Crosby, Penguins searching for spark as playoffs loom

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PITTSBURGH — The longest active playoff streak in North American professional sports is alive and well. It’s the latest iteration of the group that has reached the postseason 16 straight years and counting that’s in trouble.

The Pittsburgh Penguins head into Friday’s regular-season finale in search of consistency, urgency and maybe a little swagger. A solid month of wildly uneven play will do that.

A surprising contender for the Metropolitan Division title at the All-Star break considering the rash of injuries to high-profile players like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and brushes with COVID-19 that left head coach Mike Sullivan scrambling at times to put a lineup together, the Penguins are in a 6-9-2 funk.

The inspired performances that dotted the first half have eroded into a hodgepodge of meh. For every 11-goal outburst against the Detroit Red Wings, there has been a dismal setback like a 4-1 loss to going-nowhere Philadelphia or a bafflingly listless three periods against Edmonton and star Connor McDavid.

Instead of home-ice advantage when the Stanley Cup playoffs start next week, Pittsburgh heads into the final game of the season hoping to merely avoid falling into the second wild-card spot and a date with either Florida or Carolina.

Sullivan attempted to shake things up against the Oilers, including putting the top line of Crosby, All-Star Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust back together. Nothing worked. The top line didn’t muster a point and the Penguins were outskated and outworked for the vast majority of 60 minutes.

“Obviously, we’d like to feel better about our game,” Sullivan said afterward. “It’s hard to feel good about your game unless you get results. We’ve been sporadic lately.”

The Penguins have scored 56 goals and allowed 56 goals during the 17-game stretch that began with a 4-3 shootout loss to Buffalo on March 23. The team that has prided itself on Sullivan’s mantra of “playing the right way” hasn’t exactly tightened things up with All-Star goaltender Tristan Jarry out indefinitely with a foot injury.

Pittsburgh has been outshot in each of its five games since Jarry went down and has given up at least 40 shots in three of its last four contests. Not exactly encouraging considering what’s looming next week.

Defenseman Marcus Pettersson pointed to the finale as a chance to get some confidence, something that’s been in alarmingly short supply for a group led by the core of Crosby, Malkin and defenseman Kris Letang, players who happen to have their names on the Stanley Cup three times.

“We’ve got to play towards (confidence),” Pettersson said. “Got to play hard, play for each other with some enthusiasm, because it’s not going to come by itself.”

Sullivan praised his team for its relentless resilience in the middle of the year, but there has been significant regression of late. Malkin, who missed the first three months of the season while recovering from offseason knee surgery, has been brilliant at times. He has 19 goals in 40 games, yet Pittsburgh’s record when he’s played this year is 21-14-5.

That’s not awful by any stretch. It’s also not good enough to keep pace with the leaders in a conference where all eight teams have reached the 100-point mark. Putting the Penguins’ sporadic play on Malkin’s broad shoulders is ill-advised. Yet there has been a trickle-down effect of sorts. Having two lines anchored by future Hall of Famers can lead to the kind of up-and-down, chance-for-chance play that puts an awful lot on your goaltender.

While Casey DeSmith has been more than fine — his .914 save percentage is within earshot of Jarry’s .919 — he’s also been under pretty heavy pressure at times.

The weekend offers a chance at a hard reset regardless of where the Penguins wind up in the standings. It also gives the team’s leaders an opportunity to help their teammates figure things out.

“I know this group is capable,” Sullivan said. “They’re an accomplished group. There’s a wealth of experience in that locker room. We need to draw on that experience now more than ever.”

In the big picture, Sullivan is right. Yet Pittsburgh hasn’t won a playoff series since 2018, when its bid for a three-peat ended in the second round against Washington.

The Penguins are 3-13 in their last 16 postseason games and for all of their consistency through the years, change could be coming if they make another quick exit.

Fenway Sports Group purchased the team last fall from Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle. Longtime CEO David Morehouse stepped down on Thursday. Malkin and Letang are set to be free agents this summer. While their legacy is intact no matter how the next few weeks ago, there’s a real chance this stand could be the team’s last one as currently constructed.

“You just try to enjoy it as much as you can,” Crosby said Thursday. “Because you know it’s not something that’s going to last forever.”

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    Ovechkin, and Ovi Jr., take the ice at All-Star skills night

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    SUNRISE, Fla. — When you’ve got the second-most goals in NHL history, you’re evidently permitted to bring a guest onto the ice for the All-Star Skills competition.

    That’s why there were two No. 8 Washington jerseys out there.

    Capitals star Alex Ovechkin took the ice with his Metropolitan Division teammates – and his oldest child, 4-year-old Sergei.

    Sergei, named for Ovechkin’s late brother, was wearing an Ovi Jr. jersey. The kid has built a bit of a following in recent weeks, after scoring a goal at a Caps practice in December and playing a role in helping the Washington crowd celebrate his dad’s 800th goal.

    It was Ovi Jr.’s first chance at being part of an All-Star weekend. His father hasn’t participated at All-Star since 2018, either because of COVID-19 or injuries. The last time his dad played in an All-Star event, Sergei hadn’t been born.

    Alex Ovechkin has 812 goals. He only trails Wayne Gretzky’s 894 in NHL history.

    And later in the night, Ovi Jr. got to center a line alongside his dad and Pittsburgh great Sidney Crosby. They each got an assist on a goal that Sergei scored – beating Roberto Luongo, the Florida great who came out of retirement for All-Star weekend.

    Said Ovechkin after his son scored: “I think he’s really enjoying it.”

    WELCOME HOME, LU

    Luongo got to be part of one more All-Star competition.

    In a building where a banner bearing his No. 1 jersey hangs – he’s the only former Panthers player to have that distinction – Luongo was a celebrity goaltender during the Breakaway Challenge during the Skills Competition on Friday night.

    He stopped his lone shot in the breakaway, off the stick of Toronto’s Mitch Marner. On one hand, Marner is the Maple Leafs’ leading scorer this season. On the other hand, he was also wearing a white suit, sunglasses and a light blue T-shirt to keep with a “Miami Vice” theme.

    Luongo, who was regaled by “Luuuuu” chants from the Florida fans all night, was up to the challenge. Marner tried to beat him to the glove side, but Luongo got enough of it to make the save – then flopped forward to cover up the rebound, the smile clearly seen through his mask.

    “You got too close,” Luongo told Marner.

    Later, Luongo told ESPN during the telecast of the event that “this is my house. This is my home right here. The crease is my home.”

    Luongo’s pads paid tribute to his career – the design depicted his time both as a member of the Panthers and the Vancouver Canucks. They were a gift from CCM for his making the Hockey Hall of Fame.

    “I’d never put the pads on since I retired,” Luongo said. “First time I put them on was this week. Felt pretty good.”

    He also took part, and scored a goal, in a Florida alumni game on Wednesday night. But if there’s more alumni games, Luongo suggested he might jump back into the net.

    “It back some good memories tonight to be in the blue paint, hearing the chants,” Luongo said. “Maybe one day we’ll hear them again.”

    REMEMBERING JIMMY

    Sergei Ovechkin – who knocked a shot into an open net during a stoppage of the skills events – wasn’t the only child who got a great view of the night.

    Philadelphia forward Kevin Hayes has his 3-year-old nephew Beau with him for All-Star weekend. Beau’s father was Jimmy Hayes, Kevin Hayes’ brother.

    Jimmy Hayes was 31 when he died in 2021 with fentanyl and cocaine in his system. He played for four NHL teams, including Florida.

    Kevin Hayes is part of an All-Star weekend for the first time.

    ANTHEM POISE

    “The Star-Spangled Banner” was performed by the South Florida Gay Men’s Chorus, and group crushed it – never minding that the crowd, representing several different fan bases, was going to shout some term specific to their team at various points in the lyrics.

    Florida fans shout along with “red” and “Knight,” one a nod to one of the team’s primary colors, the other for goaltender Spencer Knight. There also were some shouts from other fan bases; some St. Louis fans, for example, could be heard singing “home of the Blues” instead of “home of the brave” to close the song.

    And “O Canada” performer Hannah Walpole had some shouting as she sang as well, particularly when she reached the “true North” portion of those lyrics – something typically heard at Winnipeg games.

    SLAP SHOTS

    Cale Makar, the reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner from the Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche, was the first participant in the Fastest Skater event – the opening competition of the night. He fell coming around the second turn. … Tampa Bay’s Pat Maroon, one of the broadcasters on the event, reported that he was “freezing” by working at ice level. “I’m used to the gear,” said Maroon, who was in a blazer and open shirt Friday night. … A big hit for those used to the regular colors of FLA Live Arena – and basically all other hockey arenas – was the ocean-water-shade of blue used for the blue lines and the creases. The faceoff dots at the circles on either end of the ice aren’t the standard solid red this weekend, but depict an image of the sun instead.

    Capitals sign Dylan Strome to five-year, $25 million extension

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    FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. – The Washington Capitals signed forward Dylan Strome to a five-year extension worth $25 million.

    The team announced the contract during NHL All-Star Weekend, which is taking place in South Florida – the place Strome was drafted third in 2015.

    Strome will count $5 million against the salary cap through the 2027-28 season. He was set to be a restricted free agent this summer.

    “Dylan is an intelligent and skilled center and has been a great addition to our organization,” general manager Brian MacLellan said. “We are pleased to sign him to a long-term contract. We feel his skill set is a great fit for our team as he enters the prime years of his career at an important position.”

    Strome is getting a raise from the $3.5 million deal he signed with the Capitals after the Chicago Blackhawks opted not to tender him a qualifying offer and made him a free agent. Strome has 11 goals and 25 assists in 36 games this season and ranks third on Washington’s roster with 14 power-play points.

    The Mississauga, Ontario, native who played his junior hockey alongside Connor McDavid with the Erie Otters has 206 points in 325 regular-season NHL games with the Arizona Coyotes, Blackhawks and Capitals.

    Golden Knights captain Mark Stone undergoes back surgery

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    LAS VEGAS — Vegas Golden Knights captain Mark Stone is out indefinitely after undergoing back surgery in Denver, the club announced.

    The Knights termed the procedure as successful and that Stone “is expected to make a full recovery.”

    This is the second time in less than a year that Stone has had back surgery. He also had a procedure May 19, 2022, and Stone said in December this was the best he had felt in some time.

    But he was injured Jan. 12 against the Florida Panthers, and his absence has had a noticeable effect on the Knights. They have gone 1-5-2 without Stone, dropping out of first place in the Pacific Division into third.

    Stone is second on the team in goals with 17 and in points with 38.

    Devils associate coach Andrew Brunette charged with DUI

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    DEERFIELD BEACH, Fla. — New Jersey Devils associate coach and former Florida Panthers head coach Andrew Brunette was arrested in South Florida while driving home from a bar in his golf cart, authorities said.

    Brunette, 49, was pulled over just blocks from the ocean in the Deerfield Beach area, north of Fort Lauderdale, according to a Broward Sheriff’s Office arrest report. He was charged with one count of driving under the influence and two counts of disobeying a stop or yield sign. Brunette was released on $500 bond.

    The Devils said in a statement that the team was aware of Brunette’s arrest and gathering additional information.

    According to the arrest report, a deputy was in the process of giving Brunette’s illegally parked golf cart a ticket around midnight when Brunette walked out of a nearby bar and told the deputy he was about to leave. The deputy said Brunette seemed unsteady on his feet and slurred his speech, and when he was joined by his wife, the deputy said he overheard the wife tell Brunette not to drive while the deputy was there.

    The deputy remained in the area and reported watching the couple drive away about 17 minutes later, according to the report. The deputy said he watched the golf cart run two stop signs before pulling Brunette over on a residential street about a mile away from his home. According to the report, Brunette had difficulty following instructions during a field sobriety test before eventually quitting and asking for an attorney. He also declined to take a breathe test to measure his blood-alcohol level, officials said.

    Online jail and court records didn’t list an attorney for Brunette.

    Brunette is in his first season as associate coach of the Devils. He was interim coach of the Florida Panthers last season after taking over when Joel Quenneville resigned for his connection to a 2010 Chicago Blackhawks sexual abuse scandal.

    The Panthers fired Brunette after they lost in the second round of the playoffs last spring despite him leading them to the Presidents’ Trophy as the league’s top team during the regular season.

    The Sudbury, Ontario, native played 1,159 NHL games for Washington, Nashville, Atlanta, Minnesota, Colorado and Chicago from 1995-2012. He was a Wild assistant in 2015-16 and worked on Florida’s staff from 2019-2022.