Recent Cup champs show small trades can make big difference

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Nick Jensen was just a Minnesota boy who played his first three seasons in Detroit.

Then he walked into the Washington Capitals’ locker room and saw the likes of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov, who welcomed their newest defenseman with open arms.

”I never knew them before this and I just see them on TV, and it’s a little star-striking right away,” Jensen said.

Jensen isn’t a star, but he and winger Carl Hagelin sure fit the mold of low key trade-deadline acquisitions who can pay big dividends during a long playoff run. The Capitals learned last year in getting defenseman Michal Kempny how a seemingly small trade can make a big difference, and the defending Stanley Cup champions are among the teams that made low-risk moves at last month’s trade deadline in hopes of reaping a high reward.

Vegas paid a big price to land winger Mark Stone, Winnipeg gave up its first-rounder for center Kevin Hayes and both teams are better for those pickups. Yet recent history shows contenders who tinkered rather than making a splash at the deadline got it right.

”To bring in people that are going to take major roles from some of your core guys, it starts to create some issues,” Washington coach Todd Reirden said. ”Any time you have a chance to improve your players and acquire depth and give them a better opportunity to win, you don’t ever pass it up. But it’s something that seems like it’s been a successful one for us last year with a little bit of an under the radar acquisition and then this year the same thing.”

Before the 2018 Capitals, the 2016 Penguins got Hagelin and defenseman Justin Schultz before the deadline, and a year later added Ron Hainsey and Mark Streit for blue line depth and repeated as champions even without Kris Letang. The 2015 Blackhawks similarly added forwards Antoine Vermette and Andrew Desjardins and defenseman Kimmo Timonen before winning their third championship in six seasons.

While Columbus went all in to get forwards Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel even with Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky set to be free agents, other playoff teams tweaked to fill existing holes. Nashville paid reasonable prices to upgrade up front with Wayne Simmonds and Mikael Granlund. Winnipeg made perhaps its most important pickup with unheralded defenseman Nathan Beaulieu and Pittsburgh responded to injuries by trading for defensemen Erik Gudbranson and Chris Wideman.

”We feel like we picked up some good pieces,” Predators coach Peter Laviolette said. ”But for the most part, this is the group that we’ve got to get on the page and get going in the right direction.”

Perhaps one reason minor deadline moves have as big an impact as substantial ones is there’s only a quarter of a season for players to get acclimated to their new teammates. It’s an ongoing process of watching video, studying and adjusting and it all happens on the fly in the midst of valuable games.

”You have to make an impact pretty quickly,” Gudbranson said. ”Just play my game, be physical, make the simple play, be solid and just communicate quite a bit.”

TICKING CLOCKS

NHL general managers have approved adding small digital clocks embedded in rink boards in all four corners beginning next season, an improvement that could add the odd goal or two because players won’t have to look up at a scoreboard for the time anymore.

”It’s a good idea,” Flyers winger James van Riemsdyk said. ”You have an awareness of how much time is on the clock no matter what, but to see it, especially toward the end of a period or whatever may be happening, I think it’s only a good thing for players to have that.”

The league’s Board of Governors must approve the idea first for it to become a reality in all arenas.

HITCH’S MEMORY

The goal that haunts Buffalo Sabres fans isn’t etched in Ken Hitchcock’s memory. Twenty years since he coached the Dallas Stars to the Cup – a series that ended with Brett Hull’s infamous ”skate in the crease” overtime goal – Hitchcock has barely watched the game.

”I watched the game that we lost to New Jersey (in the 2000 Final) 20 times, and I know every shift,” said Hitchcock, who now coaches Edmonton. ”I know everything that went on in that Jersey game. But I never looked at (Game 6 in 1999) until it came up in the summer on the NHL Network, and there was a one-hour highlight package that they show on games. That’s the first time I saw it.”

GAME OF THE WEEK

The Blue Jackets need all the points they can get as they claw for a playoff spot, and it doesn’t get much bigger than their game against the Penguins on Saturday night.

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    Penguins prospect Sam Poulin taking leave of absence

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    PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins forward prospect Sam Poulin is taking a leave of absence from the club’s American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

    Penguins general manager Ron Hextall announced on Wednesday that the 21-year-old Poulin, Pittsburgh’s first-round pick in the 2019 draft, is stepping away due to “personal reasons.”

    “The Penguins support Sam’s decision to take time away from hockey to focus on himself,” Hextall said in a release. “As with all of our players, our priority is them as individuals first. We look forward to having him back with the team when he is ready.”

    Hextall said Poulin will return home to Quebec and continue to work out on his own.

    Poulin made his NHL debut in October and had one assist in three games before heading back to the AHL. Poulin had four goals in 13 games for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton at the time of his decision.

    Nathan MacKinnon sidelined about a month with upper-body injury

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    DENVER — The injury-riddled Colorado Avalanche will be without leading scorer Nathan MacKinnon for about a month after he suffered an upper-body injury in a loss to Philadelphia.

    The team announced the news on social media.

    MacKinnon has eight goals and 26 assists for a team-best 34 points this season for the defending Stanley Cup champions. He joins a long list of banged-up players, including Valeri Nichushkin, Evan Rodrigues, Bowen Byram, Kurtis MacDermid, Josh Manson, Darren Helm and captain Gabriel Landeskog. Forward Artturi Lehkonen also missed the game in Philadelphia.

    The 27-year-old MacKinnon signed an eight-year extension in August. He was coming off a postseason in which he tied for the league lead with 13 goals, helping the Avalanche raise their third Stanley Cup in franchise history.

    Former Bruins coach Cassidy wins; Boston’s home streak ends

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    BOSTON — The Vegas Golden Knights made former Boston coach Bruce Cassidy’s return a success on Reilly Smith‘s score in the fifth round of the shootout, beating the Bruins 4-3 to end their NHL-record for home victories to open a season at 14 games.

    The 57-year-old Cassidy was fired by Boston following 5 1/2 seasons in June after the Bruins were eliminated by Carolina in the opening round of the playoffs.

    Eight days after he was let go, he was hired by Vegas.

    In a matchup of two of the league’s top three teams, Western conference-leading Vegas opened a 3-0 lead early in the second period on two goals by Paul Cotter and the other by Jonathan Marchessault before the Bruins started their comeback when Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak scored just over six minutes apart late in the period.

    They tied it on Taylor Hall‘s power-play goal 3:08 into the third when he spun in front and slipped a shot from the slot past goalie Logan Thompson.

    Smith had the only score in the shootout, slipping a forehand shot past goalie Jeremy Swayman.

    Cassidy took over as Boston’s interim coach on Feb. 7, 2016, before getting the head job that April. His teams made the playoffs all six seasons, including a trip to the 2019 Stanley Cup Final when they lost the seventh game at home against St. Louis.

    Cassidy knows what it sounds like in TD Garden with The Standells’ song “Dirty Water” blaring after Bruins’ wins.

    “Now that you brought it up, I’m used to hearing “Dirty Water” at the end of the game,” he said, smiling. “I’m glad I didn’t hear it tonight. The streak is irrelevant to me. It’s nice to come in and play well.”

    Boston lost for just the second time in 12 games.

    “This locker room sticks together, and we knew we were going to do something special tonight,” Swayman said. “It (stinks) losing, but we’re going to make sure we fix the problems.”

    The Bruins’ home-opening streak broke the record of 11 that was set by the 1963-64 Chicago Blackhawks and equaled by the Florida Panthers last season.

    Before the shootout, Thompson made 40 saves. Boston’s backup Swayman had 21.

    “This city meant a lot to him, and he was fired up ready to go,” Thompson said of Cassidy. “We went out there and tried to get him two points tonight.”

    Cotter collected William Karlsson‘s pass inside the left circle and unloaded a wrister under the crossbar 1:36 into the game.

    Marchessault stole Pastrnak’s attempted clearing pass, broke in alone and tucked in his own rebound to make it 2-0.

    Cotter’s second came 51 seconds into the second period when he slipped a wrister past Swayman’s glove.

    “We couldn’t get it done early, before the shootout. We had chances,” Pastrnak said. “It’s a tough one to swallow.”

    Vegas star forward Jack Eichel missed the game with a lower-body injury.

    TRIBUTE

    The Bruins played a video montage of Cassidy on the Jumbotron late in the opening period that ended with a picture of him and said: “Welcome back, Bruce.”

    The crowd gave him a nice ovation and he waved thanking them.

    “It’s a really nice gesture by the Bruins’ organization,” he said. “I appreciate it. I said all along that I have a tremendous amount of respect for them. I’m thankful they did it.”

    FOR THE RECORD

    Cassidy finished tied for third on the Bruins’ coaching list with Hall of Famer Milt Schmidt (1955-66) at 245 victories, behind Claude Julien’s (2008-17) 419 and Art Ross (1925-45) with 387.

    EXTRA SPECIAL TEAMS

    The Bruins entered the game ranked second in the league both with their power play (29.6%) and penalty killing (84.1%).

    UP NEXT

    Golden Knights: Host the New York Rangers.

    Bruins: At the Colorado Avalanche.

    Penguins plot a way forward as Letang recovers from stroke

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    PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang returned to the ice on Thursday, just three days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

    The “twirl” the longtime Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman took at the club’s practice facility was approved by team doctors, a spin designed to help Letang’s mental health and nothing else. While the 35-year-old remains upbeat, it remains far too early to put a timeline on when his familiar No. 58 will return to the lineup.

    Though Pittsburgh general manager Ron Hextall indicated this stroke isn’t as severe as the one Letang endured in 2014 – when a hole in the wall of his heart led to a stroke that forced him to miss two months – the six-time All-Star is continuing to undergo tests.

    There are no plans for Letang to participate in any sort of hockey-specific drills anytime soon, with coach Mike Sullivan stressing the club will “err on the side of caution” when it comes to whatever rehab Letang might need.

    While Letang – one of the most well-conditioned players in the NHL – essentially went through the motions by himself, his teammates were 30 minutes south at PPG Paints Arena getting ready for a visit from Vegas and trying to plot a way forward without one of the franchise cornerstones, at least in the short term.

    Letang made it a point to help break the news to the rest of the Penguins following a 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina on Tuesday. Pittsburgh scratched Letang from the lineup with an unspecified illness and he spent a portion of the game watching from the press box next to Hextall.

    Afterward, Letang informed a somber locker room about his condition, a revelation that came as a shock even as he did his best to reassure those around him that he was and is OK.

    “It’s very serious health stuff,” defenseman Chad Ruhwedel said. “You hear about strokes and it’s never really good so we’re just glad to see he’s doing well and everything is good with him.”

    Sullivan understands it would be practically impossible for any of the other defensemen on the roster to replicate what Letang brings to the ice, so he’s not going to ask any one player to try. There are few players at the position in the NHL who have Letang’s mix of speed, skill and almost bottomless energy.

    The highest-scoring defenseman in franchise history is averaging a team-best 23:54 of ice time and has long been a fixture on the power play and in just about every crucial late-game situation.

    “I just think Tanger is not an easy guy to replace,” Sullivan said. “I don’t think from a tactical standpoint things change drastically. It’s just personnel based. But as you know, personnel can mean a lot in those types of situations.”

    It’s more than that, however. This isn’t a routine injury. There’s an emotional component and an unknown element to Letang’s status even as the Penguins insist they don’t believe his condition is career-threatening.

    “This is a whole different circumstance than an ankle injury or a shoulder injury,” Sullivan said. “This is a very different circumstance.”

    Letang’s on-ice presence is just one aspect of his importance to a team that has never missed the playoffs since he made his debut in 2007. He’s become a mentor to younger teammates like 23-year-old defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph, who like Letang is French-Canadian and who, like Letang, plays with a graceful fluidity.

    Joseph, who declined to get into specifics about Letang’s message to the team on Tuesday night, believes the best thing the Penguins can do during Letang’s absence is attack the game with the same passion he’s shown for 17 seasons and counting.

    “The way he plays for the team every single night and the way he puts his heart and soul into the game on the ice, it’s the least we can do is have our thoughts of him whenever we get on the ice,” Joseph said.

    Sullivan shuffled the lineup on Tuesday, elevating veteran Jeff Petry and Brian Dumoulin to the top defensive pair. Petry possesses a skillset that’s not too far removed from Letang’s, but it’s also his first year in Pittsburgh. Asking him to provide the leadership that’s innate to Letang is unfair. It’s one of the reasons Sullivan is insistent that it will take a group effort to fill in for a singular presence.

    “We have some diversity on our blue line right now,” Sullivan said. “We feel like we have guys capable of stepping in and getting the job done for us and we’re going to try and do that.”