The Pens held an optional practice Friday afternoon at Amalie Arena prior to tonight’s Game 4 Eastern Conference Final showdown with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
LINEUP NOTES Winger Patric Hornqvist, who was hurt blocking a shot late in the third period of Game 3, participated in the optional skate.
Head coach Mike Sullivan replied, “yes,” when asked if he anticipates him being available to play in Game 4 tonight.
The only absent players from the team’s skate were Matt Cullen, Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang and Jeff Zatkoff.
HAVING SOME FUN Pens winger Phil Kessel played the game of his life in Game 3 against the Bolts. He posted a goal and two points – while also hitting a crossbar – and ended the night with a game-high eight shots.
After the game, Kessel was interviewed by NBC’s Pierre McGuire. One of the questions McGuire asked Kessel was, “How’s your breath?” The question was in regard to Kessel’s conditioning.
But Kessel misunderstood and took it as a question of hygiene.
“It’s not good, eh?” he jokingly responded.
See the clip below:
Of course, Kessel’s teammates decided to have a little fun with him over the subject. So they collected some gum and a bottle of Listerine and put them in his locker stall this afternoon.
Such fun shenanigans are a sign of a close team.
“I think these guys enjoy one another. They like being around one another,” Sullivan said. “That's part of being part of a close-knit team. These guys, they don't miss much. So when they have opportunities to have some fun with one another, I think that's a good thing. I think it brings our team even closer together, and that's an example of it.
“But for me, that's just another indication that our guys are really embracing this moment and embracing this challenge.”
Just to set the record straight, Kessel’s linemate Carl Hagelin was asked to confirm if Kessel’s breath is indeed bad.
“No, that’s just a bad question by Pierre,” Hagelin said.
NOISE FACTOR With all the successes the Pens are having, they are becoming surrounded by more and more “noise.”
Everything from a heightened level of media attention, to the newly dubbed social medial-born #HBK line, to an upcoming appearance by the WWE wrestler Shawn Michaels (the original HBK – Heartbreak Kid), can all add up to a lot of off-ice distractions.
However, even a member of the newly famed HBK line said all of these distractions aren’t affecting the team.
“Right now my focus is playing well on the ice,” Hagelin said. “Right now it doesn’t matter what’s going on in social media or outside the rink.
“You try not to pay attention to what’s going on outside. When you come to the rink it’s time for hockey.”
In the third period of Game 2, Mike Sullivan went back to a familiar combination – Chris Kunitz with Sidney Crosby. They decided to stay with it for Game 3, and it paid off.
“(Chris) has obviously over the years played a lot with Sid, and so there's a comfort level there with both of them,” Sullivan said. “I think there's familiarity with their tendencies. We've played them during the regular season down the stretch there, we had them together for a long period of time, and they were a real important line for us and helping us win in games of traction going into the playoffs. We got away from it. I went back to it the game before last, and we stayed with it the last game.”
Kunitz scored his first goal of the series, his second of the playoffs, while out for a shift with Evgeni Malkin – who he had been skating with for most of the postseason – and Crosby in the third period of Wednesday’s game.
Kunitz received a pass from Malkin, and Andrei Vasilevskiy turned aside his backhand. Cedric Paquette cleared the rebound right to Kunitz, who stuffed it in the net for the unassisted score. He’d been getting a lot of shots on goal – five total in the game – but none of them had been falling until that one.
“It’s been hit or miss most playoffs,” Kunitz said. “It’s nice getting quality chances, putting them on the net, having looks, getting seated in the offensive zone in the right areas to be open and put pucks there. But that’s a great thing that our team has had the puck in the offensive zone, creating chances, throwing a lot of pucks there. That’s just something we’ve got to create and keep doing.”
The play began when Kunitz joined Malkin as he carried up the ice, and that awareness is key to his success playing alongside either franchise center.
“They’re the guys that can lug the puck, they like being in certain areas. I try to simplify,” Kunitz explained. “It sounds silly, but you try to simplify and get in on the forecheck, try to get pucks, turn them over and give it to them. They’re going to find you in spots and areas and you just have to keep up with them, try to get to the good areas on the ice and they’ll find you.”
DREAM COME TRUE Justin Schultz was teammates with a lot of fine players in Edmonton. But to go over the boards for a 4-on-3 power play with the likes of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel? In the Eastern Conference Final, nonetheless?
“I never would have dreamed of being on a power play with those guys,” smiled Schultz, who was acquired from the struggling Oilers at the trade deadline. “That was pretty cool and pretty cool to get a goal there. A big goal for us. So yeah, it’s definitely something I’ll remember.
“Usually (with the Oilers) we’re on the golf course by now. This is awesome. It’s been a great ride. I’m having fun again. You just want to keep this going.”
With Kris Letang in the penalty box, Schultz got the call to quarterback that man-advantage. He ended up with the secondary assist on the captain’s eventual goal, which came just over halfway through the third period with the Pens holding onto a 2-1 lead.
“It’s easy when you’re with Sid, Geno and Kess there,” Schultz said. “They make it pretty easy on you. They move the puck so well, they have great patience, great vision. I just tried to help in whatever way I could out there and be available for a shot if I had to. And we got a goal, which was a big goal for our team.”
The 25-year-old defenseman replaced Olli Maatta in the lineup for Game 2 and has been strong in the role he’s been given, which is on a third pairing with Ian Cole and seeing some power-play time. It’s different than the one he shouldered with the Oilers, being the top guy on their blue line, and one he’s enjoying.
“I’ve had a lessened role here than I did in Edmonton, which I think has helped me just kind of feeling comfortable and contributing, working on my game,” Schultz said. “Obviously we’re having a lot of fun, which is a huge positive.”
As Sullivan put it, they like to see their players for what they can do and not what they can’t do. It’s their responsibility to put guys in situations where they can play to their strengths, and they feel Schultz has done that.
“Justin's a guy that, when we acquired him, we thought he could help us play the identity or the type of game that we want to play,” Sullivan said. “He's a very good puck mover. He has good offensive instincts. He has good mobility. He can really shoot the puck. And so we've tried to put him in positions where he can play to those strengths, and he's done a real good job for us.”
ICE REPAIRS One end of the ice at Amalie Arena was sectioned off for needed repairs. Both the Pens and Bolts did not use that portion.
The NHL released the following statement:
“We are currently making a repair to the goal post insert on the north end of the ice. Both teams will only be using three quarters of the ice for morning skates while this repair is completed. This will not affect tonight's game."
BOLTS INFO The Lightning also held an optional morning skate. Fourteen players and all three goalies took part – that includes Ben Bishop and Steven Stamkos.
“Today was better than yesterday and we’re making progress,” Bishop said. “We’re getting closer.”
Bishop did not rule out playing in Game 5 in Pittsburgh.
“We’re taking it day-by-day,” he said. “We’re not going to predict the future right now.”
THIS ‘N AT *Hagelin on playing into summer: “It means you’ve done something good. You want to pay this late.”
*Matt Carle on the HBK line: “They seem to compliment each other well. They have a good combination of grit and speed. They’re fast on pucks and get in on the forecheck. They seem to be able to find each other in the offensive zone pretty well. It makes them difficult to play against.”
*Kunitz, on having a better appreciation for this run having been with the Pens since 2009: Yeah, it’s something where you’re expected to go that far and you don’t, it’s disappointment. Obviously we expect to play late into the year, but when you have a chance and a new opportunity like this to be where we are now, we’re completely different and I think you have to take an appreciation of how we got here and the players that we have and that not every opportunity is just like the other one. You’ve got to make sure you go out and prove it every single night and that’s something we try to reiterate in our locker room.
*Dumoulin, on what’s allowed him to have the season he’s having: “I think just the guys I’ve played with. I’ve played with a lot of the guys on the back end and they’ve all helped me a lot. They’re different skillsets, but it’s fun to play with each of them individually and we have such a great group back here that it’s fun to work with them and be with them every day.”