Penguins look lost, broken against Islanders

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PITTSBURGH — If you wanted to get a snapshot on how things have been going for the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the final 10 seconds of the first period on Sunday would be a great place to start.

In short, it was a disjointed mess.

After squandering an early lead by giving up two goals in less than a minute, the Penguins found themselves with a 3-on-1 odd-man rush that should have been an opportunity to tie the game heading into the intermission. Instead of getting the equalizer and what could have been a game-changing goal, the Penguins failed to register a shot as 40-goal scorer Jake Guentzel not only deferred by forcing a cross-crease pass to Dominik Simon (while ignoring the wide open trailing player that was Kris Letang), but by also putting the pass directly into his skates, completely handcuffing him.

Just like that, one of the few threatening moments they had in the game completely fizzled out with the bad execution of what was probably the wrong decision.

They would get few chances after that on their way to a lackluster 4-1 loss to the New York Islanders that now has them facing elimination and what could be their first Round 1 exit since the 2015.

That play, in a lot of ways, was a microcosm of everything that has gone wrong for the Penguins in this series.

And this series has been a microcosm of everything that has gone wrong and plagued them this entire season.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

There has been little doubt as to which team has been better through the first three games, and it has very clearly been an Islanders team that has feasted on every Penguins mistake — of which there have been many — and exposed every glaring flaw the roster has.

The dominant storyline right now is going to be the Penguins’ power outage on offense that has seen them score just two goals over the past two games. Those two goals came on an Erik Gudbranson slap shot that beat a screened Robin Lehner from 60 feet out on Friday, and a Garrett Wilson goal that barely crossed the goal line on Sunday.

Sidney Crosby and Guentzel are still looking for their first points of the series. Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel have been productive, but haven’t always looked like constant threats. The depth is still lacking.

Put it all together and the results are not anything close to what the Penguins want or expect.

But hockey isn’t always just about the results; it is also about the process that leads to those results, and the process that has put the two teams in their current positions is what is perhaps most striking, and ultimately, most concerning for the Penguins right now.

Let’s start with this: The Islanders simply look faster, and not by a little bit, either.

When the Penguins have the puck it often times looks like they are playing 5-on-6 as they are unable to create any space for themselves, or generate any sort of a consistent breakout out of the defensive zone, or sustain any pressure in the offensive zone.

On the other side, the Islanders are not only excelling in all of those areas, but also look to be the far more dangerous team when they have the puck despite having a roster that, on paper, is not as star-laden as the Penguins.

That leads to a game of mistakes.

Mistakes the Islanders are not making, and mistakes the Penguins are making.

“There is not a lot of risk associated with the Islanders’ game,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan. “They have numbers back, they have a defensive first mentality and that has been their identity all year, and that is what has brought them success. We know what we are up against. We know what the challenge is. We have talked about it since before the series started. Our identity is a little bit different, but having said that, we have to have more of a discipline associated with our game in the critical areas of the rink so we become a team that is more difficult to play against.”

In response to that, Sullivan was asked if the players are not totally buying into what needs to be done, or if it is just a matter of simply not executing.

“They care. They want to win. They understand what it takes. I’m not going to sit here and say they are not buying in, sometimes it becomes a game of mistakes,” said Sullivan. “We have to just do a better job eliminating the ones we are making.”

But after 82 regular season games and three playoff games where the same mistakes keep happening, it is becoming less and less likely that is going to happen, and that is where you see the flaws in the roster showing themselves.

This is not the same team that won Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017, in construction or style.

A team that was once built on a mobile defense, playing fast, and living by the “Just Play” mantra has spent the past two years adding players known more for size and strength than speed and skill, and often times spent too much time looking for retribution and retaliation than just simply …  playing.

The most glaring flaw at the moment remains on the blue line, and that is where a lot of the Islanders’ advantage has come from in this series.

And it is not just about defensive zone coverage and the ability to prevent odd-man rushes. It is also about the ability to play with the puck and move it.

The Islanders are younger, faster, far more mobile and, quite simply, better on the back end, and it is feeding their transition game.

Outside of Kris Letang and Justin Schultz the Penguins do not have that on their blue line, especially after adding Jack Johnson and Gudbranson over the past year, two players whose skillsets do not play to their strengths. What should be the simplest plays look to be a challenge. That has shown itself repeatedly over the first three games of the series. After being a healthy scratch in Game 1, Johnson returned to the lineup the past two games and has not only taken three penalties, but was guilty of the turnover that led to Leo Komarov‘s late third period goal that was the dagger on Sunday. Sullivan’s decision to play Olli Maatta over him in that spot in Game 1 was heavily criticized in Pittsburgh, especially after Maatta struggled badly, but the Johnson-Schultz pairing has spent the past two games living in its own zone. That is not a good thing.

That is not to single them out, either, because Letang, Schultz, Maatta, Brian Dumoulin, and Marcus Pettersson have all had the same issues, and it is not a new problem for this team. There is a reason the Penguins have been one of the league’s worst shot suppression teams for two years now, constantly prone to lapses and breakdowns in the defensive zone, and been alarmingly inconsistent from one game to the next.

As it stands, both teams have more than earned their current position. But given how calm, composed, and smooth the Islanders have looked in all phases of the game from the very beginning, and how out of sorts the Penguins have looked, it is going to take a major swing to simply get this series back to New York for Game 5, let alone have a different outcome than the one it seems to be headed toward.

Game 4 of the Penguins-Islanders series is Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN 

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.

Avalanche furious over referee decision to not stop play after Calvert injury

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Thanks to huge performances from Nathan MacKinnon and Cale Makar on Saturday night, the Colorado Avalanche were able to pick up a 5-4 overtime win in Vancouver to gain a little more ground on the first place St. Louis Blues in the Central Division.

Makar continued to look like an emerging superstar with four points, while MacKinnon looked like an MVP candidate with two goals, including a highlight reel coast-to-coast goal in overtime to win it.

One of the biggest reasons the game even made it to overtime was because of a late third period rally by the Canucks that saw them score two goals in the final three minutes. The manner in which the Canucks scored the first of those two goals left the Avalanche completely livid.

It all happened after forward Matt Calvert was struck in the side head by an Elias Pettersson shot from point-blank range and remained down on the ice, bleeding from his head. The on-ice officials allowed play to continue and it ultimately resulted in Alex Edler scoring to bring to the Canucks to within one.

You can the sequence in the video above.

Here is the rule that is relevant to why play was allowed to continue:

When a player is injured so that he cannot continue play or go to his bench, the play shall not be stopped until the injured player’s team has secured control of the puck. If the player’s team is in control of the puck at the time of injury, play shall be stopped immediately unless his team is in a scoring position.

In the case where it is obvious that a player has sustained a serious injury, the referee and/or linesman may stop the play immediately.

The Avalanche never regained position of the puck during that sequence so play was allowed to continue. The last part of the rule is what is most relevant to this situation because it brings up a very important question: If a player bleeding from their head isn’t enough to be considered a serious injury to immediately stop play, what is?

The Avalanche were understandably angry, with defenseman Erik Johnson having the harshest words, via The Athletic’s Ryan S. Clark.

“It’s a [expletive] joke. You want to protect a guy? Guy’s got a family at home, he’s laying there bleeding out of his head and you don’t blow the whistle? It’s a complete joke. An absolute joke. They should be ashamed of themselves.”

Said head coach Jared Bednar: “That’s the second time in two weeks a guy takes a puck to the face and is bleeding all over the ice. Sometimes it’s a tough call to make, but in that situation, you should’ve blown it dead.”

During an appearance on Sportsnet with Scott Oake after the game MacKinnon took it in a different direction and played the “What if it was LeBron James?” card.

“I can only imagine if that was LeBron James, his head was bleeding and they let the other team take a three-pointer to tie the game,” said MacKinnon. “I know it’s not the ref’s fault, it’s the league rule, but I think you need to look and who’s laying on the ice.”

The rule is what it is (and one that probably needs to be re-examined, especially if you are serious about player safety), but there is still that segment of it that does give the referees the option to stop play. That brings it back to the question mentioned above — what sort of injury is considered serious enough to warrant a whistle?

This is not the first time something like this has happened. During the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs the Pittsburgh Penguins scored a game-tying goal against the Columbus Blue Jackets after Zach Werenski was struck in the face by a puck and remained down on the ice bleeding. Play was not stopped, resulting in a Bryan Rust goal.

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.

The Buzzer: Eichel scores 4; Milestones for Stamkos, Coach Q

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Three Stars

1. Jack Eichel, Buffalo Sabres. Entering play on Saturday the Sabres had lost seven of eight, were riding a six-game losing streak, and needed something to go their way to get things back on track. Their captain came to the rescue in a big way. Eichel scored four goals and provided all of the offense for the Sabres in a 4-2 win over the Ottawa Senators. It was the 10th four-goal game in Sabres franchise history and the first since Thomas Vanek did it during the 2009-10 season. It is already the the fourth four-goal game in the NHL this season, joining David Pastrnak, Anthony Mantha, and James Neal.

2. Derek Grant, Anaheim Ducks. Sometimes you need an unlikely hero to step up and the Ducks got that on Saturday when Grant scored three goals for his first career hat trick in a 4-1 win over the St. Louis Blues. The win snapped what had been a nine-game point streak for the Blues, as well as a five-game losing streak for the Ducks. Entering Saturday Grant had scored just two goals on the season and only 18 in 228 career games.

3. Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche. The absence of linemates Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog has not slowed down MacKinnon one bit. He took over on Saturday night with two goals — including the overtime winner — and an assist in a 5-4 win for the Avalanche. His overtime goal was a highlight reel tally that helped the Avalanche secure the two points after allowing a two-goal lead to disappear in the final three minutes of regulation. He is now up to 29 points in his first 20 games this season and has three three-point games over the past five. Rookie defenseman Cale Makar also deserves some attention for his four-point game.

Two big milestones

Stamkos scores 400th goal. It came in a losing effort, but Steven Stamkos scored the 400th goal of his career on Saturday. It is a great accomplishment for one of the best goal-scorers of this era, and it also produces a pretty big “what if” question — how many goals would he have today had he not missed so many games in his peak seasons to significant injuries and a lockout? The only active player to hit the 400 goal mark in fewer games than Stamkos is Alex Ovechkin.

Quenneville wins 900th regular season game. Thanks to the Florida Panthers’ 4-3 win over the New York Rangers, Joel Quenneville became only the second coach in NHL history to record 900 regular season wins. Scotty Bowman is the only other coach to hit that number.

Other notable performances from Saturday

  • The Pittsburgh Penguins extended the Toronto Maple Leafs’ losing streak to five games in a dominant win. Evgeni Malkin and Dominik Kahun were the offensive stars for the Penguins as they dominated a Maple Leafs team that continues to look completely lost. Read all about this game here.
  • The Dallas Stars received big contributions from Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn as they overcame a two-goal third period deficit to beat the Edmonton Oilers in overtime. Read about how Seguin and Benn were difference-makers here.
  • Arizona Coyotes goalie Darcy Kuemper stopped all 38 shots he faced for his second shutout of the season. He also nearly sparked a goalie fight by slamming Calgary Flames forward Matthew Tkachuk to the ice. Read all about that game right here.
  • The Chicago Blackhawks no doubt remembered Pekka Rinne talking about what an “easy” game he had the first time he faced them this season. His night on Saturday was even easier because he only made it through half the game before being benched in a 7-2 rout. Alex Nylander scored two goals for the Blackhawks in the win.
  • Evgenii Dadonov scored two goals for the Panthers in their 4-3 win over the Rangers.
  • Andrei Svechnikov continued his strong sophomore season with an overtime winner for the Carolina Hurricanes. He is now up to nine goals this season.
  • Big win for the Winnipeg Jets against the Tampa Bay Lightning to improve to 8-3-1 in their past 12 games and remain surprisingly competitive in the NHL’s Central Division.
  • Here come the Sharks. Their 4-3 shootout win over the Detroit Red Wings improved their winning streak to six games.

Highlights of the Night

The New York Islanders’ point streak hit 14 games on Saturday (13-0-1) thanks to an incredible rally that saw them overcome a 3-0 deficit against the Philadelphia Flyers. Mathew Barzal scored the shootout winner and it was an absolute beauty of a goal.

The best shootout goal of the night, though, belonged to Washington Capitals forward Jakub Vrana for this Datsyuk-ian dangle to beat Jaroslav Halak in the fifth round of the shootout against the Boston Bruins. The Capitals won to improve to 14-3-4 on the season. That is the best record in the NHL.

We told you MacKinnon’s overtime winner was incredible, and here it is.

Blooper of the Night

It probably has to be that bizarre disallowed goal in Montreal where Phillip Danault, capping off a chaotic scramble around the goal line. Read all about it here.

Factoids

  • Jonathan Huberdeau now has more assists than any player in Panthers history. [NHL PR]
  • Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are the third set of teammates in the past 30 years to have at least 40 points through their team’s first 22 games of the season. [NHL PR]
  • Los Angeles Kings forward Jeff Carter skated in his 1,000th career game on Saturday, making him the 11th player from the 2003 draft class to reach that milestone. The only other draft class with that many was the 1979 draft class. The Kings were 4-3 winners over the Vegas Golden Knights on Carter’s big day. [NHL PR]

Scores

Carolina Hurricanes 4, Minnesota Wild 3 (OT)
Los Angeles Kings 4, Vegas Golden Knights 3
Dallas Star 5, Edmonton Oilers 4 (OT)
Arizona Coyotes 3, Calgary Flames 0
Winnipeg Jets 4, Tampa Bay Lightning 3
Washington Capitals 3, Boston Bruins 2 (SO)
Buffalo Sabres 4, Ottawa Senators 2
New Jersey Devils 4, Montreal Canadiens 3 (OT)
Florida Panthers 4, New York Rangers 3
New York Islanders, Philadelphia 3 (SO)
Pittsburgh Penguins 6, Toronto Maple Leafs 1
Anaheim Ducks 4, St. Louis Blues 1
Chicago Blackhawks 7, Nashville Predators 2
Colorado Avalanche 5, Vancouver Canucks 4 (OT)
San Jose Sharks 4, Detroit Red Wings 3 (SO)

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.

Canadiens have strangest disallowed goal of season (Video)

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The final minute of the third period in Saturday’s Montreal-New Jersey game devolved into weirdness when the Canadiens thought they had scored a late goal to gain the upper hand on the Devils.

It was not to be after a review because it was determined that Canadiens forward Phillip Danault had “kicked” the puck into the net with his … leg? … Knee? … Hip? Whatever it was, it was a body part that he wasn’t allowed to use to guide the puck into the net. That ruling sent the game to overtime where Kyle Palmieri scored on the power play to give the Devils a 4-3 win after overcoming a two-goal deficit.

They have now won three out of four games.

But let’s get back to that bizarre non-goal for the Canadiens because there was a lot going on in that sequence. Including…

  • It all started with Shea Weber trying to blast a one-timer from the blue line only to have his stick shatter upon making contact with the puck.
  • The puck slowly rolled to Brendan Gallagher who was in perfect position to get a point-blank shot at the net, only to have Mackenzie Blackwood get a piece of it.
  • From there, the puck trickled along the goal crease where Devils forward Nico Hischier appeared to cover the puck which should have resulted in a penalty shot. The referees either did not see that or did not feel it was worthy of being called. There was also a trip in there, just for good measure.
  • It was at that point that Danault saw the puck sitting on the goal line and attempted to — for lack of a better word — thrust it over the line. “A” for effort, high marks for creativity and doing whatever it takes, but that is against the rules.

From NHL Rule 78.1:

A goal cannot be scored when the puck has been deliberately batted with any part of the attacking player’s body into the net.

So there you go.

You can see the entire sequence in the video above.

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.

Maple Leafs get embarrassed as losing streak reaches 5 games

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The Toronto Maple Leafs opened an extremely important six-game road trip in Pittsburgh on Saturday night and turned to 26-year-old rookie goalie Kasimir Kaskisuo to try and snap their current losing streak.

It did not go well for him in his NHL debut as he gave up six goals on 38 shots.

That was the bad news for Toronto. The even worse news for Toronto was that even with those numbers he was by far — BY FAR! — their best player in an ugly 6-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins that extended their losing streak to five games.

With that loss the Maple Leafs are now an extremely disappointing 9-9-4 on the season, have just four wins in their past 15 games, and have allowed at least four goals in each of their past four games.

This one might have been the ugliest of the bunch as they were never competitive.

If you wanted to you could try to look for some excuses for such a lackluster effort, and you wouldn’t have to look very far.

They played the night before and had to travel from Toronto to Pittsburgh. They are without two key forwards in Mitch Marner and Alexander Kerfoot. They started a 26-year-old rookie in goal making his NHL debut.

All true. All worth noting. But it takes about a half-second to poke holes in all of them when you consider the Penguins also played on Friday night and had to travel (from New Jersey to Pittsburgh), and were playing without Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang, Nick Bjugstad, and Patric Hornqvist, and were also using their backup goalie (Tristan Jarry) in net.

They still controlled the game from the opening face-off.

When asked how to fix this current mess, coach Mike Babcock went back to the same well he always goes to when things are going poorly and talked about needing to play harder.

“The number one thing is, we have to play harder, and for longer,” said Babcock (via TSN’s Kristen Shilton). And as soon as something goes bad, we can’t stop playing. Push through it. Every one of us in our life, things go bad. Dig in.”

Forget playing harder, they need to play better.

As if the pressure wasn’t already through the roof for this team things are probably about to get a whole lot worse. This is still one of the league’s worst defensive teams and has shown no real improvement in that area. If they do not get elite, All-Star level goaltending the whole thing seems to just collapse around them. In recent years Frederik Andersen was able to give them that level of play in net and mask many of their defensive flaws. This year he has not been able to do that as often, and the unsettled backup situation behind him only makes things worse (they are now 0-5-1 when Andersen does not start).

You have to feel for Kaskisuo on Saturday. He waited years for this moment and was completely abandoned by the team in front of him as the Penguins had players skating wide open throughout the neutral and offensive zones. Odd-man rushes, uncontested forwards driving down the middle of the ice, and chance after chance after chance. The play of Kaskisuo is the only reason the Penguins did not score eight or nine in this one.

At some point the temperature under Babcock’s seat is going to start increasing dramatically, and if this thing does not get turned around soon you have to wonder how much longer management will along things to continue like this. They are now 3-6-0 on the road this season (with their only road wins coming against Columbus, Detroit, and Philadelphia) and play 11 of their next 14 outside of Toronto. Their next three are in Vegas, Arizona and Colorado so things are not going to get any easier this week.

Related: Maple Leafs, Sharks, Golden Knights entering potentially make-or-break stretches

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.