What now? Penguins face crucial offseason after flameout

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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

The Buzzer: Avalanche land last spot in West

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Three Stars

1. Phil Kessel

This is actually a dual Penguins three-point scorer award, as both Kessel and Sidney Crosby (one goal, two assists) enjoyed three-point nights as Pittsburgh clinched a playoff spot.

Kessel gets the edge for a couple reasons, though. For one thing, he had more goals than Crosby, as Kessel’s points came via two goals and one assist. One of the winger’s goals ended up standing as the game-winner, too.

With 82 points in 81 games, this ties Kessel’s 2011-12 as his second-best output, behind only last year’s 92. While Kessel seems to find his name mentioned far too often in trade rumors, the guy just keeps delivering. In particular, he probably deserves more credit for being “clutch,” as he’s been dynamite for the Penguins in postseason situations, and also important regular season moments like these.

Also, he once filled the Stanley Cup with hot dogs for trolling purposes. Pretty good final tiebreaker, actually.

2. Alexander Steen

As An Increasingly Old, I can relate to Steen slowing down, as the Blues forward has done at 35.

It’s nice to see strong outbursts like these from Steen, then, unless you’re a part of the Central Division jumble where three spots still haven’t been decided. Then you’d probably prefer the Blues to be a one-line team, thank you very much.

Steen scored two goals and one assist on Thursday, with one of those tallies coming shorthanded. His 27 points are more solid when you realize he’s been limited to 64 games played, so maybe he can heat up for the postseason?

3. Petr Mrazek

It was tempting to go for Jack Eichel (one goal and two assists, and you’ll see that one of those helpers ended up being special) or Jaroslav Halak, who pitched a 26-save shutout. There were other nice performances, too.

With the Sabres eliminated and the Bruins already locked in place, the Hurricanes “needed” more out of Mrazek, at least for a while. The complications of clinching scenarios called for some changes, but the bottom line is that Mrazek played well enough to make the process more straightforward for Carolina, as the clinched a spot in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, ending a decade-long postseason drought.

Highlights of the Night

Two moments of great passing really took the cake on Thursday. First, check out this sweet no-look pass by almost-third-star Jack Eichel to Sam Reinhart:

If you’re like me, you’re a sucker for fantastic breakout passes, and Dougie Hamilton provided exactly that to Warren Foegele:

Factoids

  • There will be greater detail on this later, but in the East, the Capitals clinched the Metropolitan Division title, while the Penguins and Hurricanes locked down playoff berths. Out West, the Avalanche clinched their spot, punctuated by this goal from Nathan MacKinnon to Erik Johnson, thus knocking off the Coyotes. The West’s eight is set, while positioning is still to be determined in certain situations.

(Technically, this goal really secured the spot, but the Johnson goal was more fun.)

Scores

BUF 5 – OTT 2
TBL 3 – TOR 1
NYI 2 – FLA 1 (SO)
PIT 4 – DET 1
WSH 2 – MTL 1
CAR 3 – NJD 1
STL 7 – PHI 3
NSH 3 – VAN 2
BOS 3 – MIN 0
COL 3 – WPG 2 (OT)
SJS 3 – EDM 2
ARI 4 – VGK 1

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.

The Buzzer: Bobrovsky and Blue Jackets are on fire

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Three Stars

1. Anthony Mantha

What a game by the big Red Wings winger.

It was all about five in Detroit on Sunday. That’s how many games the Red Wings have now won in a row, and that’s how many points Mantha collected. Mantha generated the first hat trick of his NHL career, and added two assists for his first five-point game.

Mantha came into Sunday with 19 goals, so he also crossed the 20-goal barrier, finishing the night with 22 goals and 45 points on the season. He has a solid chance to meet or exceed last season’s career-highs of 24 goals and 48 points.

2. Darcy Kuemper

There were three impressive shutouts on Sunday, so we’ll just go in order of who got the most saves, so apologies to Rangers’ netminder Alexandar Georgiev, who finished the afternoon with 29 saves to blank the Flyers.

Kuemper generated a 39-save shutout in gaining an absolutely crucial win for the Arizona Coyotes on Sunday, and he’s really been dragging Arizona through a lot of low-margin-of-error games lately. Really, Kuemper has been one of the best netminders in the NHL since the calendar turned 2019, and he’s giving Arizona a decent chance to beat some enormous odds.

Kuemper now has five shutouts in 2018-19, and has generated two in his last three games, only allowing two goals overall during that span.

3. Sergei Bobrovsky

It’s been a bumpy season for Bob, to say the least, but he’s coming up big in some absolutely clutch moments for the Blue Jackets.

Bobrovsky generated a 38-save shutout on Sunday, just one behind Kuemper. Like his Coyotes colleague, Bobrovsky has been red hot lately. Bobrovsky now has three shutouts in his last five games, and four in his last seven. He’s only allowed seven goals overall in his last seven games.

Bobrovsky’s won five games in a row, and also seven of his last eight. The Blue Jackets’ prospects have risen from possibly missing the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs after going all-in, to maybe avoiding the Lightning in the first round, and possibly going into the postseason with some swagger.

Things tend to change when “Vezina Bob” comes back into the picture, eh?

Highlights of the Night

From Anthony Mantha’s five points to that sweet Patrice Bergeron to Brad Marchand shorthanded goal, the Red Wings – Bruins game had some of Sunday’s best action, so enjoy the full highlights:

Factoids

  • More on this in a future post, but the Calgary Flames clinched both the Pacific Division and top seed in the West by beating the Sharks on Sunday. So, the Lightning get home-ice throughout the postseason, while the Flames get that edge through the West playoffs.
  • This means that the Sharks and Golden Knights will face each other in what could be a fierce Pacific second vs. third seed series in the first round.
  • That sweet Brad Marchand shorthanded goal was his 26th, setting a new Bruins record, so watch it in isolation if you’d prefer:

Scores

New York Rangers 3, Philadelphia Flyers 0
Arizona Coyotes 4, Minnesota Wild 0
Pittsburgh Penguins 3, Carolina Hurricanes 1
Columbus Blue Jackets 4, Buffalo Sabres 0
Detroit Red Wings 6, Boston Bruins 3
Calgary Flames 5, San Jose Sharks 3

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.

Crawford, Grabner, Lehner among 2019 Masterton Trophy nominees

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The 31 nominees for the 2019 Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy have been announced. The award, which is given to the players “who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey,” will be handed out at the NHL awards show in June in Las Vegas.

The 31 nominees are selected by each Professional Hockey Writers Association chapter.

Anaheim Ducks: Patrick Eaves
Arizona Coyotes: Michael Grabner
Boston Bruins: Zdeno Chara
Buffalo Sabres: Jason Pominville
Calgary Flames: Mark Giordano
Carolina Hurricanes: Curtis McElhinney
Chicago Blackhawks: Corey Crawford
Colorado Avalanche: Carl Soderberg
Columbus Blue Jackets: Nick Foligno
Dallas Stars: Taylor Fedun
Detroit Red Wings: Niklas Kronwall
Edmonton Oilers: Andrej Sekera
Florida Panthers: Derek MacKenzie
Los Angeles Kings: Jack Campbell
Minnesota Wild: Ryan Suter
Montreal Canadiens: Andrew Shaw
Nashville Predators: Rocco Grimaldi
New Jersey Devils: Cory Schneider
New York Islanders: Robin Lehner
New York Rangers: Brendan Smith
Ottawa Senators: Jean-Gabriel Pageau
Philadelphia Flyers: Brian Elliott
Pittsburgh Penguins: Matt Cullen
St. Louis Blues: Jay Bouwmeester
San Jose Sharks: Joe Thornton
Tampa Bay Lightning: Ryan Callahan
Toronto Maple Leafs: Tyler Ennis
Vancouver Canucks: Jacob Markstrom
Vegas Golden Knights: Ryan Carpenter
Washington Capitals: Brooks Orpik
Winnipeg Jets: Dmitry Kulikov

Brian Boyle, then of the New Jersey Devils, won the award last season after his battle with chronic myeloid leukemia.

All very good choices, and it’ll be tough to narrow it down to three finalists. You have to believe Lehner will be one of the three considering his season and what he’s overcome. After that? Crawford, Grabner, Foligno, and Campbell could also find themselves heading to Las Vegas in late June.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

WATCH LIVE: Blue Jackets visit Penguins on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Thursday night’s matchup between the Columbus Blue Jackets and Pittsburgh Penguins. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

This game is the start of a home-and-home that will wrap up the season series between Columbus and Pittsburgh. The Penguins have won both meetings so far, including their game last week in Columbus. Overall, the Pens have won seven in a row in the regular season vs. the Blue Jackets.

This home-and-home series figures to have massive implications on the playoff race. Entering this game, just two points separate third in the Metro from being outside of the playoffs entirely.

Columbus picked up a much-needed two points on Tuesday with their 2-1 shootout win over New Jersey. The Jackets had been 1-3-0 since the trade deadline, so the win was a tangible measure of progress to keep them right in the playoff mix. However, the reaction in the locker room afterwards was hardly celebratory. The Jackets played very poorly, mustering only 18 shots on goal (a season-low) against a Devils team that had nearly half of its regular lineup out due to injury.

Pittsburgh also went past regulation on Tuesday, defeating Florida 3-2 in OT, thanks to Jake Guentzel’s second goal of the game. He now has 33 goals this season. Sidney Crosby had three points to surpass the 1,200-point threshold.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Columbus Blue Jackets at Pittsburgh Penguins
Where: PPG Paints Arena
When: Thursday, March 7, 6 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Blue Jackets-Penguins stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

BLUE JACKETS
Artemi PanarinPierre-Luc DuboisJosh Anderson
Nick FolignoMatt DucheneCam Atkinson
Ryan DzingelAlex WennbergOliver Bjorkstrand
Brandon DubinskyBoone JennerRiley Nash

Zach WerenskiSeth Jones
Markus NutivaaraDavid Savard
Scott HarringtonAdam McQuaid

Starting goalie: Joonas Korpisalo

PENGUINS
Jared McCann – Sidney Crosby – Jake Guentzel
Zach Aston-ReeseEvgeni MalkinPhil Kessel
Dominik SimonNick BjugstadPatric Hornqvist
Teddy BluegerMatt CullenGarrett Wilson

Brian Dumoulin – Zach Trotman
Jack JohnsonJustin Schultz
Marcus PetterssonErik Gudbranson

Starting goalie: Matt Murray

John Forslund (play-by-play) and AJ Mleczko (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from Pittsburgh. Pre-game coverage starts at 6 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Paul Burmeister alongside Jeremy Roenick and Mike Johnson.