Penguins happy to play role of bully

March 14, 2017 3:05 AM
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Unlike the schoolyard boy who didn’t win so he took the only basketball home with him, the Pittsburgh Penguins have decided to do the opposite and bully-up to put the franchise in position to become the first NHL club to capture consecutive Stanley Cup crowns since Scotty Bowman’s 1997-98 Detroit Red Wings.

After recalling Tom Sestito, a “goon” – an archaic term from a different era in the history of the sport last century – the Penguins went physical – call them “Broad Street East” – to eliminate the once rising Winnipeg Jets from the postseason race.

While the merits of hooliganism were discussed among North American TV talking heads, Pittsburgh sent a message that it will partake in any style of play when the playoffs commence next month.

A year ago, a skating finesse roster raced circles around Tampa Bay (also a skating team) and San Jose to hoist the cup. Since most clubs can’t match up to the Pens’ wide-open play, others are, well, preparing to go in different directions.

You can’t really blame the Penguins. Their ever-growing injury list saw forward Carl Hagelin sidelined prior to Saturday’s game in Vancouver. Although Hagelin’s injury came from blocking a shot, physical play is the reason others are also scratched. Earlier, he was out due to a concussion.

Although Evgeni Malkin recently returned to action, the MIA’s featured Kris Letang, plus Matt Cullen, Trevor Daley, Patric Hornqvist, Olli Maatta and Bryan Rust.

Malkin’s injury came from a Winnipeg elbow in a previous game, while Dustin Byfuglien and Maatta also came against the Jets.

Despite the absences, Pittsburgh enters the week just one point behind struggling Washington (5-6-1 since its bye week, capped by an 0-3 California road sweep), for first overall in the NHL.

Pennant races

We told you Ottawa would eventually catch Montreal for first place in the Atlantic Division. Sure, it only lasted one day with Montreal’s win Sunday in Edmonton. However don’t expect the Senators to wind up in first following three more meetings with the Canadiens over an eight-day period, starting with this weekend’s home-and-home series.

The Canadiens, which once held an “insurmountable” 20-point lead following a fast start, could drop all three games and finish 0-4-1 against the Senators… yet still win the division; it’s something handicappers like to call “schedule dynamics.”

Ottawa closes the season with nine of their final 12 games on the road; Montreal plays nine of their last 10 against teams not currently among the Top 8 (non-playoff teams) in the standings. Advantage: Bleu Blanc Rouge.

Even if the Senators (unlikely) sweep to take a 6-point lead, the Habs will still have the advantage – if they want it.

Remember a year ago, when several Eastern Conference clubs “apparently” lost to help alter their playoff opponent, maybe it would be better to finish second in the Atlantic.

The division winner seems poised to meet a wild card club from the tougher Metro before an Ottawa/Montreal series in the second round.

Under the recently revised playoff format, wild cards have taken down division champs before – I’m talking to you, Anaheim! – so Montreal needs to quickly decide what to do.

Late Sunday update: Speaking of the Ducks, panicking management destabilized their goaltending situation again with the recall of Jhonas Enroth from San Diego (AHL). Enroth went 12-3-0 with the Gulls, including a perfect 6-0-0 mark in January to be named AHL Goalie of the Month.

The Nick of time

Nick Nickson, the radio play-by-play announcer for “my” Los Angeles Kings, explained how L.A. was able to remain under the salary cap at the trade deadline.

“Sending Dwight King to Montreal helped quite a bit,” said Nickson. “His $2.1 million salary came off the books, opening the door to acquire Ben Bishop and Jarome Iginla, who will both be unrestricted free agents this summer.”

It seems there are two types of disabled lists in the NHL, which aided the Kings.

“When Jonathan Quick was injured in Game 1, he went on a long-term list,” he explained. “That allowed the Kings some additional cap space to replace him.”

In addition, Tampa Bay covered 20 percent of Bishop’s money to keep the trade alive, gaining more players and trade picks by dispatching him before the deadline since they weren’t going to sign him anyway in lieu of 22-year-old Andrei Vasilevskiy, who will be the Lightning’s clear No. 1 goalie of the future.

Since the return of Quick and the next-day trade for Bishop, the Kings have scored at least three goals in 6 of 7 contests; the offense no longer needs to help as much on the back end, as written in GamingToday two weeks ago.