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Metropolitan Division Outlook 2019-20: The Pittsburgh Penguins - Will Sidney Crosby and company miss the playoffs?

Metropolitan Division Outlook 2019-20: The Pittsburgh Penguins - Will Sidney Crosby and company miss the playoffs?

The Capitals enter the 2019-20 season looking for their fifth consecutive Metropolitan Division title. 

But this could be the most challenging year yet. The bottom of the division has improved dramatically with offseason moves and the top of the division still has quality teams. It’s hard to figure who will crater and finish last. The winning team might not top 100 points.  

For the next two weeks, NBC Sports Washington will take a look at each Metro team and where they stand with training camps opening in less than a month. Today: The Pittsburgh Penguins.  

At this point, you almost just assume the Penguins and Capitals will scratch and claw for the Metropolitan Division title and everyone else can have the scraps. But that’s beginning to change. 

The Penguins (44-26-12, 100 points) finished third last year behind Washington and the New York Islanders and then were swept by the Islanders in the first round. That’s different.

Looking for a bit of a makeover, Pittsburgh traded star winger Phil Kessel to the Arizona Coyotes for Alex Galchenyuk and salary-cap space. Galchenyuk is a nice player and probably fits well on a second-line next to Evgeni Malkin, but he topped out at 56 points in 2015-16 with the Montreal Canadiens and had just 41 last year in 72 games with Arizona. 

Maybe that changes playing with the likes of Malkin and he should see some power-play time, too. But Kessel had 82 last year and 92 the year before. There’s no real comparison between the two players. Pittsburgh needed a facelift and more balance to its roster, but the cost was steep.

No team with Crosby or Malkin should worry about missing the Stanley Cup playoffs. Crosby had 100 points last season and is still going strong at 32. There was a good case to be made that he should have won the Selke Award as the NHL’s best defensive forward. He finished fourth. But that all-around play and Crosby’s continued offensive brilliance was good for second place in the Hart Trophy race for MVP. 

Write Pittsburgh off at your peril with a player like that on the roster. Malkin needs to rebound, though. He declined in 2018-19 with 72 points (21 goals, 51 assists) in 68 games. He is 33 now and age can’t be discounted there. Malkin missed 14 games and has played fewer than 70 in five of the past six seasons. Especially with Kessel gone, he needs to get back to a full-season, 90-point pace. If that doesn’t happen Pittsburgh could be in some trouble.

Jake Guentzel should be fine playing with Crosby after a 40-goal season. Bryan Rust is a valuable player who can go up and down the lineup. But there isn’t a ton of goal-scoring depth here. Jared McCann and Nick Bjugstad, acquired from Florida at the trade deadline, should produce in a full season with the Penguins. 

Patric Hornqvist (18 goals, 19 assists) showed signs of decline and will turn 33 on Jan. 1. His physical style of play doesn’t exactly lead to aging well so the Penguins hope he stabilizes. Hornqvist hasn’t played in more than 70 games since 2015-16. There’s a lot of mileage there in 11 NHL seasons. 

But that forward group, buoyed by emerging players like Dominik Simon, 25 and Dominik Kahun, 24, should be plenty good enough. There were lots of curious looks around the league when the Penguins gave forward Brandon Tanev a six-year contract. At some point soon, that will be regretted. But there’s no question he’s a tough, two-way player and he had 14 goals for the Winnipeg Jets last season. 

Matt Murray in goal is a proven Stanley Cup winner. Maybe they’d like a little more consistency than he showed with a .919 save percentage last season in 50 games, but if he’s healthy the Penguins won’t have any worries in goal. 

The blueline is dicey. Brian Dumoulin and Kris Letang are an excellent top pair. But Pittsburgh traded defenseman Olli Maatta. The hope is Marcus Pettersson can rise and join Justin Schultz on the second pair. But that leaves Erik Gudbranson and Jack Johnson on the third pair for now. Both have worn out their welcome on two previous teams. There’s not much depth here at all and Letang is a great bet to miss at least 10 games given his injury track record. He missed 16 last season. 

There are some worrisome signs here. Trading a player like Kessel is never going to be a net plus. There is age creeping onto the roster in several areas and the blue line is paper-thin. The poor playoff performance against the Islanders leads to an anxiety spike, too. But as long as they have Crosby and Malkin playing at a high level, the Penguins should be a solid playoff team and make another run at 100 points and a Metro title.

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Ex-Bruins goalie Tim Thomas details mental health issues on day he's inducted into U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame

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Ex-Bruins goalie Tim Thomas details mental health issues on day he's inducted into U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame

WASHINGTON — The tears rolled down Tim Thomas’ cheeks. 

Honored with induction into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, the former Boston Bruins goalie, a Stanley Cup champion, one of the greatest American players of all time, spoke of the hard end to his playing career and the brain damage he sustained playing the sport he loved. 

While playing for the Florida Panthers in 2013-14, his final season, Thomas sustained a concussion that December which left him debilitated. It was an injury “that changed my life,” Thomas said. 

Speaking publicly for the first time since retiring from hockey in 2014, the reclusive Thomas, a Michigan native who now lives in Idaho with his family, described a darkening spiral. He awoke the morning after his concussion and couldn’t decide what he wanted to eat, where he wanted to go. He couldn’t plan a schedule. Thomas survived by just following the team schedule put together by the Panthers - and later, the Dallas Stars after a trade. 

One year after retiring, Thomas found he couldn’t keep up with the sport on television or in person. He underwent a CereScan, which measures the flow of blood to the brain by using radioactive isotopes. Thomas claims the numbers showed two thirds of his brain was getting less than five percent of the necessary blood flow and the other third was getting about 50 percent.    

“I've struggled mightily with how do I process the experience that I've been through and rectify that with the love of the game that I had my whole life until I crashed, so to speak,” Thomas said. “That happened. I still haven't worked my whole way through that process.”

Thomas was a late bloomer. He played four years at the University of Vermont and after turning pro bounced around minor leagues in North America and played in Europe, too. He was 31 before he earned a roster spot with Boston and 33 before he was the unquestioned No. 1 goalie. 

But he went on a brilliant seven-year run, winning the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goalie in 2008-09 and 2010-11. That year he led the Bruins to the Stanley Cup and won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP. He also played for 2010 U.S. Olympic Team in Vancouver, which won the silver medal. Hockey brought him immense joy and he was thrilled to be honored with induction into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame.       

"I can see the positive sides of the whole hockey life and everything. It doesn't take away from that,” Thomas said. “I guess, I don't know where I stand completely on the game of hockey at the levels where people are injuring themselves to the levels that they actually are and my involvement in that.”

That will take some time. The pain is still raw. Thomas’ wife and children suffered because he was suffering with his mental health. He couldn’t communicate with anybody for a few years. He didn’t call his dad - or his old teammates, who were still stuck in that hockey life he had left behind. He just didn’t want to bother anybody. His love for the game was part of the heavy price paid.  

“There was a time period, yeah, where I hated the game,” Thomas said. “I didn't sit there and (say) I hate it. My rebound effect was like, this wasn't worth it. That's where I was then. Where I am today is past that. I ended up learning so many lessons out of the experience.”

But that doesn’t mean normal. Thomas isn’t sure what that word even means at this point. He’s endured ups and downs and only started to feel like his old self about two years ago. Oxygen therapy helped, Thomas said, and he believes plenty of special mineral water did, too. He wouldn’t have been able to make the trip to Washington to take part in this ceremony otherwise. Better doesn’t mean fully healed, though   

“I still can’t choose,” Thomas said. “I’m so much better, but I wake up every day and basically I have to reorder everything in my mind for the first couple hours of the day and then make a list and try to make some choices to get some stuff done, on which I have gotten to the level that I can.”

Thomas spoke haltingly to the gathered reporters. He paused, choked up multiple times and tried to keep his composure. The tears rolled down his cheeks anyway. On what was a monumental day honoring his accomplishments on the ice, this was as big a part of his story as any of that. After six years, he is finally able to talk and he hopes current hockey players can learn from his struggles with mental health.   

"I didn't want to talk about this. I didn't want to talk,” Thomas said “I didn't want to tell the world this stuff. Not untill I felt ready, and I didn't feel ready yet. But here I am.”

The book “Game Change” written by former Montreal Canadiens Hall of Fame goalie Ken Dryden helped, Thomas said. That story details the struggles of longtime NHL defenseman Steve Montador, who died in 2015 at age 35 and who researchers later determined had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the neurological disease caused by repeated head injuries.

Learning about Montador’s issues made Thomas realize he wasn’t unique, he wasn’t alone. He’s channeled the competitive drive that allowed him to become an elite NHL goalie and channeled that into learning about mental health. 

On Tuesday, Thomas attended his first NHL game since leaving the sport in 2014. Ironically, his old Bruins were in Washington to play the Capitals and the 2019 inductees were honored before the game. Thomas had only seen former teammate Johnny Boychuk a few years back, but otherwise had fallen out of touch with most others.

Tuesday, Thomas got to catch up with Bruins staffers still with the organization and also ex-teammates Zdeno Chara, Tuukka Rask, Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Kreiji. Those five are still with Boston and they were on the ice with Thomas that memorable night in Vancouver eight years ago when they won the Stanley Cup together. 

Seeing them again was a blast, even if for a short time - a chance to immerse himself in a game that had given him so much but for a long time has been lost to him. 

"Being welcomed back into the arms of the hockey family has been great,” Thomas said. “It's reminded me of all the great people that I crossed paths with all throughout my career. It's been very impactful."

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Capitals and Bruins put on a show worthy of Stanley Cup playoffs

Capitals and Bruins put on a show worthy of Stanley Cup playoffs

WASHINGTON — There are only a handful of nights like Wednesday during the course of an NHL season. 
 
Players and coaches grind their way through 82 games with one running into the next. Sometimes, for the very best teams, the Stanley Cup playoffs can seem like a desert mirage off in the far distance. 
 
The Capitals and Bruins reminded us what the spring will bring during Washington’s 3-2 win on Wednesday. The NHL’s two best teams gave us physical play, great goaltending and world-class skill all in one wildly entertaining package. 
 
“No matter where you are in the standings, games against those teams, Boston, Tampa, games like that, in a way they are measuring stick games,” Capitals forward T.J. Oshie said. “You want to see how you measure up to what they are bringing that particular year or that particular time during the season. Tonight was no different.”
 
Oshie scored twice – one after a spectacular inside-out move that stands as Washington’s goal of the year so far. John Carlson continued piling up the points with an assist and the game-winning goal in the third period off a pass from Nicklas Backstrom. 
 
These Capitals, playing against a Bruins team that came within a game of the Stanley Cup last season, continue to show they measure up. The roster has turned over some, but the fight hasn’t gone out of the 2018 championship team yet. 
 
“The crowd was into it a little bit more than your average game,” Carlson said. “I think both teams were flying around, going that extra step to hit someone all the time and that sort of thing. It was a fun game, it was fun to play in. Still not playoffs.”
 
No, not yet. Carlson has been through all this before. He has played on three teams that won the Presidents’ Trophy (2009-10, 2015-16, 2016-07) and none of them made it out of the second round of the playoffs. 
 
The Capitals are just happy to be where they are, now five points clear of Boston for the NHL’s best record and with a nine-point lead in the Metropolitan Division over the New York Islanders and the rest of their rivals. 
 
But they know none of it will matter in mid-April. The slate gets wiped clean and they will have to beat the Islanders or the Hurricanes or the Flyers or maybe the Penguins – isn’t it always the Penguins - four times in seven games. And then they’d have do it again with one of those teams in the second round. Only then would they even get a crack at these Bruins - or maybe the Tampa Bay Lightning - once more in the Eastern Conference Final. 
 
There are still 49 games to go before all of that and upsets are a fact of life in the playoffs so you might as well enjoy the journey to get there. So far, Washington (23-5-5, 51 points) is off to the second-best start in team history through 33 games. 
 
Only the 2015-16 Presidents’ Trophy winner was better at 25-6-2 with 52 points. That group also led the Islanders by nine points in the Metro Division race at this point in the season. It’s a comfortable place to be and a nice cushion for the endless, cold nights of winter when illness or injuries strike and the schedule wears you down and you lose a couple of games in a row and frustration sets in. 
 
That will happen at some point for these Capitals. It’s inevitable over the course of a long season. But if Wednesday tells them anything, it’s that they still have that reserve of confidence to rally even against the very best teams in the league. 
 
Down 2-1 in the second period, Oshie banged home his own rebound when left alone in front. And 3:30 later he undressed the Boston defense and beat goalie Jaroslav Halak with a backhand roof shot that left the crowd unhinged and Washington ahead.  
 
It wasn’t an easy game. The Capitals had to kill five Boston power plays and their video department helped save the game by getting a Bruins goal overturned on replay after a missed offsides call. That kept the score 1-0. Washington might “own” Boston at 16-1 in the past 17 games, but no one thinks that would mean much in any playoff series. Instead, nights like this are a dress rehearsal for the games that matter most. 
 
“Our team usually plays better against teams like that, teams that work hard, play an honest, hard game structurally,” goalie Braden Holtby said. “It's fun for us to play in those games, especially in the regular season. It kind of feels more like a playoff style. We've been fortunate to have success, but there's been a lot of real close games against them the last little bit, games that make us better in the long run."

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