What now? Penguins face crucial offseason after flameout

8 Comments

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

PHT Morning Skate: Kings introduce McLellan; another level for Zuccarello

1 Comment

Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

•  Here’s today’s NBC Sports Stanley Cup Playoff update for April 18

• The Todd McLellan hire is an important one for Rob Blake, as the Los Angeles Kings GM knows he needs to get this right. [LA Times]

• Here are all 31 nominees for the 2019 King Clancy Trophy, awarded to “to the player who best exemplifies leadership qualities on and off the ice and has made a noteworthy humanitarian contribution in his community.” [NHL]

Justin Williams is putting a lot of friendships on hold as his Carolina Hurricanes look to top his old pals with the Washington Capitals. [NHL.com]

• The Winnipeg Jets are looking like the 2017-18 version just in time. [Sportsnet]

• Another level for Mats Zuccarello to reach? Dallas Stars head coach Jim Montgomery thinks so. [Dallas Morning News]

• A better Calgary Flames performance in Game 4 still wasn’t enough. [Calgary Sun]

• Columbus Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen on how he felt the morning after sweeping the Tampa Bay Lightning: “A little relief. “Tired. Happy. All those things.” [Toronto Sun]

David Savard has been a pleasant surprise for the Blue Jackets. [1st Ohio Battery]

• “Lightning becomes the disappointment all others will be measured against” [Tampa Bay Times]

• On Brad Marchand and turning a new leaf on the ice. [ESPN]

• Depth and resilience helped the New York Islanders eliminate the Pittsburgh Penguins. [SNY]

Phil Kessel on his future in Pittsburgh: “That’s a tough question to start. I don’t know at this point. We’ll see how it goes this summer.” [Post-Gazette]

• What’s next for the Penguins in regards to roster turnover this off-season? [Pensburgh]

• Ralph Krueger on his future now that he’s no longer chairman of Premier League club Southampton: “At the moment, it’s rather difficult to imagine getting back into day-to-day business immediately and taking over a team.” [Swiss Hockey News]

• Former NHLer Brent Sopel talks about his battle with dyslexia and his travels with the Stanley Cup. [Grandstand Central]

• Some names to ponder as the Buffalo Sabres seek a replacement for Phil Housley. [Buffalo Hockey Beat]

• Fun look at some very weird hockey cards from the 1990s. [Puck Junk]

• Finally, in the latest episode of “Off the Ice with Kathryn Tappen,” Blue Jackets star Cam Atkinson reflects on his upbringing, and later reminisces with one of his brothers over a game of pool:

————

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.

It was the Jordan Eberle show for Islanders

Getty
4 Comments

PITTSBURGH — Jordan Eberle‘s only playoff appearance before this season was mostly forgettable.

He went 13 games without scoring a goal, was limited to just two assists, and became the postseason scapegoat for a dysfunctional organization (Edmonton) that was on the brink of falling apart for reasons that were (and still are) far bigger than him. The response that offseason, naturally, was to essentially give him away to the New York Islanders in a one-for-one deal for Ryan Strome

It has been a very different postseason experience for him this time around.

Eberle was one of the driving forces behind the Islanders’ stunning four-game sweep of the Pittsburgh Penguins that concluded with a 3-1 win on Tuesday night at PPG Paints Arena.

After failing to score in all of his playoff games in 2016, Eberle has not only scored in every playoff game he has played so far in 2019, but he has scored some game-changing goals in the biggest possible moments.

Just look at the rundown of his goals so far:

  • In Game 1, he opened the scoring for the Islanders and set the tone for the series just 1:40 into the game.
  • In Game 2, it was the game-winning goal midway through the third period to help give the Islanders a commanding lead in the series.
  • In Game 3, it was a picture perfect snipe from a terrible angle that tied the game just one minute after the Penguins had taken an early lead.
  • In Game 4, it was exactly the same situation as his goal on an odd-man rush at the 2:09 mark of the first period came just a minute-and-a-half after the Penguins scored on the game’s first shift, erasing any momentum they may have been able to build.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

In the four games the Islanders spent less than five minutes playing from behind due to their quick responses, and in two games it was goals from Eberle that erased those few deficits.

He has found a home on the Islanders’ top line alongside Mathew Barzal and Anders Lee, and in a series that featured the likes of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel on the other side of the ice, it was the Islanders’ trio that dominated on the scoreboard.

“[Barzal] is finding me in areas where I am able to finish plays off,” said Eberle after Tuesday’s win, when asked what is going through his mind when the puck is on his stick right now.

“Since they put me, [Barzal], and [Lee] together the puck has been going in a lot more. I don’t know what we finished the season with, but it seemed like we scored every game. That is obviously huge and we want to continue playing that way. These games get tougher and tougher as you move forward, we have to be ready and realize that.”

They may not have scored in every game, but they definitely showed they could be a dangerous trio that could spark the team’s offense. Over the final 10 games of the regular season that trio outscored opponents by a 6-2 margin in more than 122 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey, while also dominating the scoring chance and high-danger scoring chance numbers.

That domination has carried over to the playoffs.

In the four-game series against Pittsburgh the Eberle, Barzal, Lee line combined for four goals, was not on the ice for a single goal against, and controlled more than 60 percent of the scoring chance and high-danger chances when they were on the ice.

Other than perhaps the play of the two goalies (and especially Robin Lehner in the Islanders’ net), that line was probably the difference in the series.

“You start to get a lot of confidence before the playoffs begin, and you want to continue to play well,” said Eberle. “The biggest thing about my game, and [Barzal], and [Lee] is you want to have the coach trust you, and I think Barry does now with the way we have played defensively and able to break the puck out and go down and score. We are known for our defense and I think first and foremost that is where we want to be.”

The Islanders have a lot of questions to face this summer when it comes to pending unrestricted free agents, with Eberle and Lee being two of the biggest. If nothing else, they are putting together a pretty convincing argument that they are worth keeping around and paying because of the way they have played alongside the team’s new franchise player (Barzal).

They also don’t have to worry about that decision for (at least) a couple more weeks, thanks in large parts to Eberle’s goal-scoring binge.

He had a rather simple explanation for how all of it is happening for him

“Sometimes when you shoot the puck, it goes in.”

Because the puck keeps going in, the Islanders’ season will keep going on.

Related: Islanders shut down Penguins again to complete sweep

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.

Islanders shut down Penguins again to complete sweep

36 Comments

The New York Islanders are still shocking the hockey world.

But at this point maybe it shouldn’t be a shock anymore.

After an incredible regular season that saw them overcome the loss of their former franchise player in free agency, go from worst to first in goals against, and return to the playoffs for the first time since 2015-16, they are now moving on to Round 2 where they await the winner of the Carolina Hurricanes-Washington Capitals series.

And they did it emphatically.

They completed a four-game sweep of the Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday night with a 3-1 win that pretty much followed the script of the first three games of the series.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

That script: A suffocating defensive effort, some sensational goaltending from Robin Lehner, and a knack for not only being able to pounce on and convert on every Penguins mistake, but to also be able to almost immediately respond to any counterpunch the Penguins could throw.

For the third game in a row the Penguins scored first, and for the third game in a row were unable to hold the lead for more than a couple of minutes.

Shortly after Jake Guentzel scored his first goal of the series 35 seconds into the game, Jordan Eberle scored for the fourth consecutive to tie the game. Later in the period, Brock Nelson scored his third goal of the series to give the Islanders a lead they would never relinquish.

On the rare occasion where the Penguins did create a chance or put themselves in a position to potentially tie the game, they could get nothing to go their way. Late in the second period, Sidney Crosby rang a shot off the post when Lehner was out of position and looking in the other direction. On a power play attempt in the third period, Phil Kessel appeared to have an open net to shoot at only to have his shot hit the leg of Islanders defender Scott Mayfield and stay out. During their last-ditch empty-net effort, their zone time came to an end when Erik Gudbranson‘s stick broke on a one-time attempt.

That was the kind of series it turned out to be from the Pittsburgh side. They not only played poorly, but they couldn’t even get a break.

The Islanders, meanwhile, looked flawless at times in their execution in shutting down the Penguins hired powered offense and taking advantage of every opportunity.

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.

For Islanders’ Eberle, pucks are going in during these playoffs

6 Comments

Not that long ago, Jordan Eberle was a guy who just couldn’t buy a goal in the postseason. During the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, it almost feels like the New York Islanders should challenge him to score the toughest goals possible.

Eberle fit a puck into an almost impossibly small window during the Islanders’ 4-1 win against the Pittsburgh Penguins to take a 3-0 series lead in Game 3. As you can see from that goal (in the clip above this post’s headline), Eberle is combining a dangerous mix of swagger and luck to a red-hot start.

That goal was his third goal in as many games during Round 1, while Eberle’s also managed two assists to give him an impressive five points in three contests. We’ll see if Eberle can carry that into the Islanders’ attempt to sweep the Penguins in Game 4 (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN; Live stream), but either way, he’s off to a blazing start.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

From a sheer production standpoint, Eberle’s totals (three goals, two assists for five points in three games) during this run are night-and-day from a rather disastrous first (and final) postseason with the Edmonton Oilers, when he failed to score a goal on 22 SOG in 13 playoff games back in 2016-17, settling for only two assists.

From an effort standpoint, though? After coming through in Game 1 against the Penguins, Eberle explained something many believed: that he really wasn’t playing that poorly during that fateful final run with Edmonton.

“I didn’t think I was playing that bad,” Eberle said, via NHL.com’s Brian Compton on April 11. “Pucks didn’t go in. I seemed to be the blame of a lot of things. It was a big part probably of why I got traded from Edmonton.”

“It’s nice to get another chance and another rip at it. Try to take advantage of this one.”

Eberle sure has taken advantage of this one, and those pucks sure have been going in.

Of course, Eberle would risk a trip to Barry Trotz’s doghouse if his offense came at too much of a detriment to his overall game. By looking at the numbers, that doesn’t seem to be the case; Eberle looks fantastic across the board according to Natural Stat Trick’s metrics, including the fact that the Islanders have generated 72.09 percent of the scoring chances at even-strength with Eberle on the ice. That’s impressive considering how often Eberle is drawing the likes of Kris Letang and Phil Kessel, and also shows that Trotz is getting the matchups he likes, as there hasn’t been too much exposure to Sidney Crosby.

Can Eberle keep this up?

Over the long haul, definitely not. While Eberle’s generally been one of the skilled shooters you’ll see (watch that goal again if you need a reminder), no one’s comfortably shooting at 25 percent, which is Eberle’s current rate of three goals on 12 SOG.

The truth is somewhere in between that ice-cold run with the Oilers and this scorching-hot stretch with the Islanders, and that’s a point that is worth mentioning, both to fans and to front office members. Scorers, particularly snipers, are prone to slumps and lucky stretches. It’s wiser to zoom out to the whole, rather than fixating on the too-good-to-be-true or, say, trading Eberle away after his worst slump.

Really, though, Islanders fans and Eberle (and Eberle’s accountants) should just enjoy this ride, for however long it lasts. It must be almost as sweet for Eberle to silence his critics as it’s been to score big, “dagger” goals against Pittsburgh and win some huge games.

The Islanders will go for the sweep in Game 4 on Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. (Live stream)

MORE: Penguins look lost, broken against Islanders; Isles have all the answers so far

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.