Penguins seek consistency as Stanley Cup Playoffs begin

Shortly after the Pittsburgh Penguins clinched their 13th consecutive Stanley Cup Playoff appearance, defenseman Kris Letang sat at his locker and was asked more than once about the significance of what is now — by far — the NHL’s longest active postseason streak.

Every single time he downplayed it as the minimum expectation for the team.

“I don’t expect anything less than that,” said Letang. “With the roster we put on the ice every year, with the quality of players we have, with [Sidney Crosby], [Evgeni Malkin], Phil [Kessel] and these guys, I think we should make it. The expectation is high in this dressing room and this year isn’t going to be any different. It’s the minimum expectation.”

Thanks to a season full of inconsistencies, significant injuries to key players, and at times just downright bad play, it took them until Game 81 to achieve that minimum expectation. But they eventually did it. Now that they are back in the playoffs, beginning their Round 1 series against the New York Islanders on Wednesday night (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN), the focus changes to the team’s ultimate goal and what is an almost unreachable bar given the expectations they have set for themselves over the past decade — trying to win yet another Stanley Cup.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

“I think once you get in the dance, it’s up for grabs for everybody,” said Letang. “Everybody has the same chances. I don’t think there’s a team that goes in there and goes, ah we’re just going to do a round and be happy with that. The ultimate goal is to go all the way.”

“For sure it is,” said coach Mike Sullivan was asked if it’s fair for the maximum expectation to still be a Stanley Cup.

“I think when we play the game the right way, I think we can compete with any team in the league. We have difference makers throughout the lineup. We have depth at all of our positions. We can get outstanding goaltending. I believe this group is capable of great things, but have to earn it every day.”

Trying to get a read on the this Penguins team has been a year-long challenge because they have looked capable of any possible outcome at any given time. Sometimes it depends on the game, sometimes it depends on the week. That holds true entering the playoffs where anything from a five-game loss in Round 1, to a Stanley Cup seems like a realistic outcome that wouldn’t — or shouldn’t — shock anyone that has watched this team with any regularity this season.

Most recently, the Penguins have finally started to look like the the team they are expected to be, and one that is perfectly capable of doing something special.

With Letang and Evgeni Malkin back in the lineup, and Brian Dumoulin rejoining the team at practice and looking like he could return as early as Game 1 of their Round 1 series against the New York Islanders, they are as healthy as they have been all season.

Matt Murray has been one of the most productive goalies in the league since mid-December and been playing some of the best hockey of his career.

They are not only getting the results in the standings with a 12-4-4 record since the trade deadline (third best in the league since then), but the process behind the results is as good as it can possibly be, and that might be even more important than the points in the standings. According to the analytics database at Natural Stat Trick, the Penguins are a top-five team in expected goals and high-danger scoring chances (they are actually first in this metric) since the deadline. While the approach from general manager Jim Rutherford has looked completely haphazard and at times directionless with the way the team makes trades and then quickly undoes them, you can not argue with the results that the Nick BjugstadJared McCann and Erik Gudbranson trades have produced.

Bjugstad and McCann have solidified the team’s forward depth and fit in their roles in a way their predecessors, Derick Brassard and Riley Sheahan, never did.

While the Gudbranson trade was immediately panned by a lot of people (including, uh, me) he has been an almost astonishingly good addition and has more than earned a roster spot once everyone on the blue line is healthy (which it seems they finally are).

When combined with the stars at the top of the lineup, including Crosby, Malkin, Letang, Kessel, and now 40-goal scorer Jake Guentzel, every possible ingredient is there for a lengthy Stanley Cup Playoff run, and perhaps even a championship if everything goes right.

[PHT Power Rankings: Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup]

But if there is one thing this Penguins team has shown us this season it’s that their biggest opponent may not be any one team in any one round, but their own inconsistency. It is something that has been a year-long battle for them on both a team and individual level.

For as good as the overall record turned out to be (only six teams in the entire league finished with more points), they still had too many stretches where they looked like a team that was deservedly on the playoff bubble. At one point this season they lost nine out of 10 games, a stretch that resulted in Rutherford publicly — and angrily — calling out most of the roster. Even during this late-season surge where they have upped their game to a championship level, there have been some issues that keep showing themselves, from a power play unit that bleeds chances and goals against, to a tendency to lose games late, losing three different games where they had leads in the final three minutes of games. That has left three extra points on the table. Three extra points — points that were right there for the taking — would have had them opening Round 1 on home ice and playing a potential Game 7 at home.

They were only 6-6-3 against the five-worst teams in the league standings. Just two extra wins against those bottom-feeding teams could have meant a division title.

The only consistent thing about them this season has been their inconsistency.

Even their style of play seems to have changed at times depending on the latest roster or lineup move.

When the Penguins won their two most recent championships in 2016 and 2017 their identity was as clear as any other team in the league: Speed. Speed. And more speed.  While that element still very much remains, there have been some deviations from that in terms of the overall roster construction. Carl Hagelin and Conor Sheary, two of the players that defined that identity, are gone. Trades for players like Ryan Reaves (since traded again), Jack Johnson, and Gudbranson in recent years seemed to fly in the face of the way they used to build the team, especially their defense.

“It’s a style of play. It’s a mindset, It’s an attitude. It’s all of those things,” said Sullivan after a recent game, when asked what exactly his team’s identity is, or what what he wants it to be.

“Everybody needs to understand what their contribution is and what their role is to that identity to help this team win. We try to define that for our players as clearly as we can. We try to put them in positions to be successful and play to their strengths. This team is built a certain way and we’re trying to play to their strengths, and that is part of the identity as well. It has to start with the attitude and the mindset that we’re hard to play against and we have a certain resilience and resolve and mental toughness about us that we are going to respond to any sort of adversity that comes our way. That is either within a 60-minute hockey game, or from game to game, or week to week, or whatever it may be. That is every bit of important as the style of play.”

With the way they have played through injuries and rebounded from difficult losses, they have definitely showed that resiliency.

They also finally seem to have the right players in the right spots to play to their strengths.

Now they just need to find that consistent level of play that has avoided them all season, because one bad week in April can be the difference between a long playoff run and a long summer.

MORE: Penguins vs. Islanders Round 1 preview

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.

Schwartz, Tarasenko have Blues close to Cup Final

Leave a comment

ST. LOUIS (AP) — Jaden Schwartz is on a scoring run that has the St. Louis Blues dreaming big.

Schwartz’s hat trick in Game 5 on Sunday helped give the Blues a 3-2 series lead against the San Jose Sharks in the Western Conference final and set the single-season franchise record for playoff wins.

The Blues could advance to their first Stanley Cup Final since 1970 when they host Game 6 Tuesday night.

”It’s probably tough to put into words,” Schwartz said. ”It’s something that everyone’s worked for and dreamed about. You don’t want to look too far ahead. We all know how important and how hard that last win’s going to be. It would be a dream come true.”

Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko have played huge roles in the Blues’ playoff success. Just not necessarily in the way that was expected.

Tarasenko has come up with more big assists than goals against the Sharks.

Meanwhile, Schwartz has found a scoring touch that eluded him during the regular season. After scoring 11 goals in 69 regular-season games, Schwartz has 12 goals in 18 playoff games.

”He’s obviously a tenacious player, a hard-working player,” Blues coach Craig Berube said. ”I know, goal-wise, he didn’t have a good regular season, but the work ethic was there and other things besides not producing with the goals.

”He’s a 200-foot player for us and he’s around the net for us, that’s where he scores. His hard work, being relentless and staying with it is paying off.”

Schwartz’s scoring run began on a quick pass from Tyler Bozak with 15 seconds left in regulation to snap a 2-2 tie in Game 5 in the first round against Winnipeg. He followed that up with a hat trick in Game 6 to send the Blues to the second round.

Schwartz is the first player to have two hat tricks in the same playoffs since Johan Franzen did it for Detroit in 2008 and he is the first to do it for the Blues.

Not bad for a guy who went 23 games without a goal during the regular season.

”He’s obviously been kind of our engine and a guy that’s scored huge goals for us throughout every series,” Bozak said.

”Pucks weren’t going in as much as he probably wanted in the regular season, but he was still playing really good hockey I thought and getting a lot of chances. And obviously what he’s done in this playoffs so far has been incredible. We’re pretty lucky to have him and we know he’s just going to keep getting better and keep doing those things for us.”

Tarasenko is the only player to get a point in every game of the Western Conference Final. But just two of his seven points in the series are goals.

Instead he has become a potent playmaker, setting up Bozak’s eventual game-winning goal in Game 4 and assisting on two of Schwartz’s goals in Game 5.

”Every time he gets the puck he puts them on edge,” Blues center Ryan O'Reilly said. ”Having such a shot like he does, teams are scared when he gets the puck and obviously they maybe will overcompensate for that and other things come available. Having played with him throughout the year, you see how dangerous he is whether it’s taking that shot or just being that threat that opens so much up.”

Tarasenko’s unselfish play was evident on Schwartz’s third goal. Carrying the puck on the power play, he could have taken a shot. But with San Jose playing the shot, he found Schwartz cutting towards the net for a one-timer into a wide-open net.

”Vlady is a good passer, he makes plays,” Berube said. ”He’s got his head up a lot, sees the ice well. His hard work is paying off. He’s working hard without the puck, and he’s a powerful guy.”

Tarasenko has led the Blues in goals in each of the past five seasons. Though he has taken a back seat to Schwartz in goal-scoring, the Blues are thriving in the postseason as never before from his playmaking ability.

And they are one win away from playing for the Stanley Cup, which many thought would have been impossible on Jan. 3 when the Blues were at the bottom of the NHL standings.

”Everyone knows we have a lot of work to do and we’re going to get their best game,” Schwartz said. ”They’re going to have the most desperation they’ve had in this series. We’ll enjoy it tonight, but we know there’s a lot of work yet.”

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Bruins’ Chara says he’s on track for Stanley Cup Final

Leave a comment

BOSTON (AP) — Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara returned to practice and worked out with the full squad Monday, his first such workout since sitting out Boston’s Eastern Conference-clinching victory over Carolina with an undisclosed injury.

Chara had skated prior to practices over the weekend but didn’t participate in any full sessions. He said he felt good after the Bruins’ 45-minute workout on Monday and is on track to play in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on May 27.

Chara was the first player on the ice Monday. Forward David Krejci also returned to practice. Coach Bruce Cassidy said Krejci was given a ”maintenance day” on Sunday.

Being a spectator for a series-clinching victory was difficult for the 42-year-old Chara. He was a member of the Bruins, who defeated Vancouver to win the Stanley Cup in 2011 and lost to Chicago in the Cup Final in 2013.

”It was, I’m not gonna lie,” Chara said. ”Watching games are not fun. You want to play them, you want to be involved in them. It was that feeling of an anxiousness to play. But the guys did a great job.”

But Chara was easy to spot following the Game 4 win over the Hurricanes, when he suited up to shake hands with Carolina and celebrate on the ice with his teammates.

He has one goal and two assists in 16 games this postseason.

Patrice Bergeron said having Chara paired back up with Charlie McAvoy provides a major boost to the blue line.

”I think they complement each other really well,” Bergeron said. ”Obviously the experience that ‘Z’ has is something that he shares. And Chuck is the type of young guy that wants to learn and listen to everything that ‘Z’ has to share.”

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Tarasenko getting hot at right time for Blues

Leave a comment

It was only a matter of time until Vladimir Tarasenko started to get on a roll for the St. Louis Blues.

Not only has he been the team’s best and most impactful player for the past five years, he has been one of the most dangerous postseason goal-scorers the league has ever seen. As we wrote at the start of the series, he was going to be one of the biggest keys for the Blues in the Western Conference Final against the San Jose Sharks, especially if his puck luck started to change a little bit.

It has definitely changed for the better, and the Blues are greatly benefitting from it.

First, just a reminder as to how good Tarasenko has been in the playoffs during his career. Before this season his 0.50 goals per game average in the playoffs was second among all players that had appeared in at least 40 playoff games since 2010-11 (trailing only Jake Guentzel), and was among the top-20 in NHL history. The only other players in the top-20 that played in the NHL after 2002 are Alex Ovechkin and Mike Cammallerri.

If you want to call him “clutch,” or a “big-game player” that is entirely up to you, but even more than any of that it is really just a matter of him being an outstanding talent that has always been a great finisher. Get him the puck and enough chances, and he is going to score a lot of goals no matter what the situation is.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

That is what made his production through the first two rounds of the 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs a little surprising. He was definitely not playing poorly, but his overall numbers were down a little bit, he was relying almost entirely on the power play to score goals (four of his first five goals in the first two rounds were power play goals), and he had yet to record a single assist. Obviously power play goals are worth the same as any other goal, but with penalties and power plays not always being available come playoff time due to the “let them play” mindset that takes over at this time of year, even-strength scoring becomes even more important.

Despite all of that were still plenty of signs that Tarasenko was due to break out. He had 47 shots on goal in 13 games (more than 3.5 per game) and the Blues were dominating the shot attempt and scoring chance numbers at even-strength. He was doing everything right except consistently putting the puck in the back of the net. But when you have an all-world talent like Tarasenko does, it is only a matter of time until those attempts, shots, and chances start to turn into goals.

You might limit players like him for a little bit, but you are not going to be able to shut them down forever.

Starting with Game 1 of the Western Conference Final, Tarasenko’s luck started to turn a bit.

After his three-point effort on Sunday in the Blues’ 5-0 win, a performance that included his nearly unstoppable penalty shot goal in the second period to help put the game away, he is now riding a five-game point streak and has at least one point in every game of the series.

He was probably the Blues’ best player in their Game 2 win when he finished with a game-high six shots on goal and set up Jaden Schwartz‘s goal early in the first period, and then assisted on Tyler Bozak‘s game-winning goal in Game 4 to even the series. He followed that up by playing his best game of the playoffs on Sunday with three points (his second multi-point game of these playoffs) in the win that brought the Blues one game closer to the Stanley Cup Final.

His seven points in the series are two more than any other player on the team while he has been on the ice for nine of the Blues’ 18 goals (literally half of them) in the series.

If the Blues were going to put themselves in a position to win this series — which they have if they can win just one of the next two games — they were going to need Tarasenko to be one of their best and most productive players.

He has been with what has been his best five-game stretch of these playoffs.

The timing could not have been better for the Blues.

MORE: Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

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.

‘Canes surge into summer with confidence after playoff run

Leave a comment

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The Carolina Hurricanes enter the offseason confident of one thing: They shouldn’t have to wait another decade to return to the playoffs.

They hope their nucleus will make postseason appearances an every-year thing.

The Hurricanes made their first playoff berth since 2009 last much longer than most expected, advancing to the Eastern Conference final before they were swept by the Boston Bruins.

After getting a taste of postseason hockey, this largely young team wants to do it again.

”I think we all know now what it takes first of all to get to the playoffs, and to go through those tough series,” forward Sebastian Aho said Monday. ”Now we’re even more hungry.”

There’s reason to believe this group has staying power.

The entire defensive corps – including young stars Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce – is under team control for next season, with six of them signed and Haydn Fleury a pending restricted free agent.

Key winger Teuvo Teravainen is locked up through 2023-24. Promising forward Andrei Svechnikov oozed with promise during his rookie season. Aho, who also will be a restricted free agent, looks to be a candidate to receive a long-term deal. He declined to discuss his contract status.

This core was responsible for turning the franchise around and bringing entertainment – both during and after games – to the rink.

They brought back those beloved Hartford Whalers uniforms for a couple of games. They broke out the ”Storm Surge” celebrations, those choreographed on-ice parties after regular-season victories at home. They wore the jabs from curmudgeonly commentator Don Cherry as badges of honor – plastering his ”Bunch of Jerks” insult onto T-shirts that sold for $32 at the team shop. They welcomed a live pig named Hamilton into the building for home playoff games.

And, of course, they played winning hockey – especially after the calendar flipped to January. Their record of 31-12-2 was third-best in the league and propelled them from last place in the division to the top wild-card berth.

”As the year went on, as the record shows, it was a lot of good results, and coming to the rink was a lot of fun,” defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk said.

A few things to watch entering the offseason:

THE CAPTAIN’S FUTURE

The big question is whether 37-year-old Justin Williams will return for a second season as team captain with his two-year contract expiring this offseason. The three-time Stanley Cup winner known around the league as ”Mr. Game 7” for his exploits in those final games brought credibility and leadership to the dressing room and helped steer the young team’s midseason turnaround. ”I put everything I had into it this year, and if I have everything again, then I’ll be here,” Williams said. ”I haven’t gotten that far yet.”

THE GOALIES

The Hurricanes have some decisions to make with both goalies – Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney – facing free agency. Mrazek accepted a one-year, $1.5 million deal last offseason to prove he’s worthy of a starter’s job, and the team snatched the 35-year-old McElhinney off the waiver wire when Scott Darling was hurt. They both played well enough to make Darling an afterthought, and now the question is whether either or both will wind up sticking around.

FREE AGENCY

The only other unrestricted free agents on the roster are forwards Micheal Ferland and Greg McKegg. Ferland provided a strong physical presence on the ice, but he didn’t score any goals after February and had a single assist in the playoffs. The Hurricanes should have some money to spend when July 1 rolls around. According to salary tracking website CapFriendly.com, Carolina had the most room under the salary cap ($16.2 million) of any team in the league.

SPECIAL TEAMS FIX

Carolina has plenty of work to do on its power play, which led to the team’s undoing against Boston. The Hurricanes scored on less than 10% of their postseason chances with the man advantage – the worst rate of any team that reached the second round – and went stretches of 24 and 13 consecutive power plays without scoring. During the regular season, they scored on nearly 18% of their chances to rank 20th in the league.

More AP NHL: http://www.apnews.com/NHL and http://www.twitter.com/AP-Sports