Schwartz stuns Jets, completing Blues’ comeback in dying seconds

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These two teams finished with nearly identical records in the regular season, so it seems appropriate that almost every game in this series has been decided by a razor thin margin. This one was no different, though it had an extra element to it as the Blues surged to a 3-2 comeback win over Winnipeg in Game 5 to take a 3-2 series lead.

The Blues found themselves chasing almost immediately. Winnipeg’s Adam Lowry scored just 12 seconds into the game, exciting the hometown crowd, which started a “you look nervous” chant at Blues rookie goaltender Jordan Binnington. Only the netminder wasn’t rattled.

Binnington held firm and while he did surrender a second goal, this time to Kevin Hayes, later in the period, he kept the Blues in this game early. A lot of credit also has to go to the Blues for their killing of a double minor to Robert Thomas midway through the first, preventing this game from getting away from them.

All the same, the Jets maintained their 2-0 lead for most of the contest. It wasn’t until 1:29 of the third period that the Blues finally got on the board thanks to a power-play goal by Ryan O'Reilly. He fired the puck in front of the net off a rebound, ending what had been until that point a shutout bid for Connor Hellebuyck.

Even after that, the period wasn’t all Blues. Winnipeg actually led in shots in the final frame 9-8, but the Blues continued to find ways to capitalize. Their comeback wasn’t without intrigue either. Brayden Schenn‘s game-tying goal needed to be reviewed because the net was dislodged at the same time the puck went in. Ultimately it was ruled as a good goal because Jets defenseman Dustin Byfuglien pushed St. Louis’ Oskar Sundqvist into the net, which is what dislodged it.

The comeback was completed with just 15 seconds to spare on a goal by Jaden Schwartz.

With that, the home team has lost every game in this series and four of the five contests have been decided by just one goal. Even with how close this series has been, this contest had a different tone to it thanks to the dramatic comeback. It will be a tough pill for the Jets to swallow, but they have to bounce right back to avoid elimination in Game 6.

Blues-Jets Game 6 from Enterprise Center will be Saturday night at 7:00 p.m. ET on NBCSN

Ryan Dadoun is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @RyanDadoun.

Penguins’ playoff exit was two years in the making

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The Pittsburgh Penguins loss to the New York Islanders was no fluke.

It was a result they earned and was due to them being outplayed and soundly beaten in pretty much every phase of the game by a Islanders team that looked faster, crisper, and smoother.

It was also not the result of something that simply happened overnight.

On the off day between their losses in Games 3 and 4, defender Justin Schultz nailed a big part of the problem when he said this: “Our identity has changed over the years. We play fast and get the puck up quick. That’s what we do best. We haven’t done that this series.”

But when did it change, and more importantly, why did it change?

It has taken the Penguins two years to reach the point where they needed to wait until Game 81 of the regular season to simply make the playoffs, and then could not even scratch out a single win once they got there.

To find when it all began you can probably go back to May 28, 2017.

At the time, the Penguins were the defending Stanley Cup champions and just 24 hours away from beginning another Cup Final series against the Nashville Predators that they would win in six games, becoming the first team in a generation to successfully repeat as champions. Their recipe and identity was clear. They played fast, they didn’t let anything throw them off their game, and coach Mike Sullivan had driven home a “Just Play” mantra that became the calling card of their 2016 championship run. It applied to just about any situation.

An injury to a significant player? Just play.

Don’t like a call that was or was not made on the ice? Just play.

Facing some adversity and down in a series? Just. Play.

In the years between their 2009 and 2016 championships the Penguins had become a deeply flawed team that was short on depth around its superstars and had rapidly developed a tendency to unravel whenever things didn’t go their way. They were almost like petulant children that would lose their composure when calls went against them and become almost infatuated with responding to even the slightest physical altercation. They reached rock bottom in this regard during the 2012 and 2013 postseason losses to the Philadelphia Flyers and Boston Bruins when they seemed to be playing a game where hits and responses were worth more than goals.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Starting in 2015, general manager Jim Rutherford started to reshape the team into something different.

He found the right depth players to go around the core of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang, and he made a series of trades and call-ups from their AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to make the team faster and more skilled throughout the lineup. Combined with Sullivan’s mid-season takeover in 2015, it was a perfect storm that allowed them overwhelm opponents and catch fire sometime around February.

They never slowed down on their way to a championship.

While the 2016-17 season wasn’t quite as dominant and had to rely on goaltending a little more in the playoffs, the same formula was still in play.

Despite all of the winning, Rutherford was still unsatisfied with something.

He was unsatisfied with the way his star players were being treated physically. In each of those postseasons the Penguins had to go through opponents that were not shy about targeting their stars. Crosby’s postseason run-ins with Dan Girardi and Marc Staal are well documented, and they had two consecutive postseason encounters with Tom Wilson and the Washington Capitals. In the Eastern Conference Final that season there were several incidents against the Ottawa Senators that drew the team’s ire.

The day before the 2017 Stanley Cup Final began, Rutherford offered a look into where the team was going to be headed when he sounded off in an interview with Ken Campbell of The Hockey News. This is the key part:

“I hear year after year how the league and everyone loves how the Penguins play,” said Penguins GM Jim Rutherford. “‘They play pure hockey and they skate.’ Well, now it’s going to have to change and I feel bad about it, but it’s the only way we can do it. We’re going to have to get one or two guys…and some of these games that should be just good hockey games will turn into a sh—show. We’ll go right back to where we were in the ’70s and it’s really a shame.”

Emphasis added.

“We’re going to have to get one or two guys.”

He doubled down on it just days after the team won the Stanley Cup.

“We are going to try to add a player or two that maybe we can have more protection in our lineup. That’s not that easy because [coach Mike Sullivan] likes to roll four lines and you’ve got to plug a guy in that can play on a regular basis, but hopefully that’s what we can do.”

That was the moment they started down the wrong path. Suddenly, a team that had become defined by playing through things and not responding was going to get “one or two guys” to … respond. The Penguins hadn’t even finished their run at the top of the league as champions when they made the decision to start slowly deviating off of the path that got them there, all in the name of retribution and the misguided idea of “deterrence.”

On draft night that year, the Penguins flipped their first-round pick and center Oskar Sundqvist to the St. Louis Blues for Ryan Reaves and a second-round pick, a trade that has turned out to be a significant loss for the Penguins in more ways than one, and it was a bad idea from the start. Not only did they move back 20 spots in the draft, but Sundqvist has turned into a solid third-line center for the Blues (a position the Penguins spent two years and countless assets trying to fill) while Reaves clearly never fit in with the Penguins’ style of play.

Sullivan barely used him, it shortened the team’s bench, and he was ultimately traded halfway through the season in the massive and complicated deal for Derick Brassard.

The problem with that sequence wasn’t necessarily the trade itself, but what it represented.

What it represented was a philosophical shift from the recipe that worked, and there is nothing that has happened since that trade that has put them back on track.

Pretty much every significant roster move the Penguins have made since then (and there have been A LOT of them) has revolved around getting bigger, stronger players, especially on the blue line where Jamie Oleksiak, Jack Johnson, Erik Gudbranson were the significant additions over the past year. It resulted in a defense that lacks mobility, doesn’t move the puck well, and has simply zapped them of a lot of their transition game. Add that to the departures of forwards like Carl Hagelin and Conor Sheary and the team no longer has the speed and skating advantage that it used to have over its opponents.

The most confusing thing about all of it is the roster construction and many of the moves seem — emphasis on seem — to be at odds with the way the coach has wanted the team to play from the day he arrived behind the bench. I know nothing of the working relationship between Rutherford and Sullivan and whether they remain on the same page as to how the team is built, but the optics of it all just seem strange.

They paid a significant price for Reaves, and the coach didn’t play him. The general manager championed the signing of Johnson all season, and despite playing in all 82 regular season games was deemed to be not worth a roster spot in the first game of the playoffs. A team that wants to play fast and beat teams in transition and with puck possession, suddenly has an inconsistent transition and possession game because the players on the back end can’t make the necessary plays to feed it. And that doesn’t even get into general manager’s fascination with trying to even the score with Wilson in Washington after he knocked Zach Astron-Reese out of the playoffs a year ago (something that ended up getting Oleksiak injured).

Make no mistake, there were other factors at play throughout this season and the playoffs that produced this early exit. The forwards, as a whole, don’t help out enough in the defensive zone. The Islanders did a great job shutting down Crosby and Jake Guentzel. Letang and Schultz, the two defenders on the roster that can still play close to the Penguins’ style, each had a bad series.

But a bad series for individual players happens, and sometimes they are even understandable and defensible because even the best players have bad stretches.

What is not understandable and defensible is willingly taking yourself away from something that worked. That is what the Penguins did, and it is a big part of why their season ended up going the way it did.

The moves they make this summer will tell us a lot as to what they learned from 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.

The Playoff Buzzer: Blue Jackets turn Lightning into ‘five alarm fire’

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  • The Columbus Blue Jackets take a stunning 2-0 lead and the Tampa Bay Lightning might be without Nikita Kucherov in Game 3.
  • The New York Islanders are in total control after frustrating the Pittsburgh Penguins again.
  • A surprising offensive star makes a big impact for the St. Louis Blues as they take a 2-0 series lead.
  • The San Jose Sharks power play and goaltending holds them back on Friday.

Columbus Blue Jackets 5, Tampa Bay Lightning 1 (CBJ leads series 2-0)

A year ago the Columbus Blue Jackets opened Round 1 by taking the first two games on the road against a division champion and a Stanley Cup contender. They ended up losing the series. They get a chance to make up for that this year by putting themselves in the exact same position after dismantling the Tampa Bay Lightning on Friday night, taking a 2-0 series lead. After the game Lightning coach Jon Cooper called the situation a “five alarm fire,” which doesn’t exactly sound encouraging. We will see how — and if — they put it out. Making matters worse: Nikita Kucherov, the MVP front-runner from the regular season, is likely to be suspended for Game 3 after an ugly boarding incident late in the game.

New York Islanders 3, Pittsburgh Penguins 1 (NYI leads series 2-0)

The Islanders have the Penguins on the ropes and looking completely frustrated after two games. The Islanders are controlling the play and making things look easy at times while the Penguins can’t seem to get out of their own way when trying to exit the defensive zone. The series now shifts to Pittsburgh on Sunday afternoon and the Penguins need a complete 180 turnaround from just about everybody on their roster to get back in this series.

St. Louis Blues 4, Winnipeg Jets 3 (StL leads series 2-0)

When you start a series on the road you start off hoping to take at least one of the first to so you can steal home-ice advantage. When you win the first two, well, that just puts you at a huge advantage and the St. Louis Blues are there right now after their 4-3 win on Friday night. Oskar Sundqvist scored two goals and Ryan O'Reilly scored the game-winner early in the third period.

Vegas Golden Knights 5, San Jose Sharks 3 (Series tied 1-1)

The San Jose Sharks had some problems on Friday night. Among them, the fact Martin Jones could not get out of the first period and they gave up five goals on 23 shots, and also a terrible power play performance that saw them go 1-for-8 while giving up two shorthanded goals. There is your difference in the game and why the series is going back to Vegas tied 1-1.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Three Stars

1. Matt Duchene, Columbus Blue Jackets. Games like this are what the Blue Jackets had in mind when they traded for Matt Duchene. He was incredible on Friday night, scoring his first career playoff goal and finishing with four total points in the Blue Jackets’ win that now has them half way to their first postseason series win in franchise history.

2. Oskar Sundqvist, St. Louis Blues. Before this season Sundqvist had scored just two goals in 72 NHL games. He matched that total on Friday night alone in the Blues’ 4-3 win and is now up to 16 goals in 76 games, including playoffs, this season. Everything is clicking for the Blues right now as they continue to play great defense and get balanced offense from all over their lineup.

3. Jordan Eberle, New York Islanders. For the second game in a row Eberle was an impact player for the Islanders, tallying his second goal of the series (this one the game-winner) and finishing with two points for an Islanders team that has looked even better than it did during the regular season. 

Highlight Of The Night

Eberle’s game-winning goal was a heck of a finish.

Factoids of the Night

  • This seems almost impossible to believe, but it is true: The Columbus Blue Jackets’ win on Friday night was the first time in the history of the franchise they have won a playoff game by more than one goal. This team is almost 20 years old! [Aaron Portzline]
  • Marc-Andre Fleury is one win away from tying Mike Vernon for seventh on the NHL’s all-time postseason wins list. [NHL PR]
  • This is the first time since 1983 the New York Islanders have had a 2-0 series lead. [NHL PR]

Saturday’s schedule

Carolina Hurricanes at Washington Capitals, Game 2 (WSH leads 1-0), 3 p.m. ET, NBC (Live Stream)
Dallas Stars at Nashville Predators, Game 2 (DAL leads 1-0), 6 p.m. ET, CNBC (Live Stream)
Toronto Maple Leafs at Boston Bruins, Game 2 (TOR leads 1-0), 8 p.m. ET, NBC (Live Stream)
Colorado Avalanche at Calgary Flames, Game 2 (CGY leads 1-0), 10:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN (Live Stream)

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.

Sundqvist’s two goals help Blues take 2-0 series lead over Jets

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The St. Louis Blues entered the Stanley Cup Playoffs as one of the hottest teams in the NHL and are showing no signs of slowing down after marching into Winnipeg and taking the first two games of their Round 1 series from the Jets.

They were 4-3 winners on Friday night to secure the 2-0 series lead they will be taking back to St. Louis this weekend.

It was a surprising star making the biggest impact in their latest win.

Oskar Sundqvist scored his first two career playoff goals on Friday, opening the scoring early in the first period and then adding another goal in the second period.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The 24-year-old Sundqvist entered the season with just two goals in his first 72 career games (regular season and playoffs) but had a breakthrough season for the Blues, tallying 14 goals and 31 total points. He already has three points in the first two games of the series.

While Sundqvist started the offense for the Blues, two of their big offseason acquisitions also paid off on Friday as Patrick Maroon and Ryan O'Reilly both scored, with O’Reilly’s goal at the 3:46 mark of the third period being the game-winner.

As for the Jets, losing the first two games of a series isn’t totally insurmountable, especially for a team with their talent, but when you do it on home ice and then have to go on the road your chances obviously take quite a hit.

While the Blues have continued their strong second half surge early on, the first two games of the series have also been a continuation of the Jets’ second half slump that knocked them out of the top spot in the Central Division and put them in this Round 1 matchup to begin with.

They can still put it together and get things right, but they are quickly running out of time for that to happen.

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.

Being Tom Wilson: Inside the life of hockey’s most hated man

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ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) — Tom Wilson tries not to read everything about him on social media.

You’d think being on the receiving end of endless tweets and messages that are, well, not suitable for work would be reason enough to skip them. But Wilson can’t just ignore it all because sometimes it goes beyond hockey.

”Last year there’s people putting my parents’ address on Twitter and people underneath being like, ‘Oh, good to know,”’ Wilson said. ”I said: ‘Hey, just so you know, this is out there. The mail and stuff, just make sure you’re aware.”’

Such is life for Wilson, one of the most hated players in the NHL – if not the guy at the top of the list. The Washington Capitals winger has been suspended four times over the past 19 months and there were a few other incidents that might have crossed the line. He is the guy opponents and their fans despise and the player no teammate would willingly do without. Inside the Capitals’ locker room, the 25-year-old Wilson is so admired he could succeed Alex Ovechkin as captain.

In an era where enforcers are hard to find, not only does Wilson play on the edge – he lives on it.

”I think a lot of guys maybe have lost some respect for him,” said St. Louis Blues forward Zach Sanford, who broke into the league with Wilson and the Capitals. ”He’s had quite a few cheap hits the past couple years. But that’s just how he plays. He’s on the edge. Sometimes he crosses it.”

Wilson gave Columbus’ Alexander Wennberg a concussion and broke the jaw of Pittsburgh’s Zach Aston-Reese in the playoffs. He gave St. Louis’ Oskar Sundqvist a concussion with a hit to the head – in the preseason – that drew a 20-game suspension that was reduced to 14 by an arbitrator. He has avoided trouble since then and set career highs with 22 goals and 40 points in 63 games, becoming one of Washington’s most important pieces as it tries to repeat as Stanley Cup champion.

”He’s shooting the puck better than he has ever done,” said New Jersey Devils defenseman Connor Carrick, a fellow 2012 Capitals draft pick and junior teammate of Wilson’s in the Ontario Hockey League. ”He’s got a good glide for a big guy, and that’s what you’ve seen, I think, with other guys around the league with that frame that haven’t been able to continue.”

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

When the Capitals selected Wilson 16th overall seven years ago, then-general manager George McPhee hoped they’d be getting a power forward like Milan Lucic. The 6-foot-4, 218-pound Wilson might turn out to be better than Lucic, especially if he can stay on the right side of the suspension line and play 75-plus games in a season.

”He’s fast, he’s got good skill, he plays a physical game, he puts D-men on edge and other forwards on edge when he’s on the ice,” said Vegas forward Ryan Reaves, who gave Wilson a concussion of his own in December and apologized in the aftermath of the hit. ”I think he is a really good player. I think if he played a little smarter, he’d be even better.”

Wilson has worked at that. He spent time with vice president of player safety and former enforcer George Parros going over video clips and what the league deems acceptable. This season he has been thinking more about each hit he delivers because the next one that crosses the line could cost him more than a couple of months.

The Toronto native said his suspension history – two for illegal checks to the head, one for interference and one for boarding – has forced him to change his approach.

”I have to be aware of it,” Wilson said. ”Hockey’s an extremely fast game, and it’s a hard-hitting game. It’s probably faster than it ever has been, so those plays happen quickly and I’ve just got to do the best I can to control the situation and control the outcome, and that’s just something that I’ve kind of tried to focus on.”

Wilson is one of the very few players to have a disciplinary hearing and not get punished, for an incident with Brayden Schenn in 2013 that was so polarizing the NHL put out a video to explain why it didn’t suspend him.

This season, referees gave Wilson a match penalty and ejected him for a hit on New Jersey’s Brett Seney in November, but the league reviewed it, rescinded it and he played on.

”I don’t know if his timing is wrong or what’s happening, but I wouldn’t say he’s dirty all the time. But obviously he got those incidents where he’s come wrong into situations and that is something he needs to work on,” Sundqvist said. ”He’s one of the most important players for Washington and unfortunately he’s been doing some bad stuff and I hope he comes to his senses and stops doing that.”

Pittsburgh’s Jack Johnson said Wilson has a history of being ”reckless and dangerous” and that players have to be aware of where Wilson is on the ice because ”he’s big and runs around.”

For all the outside talk about taming Wilson, the Capitals don’t really want that.

”He has to remember what he is at times,” alternate captain Brooks Orpik said. ”Without that physical side, he’s not going to get the space and the chances that he gets offensively. The reason he gets as many chances and opportunities is because of his physical play and his intimidation. If that leaves his game, then his opportunities are going to be suppressed.”

Teammate Nicklas Backstrom said one of Wilson’s strengths is that he can do it all from 5-on-5 to power play to penalty kill. Washington signed Wilson to a $31 million, six-year contract last summer for all those elements, which he showcased with 15 points in 21 playoff games during the Stanley Cup run.

Wilson turned Carl Hagelin from an enemy into a friend after five hard-fought playoff series against him. Hagelin watched Penguins’ teammate Aston-Reese go down on a hit to the head from Wilson in the second round last spring, but after a trade to the Capitals, he has come to appreciate the human underneath the No. 43 jersey.

”When you play against certain guys, especially in the playoffs, you obviously don’t like him. You dislike him a lot,” Hagelin said. ”And then you come to a new team and you get to know him as a person and all of a sudden he’s a great guy. … It’s one of those things, just like any other person, you have to prove yourself to me as a person.”

Wilson said he wants to be the kind of guy who’s hard to play against but also move on without any hard feelings. Yet he is aware of his reputation.

”The hockey world’s very small,” he said. ”I always wanted to be someone that’s hard to play against but you can go out and have a beer with the guy and have fun in the summer or whatever. I think that’s what hockey is kind of about.”

Wilson, of course, is not just the muscle on a star-laden team featuring Ovechkin, Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov but is also a young leader the organization is building around.

”There are those moments that you don’t like to see when that stuff’s going down, but the rest of it and all the Caps fans and all that make up for the good side of things,” Wilson said. ”You see kind of those scary things happen in the world, but it’s a pretty darn good life and I love what I do and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

AP Sports Writers Will Graves and Pat Graham and freelance reporter W.G. Ramirez contributed.

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

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports