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On Paul Stastny and his impact with the Jets

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It’s the deadline deal that materialized underneath the noses of everyone in the hockey world.

No one thought about it. Why would they?

The St. Louis Blues, despite a couple of bad losses starting with the one at home to the Winnipeg Jets, was still in the thick of the playoff hunt.

No one had the scoop, either. How could they?

Both teams displayed an impressive level of leakage control, rumored to be due largely in response to the Vegas Golden Knights (Winnipeg’s opponent in the Western Conference Final) meddling in a deal that may or may not have sent Derick Brassard to the Jets in the days leading up to Feb. 26.

The deal also happened very quickly.

The Blues dropped back-to-back 4-0 decisions, the aforementioned one to Winnipeg that put Blues GM Doug Armstrong’s hand on the phone and the other to Nashville, which made him pick it up and dial Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff’s number.

Paul Stastny, the centerpiece of the deal, didn’t have much time to review the situation and even less to make a decision.

To head to Winnipeg, he’d be essentially giving up on the Blues and waiving his no-trade clause.

“I knew we had a good team, knew that if we were going to do anything, we were going to play Nashville in the second round,” Stastny said on Thursday following Winnipeg’s Game 7 win against the Nashville Predators that thrust Stastny’s team into the Western Conference Final. “I think you knew that was going to be and we came out on the winning side. I had faith, playing against both these teams, both top-notch teams, I fit in nicely here in Winnipeg. When you have four different lines that can play, there are nights I play 10 minutes and there are nights where I play 20 minutes. A lot of teams just can’t do that because they’re not as deep.”

Stastny was the depth the Jets needed down the middle. But perhaps most importantly, Stastny provided a perfect fit in between two of Winnipeg youngest and brightest stars — Patrik Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers.

“The first word would be ‘hoped’ … and ‘are ecstatic about’ would be (next),” Jets coach Paul Maurice said about the before-and-after of the trade. “He’s produced big numbers and big plus-minus with two very young players on his wings, and played against good lines. His hockey sense is just off the charts on how to play under guys, when to get above them, when to make a play, when to not make a play. It’s a great learning experience for those two young players.”

Stastny’s impact has certainly been far-reaching.

“The biggest thing he brought to this team is just (he’s) a great professional,” Jets forward Mark Scheifele said. “Obviously, he can share his stories, he can share his experiences with all of us, especially the young guys. His game did all the speaking, especially [in Game 7]. He played unbelievable. That line got us going in the game and got a big goal on the power play as well. I think it’s just the person he is. He leads by example, does all the right things on and off the ice and that stuff just gets rewarded.”

Stastny had earned the nickname Mr. Game 7 prior to Thursday’s win with his five points in three games and a 2-1 record, the only Jets player to with more Ws than Ls. And he lived up to his billing after his three-point performance that helped send the Predators crashing out of the playoffs. Stastny has four goals and four assists in his four Game 7s now, a remarkable two points per game average.

Simply, he’s clutch, both on the ice, as evidenced in Game 7 and well before that, and off it, as echoed by Cheveldayoff.

“Some of his best performances are things none of us get to see and really happen inside the dressing room and on the plane and sitting beside the players, just the experience that he has,” Cheveldayoff said of Stastny, who played a big role in helping Laine to a 15-game point streak earlier in the season. “We knew we were getting a quality player, obviously you can see that on the ice. A quality person, we knew that from our due diligence in the past. But what he can bring inside the room, until you have a player, someone like that who can provide those experiences, you don’t really appreciate until you have.”

If Vegas didn’t want Brassard in Winnipeg, they sure as hell didn’t want Stastny there. Now, Stastny, who had 10 points in the second round, is fixing to be a thorn in the Golden Knights’ side beginning on Saturday.

Stastny helped the Jets win at the trade deadline. Now he’s trying to help them win a Stanley Cup

MORE:

Series preview
Golden Knights vs. Jets: Three questions facing each team
Jets face quick turnaround to host Vegas in Western finals
‘Flower’ blossoms: Fleury back to being great playoff goalie

• Stream here
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
PHT 2018 Conference Finals Roundtable
PHT predicts NHL’s Conference Finals
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub


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

Can Daniel Sprong help Penguins in do-or-die game?

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It’s no secret that the Pittsburgh Penguins can’t afford to lose another game in their second-round series against the Washington Capitals.

The two-time defending Stanley Cup Champions are facing elimination, as they trail 3-2 in this best-of-seven series. It’s a position they haven’t been in much over the last couple of years, but it’s not totally unfamiliar to them. After all, they went to double overtime in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final against Ottawa last year, so they know they can perform in do-or-die games.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

But there’s a couple of major differences between this edition of the Pens and the last two that won titles. The biggest one is depth scoring. It’s been well documented how they used their depth up front to create mismatches against their opponents in their last two playoff runs. This time around, most of the damage is being done by one line.

Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel and Patric Hornqvist have been phenomenal this postseason, but they can’t do it on their own. To make matters worse, it’s clear that Phil Kessel and Evgeni Malkin aren’t healthy, so that means that they need even more from guys like Conor Sheary, Carl Hagelin, Riley Sheahan, Derick Brassard and Bryan Rust.

Those five players have combined for one assist in the first five games of this series. Yes, Hagelin missed three games because of an injury, but you get the point. They’re clearly too top-heavy right now.

Enter Daniel Sprong.

The 21-year-old had just two goals and one assist in eight games with the Penguins during the regular season, but he clearly has enough offensive upside to warrant a look.

In his first full season in the AHL, Sprong led the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins in scoring with 32 goals and 65 points in 65 games. Jean-Sebastien Dea was second on the team in points, and despite playing five games more than Sprong, he had 15 less points.

“I think I grew a lot as a player,” Sprong said, per the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “I was excited about going down there after I got sent down and wanted to have a good second half. I thought as a team we had a good year as well. I’m excited about the year I had. Looking back on it, I’m pretty happy.”

“I feel if I get thrown in, I’m ready. I have a lot of confidence with the year I had. If I do get the opportunity, I’ll be ready to go.”

As is the case with all young players, coaches tend to prefer guys that are more capable of playing a well-rounded game. Often times, experience is valued over offensive ability (just like the Ryan Donato situation in Boston during the playoffs).

It’s hard to criticize Mike Sullivan because he’s pushed all the right buttons since taking over as head coach. But he has to realize that this isn’t the same team he’s been dealing with over the last few seasons. They should still be confident in their ability to come back in this series, but they might need a shot in the arm to get it done.

It’s time for him to roll the dice on one of his youngsters.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Penguins’ top line is doing all of the heavy lifting

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PITTSBURGH — Through four games the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals have provided most of what was expected from them in their second round series. It is an evenly matched series that looks like it might go the distance, there has been a lot of nastiness, there has been some controversy, and the two biggest superstars in the NHL  — Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin — have been taking turns delivering haymakers for their respective teams on the scoreboard.

In Game 3 on Tuesday it was Ovechkin helping to continue to carry the Capitals. In the Penguins’ 3-1 win in Game 4 on Thursday night, it was Crosby’s turn again as the duo of he and Jake Guentzel continued to dominate the postseason, scoring a pair of goals — both off the stick of Guentzel — to help the Penguins even the series at two games apiece.

With his two-goal effort on Thursday Guentzel is now up to 10 goals and is leading the league in playoff goal for the second year in a row. He scored a league-best 13 goals in 25 playoff games a year ago. Almost all of his damage this season has come alongside Crosby, and it is not a stretch to suggest that line has been helping to keep the Penguins afloat in these playoffs. They are quite literally the only line that is providing offense for them in this series.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Following Thursday’s win the Penguins have scored 10 goals in the series, while all of them have come with Crosby on the ice. He has had a hand in six of them, scoring two and assisting on four others. He did not factor into Evgeni Malkin‘s game-winning goal on Thursday, but he was on the ice as part of the Penguins’ power play.

There are a few ways to look at this.

This obviously is a big part of what makes Crosby the best player in the game (or at least 1A and 1B with Connor McDavid) and one of the best players of all-time. He can change a game and carry a team for an extended period of time. That is what he is trying to do right now for the Penguins.

“I just think he’s the best player in the game,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan. “He’s the best player in the game. He plays his best when the stakes are high. He plays at both end of the rink. We rely on him to defend as much as we rely on him to score goals and create offense, and he’s really good at both.

“So it doesn’t surprise me,” Sullivan continued. “He’s done it since I’ve been his coach, that has been my experience with him. I just have so much respect for the type of person he is, the type of player that he is, the care factor that he has for the team and winning, the way he always elevates his game for whatever our team needs. If we need a center to take a faceoff and defend a one-goal game when it’s a 6-on-5 situation, he’s the guy. If we need a goal and there’s a faceoff in the offensive zone, he’s the guy. That’s what separates him from every other player in the game. He is so multi-dimensional, there are so many layers to his game that no matter who he plays with he finds a way to have success and he does it night in and night out.”

With 19 points this postseason he already has as many points as he had in 24 postseason games in 2015-16 when he won the Conn Smythe Trophy, and is only seven points off of his total from a year ago (when he also won the Conn Smythe Trophy).

Crazy numbers.

[Related: Penguins, Capitals nastiness boils over again in Letang-Oshie fight]

Another crazy number: Of the 38 goals the Penguins have scored this postseason, Crosby has been on the ice for 28 of them. That is 74 percent!  If there is a concern from a Pittsburgh perspective it is the fact that percentage is probably a little too high and probably not a great recipe for sustained success. As great as Crosby and Guentzel have been together no one line can do that every single night for an entire postseason. Eventually they will have an off night. Eventually they get shut down for a game or two. Eventually the puck will not go in. The Penguins’ modus operandi the past two postseasons has been about depth and balanced scoring from all four lines. In 2015-16 Crosby was only on the ice for 41 percent of the Penguins’ playoff goals. A year ago it was 45 percent. They were getting production from everybody. This postseason, and especially in this series, they have not always been getting that.

Part of the Penguins’ depth problem this postseason has been the fact they simply have not been as healthy. Evgeni Malkin missed three games — including the first two games of this series — due to a lower body injury, and even though he scored on Thursday night still may not be 100 percent.

Carl Hagelin also missed three games after he was hit by Claude Giroux in Game 6 of the Philadelphia series.

Beyond those two, Phil Kessel has not looked himself (he could be fighting through an injury of his own) and has been a complete non-factor. That is a huge change from the past two postseasons when he was at times their biggest difference-maker.

Derick Brassard has not quite made the offensive impact the Penguins were hoping for when they acquired him at the deadline and have put seemingly demoted him to fourth-line duty. Conor Sheary has two goals in his past 36 playoff games.

On Thursday the Penguins attempted to shuffle their lines a bit by dropping Patric Hornqvist from the Crosby-Gentuzel down to the second line alongside Malkin and Hagelin. Sullivan explained that was an effort to get other lines going, while also bringing some two-way balance to the Malkin line.

“We’re trying to find ways to get more production from other than one line,” said Sullivan.

“[Hornqvist] brings a certain dimension to any line particular line we put him on. When you look at the stretch Geno went through, probably a two or two-and-a-half month stretch in the regular season where he was filling the net, for the most part he was playing with [Hagelin] and [Hornqvist].

“Those two guys I think they force Geno to play a more straight ahead game and challenge him to shoot the puck more. [Hornqvist] is a guy that goes to the net, he wants the puck on the net, he’s constantly on him to shoot the puck. So we think that his presence on that line helps Geno play the type of game that he needs to play in the playoffs to have success. Do we tinker with that line or leave it as it is and try to move other people around. That is the direction we went with tonight, it is not etched in stone, we’l look at the game, see what we liked and make decisions accordingly.”

[Related: Guentzel helps Penguins tie series with Capitals]

Leaning on the Crosby-Guentzel line to this point has them in the second-round, now facing what is essentially a best-of-three series against the Metropolitan Division champion Capitals. They have done that will getting very little production from a line that does not have Crosby on it.

On one hand, that is a pretty good position to be in, and if they can get one or two of those other lines going again it could help propel them on another deep playoff run. On the other hand, if they do not get going they are only going to go as far as Crosby and Guentzel can carry them.  Relying on one line to do it all offensively is an awfully big ask. Even if it is a line centered by a player as great as Sidney Crosby.

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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 will be without Malkin, Hagelin for Game 1 vs. Capitals

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When the Pittsburgh Penguins open their second-round series against the Washington Capitals on Thursday night (NBCSN, 7 p.m. ET) they will be doing so without two of their top forwards.

Coach Mike Sullivan announced on Wednesday that even though both players skated on their own before practice, neither player will be available for the series opener. It is possible that Malkin will be ready for Game 2, but Hagelin will not even travel with the team to Washington.

Malkin was injured in Game 5 of the Penguins’ opening round series against the Philadelphia Flyers when he was involved in a collision with Jakub Voracek. He returned to the game but did not play in the team’s Game 6 series-clinching win.

It was in that game that Hagelin was injured when he was hit by Flyers forward Claude Giroux.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Even with the two injuries the Penguins were still able to score six goals over the final 25 minutes of regulation, including four from Jake Guentzel, to leave Philadelphia with an 8-5 win, winning the series in six games.

Still, this is not a great way for the Penguins to be starting the second round against a better team. One of the big advantages the Penguins have had over the Capitals in the past two years has been their depth as the second-and third-lines did a lot of the damage in each series. Without Malkin and Hagelin, even if it is just for one or two games, they lose a lot of that advantage.

In Malkin’s absence on Sunday the Penguins elevated Riley Sheahan to the second line so they could keep the Derick Brassard, Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary line together. That line has been excellent for them since it was put together.

Based on their practice lines from Wednesday that seems to be the way the Penguins will be approaching Game 1 as Sheahan and Dominik Simon skated on the second line next to Phil Kessel, while the Brassard-Rust-Sheary line remained together. Sidney Crosby will continue to center the top line between Jake Guentzel and Patric Hornqvist, while Zach Aston-Reese, Carter Rowney, and Tom Kuhnhackl made up the fourth line.

Related: NHL announces second round opening games

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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 will be without Evgeni Malkin in Game 6; Patric Hornqvist returns

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The Pittsburgh Penguins have another opportunity to try and win their first-round series against the Philadelphia Flyers on Sunday afternoon. If they do it they are going to have to do so without one of their top players, Evgeni Malkin.

Malkin did not take the pre-game warmups and will not be in the lineup after suffering an injury in their Game 5 loss on Friday night.

Here is a a look at the play where he became tangled up with Flyers forward Jori Lehtera in the first period.

Malkin left the game for the remainder of the period only to return for the second. He played the remainder of the game but did not get his regular workload and seemed to be struggling. After the game Penguins coach Mike Sullivan would only say that Malkin was fine.

Obviously he is not fine or he would be in the lineup on Sunday.

Malkin has three goals and two assists in five games this postseason.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Riley Sheahan took pre-game line rushes between Phil Kessel and Carl Hagelin in place of Malkin, allowing the Penguins to keep the Derick Brassard, Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary line together as it has played very well in this series.

While the Malkin injury is bad news for the Penguins they will be getting winger Patric Hornqvist back in the lineup after he missed the past two games due to an upper body injury.

Hornqvist is a difference-maker on the Penguins’ power play, a unit that struggled mightily in their Game 5 loss on Friday night, going 0-for-5 while also giving up a shorthanded goal. He will skate on the top line alongside Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel.

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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.