Pittsburgh Penguins

How are the Penguins still winning?

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With the Washington Capitals losing last night in Edmonton, the Pittsburgh Penguins are officially the NHL’s hottest team. The Pens have won five straight and boast an 8-2-2 record heading into Saturday’s game in Toronto. What’s more, they’ve done it all without Sidney Crosby and most of it without Evgeni Malkin. Which begs the question…how?

Here are five reasons:

1. Special teams. We mentioned this in yesterday’s stats post, but it’s worth mentioning again. The Pens have surrendered just one power-play goal in the 37 times they’ve put themselves shorthanded. And if that doesn’t impress you, they’ve also scored three times on the PK, meaning they’re plus-two when they’ve got fewer players on the ice than the other team. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh’s power play is clicking at a respectable 18.9 percent. The man advantage has been a problem area for the Pens in the past. Clearly Crosby was to blame.

2. James Neal. Nine goals in 12 games. And with just one assist, the overwhelming favorite to win the Cy Young. Neal scored just twice in 27 games for Pittsburgh (regular season and playoffs combined) after being traded from Dallas last February. If the 24-year-old keeps it up, the only problem the Pens will have is negotiating the pending RFA’s contract.

3. Marc-Andre Fleury. A 1.86 goals-against average with a .934 save percentage. Fleury is obviously playing very well, but those numbers can also be attributed to Pittsburgh’s commitment to team defense. Just ask Ilya Bryzgalov or Roberto Luongo how much of a goalie’s stats can be attributed to the guys in front them.

4. Jordan Staal. Six goals and three assists in 12 games. Staal is best known as one of the premier checking centers in the NHL, but he’s stepped up on offense this season. “I don’t know if my game’s evolving or not, but I’m definitely feeling good about where I am and what I’m doing out there. I’m happy the puck’s going in for me right now,” he told the Post-Gazette this week. Unless I’m missing someone, Staal has to be the early front-runner for the Selke.

5. Kris Letang. One goal and eight assists in 10 games. Remember when the Pens didn’t sign Sergei Gonchar and everyone wondered if Letang could grow into the top d-man role? Yeah, he’s grown into the top d-man role. The 24-year-old is playing a ton, averaging 26:05 per game. He took a big step last season in Pittsburgh’s first season without Gonchar, and it appears he hasn’t finished getting better.

Following ‘disastrous’ effort, Stars lose Honka to injury

Lindy Ruff
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Dallas only surrendered two goals in last night’s loss to Calgary — not the markings of a terrible defensive night.

But in many ways, it was exactly that.

Head coach Lindy Ruff called the second period “disastrous.” The Morning-News wrote the number of high-quality chances Dallas surrendered was “almost shocking.” And Julius Honka, one of the club’s brightest young d-man prospects, suffered an upper-body injury that will force him to miss the next few games.

Tough times in Dallas.

The Honka injury will throw the defense into further arrears. Ruff has spent most of this season juggling the group, with mainstays like Dan Hamhuis and John Klingberg getting parked in the press box as healthy scratches. Stephen Johns has been in and out — which included a stint in the American League — while the likes of Esa Lindell, Patrik Nemeth and Jamie Oleksiak have been platooned as well.

The Stars were forced to finish last night’s game with just five blueliners, though Honka’s injury isn’t believed to be serious. Dallas plays next on Thursday night at home against Nashville, then heads out for a back-to-back road set — Saturday in Philly, and Sunday in Chicago.

Related: What has happened to the Dallas Stars?

 

 

After a slow start, the Preds have really turned it around

Nashville Predators defenseman P.K. Subban (76), center, celebrates with Filip Forsberg (9), of Sweden, Kevin Fiala (56), of Switzerland, and Mattias Ekholm (14), of Sweden, after Subban scored a goal against the Colorado Avalanche during the second period of an NHL hockey game Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2016, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
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The Nashville Predators are still outside the playoff picture in the Western Conference, but they’re very clearly putting a slow start behind them.

The Preds beat Colorado, 4-3, last night in Nashville. They are now 9-4-1 since beginning the season 3-5-3, and they are winning with the kind of puck-possession game that many expected from them.

Via Puck on Net, here are the top 10 teams in score-adjusted Corsi over the last 10 games:

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That is some excellent company the Preds are not only keeping, but leading. The Blue Jackets, right below them, are the hottest team in the NHL. The Penguins are the defending Stanley Cup champs. The Capitals won the Presidents’ Trophy last season. The Sharks won the Western Conference.

Though strong puck-possession numbers don’t always translate into wins — just ask the Carolina Hurricanes — they typically lead to good results over the long run. The one thing that can sink a strong possession team is poor goaltending, but Pekka Rinne (11-5-4, .926) has been mostly solid this season.

The Preds are also getting good production from their big offseason trade acquisition, defenseman P.K. Subban, who has 17 points, including seven goals, in 25 games.

“I just try to do my job and just keep it simple, try to put the puck on net,” Subban told The Tennessean. “Sometimes you’ve got to get some bounces, and you only get those bounces when you put pucks at the net.”

The Preds are averaging 31.6 shots per game, the sixth most in the NHL behind Pittsburgh, Boston, Toronto, Edmonton, and Philadelphia.

Next up for Nashville is a date with the Stars in Dallas tomorrow. That’s a huge game for both Central Division teams. The Stars lost again last night, falling 2-1 to the surging Flames.

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Report: Leafs win arbitration case with Cowen

OTTAWA, ON - JANUARY 21: Jared Cowen #2 of the Ottawa Senators prepares for a faceoff against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Canadian Tire Centre on January 21, 2015 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.  (Photo by Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images)
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The Toronto Maple Leafs have won their arbitration case with Jared Cowen, who will remain bought out.

TSN’s Bob McKenzie reported the news today. It is a significant loss for Cowen, the 25-year-old defenseman who came to the Leafs in February as part of the Dion Phaneuf trade.

From Sportsnet’s story before the ruling:

At issue is whether Cowen was healthy enough to have the final year of his contract bought out by the Leafs last summer. A lengthy section of the CBA is devoted to “procedures for determining fitness to play,” and they include a player’s right to pursue a second medical opinion beyond what is provided by the team.

That information, plus witness testimony and other evidence, will be taken into account by the arbitrator while rendering a decision.

For Cowen, there is $3-million in salary at stake. That represents somewhere in the neighbourhood of 25 per cent of his career NHL earnings to date – a huge amount given his injury history and diminished future earning potential.

For the Leafs, it’s significant win. They’ll actually get a $650,000 cap credit this season. Next season, they’ll take a $750,000 hit, and after that their obligations are over.

If they’d lost, they would’ve lost the credit and assumed a $3.1-million cap hit this season, the final year of Cowen’s contract.

Sportsnet explains why the Leafs didn’t want to lose:

That’s a $3.75-million cap swing in total and would almost certainly result in the Leafs invoking long-term injury relief on one of three players – Nathan Horton, Stephane Robidas or Joffrey Lupul – to remain compliant.

Even though the LTI maneuver would offer immediate relief, it’s something the Leafs hope to avoid since it would increase the size of the cap overage penalty they’ll carry into next season because of performance bonuses expected to be earned by as many as five rookies in their current lineup.

Cowen had hip surgery after he was bought out. It’s been reported he may not be ready to play until February, assuming he can find a team. He played 37 games for the Senators last season, registering no goals and four assists.

Related: Lupul to start season on injured reserve, still aims to play again

No hearing for Taylor Hall after Larsen hit

NEWARK, NJ - DECEMBER 06:  Taylor Hall #9 of the New Jersey Devils hits Philip Larsen #63 of the Vancouver Canucks in the second period on December 6, 2016 at Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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Devils forward Taylor Hall will avoid supplemental discipline for his big hit on Vancouver’s Philip Larsen, an NHL spokesman has confirmed.

Midway through New Jersey’s eventual 3-2 win over the Canucks, Hall caught Larsen behind the Vancouver goal with a massive bodycheck, knocking Larsen unconscious. The Danish blueliner was prone on the ice for several seconds before receiving medical attention, and was eventually stretchered off.

Hall wasn’t penalized on the play.

Larsen spent the night in a New Jersey-area hospital, per Sportsnet, and is flying to Vancouver today to meet with team doctors.

Hall said he didn’t regret throwing the hit, but felt awful about the result. He and Larsen do have a history, having briefly played together in Edmonton.

“I’m looking to make contact there, but I never want to see a guy laying on the ice there like that,” Hall said, per NJ.com. “I only know how to play the game one way, and you’ve got to play it hard. But like I said, I feel terrible.

“When you see him laying on the ice like that, he’s a former teammate of mine, and I just would have loved to make a hit there and continue the play. I hope he’s OK.”

Related: The Devils are hanging around, thanks to a great home record