Tag Archives: Mike Sullivan

DTFR Podcast #125- 2018-19 Metropolitan Division Season Preview

Injuries, Stealth, Miles Wood, Brian Gionta’s retirement, Gritty, Ottawa, Shea Theodore and our 2018-19 Metropolitan Division Season Preview. Bring on the regular season already.

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Pittsburgh Penguins 2018-2019 Season Preview

 Pittsburgh Penguins

47-29-6, 100 points, second in the Metropolitan Division

Lost in Second Round to Washington, 4-2

Additions: F Matt Cullen, D Stefan Elliott, C Derek Grant, RW Jimmy Hayes, D Jack Johnson, G John Muse, D Juuso Riikola

Subtractions: D Lukas Bengtsson (signed with Linköpings, SHL), C Vincent Dunn (signed with Orlando, ECHL), D Matt Hunwick (traded to BUF), C Josh Jooris (signed with TOR), W Tom Kuhnhackl (signed with NYI), D Andrey Pedan (signed with Ak Bars Kazan, KHL), F Carter Rowney (signed with ANA), LW Tom Sestito (retired), W Conor Sheary (traded to BUF), D Jarred Tinordi (signed with NSH)

Offseason Analysis: Almost every season during C Sidney Crosby and F Evgeni Malkin‘s tenure has started with the goal of hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup.

However, this campaign is a little bit different than any before it.

Pittsburgh entered last season as the reigning back-to-back champion. The Pens had their ups and downs during the regular season, but after a six-game victory over intrastate rival Philadelphia in the First Round set up yet another conference semifinals meeting with Washington, fate seemed to be in the black-and-gold’s corner once again.

After all, the Penguins almost always beat the Capitals in the playoffs.

That modifier proved to be important, as the Caps defeated the battle-worn Penguins 2-1 in overtime in Game 6 to eliminate them for only the second time in 11 postseason meetings.

With Washington going on to win its first championship in franchise history, it put the onus on Head Coach Mike Sullivan‘s squad to win this year – not only to reclaim one of the most coveted trophies in the world from a division rival, but also to stake claim to the title of the NHL’s 10th dynasty and first since the 1983-1990 Oilers.

The league officially declares a club a dynasty if it claims at least three championships in the span of four years. With two titles in the past three seasons, this is a make-or-break season for Pittsburgh if Crosby and co. want to add that impressive listing to their resumes.

Offensively, Pittsburgh’s biggest addition for the 2018-2019 season actually occurred at the 2018 trade deadline when it completed a three-way trade for C Derick Brassard. It didn’t help that Brassard suffered a lower-body injury so close the regular season, but Pittsburgh is hoping it will see an improvement from the 4-8-12 totals the former Senator posted in 26 regular season and playoff games after he had a full summer to rest, recuperate and learn Sullivan’s system.

Brassard is just about as close to a lock for the third line’s center position as possible.

After a year of service to the Wild, soon-to-be 42-year-old Cullen was also added back into the mix and will surely assume fourth-line center duties, forcing F Riley Sheahan to the wing. With his immense experience at center, Sheahan will be a valuable commodity capable of playing on either the third or fourth line to serve as the backup face-off man should Brassard or Cullen get kicked out of the dot.

Any other changes to the Pens’ attack will come from within the organization. The clamor around the Steel City for RW Daniel Sprong is deafening (he posted 32-33-65 totals in 65 games played last year in the AHL), but his 2-1-3 effort in eight NHL games last season was not enough to convince Sullivan that he should stay with the senior team full time. He still has one more year left on his contract after this season, but the limited minutes awarded a former second-rounder gives many – including myself – the indication that Penguins coaches and management are running out of patience with the youngster’s growth.

In the same turn, F Dominik Simon and F Zach Aston-Reese earned their first Stanley Cup Playoff minutes last season, but only registered respective three and one assists in their eight or nine postseason outings (Simon managed 4-8-12 totals in 33 NHL regular season games last season, while Aston-Reese posted 4-2-6 marks in his 16 regular season showings).

None are locks for the roster, especially with the signings of Grant (12-12-24 totals in 66 games played with Buffalo last season) – another center that could transition to the wing – and Hayes (3-6-9 in 33 appearances with the Devils). General Manager Jim Rutherford is going to have to be very decisive with who makes the squad and who doesn’t, as he will not want to risk losing any of his talented youths to the waiver wire if he’s forced to make a move during the regular season.

The Penguins were even more quiet on the defensive front this summer, but there is two signings along the blue line worth talking about. While a defensive corps that includes Brian Dumoulin, new hire Johnson, Kris Letang, Olli Maatta, Jamie Oleksiak and Justin Schultz looks like it’d be more than solid enough to keep life easy for G Matt Murray, Pittsburgh could be in line for an upgrade if Riikola continues to impress even more than he already has.

The 24-year-old (he’ll turn 25 on November 9) from Joensuu, Finland has played a majority of the last six seasons playing in SM-Liiga  (Finland’s top professional league) with KalPa – including playing exclusively with the senior team since 2015-2016 – and he’s been reported to be adjusting to the North American game very quickly and is garnering a lot of attention early in the Pens’ training camp.

Now, that’s not to say Riikola (yes, pronounced like the cough drop company) will avoid Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and automatically make the team. With Pittsburgh’s top six defensemen locked into contracts through next season (seventh-man Chad Ruhwedel will be a UFA next summer), it’s hard to find him a spot on the roster as things stand currently.

However, should the organization decide he’s the real deal (for what it’s worth, he’s been practicing with both Dumoulin, a left-handed shot, and Letang, a right-handed shot), I wouldn’t be surprised to see Rutherford begin fielding trade offers for one of his defensemen in efforts to create a spot for Riikola and improve his bottom-six offensive depth.

Offseason Grade: B

It’s hard to say the Penguins had an A-class offseason considering their overall inactivity, but I’d also argue that there was less to fix than a second round elimination at the hands of the eventual champs would indicate. The real work for this roster will be done when deciding to go with youth or experience, as the core of this group is still certainly capable of winning the Stanley Cup once again.

Caps all-around effort leads to 6-3 victory over Pens in Game 5

pittsburgh_penguins_logoWashington Capitals Logo

 

 

 

 

Four unanswered goals in the third period, including Jakub Vrana’s game-winning goal, catapulted the Washington Capitals over the Pittsburgh Penguins 6-3 on home ice at Capital One Arena on Saturday night.

The winner of Game 5 in all-time seven game series’s in NHL history has gone on to win the series 79-percent of the time. Maybe, just maybe, this is the Caps year (though they led the Penguins, 3-1 and 3-2 in the series in 2015 and, well…).

Braden Holtby made 36 saves on 39 shots against for the home team with a .923 save percentage in the win for the Capitals, while Penguins netminder, Matt Murray, stopped 26 shots out of 30 shots faced for an .867 SV% in 58:36 time on ice.

Early in the action, Jamie Oleksiak (1) scored his first career Stanley Cup Playoff goal as he fired a shot from the point that beat Holtby thanks to a screen in front of the Washington netminder by his Penguins teammate, Conor Sheary.

Derick Brassard (3) and Sheary (3) had the assists on Oleksiak’s goal and Pittsburgh led, 1-0, at 2:23 of the first period.

Almost five minutes later, Capitals defender, Matt Niskanen, took the game’s first penalty as he was called for holding Penguins forward, Phil Kessel. Pittsburgh did not score on the ensuing player advantage.

Chad Ruhwedel hooked Alex Ovechkin past the midway point of the first period and the Caps went on their first power play of the night— though it was to no avail. Washington spent too much time on their first special teams advantage making passes and looking to set up the perfect play.

Late in the period, Dominik Simon tripped Niskanen and the Capitals went back on the power play at 17:11.

About a minute into the power play, Washington worked the puck deep into the zone and around the boards where Evgeny Kuznetsov slipped a pass to John Carlson at the point.

Carlson (3) winded up and let go of a rocket of a slap shot, high-glove side, past Murray and tied the game, 1-1, with a power play goal. Kuznetsov (6) and T.J. Oshie (3) notched the assists on Carlson’s goal at 18:22 of the first period.

Washington kept pressing as play resumed even strength and Brett Connolly (2) sent one through Murray’s five-hole thanks, in part, to a deflection off of a Pens player and the Capitals had their first lead of the night, 2-1, 33 seconds after Carlson’s tying goal.

Jakub Vrana (2) and Lars Eller (4) were credited with the primary and secondary assists on Connolly’s goal.

In the closing seconds of the period, Ovechkin caught Pittsburgh defender, Brian Dumoulin, with a slash and was sent to the sin bin at 19:58 of the first. The Penguins power play would carry into the second period as the first period came to a close on the ensuing faceoff in Pittsburgh’s attacking zone.

After one period, Washington had a 2-1 lead on the scoreboard and shots on goal were even, 13-13. Pittsburgh led in blocked shots (7-4), takeaways (3-2) and giveaways (6-3), while the Caps led in hits (8-6). The Pens had an advantage in the faceoff circle, having won 56 percent of faceoffs taken in the first 20 minutes of play.

Pittsburgh was 0/2 on the power play and the Capitals were 1/2 on the man advantage heading into the first intermission.

After being released from the sin bin from carry over time at the end of the first period, Ovechkin slashed Evgeni Malkin 4:24 into the second period and the Penguins went on their third power play of the night as a result.

It didn’t take long for them to convert.

Kessel fired a wrist shot from the faceoff circle to Holtby’s right in the attacking zone and Sidney Crosby (9) got enough of his stick on it to deflect the puck past the Washington goaltender, tying the game, 2-2, at 4:43 of the second period. Kessel (7) and Justin Schultz (6) had the assists on Crosby’s power play goal.

Devante Smith-Pelly followed up with the run of penalties by Washington, having tripped up Penguins defenseman, Brian Dumoulin at 6:57 of the second period.

Less than a minute into the power play, Pittsburgh forced a scramble in front of Holtby’s net, wherein Patric Hornqvist (5) poked away and potted the puck in the back of the twine to give the Penguins a one-goal lead with their second power play goal of the night.

Malkin (4) and Kessel (8) notched the assists on the goal that made it, 3-2, Pens with over half a game left to be played.

Smith-Pelly took another trip— ironically for tripping Carl Hagelin— to the penalty box late in the second period, but Pittsburgh was not able to convert on the ensuing 5-on-4 advantage.

Crosby took a quick trip to the sin bin for hooking Eller late in the period and the Capitals were not able to muster anything on the power play as the minutes winded down in the second period.

After 40 minutes of play, Pittsburgh led, 3-2, on the scoreboard and in shots on goal, 31-18. The Penguins also dominated blocked shots (15-6) and led in hits (17-15) and takeaways (5-2). Washington had an advantage in giveaways (10-9) and faceoff win percentage (52-48). The Pens were 2/5 on the power play and the Caps were 1/3 on the skater advantage through two periods.

Kuznetsov (6) didn’t waste any time coming out of the gates in the third period, receiving a stretch pass and leading the charge on his own breakaway that resulted in a goal just 52 seconds into the third.

Vrana (3) and Niskanen (3) had the assists on the goal and the game was tied, 3-3.

Late in the third, after both goaltenders made save-after-save, Holtby made a desperation save that led to the Capitals taking advantage of a goofy line change by the Penguins as Ovechkin was tearing throw the neutral zone.

Pulling Murray far from the center of the crease, Ovechkin slid the puck back to Vrana (2) who had a gaping hole in the goal to put the puck in the back of the twine. Ovechkin (6) and Kuznetsov (7) had the assists on Vrana’s lead change inducing goal at 15:22 of the third period and Washington was in control of the scoreboard, 4-3.

Mike Sullivan pulled his goaltender for an extra skater with under two minutes remaining in regulation in search of a spark that could lead to a goal for Pittsburgh.

Things did not go as planned as Oshie (5) stripped Kessel of the puck in Washington’s defensive zone and fired a laser into the empty net from center ice to give the Capitals a two-goal lead, 5-3, at 18:29 of the third.

Sullivan then used his only timeout to settle his veteran team, recollect everyone’s thoughts and find a way to score two goals (at least) in the final 91 seconds of regulation play.

With 80 seconds left, Murray was once again able to vacate the goal for the extra skater.

With six seconds left, Eller (3)– having already jumped on a loose puck– put the game away on an empty net goal, 6-3, for Washington.

In all, nine different goal scorers combined led to a thrilling, offense-packed, Game 5 at Capital One Arena that saw the home team Capitals take a 3-2 series lead.

Washington had won the game, 6-3, and led in giveaways (15-12) after the 60 minute effort. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh’s going back home for Game 6 knowing they at least led in shots on goal (39-32), blocked shots (17-12), hits (28-26) and faceoff win percentage (51-49) in their loss in Game 5.

Barry Trotz’s Capitals can close out the series on the road at PPG Paints Arena in Game 6 on Monday. Puck drop is expected to be a little after 7:00 p.m. ET and viewers in the United States can catch the action on NBCSN, while fans in Canada can see the game on Sportsnet or TVAS.

Down the Frozen River Podcast #104- Vigilantes, Speed & Skill

Bill Torrey, Thursday’s trade, finalists for three more awards, front office musical chairs (or lack thereof), Draft lottery, Tom Wilson and what’s a good save percentage these days? Nick and Connor review the latest news and notes from around the NHL thanks to our unofficial sponsor, Pepperidge Farm.

Subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) and/or on Stitcher.

Caps halfway to Eastern Finals after 4-3 win

 

To reclaim home ice advantage, the Washington Capitals beat the Pittsburgh Penguins 4-3 at PPG Paints Arena in Game 3 of their Second Round matchup.

The biggest headline coming into this evening was that D Brian Dumoulin and F Evgeni Malkin would both be active for this game. Dumoulin was questionable after taking a hit up high from RW Tom Wilson in Game 2, while Malkin had been out since a Flyer landed awkwardly on his leg in Game 5 of the Pens’ First Round series.

A similar note pertaining to F Zach Aston-Reese will be necessary proceeding Game 4, and the fact that his perpetrator is the same as Dumoulin’s has resulted in Wilson drawing even more ire from Pittsburgh fans (if that was even possible). There’s no arguing that Wilson threw a high hit against Aston-Reese, but the referees were unable to make the determination if the Capital’s left shoulder met the rookie’s shoulder or head first, resulting in no penalty being called.

A particularly incriminating piece of evidence should Wilson receive any sort of discipline from the NHL’s Department of Player Safety will be the fact that not only was Aston-Reese dazed and bleeding on the ice even before knowledge of his injuries became known (according to the Penguins’ official Twitter account, Head Coach Mike Sullivan has since confirmed that Aston-Reese suffered a broken jaw, which will require surgery, and a concussion as a result of the hit), but also that Wilson’s follow-through on the blow ended with him seated on the sideboards in front of Washington’s bench.

To this amateur official, that indicates that the 6-foot-4 Wilson was intentionally trying to throw a high hit on the 6-foot Aston-Reese, but the only opinion that matters now is George Parros‘ – the man that heads the player safety office.

As for the occurrences of this game that actually showed up on the scoreboard, the Penguins did everything short of score a goal in the first period as they effectively dominated the first 16:21 of action. With the help of two power plays before the midway point of the period, Pittsburgh led in shots on goal (9-7) and face-off wins (61 percent) at the first intermission to keep play almost exclusively in its offensive zone.

Fortunately for the Caps, G Braden Holtby was back to his usual Vezina-winning self after casting doubt on his performance for much of the regular season. Of the offerings that weren’t blocked (D Brooks Orpik took credit for two of the Caps’ three blocks in the frame), Holtby saved all of the Pens’ nine shots on goal to keep the game scoreless.

However, the Pens’ dominance began to fade with 3:39 remaining in the period when First Star of the Game W Alex Ovechkin ripped the puck off D Kris Letang‘s stick to set up a one-on-one opportunity against G Matt Murray. Similar to Holtby, Murray was able to make that save, but Letang’s interference against Wilson at the resolution of Ovechkin’s play started to turn the tables in Washington’s favor.

The Capitals didn’t manage a shot on goal with that man-advantage, but Malkin tripping D Matt Niskanen only 20 seconds after Letang was released from the penalty box didn’t let the Pens capitalize on that positive energy. Instead, Washington fired the final three shots on goal to close the period with a bang.

Since Malkin’s foul had occurred with 1:10 remaining in the first period, he remained in the penalty box at the start of the second frame. Two seconds before he was released, D John Carlson (Second Star C Nicklas Backstrom and Ovechkin) converted the penalty into the Caps’ league-leading 11th power play goal of the postseason.

Washington didn’t enjoy that lead too long though, as Third Star F Jake Guentzel (D Justin Schultz and C Sidney Crosby) leveled the game only 3:45 later by batting down Schultz’ long-range wrist shot from the blue line.

The Penguins took two one-goal leads in this game, and the first of those scoring plays started at the 5:36 mark of the second period when Orpik was caught hooking RW Patric Hornqvist. 1:13 later, Hornqvist (Malkin and RW Phil Kessel) struck back to convert the infraction into a goal, setting the score at 2-1 with the Pens’ first power play marker of the series.

The high-scoring second period found its fourth goal with 8:56 remaining before the second intermission, courtesy of F Chandler Stephenson (F T.J. Oshie and Backstrom). This goal in particular was one that made the home crowd very upset, as it occurred only 1:17 after play was stopped for Wilson’s hit on Aston-Reese. Had Wilson been charged with a penalty for his hit, the shorthanded Capitals would likely not have been able to level the game at two-all – at least at that moment.

Crosby (Guentzel and Letang) and the Penguins had one goal left in them to set the score at 3-2 before the close of the second period, but Washington’s solid defense ensured that the captain’s four-on-four snap shot with 3:33 remaining in the frame was the last strike they had in them for the rest of the game.

Pittsburgh managed only three shots on goal in the third period, due in large part to the Capitals’ five blocked shots in the frame (including two by D Dmitry Orlov) and a combined total of 28 hits thrown by both teams (the Penguins out-hit Washington 52-41 for the entire game).

Meanwhile, the Capitals’ attack just kept right on chugging along. Niskanen (Orlov and Wilson) leveled the game at three-all at the 5:06 mark of the third period with his first playoff goal since April 29, 2017 (coincidentally against Pittsburgh, of course).

Play proceeded under a tied score for much of the frame, to the point that many in the Steel City were prepared to settle in for an overtime game. However, Ovechkin (Backstrom) did not seem so interested in that, as he provided Washington’s game-winning goal with only 1:07 remaining in regulation by batting his initial shot that bounced off the right post out of mid-air and into the back of Murray’s net.

That forced Sullivan to pull Murray, but the Penguins couldn’t even manage one shot on goal with the sixth attacker to affect the 4-3 final score.

Holtby saved 19-of-22 shots faced (.864 save percentage) in the victory, while Murray saved only 18-of-22 (.818) in the loss.

Beyond needing better goalkeeping from Murray, the Penguins desperately need another line than their top-three to produce some offense. Malkin getting back into the swing of things is a valid-enough excuse for the second line, but Kessel and C Derick Brassard managed only two combined shots on goal in the entire game from the third line. Until Pittsburgh can get back to having three potent attacking lines like they’ve had the last two seasons, these dreams of a three-peat will need to be put on the back burner.

Game 4 between these clubs will be right back at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, Pa. at 7 p.m. Eastern on Thursday, March 3. To catch the match, viewers should tune their televisions to NBCSN, SN or TVAS.

Caps win, 4-1, even series with Pens

pittsburgh_penguins_logoWashington Capitals Logo

 

 

Lars Eller (0-3—3) had the gifted playmaking hands in Washington’s 4-1 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday at Capital One Arena as the Capitals evened the Second Round series, 1-1.

Braden Holtby made 32 saves on 33 shots faced for a .970 save percentage in the win, while Penguins netminder, Matt Murray, amassed 28 saves on 31 shots against for a .903 SV% in 57:48 time on ice.

Similar to Game 1, the Capitals scored the game’s first goal early in the first period as Alex Ovechkin (7) rocketed one past Murray just over a minute into the game. The goal was unassisted at 1:26.

Evgeny Kuznetsov took the game’s first penalty after tripping Pittsburgh’s Riley Sheahan almost seven minutes into the action. The Penguins did not convert on the ensuing power play.

Penguins captain, Sidney Crosby, was penalized for hooking Washington forward, Nicklas Backstrom, at 12:59 of the fire period and the Capitals went on their first power play of the afternoon.

Holtby initiated a breakout from Washington’s defensive zone with a pass up the ice to Lars Eller. Eller connected Jakub Vrana (1) with the puck on his stick and Vrana brought it point blank before firing a shot high-glove side past Murray for his first career Stanley Cup Playoff goal.

Eller (1) and Holtby (1) notched the assists on the power play goal and the Capitals had a 2-0 lead late in the first period.

At least, the Capitals thought they had a two-goal lead at 14:54 of the first period until Penguins head coach, Mike Sullivan, almost put a stop to that, having used his coach’s challenge on the goal on the basis that Brett Connolly made enough contact with Murray prior to the goal being scored that would otherwise negate the goal (on the count of goaltender interference).

The goal was reviewed and the call on the ice was confirmed. Vrana had indeed scored his first career postseason goal and Pittsburgh lost their timeout.

Entering the first intermission, Washington was leading, 2-0, and outshooting the Penguins 2:1 (20 shots on goal to Pittsburgh’s 10 shots on goal).

Connolly (1) found himself on a breakaway early in the second period after collecting a stretch pass from Eller and fired a shot on Murray’s glove side. Despite catching a chunk of the puck, the vulcanized rubber biscuit deflected off of Murray and into the twine behind the Penguins netminder.

In what was yet another first, Connolly, had his first career Stanley Cup Playoff goal and the Capitals had a 3-0 lead at 2:08 of the second period. Eller (2) had his second assist of the afternoon.

Almost midway through the period, Tom Wilson caught Penguins defender, Brian Dumoulin, up high with what appeared to be an elbow to the head. Dumoulin did not return to Pittsburgh’s lineup.

Just past the halfway mark of the second period, tensions continued to escalate between the division rivals after the whistle as Patric Hornqvist and Dmitry Orlov began mixing things up with the gloves firmly glued onto their hands.

Both players received matching roughing minors and play continued.

Kris Letang (2) found the back of the net behind Holtby at 13:04 of the second period and put the Penguins on the scoreboard— cutting Washington’s three-goal lead to two.

Justin Schultz (4) and Jake Guentzel (10) had the assists on Letang’s goal.

Through 40 minutes of play, the Capitals led, 3-1, and shots on goal were even (26-26). Washington led in hits (29-26), takeaways (12-3) and giveaways (12-3), while the Penguins dominated the faceoff dot, winning 58-percent of the faceoffs taken through two periods. Pittsburgh was 0/1 on the power play and the Caps were 1/1 on the man advantage after two.

T.J. Oshie was guilty of interfering with Crosby early in the third period.

Pittsburgh thought they had found revenge on the scoreboard after Crosby wrapped around the goal, fired the puck off the side of the net and Hornqvist banked it off of Holtby’s right leg pad.

However, there was no indication on the ice that a goal had been scored, nor was there a signal (red light) from the goal judge behind the glass in the first row of seats. The play was immediately reviewed.

Although it appeared as if the puck had crossed the line and gone in from an angle that NBC showed on television, the league determined otherwise.

The call on the ice was confirmed after review. There was no conclusive angle, despite the fact that white space could be seen between the puck and the goal line from the aforementioned NBC angle. Yet, there was a snow pile on the goal line (making things difficult) and the overhead camera angle was further inconclusive.

Perhaps now is the time to reference once again that game back in the 2004 Stanley Cup Final, whereby Calgary… Well, let’s not bring up those memories and instead make a quick plug for goal line technology to be implemented— considering it’s 2018 and all.

Additionally, technically speaking, shouldn’t the ruling have been “inconclusive” instead of “confirmed” since there was no indication prior to review that a goal had not been scored?

It was a rough few minutes for Kuznetsov after the goal that never actually happened, as Letang had held him (and received a minor penalty) and Derick Brassard had tripped him up (also a minor penalty).

Despite not converting on the man advantage, Kuznetsov took it upon himself to commit the next penalty (slashing against Letang) and see if Washington’s penalty killing units were any better.

Sullivan pulled his goaltender for the extra skater with about two minutes remaining in regulation.

Matching roughing minors for Devante Smith-Pelly and Hornqvist forced Murray back into the goal briefly as the Penguins had to work the puck out of their own zone.

With roughly 80 seconds left in regulation, Murray, once again, vacated the net and Pittsburgh looked to do the impossible.

Washington put the game away with an empty net goal thanks to Backstrom (3) with about seven seconds remaining. Wilson (4) and Eller (3) had the assists on the goal that made it, 4-1, Capitals and assured the home team of the win in Game 2.

After 60 minutes had been played, Washington tied the series, 1-1, with a 4-1 victory and trailed in shots on goal, 33-32. The Caps led in blocked shots (31-24), hits (33-31) and giveaways (17-4). The Pens led in faceoff win percentage (56-44) and finished the afternoon 0/3 on the power play. Washington went 1/3 on the man advantage in Game 2.

The series shifts to PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on Tuesday night. Puck drop is expected to be a little after 7:30 p.m. ET and United States viewers can tune in on NBCSN. Fans in Canada can get their share of the action on Sportsnet or TVAS2. The winner of Game 3 will take a pivotal 2-1 series lead.

Hat tricks abound, but Guentzel’s leads Pens to Second Round

 

Philadelphia Flyers fans will argue (with some validity) that it was with some help from the officials, but the Pittsburgh Penguins successfully punched their ticket into the Second Round with an 8-5 victory at Wells Fargo Center in Game 6.

This was a wild back-and-forth affair that wasted no time in getting started, as Second Star of the Game C Sean Couturier needed only 2:15 of action to give Philadelphia an early lead. When D Jamie Oleksiak failed to collect W Bryan Rust‘s pass along the boards, Couturier pounced to beat D Chad Ruhwedel to the corner to G Matt Murray‘s left and took possession.

Couturier backhanded a centering pass towards Murray that he blocked into the center of the zone. That ended up being a very poor decision, as W Wayne Simmonds was able to continue applying the pressure with a wrist shot from right in front of the crease. Murray slowed the puck, but it ended up sitting loose in the blue paint, allowing Couturier to force it home with a wrister.

In all, the Flyers absolutely dominated play for the opening 6:26 of action, as they out-shot Pittsburgh seven-to-two.

That all changed after the first TV timeout though, as Third Star C Sidney Crosby (D Kris Letang and D Brian Dumoulin) cleaned up Letang’s slap shot from the blue line to level the game at the 6:30 mark. G Michal Neuvirth was able to make the initial save, but the Penguins’ set play was designed to give Crosby a rebound opportunity in case the netminder yielded one to his glove side.

Only 47 seconds after Crosby tied the game for the Pens, LW Carl Hagelin (RW Phil Kessel and C Riley Sheahan) took a quick pass from Kessel to give Pittsburgh the advantage. The Flyers defense was largely to blame for this play, as there were two players crashing on Kessel inside the trapezoid to leave the center of the zone wide open for Hagelin. Waiting at the left corner of the crease for Kessel’s pass, Hagelin took advantage of the open shot to beat Neuvirth to the far post.

But the Flyers were far from ready to give up that easily, as they were able to level the game at 2-2 4:12 before the intermission courtesy of D Andrew MacDonald‘s (D Ivan Provorov and Couturier) clapper from the point. MacDonald had the luxury of Simmonds and Oleksiak screening Murray, allowing him to beat the netminder glove side with ease.

Only one penalty was charged in the first period, and it is there where Philadelphians’ critiques of the zebras will begin. It was a wild play around the 17:30 mark of the frame that started with a W Conor Sheary snap shot. With the help of the near post, Neuvirth was able to make the save, and the resulting scrum in front of his crease quickly became a dog-pile of all players Pennsylvanian.

Somehow, only C Scott Laughton was charged with an infraction (interference against C Derick Brassard) with 1:25 remaining in the period, but fortunately for the Flyers it did not cost them their third goal against.

Riding the positive energy from completing the kill in the second period (35 seconds carried across the intermission), Philadelphia reclaimed the lead at the 40 second mark when Couturier (W Matt Read) scored his second of the game. Similar to the first, he had to grind this tally out, as Murray initially appeared to survive the center’s patient pull across his crease. However, Couturier’s backhanded shot eventually squeaked under the netminder and into the back of the net.

In a game filled with goals, the fact that there was 11:34 between Couturier’s tally and Laughton’s (Couturier) long-range snapper was unbelievable. However, the Flyers weren’t complaining one bit, as they earned the first two-goal game of the lead.

Of course, we all know what is said about two-goal leads, so it didn’t take long for the Penguins to begin storming back. RW Patric Hornqvist (First Star F Jake Guentzel and Crosby) pulled Pittsburgh back within one goal 1:21 after the horn stopped blaring for Laughton by completing some stellar passing with a wrister. Hornqvist had the luxury of a gaping cage due in large part to Guentzel’s well-earned reputation for clutch playoff performances (a point he’d further cement in the third period), as Neuvirth fully committed to stopping any shot the sophomore could attempt on his blocker side.

Speaking of Guentzel’s playoff scoring abilities, he (D Olli Maatta and Hornqvist) was the one responsible for tying the game at 4-4 with 54 seconds remaining in the second period.

Also in that category, Guentzel scored Pittsburgh’s fifth (assist from Kessel at the 30 second mark), sixth (assists from Crosby and Letang at the 12:48 mark) for his second-ever hat trick (both in the playoffs) and seventh goals of the game (assists from Hornqvist and Letang at the 12:58 mark).

It was the game-winning goal where officiating started to look a little fishy. Having already been sent to the penalty box for cross checking Couturier with 9:23 remaining in regulation (then setting up 1:28 of four-on-three play for the Flyers), it seemed like Letang was guilty of a fairly obvious tripping penalty against Couturier along the boards in Philadelphia’s defensive zone. However, play was allowed to continue, allowing Guentzel to bury his slap shot from between the face-off circles past Neuvirth’s glove.

Let the boo birds begin their song.

Surely mad at not getting the call he thought he deserved, Couturier (F Claude Giroux) set the score at 7-5 with 2:53 remaining in regulation to complete his hat trick. Penguins Head Coach Mike Sullivan challenged for goaltender interference, but it was ruled that Murray was able to play his position after the slight contact from the eventual goalscorer.

Couturier scored with Neuvirth pulled for the extra attacker, and – with his club facing elimination – Head Coach Dave Hakstol employed that strategy once again for any glimmer of hope that his team could score two more goals.

They would not be able to pull that off, but one goal was left to be scored: an empty netter by Rust with 31 seconds remaining in regulation.

Of course, this being the Battle of Pennsylvania, even this simple play could not go off without some gritty play. However, it was Maatta’s blatant cross check against a Flyer at center ice immediately before Rust’s goal that once again drew the ire of the Philly crowd.

Similar to Letang’s, this infraction went “unnoticed” by the officials and the orange-clad fans let them know about – not only with a chorus of boos, but also with rally towels and beer cans of various volumes.

While it is unwise to condone such behavior from fans, it’s hard to argue with their judgement. This was a built-up frustration stemming from the missed Letang penalty (at minimum) that truly could have influenced the outcome of this game, and it boiled over when Maatta’s penalty also went uncalled.

With one rivalry behind them, the Penguins now await the winner of the Columbus-Washington series for Round Two in their quest for a three-peat. The Capitals own a 3-2 advantage going into Game 6, which is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Eastern tomorrow night. Pens fans should tune their televisions to CNBC, SN or TVAS2 to find out which capital their club will square off against next: Ohio’s or the nation’s.

Rangers, Vigneault will bounce back

Shortly after their last game of the season on Saturday, the New York Rangers relieved Alain Vigneault of his head coaching duties. In his fifth year with the organization, the Rangers went 34-39-9 (77 points) and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2010.

It was Vigneault’s worst year in the Big Apple. It was a transition year for a team retooling on the fly– trading away Rick Nash, Ryan McDonagh, J.T. Miller and others for centerpieces in Ryan Spooner and Vladislav Namestnikov (among other assets).

Now it’s time for someone else to take the reins behind the bench of King Henrik’s team.

The clock is ticking in goaltender Henrik Lundqvist‘s quest for his first Stanley Cup. Vigneault was almost the man to do it having brought the Rangers all the way to the 2014 Stanley Cup Final in his first season with New York.

That was the closest Lundqvist has ever been– just three wins away– but the Los Angeles Kings had other plans, given it only took them five games to beat New York for the Los Angeles’s second Stanley Cup championship in three years.

It was the closest the Rangers had come to winning its first Cup since defeating the Vancouver Canucks in 1994.

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The 2014-15 season witnessed a franchise record 113 points in the regular season– good enough to notch the President’s Trophy as the NHL’s best record that year. Vigneault’s team knocked out Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins in five games in the First Round in the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Then New York got behind in the Second Round series with the Washington Capitals, 3-1. Chris Kreider tied Game 5, McDonagh scored the game winner in overtime and the Rangers rallied back in the series to force the first Game 7 at Madison Square Garden since Game 7 in the 1994 Stanley Cup Final against the Canucks.

For the first time in Stanley Cup Playoff history, the Rangers were to battle the Tampa Bay Lightning for the Prince of Wales Trophy in the 2015 Eastern Conference Final.

Despite a decisive 7-3 victory in Game 6 on the road at Amalie Arena, New York was shutout, 2-0, in Game 7 on home ice.

They wouldn’t get another chance to come that close to the Stanley Cup Final with Vigneault behind the bench.

The 2015-16 Rangers finished third in the Metropolitan Division with 101 points and battled Mike Sullivan‘s Penguins in the First Round of the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs. It only took five games for the Rangers to be eliminated in Pittsburgh’s tear through the playoffs to their first Cup since 2009.

In 2016-17, New York regrouped with a 102-point season, but was cursed by the NHL’s current playoff format.

The Rangers were relegated to the first wild card spot in the Eastern Conference since three teams finished ahead of them in the Metropolitan Division with at least 108 points or more.

New York had four more points in the regular season than the Ottawa Senators (98 points)– who finished second in the Atlantic Division– and seven more points than the Boston Bruins (95 points, 3rd in the Atlantic) and Toronto Maple Leafs (95 points, second wild card in the Eastern Conference by virtue of having three fewer regulation-plus-overtime wins than Boston).

Vigneault’s team got by Michel Therrien’s Montreal Canadiens in six games of the First Round in what was touted as a rematch of the 2014 Eastern Conference Final.

Then they ran into the streaking Senators who had beaten the Bruins in their own six game series.

Ottawa jumped out to a 2-0 series lead with home ice advantage– despite having the worse of the two teams’s regular season records, but the Rangers seemed unfazed having won Games 3 and 4 at Madison Square Garden 4-1 and 4-1, respectively.

Kyle Turris ended Game 5 almost six-and-a-half minutes into overtime at Canadian Tire Centre and the Rangers found themselves in a 3-2 series hole heading home for Game 6.

Senators captain, Erik Karlsson, had a goal and an assist in Ottawa’s decisive 4-2 victory on road ice and New York hit the golf course after just two rounds of the 2017 postseason.

Time kept ticking. Lundqvist got older.

Management grew more frustrated with the lack of a direction.

Dead last in the Metropolitan Division after all 82 games this season and under .500 for the first time since the 2003-04 season, Vigneault’s dismissal comes as no surprise.

It’s what is expected of any organization that expects to finish first, but fails in a rather large fashion.

Even more so with the league getting younger, skaters getting faster and teams placing more of an emphasis on a constant attack, a constant barrage of offense.

Lias Andersson, Pavel Buchnevich, Spooner, Namestnikov and crew have already showcased a new face of the game in “The World’s Most Famous Arena”, while Vigneault’s systems might have been the only thing slowing them down in the waning days of the season.

It was time to shake things up and head in that new face of the game’s direction.

For the first time since the 1967-68 season only one coach was fired in-season (thanks to Mother Nature having played a part in extending the season by a day due to Boston’s rescheduled matchup from January with the Florida Panthers).

Unfortunately for Vigneault, he was that coach.

New York will be just fine.

They’re stockpiled with prospects and have already integrated youth, skill and speed into their lineup.

Now general manager Jeff Gorton will look to patch the blue line and give Lundqvist a high-caliber backup goaltender to ease the workload of the grueling regular season schedule.

It might not be the quickest turnaround, but it shouldn’t turn out to become an annual groan-fest watching the Blueshirts next season.

For Vigneault, there will be other opportunities.

He led Vancouver to the 2011 Stanley Cup Final in the midst of President’s Trophy seasons. He led New York back to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in a generation. He’ll be studying hard, but he’s still in demand.

Somewhere there’s a team looking for his veteran coaching presence– like Buffalo– or a team that just missed the cut this season, but is on the brinks of a breakout year that very well might end up with their first Stanley Cup Final appearance since 1970– like St. Louis.

But alas, this is all merely speculation.

More coaches will be fired for their team’s shortcomings (of their own fault or otherwise) this offseason upon diligent review in front office’s league-wide.

Rangers fans may be glad and it should be a mutual feeling of respect and good luck. They had a good run that lasted a while, but ultimately came up empty handed. Times have changed, players moved on and the game evolved.

Somewhere, Vigneault is that missing piece a franchise is looking for and it won’t just be a team finally getting over that mountain, but a head coach too.

Down the Frozen River Podcast #100– DTFR100 Celebration

In a first, everyone (except for Jordan) appears on the Down the Frozen River Podcast to predict how the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs will go before the 2017-18 NHL regular season even ends, technically speaking. The 100th episode anniversary is informally observed.

Subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) and/or on Stitcher.

Numbers Game: Last Week To Make It Count

Ladies and gentlemen, the Stanley Cup Playoffs begin this month. It’s officially April. Start saving your money for either 1) playoff tickets or 2) tee times– there is no in-between.

Each month has brought a new twist to the latest forecasted standings here on Down the Frozen River and in the spirit of finishing off the season, here’s one final look at how things should pan out with one week remaining in the 2017-18 regular season.

It’s okay to tell Microsoft Excel you disagree, so by all means, take these numbers for what you want. A holistic viewpoint goes a lot further in the world of analytics and a salary cap. At this point, it’s almost worth more to focus on where your team is expected to fall in the standings than how many points they should amass on the season.

And if you’re embracing the tank, you might as well forget about it. The NHL draft lottery usually shakes things up pretty well anyway.

Anyway, here’s how the standings should shake out for all 31 NHL franchises based on their performances through March 31, 2018. Keep in mind my degree is in communication– not math. These are merely educated “I know how to use Excel to make things happen” guesses.

2017-2018 Projected Standings after Five Months

Eastern Conference

Atlantic Division

  1. p-Boston Bruins, 117 points (77 GP so far)
  2. x-Tampa Bay Lightning, 111 points (78 GP so far)
  3. x-Toronto Maple Leafs, 104 points (78 GP so far)
  4. Florida Panthers, 89 points (77 GP so far)
  5. Detroit Red Wings, 75 points (79 GP so far)
  6. Ottawa Senators, 73 points (78 GP so far)
  7. Montreal Canadiens, 70 points (78 GP so far)
  8. Buffalo Sabres, 64 points (78 GP so far)

Surging through March despite numerous injuries, the Boston Bruins claw their way not only into first place in the Atlantic Division standings (and Eastern Conference standings as a whole), but they land themselves just their third President’s Trophy in franchise history as the league leaders at the conclusion of the 2017-18 regular season.

Despite their late season hiccups, the Tampa Bay Lightning settle for 2nd in the Atlantic Division and gear up for what should be a deeper than the First Round playoff appearance.

The Toronto Maple Leafs make some noise with their second consecutive postseason appearance, but are no match for the long journey to the Cup this season (give it one more postseason, Leafs fans. Next year, it’s totally your year).

Somehow the Ottawa Senators string together a few wins to surpass the Montreal Canadiens. Meanwhile the Florida Panthers stumble just as quietly out of playoff contention as they began the season.

Metropolitan Division

  1. y-Washington Capitals, 104 points (78 GP so far)
  2. x-Pittsburgh Penguins, 99 points (79 GP so far)
  3. x-Columbus Blue Jackets, 98 points (79 GP so far)
  4. wc1-New Jersey Devils, 98 points (78 GP so far)
  5. wc2-Philadelphia Flyers, 97 points (78 GP so far)
  6. Carolina Hurricanes, 83 points (79 GP so far)
  7. New York Rangers, 80 points (79 GP so far)
  8. New York Islanders, 78 points (79 GP so far)

The Washington Capitals always seem to find a way to win their division. Especially in what has been Braden Holtby‘s season from hell (have you checked his goals against average and save percentage this season yet? Because if you’re a Caps fan and you haven’t, maybe you shouldn’t for your own good heading into the playoffs).

In what has equally been as difficult a season for Matt Murray in goal for the Pittsburgh Penguins, the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions should have home ice for a First Round matchup with the Columbus Blue Jackets that shouldn’t go less than seven games. Best friends in real life, Mike Sullivan and John Tortorella, just might put their friendship to the test for a couple of weeks.

Both of the Eastern Conference wild cards are going to Metropolitan Division teams this season as the New Jersey Devils and Philadelphia Flyers are welcomed back to the postseason with open arms.

If you’re a Carolina Hurricanes fan, next year seems enticing to break the playoff drought– and it’s only fitting, since 2019 will mark 10 years since Carolina last made the Stanley Cup playoffs.

And if you’re John Tavares, maybe you’re looking elsewhere from the abysmal New York Islanders this offseason. Say for instance, the quickly rebuilding New York Rangers?

Western Conference

Central Division

  1. z-Nashville Predators, 114 points (78 GP so far)
  2. x-Winnipeg Jets, 114 points (78 GP so far)
  3. x-Minnesota Wild, 99 points (78 GP so far)
  4. wc1-St. Louis Blues, 98 points (78 GP so far)
  5. Colorado Avalanche, 94 points (78 GP so far)
  6. Dallas Stars, 89 points (79 GP so far)
  7. Chicago Blackhawks, 78 points (79 GP so far)

The Nashville Predators edge out the Winnipeg Jets in regulation-plus-overtime wins to lay claim to the Western Conference’s best regular season record and home ice through the Western Conference Final. Both teams are set for what should at least be postseason appearances extending into the Second Round.

Since Winnipeg is likely to knock out the Minnesota Wild in a quick series, let’s skip right over them to talk about the St. Louis Blues for a minute.

They thought it was a great idea to get rid of Paul Stastny at the trade deadline– giving up his dominance on the faceoff dot– and yet, here they are with a final week of the season push for the playoffs.

Of course, it helps that the Colorado Avalanche lost Semyon Varlamov and Erik Johnson to injuries (with the Johnson injury being the bigger blow to Nathan MacKinnon‘s Hart Trophy worthy season and the rest of the Avs).

At least Tyler Seguin reached the 40-goal mark for the Dallas Stars and the Chicago Blackhawks still have Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.

Pacific Division

  1. y-Vegas Golden Knights, 113 points (79 GP so far)
  2. x-San Jose Sharks, 101 points (79 GP so far)
  3. x-Los Angeles Kings, 95 points (79 GP so far)
  4. wc2-Anaheim Ducks, 95 points (78 GP so far)
  5. Calgary Flames, 85 points (79 GP so far)
  6. Edmonton Oilers, 79 points (79 GP so far)
  7. Vancouver Canucks, 75 points (79 GP so far)
  8. Arizona Coyotes, 72 points (79 GP so far)

An expansion franchise almost clinched the Western Conference regular season title. The Vegas Golden Knights are that good and should make an impressive effort into at least the Second Round of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. It’s pure insanity, but it’s fun to watch.

If you’re a California resident, there’s good news, all three of your teams will be in the postseason (again). Just switch your hats and/or jerseys to whoever’s playing that night and hope for the best (pick San Jose, they seem like a good dark horse).

The Calgary Flames get the honor of “best of the worst teams in the west”, which I’m sure will tie into the Stampede Festival somehow– if not solely because their owner is looking to stampede out of the city and into a new arena elsewhere.

Poor Connor McDavid, it must be demoralizing to have back-to-back 100-point seasons on a team that has only made the playoffs once in his young career.

And you probably shouldn’t write off the Arizona Coyotes entirely, because they very well could make the Vancouver Canucks look worse and jump from 8th to 7th in the division by season’s end.

If you’re so inclined to see how things were expected to pan out this season back in October, you can do so here.