Sharks

Trump honors Penguins at White House: 'True champions and incredible patriots'

Trump honors Penguins at White House: 'True champions and incredible patriots'

WASHINGTON -- After adding to the uproar over NFL players who protest during the national anthem, President Donald Trump mostly stuck to hockey in honoring the Stanley Cup-winning Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday, calling them "true champions and incredible patriots."

Trump welcomed the Penguins into the Oval Office and celebrated their second consecutive championship in the East Room of the White House. He singled out the achievements of playoff MVP Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel, among others.

Trump has grabbed a number of sports headlines in recent weeks, including his criticism of NFL players for kneeling during the anthem and his decision to disinvite the NBA champion Golden State Warriors from the White House for the type of championship visit made by the Penguins, the New England Patriots and the Chicago Cubs along with Clemson football team.

"Everybody wanted to be here today," Trump said of the Penguins. "And I know why."

Hours after tweeting that the tax code should be changed to punish NFL teams over the anthem issue, Trump joked that Penguins co-owner Ron Burkle should help him renegotiate NAFTA but largely avoided any talk about other sports.

"It's been an honor to have them all here," Trump said.

Crosby has said on multiple occasions that the team's decision to go to the White House was not politically motivated. Coach Mike Sullivan said the Penguins understand the circumstances of their visit and that he didn't feel like Trump was using them as a political prop.

"We've stated clearly from the get-go that our visit to the White House is not political," Sullivan said. "Nobody's choosing a side. Nobody's taking a stand. We are simply honoring our championship and the accomplishments of this group of players over this season or the last two seasons."

Of the 18 players who won the Cup last season and are still with the Penguins, seven are American: Kessel, Ian Cole, Brian Dumoulin, Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust, Chad Ruhwedel and Conor Sheary. Crosby and six others are Canadian, two are Swedish, one is Russian and one is Finnish.

Trump congratulated the Penguins for being the first back-to-back Cup champions since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998, complimented co-owner Mario Lemieux's golf game and drew boos when he referenced Pittsburgh's upcoming game against the rival Washington Capitals. He said he expected the Penguins to be back at the White House next year.

"This is really a truly great group of world champions," Trump said. "That's what they are. They're world champions."

Sullivan, the only member of the team who spoke to reporters after the visit, said "zero" politics came up with Trump behind closed doors.

Tampa Bay Lightning forward J.T. Brown, one of 18 black players in the NHL, became the first hockey player to engage in an anthem protest when he raised his fist while standing on the bench before a game Saturday night. Sullivan said he wouldn't have a problem if one of his players took a knee during the national anthem.

"We're very respectful of anyone's right to protest or demonstrate as they see fit," said Sullivan, who is American. "We're very respectful of it."

The Penguins had one black player on their championship team, Trevor Daley, but he signed with Detroit in the offseason and did not travel to Washington because the Red Wings were playing in Dallas. They currently have one black player, Ryan Reaves, but he and others acquired over the summer who didn't win the Cup also did not go to the White House.

Trump has called on NFL owners to fire players who don't stand for the anthem and urged fans to boycott games in a series of tweets. He tweeted that he instructed Vice President Mike Pence to leave a game between the San Francisco 49ers and Indianapolis Colts on Sunday if there were any anthem protests, which Pence did.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman told The Associated Press recently that said he respects players' views on political and social issues and "people are going to have to decide what makes them comfortable." Bettman said social issues "are a matter of individual belief and individual choice."

Sullivan also said the team presented Trump with an undisclosed gift.

Speedy Sharks and Golden Knights ready to fly on the ice in second round

Speedy Sharks and Golden Knights ready to fly on the ice in second round

Speed kills, and it claimed another two victims in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs: The Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings. The "heavy" playing style that powered three combined championships in Southern California since 2007 was left in the dust by a pair of speedier division rivals, the Sharks and Vegas Golden Knights, en route to the only sweeps so far this postseason. 

San Jose learned this lesson firsthand. In a six-game series loss during the 2016 Stanley Cup Final, the Sharks could not keep up with the Pittsburgh Penguins' team speed.

Pittsburgh deployed three, mobile defensive pairings and sprinkled speed on all four forward lines. San Jose, meanwhile, had a few fast forwards in the lineup and strong skaters among its top-four defensemen, but its speed was only a relative strength against teams in the Western Conference.

Following the loss in the Final, the Sharks have infused their lineup with speed and skating ability. Mikkel Boedker was signed the following summer, and Evander Kane was acquired at this year's trade deadline. Kevin Labanc, Timo Meier, and Marcus Sorensen debuted last season. Dylan DeMelo, Tim Heed, and Joakim Ryan played extended NHL minutes this season, and there's nary a Roman Polak in sight. 

Take it all together, and San Jose played at a high pace this season. Using team-level shot-attempt rates as a proxy for pace of play, as Sean Tierney of HockeyGraphs and The Athletic did with the graph shown below, the Sharks played at the league's third-highest pace this season. 

The Ducks were pretty far behind the Sharks on the season, at a rate of about five fewer shot attempts per hour. Keep in mind that data includes 67 games of Cam Fowler, one of Anaheim's best skaters on the blueline who missed the entirety of the first round with a shoulder injury. The Golden Knights don't rank as highly as one might expect, but still played at a faster pace than the Kings.

Vegas didn't have the same inciting incident as San Jose to fill its roster with strong skaters, considering the expansion team didn't play its first game until October. Instead, the Golden Knights saw the writing on the wall, and placed a premium on skating ability in the expansion draft, and in adding to their team afterward. 

"That was our basis for who we chose," Vegas pro scout Kelly Kisio told NBC Sports California in a February interview. "Guys that had hockey sense, and guys that could skate. If you have those guys, they will somehow make it happen."

43-goal scorer William Karlsson is a burner, and they acquired another one, Tomas Tatar, at the trade deadline. Blue-chip blueliners Nate Schmidt and Shea Theodore were prized for their mobility well before landing in Sin City. Even bottom-six forwards like Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and depth defensemen like Jon Merrill are good skaters. 

The disparity was clear in Vegas' first-round series with Los Angeles. Five-on-five, only three teams in the first round have accounted for a higher percentage of expected goals entering Friday (Winnipeg Jets, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Washington Capitals) than the Golden Knights, according to Corsica Hockey. 

Neither Vegas nor San jose will enjoy gap in skating ability against one another, however, setting up a what should be a standout second-round matchup. The games will be fast, but the length of the first-ever playoff series between the two should be anything but. 

DeBoer: Now healthy, series-clincher Hertl can reach 'another level' in playoffs

DeBoer: Now healthy, series-clincher Hertl can reach 'another level' in playoffs

SAN JOSE -- Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer thought Tomas Hertl’s series-clinching goal on Wednesday, in the midst of the best season of his five-year NHL career, was a long time coming.

“He would’ve gotten to this level earlier than this year if he had been healthy,” DeBoer said after San Jose swept the Anaheim Ducks out of the first round with a 2-1 win in Game 4. “He’s had some really bad luck with some really bad injuries. He’s healthy and he’s playing at another level, and I still think he’s got another level he can get to, too.”

Hertl deflected Marc-Edouard Vlasic’s point shot through Ducks goaltender John Gibson’s legs for the game-winner with 10:51 remaining in regulation, and just over a minute after Anaheim tied the game. As NBC Sports California statistician Darin Stephens noted, it was the Czech forward’s second career game-winning goal in the postseason.

Since entering the league in 2013-14, Hertl’s tied for 37th with 22 game-winning goals in the regular season and playoffs, according to STATS. Only Joe Pavelski (32) and Logan Couture (23) have more during that time, and Hertl’s played 85 fewer games than Pavelski, and 26 than Couture.

Were it not for recurring right knee issues that caused him to miss 45 games his rookie season, cut short his Stanley Cup Final in 2016, and forced him to miss another 33 last year, he’d almost certainly be higher on the list.

Five-on-five, only 11 players that played a minimum of 500 minutes have generated expected goals (xG), or shot attempts that account for quality, at a higher rate than Hertl (0.95 xG/60, according to Corsica Hockey) since he entered the league. If you include the postseason, he jumps into the top 10.

DeBoer’s right to think Hertl can reach another level, too. The 25-year-old’s 21 non-empty-net goals matched a career-high, no player underperformed their expected goals total across all situations more than Hertl, as Sean Tierney of HockeyGraphs and The Athletic pointed out.

With health back on Hertl’s side, DeBoer doesn’t see this as the young forward finally maximizing his potential. Instead, the head coach thinks Hertl is just beginning to reach it.

“This wasn’t about anyone pushing him…[He’s] been healthy and he’s starting to find the level that he’s capable of being at, I think, for a long career.”