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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 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.

Flyers even series with dominant effort by Elliott

 

No matter how many shots the Pittsburgh Penguins fired at Second Star of the Game G Brian Elliott, he would not yield as he led the Philadelphia Flyers to a 5-1 victory at PPG Paints Arena in Game 2.

When Head Coach Dave Hakstol elected to start his second line at the opening puck drop, C Sidney Crosby and the Penguins took advantage to fire two quick shots on goal. It seemed like the Pens were in line to dominate this game in a similar fashion as Game 1.

However, Elliott was there to make both saves, as well as 32 others. In all, the man known as Moose saved 34-of-35 shots faced, earning an impressive .971 save percentage.

The lone goal Elliott allowed belonged to RW Patric Hornqvist (D Justin Schultz and D Brian Dumoulin) at the 5:27 mark of the third period, then setting the score at 4-1 and not putting the final result of this tilt into question.

At the other end of the rink, this game was all about the numerous goals G Matt Murray and his defense allowed – especially when First Star C Sean Couturier, who scored three points, was on the ice.

There were major concerns coming into these playoffs that either Pittsburgh’s defense or goaltending  – and perhaps a combination of both – could be its ultimate demise. Even though Murray quelled some of those worries with his shutout in Game 1, those doubts were fully realized when Philadelphia converted 25 percent of its 20 shots on goal into tallies on the scoreboard.

The first of those belonged to D Shayne Gostisbehere (F Claude Giroux and Couturier), who took advantage of F Zach Aston-Reese sitting in the sin bin for boarding Third Star D Ivan Provorov to redirect a power play shot past Murray with 37 seconds remaining in the first period.

Couturier (Provorov and W Michael Raffl) bounced a shot off D Kris Letang to set the Flyers’ advantage at 2-0 47 seconds into the second period, but Philadelphia did most of its offensive damage in the third frame.

F Travis Konecny (RW Wayne Simmonds and Provorov) needed only 89 seconds of third period play to find the Flyers’ third goal of the game. 2:21 after Konecny’s tally, Hornqvist found a seat in the penalty box for roughing C Nolan Patrick to set up Philly’s final goal against Murray. As luck have it, Patrick (Couturier and RW Jakub Voracek) cashed in on the power play, scoring a wrist shot to set the score at 4-0.

The Flyers’ final goal of the contest belonged to D Andrew MacDonald (C Jori Lehtera), who scored a long-range wrister on an empty net to set the 5-1 final score.

Murray saved only 15-of-19 shots faced (.789 save percentage) in the loss. He’ll obviously need to improve on that mark if Pittsburgh wants any chance of advancing beyond the first round.

After making the quick trip across the commonwealth, Game 3 will take place at Wells Fargo Center on Sunday, April 15 at 3 p.m. Eastern and will be broadcast on CBC, NBC and TVAS.

Crosby nets hat trick, Pens take Game 1

 

During the regular season, the Pittsburgh Penguins scored five goals in each contest against the Philadelphia Flyers to sweep the four-game series. In Game 1 at PPG Paints Arena, they continued their dominance of their bitter rivals by beating them 7-0.

No player was brighter than First Star of the Game C Sidney Crosby, who registered his first hat trick since March 19, 2017 and his first in the postseason since May 17, 2013 by registering the final three tallies of the game.

Crosby’s (D Brian Dumoulin and Second Star F Jake Guentzel) first goal was struck at the 9:01 mark of the second period, and it just might be his most exemplary of the season. Dumoulin attempted to fire a shot on goal from the left point, but it was deflected into the air by W Wayne Simmonds. However, that was no matter for Crosby, who backhanded the puck over G Brian Elliott‘s left shoulder to then set the score at 5-0.

Having chased Elliott following his first goal, the captain completed his performance with two third period markers in the span of 3:01 against G Petr Mrazek. A Crosby (D Justin Schultz and Guentzel) wrist shot at the 7:41 mark gave Pittsburgh a six-goal advantage, and he (Dumoulin) followed it up with a tip-in with 9:18 remaining in regulation to earn himself some free headwear.

Of course, by scoring the final three goals of a lopsided game, it’s hard to say that Crosby’s effort was little more than icing on the cake for Pittsburgh. Instead, W Bryan Rust (D Kris Letang and Guentzel) takes credit for the game-winner by scoring a wrister 2:38 into the game.

The Pens continued applying the pressure 7:29 later when LW Carl Hagelin (RW Patric Hornqvist and C Riley Sheahan) scored a slick deflection to the near post, followed by F Evgeni Malkin‘s (Hagelin) backhander with 5:51 remaining in the frame.

Guentzel (C Derick Brassard and W Conor Sheary) took credit for the final goal before Crosby took command of the attack, then setting the score at 4-0 with a power play tip-in.

At risk of being forgotten in all this offense is Third Star G Matt Murray, who also played a major role in this game. He saved all 24 shots he faced – including more than a few beauties – to register his third-consecutive postseason shutout, going back to Game 5 of the 2017 Stanley Cup Finals against the Nashville Predators.

By comparison, Elliott saved 14-of-19 shots faced (.737 save percentage) in the loss, while Mrazek took no-decision after saving 12-of-14 (.857).

The Flyers are going to learn very quickly that out-hitting the Penguins is a one-way trip to booking tee times at Merion Golf Club. Even though Philadelphia outhit Pittsburgh 39-27, the Flyers were unable to slow down their speedy rivals.

This is no surprise to Penguins fans. Going back to the 2017 Eastern Conference Finals, Pittsburgh now has a 6-4 postseason record in games where its opponent throws more hits, including a perfect 3-0 mark when the Pens are out-hit by eight or more.

Game 2 is scheduled for Friday, April 13 at 7 p.m. Eastern. For those that can’t make it to PPG Paints Arena, the tilt will be broadcast on CBC, NBCSN and TVAS.

2018 Trade Deadline Preview: Metropolitan Division

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a buyers market.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not every player is washed up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merkle’s Weekly Bumblings: Week 15

Skater of the Week: Brad Marchand

You may not (probably don’t) like him, but the Little Ball of Hate doesn’t give a damn about what you like. He’s gonna score on your team, and you’re gonna deal with it.

The league’s premiere super-pest tallied two goals and five assists in four contests this week, made arguably more impressive by the fact that he started the week being held scoreless against Dallas before recording three consecutive multi-point games to close the week. Burning arch-rival Montreal for a goal and assist in the first meeting, then adding two helpers in the rematch, together with a three-point night against the Islanders, the former unheralded third round pick continues to prove all the critics wrong, as he’s currently on pace to shatter his breakout 85-point performance from last season.

Marchand’s 48 points in 37 games is good for 16th in league scoring, having played no less than seven-fewer games than any player ahead of him, and his performance over the last seven days is good for this award.

Tendy of the Week: Jonathan Bernier

Yeah, I know, right? I couldn’t believe it either.

Bernier’s NHL career has been a well-documented roller coaster of epic proportions, and the former 11th-overall pick has often seen the ‘Bust’ label floating near his name. But he seems to have really found a home with the upstart Avs this season.

In three starts this week, Bernier faced a ridiculous 110 shots and turned aside 105 of them to pick up three victories. On Monday he stopped 33-of-34 to down the Ducks, on Saturday he stifled 27-of-28 against the Rangers, and even when he gave up three to the Sharks, he managed a .938 save percentage on 48 shots faced. Of the Avs’ strengths, the defense is not high on the list.

Bernier is still shaking off some shaky performances earlier in the year, but in 21 appearances his 13-7-1 record, 2.61 GAA and .919 save percentage are more than respectable behind the run-and-gun Avs. If he continues this sort of play, the Avs could potentially use Semyon Varlamov as trade bait to solidify their D-corps come the deadline.

Game of the Week: Washington Capitals 3 @ New Jersey Devils 4 (OT), Thursday January 18th, 2018

A showdown between the top 2 teams in the stacked Metropolitan Division lived up to the hype, delivering seven goals, 51 shots, 48 hits, and 36 penalty minutes.

Drew Stafford would get things rolling 8:01 into the game, taking advantage of a misplay at the blueline by Dmitry Orlov to flee the zone and receive a breakout pass courtesy of Marcus Johansson, fighting off the back-checking Devante Smith-Pelly and going forehand-backhand-roof on Braden Holtby to give the Devils the early lead. Brett Connolly, who was stifled on a golden opportunity just seconds after the Stafford goal, would get his revenge and even the score at the 12:10 mark, pouncing on a long wrister from T.J. Oshie that deflected off of the skate of Jersey d-man Will Butcher right to his tape and burying it past Keith Kinkaid to give us a 1-1 game after one.

The second saw both the scoring and intensity ramp up, started off by Devils captain Andy Greene (playing in his 750th game) scoring on an almost-identical play to the Connolly goal, this time a Taylor Hall effort from the left point deflecting off the stick of Matt Niskanen and coming right to Greene who was just able to squeeze the shot between the left arm and torso of a sliding Holtby to regain the Jersey lead 3:33 into the frame. Then at the 8:33 mark came some shenanigans. Tom Wilson laid a hammering hit on Brian Gibbons along the boards in the neutral zone, leading Brian Boyle to come to the defense of his teammate and earn himself a misconduct and extra minor for instigating. I could go on a tangent about clean hits leading to fights (Gibbons himself appeared to try to wave off Boyle as he approached Wilson), but I’ll save that for another day.

Further into the secnd we go, and the Devils capitalize (see what I did there?) on another breakout pass, this time with Miles Wood sneaking behind the Washington defense and receiving some airmail from Sami Vatanen before getting one through five-hole of Holtby to give New Jersey the 3-1 edge at the 10:55 mark. But just 14 seconds later Dmitry Orlov would collect a long rebound off the boards and spanked the ‘Made In Slovakia’ lettering right off of the puck as it screamed past Kinkaid into the back of the net, sending us into the final frame with a 3-2 Devils lead after some strong netminding by Holtby in the closing stages of the middle frame.

Kinkaid and the Devils would hold the fort for most of the third, but finally with just 3:48 remaining it would be Connolly (who had himself a very good game, I might add) who collected a terrific Evgeny Kuznetsov feed from below the goal line and slid the puck right underneath the left pad of Kinkaid to knot the score at three and send the game to overtime (though not before Kinkaid would shake off a ‘Nisk-cannon’ to the noggin that removed his mask in the dying seconds).

The crowd at ‘The Rock’ would have little to fret over, though, as just 34 seconds into the extra frame it would be Taylor Hall receiving a chip pass from Sami Vatanen, before giving himself a second chip pass to get around Kuznetsov and streaking in on Holtby, roofing a quick wrister over the glove hand and sending the Jersey-faithful into a frenzy.

News, Notes, & Nonsense:

The Golden Knights are, at the time of this writing, the #1 team in the NHL. I don’t actually have anything clever prepared for this, I just wanted to say it out loud.

A couple of high-profile injuries struck this week, with Edmonton losing Ryan Nugent-Hopkins to a hand injury for at least a month, and the Rangers losing Kevin Shattenkirk to a meniscus tear, an injury that could sideline the defenseman for quite some time.

The Senators have supposedly made it their #1 organizational goal to re-sign Erik Karlsson. I’m not sure how much money it will take to keep him with a franchise that doesn’t appear to be set up for major success any time soon, but if anyone has any suggestions for convoluted schemes to marry into his family, I’m all ears.

Dustin Brown was fined (but not suspended) for brutally cross-checking a helpless Justin Schultz face-first into the boards, in a move the Department of Player Safety referred to as “We have no idea who this Andrew Cogliano person you speak of is, and we’re not sure what two-game suspension you could be referring to.”

The Colorado Avalanche have won nine consecutive games, which might be the only thing less people would have bet on at the beginning of the year than Vegas spending time at #1 in the league.

Rene Rancourt has announced that he will retire from his position as the Bruins’ longtime anthem singer. Personally, I never actually thought he was that good of a singer, but his showmanship has always been absolutely second-to-none, and anyone legendary enough to be referenced in a Dropkick Murphy’s song gets a pass in my book, so congrats to Rene on an incredible career and best of luck in retirement.

Finally, I’ll close on two sombering notes. First, I extend my sincerest condolences to Matthew Murray and his family, as the Pittsburgh goaltender has taken a leave of absence from the team to mourn the passing of his father, and I’ll repeat the sentiment to the family of USA Hockey executive and two-time Olympian Jim Johannson, who passed Sunday morning at just 53 years of age.

Pens repeat as Stanley Cup Champs

2017 Stanley Cup Finals – Game 6

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Home ice continues to pay off; Pens a win away

2017 Stanley Cup Finals – Game 5

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Preds’ counterattack levels Cup Finals

2017 Stanley Cup Finals – Game 4

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or so it seemed.

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

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

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

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