ahead a pair of power-play goals in the opening period.

“We took too many penalties. That’s hurting us right now,” Kotaniemi said. “I think 5-on-5 we’re doing a really good job. We started good tonight and couldn’t keep that up.”

Boston’s tying goal was originally disallowed because of goaltender interference on Nick Foligno but overturned on a coach’s challenge after it was ruled that he was nudged into the crease by Carolina defenseman Brett Pesce.

Boston starting goaltender Linus Ullmark made 28 saves but had to leave with 13:03 left in the third period with an undisclosed upper-body injury. Teammate Connor Clifton had jumped on him to block a shot during a scramble. Jeremy Swayman made six stops in relief.

Carolina’s Noesen scored at 6:34 in to make it 1-0. And with five minutes left in the period, Kotkaniemi collected the puck near the side of the net after Seth Jarvis‘ shot bounced off the back glass and slipped it inside the post at 15:05.

Krejci scored for Boston with 31 seconds left in the second.

Boston came in with a league-high 82 goals in 20 games (4.10 per game), but it was held to relatively few chances despite getting a 5-on-3 power-play advantage early on.

TAKE NOTE

The Bruins honored captain Patrice Bergeron, who recorded his 1,000th career point when the team was on the road against Tampa Bay, with a message on the Jumbotron. The crowd gave him a standing ovation.

Bergeron became just the fourth Bruin to reach the mark, joining Hall of Famers Ray Bourque (1,506), Johnny Bucyk (1,339) and Phil Esposito (1,012).

UP NEXT

Hurricanes: Host the Calgary Flames.

Bruins: Host the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Predators postpone 2 games due to Nashville water main break

Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. —  The Nashville Predators postponed two home games because of a water main break that soaked their downtown arena.

Hours after the Predators decided they couldn’t play against the Colorado Avalanche, the team announced it also postponed the game against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Makeup dates for the two games will be announced later.

The NHL said the water main break that occurred “significantly impacted the event level” of Bridgestone Arena. Team locker rooms and the ice surface are on the event level.

Predators President and CEO Sean Henry told reporters that the water in the event level ranged from 3 inches to 3 feet.

“We’re assessing it right now. We’re remediating it,” Henry said. “The good thing is, the water got shut off, the city responded in a pretty fast manner. I don’t think anyone is ready for things like this the Friday after Thanksgiving.”

Video posted by a WTVF-TV reporter shows the water puddled up on the main floor’s concourse area and the team store. The team was forced to close the store until further notice, pointing shoppers online for Black Friday specials.

The Predators’ next home game is now scheduled for Tuesday against the Anaheim Ducks.

The water issue also resulted in a switch to a different venue for a college hockey game between Northeastern and Western Michigan. They also had been scheduled to play at Bridgestone Arena, a game that was moved to Ford Ice Center Bellevue.

Rangers trade Ryan Reaves to Wild for 5th-round pick in 2025

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports
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ST. PAUL, Minn. — The New York Rangers traded enforcer Ryan Reaves to the Minnesota Wild for a 2025 fifth-round pick.

Reaves had been a healthy scratch for eight of the past 12 games for the Rangers. He gives struggling Minnesota some extra muscle and a veteran presence.

The 35-year-old is signed through only the rest of this season at a $1.75 million salary cap hit. He has no points and 12 penalty minutes in 12 games of his second season with New York.

Reaves has played in 869 NHL regular-season and playoff games for the St. Louis Blues, Pittsburgh Penguins, Vegas Golden Knights and Rangers. He was with the Golden Knights during their inaugural season in 2017-18 when the reached the Stanley Cup Final.