Why Blues’ discipline has disappeared in Stanley Cup Final

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Through the first three games of the Stanley Cup Final the message has been the same for the St. Louis Blues, so much so that it is almost becoming annoying to keep typing it and saying it.

That message: Stop. Taking. Penalties.

Through the first three games of the series the Blues been completely unable to do that, having already tallied 34 penalty minutes heading into Monday’s Game 4 (8 p.m. ET, NBC; Live Stream).

This is not sitting well with the Blues for a number of reasons, from the fact the Bruins’ power play has already scored six goals, to the fact it is a drastic change from what we saw from the Blues for the entire season prior to this series.

During the regular season the Blues averaged just 7.35 penalty minutes per game, one of the lowest marks in the entire NHL.

In their three playoff series’ before the Final (against the Winnipeg Jets, Dallas Stars, and San Jose Sharks) they actually saw their average drop down to just 6.30 penalty minutes per game, which was the lowest per-game average of any team in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Everything we saw from the Blues this season was that they were one of the most disciplined teams in the NHL. They did a better job staying out of the penalty box than almost any other team in the league and they did not give their opponents an opportunity to burn them on the power play and change a game with bad penalties.

But in the three games against the Bruins the Blues have been averaging more than 11 penalty minutes per game and have already been shorthanded 14 times in the series. This has been a massive problem, not only because it has zapped the Blues of any momentum they have been able to build at times, but because the Bruins’ power play unit is still clicking at an all-time great success rate.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Coach Craig Berube was asked about what is leading to the increase in penalties, and while he acknowledged that his team could be more disciplined, he also made it clear he does not agree with all of the calls.

“Well, there’s a few things,” said Berube. “First of all we were the least penalized team in the league in the first three rounds, now all of a sudden we’ve taken 14 penalties in one series. So I don’t know. I don’t buy into all of that, to be honest with you. I think that we could definitely be more composed after the whistle. I think we’ve let some frustration get in there where we maybe do too much after the whistle. So we’ll clean that up, for sure. But like I said, we were the least penalized team in the league coming into this series. I don’t agree with all of the calls.”

When it was pointed out to Berube that the number of penalties usually decreases this late in the playoffs, he once again referenced the fact the Blues were the least penalized team through the first three rounds.

“Like I said, we were the least penalized team in the playoffs coming into this round,” he said. “Now all these penalties. Again, there’s nothing we can really do about what’s happened. Going forward, well, we can talk about being more disciplined, which we have, and playing between the whistles tomorrow. That can help.”

This is the reaction we should expect from a coach at this point in the season. There is acknowledgement that their team can be better, while there is also an attempt at publicly working the officials in an effort to try and buy some calls later in the series.

But none of this answers the question as to WHY the Blues are taking more penalties.

The answer to that question might be fairly simple: this is what tends happens when teams play the Bruins in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

When looking at the 2018-19 regular season numbers, the Bruins were one of the most penalized teams in the NHL by averaging more than nine penalty minutes per game, the second highest total in the league.

Every single one of their opponents (the Toronto Maple Leafs, Columbus Blue Jackets, Carolina Hurricanes, and now the Blues) were among the eight least penalized teams in the league, all averaging less than 7:40 in penalty time per game. Looking at those numbers and it would be easy to conclude ahead of time that it might be the Bruins that have to be more disciplined.

In each individual playoff series, the numbers have completely flipped.

While the Bruins have seen a dramatic drop in penalty minutes this postseason, every single one of their opponents has seen their penalty minutes increase when they play the Bruins.

This same trend has happened in pretty much every postseason series the Bruins have played over the past three seasons, where no matter how disciplined a team is during the regular season, they take more penalties in the playoffs against Boston, and no matter how many penalties the Bruins take during the regular season, they take less in the playoffs.

This is not some conspiracy where the Bruins are simply “getting all the calls” and getting favorable officiating in their favor, but rather a combination of factors that are taking place.

I have some theories as to what those factors are.

1. Good teams tend to draw more penalties. For all of the “big bad Bruins” mystique that still follows this team around, the Bruins are an extremely skilled team that dominates possession, plays with the puck, and has elite high-end players all over their lineup. They can beat you in transition, they score off the rush on the power play, they have some of the most productive players in the league on their roster. Guess what happens when skilled players dominate possession and play with the puck for significant stretches of games? Lesser talented teams and players have to cheat more and take penalties in an effort to stop them. Play against Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak, and Patrice Bergeron for 20 minutes every night and you are probably going to take a penalty or two at some point.

2. Teams overthink it against the Bruins. This goes back to the whole “big bad Bruins” thing where teams get stuck in a mindset that a matchup with them is going to be physical, so they have to increase their own physicality, match the intensity, and try to impose their will (or whatever other cliche teams spout off in the playoffs). There is a fine line between between being physical at the right time and in the right situations, and being physical just for the sake of being physical. The former is sometimes a necessity, the latter can quickly lead to recklessness. Throw in the powder keg that is four-to-seven games against Brad Marchand and all of his shenanigans and you have the perfect storm for teams to just completely lose their composure as they chase hits and get caught up in post-whistle scrums. The Bruins seem to know how to walk this line and can do just enough to throw teams off their game and draw an extra penalty or two. Sometimes that is all you need to be the difference in a game. The Blues have a bigger team and tend to play a physical game, but there is no denying that in these first three games they have tried to do even more, both during play and after the whistles. It is hurting them.

3. Keeping things even. One thing that does tend to happen in playoff games is a large percentage of them seem to end with the penalty and power play distribution being fairly even. It is the whole “let them play” mindset where the on-ice officials do not want to be the ones responsible for deciding a game with a call or series of calls. This, of course, drives teams and fans bonkers because everyone just wants to see consistency and the calls made as they should be. Sometimes teams will take more penalties than their opponent, and that is okay. It is the way sports works. If you look at some of the individual series with the Bruins, their drastic decrease in penalties from the regular season combined with their opponents drastic increase has, in some cases, resulted in the penalty split being pretty close to even, just as it was in Rounds 2 and 3 against the Columbus Blue Jackets and Carolina Hurricanes. But that has not been the case in this series, and it wasn’t the case in Boston’s two Round 1 matchups against the Toronto Maple Leafs the past two seasons where there was a pretty big split, which again goes back to points 1) and 2).

Whether it is one of these factors are a combination of all three the Blues really need to be better if they are going to even this series and eventually take control of it. If they keep doing what they have done over the first three games they are going to quickly find themselves out of this, missing a prime opportunity to win the franchise’s first ever Stanley Cup.

They have to be better when it comes to trying to slow down the Bruins’ offense.

They have to be better when it comes to avoiding the post-whistle scrums and taking extra runs at players.

They simply have to be better.

MORE BLUES-BRUINS:
The Wraparound: Blues look to flip the page
Blues vs. Bruins: Three keys to Game 4 of Stanley Cup Final
PHT Power Rankings: Conn Smythe watch entering Game 4
Stanley Cup Final: Sean Kuraly breaking through for Bruins
Vince Dunn back in Blues’ lineup

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.

Penguins plot a way forward as Letang recovers from stroke

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PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang returned to the ice on Thursday, just three days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

The “twirl” the longtime Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman took at the club’s practice facility was approved by team doctors, a spin designed to help Letang’s mental health and nothing else. While the 35-year-old remains upbeat, it remains far too early to put a timeline on when his familiar No. 58 will return to the lineup.

Though Pittsburgh general manager Ron Hextall indicated this stroke isn’t as severe as the one Letang endured in 2014 – when a hole in the wall of his heart led to a stroke that forced him to miss two months – the six-time All-Star is continuing to undergo tests.

There are no plans for Letang to participate in any sort of hockey-specific drills anytime soon, with coach Mike Sullivan stressing the club will “err on the side of caution” when it comes to whatever rehab Letang might need.

While Letang – one of the most well-conditioned players in the NHL – essentially went through the motions by himself, his teammates were 30 minutes south at PPG Paints Arena getting ready for a visit from Vegas and trying to plot a way forward without one of the franchise cornerstones, at least in the short term.

Letang made it a point to help break the news to the rest of the Penguins following a 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina on Tuesday. Pittsburgh scratched Letang from the lineup with an unspecified illness and he spent a portion of the game watching from the press box next to Hextall.

Afterward, Letang informed a somber locker room about his condition, a revelation that came as a shock even as he did his best to reassure those around him that he was and is OK.

“It’s very serious health stuff,” defenseman Chad Ruhwedel said. “You hear about strokes and it’s never really good so we’re just glad to see he’s doing well and everything is good with him.”

Sullivan understands it would be practically impossible for any of the other defensemen on the roster to replicate what Letang brings to the ice, so he’s not going to ask any one player to try. There are few players at the position in the NHL who have Letang’s mix of speed, skill and almost bottomless energy.

The highest-scoring defenseman in franchise history is averaging a team-best 23:54 of ice time and has long been a fixture on the power play and in just about every crucial late-game situation.

“I just think Tanger is not an easy guy to replace,” Sullivan said. “I don’t think from a tactical standpoint things change drastically. It’s just personnel based. But as you know, personnel can mean a lot in those types of situations.”

It’s more than that, however. This isn’t a routine injury. There’s an emotional component and an unknown element to Letang’s status even as the Penguins insist they don’t believe his condition is career-threatening.

“This is a whole different circumstance than an ankle injury or a shoulder injury,” Sullivan said. “This is a very different circumstance.”

Letang’s on-ice presence is just one aspect of his importance to a team that has never missed the playoffs since he made his debut in 2007. He’s become a mentor to younger teammates like 23-year-old defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph, who like Letang is French-Canadian and who, like Letang, plays with a graceful fluidity.

Joseph, who declined to get into specifics about Letang’s message to the team on Tuesday night, believes the best thing the Penguins can do during Letang’s absence is attack the game with the same passion he’s shown for 17 seasons and counting.

“The way he plays for the team every single night and the way he puts his heart and soul into the game on the ice, it’s the least we can do is have our thoughts of him whenever we get on the ice,” Joseph said.

Sullivan shuffled the lineup on Tuesday, elevating veteran Jeff Petry and Brian Dumoulin to the top defensive pair. Petry possesses a skillset that’s not too far removed from Letang’s, but it’s also his first year in Pittsburgh. Asking him to provide the leadership that’s innate to Letang is unfair. It’s one of the reasons Sullivan is insistent that it will take a group effort to fill in for a singular presence.

“We have some diversity on our blue line right now,” Sullivan said. “We feel like we have guys capable of stepping in and getting the job done for us and we’re going to try and do that.”

LA Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers

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LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers, a surprising move for a player once considered the successor in net to two-time Stanley Cup winner Jonathan Quick.

Petersen, 28, went on waivers the day after allowing four goals on 16 shots in relief of Quick during a 9-8 overtime loss to the Seattle Kraken. Quick was pulled after giving up five goals on 14 shots.

Only one NHL goalie has a save percentage lower than Petersen’s .868 this season, Elvis Merzlikins of the Columbus Blue Jackets with .864. Petersen is 5-3-2 in 10 games with a 3.75 goals-against average in his third full season with the Kings and fifth overall.

L.A. signed Petersen to a three-year, $15 million contract in September 2021, and he figured to take the starting job from Quick, who turns 37 in January and is set to be a free agent after the season. Petersen has two years left on that deal after this one at an annual salary cap hit of $5 million.

Penguins’ Kris Letang out indefinitely after 2nd stroke

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PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang plays hockey with a grace and inexhaustible fluidity seemingly impervious to the rigors of spending nearly half his life in the NHL.

For the second time in less than a decade, however, a major health scare has brought Letang’s career to a halt.

The 35-year-old Letang is out indefinitely after suffering a stroke for a second time. Letang reported feeling ill and was taken to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

While general manager Ron Hextall said Wednesday this stroke doesn’t appear to be as serious as the one Letang sustained in 2014, the Penguins will have to find a way forward at least in the short term without one of their franchise pillars.

“I am fortunate to know my body well enough to recognize when something isn’t right,” Letang said in a release. “While it is difficult to navigate this issue publicly, I am hopeful it can raise awareness. … I am optimistic that I will be back on the ice soon.”

The three-time Stanley Cup champion missed more than two months in 2014 after a stroke, which doctors determined was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. He spent Monday feeling off and told team trainers he was dealing with what Hextall described as a migraine headache.

Penguins team physician Dr. Dhamesh Vyas recommended Letang go to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

“He didn’t know (he had a stroke),” Hextall said. “He just knew something wasn’t right.”

Letang is continuing to undergo tests but felt well enough on Tuesday to be at the arena for Pittsburgh’s 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina. He spent the second period chatting with Hextall then addressed his teammates in the locker room afterward in an effort to help allay their concerns.

“I think it was important for Kris to be there because his teammates got to see him in good spirits and that he’s doing well,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said.

Sullivan added initial test results on Letang have been “very encouraging.” Letang will continue to undergo testing throughout the week, though he felt good enough in the aftermath to ask Sullivan and Hextall if he could skate, an activity that is off the table for now.

Hextall said he “couldn’t even guess” how long the Penguins may be without the married father of two, adding hockey is low on the team’s list of concerns about a player who, along with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, has helped the franchise to three Stanley Cups during his 17-year career.

“First and foremost this is about the person and I told Tanger about that last night,” Hextall said. “This is Kris Letang, the father and family guy, the Pittsburgh Penguins, that’s second.”

Letang, a six-time All-Star, has been one of the most durable players in the NHL. His 662 career points (145 goals, 517 assists) are a franchise record for a defenseman. He’s averaged well over 24 minutes of playing time over the course of his career, a number that’s ticked above 25 minutes per game seven times in eight-plus seasons since he returned from the initial stroke.

The Penguins felt so confident in Letang’s durability that they signed him to a six-year contract over the summer rather than let him test free agency for the first time.

“The level of hockey he’s played for as long as he’s played is absolutely incredible,” Hextall said. “The level he’s continued to play at at his age, the type of shape he’s in … he’s a warrior.”

Letang has one goal and 11 assists in 21 games so far this season for Pittsburgh, which hosts Vegas on Thursday night. The Penguins are pretty deep along the blue line, but Sullivan knows he can’t try to replace Letang with any one player.

“It’s not anything we haven’t been faced with in the past and the reality is we have what we have, and we’ll figure it out,” Sullivan said, adding “it’ll be by committee, as it usually is when you replace a player of that stature.”

Ovechkin tops Gretzky for most road goals, Capitals beat Canucks

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Alex Ovechkin scored twice, passing Wayne Gretzky for the most road goals in NHL history, and the Washington Capitals beat the Vancouver Canucks 5-1 on Tuesday night.

Ovechkin has scored 403 of his 793 career goals away from home. Gretzky holds the overall record with 894.

“It’s always nice when you beat the Great One,” Ovechkin said. “It doesn’t matter what kind of milestone it is. It’s history.”

Anthony Mantha added a goal and an assist for the Capitals (10-11-3). John Carlson and Martin Fehervary also scored, and Darcy Kuemper stopped 31 shots.

Nils Hoglander scored for the Canucks (9-11-3), who had won three in a row. Spencer Martin made 23 saves.

“Spencer’s been great for us. He’s probably a bit like the other players tonight. They weren’t ready to play and it showed on the scoreboard,” Vancouver coach Bruce Boudreau said.

The 37-year-old Ovechkin nearly netted a hat trick when Vancouver pulled Martin for an extra skater with just over six minutes left, but his rocket of a shot skimmed the outside of the post.

“I think he has 13 goals this year and I want to say like eight or nine have been like a new record. So it’s been cool,” Washington center Dylan Strome said. “Any time you pass Wayne Gretzky in anything, it deserves a standing ovation, which he got.”

Fehervary was the one who sealed it, flipping the puck high into the Canucks zone and into the empty net at 15:57 of the third period.

Ovechkin topped Gretzky 11:52 into the first, firing a one-timer from the left circle past Martin to give the Capitals a 2-0 lead with his 13th goal of the season.

“On his second goal, it looks like, `Oh, maybe (Martin) should have had it.’ But I’ve seen (Ovechkin) score 100 goals like that,” said Boudreau, who coached the Capitals from 2007-11. “He’s got a shot that finds its way in.”

The star forward from Russia got his first of the night 5:35 in, taking the puck off the stick of Vancouver defenseman Quinn Hughes near the net and batting in a quick shot.

“It could have been 6-1 after the first period, quite frankly, with the amount of chances (Washington) had,” Boudreau said.

It was Ovechkin’s 135th game-opening goal, tying Jaromir Jagr for the most in NHL history.

“(Ovechkin) was really good in the first and I thought we were really good in the first so it was nice to get out and get a jump like that,” Capitals coach Peter Laviolette said. “He certainly led. We knew we needed to have a good first period, have a good game, and you need your best players to do that.”

Carlson scored the lone goal of the second, chipping in a loose puck from the low hash marks at 18:47 to give Washington a 4-1 cushion.

“It’s frustrating. Because when you lose games, it should never be about your compete level and battle level,” Canucks center J.T. Miller said. “It’s frustrating because they didn’t out-skill us today, they didn’t out-system us. They literally just outbattled us and created their own chances.”

NOTES: Washington’s Lars Eller got his 200th career assist. … Miller had an assist, extending his point streak to nine games (four goals, seven assists). … The Capitals swept the two-game season series. … Vancouver assigned winger Vasily Podkolzin and defenseman Jack Rathbone to the Abbotsford Canucks on Monday, then recalled forward Phillip Di Giuseppe from the American Hockey League club on Tuesday.

UP NEXT

Washington: At Seattle on Thursday in the second of a five-game trip.

Vancouver: Host Florida on Thursday in the second of a four-game homestand.