What now? Penguins face crucial offseason after flameout

8 Comments

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Jim Rutherford’s question was rhetorical. The answer – whenever the architect the Pittsburgh Penguins general manager arrives at it – will determine how the franchise emerges from the rubble of a first-round playoff sweep at the hands of the New York Islanders.

”Are guys too content with where they’re at in their careers because they’ve won a couple of Stanley Cups?” Rutherford wondered aloud Thursday as his team packed up for its longest offseason in 13 years.

Just 22 months removed from becoming the first team in a generation to win consecutive championships , captain Sidney Crosby and the rest of the Penguins are at a crossroads.

”It’s disappointing to have this long of an offseason,” said Crosby, who posted the sixth 100-point season of his career but managed just one against the Islanders. ”It’s been a while since we’ve had this much time really.”

Failing to three-peat by losing to the eventual Stanley Cup champions in six hotly contested games against an archrival – as Pittsburgh did last spring when it lost to Washington in the second round – is one thing. Scoring just six goals while getting outskated, outplayed and outworked by a team with a new coach, a journeyman goaltender and little playoff success over the last quarter century is quite another.

”(The Islanders) played the right way and they were eager to win,” Rutherford said. ”They were determined and the Penguins weren’t.”

Maybe the end shouldn’t have been so stunning. Though the Penguins extended their playoff streak to 13 years and counting, they only sporadically played the kind of intelligent and responsible hockey coach Mike Sullivan has tried to instill from the moment he took over in December 2015.

Injuries to stars like Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang didn’t help. Neither did a significant amount of roster turnover. Yet Pittsburgh’s best stretch came during a 10-3-3 sprint through March , one the Penguins made with Malkin and Letang available only occasionally. Sullivan pointed to an increased ”cooperative effort” by the group with Malkin and Letang missing, a key ingredient in ”what it takes to win.”

When they returned full time for the playoffs, the cohesion vanished.

Malkin ended a wildly uneven year by struggling to find the dominance that once came so easily. Letang, whose play over the first four-plus months helped the Penguins rebound from a decidedly sluggish start, had a handful of miscues against the Islanders that led immediately to pucks in the back of the Pittsburgh net.

The question going forward is whether Letang, Malkin and forwards Patric Hornqvist and Phil Kessel – all of whom will be 32 or older when next seasons open – can make the necessary adjustments to their respective games over the next six months to make sure they stick around for the rest of a championship window Rutherford insists remains open.

All four have had highly successful careers and were integral parts of the core group that raised two Stanley Cup banners to the rafters at PPG Paints Arena. All four, however, also have a penchant for taking risks, gambles they could afford to make because their talent often helped them recover when those gambles went awry.

That wiggle room is gone. The evidence came during a series in which the Penguins led for less than five minutes.

Crosby – who will be in the conversation for the Selke Trophy given annually to the league’s top defensive forward – insists his longtime teammates can adapt.

Letang isn’t really sure he has to. Asked if he will take a more defensive-oriented approach heading into his 14th season, he bristled.

”At the end of the day, yeah, I wish I could have done something else at different times, but I don’t think the question is to change my whole game,” Letang said. ”I’m not going to change three plays in my whole year for the type of game I play.”

And there’s the dilemma for the front office. The Penguins have to decide whether they need to adjust their style or their personnel – or both. Whether they can find takers for veterans with their names on the Cup multiple times but also multiple years left on lucrative contracts will play a factor. Either way, Sullivan believes there needs to be a renewed focus when his team – however it is constituted – returns in September.

”The challenge is to make sure that there’s 100 percent buy-in throughout the lineup,” Sullivan said. ”I think the area of our identity that we lost a little bit is the hard-to-play-against aspect.”

NOT SO THIN BLUE LINE

Rutherford defended the play of his defenders, Erik Gudbranson and Jack Johnson specifically. Both are big bodies not known for their skating. Gudbranson was solid after arriving in a trade with Vancouver while Johnson played all 82 games before being a curious healthy scratch for Game 1 against the Islanders.

”I think our defense is probably the best that’s it has been since I’ve been here as a group,” Rutherford said.

SEE YA DAD?

Matt Cullen had seven goals and 13 assists and remained a faceoff wizard – particularly in the defensive zone – in his 21st season. The 42-year-old, however, seems headed for retirement to spend more time with his wife and three boys. His leadership and character will be difficult to replace.

”I think just he’s such a pro in the way he approached every day, the way he led by example, the way he treated guys,” Crosby said. ”He can still play.”

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

Penguins tie series with Canadiens despite Carey Price’s brilliance

Penguins tie series win Game 2 vs. Canadiens
Getty Images
Leave a comment

Some people nodded their heads at the “Carey Price could steal a series against the Penguins” talking points; others rolled their eyes. During much of Game 2 of the Penguins – Canadiens 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifier, most people were just shaking their heads in disbelief at how great Price was. Even so, the Penguins did just enough to tie the series 1-1 via a 3-1 win.

Price was righteous; Penguins’ power play needs serious work

Carey Price and the Canadiens penalty kill already impressed in Game 1, keeping an on-paper-potent power play to an inefficient 1-for-7. Price & Co. were even stingier in Game 2, keeping the Penguins off the board (0-for-5) despite a steady stream of early opportunities.

In both games, the Penguins failed to score on 5-on-3 power play opportunities.

As with a lot of these situations, special teams successes and failures come down to a mix of factors. On one hand, the Canadiens performed admirably on the PK, and Price was brilliant whenever that structure broke down. But the Penguins’ power play looked flat, and almost cost Pittsburgh Game 2.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Crosby’s goal proved crucial; Penguins dominated Canadiens at even strength in Game 2

When Sidney Crosby scored the 1-0 goal just 4:25 into Game 2, it seemed like it would merely be a prelude to a busy game. Instead, it served as the only goal of Game 2 for significant chunk of the night.

Crosby made some history with that goal, his second in two games. By collecting his 68th career playoff goal, Crosby tied Gordie Howe for 18th most in NHL playoff history. That tally also pushed Crosby’s career playoff point total to 188, tying Crosby with Joe Sakic and Doug Gilmour for eighth all-time.

Late in the third period, Jason Zucker connected on a nice 2-0 goal, while Conor Sheary collected his second assist of Game 2. Jesperi Kotkaniemi then broke Matt Murray‘s shutout attempt to make it 2-1, but that goal came far too late for Montreal to push Game 2 into OT. Like Crosby, Kotkaniemi has two goals in as many games in this best-of-five series. Jake Guentzel‘s empty-netter ended any hint of late-building drama in Game 2.

Overall, the Penguins find themselves breathing a sigh of relief, and maybe catching their breath. Meanwhile, the Canadiens must feel decent about having this series tied 1-1, although they’ll need to give Price more support to advance. For all of the criticism the Penguins’ power play may receive, the Canadiens likely need to work beyond a “bend but don’t break” approach.

5) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (12) Montreal Canadiens (Series tied 1-1/Habs lead series 2-0)

Saturday, Aug. 1: Canadiens 3, Penguins 2 (recap)
Monday, Aug. 3: Penguins 3, Canadiens 1
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Penguins vs. Canadiens, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Friday, Aug. 7: Penguins vs. Canadiens*
Saturday, Aug. 8: Canadiens vs. Penguins*

You can watch all the NHL playoff streams on the NBC Sports app.

MORE:
2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule

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.

Blackhawks-Oilers stream: 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers

Blackhawks-Oilers stream
Getty Images
Leave a comment

NBC’s coverage of the NHL’s Return to Play continues with Monday’s Stanley Cup Qualifier matchup between the Blackhawks and Oilers. Coverage begins at 10:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. Watch the Blackhawks-Oilers Game 2 stream at 10:30 p.m. ET on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Connor McDavid scored 2:34 into the game to give Edmonton the early lead before Chicago scored four straight goals – two by captain Jonathan Toews – to take a 4-1 lead after the first period. Rookie Dominik Kubalik was the story the rest of the way.

While Toews, Patrick Kane, McDavid and Leon Draisaitl all found the score sheet, it was Kubalik who made the headlines. The Calder Trophy finalist, who led all rookies with 30 goals during the regular season, set an NHL record for most points (5) in a playoff debut.

Mike Smith allowed five goals on 23 shots before being pulled in the second for Mikko Koskinen.

“We’ll talk about where we are with our goaltenders, and I thought Mikko was fine in net,” Oilers head coach Dave Tippett said. “We have confidence in both our guys, we had long discussions about it. We think we’ll use both in the [postseason]… We started the season 5-0 (with) Smitty. We thought we wanted to start the postseason the same way. We were very confident in Smitty. Other than the giveaway that went off his back, he was kind of left on his own out there.”

Blackhawks forward Drake Caggiula has been suspended for Game 2 following an illegal check to the head of Tyler Ennis.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

WHAT: Chicago Blackhawks vs. Edmonton Oilers
WHERE: Rogers Place – Edmonton
WHEN: Monday, August 3, 10:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
ON THE CALL: Kenny Albert, AJ Mleczko, Pierre McGuire
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Blackhawks-Oilers stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

(5) Edmonton Oilers vs. (12) Chicago Blackhawks (Blackhawks lead series 1-0)

Saturday, Aug. 1: Blackhawks 6, Oilers 4 (recap)
Monday, Aug. 3: Blackhawks vs. Oilers, 10:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN (livestream)
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Oilers vs. Blackhawks, 10:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Friday, Aug. 7: Oilers vs. Blackhawks*, TBD
Saturday, Aug. 8: Blackhawks vs. Oilers*, TBD

You can watch all the NHL playoff streams on the NBC Sports app.

MORE:
2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule

Reaves, Seguin, Lehner, Dickinson kneel during anthem before Stars – Golden Knights

Leave a comment

Two Golden Knights (Ryan Reaves and Robin Lehner) and two Stars (Tyler Seguin and Jason Dickinson) decided to kneel during both anthems before the teams’ round-robin game on Monday.

This comes after other noteworthy moments where NHL players made statements against racism, particularly Wild defenseman Matt Dumba.

After the Golden Knights’ 5-3 win against the Stars, Seguin explained his decision to kneel.

“I was giving it a lot of thought in the last 24 hours about what to do. I talked to Reaves during warmups. He said he saw what I was doing in Dallas, and that him and Lehner were going to kneel, and asked if I’d like to join them. So I told them I’d join them,” Seguin said, via ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski. “Before the game, I went into the dressing room and told everyone what I was doing. Told them there was absolutely no pressure to do anything. Dickinson grabbed me and said he’d like to be a part of it, and support his beliefs and my beliefs.”

Reaves and Lehner added their own thoughts after the contest:

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

More on Stars, Golden Knights, and Dumba kneeling during anthems

Wild defenseman Matt Dumba made a passionate speech before Game 1 of Blackhawks – Oilers on Saturday, then kneeled during the U.S. national anthem. Dumba also raised his fist during the national anthem before his own Wild’s win against the Canucks on Sunday.

As you can read more about here, Dumba said that he regretted only kneeling for the U.S. national anthem, rather than both anthems. In this latest case, Reaves, Lehner, Seguin, and Dickinson kneeled for both anthems before Stars – Golden Knights.

The Golden Knights also tweeted about their players kneeling:

While the Stars shared a similar (if shorter) sentiment:

Along with Dumba, Lehner, Reaves, Seguin, and Dickinson, other teams made statements of their own. Members of the Nashville Predators wore “Black Lives Matter” shirts before Game 1 against the Coyotes on Sunday.

Members of the Bruins wore a variety of shirts along similar lines, while Maple Leafs players made similar gestures early in the NHL Return to Play.

During the end of his passionate speech, Dumba hoped that the Hockey Diversity Alliance and other measures might inspire others in the future.

“I hope this inspires a new generation of hockey players and hockey fans,” Dumba said. “Because Black Lives Matter. Breonna Taylor’s life matters. Hockey is a great game. But it could be a whole lot greater. And it starts with all of us.”

It seems like Dumba and others managed to inspire peers, including Reaves and Lehner of the Golden Knights and Seguin and Dickinson of the Stars.

Read more about the Hockey Diversity Alliance here, and at their website. The NHL also recently announced its #WeSkateFor initiative, which you can learn more about here.

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.

Kucherov leads Lightning past Capitals in round-robin play

lightning capitals kucherov
Getty Images
Leave a comment

Shootout goals from Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point helped the Lightning beat the Capitals 3-2 in round-robin play Monday.

The first half of the game belonged to Tampa, who lead in possession and on the scoreboard until late in the second period. The Lightning controlled over 60% of shot attempts (per Natural Stat Trick) for most of the opening 40 minutes and built up a 2-0 lead thanks to goals from Kucherov and Mitchell Stevens.

Kucherov’s first of the postseason was the result of strong neutral zone play by the Lightning. They won the middle of the ice, and a Capitals turnover allowed Point to dance into the offensive zone and lay a pass off to Kucherov, who then proceeded to wire a shot by Braden Holtby.

Washington flipped the game to their side with a pair of goals 2:08 apart late in the second. First, Richard Panik put home a rebound that squeaked through Andrei Vasilevskiy‘s pads. Evgeny Kuznetsov then followed that up tapping home another puck that the Tampa netminder had trouble with.

No goals in the third period meant bonus hockey. Round-robin games will feature regular-season overtime rules, but 3-on-3 didn’t solve anything, so a shootout was needed.

Current Eastern Conference round-robin standings

Now that each team has played once, here’s where things stand:

• Lightning – 2 pts.
• Flyers – 2 pts.
• Capitals – 1 pt.
• Bruins – 0 pts.

Reminder that these games will determine seeding for Round 1. Any ties will be broken by regular-season points percentage.

Carlson remains out

Norris Trophy finalist John Carlson did not play Monday. The defenseman remained out after suffering an injury during the Capitals’ exhibition game last week against Carolina. He has practiced with the team since the weekend, but head coach Todd Reirden wanted to play it safe.

“We’re not going to put them in a situation where, if something were to go wrong or re-aggravate any injury or anything that’s going on that would potentially cause a chance for him to miss part of Round 1,” Reirden said on Sunday. “So we’ll do the thing that’s right for the player and obviously right for the team. We obviously wouldn’t put him out there in a situation where anything could become worse because he’s such a large part of our team and obviously a guy that had a tremendous year and is a huge part of our blue line.”

Bogosian makes postseason debut

Lightning defenseman Zach Bogosian has played 644 NHL games since breaking into the league with the Atlanta Thrashers in 2008-09. The No. 3 overall pick in the 2008 draft is with his third franchise and finally took part in the postseason for the first time in his career on Monday.

The last time Bogosian was in any sort of postseason? The 2008 Ontario Hockey League playoffs when he was with the Peterborough Petes. They lost their opening round series in five games to P.K Subban’s Belleville Bulls.

Eastern Conference round-robin schedule

Sunday, Aug. 2: Flyers 4, Bruins 1 (recap)
Monday, Aug. 3: Lightning 3, Capitals 2 (SO)
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Lightning vs. Bruins, 4 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Thursday, Aug. 6: Capitals vs. Flyers, TBD
Saturday, Aug. 8: Flyers vs. Lightning, TBD
Sunday, Aug. 9: Bruins vs. Capitals, TBD

MORE:
2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule

————

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.