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Game 7 history for Ovechkin’s Capitals, Stamkos’ Lightning

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There are few teams as “ready” for the stakes of Game 7 of the 2018 Eastern Conference Final (8 p.m. ET on NBCSN; stream it here) quite like the Washington Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning.

Consider this: the Lightning are readying for their third Game 7 in a conference final in four years. While reaching the third round is a first for Alex Ovechkin‘s rendition of the Capitals (not to mention Barry Trotz’s coaching career), Washington is resoundingly seasoned when it comes to these decisive contests.

Actually, that brings up an idea: why don’t we take a chronological look at all the Game 7’s for the Lightning and Capitals during the Steven Stamkos and Ovechkin eras? You may enjoy this jog down history lane – much of which has been chronicled at PHT – while fans of these teams may find revived disdain for the Rangers, Henrik Lundqvist, Penguins, and … Bryan Rust, specifically?

Hockey Reference was an excellent resource for this post, and it’s generally a recommended spot to nerd out about NHL history in general.

Oh, and before we get to the fun/trauma, here’s a fascinating find from Japers Rink. If this holds, the Capitals might need another big night from Braden Holtby.

2008

April 22: Flyers 3, Capitals 2 (OT)

first round

Nicklas Backstrom opened the scoring with a power-play goal (Alex Ovechkin getting the primary assist, with short-term Cap Sergei Fedorov* getting the secondary assist). Ovechkin also scored the goal that sent the game to overtime, but Joffrey Lupul generated the clincher on the PP for Philly.

* – Yes, that really happened. No, you were not hallucinating. At least in that instance.

2009

April 28: Capitals 2, Rangers 1

first round

This was already an example of the type of playoff game the Capitals team of that era “wasn’t supposed to be able to win.” Semyon Varlamov only needed to make 14 of 15 saves. Backstrom assisted on an Alexander Semin goal, while Sergei Fedorov got the game-winner as basically his last true stand-out moment in the NHL.

May 13: Penguins 6, Capitals 2

second round

Ah, this is where the true torment began.

That Game 7 was the anticlimactic capper to what had been an epic second-round series, including a game where Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby exchanged hat tricks. Marc-Andre Fleury made a crucial save early on an Ovechkin semi-breakaway (after being tormented for much of the round), and the Penguins rattled off the first five goals to win in a laugher and make Ovechkin’s 11th goal of that postseason moot.

2010

April 28: Canadiens 2, Capitals 1

first round

For one summer, Jaroslav Halak looked like the superstar goalie of Montreal’s future, not Carey Price. (Give the Habs credit for making the right, and brave, call there.) The shots on goal count was 42-16 in Washington’s favor, but the Habs pulled off the upset. Ovechkin absorbed the criticism admirably.

2011

April 27: Lightning 1, Penguins 0

first round

Remember that season where the Penguins made the playoffs with Jordan Staal as their top center because Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were injured? That was this year. Despite lacking firepower, the Penguins fired 36 shots on Dwayne Roloson, and he stopped all of them. Sean Bergenheim scored the only goal. Stamkos only generated one shot on goal during 16:13 TOI.

May 27: Bruins 1, Lightning 0

conference finals

Nathan Horton went from bottle thrower to Game 7 clincher, scoring the only tally of this one. Stamkos received just under 19 minutes of ice time, firing one SOG, and was on the ice for that Horton goal.

Oh yeah, and Stamkos earned big kudos for this.

2012

April 25: Capitals 2, Bruins 1 (OT)

first round

Braden Holtby was in “beast mode” for maybe the first time while Ovechkin’s ice time was scrutinized. This was part of Dale Hunter’s brief run after Bruce Boudreau was fired. There were some successes, yet the hockey wasn’t exactly pretty.

May 12: Rangers 2, Capitals 1

second round

New York was able to gut out a win in which both Henrik Lundqvist and Holtby both played well. Was it mentioned that this wasn’t a pretty run?

2013

May 13: Rangers 5, Capitals 0

first round

This was the stretch where the Rangers – mainly Henrik Lundqvist – was really a nuisance for the Capitals. King Hank made 35 saves for this Game 7 shutout. Following this loss, Backstrom spoke about “learning to win in the playoffs.”

Neither team played a Game 7 in 2014, but they made up for it with four in 2015

April 27: Capitals 2, Islanders 1

first round

Evgeny Kuznetsov doesn’t just have a series-clinching goal against the Penguins to his name. He also generated the game-winner in Game 7 of this series. The slick center has a way to go before he elbows in on Justin Williams‘ clutch credentials, but the Lightning better keep an eye on him either way.

April 29: Lightning 2, Red Wings 0

first round

Ben Bishop pitched a 31-save shutout, helping the Lightning win despite only firing 15 shots on Petr Mrazek (who yielded a Braydon Coburn tally, while the other goal was an empty-netter). Hey, there were worries about Stamkos’ playoff scoring then, too.

May 13: Rangers 2, Capitals 1 (OT)

second round

Ovechkin scored the first goal of Game 7, giving Lundqvist an earful in the process. That was highly entertaining, but the Rangers got the last laugh after Derek Stepan ended the game in overtime. Both Holtby and Lundqvist put out great performances in this one.

May 29: Lightning 2, Rangers 0

conference finals

Alex Killorn and Ondrej Palat scored Tampa Bay’s two goals while Bishop stopped all 22 shots in a very tight Game 7 of the 2015 Eastern Conference Final. The Lightning would go on to fall in six games to the Chicago Blackhawks, yet this was quite the run for Tampa Bay.

2016

May 26: Penguins 2, Lightning 1

conference finals

The Bolts hope that tonight mirrors the 2015 Eastern Conference Final, rather than the following year, especially since their 2016 run began with the Lightning winning both of their first two series in five games.

Bryan Rust scored both of the Penguins’ goals while Andrei Vasilevskiy (37 out of 39 saves) helped to keep the Lightning in a game Pittsburgh often carried.

2017

May 10: Penguins 2, Capitals 0

second round

At the time, this seemed like the Capitals’ last great chance, falling to the Penguins for the second season in a row after a second consecutive Presidents’ Trophy. Washington pushed this series to Game 7 after falling into a 3-1 hole, but it was not to be.

Bryan Rust scored another big Game 7 against the Penguins, while Marc-Andre Fleury made this series is parting gift for Pittsburgh, making some huge stops against Ovechkin.

After that loss, Barry Trotz wasn’t “emotionally prepared” to critique Ovechkin and others. What a difference a year and a hot lap makes, huh?

***

So, how will the May 23, 2018 entry end up looking? You won’t need to wait long until you find out.

Also, don’t be surprised if the losing team mutters “At least it wasn’t the Penguins” on the handshake line …

MORE:
• Oshie, Ovechkin give Capitals’ power play unique options
• Lightning need to ‘push back’ after missed opportunity in Game 6
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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.

‘Flower’ blossoms: Fleury back to being great playoff goalie

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Anyone who has played with Marc-Andre Fleury can tell he’s dialed in by watching his mannerisms.

Last year, he rubbed the shaft of his stick after making a save with it on Alex Ovechkin. This year, he continued a career-long tradition of rubbing the post as a sign of appreciation for keeping a puck out.

”That’s when you know he’s in the zone,” Pittsburgh defenseman Olli Maatta said.

Fleury is in one of the best zones of his career in the playoffs with the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, who have followed up a magical inaugural season with a trip to the Western Conference final. The goaltending of Fleury is the biggest reason they’ve gotten this far and is a continuation of his remarkable playoff reputation rehabilitation.

After taking the Penguins to the Stanley Cup Final in 2008 and winning it all in 2009, Fleury lost four of the next five series he played and each postseason posted a save percentage under .900. He has since gotten his groove back, helping the Penguins win the Cup again a year ago, and now leads the NHL playoffs with a 1.53 goals-against average, .951 save percentage and four shutouts.

”I don’t think it was anything physically that he changed,” former Penguins teammate and current Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik said. ”It was all confidence-driven. He’s always been a guy who’s really competitive and really loose at the same time. I think it was just confidence. I think he needed a fresh start. Maybe he just needed a clean slate, and you perform better when you’re more appreciated.”

It’s impossible not to appreciate the impact ”Flower” has made in the desert as the face of a new franchise as he went 29-13-4 with a 2.24 GAA and .927 save percentage for Pacific Division-winning Vegas. The fresh start might have rejuvenated Fleury more than a decade into his career, but his bounce-back in becoming a great playoff goalie again is six years in the making.

The low point came in 2012. Fleury allowed 26 goals over six games to Philadelphia in a first-round exit. The next playoffs, backup Tomas Vokoun started more games, and it was fair to wonder if Fleury had lost it.

”You learn from losing,” Fleury said Wednesday. ”You learn from tough times and pressure and stuff like that. It made me a better goalie from it.”

Now-Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen was there for some of the struggles but didn’t level them all on Fleury. By 2014, he noticed a different goalie.

”There was a period of time there where maybe (it was) not entirely his fault, a few things went wrong and it snowballed on him and he had a tough go there, I think, mentally for a couple springs,” Niskanen said. ”But by the time of my last year there he was really good again.”

The scars of another second-round exit led to more blame for Fleury, who was scapegoated for a team with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin not doing more after the Cup in 2009.

”Sometimes it’s the way your team plays in front of you,” said Penguins winger Carl Hagelin, who beat Fleury with the Rangers in playoff series in 2014 and 2015. ”Sometimes, like any other player, you might have a bad series or a bad playoffs and I think for a goalie if you have that, people are going to be all over you.”

Following a forgettable first-round loss to Hagelin and the Rangers in 2015, Fleury had one of his best regular seasons. But he was nevertheless replaced as Pittsburgh’s playoff starter by Matt Murray on the way to the Cup in 2016.

Before he played a substantial role in the Penguins’ second consecutive title run, Fleury agreed to waive his no-movement clause to go to Vegas in the expansion draft. Golden Knights general manager George McPhee, whose 2009 Capitals lost to Fleury in the second round, said Dave Prior was insistent on adding Fleury because the veteran goaltending coach felt there was more improvement to be made in his game.

”He obviously studies goaltenders all around the league and looks at the way that they’re playing the game,” McPhee said. ”He was excited and he really advocated for him in our meetings and thought that he could make him even better than he’s been. We like the calming effect he has on this team. When he plays, he’s really good when you need him the most. Needless to say you don’t get to the third round in this league unless you got a goaltender that’s playing well.”

Fleury will be playing in the third round for the fifth time in his career, a testament to the 33-year-old’s willingness to adjust as he has gotten older, including eating the right food, training meticulously and allowing his body to recover.

”When you’re young, you eat whatever, you never hurt, I never stretched, I could do the splits, it was easier,” Fleury said. ”Now I got to do more to maintain that flexibility and comfortness in the net. The older you get, things tend to linger around longer and you got to find ways to feel loose and feel good when games come around.”

Players are rarely worried about Fleury being tight. Even when Murray took his starting job, Fleury didn’t let it affect his mood at the rink.

”For him it definitely wasn’t easy because I’m sure he knew how he good he is and everybody else knew how good he is,” Maatta said. ”He still kind of kept showing up smiling and being an awesome teammate all the time even though he was probably in a tough spot.”

The laughs during the bad times have endeared Fleury to teammates who watch his playoff success with Vegas with great joy.

”Cares about the group, has fun at the rink, competitive as heck, cares about the right things,” Niskanen said. ”It’s not surprising at all that he’s done as well as he has there. It’s surprising how well the team has done but not him specifically. He’s a really good goalie and a perfect fit for them.”

Freelance reporter W.G. Ramirez in Las Vegas contributed.

Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

MORE:
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
PHT 2018 Conference Finals Roundtable
PHT predicts NHL’s Conference Finals
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

Forsberg continues scoring ‘unbelievable goals’ for Preds

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Filip Forsberg dropped his broken stick and raced to the bench for another just as the puck slid around the boards near his skates. He grabbed a new stick from the Predators’ equipment manager, fought off Jets defenseman Ben Chiarot and kept the puck onside.

Then he skated toward Connor Hellebuyck, holding off Chiarot as he scored, then slid into the net .

The man also known as Scoresberg or Filthy Fil then helped send the Western Conference semifinal back to Nashville for a deciding Game 7 with another highlight-reel worthy goal. Viktor Arvidsson found Forsberg and the Swede slipped the puck through his legs, a movement that prompted Hellebuyck to slide away from the post to cover the empty net to his left.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Forsberg immediately flipped the puck through the sliver of an opening, causing a GIF-frenzy on social media.

With the postseason that Forsberg is having, Nashville goaltender Pekka Rinne can’t settle on the best goal he’s seen from his teammate.

“I feel like these two series that already at least three or four really unbelievable goals, and it’s hard to pick,” Rinne said. “I’m just a fan when I watch him play.”

Forsberg led the Predators with 64 points helping Nashville win the franchise’s first Presidents’ Trophy during the regular season. He now is the franchise’s all-time leading scorer in the playoffs with 15 points this postseason, bringing Nashville back for Game 7 on Thursday night against Winnipeg as the Predators seek a second straight berth in the West final. The winner of this series will host the Vegas Golden Knights for the first two games.

With Pittsburgh and Boston eliminated, Forsberg now is tied with Washington’s Alex Ovechkin for the most points scored this postseason with 15, and the Predators forward has a plus-4 rating that is a point ahead of Ovechkin with both having played 12 games each.

Forsberg looks just comfortable passing the puck through his own legs as those of a defenseman he’s undressing on his way to another goal or even just juggling the puck with his stick to give teammates time to get back onside. The 23-year-old forward from Ostervala, Sweden, said his stick skills are the result of lots of hard work.

“Natural is definitely not the word for it, but it just takes a lot of practice, takes a lot of you doing,” Forsberg said. “Just try to maybe do it in practice and stuff like that and once in a while you get time and space for it in a game, you try to pull it off.”

Some scorers tap into their natural talent, blessed with quick hands and eyes along with soft hands. Others spend hours and hours developing muscle memory. Forsberg counts himself among those who made themselves into scorers. He started as a young child using a shooting ramp his father built for Forsberg and his brother and lots of road hockey.

“I think that’s where it all started,” Forsberg said.

His skills grew as he led his junior team with 40 points in 2010-11 and helped Sweden win silver at the 2011 World Under-18 Championship. Forsberg was captain when Sweden won both the World Under-18 and World Junior championships in 2012.

The Washington Capitals made Forsberg their first-round pick at No. 11 overall in 2012. He never played a game for the Capitals before being traded April 3, 2013, to Nashville in exchange for Martin Erat and Martin Latta.

The Predators wasted no time getting Forsberg on the ice, playing him five games that same season. Forsberg spent only 13 games with Nashville in 2013-14, and he has been a fixture in the lineup since 2014-15. They signed him to a six-year, $36 million contract in June 2016.

Center Nick Bonino won two Stanley Cups with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh, and he’s gotten to watch Forsberg up close this season after signing as a free agent.

“He’s very skilled,” Bonino said. “He’s one of the most skilled sticks I’ve ever seen. Practice is fun with him. Games are fun with him.”

Forward Colton Sissons sees Forsberg as having a gift that helps him see how best to move the puck instantly to execute in high-pressure moments. Sissons also is pretty sure of what might happen if he tried to mimic some of Forsberg’s scoring moves.

“I might break my ankle or something bad might happen,” Sissons said. “I’d probably just jam it in the near post, but I’ll leave the through the legs stuff to Fil and some of those guys.”

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

 

It’s all finally clicking at the right time for Capitals

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PITTSBURGH — Hockey can be a funny, random game that can make no sense on any given night or throughout any given season. Results are sometimes prone to luck, or one shot, or one bounce, or one mistake, or one play perhaps more than any other major sport. That is just the nature of the game. Sometimes you’re great and you lose. Sometimes you’re just average and you win. That randomness can also make the game extraordinarily frustrating, and no great team — and they have been a great team — has been on the wrong side of that more often over the past decade than the Washington Capitals.

It has almost always happened in the same round (the second) and against the same team (the Pittsburgh Penguins) every year.

On Monday night in Pittsburgh, after years of torment and heartbreak, the Capitals finally — FINALLY — toppled both of those demons and kicked the wall down.

Evgeny Kuznetsov‘s goal at the 5:27 mark of overtime lifted the Capitals to a 2-1 win in Game 6, sending them into the Eastern Conference Final for the first time since 1998 and the first time in the Alex Ovechkin/Barry Trotz era (or any coach that Ovechkin has had).

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

To say there was a sense of relief and elation in the Capitals’ locker room would be an understatement.

It’s not only Ovechkin and Trotz’s first trip to the Conference Final as a duo, it is also Trotz’s first trip in his 19th year as an NHL coach. Not being able to conquer that obstacle has been an obvious thorn in the side of an organization that has been one of the best in the league for more than a decade. Finishing with the best record in the league three times in 10 years is a major accomplishment. Alex Ovechkin is one of the greatest players the league has ever seen and has consistently performed in every situation for them. That, too, is worth something (a lot, actually). But because they haven’t had that one season where everything worked together in unison for them at the right time of year the results were always the same.

Disappointment.

When great players and great teams consistently fall short, they can never shake that underachiever label, or choker label, or whatever label you want to throw on it, whether it is fair or not. And it is almost never fair.

“Oh absolutely,” said Trotz when asked if he ever felt some sort of a kinship with his players when it came to meeting the same result in the playoffs at the same point every year, and what it felt like to finally get over that hump.

“It’s so hard to move forward sometimes. It’s always thrown in your face everywhere you turn. I know it’s thrown in Ovi’s face everywhere he turns. He is a great player in this league. This league is a tough league, I think we’re only the team in the past few years to get to the second round [every year]. Even the Penguins didn’t, and they’ve won a couple of Cups. It’s a hard league to get there. I knew the frustration because you’re so close and you just can’t get it. You just have to stay with it. There is a kinship there, there is no question for that whole group. Backstrom. Ovi. Myself. Everybody.”

What makes all of this so surprising this season is that it is this Capitals team that has taken the next big step for the organization. That it is this Capitals team that might finally end up being the one.

There have probably been better Capitals teams than this one, both in terms of the roster on paper, and the results on the ice during an 82-game season. Any of the recent Presidents’ Trophy teams come to mind, and there were times this very season where it looked like the Capitals, on their way to a third consecutive division title, maybe just were not as good as their record.

But again, sometimes hockey is weird. And where better Capitals teams ran into a hot goalie, or didn’t have a little puck luck on their side, or didn’t have the depth around Ovechkin and Backstrom, this one seems to have all of that finally happening in their favor.

Braden Holtby has been a world-class goalie six years. He has won a Vezina Trophy, was a runner-up in another year, and entered these playoffs with the second best save percentage in NHL playoff history. But for as great as he has been there was always that one goalie, in that one series, that always just seemed to stand on his head a little bit more. Three years ago it was Henrik Lundqvist. Two years ago it was Matt Murray. Last year it was Marc-Andre Fleury when he, quite literally, stole the series from a Capitals team that probably carried the play through the seven game series.

This year it was Holtby that got the best of his counterpart, and it was a big difference in the series. Maybe the difference.

He did that after starting the playoffs on the bench in the first round. Since returning to the lineup he is 8-2 with a .926 save percentage. There were many playoff series in the past where he has posted better numbers and, somehow, still ended up on the wrong side of it.

In previous matchups with Pittsburgh, Sidney Crosby and Ovechkin would seemingly match each other goal-for-goal and point-for-point only to have the Penguins’ depth players end up being the difference.

This year it was the Capitals’ that had the depth scoring come through.

They managed to do all of that while overcoming a lot of the adversity that has typically sunk them in the past, whether it be the aforementioned goalie drama to open the playoffs, or injuries.

The Stanley Cup playoffs can sometimes be a battle of attrition where it is not just simply the best team that wins, but the healthiest team. The Capitals went into Game 6 on Monday night in Pittsburgh playing without half of their top-six. Tom Wilson was sitting out due to a suspension. Andre Burakovsky has not played since Game 2 of the first round. Then, the most damaging loss of them all came less than an hour before faceoff when it was announced that Nicklas Backstrom would not play due to an upper-body injury.

The stage seemed set for the Penguins to take advantage and send the series back to Washington for yet another Game 7 where anything could have happened.

Then the Capitals came out and completely shut the Penguins down, limiting a back-to-back champion that was facing elimination on home ice to just 22 shots on goal over 65 minutes of hockey.

“I don’t think anybody would have favored us being without him tonight, then with another two top-six forwards not playing,” said forward Lars Eller when asked about the absence of Backstrom.

“Having three top-six guys out, that just makes it so much better. It tells us how deep we are and what this group is all about. It’s great, it just tells how this group fought through this adversity because we faced some adversity without those guys.”

Without Backstrom (and Wilson, and Burakovsky), Eller said the Capitals didn’t really try to do anything different, but just had to make sure they had the right mindset and that everyone was prepared to step up and do a little more.

“You try to keep the same mentality, but just knowing obviously that you might play a few more minutes and stuff like that,” said Eller. “It takes a little bit more from everybody, and if you have the right people and the right mindset and attitude you can get it done, and we got it done. Guys stepped up. Our fourth line guys, [Nathan] Walker coming in, [Alex] Chiasson with a big goal, [Travis] Boyd came in after playing in I don’t know how long, they all did great in the hardest possible environment. Pittsburgh, Game 6, it doesn’t get much bigger and they handled themselves incredibly well. It was just great to be a part of.”

For years the the Joe ThorntonPatrick Marleau San Jose Sharks were the “so close, but couldn’t get it done” team in the NHL, and they carried that label for more than a decade through years of postseason exits. After everyone seemingly gave up on them ever breaking through and reaching the Stanley Cup Final, they finally did it two years ago. It may not have resulted in a win, but it was still a major accomplishment and huge step for an organization that had yet to take it. After years of premature first-and second-round exits there came a point where everyone wondered if the Penguins in the Crosby-Evgeni Malkin era would ever get another Stanley Cup. When it seemed that their window had slammed shut, they won two in a row.

This finally seemed to be the year where the Capitals reached that point where everyone outside of their organization and fan-base had given up on them after years of “this is the year” kept ending with the same result. Now here they are in the Eastern Conference Final after beating their long-time nemesis.

Given what this team has done in previous seasons, and given the way some of their top players have performed in both the regular season and playoffs, you can’t say they don’t deserve it.

Truth is, they probably deserved it long before this season. But that is not the way hockey works.

Sometimes you just never really know when all of the forces are going to align and work in your favor.

After years of “this is the year” proclamations coming up empty, this might actually be the one.

Especially after finally getting through second round and the Penguins the way they did it.

————

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.

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.