Cross Checks: Pittsburgh Penguins

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NEW YORK -- Well, the New York Rangers can't use being tired as an excuse now. Nope, their inexcusable performance in Game 4 runs much deeper than fatigue or the disadvantage of jam-packed scheduling. Their stars didn't show up. Their power-play was atrocious and they let the Pittsburgh Penguins take it to them for a 4-2 win and a two-game series lead.

With the Penguins leading 3-1 in the series, the Rangers find themselves on the brink of elimination when they arrive in Pittsburgh for Game 5 on Friday.

Up 2-1 in the third period, Pittsburgh delivered the back-breaker in the third period when Jussi Jokinen backhanded an innocuous shot at the net that deflected in past goaltender Henrik Lundqvist for a two-goal lead. Though Mats Zuccarello pulled the Blueshirts back within a goal later in the frame, New York coughed it right back with a poor defensive play that left Chris Kunitz in front to reclaim a two-goal lead.

Seriously? And just when you think the Rangers’ power-play can’t get any worse, it does. On their third man-up opportunity of the night, the Rangers not only failed to convert, they surrendered a goal on the other end. Brian Gibbons raced in on a short-handed breakaway, losing control of the puck but drawing Lundqvist down regardless. Brandon Sutter swooped in to bury it for a 2-1 lead. The Rangers have now been blanked on 36 straight attempts.

Geno’s Game: Loaded up on a line with Crosby and Kunitz, star forward Evgeni Malkin imposed his will during the first period, cutting to the net with ease and putting pressure on the Rangers’ defense. He gave the Penguins a 1-0 lead after a tremendous skill play in which he put a spinning backhander past Lundqvist just 2:31 into play. Malkin, whose game was ignited by a hat trick in the team’s Game 6 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets during the first round, leads the team with 11 postseason points (five goals, six assists). With a 1-0 lead, the Penguins dominated for much of the opening frame until a solid few shifts from the Rangers’ forecheckers allowed New York to push back with about six minutes remaining. Though the Blueshirts had extended offensive zone time, they had nothing to show for it. Rick Nash passed up a wide-open shot during that time, eschewing the best scoring opportunity of the sequence.

Depleted defense: Speaking of that shift, Pittsburgh’s Brooks Orpik was caught out on the ice for an exhausting 1:36 shift with the Rangers keeping the Pens’ hemmed into their own end. Orpik, who returned to the lineup after missing the past five games with an undisclosed injury, played only 42 seconds over two shifts after that and subsequently left the game. Orpik never returned to the Penguins bench after the first period, forcing the Penguins to play with just five defensemen for the remainder of the game.

Shutout snapped: After posting back-to-back shutouts in Games 2 and 3, Marc-Andre Fleury had his streak snapped in the second period at 145:30 when Carl Hagelin darted up the ice to rip a shot past for a goal that knotted the teams 1-1. Hagelin’s goal helped spark the Rangers in the second period, which began much better than their opening frame but ended on a sour note on Sutter’s short-handed goal.


PITTSBURGH -- After the New York Rangers’ 3-2 overtime victory to take Game 1 in the team’s second-round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, coach Alain Vigneault was asked about the impact of the team’s most productive line for much of this season -- the trio of Benoit Pouliot, Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello.

Vigneault said they have been the team’s most consistent trio since Christmas, that they have forged a palpable chemistry, that they were strong on the puck, aggressive on the forecheck ...

[Pause]

[+] EnlargeDerick Brassard
Gregory Shamus/NHLI/Getty ImagesThe Rangers celebrate after winning Game 1 in overtime.
“And they scored two [goals] in overtime,” Vigneault quipped as a nod to a wacky bang-bang sequence that ended the game.

Indeed, it was Brassard, whose shot that clanged off the crossbar and in (even though play continued), who was rightfully credited with the game winner. But even after signaling to officials that the puck went in, there was no whistle. With a scramble in front of Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury’s crease, Brassard connected with Pouliot for a goal that ended the game and rendered a restless crowd at CONSOL Energy Center silent.

Pouliot didn’t even find out that Brassard was credited with the deciding goal until his postgame television interview, but he wasn’t perturbed in the least. Pouliot had already notched his third goal of the playoffs earlier in the game; he didn’t care who ended up on the score sheet, just as long as the Rangers left the building with a win.

“It’s huge, especially in Pittsburgh. They’re such a great team,” Pouliot said. “You come in Pitt, the crowd’s behind them. You just played 48 hours ago. You never know what’s going to happen, but we scored two goals right away, kind of put them on their heels, then did the job in overtime.”

It was Pouliot’s marker that jump-started a terrific, textbook opening frame. He scored on a rather harmless wrist shot, but it was enough to make Fleury appear unhinged and the Rangers took notice. Later in the period, veteran center Brad Richards capitalized on a defensive miscue, putting one past Fleury while all alone in front.

But the game changed dramatically in the second period, as the Rangers failed to keep pushing and instead allowed the Penguins to climb right back into the match, building some equity with their disgruntled fan base and knotting the score 2-2 heading into the third period.

It might have been a necessary reminder to the Rangers that no lead is safe during these Stanley Cup Playoffs. It’s a lesson of which the Penguins are already keenly aware after blowing a pair of two-goal leads and dropping games as a result in their first-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

“It’d be nice not to take a period off, but we’re fortunate that tonight we didn’t get hurt by it,” said defenseman Dan Girardi. “We ended up getting a win, but if we can take our first period and play 60 minutes like that I think we’ll be all right.”

The Rangers have done nothing more than win one game, but they have to take confidence in a few different things from Friday’s game. One, they did not play their best hockey and yet they still beat a Penguins team that boasts two of the league’s resident superstars in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Two, they were able to contain both players, holding both without a goal and Crosby off the score sheet entirely (Malkin finished with an assist on James Neal’s game-tying goal in the second period). Crosby finished the game with a minus-3 rating as well Lastly, their regular-season road prowess -- they set a franchise record with 25 wins away from home this year -- was no fluke. They can win games in hostile territory.

“We’re hungry for more wins,” said Brassard, whose winner was his first goal of the 2014 playoffs. “I think it’s going to be good for our confidence, just to show us that we can beat those guys.”

For as much as Brassard’s line has been critical to the team’s well-rounded scoring attack, the second defensive pairing of Marc Staal and Anton Stralman is also emerging as an unsung element key to the Rangers' success.

Though top-pair blueliners Ryan McDonagh and Girardi usually shoulder the yeoman’s work against opponents’ top lines, Staal and Stralman were vital in helping containing the likes of both the Crosby and the Malkin lines as well.

For his stout performance in 26:03 of ice time Friday night, Staal was awarded with the team’s MVP trophy hat.

“Just the way he keeps the game so simple,” Pouliot mused. “It’s something we talk about all the time. Marc will have that big block when we need a block or make that pass. He’s always going to be in position to help us. He’s got the longest stick on the team. It’s a pain to the opponent and he does a great job with that. I had to go with Marc because sometimes you don’t recognize that kind of play but us, us we do.”

Staal's and Stralman’s game has been so strong that it has enabled Vigneault to deploy his defensive pairings with confidence that the top four can compete against anything their opponents can throw at them.

“We’ve got two pretty good duos that we’re not afraid to match up against any line,” Vigneault said. “So it makes it easier on the road to get the match-ups you’re looking for.”

That bodes well for the Rangers, as does the fact that some of their top performers still have yet to reach optimal levels during the playoffs. Rick Nash has not scored yet. His entire line is capable of providing more Even goaltender Henrik Lundqvist hasn’t stolen a game.

But Lundqvist finished the night with 34 saves and made some superb stops to preserve the tie en route to recording his 35th playoff victory.

It doesn't matter who gets the credit. As long as the Rangers are winning, that's good enough.
PITTSBURGH -- The New York Rangers survived a second-period letdown and a major scare from the Pittsburgh Penguins after Derick Brassard's game winner in OT gave the Blueshirts a 3-2 win and 1-0 series lead.

The Penguins learned in Round 1 the danger of a two-goal lead, and the Rangers got their lesson in the second period when they surrendered a pair of goals to find themselves tied 2-2 heading into the third. The Penguins blew two separate two-goal leads against the Columbus Blue Jackets in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals in Games 2 and 4 and erased two-goal deficits of their own in Games 1 and 3 during the wildly entertaining six-game set. After a poor first period, the Penguins returned after the intermission a different team, tilting the ice and outshooting the Rangers 15-4 during the middle frame. As focused as they appeared in the first period, the Rangers looked hapless in the second period as they allowed the Pens to dictate the tempo and get the crowd back into the game.

But the Rangers recovered in the third and carried strong play into the overtime period, where a wild sequence ended the game 3:06 into play when Brassard notched his first goal of the playoffa to help the Rangers jump out to an early series lead.

Controversial call: Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist was absolutely livid after the Penguins’ tying goal at 13:28 of the second and argued heatedly with the nearest official after James Neal was credited with the equalizer. Lundqvist got a piece of Neal’s shot, but the puck fluttered up an over him with Evgeni Malkin wreaking havoc in front. Whether Lundqvist felt he was interfered with or that Malkin high-sticked the puck in was not immediately clear, but the original call on the ice was upheld. All in all, it was not a great night for the officiating crew (how many times have we said that this season?), as they made an incorrect hand pass call earlier in the game and missed a few blatant penalties as well.

Early lead: It did not take long for the Penguins fans at CONSOL Energy to get on the home team, after an unpleasant first period for Pittsburgh. The Penguins surrendered the game’s first goal on what was a rather benign shot from Benoit Pouliot just 5:04 into play. That didn’t seem to help Marc-Andre Fleury’s confidence, as the embattled Penguins netminder looked disjointed and rattled throughout the first frame. He’d give up another before period’s end, when veteran center Brad Richards was left all alone in front, though he didn’t get much help, either. For all the questions heading into Friday’s action about the Rangers' energy levels after coming off three games in four nights, they looked by far the more energetic, sharper squad.

Power outage: And as much as Alain Vigneault attempted before the game to claim it was a new series for the team’s maligned power play, the unit struggled again in Pittsburgh. The Rangers failed to cash in on four power-play opportunities Friday night, extending their slump to 0-for-25 with the man-advantage. They are an abysmal 3-for-33 during the postseason.

Depleted defense: The Penguins were again without defenseman Brooks Orpik, who was scratched with an undisclosed injury. Orpik, who had one goal and one assist in the first four games of the playoffs, has missed the past three games for the Penguins. Penguins coach Dan Bylsma has declined to discuss Orpik’s or his timetable for return.
NEW YORK -- Of course this series between the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers was going to go to Game 7. And of course this was going to be a winner-take-all match that went right down to the wire, with both teams’ respective seasons hanging in the balance as time wound down in the third period.

It was a final frame that seemed interminable for the Rangers, desperately clutching a one-goal lead and feeling each tick of the clock as if it were an eternity.

But at the end of regulation, the better team was left standing as the Rangers held on to knock off the Flyers 2-1 in Game 7 to advance to the next round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, where they will face the Pittsburgh Penguins.

[+] EnlargeNew York Rangers
Adam Hunger/USA TODAY SportsThe Rangers prevailed in yet another Game 7 at the Garden.
“It’s a sense of relief,” said winger Rick Nash, whose goal drought continued Wednesday night despite a team-leading five shots. “You have two chances at it and we couldn’t get the job done on the first chance, so it’s a moment of relief and excitement.”

Nash is of course referring to the Rangers' inability to close out the series Tuesday night in Game 6 and that nagging stat that the Rangers just can’t quite seem to shake: 12 consecutive losses when leading in a playoff series.

But the Blueshirts began anew Wednesday night in a game that provided the type of pace and intensity that the series otherwise lacked. Both teams came out strong, but it was Flyers goaltender Steve Mason who was dazzling from the drop of the puck.

Mason was absolutely sensational in his third start of the series for the Flyers, even when the Rangers began to surge in the second period. It was former Flyer Daniel Carcillo who first got the Rangers on the board against his old club, notching his second goal of the series after replacing J.T. Miller in the lineup following a pair of games as a healthy scratch. Mats Zuccarello enabled Carcillo with a jaw-dropping backhanded pass laced through two different Flyers defenders.

Still, with the Flyers down 1-0 Mason was doing his part to steal the show. But despite several sequences of stunning saves from the 25-year-old netminder, who missed the first three games of the series with what he has subsequently revealed to be a concussion, the Rangers solved him again with Benoit Pouliot’s marker later in the period.

It wasn’t the stars who ended up on the score sheet for the Rangers, but that was only fitting for a team that has received well-balanced contributions from throughout the lineup all season long.

“That’s the great thing about our team. Different guys have been different heroes all through the year or throughout this series, as you can see. Every night, every win we’ve had we’ve had different guys step up,” said veteran center Brad Richards. “That’s a good sign for our team.”

As is the continued steadiness of goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who was rock solid when necessary as the Flyers came buzzing back in the third period, a clear statement that they would not go quietly.

Rookie forward Jason Akeson cut the Rangers’ lead in half, 2-1, and New York played much of the period on its heels, but Lundqvist was composed between the pipes as the Rangers white-knuckled their way to the buzzer.

Lundqvist did not have the same sort of outstanding performance as Mason, who was saddled with the loss despite making 31 saves, but he recorded a win and that was the only important statistic that means anything to the former Vezina Trophy winner.

"We knew they were going to push in the third and they came pretty hard, but the puck management was really good," said Lundqvist. "it's just exciting, that last minute is so intense and you're nervous but at the same time you just want to see what's going to happen next. The final second, that's probably the best feeling."

According to Elias Sports Bureau, Lundqvist has tied an NHL record with four consecutive Game 7 wins, tying Cam Ward, Ed Belfour and Patrick Roy.

“It’s almost a thing that’s out of your mind,” said defenseman Marc Staal, who finished the game with a team-leading 24:28 in ice time. “You never have to think what will be back there because you know he’s going to be there.”

Now, the Rangers can finally put the Flyers out of their mind, too, after seesawing with their division rivals all series. There will be at least one night to relish a series victory before planning and preparation begin for Round 2.

“A good sense of accomplishment,” defenseman Ryan McDonagh said when asked about the feeling in the room following the win. “But we know there’s a long road [ahead]; we’re trying to accomplish something even bigger.”

That begins, of course, with the Pittsburgh Penguins, who knocked off the Columbus Blue Jackets in a bitter, physical and wildly entertaining first-round series that ended with a decisive Pens victory Monday night. While the Penguins have had a few days to rest while awaiting their second-round foe, the Rangers won’t have that same luxury of recovery.

Instead, they’ll make a quick turnaround, jumping on a plane to Pittsburgh on Thursday to prepare for what will be their third game in four nights.

That may not be the worst thing, however.

“No thinking. Right back to work. Right back to what we’re doing here,” Richards said. “Now you’re in it and it’s fun, so why not start right away?”

GM rumblings: Bernier, Backstrom & more

June, 19, 2013
6/19/13
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Jonathan Bernier of the Los Angeles KingsJerome Miron/US PresswireHow much longer will Jonathan Bernier play near Hollywood? Several other teams have interest.

BOSTON -- These are anxious times for young goalie Jonathan Bernier, who waits by this phone to find out where he might continue his NHL career.

It’s time for him to go elsewhere and become a No. 1 goalie, something he can’t do with the Los Angeles Kings with star goalie Jonathan Quick in place.

“I’m still part of the L.A. Kings and it’s been a great ride, but I feel really confident and I want to get to the next level to get a real chance to hopefully be a No. 1 somewhere,” Bernier told ESPN.com over the phone Wednesday. “I’m sure the Kings will make the right decision. If I’m staying there, I’m staying there. If not, I’m ready for the challenge.”

General manager Dean Lombardi indicated to Bernier that he would try to accommodate him if it’s a deal that makes sense for the Kings. The whole trade talk scenario is a new experience for Bernier.

“It’s actually exciting,” Bernier said. “But I really can’t control anything. It’s up to Dean. If there’s the right trade for him, I’m sure he’ll make the right call.

"I spoke with Dean at the end of the season, and he told me he can keep me there but also feels he kind of owed me the chance to be somewhere else [as a starter]. So I guess we’ll know in the next few weeks.”

Sources indicate five teams are in the mix on Bernier, to varying degrees: the Philadelphia Flyers, Toronto Maple Leafs, New York Islanders, Minnesota Wild and Florida Panthers.

For the Wild, it really depends on what happens with pending unrestricted free agent netminder Niklas Backtrom. If they can sign him in short order, then they would bow out of the Bernier mix. But if it appears they can’t re-sign Backstrom, they can go harder after Bernier or other possible netminders.

The Flyers, meanwhile, have shown interest in Bernier but obviously still have Ilya Bryzgalov on their books. As one source told ESPN.com Wednesday, they’re only going to buy out Bryzgalov if they have a concrete Plan B in place in terms of a goalie coming their way, whether that’s Bernier, Backstrom or any other goalie.

Stay tuned.

SPEAKING OF BACKSTROM ...

GM Chuck Fletcher said Backstrom, 35, has fully recovered from sports hernia surgery. Backstrom was injured minutes before the start of Game 1 of the opening round of the playoffs against the Chicago Blackhawks and did not play in the five-game series loss.

“We’ve had some conversations with his representation, and had a good meeting with Niklas before he went back to Finland," Fletcher told ESPN.com on Wednesday. "I think clearly he would like to come to back to Minnesota. We certainly would like to have him back. So the will is there from both parties. Now we just have to find a way, with respect to term and the cap and how do we manage all of that."

One of the issues for the Wild is durability, given Backstrom’s injury and the health issues being confronted by backup Josh Harding, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis prior to the start of the season.

Fletcher said he thought the lockout-shortened season was an anomaly, and with Harding missing time, they rode Backstrom hard. That shouldn’t be the case next season.

“I think it’s a fair concern, but certainly we believe Nik will be fully healthy going into camp -- and we hope it’s our camp,” he said.

Although there has been some speculation the Wild might use a compliance buyout on a player like Dany Heatley, who has one year remaining on a contract with a $7.5 million cap hit (but only $5 million in actual dollars), Fletcher said the team wasn’t thinking in general about using the compliance buyout option.

“It certainly isn’t our first choice,” Fletcher said.

Kris Letang of the Pittsburgh Penguins
Charles LeClaire/US PresswireKris Letang and the Penguins have not reached an agreement on a new contract.
LETANG UPDATE

The agent for Kris Letang and Pittsburgh Penguins GM Ray Shero met Wednesday before the NHL’s general managers' meeting, but a resolution is far from certain at this point.

“We’ve agreed to have further talks,” agent Kent Hughes told ESPN.com after the meeting. “Not going to say more at this time.”

“He’s a very valuable player for our team, and ideally I’d like to sign him and get him extended," Shero told a media scrum after the meeting. "But we’ll see where that goes over the next few days and weekend, so we’ll see."

Again, as I stipulated in Tuesday’s blog, I don’t believe Letang will take a whole lot less than $7 million a year in a new deal, and I suspect that message was reaffirmed by Hughes in Wednesday’s meeting.

My guess is the Penguins need that figure to be lower in order for Letang to fit into the cap puzzle moving forward.

The question now is: If Shero can’t get Letang signed over the next week or two, does he trade him or let him play out his final year in Pittsburgh?

“I think there’s a lot of speculation if we can’t have a deal next week what might happen,” Shero said. “But I can’t go that far. He’s under contract for another year. I think when we get into next week, we’ll cross that bridge and see what happens. But my focus is going to be trying to sign him.”

STARS COACHING UPDATE

Dallas Stars GM Jim Nill, in a perfect world, will have his new coach in place by the June 30 draft. However, that’s not set in stone.

“I don’t want to have a set deadline, and all of a sudden it comes and goes,” Nill said after the GMs meeting. “There’s too many candidates out there. I want to make the right decision.”

While Nill would not name his candidates, it’s believed Lindy Ruff and John Tortorella are near the top at this point.

BOLTS PICK

In light of Joe Sakic’s comments that the Colorado Avalanche might not pick Seth Jones with the first overall pick, one wonders what kind of impact that might have on other teams drafting behind the Avs.

The Tampa Bay Lightning, for example, are drafting third overall, and clearly their number one need is a defenseman. However, GM Steve Yzerman says he doesn’t believe in drafting on need only.

“We believe in taking the best player available,” Yzerman said after the GMs meeting. “That’s been our philosophy. Your needs change from year to year. When these kids are available to play, your needs may be entirely different for various reasons. So that’s a rule of thumb we’ve had.”

Would he move his pick up or down?

“We’re quite comfortable with the third pick, but we’re open to any scenario which we think makes us a better organization,” Yzerman said.

Vincent Lecavalier of the Tampa Bay Lightning
Scott Audette/NHLI/Getty ImagesCould Vincent Lecavalier be on the way out of Tampa?
Recently, local reports in Tampa suggested the possibility of a compliance buyout for Vincent Lecavalier.

Asked generally whether he would use his buyout options, Yzerman responded Wednesday: “It’s something to consider. … Given that we finished in 28th place, we should be looking at every possibility of improving our team and what are options are. Other than that, I can’t say much.”

CLARKSON/DEVILS

New Jersey Devils GM Lou Lamoriello remains committed to trying to re-sign power forward David Clarkson before he hits the UFA market July 5.

“We’ll do everything we can to sign him,” Lamoriello said Wednesday. “We’re not looking to do anything else.”

Contract talks have been ongoing. One thing Lamoriello has traditionally not done is trade a pending UFA’s rights during this time period, like the Islanders recently did with Mark Streit.

“You never say you’ll never do something, but we have not philosophically believed in that,” Lamoriello said. “If a player said he didn’t want to play [in New Jersey], that’s another story. You never know, but that’s never come across us.”

BLUES' FUTURE

St. Louis Blues GM Doug Armstrong has his hands full this summer, with key restricted free agents Patrik Berglund, Chris Stewart, Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk to bring under contract.

“It’s funny you can sign guys a year before you have to sign them, but when it’s two weeks before it takes a long time,” Armstrong said.

But he made it clear to other GMs: Don’t bother trying to poach those players with an offer sheet.

“With the new ownership group we’re financially solid," he said. "These are core players, and we want to pay them fairly. I’m not concerned at all about an offer sheet, because we’re going to match anything on those guys because they’re good enough players."

[+] EnlargeJaroslav Halak of the St. Louis Blues
Travis Golby/NHLI/Getty ImagesWith Jaroslav Halak, Jake Allen and Brian Elliott, the Blues have plenty of talent in net.
One situation in St. Louis that is less than clear is how the goaltending will play out next season, with rookie Jake Allen playing well in relief of an injured Jaroslav Halak and a struggling Brian Elliott.

“We’ve called it cloudy, but I think it’s a good cloudy," Armstrong said. "Jake doesn’t need waivers next year, so he can go down, and a fourth year in the American league won’t kill him. Last year Jaro, every time he got ready to get going, the groin went. Brian had such a terrific ending to the season with a less-than-memorable start. We might be best served to come back with all three and let the chips go where they are. But we’re going to continue to debate that internally."

It’s clear, though, that Allen’s development is going to be important moving forward.

“The one thing is we need Jake to get ready, because both those guys (Halak and Elliott) are unrestricted after the year’s over,” Armstrong said.

FLAMES GOALIES

Speaking of goaltending, the Calgary Flames’ goaltending situation remains in a state of flux. GM Jay Feaster said Wednesday he’s still unsure whether veteran netminder Miikka Kiprusoff will retire.

"I don’t think anything’s changed from the where he was at the end of the season," Feaster said. "I think if we forced to make a decision right now he’d say that he’s finished playing. We’ve said we’re going to give him time, and that’s what we’re going to do."

To prepare for Kiprusoff’s potential departure, the Flames signed Joey McDonald to a one-year extension after acquiring him from Detroit during last season. They traded for the rights to former Tampa Bay prospect Karri Ramo and will sign him in July, Feaster said. They also acquired the rights to Swiss netminder Reto Berra and signed him to a contract.

After missing the playoffs for the fourth straight year and being forced to trade captain Jarome Iginla at the trade deadline, the Flames are desperate to return to the postseason dance and respectability.

“We’re looking at everything right now," Feaster said. "As I’ve said, we have three picks in the first round; we have cap space.

"I think it’s unique in that we certainly have an ownership group that’s willing to spend to the cap. We’re looking at guys that might be compliance buyout victims or however you want to call that. Looking at free agency and looking at making trades, too."

The GM did say he wasn’t contemplating any compliance buyouts at this point in time.

NEW PENALTY

NHL executive vice president and director of hockey operations Colin Campbell says GMs also agree to implement a two-minute penalty for fighters who remove their helmets before a fight. So it would be a five-minute penalty for fighting, plus two more minutes for the helmet violation. The new penalty is pending Board of Governors approval.

BOSTON -- Pittsburgh Penguins GM Ray Shero and agent Kent Hughes, who reps star blue-liner Kris Letang, are slated to meet here in Boston on Wednesday, a source told ESPN.com.

It only makes sense because Hughes lives in Boston and Shero is in town for the NHL's general managers meeting.

It could potentially be a pivotal meeting in terms of what transpires on the Letang front. The blue-liner has one year left on his deal, but Shero’s usual M.O. is not to wait it out. Just look at the Jordan Staal situation a year ago. After Staal, who had one year left on his deal, rejected a contract extension from the Penguins, Shero dealt him quickly thereafter.

It could be that Shero will get the ball rolling on trade talks if Letang rejects whatever offer might be coming from the Penguins' GM.

And know this, I don’t think Letang signs for any less than $7 million a season.

Wednesday’s meeting, therefore, will be a compelling discussion either way.

BRIERE BUYOUT

Daniel Briere will be an unrestricted free agent soon, with the Philadelphia Flyers deciding to buy him out.

A source told ESPN.com that Briere and Paul Holmgren met last week, at which time the Flyers' GM informed the veteran center of the team’s decision. No bitter feelings, though, as I’m told Briere feels Holmgren handled it with class.

The buyout will wipe out Briere’s $6.5 million cap hit for the next two seasons.

What remains to be seen is whether the Flyers will buy out goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, a decision that has been met with mixed opinions within the Flyers front office.

The decision is whether to do it now or wait one more year, when they can still get a cap-friendly buyout.

Perhaps what might push the Flyers into buying out Bryzgalov now is the availability of young netminder Jonathan Bernier from the Los Angeles Kings.

My TSN colleague, Bob McKenzie, reported during our Insider Trading segment Tuesday night that the Flyers, Maple Leafs and Islanders were most interested in Bernier.

One source told ESPN.com Tuesday that five teams have serious interest in Bernier, the list cut down from the nearly dozen clubs that poked around about him.

COACHING CAROUSEL

Could the New York Rangers and Vancouver Canucks simply swap coaches this offseason?

It’s possible.

We know Alain Vigneault will be the new Rangers bench boss, the official announcement imminent. But what about John Tortorella?

He has interviewed in Vancouver, and a source told ESPN.com that the Canucks were impressed with Torts. He is among the final four candidates for the Canucks' coach gig vacated by Vigneault. The others are John Stevens, Scott Arniel and Lindy Ruff.

The intensity that Torts brings and the accountability he would demand from players are elements that impressed Canucks brass.

Stevens would be a more cerebral coach, his defensive work on the 2012 Stanley Cup champion Kings not to be overlooked. Ruff is a stud candidate, of course, and Arniel is viewed by some in the industry as a guy who deserves another shot after what happened in Columbus.

Another potential candidate is Dave Tippett (whose deal is up), depending on what transpires with the Phoenix Coyotes' ownership front. If Tippett were to become available, my guess is both Vancouver and the Dallas Stars would want to talk to him.

TUUKKA’S FUTURE

Give agent Bill Zito a lot of credit. When he signed his client Tuukka Rask to just a one-year deal a year ago, some people criticized him. The gamble, though, was that Rask would excel in his first full season as Boston Bruins starter with Tim Thomas gone -- and boy, oh boy, has that been an incredible decision by Zito.

Cha-ching, cha-ching.

Zito and Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli talked about an extension back after the lockout-shortened season began in January, but then mutually decided it would be better to wait until after the season was over to pick it up again regarding the star netminder, a restricted free agent.

SIGNINGS

On the heals of the Penguins locking up star center Evgeni Malkin a year before he was due to become a free agent, the Detroit Red Wings and Pavel Datsyuk, while the Sharks have agreed to a five-year extension with Logan Couture worth $6 million a year.

A couple of thoughts on each deal: First in Detroit, where I wonder what the Datsyuk signing means for pending UFA center Valtteri Filppula. In a weak UFA class, Filppula can likely fetch north of $5 million on the open market, and I think that coin is too rich for Detroit. Expect the Wings and Zito, also Filppula’s agent, to meet next week at the draft though.

As for Couture, the term (five years) is reflective of how San Jose has managed to keep its top players from signing those lifetime deals that other stars get around the league, which allows GM Doug Wilson to stay out of a payroll/cap jam. Other than Couture now, not a single player on the Sharks roster has a deal that extends past five years, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau both signing shorter-term deals a few years ago.

SENATORS UPDATE

Ottawa Senators GM Bryan Murray held a brief discussion with Jack Adams Award winner Paul MacLean about a contract extension last weekend and is expected to sit down with his coach next week at the draft. MacLean has one year left on his deal.

Murray has chatted briefly with captain Daniel Alfredsson, who is an UFA and undecided on whether to keep playing or not. In a perfect world, Murray would get an answer before Alfredsson goes back to Sweden for the summer next week, which would give the Sens the ability to hit trade talks/free agency with the knowledge of whether or not he’s back.

But if Alfredsson needs more time to think about it, Murray said it would be no problem at all. Meanwhile, other UFAs on the Ottawa roster include Guillaume Latendresse, Peter Regin and Mike Lundin, none of whom likely will get a contract offer from the Senators.

THIS AND THAT

Veteran agent Don Meehan expects to meet with Rangers GM Glen Sather in New York/New Jersey the week of the draft to talk extension for star goalie Henrik Lundqvist. That’s going to be an expensive re-sign. …

The Carolina Hurricanes offered pending UFA Dan Ellis a new deal, but the veteran backup netminder informed them he was headed to market. …

Speaking of the Hurricanes, they’ve gotten calls about their No. 5 overall pick for the June 30 draft, but the intention right now is to keep the pick. …

Contract talks have been ongoing since the end of their season between the Kings and pending UFA blue-liner Rob Scuderi. The expectation is that veteran agent Steve Bartlett will meet in person with Kings GM Dean Lombardi on draft week. With Slava Voynov signing a six-year, $25 million deal Tuesday, Scuderi is now clearly the top priority. …

No surprise at all but the expectation is that pending UFA center Derek Roy, who was dealt by the Stars to the Canucks at the deadline, is headed to market. …

The NHL’s 30 GMs meet here Wednesday before Game 4 of the Stanley Cup finals, and while Patrick Roy will be handling trade discussions for the Colorado Avalanche, Greg Sherman will represent the franchise at the meeting.

PITTSBURGH -- Everything we thought we knew about these Eastern Conference finals and how they might play out has now been blown to smithereens.

Kaboom.

What we imagined as a potentially classic battle between two deep, experienced, talented, well-coached teams has been nothing like that at all.

Instead the Boston Bruins have humbled the powerful Pittsburgh Penguins, riding a dramatic four-goal first period to a 6-1 victory in Game 2 on Monday night, to take a 2-0 advantage home with them for Games 3 and 4 on Wednesday and Friday.

While it would have been unthinkable to hint at a sweep before the series began, the Penguins’ shocking collapse means a 4-0 finish is definitely possible.

Through two games, what most imagined would be a closely contested, see-saw affair has been a colossal mismatch with the Bruins outscoring the Penguins 9-1.

“Tonight was terrible. There’s no other way to describe it,” said Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby, who was held without a point for the second straight game, the first time that has happened all season. He committed a ghastly turnover that led to Boston’s first goal just 28 seconds into the game.

“We weren’t good, really, in any area. A loss is a loss, it’s frustrating, but you really don’t like giving them one like that. We didn’t do a lot of things to give ourselves a chance to win. This one we have to forget pretty quickly and find a way to dig ourselves out of this hole going to Boston.”

Through the first two games, this series has been a been a mismatch on every level, starting with the goaltending and extending to virtually every facet of the game, including that elusive-yet-critical element of "compete level."

Netminder Tomas Vokoun allowed three goals on 12 shots and was gone just 14:31 into the first period, replaced by Marc-Andre Fleury, who promptly allowed a goal on the first shot he faced just 25 seconds after Brandon Sutter had scored the Penguins’ first goal of the series.

“That first goal kind of got them a little momentum back after we got that goal by Suttsy,” said Fleury, who was making his first appearance since May 7, which was Game 4 of the first round.

Marc-Andre Fleury of the Pittsburgh Penguins
Bruce Bennett/Getty ImagesBe it Marc-Andre Fleury or Tomas Vokoun, the Penguins are not getting sufficient goaltending.
Fleury would allow two more goals, and unless either netminder can make more quality saves in the coming days, this series is going to be over in a hurry.

And while the goaltending wasn’t up to snuff in Game 2, that is hardly the Penguins’ only flaw.

The Penguins’ defensive zone coverage has been lax. And not to beat a dead horse, but through the first two games it has mirrored the kind of scatterbrained own-zone play that marked Pittsburgh's first-round exit at the hands of the Philadelphia Flyers last year. The difference between that series and this one is that at least the Penguins managed to find the back of the Flyers' net with enough regularity to stretch the series to six games.

This one? Not so much.

Indeed, it is staggering how great the disparity has been between the Bruins’ top-end players and the Penguins’ star-studded cast. Nathan Horton and David Krejci both scored in the four-goal first and have 15 postseason goals between them. Patrice Bergeron’s line chipped in three goals on the night.

Defensively, the Bruins allowed just 27 Penguins shots, 13 through the first two periods, and killed off both Pittsburgh power plays, giving them six straight kills against a team whose power play was the NHL’s most deadly at the start of the series.

Although he was excellent in Game 1, netminder Tuukka Rask was rarely tested.

As for the Penguins, it’s hard to imagine Crosby has had two worse playoff games in succession than Games 1 and 2 in these conference finals.

Along with the giveaway that resulted directly in the first goal, there were errant passes throughout the night. Juxtaposed against what we’ve seen from Crosby earlier in the postseason and the expectations for him to lead this team, his performance thus far against the Bruins qualifies as shocking.

Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Zdeno Chara of the Boston Bruins
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesSidney Crosby, left, has not been his usual self.
"We don’t sit here and accept that," Crosby said. "We know we’re looked upon to score and produce. I’m not going to sit here and make any excuses. We have to be better. That’s the bottom line."

He’s not alone, of course.

Kris Letang is a finalist for the Norris Trophy. But given his play in the first two games, it’s a given that if voters had to cast their ballots again, there would be a lot of other names written down before they got to Letang.

With the Penguins trailing 1-0, it was Letang’s blind clearing pass from behind his net at the end of a Boston power play that set up the Horton goal.

James Neal finished the Penguins’ second-round series against Ottawa with a flourish, scoring five times and adding two assists in the final two games. But he has been a non-factor against Boston.

That's the individual scorecard, and it's not pretty -- but it's the collective collapse that is most mystifying.

The Penguins were built to prevent just this kind of thing from happening.

Wasn’t that the point of bringing in Jarome Iginla, Jussi Jokinen, Brenden Morrow and Douglas Murray -- to provide the kind of ballast when the playoff seas got rough?

Never mind Iginla rethinking his decision to eschew a trade to the Bruins in favor of becoming a Penguin. Given Iginla’s pedestrian play in this series, it’s the Bruins who might secretly be breathing a sigh of relief that things turned out the way they did.

“I don’t think anybody in our room is happy with the first two games, the way we’ve played all the way through it as individuals and as a team,” the veteran winger said. “We all know we have to be better. I had a tough couple of games, and I’m going to throw that out and find a way to be effective and be better going forward, and I think that’s everybody in our room’s mentality."

What is perhaps most perplexing about the Penguins’ plight is the sudden discussion about having to change their mindset, their approach. How does a team advance to the conference finals and suddenly lose its way so dramatically?

“Our approach just has to change," defenseman Brooks Orpik said. "I go back to when we won 7-6 in Montreal this year, and I don’t think anyone in the room felt good about ourselves leaving the rink even though it was a win. Kind of felt like we never had control of the game. Right now, it just kind of feels like our approach is to score goals rather than keep it out of the net, and against a team like this -- that’s this patient and this responsible -- they’ll make you pay for it."

He acknowledged it’s a bit surprising to be thinking about fundamental issues like this at such a critical juncture.

“Maybe a little bit," Orpik said. "If we were a younger team, more inexperienced, I’d probably say no, but with the team and group of guys we have here maybe I am a little surprised. There’s nothing we can do about these two games. We have to change our approach pretty quickly to be successful."

Then, after a moment’s consideration, he continued: "Yeah, it’s a little surprising at this point in the season."

Penguins coach Dan Bylsma admitted he, too, has been surprised at what his team has shown in these past two games.

"Yes, how we played for the last five periods, yes," Bylsma said. "We've gotten away from our game. We've gotten off our game plan. We've deviated.

“And that group of guys, that team in there, they'll reset and refocus, and we'll come back with how we need to play in Game 3."

Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Tomas Vokoun
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarCan the Penguins get off the mat at 2-0 down?
Now, we know enough to understand that two games do not a series make.

So do the Penguins. And the Bruins sure know it, too.

"We know that they're going to try to bounce back, and we need to make sure we're ready," said Bergeron, who had a goal and an assist Monday night. "They're a really good team, we respect them, and we know it's not over."

We recall returning to Boston from Vancouver after the first two games of the 2011 Stanley Cup finals, convinced the Bruins wouldn’t win a game. They didn’t just win a game but won four to win a Cup.

Chicago looked cooked against Detroit in the last round, going down 3-1 before roaring back to win three in a row.

Likewise, in 2009, the Penguins twice overcame 2-0 series deficits -- against Washington and Detroit -- to win a Cup.

"We've won -- this team has won a lot of hockey games," Bylsma said. "It's a good team. We've won 15 in a row. And we won seven in a row and five in a row.

"Certainly didn't play anywhere near where we're capable of. And that's got to be our focus, to get our first win in Game 3 in Boston."

All those things are true, the winning and the talent that resides in that room. Those things are undeniable. But right now it just feels like it’s not nearly enough.

And who could have seen that coming?
OTTAWA -- In theory, these are the moments when experience counts, when the combined years of ups and downs and playoff battles won and lost help forge a protective covering that allows misfortune to fall, well, like water off a duck’s back.

That’s the theory, of course.

We’ll find out how the Pittsburgh Penguins deal with the fact they allowed a shorthanded tying goal with 28.6 seconds left in regulation in Game 3 and then went on to lose in double overtime to affect them as they move forward in their Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Ottawa Senators.

"I think everyone’s disappointed," Pittsburgh defenseman Brooks Orpik admitted Monday as the Penguins took a day away from the rink. "That was probably the best we’ve played in the playoffs for 59 minutes, and [we] kind of gave it away at the end. I think everyone’s still a little disappointed today."

Game 4 won’t be played until Wednesday, as the Penguins and Senators enjoy the second extra day off in this series. Orpik figured this extra day would be nice for a team that blew a chance to take a stranglehold 3-0 series lead on Sunday night but couldn’t close the deal in spite of a star-studded, battle-tested lineup.

“I think two days off are probably good for us physically and mentally,” Orpik said. “I think we’ve played well for three games and carried the play for the most part for three games. I think we’ll learn from it and move on pretty quickly."

The veteran defenseman, who was part of a Penguins squad that advanced to two straight Stanley Cup finals in 2008 and 2009 -- they won the Stanley Cup on the return trip -- believes that a less-experienced team might have more trouble getting beyond such a disappointing loss.

“I think with a younger team you might be a little more fragile, maybe tiptoe into the next game," he said, "where I think a veteran team, as disappointed as you are giving it away the way we did, I think you learn from it and I think you look more at how we got all the way 'til the 30-second mark -- how well we played there -- and just try to piece together what went right for us."

Teammate Brenden Morrow agreed that despite the outcome -- Colin Greening gave the Senators their first victory in the series, scoring off a rebound 7:39 into the second overtime period -- the Penguins have a lot to be enthusiastic about heading into Game 4.

“I think 5-on-5, without a doubt, that was our best 60 minutes, 59 minutes,” said Morrow, who came over from Dallas at the trade deadline. “I think that’s been something this team’s been good at, is kind of (turning) the page and wiping it clean and starting fresh in that next game."

Head coach Dan Bylsma talked about the tying goal by Daniel Alfredsson, and how the team didn’t manage the puck as well as they would have liked -- especially given that they were on the power play, with Erik Karlsson in the box for slashing. They were also trying to execute a line change when the Senators found a seam and Alfredsson tipped home a great Milan Michalek pass to tie the game and send it to overtime.

“You’re looking at being up 3-0 (in the series), and the Senators get back into the game and the series by getting that win. That’s the story,” Bylsma said. “I thought that was our best road game in the playoffs for 90 minutes of hockey."

It wouldn’t be a shock if Bylsma alters his lineup slightly for Game 4, although it’s not known if Joe Vitale, an energy forward who drew into the lineup in Game 5 of the opening round and has been effective in a limited role, will be available. He could not play in Game 3 and was replaced by Tanner Glass.

It’s possible veteran Jussi Jokinen, a healthy scratch since Game 5 of the first round, could find his way back onto the ice, especially given his ability to take faceoffs on the left side of the ice.

“He’s a guy who’s played big games,” Bylsma said. “He’s a skill guy he’s done real good things for us.”
At a glance: Trailing the top-seeded Pittsburgh Penguins 3-2 in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals, the Islanders are on the brink of elimination heading into Game 6. But this plucky team has surprised many in pushing the Pens in a competitive and entertaining best-of-seven set and will have the added benefit of a home crowd at Nassau Coliseum on Saturday night. Bolstered by a goaltending switch before Game 5, Pittsburgh enters hostile territory after cruising to a 4-0 victory in that game.

Good call: Penguins coach Dan Bylsma replaced starting goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who struggled mightily throughout the series, with veteran backup Tomas Vokoun on Thursday, a necessary decision that paid dividends. The 36-year-old netminder made 31 saves to record his fourth shutout of the season. By contrast, Fleury had given up 14 goals over four games (and that includes his shutout in Game 1), an eerie reminder of his meltdown last spring when he surrendered 26 goals in six games against the Flyers in the first round. Vokoun is expected to get the start again Saturday night.

Game-time decision: The Islanders’ second-line center, Frans Nielsen, who is battling a lower-body injury, is a game-time decision. Nielsen, the team’s best defensive forward, is often used against the Penguins’ top line of Chris Kunitz, Sidney Crosby and Pascal Dupuis. The Isles will be missing a key player on their back end after losing top-pair defenseman Andrew MacDonald in Game 4. MacDonald is expected to miss the rest of the season with a hand injury that required surgery earlier this week.

Potential debut: Should Nielsen be unavailable, it is possible that Isles’ top prospect Brock Nelson could be called into the lineup. The former first-round draft pick (30th overall, 2010) would be making his NHL debut. The 21-year-old center finished with 25 goals and 52 points in 66 games for the Bridgeport Sound Tigers of the American Hockey League this season.

Dueling Harts: Pittsburgh’s Crosby and the Islanders’ John Tavares were announced as two of the three Hart Memorial Trophy finalists Friday morning, along with Washington’s Alex Ovechkin. Despite missing 12 games to injury, Crosby still finished the regular season fourth in scoring with 56 points. Tavares finished third in the league with 28 goals and led the Islanders with 47 points, helping the team to its first postseason appearance since 2007. The award is given annually to the player “judged most valuable to his team.”

PITTSBURGH -- You can talk about the tinkering with the line combinations, the introduction of a couple of energy guys to the lineup and the second-period explosion of offense, but the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 4-0 victory in Game 5 -- and the restaking of a claim on a series that appeared to be slipping away -- begins and ends with the 36-year-old netminder who calmly skated into his first playoff game in six years.

The poor play of Marc-Andre Fleury might have made the decision to banish him to the end of the bench in favor of Tomas Vokoun an obvious one for head coach Dan Bylsma, but that does not diminish the uncertainty that came with such a decision at such a critical juncture of a playoff series.

All of which made Vokoun’s profound impact on the game even more compelling, especially during the first period, when the New York Islanders threatened to build on their 6-4 win in Game 4 that had evened this first-round series at two games apiece.

Exuding an ultra-cool that belied the nervousness he admitted he felt when he skated onto the ice for his first playoff tilt since April 20, 2007 -- when he was a Nashville Predator -- Vokoun held the Penguins in the game as the Islanders came in waves.

A Pittsburgh team that had looked sloppy and disorganized for long periods of time during Games 2, 3 and 4 continued to make poor puck decisions and commit careless turnovers.

The Isles didn’t get a shot on net until the 7:33 mark of the first period, but then poured 14 at Vokoun in the last 12-plus minutes.

Defenseman Douglas Murray fell down and Colin McDonald waltzed in untouched, but Vokoun stopped him. Michael Grabner burned in from the left side, but Vokoun turned him away.

If it seemed like the skilled Penguins, the NHL’s most dominant offensive team during the regular season, never had the puck, it’s because they didn’t.

But for all of that, at the end of the first period it was still 0-0.

“I thought in particular in the first period and early in the second, he had a number of big stops,” Bylsma said after the Pens opened up their third one-game lead in this series.

Game 6 is set for Long Island on Saturday night.

Funny how it goes, how one part of the game leads inexorably to another, but the Penguins responded to Vokoun’s strong play by cutting down on their mistakes and slowly taking back control of the game, pressuring the Islanders.

A terrific pass from a struggling Kris Letang freed Tyler Kennedy -- inserted in the lineup for the first time in the playoffs -- on a breakaway, and he scored to make it 1-0 one-third of the way through the second period.

Just 1:22 later, Douglas Murray floated one from the blue line that somehow eluded Islanders netminder Evgeni Nabokov to make it 2-0.

Moments later, Islanders star John Tavares unleashed a bullet that Vokoun calmly kicked out with his left pad. Later Tavares would dance through the Penguins’ defense, only to have Vokoun calmly swallow up his shot.

“He played pretty good. He was pretty calm out there and looks like he was ready to go tonight,” offered Letang, who would also add a power-play goal in the third period for the Penguins.

In the two Islanders wins in Games 2 and 4 -- and even in the Penguins’ overtime win in Game 3 -- the Penguins did not get those stops. They did not get the statement save, the save that says, "Sorry, not tonight."

On Thursday, they finally got those saves from a journeyman netminder who had played in just 11 postseason games in his entire career before interrupting Fleury’s streak of 79 straight playoff games for Pittsburgh.

Tomas Vokoun of the Pittsburgh Penguins
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarTomas Vokoun recorded his first playoff shutout in nine years, and only his second ever.
In stopping all 31 Islanders shots he faced, Vokoun earned his second career postseason shutout. The first was nine years ago against Detroit.

“It feels, obviously, good. It’s been longer than I remember to be in a playoff game. Obviously feels good to win the game,” he said.

“I was a little bit nervous, to be honest, the whole day. You wouldn’t be human if you weren’t. I haven’t played [for a] long time in playoffs so you kind of -- it’s hard to remember ... what to expect. But I got a couple of fortunate bounces. [The] puck also got through and I was kind of tight, but the puck stayed under my pad, and from that moment on I started feeling kind of better and started moving well. After that I felt pretty good."

Late in the second period, captain Sidney Crosby powered between two Islanders defensemen and snapped home the Pens’ third goal in a span of 6:35.

Suddenly, the Islanders more closely resembled the timid team that was beaten 5-0 in Game 1, and the Pens more closely resembled the team that so many had picked to breeze through this series and through the Eastern Conference.

“I thought they tilted the ice on us,” Islanders coach Jack Capuano said.

“They played harder than us,” he added. “They won the territorial battle.”

The Kennedy goal was key because it was the first one, but Vokoun saw it differently, as he and Kennedy have both been among that group of players outside the everyday lineup.

“It’s hard, obviously, for those extra players -- you don’t play, and sometimes that’s frustrating. We talked about that before, for the guys who are not playing at the time, to stay positive and work and you never know when you’re going to get a chance,” Vokoun said.

“I’ve been with TK [Tyler Kennedy] the whole time, and he was doing extra -- being on the bike and kept a great positive attitude, and he got rewarded today with the big goal for our team. Obviously that’s a huge thing -- [to] score [the] first goal in a game like that."

Although he was talking about Kennedy, Vokoun might just as well have been talking about himself -- the idea that sometimes there is a reward for sticking with it, for not just being ready but being patient, too.

Before Game 5, Vokoun talked about how he didn’t know whether he’d ever get another shot at playing in the playoffs again, and said that he wanted to enjoy the moment.

With the crowd chanting "Vooo, Vooo, Vooo," it's safe to say he did just that.

“Crowd's been great whole year," he said. "Every game we play here, it’s fun.

"It wasn’t always so for me, so I can appreciate when you have an environment like that to play in."

Caps-Pens rematch? One can only hope

February, 21, 2011
2/21/11
11:46
PM ET

PITTSBURGH -- To bemoan the loss of Sidney Crosby when it comes to watching the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington Capitals is understandable, yet it underestimates the fierceness of the rivalry that exists between two of the NHL's marquee teams.

For the second time since David Steckel's controversial Winter Classic hit either caused or was a contributing factor in Crosby's concussion, the two teams met. And for the second time, the game was both intense and dynamic.

Different without Crosby? That goes without saying, just as it goes without saying the game in general is diminished by his continued and prolonged absence.

That said, Monday's 1-0 Washington victory was compelling nonetheless.

When we watched Alex Ovechkin stymied by a deft blocker move by Pittsburgh netminder Marc-Andre Fleury on a first-period breakaway, we couldn't help but think of Game 7 during the first playoff clash between these two rivals in 2009.

Ovechkin was denied on a similar breakaway early in Game 7 and the Pens went on to rout the home team and eventually won their first Stanley Cup championship since 1992.

That series might have been the high-water mark since the lockout both in terms of buzz surrounding the series and the actual competition on the ice.

And the moment the Penguins skated off the ice with a 6-2 win in Game 7, was there anyone in the game who did not wonder when it would happen again?

[+] EnlargeMichal Neuvirth, Jordan Staal
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesMichal Neuvirth made 39 saves on Monday to shut out Jordan Staal and the Penguins.

Well, we know there's a lot of hockey yet to be played this season, but not so much that you can't look at the standings and predict the likelihood of a first-round Pittsburgh/Washington matchup.

The Capitals trail Tampa for first place in the Southeast Division by a point, but the Bolts have two games in hand.

Pittsburgh is pretty much locked into second place in the Atlantic Division behind Philadelphia, which would suggest either the fourth or fifth seed in the Eastern Conference.

"That could be a playoff matchup," Washington's Mike Knuble offered after Monday's game. "It's always competitive. They're fun hockey games."

Standing nearby was center Nicklas Backstrom, his left hand still smarting from a Kris Letang slash.

"I think everybody wants that matchup," he said. "There's so much emotion."

If the past two games played by these two teams are any indication, Crosby or no Crosby, a Part Deux this April would be dynamite.

Both teams are trying to put last season's disappointing playoff turns behind them.

The Caps, of course, were humbled by eighth seed Montreal in the first round, while the Penguins, wearied from two straight trips to the Cup finals, were shocked by the Canadiens in the second round.

Of course, the Capitals would relish a chance to avenge the 2009 playoff loss, but there would also be the added dynamic of the dramatic shift in how both teams approach the game.

A season ago, the Caps were running away with the Eastern Conference by outscoring teams by wide margins. Now, they grind out games and their defense, once the object of ridicule, ranks sixth in the NHL in goals allowed. Their penalty-killing unit is ranked fifth.

The Pens, meanwhile, have peeled back their flashy outer skin in the absence of Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, gone with a knee injury for the balance of the season, to reveal a dedicated, hard-working team that ranks fifth in goals allowed per game and has the top-ranked penalty-killing unit in the NHL.

Bemoan the absence of offensive fireworks a new playoff matchup might represent, especially if Crosby is unable to return, but relish the chance to watch these two remade teams tangle in what we can only imagine would be another long series.

With both teams coming off road games Sunday afternoon, they combined for 63 shots but just one goal Monday night.

Ovechkin, after missing the early breakaway, ripped a high shot from the point on a power play to provide the only goal the Caps would need.

It was just Ovechkin's fifth power-play goal of the season, but Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said his star forward is starting to shoot the puck in a way he hadn't for the first half of the regular season. He was also blocking shots and bumping into Penguins bodies all night.

"He's been playing like that for the last two weeks and being a real leader," Boudreau said.

Both netminders, Fleury and Michal Neuvirth, were outstanding in the final regular-season meeting between these two rivals.

Brett Sterling, the AHL call-up who has moved into a top-line role because of the Pens' lengthy injury list, hit a goalpost early in the third period.

Jordan Staal, who played after taking a big Letang slap shot to the head late in Sunday's shootout loss to Chicago, was denied on a short-handed breakaway.

Washington's Matt Bradley delivered a big hit on Matt Cooke and ended up fighting Ryan Craig.

Washington defenseman John Carlson made a terrific defensive play to break up a Max Talbot breakaway.

On it went.

"Two tired teams," Knuble noted after.

But not too tired to put on a terrific show.

Just as we might imagine come mid-April.

"There might be only 12 guys for each team ready to play the next series," Boudreau mused about the possibility.

He might be right. And here's hoping we find out.

Ranking the best goalie fights

February, 2, 2011
2/02/11
10:54
PM ET

Brent Johnson missed out on a shutout after taking down Rick DiPietro in the final minute of Wednesday's game, but where does this fight rank among some of the best goalie fights in history?

Brent Johnson vs. Rick DiPietro


Felix Potvin vs. Ron Hextall

(courtesy: hockeyfights.com)


Patrick Roy vs. Chris Osgood

(courtesy: hockeyfights.com -- oh the glory days of ESPN2!)


Patrick Roy vs. Mike Vernon

(courtesy: hockeyfights.com)

What to watch for Tuesday night

February, 1, 2011
2/01/11
3:39
PM ET

Boston Bruins (28-15-7) at Carolina Hurricanes (25-19-6), 7 p.m. ET

Season series: 2-1 Boston
Starting goaltenders: Tim Thomas (24-5-6, 1.81 GAA) vs. Cam Ward (22-15-5, 2.70 GAA)
Preview: Two weeks after the Bruins finished a home-and-home sweep of the Hurricanes, Carolina tries to end the series with Boston on a high note. The Hurricanes got only two of their 76 shots past Tim Thomas in back-to-back losses to the Bruins on Jan. 17 and 18. Carolina is one point out of the eighth-seed in the East, while Boston leads the Northeast division.

Chicago Blackhawks (26-20-4) at Columbus Blue Jackets (23-21-5), 7 p.m. ET

Season series: 3-1 Chicago
Starting goaltenders: Marty Turco (10-10-2, 3.02 GAA) vs. Steve Mason (15-12-2, 3.20 GAA)
Preview: The Blackhawks begin a six-game road trip in Columbus after All-Star weekend featured four Chicago players, including game MVP Patrick Sharp. Heading into their final 32 games, the Blackhawks are tied for seventh in the West with San Jose and Colorado. Minnesota and Los Angeles are a point behind that group, and Columbus, tied for 13th, is five back.

Pittsburgh Penguins (31-15-4) at New York Rangers (29-20-3), 7:30 p.m. ET

Season series: 2-1 New York
Starting goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury (23-11-2, 2.19 GAA) vs. Henrik Lundqvist (21-16-3, 2.29 GAA)
Preview: The Rangers have lost four in a row to the Penguins at Madison Square Garden and haven't won a home game against the Penguins since Jan. 5, 2009. Pittsburgh hasn't won five straight at MSG since a streak from Dec. 31, 1989 to March 17, 1991. Neither Sidney Crosby nor Evgeni Malkin is ready to return, but the Penguins are 5-3-1 without Crosby and 2-1-0 without both Crosby and Malkin this season.

Philadelphia Flyers (33-12-5) at Tampa Bay Lightning (31-15-5), 7:30 p.m. ET

Season series: 2-0 Tampa Bay
Starting goaltenders: Sergei Bobrovsky (21-6-3, 2.42 GAA) vs. Dwayne Roloson (7-3-0, 2.25 GAA for Bolts)
Preview: The East's top two teams face off for the third time this season with the Flyers looking for their first win of the season against the Lightning. The Lightning have won five straight games and are in the midst of a 12-game home stand. The Flyers have won two straight and six of their last seven games. Philadelphia leads the Presidents' Trophy race after 50 games for the first time since the 1986-87 season.

Montreal Canadiens (27-18-5) at Washington Capitals (27-15-9), 7:30 p.m. ET

Season series: 1-0 Washington
Starting goaltenders: Carey Price (24-16-5, 2.36 GAA) vs. Semyon Varlamov (8-7-3, 2.16 GAA)
Preview: The Capitals have looked like a different team since getting stunned by the Canadiens in the postseason. They cruised through last season and won the President's Trophy, but were knocked out of the playoffs in the first round by Montreal. This season, the Capitals are 17th in the league at 2.71 goals per game, have been shut out seven times and Alex Ovechkin is on pace for career lows in goals and points.

Los Angeles Kings (27-22-1) at Minnesota Wild (25-19-5), 8 p.m. ET

Season series: 1-1
Starting goaltenders: Jonathan Bernier (5-8-0, 3.08 GAA) vs. Niklas Backstrom (15-11-3, 2.52 GAA)
Preview: After an up-and-down season, the Kings went into the All-Star break on a three-game win streak. Unfortunately for Los Angeles, the Kings now begin a 10-game road trip. The Kings are 5-8-0 in their past 13 road games. The Wild won four of five before the break and are currently tied with the Kings, but Minnesota is just 4-6-1 at home since the start of December.

Vancouver Canucks (31-10-9) at Dallas Stars (30-15-5), 8:30 p.m. ET

Season series: 2-0 Vancouver
Starting goaltenders: Cory Schneider (8-2-2, 2.35 GAA) vs. Kari Lehtonen (22-11-5, 2.57 GAA)
Preview: The Canucks and the Stars both lead their divisions, but Vancouver has dominated the series. Vancouver has outscored Dallas 11-2 in the two games. But the Canucks will now need to depend on defenseman Lee Sweatt more with an injury to Alexander Edler. Edler, who leads the Canucks with 24 minutes of ice time per game and tops the defense with 32 points, is having back surgery and will be out indefinitely.

Phoenix Coyotes (25-17-9) at San Jose Sharks (25-19-6), 10 p.m. ET

Season series: 2-0 San Jose
Starting goaltenders: Ilya Bryzgalov (19-12-6, 2.64 GAA) vs. Antti Niemi (13-13-3, 2.69 GAA)
Preview: The Coyotes will try to win their sixth straight away from home Tuesday night and end a six-game slide against the Sharks. Phoenix has limited its opponents to 1 for 17 on the power play during its run on the road. Veteran center Joe Thornton has two goals and three assists, and Antti Niemi has posted a 1.50 goals-against average in two wins over the Coyotes this season.

Burnside: This week's games to watch

February, 1, 2011
2/01/11
11:01
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Tuesday: Flyers at Lightning, 7:30 p.m. ET

The third game in a mighty 12-game homestand for the Lightning, and they host the league’s best team (at least for our money). Tampa Bay could pull within two points of Philly for the top spot the Eastern Conference.

Prediction: The Bolts start the post-All-Star weekend schedule with their third straight win.

Tuesday: Canucks at Stars, 8:30 p.m. ET

The Stars will be hoping to avenge their 7-1 loss in Vancouver shortly before the break. We wonder if the Canucks will be spending a few nights in Big D before the game as the Stars did in Vancouver? Probably not. Still, this should be a good tilt between two division leaders.

Prediction: The Stars will even the score at home.

Wednesday: Sharks at Ducks, 10 p.m. ET

The Ducks have won seven of their past 10 games and continue to impress. Goalie Jonas Hiller was solid in the All-Star Game, and he’ll have to keep up his strong play against a Sharks team that would like to create some breathing room for itself in the playoff bracket. San Jose is 4-0-1 in its past five contests.

Prediction: The Ducks will continue their strong play and defeat the streaky Sharks.

Thursday: Wild at Avalanche, 9 p.m. ET

The Avs hit the break tied with San Jose for the last playoff berth, while the Wild were just one point back and have come on strong in recent weeks. This is the kind of game that’s going to hurt for the loser.

Prediction: The Avs will get their game going.

Friday: Sabres at Penguins, 7 p.m. ET

The Sabres have some ground to make up if they want to revisit the playoff tournament in April, and they’ll visit a Penguins team still missing Sidney Crosby even though the Pittsburgh captain has been given clearance to begin light workouts. There’s a better chance Evgeni Malkin will be on the ice, but either way, these are the types of games the Sabres have to win.

Prediction: Crosby or no Crosby, the Pens will be too tough for the Sabres.

Last week: 3-2.

VANCOUVER -- Greetings from the Left Coast. I see there's plenty of angry puck heads this week. Love it. Let's get at 'er:

gatorsandtitansfan44: The Nashville Predators are not getting enough notice. They have won 10 of 12, getting some of the best goaltending in the league from Pekka Rinne and look at their injury list! Two of their top scorers are on IR, their big offseason signing has played 1 1/2 games, a top four D-man (Boullion) and a filler they picked up to help with scoring since two of their top point guys are out (Svatos). Guess what, not only are the Predators quite arguably the hottest team in the league, but they are doing it while dealing with tons of injuries. Not to mention that they had to go nearly a month without starting goalie Pekka Rinne. The fact of the matter is the NHL season is a little over halfway done and the Nashville Predators with a rag tag group of guys and several key injuries are on fire and now sit just four points out of first in the division (second in the West) behind Detroit, four points ahead of the defending SC champion Blackhawks (who they have beaten in three out of five this year), and they are two points ahead of the Ducks (fifth in the West), who have played three more games than Nashville so far. Why can’t the fact that they have no "superstar scorer" be set aside and the fact that this is a good young hockey team with a solid foundation be brought out? The bottom line is this team has very good potential, and if they can keep playing the way they are this season who knows? Maybe a trip to the conference semis is finally within their grasp.

My take: Hey, I've done my best, writing a Preds story two weeks ago. But generally, you are indeed correct that this team just doesn't get the kind of national attention it deserves. Playing in a small and non-traditional market obviously doesn't help. What would also help is a deep playoff run, which they've never had. That would cultivate more of a respect factor around the league. Is this the year?

Kavashaforlife: Dear Mr. Nabokov:

Hey, it is me, Logic; I think we need to have a talk. I understand, the Islanders are not the ideal place to resume your NHL career, but are you not tired of the cold nights in Russia? Report to the Islanders, take the next week (including workouts over the All-Star break) to earn the starting goaltending job on despondent Long Island; play a week or so on the Island, show the rest of the NHL that you still have it (I see the headlines now: "Nabokov's 40 save night (again) sparks the resurgent Isles") and eventually get traded to Detroit (or another playoff contender) for a draft pick and mid-level player. Unlike at Burger King, you cannot always "have it your way;" take what the Islanders are offering you, it has to be better than what Russia's offering you.

Sincerely,

Logic (Hopeful Islanders Fan)

My take: Problem is, my friend, the Isles can't trade him unless they put him on waivers first and it's unlikely he would clear. Hence, a trade is not a realistic option. By now, most hockey fans know I interviewed Nabokov on Sunday. He sounded genuinely surprised over the phone that the Islanders would claim him. And quite frankly, I'm with him on that. I mean, why aren't the Isles just focusing on losing games and getting another high lottery pick to join John Tavares and company on a young club that will be better over the next few years? Having said that, I also think Nabokov should report to Long Island. He needs to show the other 29 GMs that he can still stop pucks so that once July 1 rolls around, he'll get some interest.

phillyisbetterthanpitt: Stop protecting the players from headshots. This is a joke, they get paid all this money to play the sport the same way they have been playing it their entire lives. The NHL is getting more and more soft with each passing year Bettman remains the head. Stop letting GMs protect their money interests and let the players play the game the way it was intended to be played.

My take: Marc Savard has another concussion. David Perron hasn't played since his November hit to the head. Matthew Lombardi has played two games this season, still out with a concussion. The best player on the planet won't be showcased in the All-Star Game as he continues to recover from a concussion. Yup, you're right. No issue here whatsoever. All is well. I have no idea why we're even talking about it.

StLbluesfan314: I am so frustrated about the Blues this season! I feel like we are the Chicago Cubs of hockey. Every time the season begins, we all have the hopes of a Cup in STL. But year after year no such luck. DON'T GET ME WRONG, I enjoy getting to the playoffs but yet we can't make anything happen! Is it time to talk of trading some of those "cornerstone" pieces to get some real talent in here to make a playoff run? Any news on the talk of getting a sniper who can put pucks into the net with consistency? The addition of Oshie back from injury is nice but we still can't put up points. Is it inconsistency that is killing this team? GET US SOME HELP J.D.!

My take: Um, the Cubs of hockey are a team you may have heard of in Toronto. The Maple Leafs and Cubs have brought suffering to a new level for their fans.

LynchBages: Kings vs. Mike Murphy. Unfortunately Murphy has all of the leverage. However, the goal that was allowed to stand against Phoenix the other night from the high stick up around the head (never mind that Hanzal is 6'5"!) was ridiculous, especially when the feeds in the arena even showed it was almost two feet over the crossbar. The explanation from the "war room" was feeble, at best, and even though Lombardi's comment was out of line, the league should be embarrassed to ask him to pay that fine. With all of that in mind, it's painfully obvious that the Kings are frustrated because their plan to have the kids grow up fast makes them too thin -- they do have steaks where their talent is evident, but no consistency. REALISTICALLY, do you see any movement coming this season via trade? I'm thinking they're going have to look to the Eastern Conference ... more consistent scoring and a top-four D-man, but who??

My take: Hanzal's goal should not have stood. Bad call from the war room in Toronto. But Lombardi was out of line to say that publicly. Totally out of line. And when I spoke with the Kings GM on Friday, he felt brutal about it. Good on Lombardi to call Murphy on Friday morning and apologize. Classy move by Lombardi.

mrcheesenacho7: I'm tired of hearing everyone call out Sidney as a baby and a poor leader because he isn't able to play or participate in the All-Star Game. You have to realize that the guy would be on the ice in a second if he could help out his team, yet he hasn't skated in almost three weeks and does nothing but catch hell from haters for something he can't even help. The Sid haters have reached a new low.

My take: Anyone who thinks Crosby is not injured and skipping the All-Star Game on purpose it a moron. He's injured. He's got a concussion. He's doing the right thing by taking the week off to recover. Enough said.

cbjgatorhead: I'm not going to bash Scott Howson/Scott Arniel at all ... but I'm beginning to question some of their tactics lately. I don't understand why we sent down Kyle Wilson when we have Huselius floating around like a worthless bag of garbage. Also additional garbage, Anton Stralman, but thankfully we have Grant Clitsome! And obviously it's not because of money. We just sent our highest paid D-man down to the AHL. Why do we continue to keep Huselius around?!

My take: I feel terrible for Jackets fans. I love the city of Columbus, I've always thought it was an excellent choice for an NHL franchise. But it's been nothing but heartache and frustration for a decade plus. There are no easy solutions moving forward. The Predators model is the one to try to copy: patient drafting and developing and no quick fixes.

colt135: I will rant about Nabokov. I hope Islanders fans like what Snow did. The idea is to make your team better, and for them Nabokov is an upgrade. With over 30 games left in the season, if he caught lightning in a bottle and went 20-10 (he won 44 last year), they could grab the eight spot.

My take: Whatever you're taking, I want some of that.

raquelm5: Hi, I am a hockey fan, I love hockey, I play hockey and I live in Miami so I have Panthers season tickets. My hubby HATES hockey so I am always trying to find someone to go to the games with me and no one wants to go and the ticket is free. Their reasons are either: a) they don't care about hockey, or b) the Panthers are so bad. I play in a women's rec league and it seems that the Panthers make the same mistakes we do. It is sad to watch and when they seem to be winning for once, they manage to loose. We always say that they "snatch defeat from the jaws of victory" like the game vs. the Hurricanes when they were up 3-0 and lost 5-3. Should I bother renewing my season tickets so I go through the trouble of finding who to go with or fighting with my hubby to go with me? Oh, BTW, Bank Atlantic Center is 50 miles from where we live.

My take: Raquel, don't give up on them yet. Dale Tallon showed in Chicago that he knows how to rebuild a team. It's just going to take time, which I know is tough to take given the long drought of non-playoff years in South Florida. But give Tallon a chance. He knows what he's doing.

fbullock: Pierre, We find ourselves with another annual useless hockey game this Saturday night. No it's not an Isles vs. Devils game. Although it would be a lot better if it was. But sadly it's the NHL All-Star Game. It's just plan useless not just for the fans but for those having to cover it. I feel for you having to trek down there to RBC but make sure you shake enough corporate hands to make it worth it. Only person that will be happy this weekend will be the wife since I will have no pucks on this weekend. I wish the hockey gods could help me with the work I will have to do in the garage. Anyway, I feel there is no need in bashing this hand-holding corporate event unless I have a solution and I do. Why can't we take the weekend and have an awesome round-robin tourney? How about the All-Stars from: NHL vs. KHL vs. SEL vs. EHL. After three days the top two points teams play for a stack of cash. I don't believe any of the above leagues lose because of the monster TV deal it would bring as well as international sponsors. It’s a no brainer. Not to mention the side games of the above leagues. They could include an all-amateur game as well as high stakes skills comp. Oh what a weekend. Puck heads would be on full puck tilt for three or four days. As well, I believe the media would have a much better time with the storylines. Well, just throwing out one fan's dream, instead me and my dog Hosehead are going to grab us some Elsinore and clean the garage.

My take: Well, the game is actually on Sunday, but yes, I'm with you. I've wanted the All-Star Game canceled for years. The addition of the Friday fantasy draft is a neat touch. But I suspect Sunday's game will be a dud once again. Solution? Just blow it up. The NHL schedule is brutal on the players. Adding back those three days from the break wouldn't hurt.

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