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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Trade: Islanders land Devils captain Andy Greene

Islanders trade for Andy Greene Devils get pick, prospect
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The New Jersey Devils aren’t waiting until the trade deadline to start selling. The Islanders landed Devils captain Andy Greene in a trade on Sunday, and New Jersey may end up making more moves soon.

Islanders trade for Greene, Devils’ return highlighted by second-rounder

The Islanders treasure defense and grit under Barry Trotz. The Islanders got what they wanted, then, in a trade for Greene.

Chances are, Lou Lamoriello looks at Greene as a replacement for injured blueliner Adam Pelech.

The Devils? Well, they landed a pretty nice haul for a defenseman who wouldn’t make sense for their rebuild. That should soothe any discomfort that may come from sending Greene in a trade to the rival Islanders.

Islanders receive in trade: Greene, 37, on an expiring contract ($5M AAV); no word yet if there was salary retention

Devils get: 2021 Islanders second-round pick, prospect David Quenneville

Greene doesn’t blow you away offensively, by any means, with two goals and 11 points in 53 games. Greene also isn’t an analytics darling.

The Islanders march to the beat of their own drum, though, so this Hockey Viz heat map won’t phase them:

Greene Viz trade to Islanders

Greene fits the Islanders’ M.O. of being an experienced, defense-first (second, and third) player.

One interesting part of the gamble is that it’s a 2021 second-rounder, rather than the Islanders’ 2020. Will the Islanders be a better team in 2020-21, or could recent stumbles indicate a bumpier future? The Devils will be rooting for the Islanders slip like the Senators watching the Sharks this season.

Quenneville, 21, was a seventh-round pick (200th overall) in 2016.

TSN’s Darren Dreger reports that Blake Coleman isn’t suiting up for Sunday’s game, inspiring new rumblings.

The Devils shot down a report that Coleman was headed to the Avalanche, but that doesn’t mean a Coleman trade won’t happen in some later form. Stay tuned.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Black Girl Hockey Club bolsters fan inclusivity

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NBC Sports celebrates Hockey Day in America this Sunday with an NHL tripleheader on NBC and NBCSN, as well as a collection of stories and features which explore hockey’s impact and influence across the U.S.

At the beginning of the 2018 NHL season, Renee Hess founded the Black Girl Hockey Club to create a comfortable atmosphere for black women to watch hockey games together.

Hess became interested in hockey years ago after running into a crowd of excited Penguins fans while she was working in Pittsburgh. The first game left Hess hooked, but she noticed that there weren’t a lot of people like her in the stands.

Hess found a handful of other black female hockey fans on Twitter and they created a group: the Black Girl Hockey Club. The must-follow group uses this platform to discuss the sport and meet in-person at games across the country. It looks they’re currently experiencing what the Carolina Hurricanes have to offer:

The Black Girl Hockey Club boasts a membership exceeding 200 people. Their story just seems to be beginning, yet they already rank as one of the best stories from “Hockey Day in America.”

You can follow their events and donate to Black Girl Hockey Club here.

(Oh, and Hess must have been happy to see the Penguins win on Sunday, too.)

NBC Hockey Day in America remaining schedule

Bruins at Rangers – NBC – 3 p.m. ET (Watch live) – Mike Tirico will call the matchup at Madison Square Garden alongside Pierre McGuire and Mike Milbury.

Blues at Predators – NBCSN –  6 p.m. ET (Watch live) – Chris Cuthbert will call the action from Bridgestone Arena alongside Darren Pang.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Penguins roll through Red Wings, gain ground in Metro race

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On paper, this seemed like it would be an easy win. Hockey is one of the more unpredictable sports, though, so credit the Penguins with taking care of business against the Red Wings. The Penguins won 5-1 to kick off “Hockey Day in America” on Sunday, improving their odds of taking the Metro crown.

Detroit got off to a 1-0 lead, but it ended up being short-lived. The Penguins tied it up 1-1 when Sam Lafferty (or was it Patric Hornqvist?) scored less than three minutes after Valtteri Filppula made it 1-0.

Hornqvist played a big role in the Penguins growing a 2-1 lead to a 5-1 rout during the second period. From there, it was automatic for Pittsburgh.

It turns out Hornqvist didn’t quite get a hat trick as it originally appeared, but he still had a big game. Sidney Crosby scored one goal and one assist, while Matt Murray stopped 26 out of 27 shots.

The Penguins set the stage for a potentially interesting race for the Metro Division title. They’ve been gaining quite a bit on the Washington Capitals:

  1. Capitals: 79 points in 58 games played (37-16-5)
  2. Penguins: 78 points in 57 GP (36-15-6)

NBC and NBCSN Hockey Day in America schedule

Bruins at Rangers – NBC – 3 p.m. ET (Watch live) – Mike Tirico will call the matchup at Madison Square Garden alongside Pierre McGuire and Mike Milbury.

Blues at Predators – NBCSN –  6 p.m. ET (Watch live) – Chris Cuthbert will call the action from Bridgestone Arena alongside Darren Pang.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

WATCH LIVE: Rangers vs. Bruins on Hockey Day in America

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NBC’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Sunday’s matchup between the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers. Coverage begins at 3 p.m. ET on NBC. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Boston looks to be headed to its fourth straight postseason and potentially its first division title since 2013-14, when they won the Presidents’ Trophy with 117 points. They have finished second in the Atlantic in each of the previous two seasons behind the Lightning.

New York sits seven points out of the East Wild Card and enters this matchup on a season-high four-game winning streak after a 3-1 victory at Columbus on Friday to close a three-game road trip. On this run, the Rangers have scored three-plus goals in each game and allowed just six goals total.

After scoring a hat trick against Montreal on Wednesday, David Pastrnak scored again against Detroit on Saturday. He leads the NHL with 42 goal this season and is second in the league with a career-high 82 points. He’s the first Bruin to surpass the 40-goal mark since Glen Murray scored 44 in 2002-03 and Pasta is now on pace for 58 goals – which would be the most by a Bruin since Phil Esposito led the league in goals in 1974-75 (61).

Igor Shesterkin has opened eyes in recent weeks as the potential heir apparent to future Hall of Famer Henrik Lundqvist. After starting his career in the KHL, Shesterkin had been with the Hartford Wolf Pack (AHL) this season before the Rangers called him up in early January. Shesterkin won his first two NHL starts and has gone 6-1-0 with a 2.18 GAA & .941 SV% thus far in his Rangers career, making 40+ saves in three of his six wins.

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 3 P.M. ET ON NBC]

WHAT: Boston Bruins at New York Rangers
WHERE: Madison Square Garden
WHEN: Sunday, Feb. 16, 3 p.m. ET
TV: NBC
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Bruins-Rangers stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

BRUINS
Brad MarchandPatrice Bergeron – David Pastrnak
Jake DeBruskDavid KrejciKarson Kuhlman
Anders BjorkCharlie CoyleDanton Heinen
Joakim NordstromSean KuralyChris Wagner

Zdeno CharaCharlie McAvoy
Torey KrugBrandon Carlo
Matt Grzelcyk – Jeremy Lauzon

Starting goalie: Jaroslav Halak

RANGERS
Chris KreiderMika ZibanejadPavel Buchnevich
Artemi PanarinRyan StromeJesper Fast
Phil Di GiuseppeFilip ChytilKaapo Kakko
Brendan LemieuxBrett HowdenGreg McKegg

Brady SkjeiJacob Trouba
Brendan SmithMarc Staal
Ryan LindgrenAdam Fox

Starting goalie: Alexander Georgiev

NBC Sports celebrates Hockey Day in America this Sunday with an NHL tripleheader on NBC and NBCSN, as well as a collection of stories and features which explore hockey’s impact and influence across the U.S.

Coverage shifts to NBCSN at 6 p.m. ET for a Central Division battle as Ryan O’Reilly and the St. Louis Blues head to Music City to battle Roman Josi and the Nashville Predators.

Hockey Day in America pre-game coverage begins at noon ET on NBC from the plaza outside Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn. Host Liam McHugh and analysts Keith Jones, Anson Carter, and Brian Boucher will anchor pre-game, intermission, and post-game coverage throughout the day.