Tag Archives: Sullivan

Weekly Bumblings for Week 8 with Special Guest Host, Cap’n Cornelius

While Peter is out enjoying a trip to see some hockey games in person, I’m filling in with a recap of the past week’s NHL action.

Player of the Week:  Blake Wheeler

Wheeler has been the definition of streaky, of late, but this week was the good side of the coin.  He broke a four-game pointless drought last Monday against Minnesota, getting one goal and two assists.

After being held without a point against Colorado, he put in another three-point performance (all assists) against Vegas.

But he would save his best for Sunday against the Ottawa Senators.  In a game that saw the Jets beat the Senators 5-0, Wheeler had a point on all but one of the goals, putting up one goal and three assists.  He had a beautiful cross ice pass to set up Mark Scheifele on the first goal of the night and the Jets never looked back tallying three of their goals on the power play.

Wheeler has passed Steven Stamkos to take the league lead in assists with 28 and has helped power the Jets to the top of the Western Conference, something few expected as the season began.

 Team of the Week: Los Angeles Kings

Just when it looked like the Kings might be fading after a hot start, they went 4-0 this week and moved six points ahead of the second-place Vegas Golden Knights in the Pacific Division, exactly as the media expected before the season began, right?  The Kings won the first three of those games by three goals each.

After one period of play in their Tuesday game in Detroit, the Kings found themselves down 1-0, but Dustin Brown, who has had a heck of a comeback season, evened it up at 1 and Anze Kopitar then put them ahead 2-1 before the second period was over.  LA would add two more in the third on goals from Adrian Kempe and Kopitar’s second of the night.

Next up for the Kings was another road game against the Caps.  Again, the Kings gave up an early lead on a goal from Evgeny Kuznetsov. Marian Gaborik would even it up, only for Kuznetsov to get a second goal.  Jonny Brodzinski would tie it again and nine seconds later Jussi Jokinen would put the Kings ahead.  After that, it was all Kings.

The Kings continued their road trip Friday with a visit to play the St. Louis Blues, one of the best teams in the league to this point in the season.  This time the Kings got the early lead on a Tyler Toffoli tally. Kopitar would then bang home a rebound to make it 2-0.  Before it was over, Kempe and Toffoli would add goals and the Kings would win 4-1 despite being outshot 40-28 on a stellar performance by backup goaltender, Darcy Kuemper.

The Kings finished their week and their road trip in Chicago on Sunday.  Through two periods the game was scoreless.  Christian Folin finally put the Kings up with just over 10 minutes left in the game.  Then things got a little weird with just over two minutes left in the game.  First, Brown would get an empty net goal.  Then the Hawks would answer on a goal from Jonathan Toews with 1:46 left to end Quick’s shutout bid.  But Kopitar would put the final nail in the coffin with 51.5 seconds left in the game with a final empty net goal.

As long as the Kings continue to get these types of performances from Brown, Kopitar and solid goaltending, they will have a very good chance to lock down the Pacific Division.

Game of the Week: Edmonton Oilers 7 @ Calgary Flames 5, Saturday, December 2, 2017

One of the first NHL games I can remember watching on TV was Wayne Gretzky’s Oilers against Lanny McDonald’s Flames.  This game was a throwback to that era when goalies for some reason spent much of their time standing up and, consequently, watching pucks go past them.  This is the type of game you hope to see with all of the offensive talent on these two teams and the reason you stay up to watch the late game on Hockey Night in Canada if you live in the Eastern Time Zone.

Connor McDavid skated around the Flames zone early and his persistence led to Jesse Puljujarvi cashing in on the rebound. The Oilers then had what looked like their second goal of the night from Patrick Maroon taken off the board as the goal was kicked.  Eric Gryba then set up Puljujarvi for his second of the night on a redirection of Gryba’s point shot.

Mikael Backlund then forced a turnover on the penalty kill that set up Michael Frolik for a short-handed goal to pull the Flames within one goal.  But the Oilers scored again before the first period ended to go up 3-1.  In the second period, Mark Letestu scored on a short-handed breakaway to expand Edmonton’s lead.  Gryba made another shot from the point which was tipped in, this time by Milan Lucic, to go up 5-1.

As the third period started, Mike Smith was replaced in net by David Rittich.  Unfortunately for the Flames, Rittich bungled a handoff behind the net and the Oilers capitalized to go up 6-1.  One might assume this is where the Flames might call it a night.  But Sam Bennett made a tough angle shot to get the score to 6-2.  Next, Micheal Ferland notched a power play goal to bring the Flames within three goals.  Bennett added a second goal on a 2-on-1 where he took the puck top shelf.  Suddenly the score was 6-4 with a lot of time left in the game.  Johnny Gaudreau then made another tough angled shot off a stretch pass, taking advantage of young Oilers netminder, Laurent Brossoit.  The impossible seemed possible with the score 6-5.  But Brossoit would make a key save on Gaudreau on a two-on-one to prevent the tying goal.

With 1:01 left, the Oilers’ Ryan Nugent-Hopkins tried to center a pass, but it bounced into the net off T.J. Brodie’s stick to salt away the win for Edmonton by a final of 7-5.  While the Flames couldn’t quite finish their comeback, it was the sort of game that reminded you why the Battle of Alberta was once such a big deal.

News, Notes, & Nonsense:

Trade Rumors seem to be starting earlier than normal and we have already seen one blockbuster and several smaller trades.

This past week saw Anaheim and New Jersey make a significant hockey trade if not a true blockbuster.  The Ducks sent right-handed defenseman Sami Vatanen and a conditional pick to the Devils in exchange for Adam Henrique, Joseph Blandisi and a third round pick in the 2018 NHL Draft.  The move was a much-needed improvement on the back end for the Devils, who are one of the surprises of the early season.  As for the Ducks, with Ryan Getzlaf and Ryan Kesler still out, Henrique can help at center and, when they return, he can provide forward depth.

Who is next?

Well, the name that seemed to be coming up repeatedly during the past week was Pittsburgh’s Ian Cole.  The left-handed defenseman was a healthy scratch and several sources had stated that his relationship with Mike Sullivan had been rocky, leading the Pens to consider a trade.  However, their asking price may be higher than what a willing buyer will give them for Cole—Pittsburgh is still seeking an improvement at center for their third line after Riley Sheahan has failed to impress.  Toronto is a destination that has been mentioned with Tyler Bozak falling out of favor and the Leafs wanting to upgrade their defense, but to this point nothing seems imminent.

The Edmonton Oilers have also been frequently mentioned in trade rumors.  While Ryan Nugent-Hopkins name has probably been mentioned the most, more recently the Oilers have been mentioned in connection with smaller trades that might see them shipping out the likes of Pat Maroon.  It is hard to see how Maroon would produce the sort of return that might get the Oilers back into contention in the Western Conference.

Another name that has been brought up repeatedly is Evander Kane.  Buffalo is one of the few teams clearly out of the hunt at this early date, but it seems most likely they will wait until the deadline to move Kane when they might extract the highest possible return for the wing, who will be a free agent this summer.

November 27 – Day 54 – Battle of Pennsylvania

Welcome to the last week of November! I know you think you need to be doing your Christmas shopping, but you have all of December to do that. Instead, sit down this evening and watch some hockey.

If you’re wise and followed my instructions, the NHL has scheduled five games for your viewing pleasure. Two of them (Florida at New Jersey and Philadelphia at Pittsburgh [NHLN/SN/TVAS]) start at 7 p.m., followed by Columbus at Montréal (RDS/TSN2) half an hour later. Minnesota at Winnipeg continues the half-hour intervals by dropping the puck at 8 p.m., as does Anaheim at Chicago, which waits until 8:30 p.m. to close out the evening’s action. All times Eastern.

I know we just featured the Penguins Saturday, but there’s no way we can miss the season’s first iteration of the Battle of Pennsylvania.

 

To keep the story short, there’s only a few things these teams can agree on:

  1. Hockey is a good game.
  2. Pennsylvania is a good state commonwealth.
  3. Mark Recchi is a good guy.

Beyond that, there’s very little these rivals see eye-to-eye about. Of course, what should one expect from teams that have met 316 times in regular or postseason play (played to a 172-114-30 record in favor of Philadelphia, by the way).

Looking at the overall numbers, the Flyers have certainly had their way with this series. In addition to already owning the overall series by almost 60 games, they’ve also beaten Pittsburgh in four of their six playoff series, including winning three-straight from 1989-2000.

You’d think Pittsburgh having players like C Sidney Crosby and F Evgeni Malkin would have had a way of leveling the playing field for the Pens of late, but every good rivalry has a way of dulling stars’ impact. Even though the Pens swept Philadelphia 8-0-0 during Malkin’s rookie season in 2006-’07, the Flyers have amassed a slightly superior 34-27-8 regular season record against the Penguins since Crosby first donned the black-and-gold.

The difference? Two points.

That’s right, a win by the Penguins tonight at PPG Paints Arena would level the Battle for Pennsylvania series during the Crosby Era – as if 12-10-3 Pittsburgh needed more motivation than it already had sitting a point outside of the playoff picture.

When we featured the Pens’ game against the Eastern Conference-leading Lightning a couple days ago, I mentioned that one of their problems seemed to be a dry spell by Crosby. Of course, he went out and proved me wrong, as he scored two goals and tacked on another assist to lead G Tristan Jarry to his first-ever NHL victory.

But there’s still another wound to poke on this squad: defense. Pittsburgh has allowed 3.4 goals-per-game this season, which is the fourth-highest in the entire NHL.

That being said, it seems even that problem might slowly be resolving itself. The Penguins search for a backup goaltender has been well documented, with offseason signing Antti Niemi failing miserably and already playing for his third team of the year. Since Jarry has been called up, the goaltending duo of him and starter 11-7-1 G Matthew Murray has found much more consistent play, as they’ve combined for a 2.89 season GAA.

Of course, it still seems probable that General Manager Jim Rutherford will eventually pursue a trade that allows him to send Jarry back to the AHL and resume playing consistently alongside fellow prospect Casey DeSmith, but his solid play has allowed management to take its time and find a good deal instead of rush into a bad decision.

Of course, that’s a discussion for another day, because it’s likely that Murray resumes starting duties this evening.

Compared to his rookie campaign and his 13 starts in 2015-’16, he’s left much to be desired in his first season as Pittsburgh’s undisputed number one, as he’s managed only a .906 save percentage and 2.94 GAA that ranks 14th and 11th-worst, respectively, among the 34 goalies with at least 10 starts.

But Murray is not the only contributor to Pittsburgh’s defensive woes. Even though D Kris Letang leads the team with 17 takeaways and RW Ryan Reaves throws 3.1 hits-per-game, Murray has already faced 595 shots this season, the eighth-most among that group of 34 goalies.

One of the odder things going on in Pittsburgh nowadays is D Ian Cole being a healthy scratch, as he leads the team with 1.8 blocks-per-game. He hasn’t dressed for the past two games, and word on the street from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Jason Mackey is that he’ll watch tonight’s game from the press box.

It’s peculiar that a defenseman so committed to keeping pucks away from his netminder that he’s only managed three points this season is the one being punished. Head Coach Mike Sullivan has yet to publicly show his hand (he claims Cole needs to improve his game), but the longer this goes on, the transaction rumors will only increase.

As for the 8-9-6 Flyers, they wish they were in as enviable a position as Pittsburgh to be unhappy with only being a point outside playoff position. For the umpteenth season in a row, Philly burst out of the starting gate to only find itself six points from the bottom of the conference.

A major reason for this slide has been the Flyers’ play over the second half of November. After beating the Blackhawks 3-1 on November 9, Philadelphia has earned only an 0-3-4 record since.

While the offense hasn’t been very good over this stretch (they’ve managed only 2.14 goals-per-game), it’s been the play on the defensive end that has been the true burden, as the Flyers have allowed 25 goals against in their past seven games.

Much of the responsibility for this struggle falls on the shoulders of 6-5-5 G Brian Elliott, who has started all but one of the games in this stretch for a .909 save percentage and 2.77 GAA that is actually better than his season marks of .905 and 2.85.

Unfortunately, that nominal improvement is simply not good enough behind an offense that scores only 2.83 goals-per-game on the season. Until the other three lines behind Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier and Jakub Voracek decide to play hockey, General Manager Ron Hextall can only look forward to a trip to Dallas for the 2018 NHL Entry Draft to see if he can find a skater that can actually contribute (shots fired, F Nolan Patrick).

The reason Murray can put up comparable numbers to Elliott and still win is because of the goal support he receives from RW Phil Kessel, and it’s for that reason that I believe Pittsburgh will snap its two-game losing skid to the Flyers and beat them for the first time since February 25.


Though they needed the shootout to do it, the New York Rangers were able to beat the Vancouver Canucks 4-3 at Madison Square Garden in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

Vancouver’s offense was ticking throughout this entire game, as it managed a goal in all three frames. W Loui Eriksson (C Henrik Sedin) took credit for the first period’s marker, burying a wrist shot 7:54 into the game.

The Canucks doubled their lead at the 7:21 mark of the second period courtesy of RW Jake Virtanen‘s third goal of the season, an unassisted wrister. However, this tally did not go unanswered, as Second Star of the Game RW Jesper Fast (D Nick Holden and D Brendan Smith) scored a wrister with 2:20 remaining before the second intermission to pull the Rangers back within a goal.

All the offensive action that ultimately mattered in the third period occurred in the opening 5:05 of the frame. W Michael Grabner (W Mats Zuccarello and D Kevin Shattenkirk) took his turn first, bagging a wrister only 19 seconds after emerging from the dressing room to level the game at two-all. The Rangers weren’t even for long though, as Third Star F Sam Gagner (W Thomas Vanek) returned the lead to Vancouver only 41 seconds later. First Star LW Jimmy Vesey (W Rick Nash and F Kevin Hayes) scored the final goal of regulation at the 5:05 mark, and it was an important one: Vesey’s backhanded shot tied the game at three-all and forced three-on-three overtime and, ultimately, the shootout.

As for how the shootout went down…

  1. Vanek took the opening attempt for the Canucks, but his wrister was saved by G Henrik Lundqvist.
  2. That provided Zuccarello an opportunity to earn a mini-break, but just like Vanek, his wrister was saved by G Jacob Markstrom.
  3. Vancouver’s second shooter was C Bo Horvat, but the shootout remained tied thanks to Lundqvist’s save.
  4. C Mika Zibanejad apparently grew tired of seeing all these saves, as he ensured Markstrom couldn’t get his mitts on his shot by sending it wide of the net.
  5. RW Brock Boeser finally found the first goal of the shootout for the Canucks, which forced a miss-and-lose situation for New York.
  6. Put in a pinch, Head Coach Alain Vigneault turned to Shattenkirk, who hadn’t scored a shootout goal since the 2015-’16 season. The defenseman ended that skid to continue the tiebreaker.
  7. Now in a sudden death situation, F Markus Granlund was sent out to win the game for the Canucks. Lundqvist had other ideas and was there to make the save.
  8. W Pavel Buchnevich‘s offering met the same fate: saved by Markstrom.
  9. LW Sven Baertschi started round five with a bang, as he beat Lundqvist to force New York’s second miss-and-lose situation.
  10. Cool under pressure, Nash sent the shootout on to the sixth round by beating Markstrom.
  11. Though he was able to score in regulation, Gagner couldn’t beat Lundqvist in the shootout.
  12. F J.T. Miller hasn’t scored a goal since November 2, and his luck didn’t change here. His offering was saved by Markstrom.
  13. Another skater, another save: this time, Lundqvist stopped D Ben Hutton in round seven.
  14. He was the one to force overtime, and he was the one to end the shootout: Vesey beat Markstrom to earn two points for the Blueshirts.

Lundqvist earned the victory after saving 29-of-32 shots faced (.906 save percentage), leaving the shootout loss to Markstrom, who saved 17-of-20 (.85).

After being on the wrong end of a two-game winning run two days ago, home teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series are now riding a two-game winning streak of their own. That has elevated their record to 29-19-6, 10 points better than the visitors’.

November 11 – Day 39 – Stanley Cup rematch

First and foremost, I’m sure I speak for all of us here at Down the Frozen River in extending my thanks to each and every veteran on this Veteran’s Day. Whether American, Canadian or any other nationality that values freedom and democracy, we sincerely appreciate you and your service.

To ensure the best of Veteran’s Days, the NHL has scheduled a whopping 12 contests to take place today all around the world.

To start off, there’s two matinees (Edmonton at the New York Rangers and Colorado vs. Ottawa [NHLN/RDS/SN] in Stockholm, Sweden) scheduled for 1 p.m., followed by six (Toronto at Boston [CBC/CITY/NHLN], Buffalo at Montréal [SN/TVAS], Columbus at Detroit, Florida at New Jersey, Minnesota at Philadelphia and Chicago at Carolina) at the usual 7 p.m. starting time. 8 p.m. marks the puck drop of two more contests (the New York Islanders at St. Louis and Pittsburgh at Nashville), and tonight’s co-nightcaps – Vancouver at San Jose (CBC) and Winnipeg at Arizona (SN) – get green-lit at 10 p.m. All times Eastern.

As usual, there’s quite a few matchups worthy of being featured in the DtFR Game of the Day series, but we can only pick one. Let’s see some of our final options:

  • Colorado vs. Ottawa: It’s the second-half of the 2017 NHL Global Series.
  • Toronto at Boston: F Dominic Moore called the TD Garden home only a season ago. Now, he’s back to wearing white at this rink.
  • Buffalo at Montréal: Not only is this an Atlantic Division rivalry, but D Nathan Beaulieu is also returning to his old stomping grounds of five years.
  • Pittsburgh at Nashville: The Penguins return to Bridgestone Arena for the first time since hoisting their fifth Stanley Cup.

Since we didn’t feature the Predators’ visit to PPG Paints Arena at the beginning of the season, there’s no way we can skip this rematch.

Last postseason was a dream come true for the Predators. Though seeded eighth in the conference, they rode an incredible 7-0-1 home record at Bridgestone Arena to their first-ever Clarence S. Campbell Bowl and Stanley Cup Finals berth.

And then Pittsburgh happened.

Though the Penguins needed every second of six games to eliminate Nashville, the Preds suffered the same fate as the Sharks a season before: being forced to watch C Sidney Crosby and the Pens hoist the Cup and skate around the rink while wearing white road sweaters.

The Predators have already had one opportunity to exact revenge when they made their yearly trip to the Steel City on October 7, but it didn’t exactly go well for them. Though they fired 26 shots at G Matthew Murray, he stopped them all to earn what is still his lone shutout on the season. His effort combined with a Penguins attack that managed four goals courtesy of F Evgeni Malkin, F Jake Guentzel, RW Ryan Reaves and D Olli Maatta.

A lot has changed for 8-5-2 Nashville since that game, as it has climbed all the way into fifth place in the Western Conference and is riding a three-game winning streak since falling in San Jose on November 1.

In particular, the Predators have a much better offense than they showed Pittsburgh the last time they met up, as they’ve managed an impressive four goals-per-game during this hot streak. W Viktor Arvidsson specifically has been at the head of this scoring onslaught with his 3-1-4 totals, but I’ve also been impressed by third-line W Miikka Salomaki recently, who has managed 1-2-3 totals with one fewer game played during this stretch after being  a healthy scratch November 3 in Anaheim.

What makes Salomaki’s outburst so unexpected is his 1-2-3 totals in his last two games played comprise his entire 2017-’18 output. Heck, it even comprises all of last season’s contributions too (given, he only played five NHL games last year). It’s highly unlikely that this scoring streak will continue much longer, but the Predators certainly are not going complain about having added firepower for the time being.

As for the 9-7-2 Penguins, they enter this game on the heels of a defeat similar to the one they delivered the Predators last month, as they fell 4-1 in Washington last night. Of course, considering their lowly 2.56 goals-per-game and 3.5 goals against-per-game (both fifth-worst in the league), it’s a surprise the Pens are even in fourth place in the Eastern Conference.

One of Pittsburgh’s biggest problems this season has been the position of backup goaltender, and that will probably come into play tonight since Murray played against the Capitals yesterday.

G Antti Niemi had the position at the start of the season, but his .797 save percentage and 7.5 GAA in only three starts led to him getting waived. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s G Casey DeSmith was then given an opportunity to earn his first NHL time, but he was only nominally better, managing a .8 save percentage and 4.29 GAA in 42 minutes.

The plan was originally for him and tonight’s presumed starter G Tristan Jarry to rotate as Pittsburgh’s backup and the Baby Pens’ starter, but DeSmith’s October 29 showing in Winnipeg may put that on hold.

That leads us to backup #3 in Jarry, himself a rookie that has only two NHL starts to his name. The first start occurred this April against the Rangers in the final game of the regular season. Since the game had no impact on the postseason, he was left out to dry behind a halfhearted defense to allow G Marc-Andre Fleury rest. He lost his NHL debut 3-2 on an .88 save percentage.

Fast-forward to November 2 when the Penguins were in Calgary.  Though he still has yet to earn his first win with the senior team, Jarry forced overtime with a much improved .941 save percentage. It seems that was enough to impress Head Coach Mike Sullivan, as he has yet to be sent towards Dunder Mifflin headquarters.

If the Penguins want to win, Jarry’s third career NHL start must look more like his second than his first, and his defense would be wise to do all they can to keep shots away from his crease. Considering Pittsburgh allows 31.3 shots against-per-game, that means more players are going to need to follow the lead of Reaves – whose 49 hits top the team – and D Ian Cole, who manages 1.8 blocks-per-game.

Unfortunately for Penguins fans, I simply don’t know if that’s going to happen. Everything – specifically a high-flying offense against a rookie goaltender – is leaning the Predators’ way in this contest, and that’s without taking into account the revenge Smashville so desperately wants to impart. Pittsburgh just might be in line for a second drubbing in as many nights.


Thanks to First Star of the Game RW Mark Stone‘s overtime goal, the Ottawa Senators beat the Colorado Avalanche 4-3 at the Ericsson Globe in Stockholm, Sweden in yesterday’s back-and-forth DtFR Game of the Day.

This contest followed a nice pattern, as three goals were struck in the first period, two in the second and a final regulation marker in the third.

W Nail Yakupov (Second Star F Alexander Kerfoot and F Colin Wilson) got the scoring started by potting a power play snap shot 8:16 into the contest, but Colorado’s advantage lasted only 20 seconds before Third Star D Fredrik Claesson (F Mike Hoffman and Swede D Erik Karlsson) – a Stockholm native – scored to level the game. Finally, Stone (Stockholmare D Johnny Oduya and D Chris Wideman) tipped-in a goal with 4:50 remaining in the period to give the Senators a 2-1 advantage going into the first intermission.

The game was tied once again at the 9:41 mark of the second period courtesy of a Kerfoot (W Blake Comeau and D Samuel Girard) tip-in, and it remained level for 3:40 before F Chris DiDomenico (D Dion Phaneuf and F Tom Pyatt) claimed a one-goal lead for Ottawa once again. That 3-2 score held into the second break.

For those wondering, the only event that shows up on the box score involving the recently-traded F Matt Duchene occurred in the middle period when he was tripped by W Gabriel Bourque. The Senators could not convert either this nor their only other power play opportunity of the game.

The lone goal of the final frame was struck with 7:07 remaining in regulation. F Nathan MacKinnon (RW Mikko Rantanen and Stockholmare LW Gabriel Landeskog) is the lucky Av to take credit, as he leveled the game at three-all to force three-on-three overtime.

Overtime didn’t even last a full minute before Stone (C Derick Brassard and Karlsson) bagged his 11th goal of the season to earn the bonus point for the Sens. After resetting the play in the neutral zone to get Ottawa onside, Karlsson drove towards G Semyon Varlamov‘s net before dropping a pass to Brassard in the right face-off circle. Instead of firing the puck, he slid a quick pass across the slot to Stone, who buried a snapper on a gaping cage to end the tilt.

G Craig Anderson earned the victory after saving 16-of-19 shots faced (.842 save percentage), leaving the loss to Varlamov, who saved 28-of-32 (.875).

Since the Senators were officially the road team in today’s DtFR Game of the Day, they helped visitors in the series pull within one point of the 19-15-5 hosts.

Pittsburgh Penguins 2017-’18 Season Preview

Pittsburgh Penguins

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

Beat Nashville in the Stanley Cup Finals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Offseason Grade: D

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

Preds’ counterattack levels Cup Finals

2017 Stanley Cup Finals – Game 4

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or so it seemed.

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

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

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

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

Preds’ power play perplexes Pens

2017 Stanley Cup Final – Game 3

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stanley Cup Playoffs: Conference Finals – May 25

 

Ottawa Senators at Pittsburgh Penguins – Game 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stanley Cup Playoffs: Conference Finals – May 23

 

Pittsburgh Penguins at Ottawa Senators – Game 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stanley Cup Playoffs: Conference Finals – May 19

 

Pittsburgh Penguins at Ottawa Senators – Game 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stanley Cup Playoffs: Second Round – May 3

For the first and second rounds of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the authors at Down the Frozen River present a rapid recap of all of the night’s action. Tonight’s featured writer is Connor Keith.

 

Washington Capitals at Pittsburgh Penguins – Game 4

With a 3-2 victory over the Capitals at PPG Paints Arena Wednesday, Pittsburgh has pulled within a win of advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals for the fifth time in the last decade.

After the events of Game 3, two things could have happened in this contest. The Penguins could have taken to the ice with intentions of revenge for Matt Niskanen unintentionally downing Sidney Crosby with at least the fourth concussion of his career, or they could let the scoreboard do the talking.

Since Mike Sullivan and his club still have intentions of hoisting the Stanley Cup for a second straight season, cooler heads prevailed and they decided on the latter option.

Of course, missing Crosby and Conor Sheary – both first-liners – will put a damper on the offense no matter how brilliant Jake Guentzel and Evgeni Malkin perform. That’s where First Star of the Game Marc-Andre Fleury comes in.

Just like he’s done for most of his appearances this postseason, the veteran goaltender posted another exemplary 60 minutes. Though the Capitals fired 38 shots at him, he saved all but two for a solid .947 save percentage.

As far as scoring is concerned, almost all the action – save Second Star Patric Hornqvist‘s (Olli Maatta and Matt Cullen) marker 4:39 into the game – occurred in the second period when the Capitals scored three goals.

Wait, three?

Officially recorded as Guentzel’s eighth goal of the playoffs, Dmitry Orlov started Washington’s scoring with his right skate at the 3:51 mark. It looks like he intended to catch the puck with his skate then collect with his stick, but the second half of his plan never came to fruition. Because of that, Guentzel’s shot deflected into Braden Holtby‘s net to set the score at 2-0.

But the Caps didn’t waste any time getting that goal back. First up was Third Star Evgeny Kuznetsov (Justin Williams and Marcus Johansson), who buried his wrist shot from the at the 7:21 mark to pull Washington back within a goal. Nate Schmidt (T.J. Oshie and Kevin Shattenkirk) followed that marker up 72 seconds later to level the game at two-all with his first-ever postseason marker.

After Washington had tied the game at two-all, the Penguins defense clamped down. In the remaining 31:27 of play, they allowed only 17 shots to reach Fleury’s net. That effort was led in large part by Ian Cole, who blocked three Capitals shots in addition to his team-leading six hits by the end of the game.

With that in mind, it’s only fitting then that the game-winning goal belongs to one of Pittsburgh’s blueliners. Buried with 8:36 remaining in the second period, Justin Schultz (Malkin and Guentzel) banged home a power play slap shot over Holtby’s stick shoulder for the final tally of the contest.

The Capitals certainly had their chances to score at least one more goal in the third period to force overtime. They had all the momentum in the final frame and maintained possession in their offensive zone most of the time, but were done in by a questionable penalty with 1:52 remaining in regulation.

On initial look, it seemed like Oshie’s stick caught Nick Bonino in the face when they made contact in the far corner behind Fleury’s net. The penalty for that is, of course, a seat in the penalty box for hi-sticking.

But a replay later, the truth came out: the stick only caught Bonino’s shoulder – the eighth-year center sold/embellished/flopped (pick your favorite) to force the Caps to the penalty kill, effectively neutralizing any chance of an equalizer.

Of course, that’s only part of the story.

Guentzel actually suffered a hi-stick from Andre Burakovsky late in the third period that went uncalled, even though the officials knew he was bleeding.

And of course, this was all played out a year after this same narrative was played out by the exact same players. That time, Oshie was crossing Matt Murray’s crease and Bonino hit him in the chest in Game 5. Though a stick came nowhere near his face, Oshie threw his head back in faux pain to draw a penalty and force off elimination for one more game.

In either case, Penguins fans see the Oshie penalty as a makeup call.

Pittsburgh’s first opportunity to advance to the Conference Finals is scheduled for Saturday at 7:15 p.m. Eastern time at the Verizon Center. American viewers can look for Game 5 on NBC, while Canadians will be serviced by CBC, SN and TVAS.

 

Anaheim Ducks at Edmonton Oilers – Game 4

After trailing 2-0 – in more ways than one – the Ducks beat Edmonton 4-3 in overtime at Rogers Place to make their Western Conference Semifinals matchup a best-of-three series.

Third Star of the Game Drake Caggiula (Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Patrick Maroon) did so well to tie the game with 102 seconds remaining in regulation. The rookie’s first postseason goal was struck only seconds after Cam Talbot was pulled for the extra attacker.

It was a typical grind-it-out style tally we’ve come to expect in the playoffs. He took advantage of John Gibson being unable to contain Nugent-Hopkins’ initial shot from the far face-off circle and collected the rebound to bury the puck over the netminder’s glove shoulder.

And only 2:27 of action later, it was all for naught.

Following intermission, the Ducks exploded onto the ice. Beyond Ryan Kesler losing the face-off to open overtime, Anaheim did not let the Oilers do anything else. 35 seconds into the fourth period, Adam Larsson tried to fire a puck at Gibson, but his shot was stopped by First Star Ryan Getzlaf.

Getzlaf maintained possession following the block and began Anaheim’s attack into the offensive zone by passing to a streaking Second Star Jakob Silfverberg. Silfverberg couldn’t take control of the puck and lost possession to Oscar Klefbom, who passed to Larsson.

Once again, Getzaf had other plans than letting the Oilers dump the puck into the neutral zone or start a counterattack. He intercepted Larsson’s pass and dished across the face-off circles to a waiting Silfverberg, who absolutely ripped a wrist shot past Talbot to end the game and level the series at two-all after losing both games at the Honda Center.

Making the Ducks’ victory all the more impressive is the fact that Edmonton effectively dominated the first period. Milan Lucic had the Oil riled up as they were hitting in the first period like it was going out of style. In total, Edmonton threw 37 hits before Silfverberg’s game-ending marker, led by both Zack Kassian and Lucic’s five blows apiece.

Lucic (Leon Draisaitl and Mark Letestu) was eventually rewarded for his physical play by scoring a power play goal with 4:22 remaining in the first period. Similar to Caggiula’s tally to force overtime, it was a hard-nosed goal struck from Gibson’s crease after he didn’t collect Draisaitl’s initial shot.

Only 2:05 after that, Connor McDavid (Draisaitl and Maroon) caught Gibson sprawled on the ice following a botched diving save to set the score at 2-0, the same score that read going into the first intermission.

Then Getzlaf happened.

The Ducks’ captain was involved in all four goals on the evening, starting with his first of two tallies only 97 seconds after the start of the second frame. After receiving a pass from Brandon Montour from the far point,  he rang home a wrister to pull Anaheim within a goal.

Unfortunately for him, that goal was slightly controversial. Talbot was not caught off-guard for this tally, but was instead fighting to see around Corey Perry.

Screens are perfectly legal in hockey, and a very effective way to produce goals. Perry rushed towards the crease from the far boards to act as one, but bounced off Larsson in the process. That slight change of direction changed his course from screening Talbot to making contact with Talbot.

The nudge was enough to force Talbot off his spot and the netminder immediately threw his hands up in frustration. That led Todd McLellan to quickly challenge the play. Though the officials deliberated for a few minutes, they ultimately decided to count the goal even though contact with the goaltender is clearly made.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think it should have counted. But then again, I don’t wear black-and-white stripes to hockey games.

The Ducks’ relentless, 21-shot attack in the second period continued 3:56 later when Rickard Rakell (Getzlaf and Perry) did his best tic-tac-goal off Getzlaf’s pass from the far post of Talbot’s net. Getzlaf passed across the crease to Rakell, who was waiting in the slot, and the right wing beat Talbot to the near post with his fast hands.

Getzlaf completed the surge on an unassisted slap shot  with 5:35 remaining in the frame for his seventh goal of the playoffs. Of all the goals the Oilers defense allowed in this contest, this is the one they want back the most.

After Talbot had saved Rakell’s initial wrist shot from the slot, Nugent-Hopkins had the puck on his stick near the far corner of the crease. Instead of quickly dumping the puck to allow his team to fight another day, he remained motionless and looked for a pass to start a counterattack. Getzlaf took advantage and attacked the puck through Nugent-Hopkins’ stick to bury it five-hole.

With hosts in this series having yet to successfully defend home ice, these remaining three games will be must-see TV.

Speaking of, the pivotal Game 5 is set for Friday at 10:30 p.m. Eastern time at the Honda Center. Residents of the United States will find the contest on NBCSN, while Canadians should tune to either SN or TVAS.