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

Sharks, Blues confident, and even, heading into Game 5

Leave a comment

SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — The San Jose Sharks have been at their best this postseason when they had little margin for error.

That’s probably why they feel comfortable heading home for Game 5 of the Western Conference final against the Blues after a lackluster start led to a Game 4 loss in St. Louis.

Having squandered a series lead for the second time in this matchup, the Sharks know a loss Sunday could mean they won’t get to play on home ice again this postseason.

”It’s a great spot to be in,” coach Peter DeBoer said Saturday. ”This is supposed to be hard. What happened with Boston on the other side, that usually doesn’t happen. Usually these are all six, seven hard-fought games, hard-fought series. We’re right where I expected we would be, in a good spot going home, and we’ve got to get the job done.”

After alternating wins in the first four games, the Sharks and Blues now have a best-of-three to decide who plays the Bruins in the Stanley Cup Final. Boston swept Carolina in the East and will have 10 days off before the start of the next round May 27.

Nothing has come easy for San Jose or St. Louis. The Blues went six games in the opening round against Winnipeg before needing double overtime in Game 7 of the second round against Dallas to make the conference final.

The Sharks, meanwhile, have endured two seven-game series – Vegas and Colorado. That’s happened in part because they have appeared to let up when leading a series before responding with greater desperation.

San Jose is 0-6 this postseason when leading a series. But it is 10-2 when tied or trailing, including four wins in elimination games sparked by a comeback from 3-1 down in the opening round to the Golden Knights.

”There’s a lot of emotion in the playoffs,” Sharks captain Joe Pavelski said. ”We’re in the conference finals. We’ve had overtime wins, we’ve had game sevens. We’ve had emotional games for sure. You just lace them back up next game and you compete.”

The Blues got a goal from Ivan Barbashev 35 seconds into Game 4 and added another late in the first period before hanging on for the 2-1 win Friday.

It was an impressive rebound from a crushing Game 3 loss when the Blues allowed the tying goal with 1:01 left in regulation and then the winner in overtime after the officials failed to see a hand pass by San Jose that set up Erik Karlsson‘s goal.

”We’re in a good spot,” coach Craig Berube said. ”So just pushing and keep fighting and be aggressive. Just be aggressive as a team and be confident as a team. That’s our message. You’re going to have ups and downs in the playoffs and you have to move on from it. You really do. As much as we had to move on from that Game 3 loss we have to move on from last night’s win.”

The Sharks need to come out in Game 5 with the kind of play they showed in the final two periods Friday. They controlled the puck and hemmed the Blues into the defensive end for long stretches.

The only problem was St. Louis rookie goalie Jordan Binnington, who stopped all 11 shots in the second period and then nine of 10 in the third. He allowed only a power-play goal to Tomas Hertl on the way to his franchise-record 10th win this postseason.

Binnington improved to 11-2 this season in games following a loss.

”As soon as people start doubting him, he pulls another sick performance,” Blues forward David Perron said.

Another big concern for the Sharks is the health of Karlsson, who played only one shift in the final 9:24 after an apparent injury. Karlsson missed 27 of the final 33 games in the regular season with groin injuries that have hampered him in the playoffs.

He’s had big moments, with 14 assists and two goals, including the disputed overtime winner in Game 3 against the Blues. But he also seems to labor at times, as he did in the third period before taking an extended break when the Sharks were fighting for the tying goal.

He returned for the final 1:55 game with the goalie pulled but mostly stayed positioned at the point for passes and shots, his skating limited. DeBoer offered no update Saturday on Karlsson’s condition.

The Blues will again be without defenseman Vince Dunn, who took a puck to the face in Game 3.

AP freelancer Joe Harris in St. Louis, Missouri, contributed to this report

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

Bruins hope to have a healthy Chara for Stanley Cup Final

3 Comments

BOSTON (AP) — The Bruins were able to sweep Carolina in the Eastern Conference final without captain Zdeno Chara.

Now they’re hoping 10 days off before the start of the Stanley Cup Final will be enough time for the defenseman to return.

The title round begins May 27 when Boston will face San Jose or St. Louis, with that conference final 2-2. The Bruins completed their sweep Thursday with Chara out with an undisclosed injury.

”We have a lot of time to make the absolute right decision to give him the proper time to get over something that’s been nagging him,” Bruins general manager Don Sweeney said Saturday. ”And we’ll cross our fingers that will be the case. But we’re confident it will be.”

Sweeney stopped short of guaranteeing Chara’s return for Game 1.

”I’m not living in how or where Zee feels. I expect he’ll be fine,” Sweeney said. ”But I’m not going to sit here and make a proclamation in terms of promises. I do believe that time will be used effectively and he’ll be fine. But sometimes those are out of your control.”

Defenseman Kevan Miller and forward Chris Wagner are doubtful for Game 1 of the Final. Miller hasn’t played since April 4 because of a lower-body injury. Wagner injured his right arm blocking a shot in Game 3 against Carolina.

Patrick Roy set to interview for Senators’ coaching vacancy: report

Getty Images
2 Comments

Interested in seeing more of this?

Or maybe some of this?

Well, you just might be in luck.

Postmedia’s Bruce Garrioch reports that Patrick Roy is set be the last interview done by Ottawa Senators general manager Pierre Dorion as the search for the next bench boss in Canada’s capital continues.

Roy has most recently been coaching the Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. He last coached in the NHL in 2016 with the Colorado Avalanche, a job he resigned from following that season. Two years earlier, he won the Jack Adams Award for the NHL’s best coach after the Avalanche went from last to first in the Western Conference.

Roy is 130-92-24 during his 246-game coaching career in the NHL.

“Those close to Roy believe he’d like to return to the NHL in the right situation and initially the only pressure in Ottawa will be to develop the young players,” Garrioch wrote. “The Senators have the potential to have 17 picks in the first three rounds of the next three drafts and finding the right fit is paramount.”

The Senators, according to Garrioch, have already interviewed several candidates, including fellow former Avalanche coach Mark Crawford, along with former Senators coach Jacques Martin and Dallas Stars assistance Rick Bowness.

Roy’s experience coaching young players, as Garrioch points out, would be appealing for a team as young as the Senators, who also have a litany of draft picks coming their way over the next three years.

Can Roy work under Senators owner Eugene Melnyk? Can he work with Dorion? Roy didn’t exactly have the best professional relationship with Joe Sakic and Roy would likely want some level of control of the direction of the team.

It remains to be seen, but Roy has a decent track record that is appealing, certainly.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Has Erik Karlsson’s lingering groin injury resurfaced?

Leave a comment

It plagued him for most of the second half of the season.

A good chunk of January, a good chunk of February, and the entirety of March, to be exact.

And now Erik Karlsson‘s Game 5 status is up in the air after he appeared to aggravate a lingering groin injury, one Karlsson said had only progressed in the right direction throughout the Stanley Cup Playoffs after Game 1 of the Western Conference Final.

“I don’t have anything for you there,” said Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer when quizzed on Karlsson’s health following a 2-1 loss to the St. Louis Blues that evened the best-of-seven series 2-2 on Friday.

DeBoer quickly swept that question under the rug.

As did Brent Burns, who just said, “He’s doing good” followed by a “How’re you doing?” when a reporter probed Burns about his teammate.

You may not have noticed it, initially at least.

Normally guys who play 24:33 in a game don’t miss significant stretches. But from the 10:36 mark to 18:05 of the third period, Karlsson didn’t see the ice. With the Sharks trailing 2-1 at the time, you’d expect one of the game’s best offensive defensemen to be on the ice. Instead, Karlsson was grimacing in pain, coming out during commercial breaks to test whatever was ailing him.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Somehow, he played the final 1:55 of the game — nearly two minutes of madness where the Sharks tried, ultimately in vain, to find an equalizer. Karlsson bit down hard on his mouthpiece and bore the pain, but you could see its effects.

PHT’s James O’Brien wrote on Karlsson’s playoffs prior to Friday’s game.

Karlsson limped into the playoffs and said himself that he could barely move in Round 1 against the Vegas Golden Knights.

Still, and as James pointed out in his story, it’s been hard to notice with two goals and 14 assists in 18 postseason games. Karlsson has played big minutes and produced at nearly a point-per-game pace in the playoffs, essentially everything the Sharks envisioned he would do when they brought him in last summer.

What they didn’t want was a nagging injury that force Karlsson to missed 29 games during the regular season and now, perhaps, some at a critical juncture for a team that’s hoping they’ve finally put it all together this year.

Maybe it’s nothing. But those painful faces that Karlsson wore in Game 4 weren’t exactly inspiring confidence in the “maybe it’s nothing” part.

If Karlsson can’t play, it’s only going to mean more minutes for guys like Burns, who is already averaging nearly 29 minutes a night. Karlsson has played an instrumental role in these playoffs for the Sharks.

A loss, even for a game, would be a massive blow in what’s now a best-of-three series.

[MORE: Blues handling adversity like champions]


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck