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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.

Columbus Blue Jackets 2018-19 Season Preview

Columbus Blue Jackets

45-30-7, 97 points, fourth in the Metropolitan Division

First Wild Card in the East, lost in First Round to Washington (4-2)

Additions: G Jean-Francois Berube, D Adam Clendening, D Tommy Cross, LW Anthony Duclair, C Liam Foudy (’18 1st round pick, signed ELC), C Ryan MacInnis, C Riley Nash, D Dillon Simpson

Subtractions: LW Matt Calvert (signed with COL), D Taylor Chorney (signed with HC Lugano), D Ian Cole (signed with COL), D Cameron Gaunce (signed with TB), D Jack Johnson (signed with PIT), C Mark Letestu (unsigned UFA), RW Thomas Vanek (signed with DET)

Re-signed: RW Oliver Bjorkstrand (3-year, $2.5M), LW Boone Jenner (4-year, $3.75M), D Ryan Murray (1 year, $2.825M)

Offseason Analysis: The Jackets enjoyed a successful, if not slightly underwhelming ’17-’18 campaign, where all-time high hopes were somewhat cooled by some notable underachieving seasons from players like Boone Jenner, Brandon Dubinsky and even captain Nick Foligno. Fortunately these were offset somewhat by terrific years from players like rookie standout Pierre-Luc Dubois, emerging Norris Trophy candidate Seth Jones, and superstar Artemi Panarin. They’d close out the regular season on a 15-4-2 run over their final 21 games to lose out to Philadelphia for the final Metropolitan Division spot by a single point, instead drawing the first Wild Card spot and a date with the Washington Capitals.

The Jackets shocked everyone by taking Games 1 and 2 of the series in Washington, both in thrilling overtime fashion, to head back home with a 2-0 hold on the series. Then came “The Promise”. Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin told the media they’d be back in Washington for Game 5 with the series tied. They did just that, and rode the momentum on through the Blue Jackets, and everyone else in their way as they went on to grab the first Stanley Cup in franchise history. This was no consolation prize in the minds of Jackets fans, though, as losing to the eventual Stanley Cup champions is sort of a calling card in Columbus’ recent history. *throws another dart at a poster of Sidney Crosby*

Now, with another disappointing playoff performance on their record, a list of notable pending free agents on their plate, and the ever-looming Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin contract situations on their hands, the Columbus brass faced a rather trying offseason. But, as has been his MO over the years, GM Jarmo Kekalainen wasn’t about to panic. Or really show any sort of human emotion of any kind. I think that’s just a Finnish thing.

First came the NHL draft, where once again ‘J.K.’ and his staff went a bit off the board for their first round pick, drafting speedster Liam Foudy 18th overall. Generally projected as a very-late first or early second round pick, Foudy caught the eye of the CBJ scouting staff for his ability to inject speed into their lineup, something it could definitely use. While likely to spend at least another year in Juniors, Foudy did ink his entry level contract over the summer.

When free agency opened, the Jackets very quickly lost longtime roster stalwarts Jack Johnson (fans weren’t that upset) and Matt Calvert (fans held memorial services), along with rentals Thomas Vanek, Ian Cole, and Mark Letestu. Kekalainen quickly nabbed penalty-killing specialist Riley Nash to replace Letestu’s bottom-six depth. Initially his $2.75 million cap hit over the next three years seemed slightly steep for a guy who projects as a third-line center at best, but with the raised cap and resulting numbers we saw on some other signings/re-signings over the summer, the deal has aged fairly well. A few days later the Jackets would pick up troubled youngster Anthony Duclair on a league-minimum $650 thousand, one-year deal. Likened to the ‘show me’ contract given to Sam Gagner by the Jackets a few years ago that paid dividends, Columbus is hedging bets on Duclair’s willingness to shed some of the baggage he’s accumulated over the past few seasons and work hard to get back to being the player that scored 20 goals and 44 points as a 20-year-old. If he can, he’s an absolute steal. If he can’t, he’s barely even a blip on the salary cap radar, and could be placed on waivers without much concern.

Kekalainen decided to let his organizational depth fill the rest of the vacancies in the roster (which has definitely created one of the more intriguing training camps to watch). Instead, he invested a good portion of his time and effort over the summer into attempting to secure the future services of Artemi Panarin and, to a lesser extent, Sergei Bobrovsky. Bobrovsky only recently broke his silence about his situation, revealing that management knows his plans after his contract expires next summer, but declined to make public that information.

Cryptic.

The Panarin situation was much more public, and highlighted by Kekalainen flying to France to visit with Panarin and his agent while the dynamic winger was on vacation. No real progress was made on a contract extension, as Panarin seems likely to either test the waters of free agency or possibly even return to Russia after this season. Some reports indicated he’d prefer to play in a larger market than Columbus, or perhaps at least a market with a beach (he did spend the last month or so of the offseason training with friends Nikita Kucherov and Andrei Vasilevskiy in Tampa), but no solid proof of any of this ever emerged.

The prospects of a future in Columbus that include neither their most potent offensive weapon nor their multi-time Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender are not fun to consider for the fanbase, but they do appear to be looming. In net, the Jackets do at least boast one of the strongest goaltending prospect pools in the league, but that’s far from a sure thing. Apart from possibly young Vitaly Abramov, they certainly don’t have anyone currently in the pipeline that could replace Panarin’s offensive production.

Getting away from the doom and gloom, let’s circle back to the earlier claim of a very interesting training camp.

The Jackets’ camp roster includes over 60 players, and there are some very tight battles for more than a few roster spots. The race for bottom-six wing minutes is hotly contested. Players with Blue Jackets tenure like Sonny Milano, Markus Hannikainen, and Lukas Sedlak now find themselves being challenged by newcomer Duclair, along with a serious pool of prospects like Sam Vigneault, Kevin Stenlund, Eric Robinson, Jonathan Davidsson, Paul Bittner and even 2018 draft picks Foudy and Traverse City tournament standout Trey Fix-Wolansky.

While I don’t see the 2018 picks making the roster (more time in Juniors would serve their development better than limited fourth-line NHL minutes), the rest are interesting. Duclair obviously adds an element of offense and speed, but has also shown he’s not afraid to play with an edge as well. Vigneault and Stenlund are both every bit of 6-foot-5 and well over 200 pounds, but lack some speed and are both natural centers, a position that should be filled on the roster. Bittner is a superior skater to either of the ‘Twin Towers’, still comes in at 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds, and is a natural wing, but has struggled to adapt his offensive game to the pro level to this point. Robinson played one game with the Jackets last year coming in as a free agent after captaining the Princeton Tigers in his senior year where he put up 31 points in 36 games. His pro game has yet to really be seen, so training camp and preseason will be important for him. To me, the most interesting name at forward is the Swedish RW Davidsson. An effortless skater, he brings plenty of speed and agility to the lineup, and has shown to be an extremely intelligent playmaker, but he’s definitely not a physical presence nor a defensive stalwart, so not who you’d normally have in a bottom-six role. He could probably use another year in either the SHL or AHL to continue his physical and defensive development, but if he impresses in camp he could at least get a look.

My projected forward lines are:
Panarin – Dubois – Atkinson
Jenner – Wennberg – Bjorkstrand
Milano – Dubinsky – Foligno
Sedlak – Nash – Anderson
Extra forwards Hannikainen and Duclair

On defense, Columbus has the luxury of one of the best top pairs in the league, with Seth Jones alongside blueline sniper Zach Werenski. Werenski set the franchise record for goals as a defenseman last year while playing basically the entire year with a destroyed shoulder. Offseason surgery will keep him slightly limited in camp and likely out of all preseason games, but he’s projected to be 100 percent ready to go for the beginning of the season. After the top pair, though, things are pretty fluid, with approximately seven players vying for the four remaining spots. Three of the four (David Savard, Ryan Murray and Markus Nutivaara) are pretty well locked into the lineup, just more a question of where exactly they’ll sit on the depth chart. But the competition for the No. 6 spot and final roster spot as the seventh man is tight. Dean Kukan and Scott Harrington both saw limited NHL action with the Jackets last year, with Kukan putting up a respectable 4 points in 11 games and Harrington proving to be a reliable No. 6 down the stretch run. Adam Clendening only saw five games with Arizona last year, and has bounced between the leagues a lot in the past few seasons, but his last full season in the AHL saw him put up 59 points in 74 games. He’s not always the most defensively reliable guy, but he’s the best puck mover of the contenders. My personal pick for not only the Jackets roster but also for the No. 6 slot is 6-foot-5 Gabriel Carlsson. While still working to put some bulk on his lanky frame, Carlsson has already adapted well to the North American game, being a steady presence on the Cleveland blueline last year in the AHL. While certainly not an offensive producer, he’s very poised with the puck and is a confident passer. He skates well and uses his lengthy reach to make sure he’s always in good position. He’s also capable of playing either side of the ice.

I have the defense shaping up like this:
Werenski – Jones
Murray – Savard
Carlsson – Nuutivaara
Extra defenseman Harrington

In net, things are unlikely to look any different than last year. While J.F. Berube was brought in to challenge for the backup position after Joonas Korpisalo had a bit of regression last year, he’ll likely head to Cleveland as Korpi’s deal is one-way. Elvis Merzilikins and Daniil Tarasov are both top goaltending prospects, but they’ll continue their development overseas for the time being.

Offseason Grade: C+

Though there seems to be a general sense that more should have been done to improve the team over the summer, the handful of moves made were smart. The big thing here is that there is a lot of potential turmoil brewing heading towards next year. Kekalainen was likely smart not to hedge any knee-jerk bets on this season and instead rely upon his strong organizational depth to improve the team.

If the youngsters make an impact, and you get a rebound season from a vet or two, suddenly even the prospect of losing your two Russian dynamos seems less daunting. Panarin is definitely trade bait for a big return before the deadline if you need to go that route, and if the team gets better from within, that leaves big chunks of cap space to bring in other pieces if necessary.

While they’ll obviously look to improve their fortunes (particularly in the playoffs) this year, it will really be next offseason where the brass will have to earn those shiny new contracts they received this month.

2018 Offseason Preview: Anaheim Ducks

The theme of aquatic birds continues in DtFR’s offseason preview series, as it’s time to tackle the Anaheim Ducks’ priorities regarding their pending free agents.

Featuring a playoff roster with an average age of 28.5-years-old, logic would indicate the Ducks are in their prime. However, even though they’ve qualified for the postseason for six-straight seasons, they’ve failed to advance beyond the first round in half of those appearances – including a four-game sweep at the hands of the San Jose Sharks this April.

One of the biggest concerns about this Anaheim club is it plays an old-fashioned, grind-it-out style that simply doesn’t mesh well against the increasingly quicker and technically-sound opponents.

In simpler terms, the Ducks need to get younger and faster.

2018 NHL Entry Draft

One of the easiest ways to get younger is with a solid draft class, and Anaheim will have that opportunity with the 23rd-overall selection.

If one of the mock drafts I’ve compiled (all of which are available at Elite Prospects) are correct, I’d bet on General Manager Bob Murray selecting D Alexander Alexeyev (Red Deer Rebels), C Ryan McLeod (Mississauga Steelheads), D Rasmus Sandin (Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds) or D Bode Wilde (USNTDP) with his first round selection.

If there’s one thing the Ducks’ scouts know, it’s definitely defense. Cam Fowler, Hampus Lindholm and Josh Manson are all solid blueliners 26-years-old or younger that will service this organization for years to come, and I’d only expect Alexeyev, Sandin or Wilde to join the group if they’re deemed truly worthy.

That’s what makes McLeod such an attractive option. Even though the 18-year-old is all but ensured at least one more season with the Steelheads, Anaheim’s deep defense gives it the opportunity to invest in restocking its attack.

McLeod had a breakout season in 2017-18, registering 26-44-70 totals in 68 games played (1.03 points per game), followed by 2-3-5 marks in his six postseason appearances. If he can take command of the club following the potential departure of brother F Michael McLeod (12th-overall pick by New Jersey in 2016) and lead Mississauga on a deep playoff run, Anaheim could happen into a stellar young forward.

Pending free agents

Let’s tackle Anaheim’s easiest position first: goaltending. G John Gibson and G Ryan Miller are both under contract for one more season, so the Ducks will likely make no moves in this department. The most important note here is making sure Murray reserves money on the back burner for Gibson next summer (he’ll be an RFA, for those that care about those sorts of things). He currently has a touch over $9 million in cap space this season and a whopping $23 million to play with in 2019-20.

Along the blue line, D Kevin Bieksa (UFA), D Brandon Montour (RFA) and D Andy Welinski (RFA) are all looking for jobs, but I’d argue that only Montour is truly worth a big-time contract.

Montour’s 20:28 time on ice per game was fourth on the team, and the same can be said for his .4 points per game. At 24-years-old, he’ll be worth every penny of any contract he receives to play an imposing presence as a top-four defenseman.

Having just turned 37-years-old Saturday following a 0-8-8, -13 season in 59 games played, it’s hard to see a way Bieksa returns to Anaheim for a fourth season. That makes signing Welinski –  the Ducks’ third-round pick in 2011 – to a low-cost, two-way contract all the easier to swallow.

Instead, the toughest decisions for Anaheim will be made in the forwards room. RW J.T. Brown, W Jason Chimera, C Derek Grant, W Ondrej Kase, F Chris Kelly, LW Nick Ritchie and F Antoine Vermette are all looking for contracts this summer, with all but Kase and Ritchie being of the UFA variety.

Regardless of type, Kase is by far the most important free agent on Anaheim’s plate this summer. He reached the 20-goal plateau in his second season in the NHL, and he needed only 66 games to do it. He may not compare to RW Teemu Selanne (I mean, the Finnish Flash did score 76 goals in his rookie season compared to Kase’s five), but I believe he’s fully ready to climb into a top-six position with F Rickard Rakell to lead this Ducks team when F Ryan Kesler and C Ryan Getzlaf depart.

In a similar fashion, fellow 22-year-old Ritchie should also receive a fresh deal to keep him in Orange County. While not quite the scorer Kase is (he managed only 10-17-27 totals in 76 games played this season), Ritchie is an excellent third-liner that still has more than enough time to develop into a real weapon from his position. Get him a bridge deal for a cap hit under $1.25 million and move on.

Anaheim’s most important UFA is Grant, a player that provided 12-12-24 totals in 66 appearances this season from his position on the fourth line. Coming off a one-year, $650 thousand deal, he’ll likely sign for cheap to give the Ducks four solid centers.

The rest of the UFAs (Brown – 27, Chimera – 39, Kelly – 37, Vermette – 35) either don’t fit with the “get younger” plan or simply aren’t worth the money (looking at you, Brown). Anaheim can either promote a forward from its organization (I like pending RFA F Kalle Kossila) or acquire another from outside to fill its 13th forward position.

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.

2018 Offseason Preview: Columbus Blue Jackets

Our offseason previews for all 31 National Hockey League teams continues with the Columbus Blue Jackets and their outlook for the summer.

The Jackets finished the 2017-18 season with a record of 45-30-7, capping a strong (albeit inconsistent) campaign with 97 points, earning them fourth place in the Metropolitan Division and a playoff birth as the first wild card in the East.

After taking two dramatic overtime victories in Washington to start the playoffs, the soldiers in Union Blue fell on their bayonets by dropping four-straight games (including three within the friendly confines of Nationwide Arena) to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Washington Capitals and were once again eliminated from contention in the opening round of the playoffs.

I mean, would they really be the Blue Jackets if they didn’t get your hopes up before firing them out of that cannon?

Though the core of a solid-if-not-spectacular team is likely to remain through the summer, the front office is now feeling the pressure of raising a team that they drug out of the trenches by the bootstraps to the next level. The fanbase will no longer accept ‘just making the playoffs’, and though there’s still plenty of promising youth onboard, some key players like captain Nick Foligno are sliding into the back half of their careers. This is a team that needs to win, and needs to do it soon.

How can they do that? I’m glad you asked. (If you didn’t actually ask, I’m still going to tell you.)

2018 NHL Entry Draft

The Jackets are decently well-stocked to try and score some talent in this year’s draft, with a pick in each of the first three rounds, along with another in both the sixth and seventh. It will be those early-round picks that are likely to mean the most to GM Jarmo Kekalainen and his staff, as this year’s extremely deep draft class means that you’re likely to nab some serious quality (or perhaps have a bigger bargaining chip should you decide to trade picks for another asset) deeper in than usual.

It’s not overly likely that the CBJ will look to acquire further picks, though they could perhaps look to trade up from their 18th spot in line. With Jack Johnson a pending UFA who looks very likely to be on the move (his recent time in Columbus has been tumultuous, and a change of scenery could be the spark he needs to reignite his career) come July 1, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that we could see a deal made to send his negotiating rights and that 18th pick to a team further up the draft order.

As for likely selections with whatever first round pick they happen to have (we’ll pretend that if they trade up, it will be a small swing, maybe in the 12-15 position at most), a few names stand out to me as filling potential needs.

Serron Noel, a 6-foot-5, 205-pound right winger out of the OHL (Oshawa Generals) could be a fit on a team with few natural right wingers. A solid, if not outstanding scorer in juniors, Noel is still filling out his large frame and is likely to continue improving his burgeoning offensive game, drawing comparisons to power forwards like Wayne Simmonds. An eventual perhaps third-and-fourth line RW tandem of Noel and Josh Anderson would be a lot of meat to throw at opposing defenses.

Bode Wilde, a 6-foot-2, 196-pound right shooting defenseman from the United States National Team Development Program, is a very good possibility. Regarded as one of the better all-round defenders in a draft that is not lacking them, Wilde could eventually complete a defense corps that boasts himself along with David Savard and Seth Jones down the right side. Not a bad lineup there. In particular, his booming slap shot would be a welcome addition on a power play unit that hasn’t had a true cannon since James Wisniewski‘s departure. Also, he has a sick hockey name.

My personal pick for the most likely selection comes in the form of Swedish Elite League center Isac Lundestrom. At 6-feet and 185 pounds, he’s not far off from good NHL size, and with the additional polish his defensive game could use, he’d likely have plenty of time to hit the weight room before reaching the Jackets lineup. But his elite offensive capabilities and, in particular, blinding speed address two of the club’s biggest shortcomings. He also provides versatility, having proven himself capable of playing the left wing well. Regarded by some scouts as having potentially the highest ceiling of any center in the draft, he could be a mid-round steal for Columbus.

Pending Free Agents

The UFA list for Columbus isn’t huge, but it does contain a few potentially interesting names. NHL regulars Johnson (who’s possible fate has already been discussed, so we’ll skip over him in this section), Thomas Vanek, Matt Calvert, Ian Cole, and Mark Letestu are the most notable names (no offense to Jeff Zatkoff, Taylor Chorney, Andre Benoit, Cameron Gaunce, and Alex Broadhurst).

Vanek’s stint in Columbus started off very well, gelling quickly with linemates Alexander Wennberg and Boone Jenner to put up great numbers in early games following his acquisition at the deadline. But the magic wore off and he was all-but-invisible during the playoffs, often looking far too slow to keep up with the game. Acquired for an absolute steal (Jussi Jokinen, a waiver wire pickup, and Tyler Motte, a throw-in on the Artemi Panarin trade that had bounced around between the AHL and the Jackets’ fourth line all year), it doesn’t hurt the organization at all to simply let him walk.

Calvert was protected from the expansion draft in place of 2017-18 40-goal scorer William Karlsson. That isn’t necessarily relevant information, but I enjoy pain. Anyway, Calvert enjoyed a so-so year, producing nine goals and a career-high (tied) 24 points in 69 (nice) games played. A solid contributor on the penalty kill, and a constant spark plug on the fourth line, his never-quit playing style has endeared him to Columbus fans, but he may have to take a hometown discount if he wants to stay.

Cole played extremely well down the stretch for Columbus after his acquisition from Pitt…Otta…it was weird, but you get the point. He basically made Jack Johnson expendable, and he has said many times that he absolutely loves the city and his new teammates. It’s of course always a matter of numbers, but don’t be surprised to see Cole back in Union Blue next year.

Letestu loves Columbus, lives in Columbus (his family never left when he went to Edmonton), and has said he would like to finish his career there. Still a more-than-serviceable fourth line center that can help your special teams units, it’s likely he’ll take a hometown discount and remain with the organization.

The RFA list is smaller, but contains three major names in Jenner, Oliver Bjorkstrand, and Ryan Murray.

Jenner is a fan favorite, and one of the hardest-working 30-goal scorers you’ll ever find. But after a breakout 30-goal, 49-point 2015-16 campaign, he’s tallied just 31 goals and 65 points in 157 games since. If not for a late-season hot streak when paired with Wennberg and Vanek this season, his numbers would have been significantly lower. At times the game just seems too fast for his skating abilities, and even at just 24 years of age you wonder if he can improve it enough to stay useful. I’d expect him to get a bridge extension on a pay level similar to his current $2.9M, but Boone has a lot to prove going forward.

Bjorkstrand is coming off of his entry level contract, and I’d expect a bridge-style deal similar to what I listed for Jenner. Posting 11 goals and 29 assists for 40 points this season, ‘Olli’ showed flashes of his potential, but still needs to get a little more confident in himself, and particularly in his laser beam wrist shot.

Murray is a very intriguing topic. Though ever-dependable, the former WHL standout and second-overall pick has never really hit the stride he was projected to, particularly in the offensive department. Derailed time and time again by injuries (often to his legs, which are probably the silky-smooth skating defender’s greatest weapons), Murray has played all 82 games just once in 5 NHL seasons, and has missed no less than 19 games in any other campaign.

At 24-years-old, he’s definitely still young enough to sell as ‘Still coming into his own’ and his potential ceiling should be alluring to many teams. With other good young left handed defenders waiting in the wings (Markus Nutivaara, Gabriel Carlsson, Dean Kukan, Vladislav Gavrikov), the time could be right to try and swing a sign-and-trade type of deal to send Murray out in exchange for some offensive power. The Senators come to mind as a potential trade partner, as a spoil of offensive firepower up front is countered by a defense corps that is suspect at best, especially with the likely departure of Erik Karlsson. Mike Hoffman‘s name was already tied to Columbus around the trade deadline last year, but former Ohio State standout Ryan Dzingel could be a potential fit, as well.

I don’t expect a particularly busy or flashy offseason in Columbus, but Kekalainen and company can’t just rest on their laurels, either. They have a very good group that really needs just a few things to get them over the hump. Add another solid offensive threat or two to compliment the dynamic Panarin/Pierre-Luc Dubois line, sprinkle in a reliable veteran depth blueliner, and hinge your bets on a new goaltending coach for Sergei Bobrovsky (longtime man Ian Clark is departing the team this summer) helping him get past his playoff struggles, and you might be on to something.

Oh, and you may want to figure out what to do with that abysmal Brandon Dubinsky contract…

“Highlight Reel” Holtby can’t stop Pens

 

Despite saving 21-of-23 shots faced for a .913 save percentage, G Braden Holtby and the Washington Capitals fell 3-1 to the Pittsburgh Penguins at PPG Paints Arena in Game 4 of their Eastern Semifinals matchup, tying the series at 2-2.

After his hit against F Zach Aston-Reese in Game 3 that ended with the rookie suffering a concussion and broken jaw, RW Tom Wilson was suspended by the NHL’s Department of Player Safety for three games (he’ll be eligible to play in Game 7 in Washington, if necessary). As such, many were interested to see which players would fill those holes in the lineups of their respective teams.

For Washington, the next man up was F Shane Gersich, who saw his Stanley Cup playoff debut after playing only three regular season games with the Capitals this season. He slid onto the fourth line with F Jay Beagle and RW Alex Chiasson, while W Devante Smith-Pelly earned a promotion into Wilson’s vacated role with the top-three.

Some might have been led to think F T.J. Oshie would slide from his second line spot into the vacancy, but Head Coach Barry Trotz elected to keep the Warroad graduate on C Nicklas Backstrom‘s line as he’d been all season.

As for the Penguins, they had the luxury of LW Carl Hagelin‘s upper-body injury healing just in time for him to rejoin the club in Aston-Reese’s place. Hagelin was slotted onto the second line with Third Star of the Game F Evgeni Malkin, who had only returned one match ago.

Of course, none of those lineup changes had any affect on Holtby or his black-and-gold clad counterpart in the first period, as they both refused to yield a goal.

While both Holtby and Second Star G Matt Murray performed valiantly in the opening 20 minutes, their success was due largely to the play of their defenses. Pittsburgh’s blue line allowed only seven shots to reach Murray, trailed only slightly by the nine offerings that came Holtby’s way.

Pittsburgh’s defense was a bit more subtle in its technique, but there was no hiding how the Capitals were keeping Holtby’s crease clean. In the first period alone, the Caps threw a whopping 22 hits- 11 more than Pittsburgh. Oshie was a major part of that effort, as his eight body checks accumulated by the end of regulation were a game-high between both clubs.

While we’re on the subject, one of his hits at the end of the game against D Kris Letang was highly questionable, as he clearly leaped at the defenseman with 61 seconds remaining on the clock. Letang was none too pleased and engaged Oshie in a quick fight, but it will be interesting to see what the Department of Player Safety does with this infraction after it just penalized Wilson.

Anyways, that defensive effort did not carry across the first intermission, as all three goals scored against a goaltender were registered in the middle frame.

First Star F Jake Guentzel (F Dominik Simon and C Sidney Crosby) got the scoring started at the 9:21 mark with the lone even-strength goal scored in the game. Simon attempted a shot on goal from the slot that deflected off D Matt Niskanen‘s knee right to Guentzel, who was waiting next to Holtby’s left goal post. After that, it was all the playoff’s leading scorer could do but sling a wrist shot towards the opposite post before receiving an un-penalized crosscheck frame from D Dmitry Orlov.

That advantage lasted only 3:34 before Oshie (Backstrom and F Evgeny Kuznetsov) converted a Guentzel tripping penalty against C Lars Eller into a power play goal. Backstrom waited and waited near the right face-off dot before sliding a pass to Oshie between the circles, and the former St. Louis Blue ripped a nasty snap shot over Murray’s glove hand to level the game at 1-1.

Pittsburgh’s game-winning goal was struck with 2:29 remaining before the second intermission, and it was due almost entirely to Oshie’s interference penalty against D Brian Dumoulin 1:21 earlier.

Making full use of their man-advantage, the Penguins’ eventual scoring possession spent a pass-filled 23 seconds in the offensive zone before Malkin (RW Patric Hornqvist and RW Phil Kessel) forced home a wrister to set the score at 2-1.

It was a case of deja vu for the Penguins when Malkin’s shot barely squeaked across the goal line before Holtby tried to sell that he’d made the save. Under the impression that he’d frozen the puck, play was halted before the officials, just like in Game 2, went to their monitors for further review.

Making matters even more excruciating for the home fans, even after the puck was ruled to have crossed the goal line, Head Coach Barry Trotz challenged the play once again, but this time for goaltender interference. Hornqvist did make contact with Holtby, but it was ruled he was pushed by D Brooks Orpik, acquitting the Swede of any crime.

Thus effectively ended the second period, but the Capitals were still far from defeated.

Unfortunately for them, the Penguins defense played incredibly in the final 20 minutes, allowing only three shots on goal – the last of which was an Orlov slap shot from the point with 9:11 remaining in regulation.

That forced Trotz to resort to drastic measures and pull Holtby with 1:23 remaining on the clock, but any positive energy the extra attacker was able to provide was swiftly ripped away only a dozen seconds later when the Caps were caught with seven skaters on the ice.

Holtby was pulled once again with 65 ticks remaining on the clock, eventually allowing Guentzel (Crosby and Letang) to score a power play empty netter for his league-leading 10th goal of the postseason.

Aptly scheduled on Cinco de Mayo at 7 p.m Eastern, Game 5 at Capital One Arena will determine which side has two opportunities to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals. The contest will be broadcast on NBC, SN and TVAS.

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 two periods, Pittsburgh takes Game 1

 

With three unanswered third period goals in under five minutes by First Star of the Game F Jake Guentzel‘s top line, the Pittsburgh Penguins claimed Game 1 with a 3-2 victory over the Washington Capitals at Capital One Arena.

Before many in the arena could even blink, the Capitals had already claimed the opening goal of the game. F Evgeny Kuznetsov (Third Star W Alex Ovechkin and RW Tom Wilson) accelerated into the offensive zone to catch up to his captain just in time, as he collected Ovechkin’s cross-zone pass to convert Washington’s two-on-one opportunity into a pure wrist shot over G Matt Murray‘s glove.

Due in large part to the excellent play of G Braden Holtby and Murray (both of whom made some absolutely dazzling saves all game), that goal proved to be the only one scored in the first 40 minutes of the match. Holtby stopped all 17 shots the Penguins fired his way through the second intermission, while Murray saved 15-of-16 through two.

Even though the Capitals held on to their one-goal lead for more than two frames, they never seemed like they were fully in control of this contest. That was due in large part to the Penguins controlling possession for much of the second half of the first period and most of the second.

To the benefit of Washington, Pittsburgh’s shots on goal from those possessions were limited largely because it was giving the puck away so easily. The Pens committed five giveaways in the second period (six different players gave the puck away twice apiece by the end of the tilt, tying for a team-high), probably spurred by the Capitals’ 30 hits (led by W Devante Smith-Pelly‘s game-high seven) through two periods (another indication of Pittsburgh commanding play, as only the team without the puck may check).

Speaking of turnovers, that’s exactly what led to Washington’s second goal of the game. Wilson forced a takeaway 19 seconds into the third period, and Ovechkin (Wilson and D Dmitry Orlov) completed the play only nine seconds later with a snap shot over Murray’s left shoulder.

Whether players or fans, Washington was surely breathing a bit easier with an insurance goal in its back pocket. After all, Holtby had been playing incredibly despite the Penguins’ possession. Surely he could keep them off the board in the remaining 19:43 of action.

Yeah… about that. This is, after all, the second round of the playoffs, and the Capitals are playing the Penguins.

In other words, that plan did not work out at all.

Pittsburgh’s comeback was on at the 2:59 mark when RW Patric Hornqvist (D Justin Schultz and Guentzel)- from the right face-off dot – tipped-in Schultz’ shot from the right point into the back of Holtby’s net.

With a goal’s-worth of confidence, the Penguins’ engine had finally turned over and was ready to reach high gear. 2:21 after Hornqvist’s tally, Second Star C Sidney Crosby (Guentzel and Hornqvist) leveled the game at two-all with a wrister though Holtby’s five-hole. Ovechkin nearly intercepted Guentzel’s pass to his captain, but the puck bounced over his blade and continued on its course to the reigning two-time Conn Smythe-winner, who has the ability to score on even the slightest of openings.

Pittsburgh’s game-winning tally came at the 7:48 mark – only 7:20 after Ovechkin had set the score at 2-0 in favor of Washington – courtesy of Guentzel (Crosby). The sophomore potted his seventh goal of the postseason by deflecting Crosby’s shot from the left boards at the bottom of the left face-off circle, sending the puck flipping end-over-end into the air and under Holtby’s right arm.

With 12:12 remaining in regulation, Washington tried valiantly to find a leveling marker. The Caps fired 13 shots on goal in that time, including three with Holtby pulled for an extra attacker, but they simply couldn’t beat Murray.

After yielding a goal on his first shot faced, Murray earned the victory after saving 32-of-34 shots faced (.941 save percentage), leaving the loss to Holtby, who saved 22-of-25 (.88).

After two days off, puck drop for Game 2 is scheduled for 3 p.m. Eastern on Sunday, April 29. Television viewers can catch the action on CBC, NBC and TVAS.

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.

Flyers stave off elimination with gutsy performance

 

Even though the Philadelphia Flyers were out-shot 32-25, they held on to beat the Pittsburgh Penguins 4-2 at PPG Paints Arena in Game 5 of their first round series in the Stanley Cup Playoffs to force Game 6 back at Wells Fargo Center.

After 7-0, 5-1, 5-1 and 5-0 final scores in the first four contests, this rivalry series was more than due for a competitive, back-and-forth game.

Though Philly takes credit for one of those lopsided victories, Game 5 was easily the Metropolitan’s third-place team’s best effort of the postseason so far, and that might be due in large part to the stellar play of G Michal Neuvirth. Earning his first start of the series, he stopped 30-of-32 shots faced (.938 save percentage), including a dazzling glove save against C Sidney Crosby with 51 seconds remaining in regulation to preserve the Flyers’ then 3-2 lead.

Another Flyer that put it all on the line was First Star of the Game C Sean Couturier. After sitting out Game 4 with an injury suffered in practice at the hands of D Radko Gudas, Couturier (W Wayne Simmonds) scored the game-winning goal with 75 seconds remaining in regulation.

In G Matt Murray‘s defense, Couturier’s goal was a bit of a fluke. However, luck counts just as much as snipes do when they reach the back of the net, so Couturier’s wrister bouncing off D Brian Dumoulin‘s left skate and past the netminder’s glove was what proved to be the deciding tally.

Murray departed the ice for the extra attacker with one minute remaining on the clock (nine seconds before Neuvirth robbed Crosby), and W Matt Read (Second Star F Valtteri Filppula) took advantage with 18 ticks left in the game to score an empty-netter for his first playoff goal since April 25, 2014.

However, all this talk about the Flyers implies they dominated this contest. That is as far from the truth as it gets, as Pittsburgh certainly had its fair share of scoring opportunities. That was no more true than the first period, but the solid play by Neuvirth meant Philly was the only side to register a marker in the frame.

F Claude Giroux (RW Jakub Voracek and Filppula) took credit for the tally with a slap shot from between the face-off circles with 2:31 remaining in the period. It was an opportunistic goal for the Flyers, as the stoppage of play before Giroux’ tally was to allow F Evgeni Malkin to get off the ice after C Jori Lehtera landed awkwardly on his left leg.

Malkin would return to action following the first intermission, but was not able to score even one point to help Pittsburgh’s predicament.

Instead, it was Third Star W Bryan Rust (W Conor Sheary and C Derick Brassard) that snapped Neuvirth’s 13-save shutout with eight minutes remaining in the second period to tie the game at 1-1.

Though PPG Paints Arena never fell fully silent, Rust’s goal brought the crowd roaring back to life, and that positive energy translated to the ice 4:45 later when F Jake Guentzel (Crosby and F Dominik Simon) buried a wrister on Neuvirth to give Pittsburgh a one-goal advantage.

However, that excitement was sucked out of the building just as fast, as Guentzel’s tally was not the final one of the frame. Even though Gudas’ holding penalty against F Zach Aston-Reese with 2:58 remaining in the period had given the Penguins the man-advantage, a sloppy giveaway by RW Phil Kessel ended with Filppula flying towards Murray’s crease. The 2008 Stanley Cup Champion dropped a pass to Lehtera, but he ended up being the one scoring the shorthanded goal by scrapping out a wrister from within the crease.

Still facing elimination, the Flyers will host Game 6 in Philadelphia on Sunday, April 22. Puck drop is scheduled for 3 p.m. Eastern, and fans not in attendance can catch the action on CBC, NBC and TVAS.

Having spoiled the opportunity to clinch a spot in the Eastern Semifinals on home, the Penguins will surely be a bit angry when they travel east this weekend. However, they have the luxury of knowing they’ve won four-straight games at Wells Fargo Center and will continue to play with the confidence expected from a reigning back-to-back Stanley Cup champion.