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The Buzzer: Maple Leafs, Devils, Avalanche record important wins; Ducks embarrassed

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Monday’s results

Maple Leafs 4, Bruins 2 (Bruins lead series 2-1): Patrick Marleau scored a pair and Frederik Andersen made 40 saves in a must-win for the Maple Leafs. Boston had dominated both outings at TD Garden, with the Leafs giving up 12 goals over both games and forcing Mike Babcock to pull Anderson in the first period in Game 2 after allowing four goals on seven shots. Andersen was back between the pipes on Monday, and although he allowed two gifts early on, he settled in to aid in the win. Auston Matthews scored his first of the series and David Pastrnak was held pointless after his six-point outing on Saturday. In fact, the line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and Pastrnak failed to record a point after putting up a whopping 20 over Games 1 and 2.

Devils 5, Lightning 2 (Lightning lead series 2-1): Speaking of teams needing a win and better goaltending… The Devils found themselves down 2-0 after allowing five goals in each of Game 1 and Game 2 in Florida. John Hynes elected to make a switch in net after Devils playoff starter Keith Kinkaid was yanked after 33 minutes in Game 2. Cory Schneider stopped 34-of-36 en route to his first win in 2018. Taylor Hall had a goal and two assists in the game.

Avalanche 5, Predators 3 (Predators lead series 2-1):  Take a team that plays very well at home and a player who scores a lot of his points at home and you get a Colorado Avalanche win thanks to two goals by Nathan MacKinnon on Monday. The Avs scored three times in the first period. MacKinnon’s second of the game early in the second period stood as the game-winner.

Sharks 8, Ducks 1 (Sharks lead series 3-0): The Anaheim Ducks need a miracle after Monday’s embarrassment. After losing both games at home to the San Jose Sharks, the Ducks put up a stinker in Monday’s loss. John Gibson didn’t get any help and then he was pulled after allowing five on 24 shots. The Ducks looked disinterested after a while and the Sharks feasted as a result. Joonas Donskoi had a goal and two assists to lead the way. Martin Jones was stellar when called upon, stopping 45 of 46.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Three stars

Patrick Marleau, Maple Leafs: Toronto needed someone to step up and it came through their elder statesman in Marleau, who notched a pair as the Maple Leafs rode to victory to help stave off a 3-0 deficit.

Taylor Hall, Devils: Hall scored unassisted to tie the game in 1-1 in the first period and then was the primary assist on Will Butcher‘s game-tying goal in the second and Stefan Noesen‘s eventual game-winner later in the period. A solid outing from the Hart Trophy candidate.

Nathan MacKinnon, Avalanche: There’s a strong case to be made here for Martin Jones, who set a franchise record for a playoff game with 45 saves, but MacKinnon’s two goals propelled the Avs to a much-needed victory after coming into Monday’s action down 2-0 in their first-round series against the Predators. MacKinnon and the Avs have been money at Pepsi Center this season and that held true in their win on Monday. Sorry, Martin.

Highlights of the Night

First and foremost, this:

Them moves:

Eric Fehr scored. Yes, your eyes don’t deceive you:

Nice feed, nice goal:

Factoids of the Night

Old-man Marleau turning back the clock:

Also, old-man Chara:

Look who made the trip!

Tuesday’s schedule

Washington Capitals at Columbus Blue Jackets, 7:30 p.m. ET (NBCSN) – Blue Jackets lead 2-0
Winnipeg Jets at Minnesota Wild, 8 p.m. ET (CNBC) – Jets lead 2-1
Vegas Golden Knights at Los Angeles Kings, 10:30 p.m. ET (NBCSN) – Golden Knights lead 3-0


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Under pressure: Mike Johnston

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The Pittsburgh Penguins fired coach Dan Bylsma because claiming division titles isn’t good enough for a franchise trying to win more than one championship while Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are still in their prime. Mike Johnston was hired to do better, but that’s not what happened in 2014-15. Penguins executive David Morehouse claimed that the team never seriously considered firing Johnston after that, but will that change if Pittsburgh fails to live up to expectations again?

Johnston’s Penguins were effective for much of the regular season, but a late season collapse nearly ended their playoff berth streak and they dropped four out of five games against the New York Rangers in the first round. Internally, injuries were reportedly viewed as a primary cause for the Penguins’ 2014-15 shortcomings and it certainly is true that they didn’t have Kris Letang or Pascal Dupuis during that first round series.

At the same time, the team’s scoring depth was a big problem too and it’s one GM Jim Rutherford hopes he addressed this summer with the additions of Phil Kessel, Nick Bonino, Eric Fehr, and Matt Cullen. Adding a player of Kessel’s caliber in particular raises expectations, but it also emphasizes the immediacy of the Penguins’ window for a few different reasons.

First and foremost, the Penguins gave up a top prospect in Kasperi Kapanen and a conditional first-round draft pick to get him, further depleting their pool of prospects. Secondly, Phil Kessel will turn 28 in October and while that’s not old even by NHL standards, it is roughly in line with the ages of Malkin, Crosby, Letang, and Marc-Andre Fleury. Of that group, Fleury was the first to enter his 30s and as the rest of them follow suit, diminishing returns will become an increasing concern that’s compounded by the fact that they’re all signed to expensive long-term contracts that consume a lot of Pittsburgh’s cap space.

Which is to say that Pittsburgh can’t afford to be squandering seasons and if Johnston isn’t the guy to lead them to a Stanley Cup championship, then the Penguins have to make a change sooner rather than later. That’s not to suggest that Johnston shouldn’t be the coach in 2015-16, but it does mean that the pressure on him to deliver the best possible outcome couldn’t be higher.

Pittsburgh Penguins ’15-16 Outlook

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The Pittsburgh Penguins have two of the league’s best forwards in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, but last season they lacked the offensive depth to sufficiently back them up. GM Jim Rutherford is hoping he addressed that issue this summer, but there is still a big X-factor with this team.

Starting with the positives, newcomer Phil Kessel is one of the league’s top goal scorers and pairing him up with a superb playmaker like Crosby should make for a great combination. Combined with Patric Hornqvist, Malkin, David Perron, and Chris Kunitz and the Penguins have the potential to feature two very effective lines. Summer additions Eric Fehr and Nick Bonino will also provide the Penguins with some all-important depth up the middle.

After that though, their bottom-six gets a little hazy.

Theoretically, Pascal Dupuis would be an ideal presence on their third line and wouldn’t look out of place if the Penguins opt to put him in their top-six, but he’s also played in just 55 games over the last two seasons due to a torn ACL and a blood clot. Even if we presume that his health issues are behind him, one has to wonder if the long layoffs have negatively impacted the 36-year-old forward. The Penguins might be penciling Beau Bennett for a third line role as well, but he’s had injury problems too and hasn’t developed as hoped.

Health issues have unfortunately been a running theme for the Penguins.

They’re counting on Kris Letang to anchor their defense, but the 69 games he played last season represented a personal best since 2010-2011. Even Malkin is a question mark at this point, as he’s only surpassed the 70-game mark once since 2008-2009.

Now to be fair, if the biggest knock is “they might get hurt,” then that’s arguably a sign that there are not a lot of issues to begin with.

After all, the Penguins core — when healthy — is among the most impressive in the league. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury can be firmly listed as part of that foundation as well as his performance over the last two campaigns has run contrary to the old narrative that he gets worse under the heightened pressure of the playoffs.

The jury is still out on the Penguins’ depth though and those aforementioned injury problems can’t be casually dismissed. This is a team that has been among the most prone to health problems from 2009-10 onward, according to Man Games Lost.

If that trend ends though, then this should be a very dangerous team.

Pittsburgh’s biggest question: Is the defense good enough?

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For a team not really known for its defense, the Penguins sure have seen defensemen fly off the shelves.

Last summer, teams spent $76.45 million to lure away Deryk Engelland (Calgary), Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik (Washington).

This summer, more of the same with the Sharks signing Paul Martin and the Kings inking Christian Ehrhoff.

The issue here is obvious — if Pittsburgh’s defense wasn’t that great to begin with and then lost all these guys, how good will it be heading into 2015-16?

“I’m comfortable with (our defense) going into the season,” Pens GM Jim Rutherford said earlier this summer, per USA Today. “But it is certainly the area we will watch the closest.”

Rutherford isn’t the only one that’ll be watching.

Eyes across the league will be glued to Pittsburgh following Rutherford’s bold renovation project. Nearly all of his moves this summer were designed to improve his forward group — adding the likes of Phil Kessel, Nick Bonino, Eric Fehr and KHLer Sergei Plotnikov — essentially banking on the idea that, ready or not, his collection of young defensemen will carry the load.

And it really is a young group.

Only Kris Letang, Rob Scuderi and Ben Lovejoy have appeared in over 200 NHL games; even a “veteran” presence like 26-year-old Ian Cole is a bit of a wildcard, given he was buried on a deep Blues blueline before being acquired last season (prior to ’14-15, Cole’s career high in games played was 46).

As such, kids are going to take on some pretty hefty roles.

Olli Maatta and Derrick Pouliot, both 21, figure to get a lion’s share of the now-available minutes, while the likes of Adam Clendening (22), Brian Dumoulin (23) and Tim Erixon (24) will be fighting for depth spots — which, in Pittsburgh, are pretty important spots.

This is a defensive unit, remember, that was ravaged by injury a year ago (recall when the Pens only dressed five d-men against San Jose?) Things got so bad that, by the time the playoffs rolled around, Taylor Chorney was in the lineup.

Though the club has since hired two new staffers in an effort to “minimize injuries,” losing blueliners to injury always remains a concern.

But there is a wrinkle.

Rutherford, who took heat last year for rolling the dice on a thin blueline while stockpiling offense, says that his abundance of forwards may actually help out should he to add a defenseman.

“Hopefully the younger guys can fall into place and do a consistent job,” he explained. “If not, part of having more depth up front, is that it can help us in the long run because if we have to go get a defenseman we have those extra pieces.”

Translation: Rutherford knows the group might need help.

“I’m fully aware,” he said, “that at some point in time we may have to address that position.”

It’s Pittsburgh Penguins Day at PHT

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Throughout the month of August, PHT will be dedicating a day to all 30 NHL clubs. Today’s team? The Pittsburgh Penguins.

After another disappointing finish in the playoffs, the Pittsburgh Penguins decided to change course by replacing GM Ray Shero and head coach Dan Bylsma with Jim Rutherford and Mike Johnston respectively prior to the start of the 2014-15 campaign. The results, at least as far as last season was concerned, were not desirable.

To be fair, Pittsburgh was strong for much of the campaign and was even in the running for the Presidents’ Trophy through March 12 with a 39-18-10 record. However, they went 4-9-2 for the remainder of the season and they just barely secured the second Wild Card seed. That set up a first round series against the New York Rangers that the Penguins lost in five games.

For a team that’s home to two of the best forwards in the league, the Penguins’ big weakness last season was actually their offense. Years of subpar drafting beyond first round picks and a top-heavy salary balance sheet seemed to finally catch up with the Penguins as they were thin on scoring threats outside of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

Chris Kunitz, James Neal, and Jussi Jokinen provided the Penguins with at least 57 points each in 2013-14, but the 35-year-old Kunitz slid to 40 points, Neal had been dealt to Nashville in exchange for Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling, and Jokinen left as an unrestricted free agent. Consequently, Malkin and Crosby were the only Penguins players to record more than 57 points last season.

Pittsburgh went from being tied for the fifth best offense in 2013-14 to finishing in a tie for 18th just one season later. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury had a strong campaign and that continued into the 2015 playoffs, but the Penguins provided him with just eight goals of support over five games against the Rangers.

Off-season recap

Rutherford has moved to bolster the Penguins’ offense over the summer. He brought Phil Kessel to Pittsburgh in a blockbuster trade with Toronto that also involved the Penguins conceding 2014 first round pick Kasperi Kapanen. Nearly a month later, Pittsburgh acquired Nick Bonino, Adam Clendening, and a 2016 second round pick from Vancouver in exchange for Brandon Sutter and a 2016 third round selection.

Pittsburgh further addressed its forward depth with the signings of Eric Fehr (three years, $6 million) and Matt Cullen (one-year, $800K).

Combine that with the return of Pascal Dupuis (blood clots) and Pittsburgh’s group of forwards should look significantly different this season.