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.

PHT Morning Skate: Winners, losers of NHL Olympic return; Training camp battles

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

Training camp battles, NHL playoff previews, and other return-to-play links

• Jackets Cannon looks at Columbus’ biggest strength: defense. In particular, Rachel Bules looks at how the pandemic pause will allow the Blue Jackets to have some serious training camp competition for spots. The Blue Jackets will need to be sharp, too, because the Maple Leafs’ firepower presents a real challenge for any defense corps. [Jackets Cannon]

• Speaking of the Maple Leafs — and training camp previews — Emily Sadler put together a thorough breakdown for Toronto. Can Frederik Andersen go the distance? Tyson Barrie ranks as a player to watch. Plus much more. [Sportsnet]

• George Richards takes a look at the Panthers’ “2.0” roster for training camp. If I had to single out a most interesting item, it’s that Anton Stralman has been involved. You may remember him airing some concerns about an NHL return. [Florida Hockey Now]

• What various analytics say about how the Wild’s lines match up with the Canucks. [Zone Coverage]

• It’s one thing for the Coyotes to say that they want to “get a little more juice” out of their offense. It’s another thing to actually lay out how it might work. Craig Morgan rolls out a detailed approach of how that might happen, including activating weakside defensemen. [AZ Coyotes Insider]

• The pandemic pause ranks as the biggest curveball Carter Hart‘s seen in the NHL so far. That said, it’s far from the only one. If he keeps passing these tests, it might all be to the benefit of Hart’s career. [NBC Sports Philadelphia]

Other hockey links

• As a pending UFA on a team that could face a salary cap crunch, Christopher Tanev knows he might not be back with the Canucks. Tanev said he hopes that he can return, and in particular, he’d love to remain Quinn Hughes‘ defensive partner for a long time. [NHL.com]

• It’s easy to look at the NHL’s return to Olympic participation as a good thing for everyone involved. As Ryan Kennedy points out, it depends on the outlook for different countries’ national teams. Kennedy presents the winners and losers for the NHL return to the Olympics, with Germany landing in an interesting spot. [The Hockey News]

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.

Sabres drop lawsuit after assistant coach is granted a green card

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres dropped their lawsuit against the federal government after immigration officials reversed course by approving the team’s strength and conditioning coach’s petition for a green card.

“The matter has been resolved amicably between both parties,” with Ed Gannon receiving approval for an EB-1 visa, the Sabres announced in a text message Wednesday.

The Sabres sued U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in May by alleging officials wrongly denied the team’s visa petition for the British-born coach.

The announcement came a week after the Sabres’ lawyer notified the U.S. District Court in Buffalo that the team was voluntary dismissing the suit, with each side agreeing to bear their own costs and fees.

The Sabres accused immigration services of misstating facts and arbitrarily failing to follow its own rules in denying a green card to Gannon. They argued the decision potentially subjected the team “to substantial financial harm and disruption in developing (its) athletes.”

Gannon was hired by the Sabres in 2015 while the team was beefing up its player development staff. He previously spent 10 years as the lead strength and conditioning coach of a professional rugby club, the Leicester Tigers.

The Sabres filed the application for permanent residency on Gannon’s behalf in October. To be granted a green card, Gannon had to demonstrate that he was at the top of his field, and the Sabres argued that he proved his abilities under USCIS’ criteria.

The denial of Gannon’s petition came amid efforts by the Trump administration to limit legal immigration. A report last year by the Migration Policy Institute concluded that USCIS had become “increasingly active in immigration enforcement” and that the agency was intentionally slowing down adjudication of immigration benefits applications.

Healthy Ekman-Larsson ready to give Coyotes a playoff boost

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GLENDALE, Ariz. — Oliver Ekman-Larsson had knee surgery last summer, fully expecting it to help him have a healthy 2019-20 season.

The Arizona Coyotes captain instead played with lingering pain, never able to fully recover.

The NHL’s shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic was a huge letdown, but it at least allowed Ekman-Larsson time to get back to full strength.

”These 2 1/2 months have been really good for me,” he said during a conference call this week. ”My knee is feeling 100% and I’ve been able to get stronger and faster.”

Ekman-Larsson had another solid season in 2018-19, finishing second on the team with 44 points with 14 goals. He was named to the NHL All-Star team for the fifth time and continued to be one of the NHL’s best offensive defensemen.

Ekman-Larsson opted to have offseason knee surgery to help with another lower-body injury and never was quite right this season, his 10th in the NHL.

The break allowed him time to heal, as did a trip back to his home in Sweden.

Unlike Arizona, Sweden did not go on lockdown once the pandemic hit and Ekman-Larsson took advantage, using the time to heal physically and mentally.

”With this virus going around, I haven’t felt so good mentally,” he said. ”Going back home and being around my family really helped that situation. I benefited from the physical part of being away. For the mental part, it was nice to get away from it.”

The Coyotes returned to the ice this week to prepare for the resumption of the season.

The NHL and the NHL Players’ Association announced Monday a tentative deal on a return-to-play format. Should it be ratified, the league will resume play on Aug. 1 with 24 teams proceeding in an expanded playoff format at two hub cities in Canada.

The Coyotes, the West’s No. 11 seed, will open against Nashville in a best-of-five series in their first postseason appearance since reaching the 2012 Western Conference Finals.

”It just feels like it’s a different game,” said Ekman-Larsson, the lone remaining player from the 2012 team. ”Everybody feels faster and stronger. I don’t know how it’s even possible, but at the same time it’s another level.

”I’m glad that I’ve had the chance to be in the playoffs before. There’s so many good teams and you don’t really know when you are going to have the chance.”

The Coyotes have a chance to make a little noise once they get there.

Ekman-Larsson is healthy, as is Phil Kessel, who struggled with injuries after being traded from Pittsburgh before the season. Arizona also has one of the best goaltending tandems in Antti Raanta and Darcy Keumper, who are both healthy as well.

”For us to get a chance and show that we are good enough to be a playoff team, I think that’s huge for our group moving forward,” Ekman-Larsson said.

A healthy Ekman-Larsson gives them an opportunity to keep moving forward.

Chris Pronger leaves senior VP of hockey ops role with Panthers

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The Panthers announced on Wednesday that Chris Pronger is leaving his role as senior vice president of hockey operations and senior advisor. The Hockey Hall of Famer joined the organization in 2017 after spending three years in the NHL’s Department of Player Safety.

“I want to personally thank the Viola family, Doug Cifu, Dale Tallon and all of the staff with the Florida Panthers,” said Pronger via a team statement. “I was able to grow as an executive and more importantly as a person in my three years with the hockey club. I wish the Panthers organization nothing but the best in the upcoming playoffs and years to come.”

Pronger is moving on to focus on the company he runs with his wife, Lauren. Well Inspired Travels “caters to elite athletes, C-Level executives and business owners.”

The Panthers are currently preparing for their Stanley Cup Qualifier series against the Islanders, which is set to begin next month.

MORE:
A look at the Eastern Conference matchups
Final standings for 2019-20 NHL season, NHL draft lottery results

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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.