Tag Archives: Kuhnhackl

2018 Offseason Preview: Pittsburgh Penguins

Only a few more teams’ offseason previews remain before the 2018 NHL Entry Draft gets started this Friday. First up today is the Pittsburgh Penguins!

The chance to become the NHL’s first official dynasty since the 1983-90 Edmonton Oilers is still available to C Sidney Crosby‘s Penguins, but falling in the second round of the playoffs to the eventual champion Washington Capitals has forced them into a situation that requires another title in 2019.

Among others, the major flaw in this Penguins club during the postseason was clearly a disappearance of the depth scoring that became so expected during their previous two Stanley Cup runs, as well as a defense that – while playing well overall (their 26.6 shots against per game in the playoffs was best of all 16 teams) – had a habit of allowing its few mistakes to become major problems.

Was this just a result of a tired squad, or is General Manager Jim Rutherford going to have to make some major adjustments?

2018 NHL Entry Draft

For any Pittsburgh fans planning on addressing these issues in the draft, you’re in for some bad news: the Penguins’ first round pick belongs to Ottawa as a result of the trade that yielded C Derick Brassard.

Slated to turn 31-years-old this September, Brassard certainly does not provide the Penguins the scoring youth they would have received in the draft (speaking of, I’d expect Ottawa to select C Benoit-Olivier Groulx [Halifax Mooseheads], RW Martin Kaut [HC Dynamo Pardubice], F Isac Lundeström [Luleå HF] or RW Serron Noel [Oshawa Generals] with Pittsburgh’s pick). However, there’s a reason Columbus selected him sixth-overall in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft.

Under contract for one more year, Brassard is still capable of providing the depth scoring Pittsburgh needs, as he’s notched at least .64 points per game in three of his last four seasons. After a summer off the ice to fully recover from his groin injury, I have no doubt Brassard will make Rutherford’s trade look like an excellent idea.

Pending free agents

With almost $4.8 million to play with, Pittsburgh needs to sign or trade for a minimum of three players just to reach the minimum 20-man roster required by the NHL. That’s not very much wiggle room, especially since that would leave the Pens without a 13th forward and a seventh defenseman.

To put it simply, Rutherford is going to need to put in some serious work if he wants to get his club back to the Stanley Cup Final for the third time in four years.

With nine forwards on the current roster, it’s a no-brainer that a minimum of three rosters are going to be added into the mix. If the Penguins elect to change things up in their bottom-six, they’re certainly going to have that option, as W Tom Kuhnhackl, F Carter Rowney, W Bryan Rust, C Riley Sheahan and F Dominik Simon are all pending free agents, with all but Rowney being of the restricted variety.

Of the five, Rust is clearly the most talented offensively, as his 13-25-38 totals in 69 games played are the most of the group. Making him more impressive, Rust bounced all over the Pens’ lineup this season, proving that his numbers weren’t just a result of playing with Crosby or F Evgeni Malkin.

With unrestricted free agency only one year away, odds are very slim of seeing Rust settle for much of a team-friendly deal given his two championship rings. If I were a gambling man, I’d put my chips on Rutherford shipping Rust’s rights to a team that has cap space and needs a proven winner (perhaps F Ryan Dzingel or W Micheal Ferland would be available if Pittsburgh could find an acceptable package).

Sheahan is another player that I wouldn’t be surprised to be wearing a different sweater next season. Though he is still excellent at the face-off dot (he won 54.2 percent of draws this season), it’s hard to justify his 11-21-32 totals (.4 points per game) at the $2.075 million price tag he was awarded in 2016 by Detroit. Unless Sheahan – who will be eligible to test unrestricted free agency following his next contract’s completion – is willing to take a pay cut, he might meet the same fate as Rust.

Of their free agents I’d actually expect the Penguins to resign, Simon looks to be the best bet. Turning 24-years-old in August, the Czech posted 4-8-12 totals in 33 NHL appearances this season, spending time on the first and third lines. Considering how good Crosby has made young players look in the past (ex: F Jake Guentzel, W Conor Sheary and Rust), there’s a strong chance Rutherford gives Simon a slight raise to a three-year, $1 million AAV contract to keep him in town.

A resigning of Simon also makes Kuhnhackl expendable if the two parties cannot come to terms on a team-friendly deal. The German provided only 2-6-8 totals in 69 games played from his fourth-line role at a $625 thousand price tag. If he tries to leverage his two championships for a raise, Rutherford will likely go no higher than $1 million per season.

Lastly, if Rutherford resigns Rowney for a cent more than the league minimum ($700 thousand starting this season), he loses his job. It’s that plain and simple in my book. The Penguins simply don’t have the cap space to keep a player who’s averaged only .17 points per game for his career.

His only saving grace in staying with the team is the Pens not wanting to risk having too few players. He’s a known commodity, which makes him a better asset on the fourth line than a player from outside the organization.

One thing to keep in mind regarding the signing of any of these free agents is the fact that Guentzel will be looking for a contract this time next year. Given his 23 goals and 42 points in 37 Stanley Cup playoff games, the Nebraskan will fetch a pretty penny that Rutherford will need to plan for if he sees Guentzel as a longtime member of the organization.

With Pittsburgh set in net (G Matt Murray and G Casey DeSmith have respective two and one seasons remaining on their contracts), the only contract to focus on defensively is RFA D Jamie Oleksiak. Oleksiak’s 17:24 time on ice per game was seventh among Penguins defensemen, while his .3 points per game clocked in at fourth-best.

For the past three offseasons, Oleksiak has signed one-year deals of increasing value, the most recent of which was worth almost $965 thousand.

Figuring out if Oleksiak gets a new contract is a difficult task, as Pittsburgh could certainly save money by promoting from within. Since 2015, the Penguins have drafted eight defensemen – including three in the first three rounds – but none of those players have even been signed by the club.

If promotion is in fact the route Pittsburgh elects to take, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s best option, D Andrey Pedan, is no longer on the table due to his decision to take his talents to Russia. Similarly, both D Frank Corrado and D Kevin Czuczman are in the same position as Oleksiak, as their identical one-year, $650 thousand contracts expired following the Charlotte Checkers’ three-game sweep against the Pens.

If Rutherford can pull off the signings listed above, he’ll have approximately $2 million to play with to keep Oleksiak around and/or acquire additional skaters.

Broad Street Broadsided: In pivotal Game 4, Flyers decimated with ease

 

That one hurt to watch.

A game that should have been Philadelphia’s chance to take a stand and show they weren’t going away ended up in a more lopsided loss than even the 5-0 final score would indicate.

Yes, the Flyers were without top center Sean Couturier, who was injured in practice this week in a collision with teammate Radko Gudas (because it’s always Gudas), and the hole he left in the Philly lineup was significant. But the lack of effort shown by the Flyers in the face of adversity was frankly just sad.

In an attempt to indicate to those who didn’t watch just how little the Flyers cared throughout the game, I will attempt to recap the game in accordance with how much effort they were showing in their play at coinciding points in the game.

First period:

Wells Fargo Center is rocking. Sidney Crosby can’t touch the puck without being showered in boos. Philadelphia rookie Nolan Patrick starts the opening shift off by laying a hit on the Pittsburgh captain, much to the delight of the home crowd. Brian Elliott starts the game off strong with a great save on a bang-bang play between Tom Kuhnhackl and Zach Aston-Reese, giving his team some confidence in their goaltender, much like they had in Game 2 when they beat up the Pens.

Then just 4:33 into the frame the wheels came right off when Crosby sent a backhand pass directly between the legs of Brandon Manning to the tape of Evgeni Malkin who buried the easy one-timer on the power play to put the Penguins up 1-0.

But it’s okay, right? Just a one-goal deficit early in the first period. Elliott makes a great glove save on a labeled wrister from Phil Kessel less than two minutes later and the tide starts to turn again. First it’s Michael Raffl nearly scoring on the doorstep after receiving a pass from behind the net, then comes a near-two minute complete domination shift by the Philadelphia top line that creates numerous high-quality chances, but all are answered by Matt Murray.

Then just after that shift ends it would be Malkin jumping on a turnover and leading a breakout with Kessel. Travis Sanheim is unable to match the speed of Kessel, and Malkin gets him the puck in stride allowing him to bury the 2-0 goal just under the arm of Elliott, effectively erasing any positives the Flyers had going for them and completely vacuuming the life out of the arena.

Philadelphia managed to kill off a penalty (a rarity for them in this series) and Claude Giroux finds Travis Konecny right out of the box for a clean breakaway, but Murray calmly blockers the attempt away, leaving Konecny infuriated as he returned to the bench. Olli Maatta accidentally clears the puck over the glass when cleaning up the Konecny rebound, giving the Flyers a power play of their own, that Wayne Simmonds promptly ends with a slash just seven seconds into the man advantage. This basically seemed to kill any idea of a comeback that the Flyers might have had.

Second period:

The first eight minutes are completely meaningless, then at 8:04 Kris Letang fires a wrister off of the stick of Andrew MacDonald and past Elliott, who looked none-too-happy about his own defenseman aiding in his demise. Dave Hakstol decided he had seen enough and pulled Elliott (for the second time in four games) in favor of just-returned Michal Neuvirth, hoping to spark his team. It would be another minute of play before the Flyers even managed their first shot on goal of the frame.

Less than three minutes after the goaltending switch Crosby became the Penguins’ all-time leading playoff scorer, breaking his 172-point tie with Mario Lemieux with a goal scored off of a forced turnover by Jake Guentzel behind the net, who quickly handed it over to Crosby who tucked it in the net before Neuvirth had even realized the puck had been turned over. 30 seconds later Conor Sheary got a breakaway, but Neuvirth decided he should stop it for some reason.

The Flyers closed the period by doing literally nothing of any consequence on a four-minute power play (high sticking on Malkin) and basically showing everyone they’d rather be golfing.

Third period:

Nolan Patrick gets a breakaway on the opening shift, but Murray turns it aside (obviously).

Some hockey things happen for a while.

Riley Sheahan decides he’s bored and would like to score a playoff goal, taking a misplayed puck from Konecny, walking in alone and beating Neuvirth high stick side.

The game ends. Matt Murray posts his sixth shutout in 36 playoff games.

(That third period summary was only slightly lazier than the third period play of the Flyers)

This one is over and done with before the puck drops in Game 5. The Flyers have completely mailed it in at this point, and are being firmly outclassed by the Pens in every measurable aspect. Possibly the craziest thing to me in this series is the almost complete lack of any hint of the Pittsburgh/Philadelphia rivalry. Little physicality, almost no scrums or pushback to speak of. Just the Penguins running through a Flyers team that looks completely undeserving of their playoff spot. Sorry, Florida Panthers, you probably should have been given Philly’s place in the show.

2018 Trade Deadline Preview: Metropolitan Division

Washington Capitals Logo

1. Washington Capitals– 31-17-5 (67 points, 53 GP)

After spending a couple of months figuring themselves out and weathering the storm that’s been Braden Holtby‘s second-to-last career worst season (his 2.76 goals against average and .915 save percentage in 39 games played are better and the same as his 2013-14 2.85 GAA and .915 SV% in 48 games played respectively).

It’s a bit of an off year for Washington, but even an off year for the Capitals is still a pretty good season, considering they’re currently first in a division that is more active than a lava lamp in terms of rising and falling.

Washington has a plus-11 goal differential through 53 games played despite the loss of Marcus Johansson in a trade with the New Jersey Devils this offseason and an injured Andre Burakovsky seeing limited time so far. That doesn’t even mention the loss of depth for the Capitals last July either– remember Justin Williams (signed with Carolina) and Karl Alzner (signed with Montreal)?

Luckily for the Capitals they only have about $412,000 in cap space as I write, so their trade deadline plans are pretty much already determined for them.

If they’re able to dump a guy like Brooks Orpik— and his $5.500 million cap hit that runs through next season– that would provide the organization with some much needed relief.

Potential assets to trade: F Jay Beagle, D Brooks Orpik

Potential assets to acquire: D Cody Franson (CHI), D Mike Green (DET), F Mark Letestu (EDM), F Patrick Maroon (EDM), D Nick Holden (NYR), D Ian Cole (PIT), F Thomas Vanek (VAN)

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2. Pittsburgh Penguins– 30-22-3 (63 points, 55 GP)

After bouncing around the Metropolitan Division standings, the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins are currently four points behind first place in the division.

Much like his rival in Washington, Matthew Murray is having a season to forget. Injuries and the death of his father have taken a toll on the two-time Cup winning goaltender, limiting Murray to just 34 games thus far with a 2.97 GAA and .903 SV% (again, both career worsts– though he is in just his second full season since his 13 GP in 2015-16).

Despite their plus-three goal differential and gifted scorer (turned 2018 All-Star snub), Phil Kessel (24-41–65 totals in 55 games), the Penguins have been porous on defense. Pittsburgh’s best defenseman, Kris Letang, is a minus-15 through 52 games played.

Only Justin Schultz (plus-5, 38 GP) and Jamie Oleksiak (plus-6, 20 GP– split between Dallas and Pittsburgh) are positive plus/minus blue liners.

Since November, Pittsburgh has been trying to move defenseman, Ian Cole– though head coach, Mike Sullivan, has been forced to play him (thereby keeping him on the Penguins roster) due to injuries affecting Schultz and friends.

Antti Niemi didn’t pan out and bring stable backup goaltending to the Steel City (he’s since departed via waivers to Florida, then Montreal). Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith have been left to pick up the tab with some impressive performances at times.

Midseason acquisitions F Riley Sheahan, as well as Oleksiak, have not been enough to fill holes left by Nick Bonino (the forward signed with Nashville in July) and Trevor Daley (left via free agency, landed in Detroit) respectively.

But with roughly $425,000 in cap space to work with currently, the Penguins can’t afford to make much noise on February 26th– but they should definitely snag a defenseman and rental backup goaltender.

Potential assets to trade: D Ian Cole, D Brian Dumoulin, F Tom Kuhnhackl, F Carl Hagelin, D Matt Hunwick, F Riley Sheahan

Potential assets to acquire: F Sam Reinhart (BUF), D Cody Franson (CHI), D Mike Green (DET), F Mark Letestu (EDM), F Patrick Maroon (EDM), F Michael Grabner (NYR), D Nick Holden (NYR), F Derick Brassard (OTT), F Jean-Gabriel Pageau (OTT), G Aaron Dell (SJ), D Erik Gudbranson (VAN), F Thomas Vanek (VAN), D Jason Garrison (VGK), G Michael Hutchinson (WPG)

New Jersey Devils Logo

3. New Jersey Devils– 27-17-8 (62 points, 52 GP)

New Jersey has almost $8.000 million to work with currently as things approach the trade deadline at the end of the month.

The Devils are one of the biggest surprises this season east of the Mississippi River.

First overall pick in the 2017 draft, Nico Hischier, has been quietly setting the tone with forwards, Miles Wood, Jesper Bratt and Pavel Zacha in the resurgence of youth. Travis Zajac is back in his dominant, physical, ways and the Sami VatanenAdam Henrique trade has worked out quite well for both teams.

And that’s not even mentioning Taylor Hall and Kyle Palmieri.

Will Butcher is quite the offensive threat on the blue line and John Moore is firing on all cylinders. Despite Marcus Johansson’s concussion, New Jersey hasn’t faced much adversity in overcoming injuries this year.

There’s a lot of cap room to work with, but not a whole lot that this team can really give up to bring in the best guys on the trade market, like Evander Kane, unless the Devils are comfortable parting ways with prospects and draft picks (spoiler alert, they might be).

New Jersey really should be in the hunt for Kane, Rick Nash, Max Pacioretty, David Perron and other great offensive assets– either as the front-runner or the stealthy dark-horse that’ll make one or two big moves to carry them to glory.

The Devils have the time and space to add a veteran forward or defenseman that might eat some salary, but put them lightyears beyond their Metropolitan counterparts.

It’s a buyers market.

Potential assets to trade: F Ben Coleman, F Jimmy Hayes, D Ben Lovejoy, F Drew Stafford

Potential assets to acquire: F Evander Kane (BUF), D Tyson Barrie (COL), D Mike Green (DET), F Patrick Maroon (EDM), F Alex Galchenyuk (MTL), F Max Pacioretty (MTL), F Michael Grabner (NYR), D Ryan McDonagh (NYR), F Rick Nash (NYR), F Jean-Gabriel Pageau (OTT), F Tyler Bozak (TOR), G Aaron Dell (SJ), F Thomas Vanek (VAN), F James Neal (VGK), F David Perron (VGK), G Michael Hutchinson (WPG)

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4. Philadelphia Flyers– 25-19-9 (59 points, 53 GP)

Aside from the Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning and Vegas Golden Knights, the Philadelphia Flyers are one of the hottest teams in the league right now.

Goaltender, Brian Elliott, has found his top-notch form once again while Travis Konecny and Claude Giroux are rolling along. With almost $3.000 million to spend at the deadline, the Flyers could make some improvements to their team.

Trading away Brayden Schenn was costly for Philadelphia this offseason, but thankfully Jakub Voracek and the rest of the roster decided to pick up some of the points left behind by Schenn’s departure.

Adding Jori Lehtera, on the other hand, was a big mistake– both in production value and in cap management.

The Flyers could really solidify their offense with one or two moves and probably should anchor their defense with at least a depth blue liner or two coming down the stretch. Someone like David Perron, Patrick Maroon or Nic Petan could flourish in the Philly system. Meanwhile, a defenseman like Cody Franson would help put them over the edge if someone’s injured.

Potential assets to trade: D Radko Gudas, F Jori Lehtera, F Matt Read, F Dale Weise

Potential assets to acquire: D Cody Franson (CHI), D Jack Johnson (CBJ), F Mark Letestu (EDM), F Patrick Maroon (EDM), D Nick Holden (NYR), F David Perron (VGK), F Nic Petan (WPG)

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5. Columbus Blue Jackets– 27-22-4 (58 points, 53 GP)

After getting a fast start out of the gate the Columbus Blue Jackets have really cooled off. It’s not that they’re a bad team, but rather, they’re just average.

Sergei Bobrovsky can’t stop the puck and play every other position too. Otherwise, the Blue Jackets would probably be first in the division. But good news, Columbus, you’ve got some cap space to work with at the end of the month.

As I write, the Blue Jackets have about $5.000 million to work with in cap room.

That’s good enough to bring in just about any player without considering what the future impact on the team his cap hit might have (unless Jarmo Kekalainen brings in a clear-cut rental player that won’t be re-signed in July). The point is this, Columbus has enough room to mess around with something valuable at the deadline, but they’re going to have to re-sign a plethora of core/future core pieces of the franchise this offseason.

The Blue Jackets aren’t doomed– they know their future plans more than anyone else.

But what could they bring in to make this team better? Someone. Is there anyone they could snag now and really shake things up as a contender moving forward? Short answer, yes.

For all of the return of Rick Nash to Columbus talk, well, that’s not ideal. Kekalainen should consider someone like Ryan McDonagh from the New York Rangers before taking back a guy like Nash– who will only break the franchise’s heart again in July when he goes back to the Rangers *bold prediction alert*.

Potential assets to trade: D Andre Benoit, D Jack Johnson

Potential assets to acquire: F Evander Kane (BUF), F Sam Reinhart (BUF)F Blake Comeau (COL), D Mike Green (DET), F Max Pacioretty (MTL), F Michael Grabner (NYR), D Ryan McDonagh (NYR), F Jean-Gabriel Pageau (OTT), F Mike Hoffman (OTT), F Thomas Vanek (VAN)

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6. New York Islanders– 26-22-6 (58 points, 54 GP)

The biggest question heading into the 2018 trade deadline for the New York Islanders is the same one that’s been asked since Steven Stamkos signed his extension with the Tampa Bay Lightning– will John Tavares re-sign with the Islanders?

New York has expressed that they are not looking to trade Tavares should things go detrimentally south between now and February 26th, but if things do…

The Islanders have almost $1.500 million in cap space to play around with before the deadline. They also have 13 pending free agents at season’s end, meaning there’s plenty of options the franchise could pursue.

Should Tavares get a raise and a long-term deal? Absolutely.

The  Islanders could pack it up and go home on this season given their injuries, lack of defense and well, let’s just say, things aren’t going so great for the team that ranks 31st (out of 31 NHL teams) in average attendance this season.

Or they could be active in trying to scrap together a good team centered around their current stars (Tavares, Mathew Barzal, Joshua Ho-Sang and others).

Potential assets to trade: F Josh Bailey, F Jason Chimera, F Casey Cizikas, D Thomas Hickey, D Dennis Seidenberg

Potential assets to acquire: F Sam Reinhart (BUF), D Tyson Barrie (COL), D Mike Green (DET), F Mark Letestu (EDM), F Patrick Maroon (EDM), F Alex Galchenyuk (MTL), F Jean-Gabriel Pageau (OTT), F Zack Smith (OTT), F Tyler Bozak (TOR), G Aaron Dell (SJ), F Thomas Vanek (VAN), D Erik Gudbranson (VAN), F David Perron (VGK)

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7. Carolina Hurricanes– 24-21-9 (57 points, 54 GP)

New Carolina Hurricanes owner, Tom Dundon, might call an audible heading into this year’s trade deadline and decide to spend money on the roster. With almost $15.500 million in cap space, the Hurricanes are in the best possible position to land not just one or two of the big names floating around the rumor mill, but rather three or four quality pieces.

The trouble is, who would they get rid of, since their prospects and youth are worth keeping for further development and overall organizational growth?

Jeff Skinner is someone to build around. So are Teuvo Teravainen, Sebastian Aho, Elias Lindholm and Victor Rask.

Lee Stempniak might make his annual trip around the league, but other than that, who are the Hurricanes actually going to offer up from their forwards? If anything, Carolina would move a guy like Noah Hanifin given the contract extensions (and pay raises) that kick in next season for Brett Pesce and Jaccob Slavin.

Regardless, though they’re not out of contention, the Hurricanes could really use a goaltender to pull them through the stretch. This whole Cam Ward/Scott Darling thing isn’t working out.

Potential assets to trade: G Scott Darling, D Noah Hanifin, F Lee Stempniak, F Derek Ryan, draft picks

Potential assets to acquire: F Evander Kane (BUF), G Robin Lehner (BUF), D Cody Franson (CHI), D Tyson Barrie (COL), D Jack Johnson (CBJ),  D Mike Green (DET), G Petr Mrazek (DET), F Max Pacioretty (MTL), F Tomas Plekanec (MTL), F David Desharnais (NYR), F Michael Grabner (NYR), D Ryan McDonagh (NYR), F Rick Nash (NYR), G Aaron Dell (SJ), F Thomas Vanek (VAN), F James Neal (VGK), F David Perron (VGK)

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8. New York Rangers– 25-24-5 (55 points, 54 GP)

Look, the New York Rangers are still (technically speaking) in contention– but they absolutely shouldn’t waste another year of Henrik Lundqvist‘s career in the National Hockey League without a Stanley Cup.

The team they have right now? Yeah, they aren’t winning.

They’ve aged out. The core’s been decimated by the Vegas expansion draft and some offseason moves (namely trading Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta to Arizona after losing Oscar Lindberg to Vegas in June).

Not every player is washed up.

Some will find better homes and rejuvenate their careers before potentially signing with the Rangers in free agency and going back “home” *ahem, Rick Nash*.

Others will simply be a superb rental/long term participant in a franchise, like Michael Grabner.

Basically I’m saying that all the guys New York’s been rumored to trade should get traded and the team can pull off a quick turnaround with their up-and-coming youth, plus whatever they get in return for Nash, Grabner and Co.

And with only about $1.400 million in cap space, the Rangers could have some fun blowing things up (partially).

Build around Mika Zibanejad and friends. Do it, New York. Do it now.

Potential assets to trade: F David Desharnais, F Michael Grabner, D Nick Holden, D Ryan McDonagh, F Rick Nash, G Ondrej Pavelec, D Marc Staal, F Jimmy Vesey, F Mats Zuccarello

Potential assets to acquire: D Tyson Barrie (COL), D Jack Johnson (CBJ), F Alex Galchenyuk (MTL), F Mike Hoffman (OTT), F Jean-Gabriel Pageau (OTT), F Zack Smith (OTT), G Aaron Dell (SJ), F James Neal (VGK), F David Perron (VGK)

Pittsburgh Penguins 2017-’18 Season Preview

Pittsburgh Penguins

50-21-11, 111 points, second in the Metropolitan Division

Beat Nashville in the Stanley Cup Finals

Additions: D Matt Hunwick, G Antti Niemi, RW Ryan Reaves

Subtractions: C Nick Bonino (signed with NSH), F Matt Cullen (signed with MIN), D Trevor Daley (signed with DET), G Marc-Andre Fleury (drafted by VGK), D Cameron Gaunce (signed with CBJ), D Ron Hainsey (signed with TOR), LW Chris Kunitz (signed with TBL), C Kevin Porter (signed with BUF), D Mark Streit (signed with MTL), C Oskar Sundqvist (traded to STL), D David Warsofsky (signed with COL)

Offseason Analysis: After hoisting the Stanley Cup the past two seasons, is it ok to just write the Penguins into their third-straight Finals appearance?

To the joy of 30 other fan-bases, I don’t think it’s quite that simple.

Don’t get me wrong, Pittsburgh is still the class of the Eastern Conference and has its eyes set on a three-peat. Though they had their fair share of departures this offseason, the Penguins return the “Sid and the Kids” line (Jake Guentzel, Captain Sidney Crosby and Conor Sheary) as well as the dominant second line of Carl Hagelin, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel, so last year’s best offense will expect to continue its scoring ways.

However, the potential chinks in the armor start appearing in the bottom-six as GM Jim Rutherford had to replace Bonino, Cullen and Kunitz – all of whom appeared in 91 or more regular and postseason games last season. In particular, I’m most concerned about the Pens’ third line center.

What needs to be remembered about recent Penguins third lines is that they don’t fit the typical mold. Few third lines are counted on to provide many goals, instead preferring to slow down the opposing offense. But in Pittsburgh, scoring depth extends beyond the top two lines. Bonino and Kunitz provided a combined 66 points last season from the third line, including 27 markers.

Something tells me Head Coach Mike Sullivan will expect their replacements to perform similarly, but who will they be?

As expected, Sullivan has played around with his bottom two lines throughout camp. In Pittsburgh’s most recent preseason contest, Tom Kuhnhackl, Greg McKegg and Bryan Rust made up the third line with the fourth including Scott Wilson, Carter Rowney and Reaves.

Rust can certainly continue the tradition of this new-age third line, but I have my doubts about Kuhnhackl’s career .37 points-per-game and McKegg’s nine points in 65 NHL games. Unless Sullivan gets pleasantly surprised by their performances or accepts a more typical third line, Rutherford might be testing the trade market early.

Considering Hainsey and Streit were trade deadline rentals, Pittsburgh’s main defensive loss was soon-to-be 34-year-old Daley, who managed 5-14-19 totals last season, but 32-year-old Hunwick should be a serviceable replacement having earned 19 points of his own in Toronto last year.

The Penguins also have the luxury of D Kris Letang returning to play. Letang managed only 41 games last year before his campaign was cut short by a mid-season neck injury. Though his 11-year career has been dotted with injuries, Letang has been a potent force when on the ice. He manages .83 points-per-game, including .259 power play points-per-game, for his career and will be a welcome reintroduction to a defensive corps that scored 177 points last season – the most of any Eastern Conference blue line.

Pens fans, you know what we have to discuss next. Ready tissues.

We turn our attention to Pittsburgh’s crease, a spot the first overall pick in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft will no longer occupy. Instead, it is his protégé Matthew Murray that will assume the true starting role with Niemi as his backup as compared to last year’s “1A-1B” tactic.

Though it’s a bizarre idea to question a goalie that won two Stanley Cups before playing his second NHL season, I’m intrigued to see how Murray responds to undoubtedly being “the guy” for Pittsburgh. Gone are the days of a more-than-competent backup (sorry Niemi, but you’re not impressing anybody with your 2016-’17 .892 save percentage) to fall back on, so all the responsibility rests firmly on Murray’s shoulders. Judging from his 32-10-4 record last season, he’ll react just fine.

Offseason Grade: D

If a “C” is average, the Penguins have to score below it for simply not doing enough to solidify their third line. Maybe McKegg can surprise, but a team trying to win its third-straight Stanley Cup should not be taking such a risk on one of the main things that separates it from the competition. If Rutherford misses on his roll of the dice, the selling price for a viable piece could have dire consequences for the future.

March 29 – Day 161 – Bird is the word

Though there’s only four games on today’s schedule, there’s at least two that should provide some captivating play.

The action starts a little later this evening as Chicago at Pittsburgh (NBCSN/TVAS) doesn’t drop the puck until 8 p.m., followed an hour later by Los Angeles at Calgary (SN). 10 p.m. marks the beginning of Washington at Colorado, preceding tonight’s nightcap – St. Louis at Arizona (SN360) – by half an hour. All times eastern.

Since the Kings‘ playoff chances took a significant hit last night with their loss in Edmonton, let’s catch the action in the Steel City.

 

Quick, tell me the best team in the NHL since the beginning of February. Calgary? Nope. Pittsburgh? Nada. Washington? Guess again.

You’ve probably figured it out, but the correct answer is the best team in the Western Conference, the 48-21-7 Blackhawks. In the past two months, Chicago has earned an impressive 18-4-2 record on the back of its elite offense.

On the season as a whole, the Hawks rank seventh-best in goals-per-game, but February and March have been an absolute clinic. Led by Patrick Kane‘s 33 points (the fourth-most in the league over that stretch), Chicago has buried 84 goals in that time, trailing only Nashville for most in the NHL.

Kane has been absolutely magnificent of late. 19 of his 34 goals on the season have been struck since the beginning of February, and both totals are tops in the Windy City. But the main reason Chicago is playing so well is they’ve stayed extremely healthy. Only 25 different skaters have donned a Blackhawks sweater in their past 24 games, an extremely impressive total that perfectly explains the club’s synergy.

That compatibility is most evidenced when the Hawks take to the power play. Though they actually rank 14th-worst on the season as a whole, Chicago has converted 22.4% of its man-advantages in the past month – the 10th-best effort in that time.

Captain Jonathan Toews gets to take a lot of credit for that success. Though he’s only registered one power play point in his past six games, Toews has nine on his resume since February to lead the club. Most of those have been assists to the other star of the first power play unit: Kane. He’s buried five power play goals in the past two months to headline the team and tie for fourth-most in the NHL.

If there’s one spot the Hawks are still trying to improve, it has to be their penalty kill. Stopping only 77.4% of opponents’ power plays all season, they rank fifth-worst in the league. The issue is not 30-16-3 Corey Crawford, but the defense playing in front of him. Crawford has faced the 12th-most power play shots against in the league (among netminders with 30 or more appearances) due to Niklas Hjalmarsson and Brent Seabrook being the only two players with more than 22 shorthanded shot blocks.

Though two games ended in a shootout, the last three games have been tough for the 46-18-11 Penguins, the third-best team in both the Metropolitan Division and the Eastern Conference.

The reason for Pittsburgh‘s struggles is not on the ice, but off it. Nine players were listed on the Penguins‘ most recent injury report, though Jake Guentzel (concussion), Ron Hainsey (upper body) and Conor Sheary (lower body) skated yesterday. If any are cleared before tonight’s game, I’d bet on Sheary since Guentzel and Hainsey wore non-contact sweaters.

Usually one of the elite squads in the game, the holes in the lineup has most effected Pittsburgh‘s offense. Usually averaging a league-high 3.4 goals-per-game, the Pens have scored only six goals in their past three games, which ironically ties with Chicago for fifth-fewest since Thursday.

If able, Sheary will be a welcome addition to the lineup to rejuvenate the offense. He’s averaged .91 points-per-game this season, which is the third-best average in Pittsburgh. Of course, he’s no Evgeni Malkin, another member of the club spending more time in the training room than he’d like. His 33 goals are second-most on the team (and 10th-most in the league) behind Sidney Crosby‘s 42, as is his 1.16 points-per-game average (good for the ninth-most points in the NHL).

One thing that hasn’t suffered is the power play. Scoring on a third of its attempts, Pittsburgh is tied for sixth-best in the league since March 23 – well above its 22.4% success rate on the season. What’s most impressive about this effort is that the power play scoring has come from five different players, and none of them were drafted first overall.

Instead, the special team that has taken a step back is the one that was already poor to begin with. The Pens‘ penalty kill has blocked only one power play shot (courtesy of Tom Kuhnhackl) en route to only a 75% kill rate, which ties for eighth-worst in the league in the last week.

When the Penguins visited the United Center four weeks ago, they seemed to forget about one major detail: Kane.

Not Kahn, Captain Kirk; Kane. Notching his second hat trick in three games, the right wing teamed with Scott Darling and his 36-save effort to lead Chicago to a 4-1 victory.

Some players to keep an eye on in tonight’s game include Chicago‘s Crawford (30 wins [tied for eighth-most in the NHL]) and Kane (82 points [tied for second-most in the league] on 34 goals and 48 assists [both tied for sixth-most in the NHL]) & Pittsburgh‘s Crosby (42 goals [leads the league] for 82 points [tied for second-most in the NHL]), Matthew Murray (.923 save percentage [seventh-best in the league]), Justin Schultz (+27 [eighth-best in the NHL]) and Sheary (+26 [tied for ninth-best in the league]).

No matter how busy Chris Stewart – the Penguins‘ head athletic trainer –  is, Vegas still favors Pittsburgh to win with a -125 line. Unfortunately, I don’t feel quite so optimistic for the home team. Chicago has been on an absolute tear over the past 56 days and doesn’t look like its stopping now.

Hockey Birthday

  • Brad McCrimmon (1959-2011) – Selected 15th-overall by the Bruins in the 1979 NHL Entry Draft, this defenseman spent most of his 18 seasons in Philadelphia. The late 80s were an incredible year for this Saskatchewanian, as he not only made his lone All-Star Game appearance in ’88, but also hoisted the Stanley Cup with the Flames a year later.
  • Maxim Lapierre (1985-) – Though currently playing in Switzerland, this center has 10 seasons of NHL experience. Due to being selected 61st-overall in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft by the local Canadiens, most of his playing time came in Montréal. A consistent enforcer, he spent 130 minutes in the penalty box in 2011-’12 as a Canuck.

Three of Boston‘s four lines found the back of the net to lead the Bruins to a 4-1 victory over the Predators in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

Patrice Bergeron (Zdeno Chara and Brad Marchand) got the scoring started early with a wrist shot 2:28 into the game to give the Bruins an early lead. With 6:08 remaining in the first period, Second Star of the Game David Krejci (David Pastrnak and Drew Stafford) doubled that lead with a wrister of his own, the score that proved to be the game-winner.

The visiting Preds finally got on the scoreboard with 8:44 remaining in regulation when Craig Smith (Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis) tipped the puck into Tuukka Rask‘s net, but Third Star Noel Acciari (Riley Nash) neutralized that tally 4:31 later with the first goal of his NHL career. David Backes (Dominic Moore) took advantage of an empty net in the waning moments of the contest to set the final 4-1 score.

Rask earned the victory after saving 24-of-25 shots faced (96%), leaving Pekka Rinne with the loss, who saved 27-of-30 (90%).

Boston‘s home victory was a big one in the DtFR Game of the Day series, as road and home teams in the series have both earned an equal 187 points. Visitors do have the most wins though at 82-58-23, compared to the hosts’ 81-57-25.

Tampa Bay at Pittsburgh – Game 7 – Rust scores both goals en route to the Eastern Title

Unknown-1Pittsburgh Penguins Logo

 

 

 

 

With a 2-1 Game 7 victory, the Pittsburgh Penguins earn a date with the San Jose Sharks in the Stanley Cup Finals.

Steven Stamkos made his first return to the ice after recovering from his blood clots.  That malady had kept him sidelined since the last day of March, almost two full months.

The easiest thing to say about the first period is that it was just about even, not favoring one team or the other.  Although Tampa Bay almost certainly won the possession metric and effectively used those efforts to apply pressure on Second Star of the Game Matt Murray, Pittsburgh had more quality chances.

That being said, it was the Lightning who had the first quality chance.  It was a breakaway with one more skater to beat – defenseman Olli Maatta.  Before the Bolt could rear back and fire, the third-year Penguin performed a quality poke check to neutralize the attack.

Third Star Evgeni Malkin was busy in the period, but not always for Pittsburgh’s benefit.  He had at least two strong opportunities, but both times his efforts did not yield a goal.

He was also the first penalty of the contest, interfering with Ondrej Palat at the 6:52 mark.  The Bolts‘ power play lasted only 31 seconds, cut short when Brian Boyle slashed Nick Bonino.

Pittsburgh led the first frame in hits (eight to five), face-offs (56%), blocks (seven to six) and takeaways (three to two), while Tampa was the better squad in the giveaway (one to four) and hit (16 to 10) departments.

The second period had many more goals than the first, made true by First Star Bryan Rust’s snap shot only 1:55 after resuming play.  He was assisted by Chris Kunitz (his sixth helper of the postseason) and Malkin.  Waiting at the offensive blue line, Geno received a long pass from Maatta in the defensive zone.  Almost immediately after crossing into the zone, he left the puck for Kunitz, who found the rookie streaking towards Andrei Vasilevskiy’s crease.  He scored from between the face-off dots over the netminder’s glove.

A minute later, play transitioned into a four-on-four scenario once again as tempers started flaring, with Ian Cole (elbowing) and Cedric Paquette (roughing) both earning a seat in the sin bin.  During this time, the ice was certainly slanted towards Vasilevskiy’s cage, as Sidney Crosby and the Penguins took advantage of the less-congested ice to fire three quality shots (two by the captain) over two opportunities, all saved by the Lightning netminder.

Even once Cole and Paquette returned to the rink, Pittsburgh still maintained heavy pressure in their own offensive zone.  It wasn’t until the 8:43 mark that Tampa had a real opportunity on Murray’s net, but was able to make the save on only the second shot he’d faced in the frame.

That effort was important though, as the next Lightning attack leveled the game.  Sophomore Jonathan Drouin scored his fifth tally of the playoffs on a top-shelf wrister at the 9:36 mark, assisted by Valtteri Filppula and Victor Hedman (his 10th postseason assist).  Drouin collected a puck in the neutral zone from Filppula and advanced into the offensive zone in a three-on-three situation.  He crossed from far to near face-off zones before shooting over Murray’s glove.

The tied game didn’t last long though – only half a minute, to be exact.  Rust took credit for his second goal of the night (this on the game winner) on a wrister of his own, assisted by Ben Lovejoy and Malkin (his 11th helper of these playoffs).  Malkin found the puck in the near corner and shoved it up the boards to Lovejoy to reset the play.  The defenseman fired a shot off the boards behind the net, which Rust collected and shoved between the near post and Vasilevskiy’s left skate.

All of this was a result of increased offensive pressure.  Although Tampa Bay was successful in scoring on 20% of their shots this period, the Penguins preferred to do things the old-fashioned way with tons of shots – 21 to be exact, leading the Lightning‘s second period attempts by 16 shots.

Ryan Callahan was the next Bolt to take a seat on the wrong side of the ice, charged with hi-sticking Lovejoy with 7:37 remaining in the period.  Pittsburgh quickly took to peppering Vasilevskiy’s net, but try as they might, including an incredible opportunity for Conor Sheary stopped by Hedman, the Pens couldn’t register an insurance goal.

The Penguins once again headed to the power play with 5:06 remaining in the second period when Drouin held Tom Kuhnhackl’s stick, but just like Tampa‘s man-advantage, it ended early.  Like he has been so many other times this postseason, Kris Letang was the guilty party for tripping Palat only 19 seconds into the advantage.

Just like the other four-on-four this period, the Penguins took advantage of the open ice to put quick pressure on Vasilevskiy, but Stamkos and the Lightning took notes and returned the favor.  Both keepers made the necessary saves to keep the score differential favoring Pittsburgh by only a tally.

Right when Drouin exited the box, Hedman took a seat for slashing Malkin.  19 seconds later, the Penguins went to work on the power play for 101 ticks on the clock.  Phil Kessel almost scored on a rebound with half a minute remaining on the advantage, but once again Anton Stralman and the Tampa Bay defense stood tall to hold the score at 2-1.

Although Pittsburgh led the frame’s shots and takeaways (four to none), Tampa was actually better at the face-off dot and in blocks (six to three) and giveaways (two to three).  The teams both threw 12 hits in the frame, meaning Tampa was still the more physical team after 40 minutes (28 hits to 22).

As would be expected, Tampa Bay came out of the dressing room with a mission.  They applied almost constant pressure to Murray’s net for the first five minutes of the frame.  During the attack, Bonino performed a block that left him dazed, requiring him to be helped to the dressing room.  He returned to the bench approximately five game minutes later.

Nikita Kucherov put a kink in that offensive though when he fired a puck over the glass, earning him a two minute break.  The Penguins did well to earn Murray a break, but they could not expand their lead.  Just as soon as Kucherov returned, they resumed their attack on Murray’s crease with a Coyle breakaway chance, stopped by the goaltender’s right pad.

Thanks to some spectacular offensive pressure by the Pens, Vasilevskiy didn’t make his way to the Tampa bench until only a minute remained in regulation.

That minute was the loudest CONSOL Energy Center had been all night.  Tampa Bay took their timeout with 44 seconds remaining in regulation.  The ensuing face-off was in Pittsburgh‘s defensive zone, who won the restart and got the puck out of the zone twice… well, kind of.  The second one was an icing penalty with 14.9 seconds to go.

The Penguins then took their timeout, won the restart and tried to clear, but the puck hit Lovejoy’s stick.  The problem with that?  He was on the bench, meaning the next face-off was once again in Murray’s end.  Tampa Bay could not fire a shot in the remaining time, meaning that Pittsburgh won the Prince of Wales Trophy for the first time since 2009, taking it from the Eastern Conference runner-up.

Murray earns the victory after saving 16 of 17 shots faced (94.1%), while Vasilevskiy takes the loss, saving 37 of 39 (94.9%).

The Penguins will host the Western Champion San Jose Sharks this Monday, May 30.  Puck drop is scheduled for 8 p.m. eastern and may be viewed on CBC, NBC or TVAS.

Washington at Pittsburgh – Game 6 – Bonino’s goal sends the Pens to the Eastern Finals

Washington Capitals LogoPittsburgh Penguins LogoIt’s been since December 30 that Matt Murray last lost in CONSOL Energy Center, as he bested the Washington Capitals 4-3 in overtime to set up a date with the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Finals.

Second Star of the Game Phil Kessel opened the scoring for the Pens at the 5:41 mark, assisted by Brian Dumoulin and Carl Hagelin.  Kris Letang caused a turnover in the defensive zone while the Caps were entering that was collected by Hagelin.  Once he reached the blue line, he passed to Dumoulin, who immediately shoved the puck along to Phil the Thrill.  Kessel advanced into the offensive zone along the near boards and fired once he reached the top side of the face-off circle, beating Braden Holtby’s right pad.

Pittsburgh not only led Washington on the scoreboard, but they also had more shots on goal (11 to 10), face-offs (57%), takeaways (two to none) and hits (24 to 12).

In his first game back since being suspended, Brooks Orpik committed a double minor hi sticking penalty against Patric Hornqvist at the 6:25 mark of the second period.  Pittsburgh quickly made him pay when Kessel connected on a wrister 40 seconds later, assisted by Letang (his seventh helper of the playoffs) and Chris Kunitz.  Kunitz fought off Matt Niskanen until he got to the blue line, where he barely managed to keep the puck in the zone before passing to Letang.  The defenseman quickly dished to Kessel near the far face-off dot, who traveled across the crease before beating sprawling Holtby’s left skate.

The second half of the penalty was equally as successful for Pittsburgh, as Hagelin tipped-in Olli Maatta’s initial shot, with another assist from Trevor Daley (his fifth helper of the postseason), 33 seconds later.  First Star Nick Bonino had the puck along the far boards, but dumped back to the blue line for Daley, who shoved the puck across the zone for Hagelin.  He fired a slap shot from almost the same spot he received his pass, and Hagelin, who had already been acting as a screen in front of the crease, redirected the puck under Holtby’s stick.

Ex-Capital Eric Fehr committed a penalty with 6:02 remaining in the frame for interference against T.J. Oshie, but the Penguins‘ penalty kill stood tall to keep the Capitals scoreless.

The next penalty also belonged to the Penguins, as Kunitz was caught tripping Marcus Johansson with 2:23 remaining in the frame.  This power play was much more successful for the Capitals, as Oshie connected on a snap shot after an assist from Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin only 53 seconds after Kunitz took his seat.  Ovi had the puck near the near boards at the blue line, and dumped it further into the zone along the wall where Backstrom corralled it along the far boards at the goal line.  He centered a pass for Oshie, who scored over Murray’s stick shoulder.

After 40 minutes, the Penguins still led the scoreboard 3-1, but also shots (23 to 18), hits (36 to 25) and face-offs (57%).

The first penalty of the third period belonged to Ovechkin for slashing Tom Kuhnhackl 3:54 into the period, but Washington would not yield their third power play goal so easily, leaving the goal differential at two tallies.

Washington cut the lead to only a goal at the 7:23 mark when Justin Williams connected on a wrister over Murray’s glove hand, assisted by Backstrom (his ninth helper of the postseason).  Backstrom collected the puck along the near boards and dumped behind Murray’s net to Williams, who approached around the goaltender’s stick side before scoring over his glove shoulder.

Kunitz earned his second seat in the sin bin with 9:28 remaining in regulation when he sent the puck over the glass.  Bonino did the exact same thing in attempts to clear the puck out of the crease 1:06 later, resulting in 54 seconds of five-on-three and 3:06 total of the man-advantage.  Pittsburgh withstood the five-on-three, but only two seconds later Ian Cole sent a puck over the glass, sending the Penguins back to the five-on-three for 1:04.

The Capitals leveled on this opportunity when Third Star John Carlson connected on slap shot with 6:59 remaining in regulation, assisted by Ovechkin (his seventh helper of the playoffs) and Williams.  Carlson had the puck at the point, but passed to Ovechkin towards the near boards along the blue line.  Ovi returned the favor to the defensemen near the far face-off circle, who fired a slap shot to beat Murray stick side.

1:32 remained on Cole’s penalty, but Pittsburgh finally returned to even-strength without another Capitals score.

Washington returned to the power play with 2:46 remaining in regulation when Letang was charged with interference against Oshie.  During the man advantage, Oshie took a questionable uncalled slash from a Penguins defender strong enough to send him to the dressing room.  It might be argued that it had a negative effect on the Capitals‘ power play, as the score remained the same to the end of regulation, forcing overtime.  Oshie did return to the ice for the overtime period.

Just as the scoreboard was tied, so were the combined totals of some important statistics.  Washington led the first 60 minutes in shots (36 to 35), blocks (19 to 13) and giveaways (five to eight), while Pittsburgh owned the face-off dot (59%), takeaways (seven to three) and hits (42 to 34).

The Penguins had thought they’d won the game 2:44 into the overtime period, but neither Daley nor Hornqvist’s attempts could find the back of Holtby’s net, thanks in part to Jay Beagle’s diving block into the goal.

Overtime, and the Eastern Semifinals, lasted only 6:32 minutes more after regulation ended before Bonino scored a series-clinching wrister, assisted by Hagelin and Kessel.  Bonino collected the puck at the offensive blue line and advanced into the zone.  He attempted a wrister from the top of the near face-off circle that was blocked by Taylor Chorney towards the boards, but collected by Hagelin and shoved behind Holtby’s net.  Kessel collected in the corner and centered a pass for Hagelin that was saved by Holtby’s right pad, but the rebound was collected by Bonino and backhanded into net to avoid the Game 7.

Murray saved 36 of 39 shots faced to earn the victory (92.3%), while Holtby takes the overtime loss, saving 38 of 42 (90.5%).

The Penguins advance to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 2013 (a four-game sweep against the Boston Bruins) and will face the Tampa Bay Lightning.  Dates and times for that series have yet to be determined.

Washington at Pittsburgh – Game 4 – Hornqvist scores in OT, Pens on brink of Eastern Finals

Washington Capitals LogoPittsburgh Penguins LogoNo Kris Letang, no problem for the Penguins, as they beat Washington 3-2 in overtime to take a 3-1 lead in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

At puck drop, Washington continued their surge from the third period of Game 3 and were rewarded with a Jay Beagle backhander only 2:58 into play (his third tally of the playoffs), assisted by Tom Wilson and Taylor Chorney, to give them an early 1-0 lead.  After receiving a pass from Chroney to get the puck out of the zone, Wilson flipped a pass into the far corner of the offensive zone for Beagle to collect.  The rebound off the boards sent the puck back across the goal line and allowed Beagle to fire the short angle top shelf over Matt Murray’s glove hand.

The Capitals‘ goal awakened the Penguins, as there was a noticeable increase in offensive efforts after the ensuing face-off made evident by the quickly tied shots on goal totals (three apiece).  Trevor Daley leveled the game 6:18 after Beagle’s tally with his first goal of the postseason, assisted by First Star of the Game Patric Hornqvist and Sidney Crosby (his sixth helper of the playoffs).  Hornqvist brought the puck into the offensive zone, but quickly dumped off to Daley, who fired a wrister from the far face-off zone.  Karl Alzner tried to made the block, but instead he redirected the puck through Braden Holtby’s legs for a five-hole goal.

Carl Hagelin committed the first penalty of the game with 4:30 remaining in the frame for a late hit against T.J. Oshie, but the Pens‘ penalty kill stood strong to maintained the tied score.  In fact, the ensuing Pittsburgh surge when Hagelin exited the box resulted in a power play of their own when Matt Niskanen was caught hooking on the streaking winger.

The Penguins‘ power play was short-lived though, as Hornqvist tripped Daniel Winnik with 51 seconds remaining to earn a trip to the penalty box. The four-on-four became a four-on-three for six seconds when Jason Chimera tripped Crosby along the boards, but Niskanen returned to the ice to even the sides until the final horn of the frame sounded.

Although tied, Washington led the period’s shot totals by four attempts, as well as hits (17-15, respectively).  The even nature of the contest extended beyond the scoreboard though, as both squads were level in face-off wins, blocks and giveaways.

The second period began under four-on-four conditions for 52 seconds, followed by a Pittsburgh power play for 44 seconds.  After the 1:36 of atypical circumstances, the score still read 1-1, due in part to Washington‘s 22nd straight penalty kill.

A quick breakaway was all the Penguins needed to go up a goal.  At the 3:07 mark, Second Star Matt Cullen scored his third goal of the postseason with a wrister, assisted by Tom Kuhnhackl and Brian Dumoulin.  Dumoulin received a pass from the center face-off dot and passed to Kuhnhackl at the red line along the far boards.  Just before he was hit, he dumped the puck into the offensive zone to a streaking Cullen, who beat Holtby five-hole, his second such goal of the game.

The Penguins almost struck again around the six minute mark on another fast break by Ian Cole, but Holtby was there to make the pad save.

Penalty No. 1 of the frame was courtesy of Ben Lovejoy, a hooking infraction against Justin Williams at the 8:31 mark, but as was theme of the night, the Capitals leveled the ice again when Oshie cross checked Daley after 1:16 of the advantage.  It was a poor power play for Washington anyways, as it was actually the Penguins with the puck on their stick for most of its duration.

Although the Penguins continued their pressure on Holtby with their man-advantage, the goal differential remained at a lone goal.

Third Star John Carlson leveled the game with 3:41 remaining in the frame with a wrister over Murray’s glove side (his fourth tally of the playoffs), assisted by Williams, the score that held into the second intermission.  Williams stole the puck from Derrick Pouliot along the near boards and centered a pass to Carlson, who scored over Murray’s glove hand.  Just like the Penguins‘ forwards, Washington‘s attackers have heeded the scouting report on how to beat the young net-minder.

Pittsburgh fired the puck three more times than the Capitals, due in part more so to their defense, as well as played a slightly more physical game along the boards (18-15, respectively).

Crosby left the ice approximately a quarter of the way through the period after receiving a stick check to the hands from Alex Ovechkin, but eventually returned after receiving attention in the dressing room.

With 3:38 remaining in regulation, Alzner was sent to the box for hi-sticking Crosby.  The Penguins entered the night not scoring a power play goal against the Capitals in the previous three games,  and they could not even manage a shot on goal to change that statistic.  Since neither team was able to break the tie, Game 4 entered sudden death overtime.

Only 16 shots were fired during the third (Washington led by two attempts), and Washington also led the face-off dot (52%) and giveaways (two to 11).  Pittsburgh led regulation with two more blocks, three more takeaways and five more hits.

Hornqvist ended an exciting 2:34 of back and forth hockey with a game-winning wrsiter to give the Penguins a 3-1 lead in the series, assisted by Conor Sheary and Dumoulin.  Dumoulin saved an attempted clear from exiting the offensive zone and passed to Sheary near the far boards.  Sheary tried to center a pass to Crosby, but it was deflected by Mike Weber… right onto Hornqvist’s stick, who won the game over Holtby’s stick shoulder.

Murray earned the win after saving 34 of 36 shots faced (94.4%), while Holtby takes the overtime loss after saving 30 of 33 (90.9%).

The Penguins‘ first chance to advance to the Eastern Conference Championship will occur at 7:15 p.m. eastern this Saturday at the Verizon Center.  That game may be viewed on CBC, NBC or TVAS.

Washington at Pittsburgh – Game 3 – Murray saves 49, earns 2-1 series lead

Washington Capitals LogoPittsburgh Penguins LogoFirst Star of the Game Matt Murray saved 47 of 49 shots faced (95.9%) to earn a 3-2 Game 3 victory.

The first major occurrence of the game was actually an injury to Bryan Rust.  Only 19 seconds into his opening shift, he blocked a shot hard enough to require him to head to the dressing room.  He did not return for even the second period.

Although Washington fired four shots on goal in the first 6:37 of play, it was the Penguins who scored the first goal – on their first shot on net, in fact.  Patric Hornqvist is the responsible party with his tip-in on Trevor Daley’s initial attempt, with another assist from Conor Sheary.  Shear collected a deflected Sidney Crosby shot from the far corner to Daley at the point.  Daley fired a slap shot from the blue line that Hornqvist tipped past Braden Holtby.

Exactly a minute later, Tom Kuhnhackl completed a breakaway attempt by Matt Cullen and Kris Letang (his sixth assist of the postseason) with a scoring wrister to give the Pens an early 2-0 lead.  After receiving the first pass off the face-off, Letang connected with Cullen on a long pass from the defensive zone to the offensive zone.  Cullen crossed a pass across the crease for Kuhnhackl to redirect into net past Holtby’s left skate.

The Capitals continued their mini-implosion when Justin Williams committed an interference penalty against Derrick Pouliot, but Pouliot returned the favor with a hooking penalty against Jay Beagle with about half a minute remaining on the penalty to end the power play.  When Washington received their 90’ish seconds of the man-advantage, they were as effective as the Penguins, leaving the score at 2-0 when the sin bins completely emptied.

Letang threw a questionable late hit on or near Marcus Johansson’s head with 4:19 remaining in the period that was generously ruled only a two-minute interference call, but Letang did seem to leave his feet.  Luckily for Pens fans, the penalty kill once again stood tall to neutralize the Caps‘ ensuing power play.  Unlike Rust, Johansson did return to the game before the second period.

Daniel Winnik took offense to Letang’s hit, so with 1:51 remaining in the frame, he slashed the defenseman, giving the Pens a power play for the remainder of the period.  Just like Pittsburgh‘s first man-advantage, they ended it early when Phil Kessel knocked T.J. Oshie’s stick out of his hands with a slash.

Although Pittsburgh was leading on the scoreboard, Washington had the lead in shots (14-9, respectively), face-off winning percentage (59%-41%, respectively) and hits (19-nine, respectively).  The quickest stat to attribute Pittsburgh’s success was their four takeaways, especially compared to the Caps‘ goose egg.

Washington would return to the ice with a 1:13 power play after nine seconds of four-on-four hockey.  With another kill, the Penguins‘ set their penalty kill rate at 89.7%, the fourth best of the playoffs.

The lone penalty of the second period belonged to Justin Williams at the 6:30 mark, a tripping call against Eric Fehr.  But, just like all the other power plays in the contest, the score was the same 2-0 after those two minutes.

With 4:57 remaining in the second period, Second Star Carl Hagelin fired a pure wrist shot after assists from Nick Bonino (his eighth helper of the playoffs) and Kessel to set the differential at three goals, which held to the final horn of the frame.  Kessel intercepted a Capitals pass near the blue line and passed into the crease to Bonino.  Bonino had to move to Holtby’s glove side to control the puck and took advantage of the aggressive goaltender advancing out of the crease to squeeze the puck into the crease, allowing Hagelin to finish the score.

Once again, the Capitals led the period’s shot totals by eight attempts, but the Penguins took advantage of the face-off dot (54%), blocks (11 to five, respectively) and takeaways (six to two).  Washington proved to bring the heat along the boards, as through only 40 periods, they had accumulated 41 hits on the home team.

Washington finally got on the board at the 8:02 mark of the final frame with a wrister from Third Star Alex Ovechkin, who was assisted by Matt Niskanen and Nicklas Backstrom (his sixth helper of the postseason).  After the Penguins cleared the puck to the neutral zone, Niskanen brought the puck back past the blue line before passing to the trailing Ovechkin, who fired his top shelf wrister over Murray’s glove shoulder.

Hagelin committed the first penalty of the final period with a tripping penalty against John Carlson at the 6:41 mark.  Just like they had all night, Murray and the Penguins‘ penalty kill completed their fourth infraction neutralization.

With a little over two minutes remaining, Holtby was called to the bench for an extra attacker.  It paid off with 54 seconds remaining in regulation when Williams scored his first goal of the playoffs, a wrister assisted by Ovechkin and Carlson (his sixth helper of the postseason), but the Caps were unable to level.

Holtby ended the night with the loss, saving 20 of 23 (87%).

Game 4 between these squads will occur Wednesday at 8 p.m. eastern.  That game can be viewed on CBC, NBCSN and TVAS.