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.

Evander Kane loses cool as Sharks’ meltdown continues

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The San Jose Sharks are unraveling.

Not only has their biggest and most obvious flaw — goaltending — once again been exposed in their in Round 1 series against the Vegas Golden Knights, but the team has started to melt down in all phases and now has been pushed to the brink of elimination following an ugly 5-0 loss on Tuesday night.

The Golden Knights are now in complete control of the series with a 3-1 lead and seem to be just toying with the Sharks.

If the results weren’t bad enough, the Sharks completely lost their composure in the third period of Game 4, a development that was highlighted by an Evander Kane tantrum that resulted in him earning 14 penalty minutes and an early exit to the locker room.

After aggressively cross-checking Paul Stastny in the neutral zone, Kane delivered a sucker-punch to the face Colin Miller in the scrum that ensued.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Kane has made headlines in this series for his Game 3 fight with Golden Knights enforcer Ryan Reaves and then some trash talk through the media on Tuesday where he said, among other things, that he thought he was “fighting the muffin man” when he dropped the gloves with Reaves.

As Kane was being escorted to the locker room on Tuesday, the Vegas in-game entertainment crew played “The Muffin Man.”

Here is the entire sequence involving Kane on Tuesday.

Whether or not that punch is enough to earn a suspension remains to be seen, but it will almost certainly be looked at by the NHL Department of Player Safety.

The Sharks were already playing Tuesday without Joe Thornton after he was suspended for a hit to the head late in the Sharks’ Game 3 loss.

But the meltdown did not stop there.

With the Sharks already shorthanded late in the third period, Timo Meier earned a two-minute minor unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for yelling at the officials from the bench.

As for the actual hockey, things were not much better.

Starting goalie Martin Jones gave up two early goals — including another in the first two minutes — on only seven shots and was benched after the first period. Backup Aaron Dell did not play any better, while the Sharks’ defense that is led by Norris Trophy winners Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns just looked bad at times. The former still does not look to be anywhere near 100 percent healthy.

Max Pacioretty had four points, including two goals, in the win for Vegas while Shea Theodore, Alex Tuch and Jonathan Marchessault also found the back of the net for a Golden Knights team that is having no problems feasting on the Sharks’ horrendous goaltending.

The series shifts back to San Jose on Thursday for Game 5 at 10 p.m. ET on NBCSN where the Golden Knights will have a chance to move on.

More Sharks-Golden Knights:
Sharks lose Thornton for Game 4
Trash talk between Kane, Reaves almost as good as their fight

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.

Trash talk between Reaves, Kane almost as good as their fight

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Evander Kane was named after Evander Holyfield, but there’s a touch of Muhammad Ali to his trash talk with Ryan Reaves.

The two engaged in a positively terrifying fight during the Golden Knights’ 6-3 win against the Sharks in Game 3, after heated exchanges that Pierre McGuire described as minutes-long bits of almost certainly NSFW banter. While the material there is too “blue” for our innocent eyes and ears, the two weren’t shy about making their disdain public. From the sound of things, Game 3 might not be the last time they drop the gloves during this Round 1 series, whether the next bout happens in Game 4 (Tuesday, 10:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN; Live stream) or later.

On Monday, Reaves was asked if he gained respect for Evander Kane after that fight, and the answer seemed to be “not a ton.”

“Yeah I guess a little bit but not really a lot to be honest,” Reaves said, via Sin Bin Vegas. “I’m not really ever going to respect that guy.”

[2019 NBC STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS HUB]

Reaves went on to take a shot at Joe Thornton regarding Thornton’s suspension following a hit on Tomas Nosek, referring to Jumbo Joe as “grandpa” and joking that Thornton will have trouble seeing from the press box. Kane apparently heard about those comments, and they became a part of a multi-part takedown of Reaves. Shen Peng of Fear the Fin captured the trash talking glory of it all:

As you can see from that smorgasboard of smack talk, Kane made the following remarks:

  • That Kane was unharmed from the fight, and that he “expected more of a battle,” comparing fighting Reaves to fighting “The Muffin Man.” (Not totally sure what Kane is referencing, so here’s hoping it was this. Either way, that song has traveled back from my childhood and is now firmly planted in my head.)
  • Kane says that Reaves speaks as if he’s in WWE, and uses that as a way to throw a barb at Reaves as a player, wondering if Reaves might become a professional wrestler soon. Request: if Reaves does, can his gimmick be “The Muffin Experience?”
  • Most succinctly, Kane said “Nobody thinks of Ryan Reaves as a hockey player.”

Harsh.

As we saw with the Alex Ovechkin – Andrei Svechnikov fight, it’s easy to forget about what are often scary consequences to these fights. While both Reaves and Kane are more seasoned in that regard, there’s also even greater size and fighting experience involved, only making potential bouts more dangerous.

From the Sharks’ perspective, you also have to wonder if Reaves is accomplishing a lot by getting Kane off of his game. This feud isn’t just a distraction; Kane (and the Sharks) must be aware that any fight would mean taking Kane – who had 30 goals and 56 points during the regular season – off the ice for five minutes or more. Even those who believe that Reaves brings more than fisticuffs to the table would probably agree that such a tradeoff would be a huge win for the Golden Knights. The same could be said if both players were injured in a fight.

For fans of “old time hockey,” this is a rare treat, and there’s no denying the spectacle. The Sharks risk giving the Golden Knights an edge if Kane gets swept up in all of it at the wrong time, though. Kane fighting Reaves in a blowout was one thing, but tensions boiling over at the wrong time could end up hurting San Jose.

Then again, maybe an angry Kane might produce some big points with all of that extra motivation? We’ll see.

Golden Knights – Sharks Game 4 from T-Mobile Arena will be Tuesday night at 10:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. (Live stream)

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Hedman ‘doubtful’ for Game 4; Hughes, Kakko top Central Scouting ranks

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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 your daily NBC Sports Stanley Cup Playoffs update for April 16th

• Uh oh. Victor Hedman is “doubtful” for Game 4, according to Jon Cooper. [Tampa Bay Times]

Matt Duchene is loving playoff life with the Columbus Blue Jackets. [Sportsnet]

• As expected, Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko top NHL Central Scouting’s final 2019 draft rankings. [NHL.com]

• One of Max Pacioretty’s sons told him to score in Game 3. Sure enough, dad fulfilled the request. [Sin Bin Vegas]

• A look at how the bad blood between Evander Kane and Ryan Reaves has evolved over the years. [NBC Bay Area]

• There’s one member of the Pittsburgh Penguins who knows about coming back from an 0-3 series deficit. [Pensburgh]

• A good look at how the New York Islanders have put the Penguins on the brink of being swept. [Lighthouse Hockey]

• “New campaign aims to bring women’s hockey league to Seattle” [MyNorthwest.com]

Patrick Kane has been named captain of the U.S. roster set to take part in next month’s IIHF World Championship. [USA Hockey]

• Oilers forward Milan Lucic suffered a lower-body injury and is currently sporting a cast. The off-ice injury is not expected to force him to miss any time next season. [TSN]

• Now that Joel Quenneville has been hired, what else is on the Florida Panthers’ to-do list this off-season? [Panther Parkway]

• A good breakdown at just special a talent the Vancouver Canucks have in Elias Pettersson. [EP Rinkside]

• Finally, here’s episode 3 of “Puckland,” as the ECHL’s Maine Mariners hold an intense training camp and evaluate local players for their final roster:

Sharks lose Thornton for Game 4 via one-game suspension

via NHL/NBC Sports
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The San Jose Sharks hope to tie their Round 1 series against the Vegas Golden Knights, but they’ll need to do so without Joe Thornton.

Thornton has been suspended for Game 4 (Tuesday, 10:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN; Live stream) for an illegal hit to the head on Golden Knights forward Tomas Nosek.

In making the decision, the Department of Player Safety explained that there was head contact that was “avoidable,” and noted that Thornton had been suspended before (during the 2010-11 season). Nosek was able to return to the Golden Knights’ eventual 6-3 win in Game 3.

Here’s the explanation video:

Thornton believed that Nosek put himself in a position to receive the hit, via Shen Peng of Fear the Fin:

“I honestly thought I barely touched him. He came right back,” Thornton said. “It was just one of those plays, it is what it is. I think my son hits me like that six times a day. Just a weird position he put himself in, that’s all.”

Ryan Reaves had quite the response to that take.

The NHL ultimately decided that the hit justified a one-game suspension, so the Sharks face an even bigger challenge in tying this series up.

Golden Knights – Sharks Game 4 from T-Mobile Arena will be Tuesday night at 10:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. (Live stream)

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.