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Season preview: Pittsburgh Penguins


Season preview: Pittsburgh Penguins

To get you ready for the 2015-16 season, we will be previewing all 30 NHL in 30 days, division by division. Check the bottom of the page for a schedule of each preview.

Today’s team: Pittsburgh Penguins

2014-15 record: 43-27-12, 4th in the Metropolitan

How they finished: Lost in five games to the New York Rangers in the conference quarterfinals

Coach: Mike Johnston (2nd season)

Notable additions: C Eric Fehr, LW Sergei Plotnikov, C Matt Cullen, RW Phil Kessel, C Nick Bonino

Notable subtractions: RW Craig Adams, LW Blake Comeau, RW Steve Downie, D Christian Ehrhoff, G Thomas Greiss, C Maxim Lapierre, D Paul Martin, C Daniel Winnik, C Brandon Sutter

RELATED: Trotz vs. Boudreau in 2016 Stanley Cup Final?

Schedule against the Capitals: Wed. Oct. 28 at Washington, Mon. Dec. 14 at Pittsburgh, Sun. Jan 24 at Washington, Sun. Mar. 20 at Pittsburgh, Thu. Apr. 7 at Washington

Outlook: Despite making the playoffs last season, it would be fair to say it was a down year for Pittsburgh. General manager Jim Rutherford made a few head-scratching trades (giving up a first-round draft pick in a deal for David Perron? Really?) to try and bolster a lineup that just wasn't gelling in Mike Johnston's first year as head coach.

After an early exit from the playoffs, it now looks like the Penguins are thinking clearly again.

In one of the biggest trades of the offseason, Pittsburgh brought in Phil Kessel to help bolster what was a surprisingly sluggish offense last year (19th in goals per game).

Kessel's acquisition has sparked a debate over whether he should play with Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. Though we will probably see him play with both over the course of the season, my guess is that he will primarily play with Crosby. Combining Crosby's playmaking abilities with Kessel's scoring is a hard combination to pass up, though Kessel will have to develop a more predictable style of play as opposed to the instinctual style he used in Toronto. It may seem weird, but not being the focal point of the offense in Pittsburgh will take some adjusting on Kessel's part.

In addition to Kessel, the Penguins also added Eric Fehr, Matt Cullen, Nick Bonino and signed Sergei Plotnikov from the KHL. You never know exactly what to expect from a player coming from the KHL who has never played in the NHL before, but Plotnikov is a top-six caliber forward and putting him on the wing next to Malkin could help ease his transition.

As improved as the Penguins may look offensively, their defense is a concern. Kris Letang says he is healthy, but after suffering a scary looking concussion that ended his season in March, it's hard to know what to expect from him. Olli Maata also had a rough year with two surgeries on the same shoulder.

And that is the team's top pairing.

Derrick Pouliot is a young up-and-coming defenseman, but at 21, the Penguins should not rely too heavily on him. Paul Martin signed with San Jose in the offseason, Rob Scuderi is nearly 37 and continues to decline and Ben Lovejoy played poorly after being traded to Pittsburgh from Anaheim during the season.

On paper, it looks like a solid collection of talent, but they need to stay healthy and play up to their potential.

Expectations: The Penguins are going to be explosive offensively again and that should be enough to get them out of the wild card and into the division's top three. It's hard to imagine an offense of Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, Chris Kunitz and Patric Hornqvist not being able to carry this team into the postseason regardless of how the team looks on the blue line. The defense can't be that bad.

But despite how good this team looks on paper or how easily they may coast into the playoffs, I don't see them challenging for the conference and the reason lies behind the bench.

Johnston, a coach who had never been an NHL head coach prior to his time in Pittsburgh, seemed like a curious hire last summer for a team that boasted superstar players like Crosby and Malkin. His first season as coach was not particularly inspiring and he seemed powerless to stop the Penguins' late season swoon that almost saw them miss the playoffs entirely.

To be fair, Pittsburgh had a lot of injury issues and it might not be entirely fair to judge Johnston on that one season alone, but when the playoffs roll around, has he shown that he can out-coach Alain Vigneault, Barry Trotz, Jon Cooper or Michel Therrien?

MORE CAPS: Capitals blue line braces for life without Green

See more team previews:

Pacific Division 
Anaheim Ducks 
Arizona Coyotes 
Calgary Flames 
Edmonton Oilers 
Los Angeles Kings
San Jose Sharks 
Vancouver Canucks

Central Division 
Chicago Blackhawks
Colorado Avalanche
Dallas Stars
Minnesota Wild
Nashville Predators
St. Louis Blues
Winnipeg Jets

Atlantic Division 
Boston Bruins
Buffalo Sabres
Detroit Red Wings
Florida Panthers
Montreal Canadiens
Ottawa Senators
Tampa Bay Lightning
Toronto Maple Leafs

Metropolitan Division 
Carolina Hurricanes
Columbus Blue Jackets
New Jersey Devils 
New York Islanders
New York Rangers
Philadelphia Flyers 
Washington Capitals 8/30

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3 reasons why the Caps lost to the Lightning

3 reasons why the Caps lost to the Lightning

After a rough start, the Caps battled back to make a game of it against Tampa Bay, but ultimately fell 4-2 to the Lightning. Here's why.

The first period

To put it simply, this game was lost in the opening period. Washington was the better team for the second and third but they could not overcome the 3-0 lead they spotted the Lightning in the first. Beyond the goals, the Caps just did not play well. Even the simplest of plays looked difficult as Washington struggled to get the puck out of their own zone, gave up numerous turnovers and scoring chances and just looked overmatched. Braden Holtby also looked shaky allowing three goals on just eight shots. Usually he is able to cover up some of the mistakes the defense makes it front of him, but he was not there to bail the team out on Tuesday in what was a really rocky start.


Taking a penalty 34 seconds into the game

Entering Tuesday’s game, Tampa Bay boasted the second best power play unit in the league. Playing a disciplined game is part of every game plan, but that is especially true against such a dominant unit. Giving up a penalty just 34 seconds into the game was not an ideal start. The call itself was debatable. Brett Connolly was called for interference when he knocked over Dan Girardi in the offensive zone. The puck was just behind Girardi as he had lost control of it in his skates. The sticking point here is that Girardi no longer had possession and Connolly could have played the puck instead of the player. Most referees would probably let that go with the puck so close, but Connolly was not so lucky. Whether it was a good call or not, the Caps found themselves down a man and down a goal soon after as Brayden Point scored the power play tally.

A missed opportunity from Kuznetsov on one end, a goal for Nikita Kucherov on the other

Even after spotting the Lightning a 3-0 lead, the Caps made a game of it. Lars Eller struck on the power play in the second period and Alex Ovechkin pulled Washington to within one with about nine minutes left to play. Just over a minute later, Evgeny Kuznetsov stole the puck away from Nikita Kucherov, the frontrunner for league MVP this season, at the Tampa blue line giving the Caps a short 2-on-1. Defenseman Andrej Sustr was textbook on the play forcing Kuznetsov as far wide as he could go while still covering the passing lane and Kuznetsov elected to shoot from the faceoff dot rather than attempt the pass to T.J. Oshie.Andrei Vasilevskiy made a routine blocker save to deny what looked like a great opportunity to tie the game. As always happens in hockey, a failed opportunity on one end led to an opportunity in the other direction. Less than a minute later, Kucherov made up for his mistake by scoring a breakaway goal to put the game out of reach at 4-2.


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3 stars of the game: Lightning strike 3 times in the first to burn Caps

3 stars of the game: Lightning strike 3 times in the first to burn Caps

The first 20 minutes of Tuesday's game did not go well for Washington. The Tampa Bay Lightning scored three times in the opening frame and rode that lead all the way to the 4-2 win.

With the game heading towards a repeat of their blowout loss to Chicago, the Capitals rebounded in the second period to make a game of it as Lars Eller scored on a power play. Alex Ovechkin pulled Washington within one in the third period, but Nikita Kucherov slammed the door shut with a breakaway goal to extend the lead back to 2.

Here are the three stars of the game:

1. Brayden Point: Tampa Bay won this game in the first period when they took a 3-0 lead. Point scored two of those three goals. His first came only 2:30 into the game. He retreated to the blue line on the power play believing Jay Beagle would clear the puck. When Beagle turned the puck over, he recognized it and immediately crashed the net, taking a Ryan Callahan pass in the slot and shooting it through the five-hole of Braden Holtby.

On his second goal, Anton Stralman saw an opportunity on the Caps’ line change and passed the puck up to Point at the blue line. Point turned on the jets to get behind the defense and went five-hole again on Holtby to make the score 3-0.

2. Alex Ovechkin: After the first period, Washington slowly took this game over for much of the remaining 40 minutes. Ovechkin was a big part of that as he totaled an incredible 19 shot attempts for the game. Nine of those shots were on goal and he found the back of the net in the third period for career goal No. 594.

3. Tom Wilson: Through the first period, the Caps looked well on their way to a repeat of the 7-1 debacle they suffered Saturday in Chicago. They had nothing going in this game until Wilson drew a trip from Vladislav Namestnikov in the second period. Eller would score on the resulting power play giving Washington some much-needed life.

The Namestnikov penalty was the 29th drawn penalty of the season for Wilson, which moves him into a tie with Matthew Tkachuk for the most drawn penalties in the NHL.