All posts by Connor Keith

Pens repeat as Stanley Cup Champs

2017 Stanley Cup Finals – Game 6

 

Thanks to Sunday’s 2-0 Game 6 win against Nashville at Bridgestone Arena, the Penguins have retained the Stanley Cup for the second-straight year.

The Finals had been waiting all series for a true battle between the opposing goaltenders. It got what it wanted in Game 6, as Matthew Murray (27-for-27) and Second Star of the Game Pekka Rinne (.964 save percentage) combined to allow only one goal against on 55 shots against.

Play started out predominantly in Rinne’s end for the early minutes of the game, due in large part to the Pens dominating the face-off dot at that time. However, as Nashville began to take control of resumptions of play, the ice began to tilt more in their favor. In fact, the Predators ended the first period trailing the Penguins in shots on goal only 9-8.

The Predators had a much stronger start in the second period, and almost earned the first goal of the game 74 seconds into the frame. Filip Forsberg fired a shot on Murray that he was able to deflect, but not control. Colton Sissons collected the loose puck and fired it into the net, but the goal was disallowed because the referee had blown his whistle for incorrectly thinking Murray had possession of the puck.

But that did little to rattle the still-technically-a-rookie goaltender. He went on to save the remaining 10 shots he faced in the second period to maintain the scoreless draw.

Of all the saves made in the game, the biggest were in the third period. Though only a combined 15 shots were fired in the frame, it seemed the best scoring chances arose in the final 20 minutes. But as had been true for the first two periods, Murray and Rinne kept the opposition searching for its first marker in almost every situation.

In particular, the Predators had an excellent opportunity at the midway point of the period. Due to Olli Maatta tripping Viktor Arvidsson at the 7:19 mark, Nashville earned its third power play of the contest. That advantage grew even larger 1:28 later when Trevor Daley was caught roughing Ryan Ellis. What resulted was a 3:28 extra-man situation for the Preds that included 32 seconds of five-on-three play.

That proved to be the turning point of the game – but not for the original beneficiaries of the infractions. It’s been rumored by players and analysts that a successful penalty kill can reinvigorate a club in a way not even a power play goal could dream of.

That was exactly what happened for Pittsburgh. It played from the 7:19 mark until 9:13 remained in regulation with at least one defenseman in the penalty box and made it look easy. Not only did the Pens not allow a goal in that time, but they only yielded three shots to reach Murray.

7:38 after Daley returned to action, the Penguins began their attack.

The play started with Chris Kunitz behind Rinne’s net chasing the puck towards the far corner. He caught up with the rubber even with the face-off dot along the wall before getting it to Third Star Justin Schultz at the far point. The defenseman slightly slid towards the top of the zone before slinging a wrist shot towards the goal.

Schultz’ attempt missed its mark wide of Rinne’s glove to careen into the boards, but First Star Patric Hornqvist – who was acting as a screen on the blue liner’s shot – was not ready to give up on the play. The former Predator worked his way past the netminder to reach the puck near the far goalpost and smack a wrister off Rinne’s left elbow and into the twine.

Peter Laviolette challenged the goal for goaltender interference (Hornqvist and Rinne did make contact as the scorer dove towards the puck), but it was ruled he was capable of playing his position, therefore a good goal, leaving Nashville only 95 seconds on the clock to respond.

With his club facing elimination, Laviolette was forced to pull his goaltender almost immediately after Mike Fisher won the ensuing face-off  at center ice. But the Penguins defense would not give an inch. No shots reached Murray with Rinne off the ice, and Carl Hagelin (Brian Dumoulin) was able to ensure the Penguins’ fifth Stanley Cup by scoring an empty-netter with 14 ticks remaining on the clock.

Captain Sidney Crosby laid claim to his second-straight Conn Smythe Trophy for scoring 27 points, the second-highest total among all participants (Evgeni Malkin notched 28). With the exception of the Eastern Conference Finals, he registered seven points per round, but it was against Ottawa that he scored three goals – his highest total in a 2017 playoff series.

While the Penguins’ hoisting the Stanley Cup is an impressive feat – they’re they first club to do it since the 1997 and ’98 Detroit Red Wings – Crosby winning back-to-back Smythe Trophies is arguably even more impressive. He is the first to repeat as playoffs MVP since former Penguins player-turned owner Mario Lemieux claimed the trophy in both 1991 and ’92.

Looking ahead, the next big event on the NHL calendar is the NHL Awards Ceremony on June 21 – only 10 days away. Not only will numerous honors be distributed, but the Vegas Golden Knights’ Expansion Draft selections will be announced.

Home ice continues to pay off; Pens a win away

2017 Stanley Cup Finals – Game 5

 

After giving up its two-game advantage on the road, Pittsburgh stomped the Predators 6-0 at PPG Paints Arena Thursday to pull within a victory of hoisting its second-straight Stanley Cup.

Whether it was the friendly confines of the Steel City or the extra day of rest, everything went right for the Penguins. Pittsburgh’s most noticeable success was converting a quarter of its 24 shots on goal into tallies, especially when six different skaters scored the markers.

One of those proved especially important – and not only because it proved to be the game winning-goal. With a slap shot from the blue line, Justin Schultz (First Star of the Game Sidney Crosby and Patric Hornqvist) revived the Penguins’ dormant power play only 91 seconds into the contest by scoring between Austin Watson and Pekka Rinne‘s legs.

The extra-man opportunity was a direct result of the Pens’ early offensive onslaught. Even though Rinne faced only two shots on goal before Schultz’ marker, the first 50 seconds of play all took place in Nashville’s defensive zone. That prolonged Penguins possession directly led to Ryan Ellis holding Crosby to stop play. 31 seconds later, the Pens found themselves with a lead.

That man-advantage goal proved to simply be the tip of the iceberg for the Penguins. Bryan Rust (Chris Kunitz and Trevor Daley) doubled Pittsburgh’s lead 5:12 after Schultz’ marker, and Evgeni Malkin (Second Star Phil Kessel and Third Star Ron Hainsey) took advantage of a four-on-four situation with 11 seconds before the first intermission to set the score at 3-0.

The cause of the four-on-four play was another chapter in the Crosby-P.K. Subban saga. With 1:32 remaining in the first period, both were officially charged with coincidental holding penalties when they fell to the ice behind Matthew Murray‘s net and – instead of getting up and rejoining play – continued their shenanigans.

First it was Crosby repeatedly shoving Subban’s head into the ice. Once the defenseman finally could separate himself, he did his best to repay the favor before play was stopped and they received early dismissal to their respective dressing rooms.

More than simply scoring pucks was involved in this effort. Aside from giving the puck away five times (due in large part to Smashville living up to its name and throwing 41 hits, including seven by Watson), the defense also played a major role in stopping a Predators club that was trailing for almost the entire game.

Led by Mattias Ekholm‘s four shots on goal, Nashville managed just as many shots on Murray as the Pens did against Rinne: 24. That number could have been significantly larger in favor of the Preds if not for the excellent play of the blue liners. Led by Schultz’ three rejections, the Pens blocked an impressive 16 shots to keep Murray’s workload relatively minimal.

Not that Murray needed much help. He saved all 24 shots he faced – including a few stops with his suspect glove – for his second shutout of the postseason. Pittsburgh has now won four games by shutout – two apiece by Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury – to double the effort of any other 2017 playoff team.

Murray’s solid play in net, especially in comparison to his performances in Nashville, was more than enough motivation for the Penguins to keep applying pressure offensively. After notching three goals in the opening frame to chase Rinne, Pittsburgh matched its effort in the second with tallies from Conor Sheary (Crosby and Jake Guentzel), Kessel (Olli Maatta and Crosby) and Hainsey (Malkin and Kessel) against Juuse Saros.

In particular, Sheary’s tally was important due to rookie Guentzel’s involvement in the play. With another secondary assist for his 21st point, the youngster has tied Dino Ciccarelli and Ville Leino for most playoff points by a rookie.

He’ll have at least one more opportunity to break the record and help his club hoist the Stanley Cup in Game 6 this Sunday at Bridgestone Arena. Just like all the others in this Finals series, that contest is scheduled for 8 p.m. Eastern time and will be televised on NBC in the United States and CBC, SN or TVAS in Canada.

Preds’ counterattack levels Cup Finals

2017 Stanley Cup Finals – Game 4

 

After losing the first two games of the Stanley Cup Finals, Nashville has done exactly what it needed to do by beating the Penguins 4-1 at Bridgestone Arena in Game 4 to level the series at two games apiece.

Entering Monday’s match, the Predators had averaged 32.3 shots-on-goal per game in the Finals, a lofty number compared to the Pens’ 22.3 average.

Even though it didn’t quite reach that number Monday, three offerings proved extremely important for Nashville in the 15th minute of the first period. The first was an Austin Watson wrist shot fired on Matthew Murray‘s net from beyond the far face-off circle with 5:11 remaining in the frame. The netminder was able to make the stop, but he couldn’t contain the rebound.

That’s where Calle Jarnkrok (Craig Smith and Watson) comes into play only two seconds later. He and Smith both crashed Murray’s crease to collect the rebound. Smith was the first to the loose puck and bat the puck out of the air over the goalie’s left leg. Murray deflected that offering too, but he couldn’t stop the third: a Jarnkrok wrister from the near corner of the crease to give the Preds a 1-0 lead.

Mike Sullivan elected to challenge the play for goaltender interference, but Toronto correctly ruled that Smith’s follow-through, though it made obvious contact with Murray, did not occur before  before the puck had entered the net.

Beyond that marker, offense – specifically offensive possession – was at a premium in Game 4. Don’t let a 4-1 final score fool you, as both clubs managed only 26 and 24 shots, respectively, due in large part to the strong defensive efforts by both squads.

Pittsburgh preferred to keep Murray’s workload to a minimum by blocking shots before they reached his crease. In total, the Penguins blocked 18 Nashville attempts, including an impressive four rejections by Brian Dumoulin.

Meanwhile, the Predators played with a bit more finesse in front of First Star of the Game Pekka Rinne, preferring to force and capitalize on turnovers. Not only did Matt Irwin lead that charge with two of the Preds’ eight takeaways, Nashville was a bigger beneficiary of the Penguins’ sloppy handling. Pittsburgh gave the puck away 16 times, including a miserable four by Ron Hainsey.

Regardless of how either team decided to play, this type of game makes a club’s ability to counter-strike paramount to its success.

The first of those breakaway tallies was struck only 66 seconds after Jarnkrok had finished celebrating his second goal of the playoffs, courtesy of Sidney Crosby (Dumoulin).

Given the events late in Game 3 and their interactions over the first 15:57 of play, P.K. Subban was definitely under Crosby’s skin early in the contest. Anytime they came in close contact, Crosby made sure to give the defenseman an extra shove.

But being under Crosby’s skin does not mean he cannot score. After Dumoulin laced a blue line-to-blue line pass to him at the top of his offensive zone, Pittsburgh’s captain took advantage of his one-on-one matchup with Rinne to patiently wait until the netminder committed to a forehand deke. Crosby then pulled the puck across to his backhand side to bounce the puck off the far post and then off the netminder’s left skate to level the game.

The score read 1-1 for the remainder of the opening frame, but the counterattack theme continued in the second period. This time, both goaltenders were up to the task… at least at first glance.

First up was Rinne, who saved a breakaway wrister fired from the crease by Chris Kunitz at the 3:29 mark. That attempt was followed only 16 seconds later by Murray batting Third Star Frederick Gaudreau‘s wrap-around offering back towards center ice just before it crossed the goal line.

Or so it seemed.

None in the building noticed it, but someone in Toronto did. From approximately 770 miles away, the NHL stopped play almost a full minute later to force a review of Murray’s seemingly miracle save. Video showed that the puck did barely completely cross the red goal line before Murray sent it the other way, meaning the Predators earned a 2-1 lead. Ryan Ellis and Harry Zolnierczyk provided the assists on Gaudreau’s tie-breaking – and what proved to be game-winning – tally.

Yet another Predators breakaway opportunity formed with seven minutes remaining before the second intermission. It started in Nashville’s defensive zone along the far boards when Roman Josi forced the puck towards the blue line. Though Ian Cole tried to separate James Neal from the puck, the former Penguin forced his way past the defenseman to advance it into the neutral zone to Second Star Mike Fisher. Fisher’s adversary was Evgeni Malkin, who knocked the Predators’ captain to the ice – but not before he batted a puck towards Viktor Arvidsson. Arvidsson beat Justin Schultz to the pass, and in doing so set up a one-on-one matchup with Murray. Arvidsson took the opportunity to line up a wrister towards the far post to beat the goalie’s suspect glove.

Trailing by two goals in the final period, the Penguins managed the best offense they could muster in attempts of tying the game. Even then, their 10 shots were not enough to get past Rinne. To further tilt the tables in its favor, Pittsburgh pulled Murray with 3:31 remaining before the final horn. The Pens were rewarded for that decision only eight seconds later when Filip Forsberg (Mattias Ekholm and Subban) scored a wrister from his defensive face-off circle to set the 4-1 final score.

The Stanley Cup Finals, now a best-of-three series, will recommence following a 90-minute flight from the Music City to the City of Bridges. Game 5 is scheduled for Thursday at 8 p.m. Eastern time at PPG Paints Arena and may be viewed on NBC in the United States and CBC, SN or TVAS in Canada.

Preds’ power play perplexes Pens

2017 Stanley Cup Final – Game 3

 

After returning home to the friendlier environment of Bridgestone Arena, Nashville dominated the Penguins Saturday night with a 5-1 victory to pull within a game of leveling the Stanley Cup Finals.

One of the biggest story lines coming into Game 3 was which goaltender Peter Laviolette would play: usual starter Pekka Rinne or Juuse Saros, who played the remaining 16:32 of Game 2. It should have been no surprise that Rinne maintained his position between the pipes, just as it was no surprise that the Penguins tried to test him early.

Though Pittsburgh fired only a half-dozen first period shots at Rinne, none were better than Jake Guentzel‘s (Ian Cole and Sidney Crosby) wrist shot 2:46 into the contest. The lone goal of the first period, he took advantage of Rinne being unable to contain the rebound off Cole’s slap shot from the near point and squeezed his five-hole attempt underneath the netminder for an early Pens lead.

With his 13th tally since April 12, Guenztel has surpassed Jeremy Roenick for second-most playoff markers by a rookie is only a goal short of tying Dino Ciccarelli‘s record for most all-time.

It was only Rinne’s second shot faced of the night and gave an early impression that he was still fighting the same demons he was in the Steel City. As it would turn out, he was more than deserving of his First Star of the Game honor.

Following the rough start to the evening, Rinne would save 26-straight Penguins shots to close the remaining 57:14 of play with an overall .964 save percentage.

But after allowing a goal early in the game, it does not matter how well a goalie performs if his offense cannot find the back of the opposition’s net.

Then again, who needs an offense when Nashville has such a productive defense?

With Justin Schultz in the penalty box for holding Harry Zolnierczyk at the 4:13 mark of the second period, Second Star Roman Josi (Calle Jarnkrok and Mattias Ekholm) fired a slap shot from the far face-off circle with 22 seconds remaining in the man advantage to level the game with the first of the game – but certainly not the last – to beat Matthew Murray‘s glove.

That power play goal, paired with the rejuvenated support from Nashville’s “Seventh Man,” proved to be exactly the spark the Preds needed. Only 42 seconds after Josi’s game-tying marker, Third Star Frederick Gaudreau (Austin Watson and Josi) found what proved to be the game-winner: a breakaway wrister that turned a defending Cole into a screen against his own netminder to beat him – once again – glove side.

The second period couldn’t end quickly enough for Pittsburgh, but it couldn’t get to the dressing room before getting officially reacquainted with an old friend. With 23 seconds remaining before the second intermission, former Penguin James Neal (Viktor Arvidsson and Josi) completed the Predators’ fantastic frame by banking an insurance wrister off the back of Murray’s glove and into the net.

Just as the night’s scoring began for the Predators, it would also find its conclusion on the power play. This time, Crosby (for boarding Ryan Ellis), Filip Forsberg (for cross checking Evgeni Malkin) and Malkin (for cross checking Forsberg) were all in their respective penalty boxes to set up a five-on-four opportunity for Nashville. Ekholm (Jarnkrok and Colton Sissons) waited only 27 seconds before ripping a slap shot top shelf over Murray’s stick shoulder.

Though Ekholm’s marker would prove to be the last yielded by Murray, the damage was more than done. He saved only 23-of-26 shots faced (.848 save percentage) for five goals allowed, but his most striking statistic is his performance against the power play.

Even though Murray faced only two shots while short a skater, both offerings found their way past him. The fact that the Penguins penalty kill allowed only two shots on three Predators power plays proves that it is Murray that needs to improve on this aspect of his game before Game 4.

Not all of Murray’s goals allowed were directly his fault though. The goaltender was able to stop the Preds’ first breakaway opportunity in the third period – an offering by Gaudreau 2:27 into the period – but he couldn’t save the second. After Chris Kunitz bounced the puck off Phil Kessel‘s skate to give it to Craig Smith at center ice, it was all the wing could do but attack Murray’s unreliable glove side with a wrister from between the face-off circles to set the score at 4-1 with 15:06 remaining.

Offensively for the Penguins, it should be very concerning to Mike Sullivan that his primary striking corps of Crosby, Kessel and Malkin managed only three shots on goal among them (all by Kessel). Though the story of Guentzel is exciting, it is these men that are expected to spearhead their club – not the rookie. If the Penguins cannot get this issue resolved, they could find the same fate awaiting them in Game 4.

If the Penguins did anything well, it was block shots. Though the Predators led the shots-on-goal statistic 33-28, that differential could have been much higher if not for Pittsburgh’s impressive 20 rejections. In particular, Olli Maatta stood out from the rest by leading his club with three blocks – a total matched in Game 3 only by Nashville’s Ellis.

Bridgestone Arena will come alive once again this Monday – country singers, catfish and all –  at 8 p.m. Eastern time. For those that don’t have tickets, you’re encouraged to tune your television to NBC if you reside in the United States or CBC, SN or TVAS in Canada.

Stanley Cup Playoffs: Conference Finals – May 25

 

Ottawa Senators at Pittsburgh Penguins – Game 7

With First Star of the Game Chris Kunitz‘ slap shot at the 85:09 mark of a winner-takes-all Game 7, Pittsburgh beat the Senators 3-2 in double-overtime at PPG Paints Arena to clinch its second-straight Prince of Wales trophy and the corresponding berth to the Stanley Cup Finals.

Receiving the puck at the far point, Second Star Justin Schultz crept down the boards before passing into the corner for Sidney Crosby. Chris Wideman was immediately on the Pens’ captain, so Crosby was forced into the far face-off circle instead of towards the goal crease. Once he reached the dot, he passed to a waiting Kunitz at the top of the circle, who fired his one-timer over Third Star Craig Anderson‘s right arm to clinch the series for Pittsburgh.

The Senators never led in regulation, but they never trailed for long. In total, Ottawa played from behind for only 3:17 of play.

Similar to Game 6, both teams took a slow approach to the first period to combine for only 11 shots on goal. None of those offerings got past Anderson or Matthew Murray, leaving the score tied at nil.

Instead, the attack began in full during the second frame. By the middle of the period, both Pittsburgh and Ottawa had managed at least seven shots on goal, but it was a supple Kunitz (Conor Sheary and Matt Cullen) wrister at the 9:55 mark that snapped the scoreless draw.

After receiving a quick pass along the neutral zone’s far boards from Cullen to get the play out of the defensive zone, Sheary bumped a pass towards center ice for Kunitz to create a Pittsburgh two-on-one opportunity. Kunitz returned the offering to Sheary when they both entered their offensive zone, but the youngster returned the favor from the far side of the slot. The maneuver was too quick for Anderson to respond and seal the near post, and Kunitz was more than willing to complete the play for his first goal of the 2017 postseason.

The Penguins held on to their 1-0 lead for a whopping 20 seconds before Mark Stone (Erik Karlsson and Jean-Gabriel Pageau) tied the game once again with a wicked top-shelf wrister.

Each player involved in the play was responsible for tackling one zone. Though a forward, Pageau was the one to get the puck out of Ottawa’s defensive zone. He passed from his far defensive point to Karlsson at the red line along the near boards. The star defenseman attacked into Ottawa’s offensive zone, driving towards the near face-off circle before passing across Olli Maatta to Stone in the near slot. A goalscorer 22 times during the regular season, Stone knew exactly what he needed to do to beat Murray and level the game.

After the blitz of tallies, the arena’s scoreboard operator had an opportunity to take a rest as no more markers were registered until 8:16 remained in regulation. Taking advantage of the Senators’ lone penalty of the game – an interference call on Dion Phaneuf against Phil Kessel – Schultz (Kessel and Kunitz) scored a snap shot 25 seconds later to reclaim the lead for Pittsburgh.

Schultz started at the near point with the puck, but passed to Kessel at the far face-off circle. Kessel tried to move towards the crease but was cut off by Cody Ceci, forcing him to return the puck to Schultz at the center of the offensive zone, a spot that is uncannily similar to where Kunitz would eventually bury his series-winner from. Schultz saw his opportunity and fired the puck towards the top-right corner of Anderson’s goal.

Though Kunitz earned an assist on the play, his primary role was as a goaltender screen. In particular, Marc Methot took notice and tried to move Kunitz out of Anderson’s way, but his attempt corresponded with Schultz’ shot and effectively doubled the size Kunitz’ screen to make it impossible for Anderson to see the play.

The Penguins managed to hold onto this lead a little bit longer than their first, but Ryan Dzingel‘s (Karlsson and Kyle Turris) response 2:57 after Schultz’ marker was too quick for Murray to handle.

The play began with Turris possessing the puck in the near corner of Ottawa’s offensive zone. With Cullen approaching him, he passed towards the top of the zone to Karlsson, who lined up a slap shot that passed everyone and everything except Murray’s crossbar. The goaltender incorrectly guessed where the rebound landed, leaving Dzingel with an exposed puck at the far corner of the crease and a gaping net.

Neither club could find its third goal in the remaining 5:19 of regulation, leading to the first overtime period.

To put it simply, the Penguins absolutely dominated those 20 minutes. Though they only had eight shots to show for their efforts, they possessed the puck for most of the play to limit Ottawa to only two shots on net.

One play of particular excitement occurred just minutes before the fourth intermission. Many Pens fans in the arena grew furious – to the point of unwisely throwing their golden rally towels onto the ice in protest – with an apparent uncounted goal.

But they did not have the benefit of a clear replay. It looked to them that the puck entered and exited the goal faster than the eye could see – and a poor in-house camera angle broadcast on the video board seemed to support their claims – but a television replay proved that the puck hit the rear bracket of the goal post on the wrong side of the crossbar – above it instead of below.

Of course, Kunitz’ goal approximately half an hour later in real time made all those worries for naught.

He earned only Third Star honors according to the members of the PPG Paints Arena Media, but Anderson was easily the player of the game – if not the entire Eastern Conference Finals. He saved an incredible 39-of-42 (92.9%) shots faced in Game 7, including all eight in the first overtime period (compared to Murray’s two).

For the entire series, he registered an even better .936 save percentage and 2.07 GAA on 242 shots faced (34.6 per game) to keep the Sens within reach of the Penguins with incredible saves or smart stoppages of play on multiple occasions.

Now that the Penguins have reclaimed the Prince of Wales Trophy, everything is set for the Stanley Cup Finals. The Nashville Predators are en route to Pittsburgh for Game 1, which is scheduled for Monday, May 29 at 8 p.m. Eastern time. Of note, this will be the first ever Stanley Cup Finals contested between two American-born head coaches, as both Nashville’s Peter Laviolette and Pittsburgh’s Mike Sullivan are Massachusetts natives.

Those intending to catch the action in America should tune to NBC, while Canadians have their choice of CBC, SN or TVAS.

Stanley Cup Playoffs: Conference Finals – May 23

 

Pittsburgh Penguins at Ottawa Senators – Game 6

Thanks to its 2-1 victory over the Penguins at the Canadian Tire Centre Tuesday, Ottawa has forced a winner-takes-all Game 7 for a spot in the Stanley Cup Finals.

The first period was an overall bland showing by both sides. Even though both Mark Stone and Second Star of the Game Bobby Ryan served independent stints in the sin bin, the Penguins managed only 11 shots at Third Star Craig Anderson, just two more than Ottawa sent Matthew Murray‘s way.

The action tremendously improved in the second, especially in favor of the Pens early on. By the time the middle frame was through, the Pens had fired a tremendous 23 shots on goal to the Sens’ 10.

One of those belonged to Trevor Daley exactly three minutes into the period. It was a scrappy wrist shot from inside Anderson’s crease that eventually slipped past the netminder. Unfortunately for Daley and the Penguins, Anderson felt he was interfered with, leading to Guy Boucher challenging the goal. The officials ruled in Anderson’s favor, so Daley’s potential second goal of the postseason was taken off the board.

But Ottawa could only keep the game tied at nil against the postseason’s best offense for so long. Only 1:51 after play resumed, Evgeni Malkin (Ian Cole and Scott Wilson) collected the rebound of his own shot from the near slot to push a backhander between Anderson and the near post.

The Penguins didn’t relinquish control of the period until 8:15 remained before the second intermission, though it wasn’t by their own accord. Ron Hainsey didn’t seem to make much contact with Jean-Gabriel Pageau in the neutral zone, and the referee did not seem to be inclined to call a penalty. Until, that is, the Senators’ faithful started to cause a ruckus. The official was quickly persuaded and sent Hainsey to the box for interference.

Ottawa’s power play had not yet found success yet against the Penguins, so there were few on the Pens’ bench truly worried until Cole joined Hainsey in the sin bin 36 seconds later for hi-sticking Kyle Turris.

It took only 54 seconds of the five-on-three advantage for Ryan (Turris and Erik Karlsson) to turn the tides for the Sens. It was some beautiful puck movement that led to the tally, as Turris faked a slap shot from the center of the zone before finding Ryan at the near face-off dot. The left wing immediately ripped a snap shot top-shelf over Murray’s to level the game at one-all with 6:45 remaining in the second period.

Ottawa carried that momentum into the third period, easily it’s best frame. The Sens fired six shots at Murray before a single one reached Anderson. One of those offerings was a slap shot over Murray’s glove from First Star Mike Hoffman (Fredrik Claesson and Clarke MacArthur), who did his best Alex Ovechkin impression 94 seconds into the final frame from the far face-off circle to give Ottawa its first lead since Game 3.

Any chance for a late Penguins comeback was effectively eliminated when they were caught with too many men on the ice with 4:05 remaining in regulation. Even with Murray pulled for the remaining 1:44 of regulation for the extra attacker, they could not level the game.

The officiating in this contest was questionable at best, especially in the minds of Mike Sullivan and the Penguins. Though it’s rare – especially in the middle of the game – that a club agrees with a referee, there will be many Pens fans that question Daley’s goalie interference call. Even more will wonder if Hainsey’s blow should have earned him a seat in the box.

The lone Game 7 of the Conference Finals will be played Thursday at 8 p.m. Eastern time at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh. NBCSN is responsible for broadcasting the event in the United States, while Canadians will be serviced by both CBC and TVAS.

Stanley Cup Playoffs: Conference Finals – May 22

 

Anaheim Ducks at Nashville Predators – Game 6

Though the Ducks led in almost every statistical category, it was Nashville that won 6-3 Monday to claim its first-ever Clearance Campbell Bowl and a spot in the Stanley Cup Finals.

Game 6 had a sour start for Anaheim before the puck was even dropped. With John Gibson sidelined with a lower body injury, Randy Carlyle and the Ducks were forced to turn to backup Jonathan Bernier, making his first Stanley Cup playoffs start.

Unfortunately for Bernier, it was baptism by fire. He faced only four shots in the first period, but he gave up two goals. The first was struck only 81 seconds into the contest by Second Star of the Game Austin Watson (Yannick Weber and Matt Irwin), his first faced of the game. Two shots and 7:26 later,  a wrist shot from First Star Colton Sissons (Third Star Pontus Aberg) set the score at 2-0.

Following Sissons’ marker, the tides turned largely in favor of the visiting Ducks. Though they didn’t find the back of Pekka Rinne‘s net in the first frame, they did fire an impressive shots on net compared to Nashville’s four. That dominance continued in the second period when Anaheim fired 13 shots, nine more than Nashville.

Even more impressive, the Ducks could have registered even more shot offerings. Led by Watson’s six rejections, the Predators blocked a total of 22 shots in the game. A large reason for Anaheim’s strong possession time was a result of its work at the face-off circle. Thanks in large part to Ryan Getzlaf‘s 73% face-off win rate, the Ducks won 62% of play resumptions.

The most important thing the Ducks ensured by keeping puck in their offensive zone? They kept pucks off Bernier.

The Ducks were finally rewarded for their hard work at the 4:45 mark of the second period courtesy of Ondrej Kase‘s (Getzlaf and Sami Vatanen) wrister on a gaping cage due to Rinne blocking a previous shot at the near post.

With the comeback halfway complete, Anaheim looked to be well on its way to forcing a Game 7 at the Pond – but that was before Sissons (Aberg and Filip Forsberg) squeezed a backhanded shot between Bernier’s wickets to reclaim a two-goal lead for the Preds.

But the Ducks weren’t dead yet. Only two minutes after Aberg’s tally, Chris Wagner (Nicolas Kerdiles and Antoine Vermette) bounced a wrister off Rinne’s head to pull Anaheim back within a goal, and Cam Fowler (Vatanen) leveled the game at three-all 8:52 into the third period.

Fowler’s goal was not without controversy though, as Rinne felt Corey Perry‘s screen was a little too snug. Though Peter Laviolette challenged the play, but the referees sided with the Ducks and decided that Perry did not interfere with the netminder.

But whether the goal counted or not didn’t matter, the Ducks could not find a fourth marker. Unfortunately for them, the Predators could – and what a series-winner it was.

After receiving a pass from Calle Jarnkrok in the neutral zone, Sissons flew up the near boards into his offensive zone. Fowler ripped the puck off Sissons’ stick, but Jarnkrok was following close enough behind to maintain Nashville’s possession in the near slot. Once Jarnkrok saw Bernier had committed to sealing the near post, he crossed a pass to Sissons, who completed his hat trick with a nasty top shelf wrister.

As the clock was winding down and the Ducks still trailed by a tally, Carlyle was forced to pull Bernier for the extra attacker to try to continue his club’s season with 2:33 remaining in regulation. Forsberg (Vernon Fiddler) took advantage only 11 seconds later to set off the loudest cheers Bridgestone Arena had ever heard.

Watson (Ryan Ellis) tacked on yet another empty netter with 1:34 remaining in the game to set the final 6-3 score.

Regardless of the Predators’ opponent, they’ll be on the road for Games 1 and 2 of the Stanley Cup Finals. Puck drop for the series opener is scheduled for Monday, May 29. Though a starting time has yet to be announced, it is expected to be at 8 p.m. Eastern time.

Stanley Cup Playoffs: Conference Finals – May 21

 

Ottawa Senators at Pittsburgh Penguins – Game 5

With Pittsburgh’s seven-goal shutout victory over the Senators at PPG Paints Arena Sunday, it has pulled within one victory of hoisting the Prince of Wales Trophy for the second-straight year and advancing to the Stanley Cup Finals.

This game was over by the first intermission. Olli Maatta (Second Star of the Game Bryan Rust), Sidney Crosby (Trevor Daley and Evgeni Malkin), Rust (Nick Bonino and First Star Carter Rowney) and Scott Wilson (Rowney and Bonino) all joined to set the score at 4-0 in a span of 10:03, chasing Craig Anderson – celebrating his 36th birthday – to the Senators’ bench.

Through the first four games of the Eastern Finals, Pittsburgh had averaged only 29.5 shots-per-game. Based on their explosive 15-shot first period, the Penguins were on pace for 45 before the end of Game 5. Though they didn’t quite reach that mark (they ended the night with a measly 33 shots on goal), it was more than enough to eliminate the Senators’ hope for a victory.

After taking a 1:28 shift between Rust and Wilson’s tallies, Mike Condon assumed the Senators’ net for the remaining two periods. On only his third shot faced in the period and fifth of the day, Matt Cullen (Mark Streit and Rowney) extended Pittsburgh’s lead to 5-0 at the 1:54 mark of the middle frame.

To close out the Pens’ tab, Phil Kessel (Crosby and Malkin) and Daley (Kessel and Malkin) both buried power play goals before the midway point of the third period to set the score at the 7-0 final.

Of note, the Penguins’ third line was electric. Together, Bonino, Rowney and Rust combined for one goal and six assists for seven points, including playing a part in all four even-strength tallies.

Conversely, almost nothing went right for the Sens in this contest. They managed only 25 shots on goal all game – all of which, of course, were saved by Third Star Matthew Murray. They failed to convert any of their four power play opportunities, due in large part to being out-blocked 19-12 (specifically Ian Cole and his game-high five rejections). They also struggled to maintain possession, losing the giveaway battle five to four.

If they can take anything from this contest, it’s that they’ve figured out the face-off dot. They won 60% of puck drops, including Kyle Turris beating his opponent – typically Crosby – 76% of the time.

While this is the worst playoff loss in the Senators’ modern history (of which their first playoff appearance was in 1997), it is not the Penguins’ strongest playoff victory. Though it ties the home record set in 1993, Pittsburgh did manage an 8-0 road victory in Bloomington, Minn. against the North Stars to hoist its first Stanley Cup in 1991.

The Penguins will have their first opportunity to clinch a spot in the Stanley Cup Finals this Tuesday at 8 p.m. Eastern time when the puck drops for Game 6 at the Canadian Tire Centre. Those in the United States should check NBCSN for coverage, while Canadian residents will be serviced by both CBC and TVAS.

Stanley Cup Playoffs: Conference Finals – May 19

 

Pittsburgh Penguins at Ottawa Senators – Game 4

With their 3-2 victory over Ottawa at the Canadian Tire Centre Friday, the Penguins have leveled the Eastern Conference Finals at 2-2.

The biggest story coming into the game was Mike Sullivan‘s decision to entrust the Penguins’ net to Matthew Murray instead of Marc-Andre Fleury. The choice baffled many Yinzers considering the veteran goaltender had posted a .931 save percentage and 2.32 GAA in his 14 postseason games before getting pulled not even 13 minutes into Game 3 after allowing four goals.

Of course, hindsight is always 20/20. Sullivan may not have made the right decision, but it certainly wasn’t the wrong one. Allowing only two goals against, Murray earned his first victory of the 2017 playoffs on a .923 save percentage.

Stopping Ottawa’s attack was only half the battle though. Pittsburgh had only scored a goal-per-game in the first three contests of the series, but it exploded in comparison with three goals in one match – or, more precisely, just over 12 minutes.

It started with Olli Maatta‘s (Second Star of the Game Sidney Crosby and First Star Jake Guentzel) first-ever postseason tally with 46 seconds remaining in the opening frame. After crossing the near face-off circle, the fourth-year defenseman squeezed a wrist shot under Craig Anderson‘s blocker to give the Pens a one-goal lead going into the first intermission.

Where the Penguins’ offense truly took command of the game was in the middle frame. Thanks to Jean-Gabriel Pageau earning a roughing penalty for practicing his favorite WWE moves on Pittsburgh’s captain, Crosby (Guentzel and Phil Kessel) himself doubled his club’s lead with a scrappy power play goal 7:41 into the second period, followed 3:49 later by Brian Dumoulin (Ian Cole and Scott Wilson) banking a wrister from the far point off Dion Phaneuf‘s left skate and behind Anderson for what proved to be the deciding tally, the first game-winner of his playoff career.

With the Senators trailing 3-0, Sullivan’s decision was truly put to the test as the Senators upped their attacking intensity in the remaining 28:30 of regulation. In that time, they fired 16 shots at the second-year netminder, including 10 in the third period.

The first evidence came about in the waning moments of the second period. Just as Maatta did for the Pens late in the first period, Clarke MacArthur (Bobby Ryan) did for the Sens in the second. With 98 seconds remaining before the second intermission, he recharged a nervous Canadian Tire Centre with a tip-in that beat Murray top-shelf.

Even with MacArthur’s tally, the Penguins felt comfortable for most of the third period with their two-goal advantage. That lead was trimmed to one with 5:01 remaining when Third Star Tom Pyatt (Erik Karlsson and Pageau) not only acted as a screen on Karlsson’s initial shot, but also deflected it through Murray’s five-hole, making the remainder of regulation that much important in not only deciding Game 4’s victor, but also the momentum of the remaining games in the series.

Murray certainly did his job in those remaining five minutes as he saved all three shots he faced in that time, but it was the Penguins’ defensive efforts that were arguably more impressive – especially since they were on the short side of a six-on-four man-advantage for the final 37 seconds of the game due to having too many men on the ice.

In all, Pittsburgh forced three missed shots after Pyatt’s goal, including two from Kyle Turris, owner of a 14.6% regular season shooting percentage, the third-best on the Senators’ roster.

Shot blocking was also a major focus for the Penguins during Ottawa’s final possession to close regulation. In all, the Senators fired four shots after winning the last face-off of the game with 37 seconds remaining. Two were saved by Murray, and two were blocked by Dumoulin and Nick Bonino to secure the victory.

The Eastern Conference Finals, now a three-game series, return to PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh for Game 5 at 3 p.m. Eastern time this Sunday. American viewers should tune their televisions to NBC, while Canadians have the option between CBC and TVAS.

Stanley Cup Playoffs: Conference Finals – May 14

 

Nashville Predators at Anaheim Ducks – Game 2

With a 5-3 victory at the Honda Center Sunday, Anaheim leveled its Western Finals series against the Predators at 1-1.

Three goals is all the Predators needed to beat Anaheim in Game 1. In Game 2, both clubs had already reached that mark by the 30:41 mark.

First it was the Predators with a two-goal surge. Ryan Johansen (Third Star of the Game Viktor Arvidsson and Roman Josi) was the first to score, burying a wrist shot 4:18 into the contest. James Neal (Johansen and Mattias Ekholm) followed that up 4:14 later with a backhanded power play shot to set the score at 2-0.

Next up was an Anaheim attack, though it was split in half by the first intermission. Second Star Sami Vatanen (Ryan Getzlaf and Ryan Kesler) got the Ducks on the board with one minute remaining in the first period, followed by Jakob Silfverberg (Rickard Rakell and Cam Fowler) only 39 seconds into the middle frame.

Vatanen’s marker was a special one not only because it leveled the game at two-all and was his first postseason goal since last year’s series with the Preds, but also because it was the Ducks’ first power play goal in their last 22 attempts.

The Predators once again took the lead 7:59 into the second period thanks to a Filip Forsberg (Arvidsson) wrap-around offering, but First Star Ondrej Kase (Shea Theodore and Josh Manson) leveled the game at three-all only 2:42 later.

Neither John Gibson (.909 save percentage) nor Pekka Rinne (.846 save percentage) would yield a goal in the third period, which proved to be a major problem for Nashville considering Nick Ritchie‘s (Getzlaf and Brandon Montour) tally with 2:53 remaining in the second period.

The play started when Montour passed from the near point of his defensive zone to Getzlaf at center ice. The captain one-touched his bank pass off the near boards to the eventual goalscorer, who took possession in the face-off circle to Rinne’s right. Ritchie ripped an impressive snap shot over the goaltender’s stick shoulder for what proved to be the youngster’s second game-winning playoff goal of his career.

Through Rinne was pulled for the extra attacker with 2:08 remaining in regulation, the Predators still couldn’t manage a goal to level the game. Antoine Vermette (Getzlaf and Fowler) made sure to make Rinne pay for vacating his post by burying a wrister with 44 seconds remaining to ensure the Ducks’ victory.

After a four hour flight to Nashville (yet six hours according to a clock due to time zones), Game 3 in the now best-of-five will be played Tuesday at 8 p.m. Eastern time at Bridgestone Arena. Though American viewers are limited to NBCSN, Canada is being serviced by CBC, SN and TVAS.