Lucky 13: Penguins survive rocky path to playoff spot

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Erik Gudbranson didn’t want to be ”that guy,” the one who whooped it up after the Pittsburgh Penguins locked down a playoff spot for the 13th straight year with a win over the Detroit Red Wings on Thursday night.

The veteran defenseman knows seasons in Pittsburgh are judged solely on whether they end with a mid-June parade through downtown, and that securing one of the 16 spots in the Stanley Cup tournament is just one small step in the process. He’s well aware many of the guys that sit next to him on the bench have never known what it’s like to trade in their hockey sticks for golf clubs in early April.

So Gudbranson – acquired in a trade deadline deal with Vancouver – played it cool. At least until he got home. Only while on the phone talking to his mom did he celebrate reaching the playoffs for just the third time in his eight-year career.

”I was like, ‘Sweet, this is unreal. I’m really pumped about this,”’ he said with a laugh.

It was much the same for forward Nick Bjugstad, who reached the postseason just once during six seasons in Florida.

Brought over along with forward Jared McCann in a deal with Florida on Feb. 1, Bjugstad played a critical role in the Penguins emerging from an early funk to extend a playoff run that started in 2007, the second-longest active streak in North American professional sports behind the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs, who are at 22 years and counting.

”I’m sure (my teammates), it’s pretty standard for them,” Bjugstad said. ”For (new guys), it’s great and exciting for us to come into a team that put themselves in a position.”

A position that looked iffy at times over the past six months. Pittsburgh found itself tied for last in the Eastern Conference in mid-November, endured significant injuries to center Evgeni Malkin, defensemen Kris Letang, Olli Maatta and Justin Schultz along with goaltender Matt Murray and saw forward Phil Kessel and Patric Hornqvist – both key parts of the core that led the franchise to back-to-back championships in 2016 and 2017 – go through extended scoring droughts.

Yet there they were on Thursday night, broadly smiling in the postgame handshake line after assuring themselves of a chance to play beyond Saturday’s regular-season finale against the New York Rangers. Even captain Sidney Crosby, who has his name etched on the Stanley Cup three times, took a moment to drink it in.

”I think I appreciate it more now than I did in the past just knowing how difficult it is to get there, how much fun it is to play in the playoffs and what those games mean,” Crosby said. ”I think everybody is different. It’s an expectation but at the same time experience doesn’t guarantee anything.”

One of the reasons Crosby joined in an optional practice on Friday. The Eastern Conference is so jammed heading into the 82nd game that the Penguins could wind up as high as second in the Metropolitan Division behind Washington or finish as the top wild card. They could start on home ice against the New York Islanders or find themselves on the road against rival Washington in the opening round.

The stakes are high, but as Bjugstad pointed out, they’ve been high for months. So don’t expect the players to waste time Saturday night glancing up at the scoreboard to get an early lead on their first playoff destination. It’s not exactly productive and ultimately they don’t really care. They’re in. For now, that’s enough.

”There’s a lot of that, I think speculation,” Bjugstad said. ”And as players you’ve just got to kind of focus on your own game. I think for the most part we did a pretty good job here at the tail end of the season.”

Not that Pittsburgh really had a choice. The Penguins are 11-4-2 since March 1, allowing more than three goals just four times in that span by playing the kind of sound defense in their end that was hard to come by during the first five months of the season. The additions of Bjugstad, McCann and Gudbranson provided a welcome addition of fresh legs and a dash of grit.

The Penguins head to the playoffs with something akin to momentum and a chip of sorts on their shoulders. For long stretches they hardly looked like the team that’s been among the perennial Stanley Cup favorites for more than a decade.

Yet here they are anyway, just like always. If anything, the early troubles Pittsburgh endured and ultimately overcame could make the Penguins a tough out when the conference quarterfinals start next week.

”We believe we’ve got a competitive group here, so it’s really a credit to the players,” coach Mike Sullivan said. ”I told them that (Thursday night) because it’s a hard road to make the playoffs. We’ve accomplished our first goal but it’s not the ultimate goal. We’ve got to continue to push one another to get our games to another level, which is going to be required for us to continue to have success.”

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Looking back at the Blackhawks’ Scott Foster game

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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to take an occasional look back at some notable “this day in hockey history” moments. Today, Scott Foster gets to play a game for the Chicago Blackhawks. 

Before there was David Ayres with the Carolina Hurricanes, there was Scott Foster with the Chicago Blackhawks.

It was two years ago Sunday that Foster, an accountant by day, was forced into action as the emergency goalie against the Winnipeg Jets.

He stopped all seven shots he faced in 14 minutes of ice-time to help the Blackhawks hold on for a 6-2 win. You can see the highlights of his performance in the video above.

At the time of Foster’s appearance the entire thing was pretty unheard of because the NHL hadn’t really seen an appearance like this — a non-professional player forced into a game — in the modern era.

It all happened because of a series of goaltending injuries that left the Blackhawks shorthanded at the position. Chicago signed Foster to an amateur tryout contract the night before the game due to injuries to Corey Crawford and Anton Forsberg. He was supposed to serve as the backup to rookie Collin Delia as he made his NHL debut. Everything was going as planned until Delia was also injured early in the the third period, forcing Foster into the game.

His performance earned him No. 1 star honors for the game.

Because the Blackhawks were already comfortably ahead when he entered the game he did not get credit for the win. It was probably the biggest highlight of the season for the Blackhawks as they missed the playoffs for the first time in nearly a decade.

At the time Foster’s appearance and performance was mostly celebrated and treated as the feel-good story that it was.

But when Ayres had to enter a game for the Hurricanes this season — and ended up being the winning goalie against the Toronto Maple Leafs — there was a very vocal minority that thought it was an embarrassment for the league and that, maybe, the emergency goalie protocol needed to be changed. It was eventually decided that no change needed to be made. Even with two instances in the past couple of years it is still a very rare occurrence that needs a very specific set of circumstances to actually happen.

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.

Olympic hockey on NBC: 2018 women’s gold medal game

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Hockey Week in America continues Sunday with the unforgettable Olympic women’s gold medal game in 2018.

NBC will present the women’s gold medal game at the 2018 Olympics between Team USA and Canada, won by the Americans in a 3-2 shootout in PyeongChang. With the victory, the women’s ice hockey team claimed its second ever Olympic gold medal and ended the Canadians streak of four straight gold medals.

Kenny Albert, AJ Mleczko and Pierre McGuire called the gold medal game in PyeongChang.

You can catch a replay of the 2018 women’s Olympics gold medal game Sunday on NBC at 1 p.m. ET or watch the stream here.

SUNDAY NIGHT SCHEDULE
• Maple Leafs vs. Bruins (Game 7, Round 1, 2013 playoffs) – 8 p.m. ET on NBCSN
• Golden Knights vs. Sharks (Game 7, Round 1, 2019 playoffs) – 10 p.m. ET on NBCSN
• Kings vs. Blackhawks (Game 7, Western Conference Final, 2014 playoffs) – 12 a.m. ET on NBCSN

More information about NBC Sports’ Hockey Week in America can be found here.

Capitals vs. Penguins on NBCSN: Kuznetsov’s overtime series clincher

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Hockey Week in America continues Saturday with memorable playoff performances in the Sidney Crosby vs. Alex Ovechkin rivalry.

In 2018, the Capitals and Penguins met in Round 2 for the third straight postseason. Pittsburgh won the previous two series en route to back-to-back Stanley Cup titles. But this time Washington would have its revenge. Evgeny Kuznetsov would score in overtime of Game 6 to help the Capitals advance as they went on to win their first championship in franchise history.

You can catch Game 6 of the 2018 Penguins vs. Capitals playoff game Saturday night on NBCSN beginning at 12:30 a.m. ET or watch the stream here.

SATURDAY NIGHT SCHEDULE
• Capitals vs. Penguins (Game 6, Round 2, 2018 playoffs) – 12:30 a.m. on NBCSN

More information about NBC Sports’ Hockey Week in America can be found here.

Capitals vs. Penguins on NBCSN: Bonino Bonino Bonino!

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Hockey Week in America continues Saturday with memorable playoff performances in the Sidney Crosby vs. Alex Ovechkin rivalry.

The Capitals needed a win to force Game 7 in Round 2 of the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Facing the Penguins yet again, the clawed back from a 3-1 third period deficit to force overtime. It was there, however, that Pittsburgh once again topped their Metro Division rivals. This time it was Nick Bonino breaking their hearts to put the Penguins on a path to the franchise’s fourth Stanley Cup title.

You can catch Game 6 of the 2016 Penguins vs. Capitals playoff game Saturday on NBCSN beginning at 10 p.m. ET or watch the stream here.

SATURDAY NIGHT SCHEDULE
• Capitals vs. Penguins (Game 6, Round 2, 2016 playoffs) – 10 p.m. on NBCSN
• Capitals vs. Penguins (Game 6, Round 2, 2018 playoffs) – 12:30 a.m. on NBCSN

More information about NBC Sports’ Hockey Week in America can be found here.

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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.