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.

Surging Sabres not fearing repeat of last year’s collapse

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — With a new coach, an influx of talent and this being a new season, Jack Eichel doesn’t buy into fears the hot-starting Buffalo Sabres are due for a familiar collapse.

Nine games in, the Sabres are leading the Eastern Conference with a 7-1-1 record to match their best start since 2009-10. And yet, it’s difficult to forget what happened last year, when Buffalo was leading the NHL with a 17-6-2 record following a 10-game winning streak before proceeding to win just 16 of its final 57 games.

”I think we’ve grown up a little bit,” Eichel said Tuesday before the Sabres hosted the San Jose Sharks. ”I don’t think we’re guarded at all. I think you can learn a lot from last year, but I don’t think we’re worried about that as much as just trying to be a good hockey team every night.”

Aside from returning players being a year older, the Sabres captain credited first-year coach Ralph Krueger for introducing an upbeat message and simplified system to a team that struggled during Phil Housley’s two-year tenure.

”I think it’s enjoyable to come to the rink every day with the environment that’s been created right now,” Eichel said.

”Yeah, winning takes care of a lot of stuff, there’s no way to sugarcoat that,” he added. ”But I think the overall environment’s been a good one this year. I think guys feel a little bit more relaxed. It’s not as high strung.”

The 60-year-old Krueger in many ways is Housley’s polar opposite. Where Housley demanded the Sabres play a complex positional system, Krueger wants his players to play a more up-tempo, free-wheeling style.

Though Housley is a Hockey Hall of Fame defenseman and was a first-time coach, Krueger brings with him an array of worldly experience. His resume includes coaching Switzerland’s national team, the Edmonton Oilers and spending the previous five years running soccer’s Southampton FC of the English Premier League.

Krueger was hired in May, and became Buffalo’s fifth coach since Lindy Ruff was fired a month into the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, and takes over a team in the midst of an eight-season playoff drought – the NHL’s longest active streak.

General manager Jason Botterill is impressed with what he’s seen from a team that has so far handled adversity. After opening a three-game California road trip with a 5-2 loss to Anaheim, the Sabres responded with wins against Los Angeles and San Jose.

”I think Ralph has come with a clear message of what he’s looking for from our players,” Botterill said. ”And I think our players have been very open to receiving that message.”

The Sabres are benefiting from a balanced offensive attack, in which seven players have scored three or more goals. Their power play is leading the league with 11 goals, six coming from rookie Victor Olofsson. And Buffalo’s goaltending has been sound, with veteran Carter Hutton enjoying a two-game shutout streak.

Though realizing the season is still young, Krueger referred to the Sabres’ successful start as validating the plan he and his staff implemented this summer.

”It definitely as a coach helps when you have confirmation. Nothing ever replaces winning in sports,” Krueger said. ”And we know the opposition will have more and more respect for us as we go on here, and we will need to be better every day to continue having success.”

ZACH SCRATCHED

Botterill dismissed fears of Zach Bogosian missing the entire season, though he didn’t have a timetable regarding when the veteran defenseman will return after having hip surgery in April. Bogosian has been skating on his own the past two weeks.

”It’s difficult for him right now because he wants to be back,” Botterill said. ”But it’s also imperative for him for not only us this year but his career long-term that we get this right.”

D-DEPTH

Botterill isn’t concerned about a potentially crowded blue line once Brandon Montour returns from a hand injury sustained last month. The Sabres are currently carrying seven defensemen and have already informed Henri Jokiharju he’s not going anywhere even though he’s the only defenseman who doesn’t have to clear waivers in being demoted to the minors.

Calling it a ”great problem” to have, Botterill said he still has time to decide. He also explained the team’s depth at defense will be tested with Buffalo set to play 11 games in 19 days next month.

Max Domi continues to excel in year two with Habs

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When the Montreal Canadiens acquired Max Domi from the Arizona Coyotes in the summer of 2018, they were landing a player that had nine goals and 38 and 45 points in his two previous seasons. But in his first year as a Hab, he took his game to another level. He finished the season with a career-high 28 goals and 72 points in 82 games while playing down the middle. What does he do for an encore in year two?

Usually, the leading scorer on a team will get to play with some of the better players on the roster, but Domi’s in a bit of a unique spot. Montreal’s “first” line is made up of Phillip Danault, Tomas Tatar and Brendan Gallagher, who have played together since last season. They’re a very effective line and head coach Claude Julien likes having them together.

The “third” line is made up of Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Joel Armia (when healthy) and Jonathan Drouin, who spent a considerable amount of time playing with Domi last year (they weren’t overly effective together). So that doesn’t leave many options for the 24-year-old, who opened the season with offensively-challenged winger Artturi Lehkonen and rookie Nick Suzuki.

Lehkonen is a responsible winger while Suzuki struggled to get his footing early on. Paul Byron, Drouin and Jordan Weal have all spent time on that “second” line at five-on-five. Now that Suzuki has started producing on a different line, Julien is promoting him back to Domi’s line ahead of Thursday’s game against the San Jose Sharks. How have the rotating players affected Domi’s on-ice performance in 2019-20? It hasn’t affected him negatively at all.

As of right now, he’s picked up three goals and nine points in nine games. He has a CF% of 56.36, a SCF% of 57.14, a HDCF% of 63.41 and a very reasonable PDO of .994.

The Habs forward has also contributed to an improving Montreal power play that ranked 30th last season. He’s currently tied for the team lead in power-play points, with four. This is a Canadiens team that missed the playoffs by three points last year. If they can continue to get solid production from their special teams unit, that could be the difference between staying home in April and making it to the postseason.

[MORE: Q&A: Max Domi on the pressure in Montreal, getting Canadiens back to playoffs]

The once controversial trade of Domi for Alex Galchenyuk is no longer being questioned in Montreal. Domi has been so much better and healthier than Galchenyuk that this has become one of the biggest steals of general manager Marc Bergevin’s tenure with the Canadiens.

What makes his time in Montreal even more impressive is that he’s putting up these numbers while transitioning from wing to center. Yes, he struggled with defensive-zone coverage at times last year and he won just 44.9 percent of his face-offs, but those are two things that should improve as he gains experience. We’ll see if he can keep it up, but he’s already winning 50 percent of his draws through nine games.

If he had 72 points last year and he continues to improve, it’s fair to wonder just how high his ceiling is. Can he become a point-per-game player on a yearly basis? That’s entirely possible. Another interesting storyline to follow will be his next contract (he’s going to be a restricted free agent at the end of the year). When he was acquired by Montreal, he signed a two-year bridge deal worth $3.150 million per year. If he builds on last season’s numbers and stays healthy, it’s entirely possible that he could fetch upwards of $7 million or $8 million annually on a long-term deal.

Whatever the price ends up being, Bergevin will probably be happy to pay it given how well this trade has turned out for an organization that has been dying for a talented center like Domi for more than decade.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Wednesday Night Hockey: Penguins, Lightning on two different paths

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

As two of the NHL’s best teams over the past five years there is always a championship expectation for the Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning. With both coming off of similarly disappointing postseason exits in 2019 (combined postseasons win between the two teams: zero) there was no doubt plenty of additional pressure on both teams at the start of this season.

For the Penguins, it is about regaining the identity that helped make them a back-to-back Stanley Cup champion and trying to maximize the remaining window they have in the careers of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang. You only get players of that caliber for so long, and you owe it to them — and the franchise — to put them in the best possible situation to win. Anytime you do not win, and especially when you lose like they did to the New York Islanders, it is going to feel like a missed opportunity.

For the Lightning, it is about shaking the bad memories of so many recent postseason disappointments and finally breaking through with a championship for what is probably the league’s most talented roster on paper. After blowing 3-2 series leads in two different Eastern Conference Finals, as well as a 2-1 series lead in a Stanley Cup Final, the 2018-19 season seemed like it was finally going to be the year for Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and Victor Hedman as they rolled through a 62-win regular season. What followed was the most disappointing of their postseason shortcomings, losing four consecutive games to the eighth-seeded Columbus Blue Jackets.

[COVERAGE OF LIGHTNING-PENGUINS BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

So far this season the two teams have been on slightly different paths in their quest to reach the top, even if there isn’t much difference in their overall records.

The Penguins entered the season with several questions, ranging from the state of their defense, to their forward depth, to how the power play would look without Phil Kessel following his offseason trade to Arizona. As if that wasn’t enough, the team has been dealt a brutal hand with early injuries as Evgeni Malkin, Alex Galchenyuk, Bryan Rust, Nick Bjugstad, Jared McCann, and Brian Dumoulin have all been sidelined for a total of 38 man-games due to injury. Despite that, they have not only managed to win the majority of their games, they have carried the play more often than not, even in defeat. Even their two most recent losses (Vegas and Florida) probably had more to do with some bad puck luck than bad play.

They are playing smart, they are limiting odd-man rushes against, they are playing sound defensively, and they have received strong goaltending from the duo of Matt Murray and Tristan Jarry. Add in more dominance from Crosby and they are keeping pace with the rest of the top teams in the Eastern Conference with a lineup that has been pieced together through call-ups.

There is an argument to be made that they have probably overachieved given the circumstances.

It’s been a slightly difference experience so far for the Lightning.

Other than Brayden Point, who missed the first three games of the season as he continued to recover from offseason hip surgery, they have been 100 percent healthy from the start and have had the roster they have wanted to have at their disposal. Despite that, neither the results nor the process are what they want to be.

Entering Wednesday’s game they have won just four of their first eight games and they are probably fortunate to have won as many as they have. At times they have looked like a fraction of the team that dominated the regular season a year ago. In one early game against Carolina they recorded just three shots on goal over more than 40 minutes of hockey. In another, they were dominated by an Ottawa team that has just one win on the season (the win against the Lightning).

Overall there is nothing about their performance that is close to being up to their level of expectation.

Andrei Vasilevskiy has struggled in goal, their penalty kill is among the worst in the league, and their overall 5-on-5 performance has at times just simply been bad. Entering play on Tuesday they are 26th in the league in shot attempt percentage and 24th in scoring differential, both signs that they are not yet carrying the play in those situations. Given the roster they are returning it has been a rather underwhelming start.

Wednesday seems like a great opportunity to get things trending back in the right direction.

They are rested, they are at home, and they are playing a banged up, tired Penguins team that just dropped a 4-2 decision on Tuesday night against Florida.

It is still too early to be too worried, but at some point they would probably like to start playing closer to their level of expectation. Everything is set up for them to start getting there on Wednesday. If they can not take advantage of the situation in front of them it might be another red flag in a start that has already had too many of them.

NBC Sports will showcase a group of Congressional Medal of Honor recipients that are being recognized by the Tampa Bay Lightning in pre-game ceremonies as part of its Wednesday Night Hockey coverage. Jeremy Roenick will interview Medal of Honor recipients during pre-game and game coverage on Wednesday night, and NHL Live will air a feature with interviews of both current Lightning players and Medal of Honor recipients.

Kathryn Tappen will host Wednesday’s coverage on NHL Live alongside analysts Mike Milbury and Keith Jones and NHL insider Bob McKenzie. Jeremy Roenick will report on-site from Amalie Arena in Tampa, Fla. Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk and Brian Boucher will call Penguins-Lightning.

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Sabres’ hot start; Coaches on hot seat

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Matt Dumba and Haydn Fleury got a tattoo to honor a friend that committed suicide. (NHL.com)

• Players and coaches deserve credit for the Buffalo Sabres hot start. (Buffalo Hockey Beat)

• Former NHLer Chris Joseph is still fighting for the victims of the Humboldt bus crash. (The Hockey News)

Ryan O'Reilly will need to be more selfish if he wants to find the back of the net more often. (In the Slot)

• Seattle hockey fans will have to pay a high price to watch their team play in person. (Seattle Times)

• Avs captain Gabriel Landeskog sat down for a Q & A with ESPN.com. (ESPN)

Patrick Kane believes, Kirby Dach and Dylan Strome can build chemistry together. (NBC Sports Chicago)

• 32-year-old pending unrestricted free agent Nicklas Backstrom still feels young. (Nova Caps Fans)

• Sam Gagner is still trying to stick in the NHL. (Sportsnet)

• Canadian NHL markets have seen their attendance numbers drop early on this season. (Sporting News)

• How long can the Penguins continue playing the way they’re currently playing and how will they integrate their injured players back into the lineup? (Pensburgh)

• Jets head coach Paul Maurice admitted that he steals from each one of the coaches in the NHL. (Winnipeg Sun)

• Here’s how the zamboni changed the game for ice rinks all over the world. (Smothsonianmag.com)

• Which coaches are on the hot seat right now? (Scotty Wazz)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.