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.

Have the Blackhawks finally found their first-line LW?

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A three-point night for Nick Schmaltz, which included a nifty pass to Jonathan Toews for the game-winner, must have Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman wondering how to approach the trade deadline.

The way the 20-year-old rookie has been playing, does Bowman really need to add a first-line left winger before next Wednesday?

It’s a valid question. Only a month ago, Bowman was reportedly sniffing around the likes of Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist.

But Schmaltz has since caught fire, with two goals and five assists in his last six games. The rookie from Wisconsin had one goal and two assists in Tuesday’s 5-3 victory over Minnesota.

“He’s been really good,” head coach Joel Quenneville said, per the Chicago Sun-Times. “[Tuesday] was the most we’ve ever seen him with the puck. I don’t know how many times he evaded coverage, and all of a sudden he loses the guy on him and a play develops. That play against the grain to [Toews] was spectacular.”

Toews, of course, has been through a whole host of linemates this season, and only in the last month has the captain really started to produce offensively. Richard Panik and Marian Hossa are two veteran options to skate on his right side, but the left side has been a running audition.

Schmaltz, a first-round draft pick in 2014, only got called back up to the NHL in mid-January.

One month later, Toews is liking the chemistry that’s developed between himself, Schmaltz and Panik.

“We’ve been given the chance to spend a few games together, get some consistency, get some feel and some confidence,” said Toews. “The biggest thing for the three of us is if we go through a game without scoring, we’re given a chance to go out in the next game and try and redeem ourselves and contribute offensively.

“It’s a lot of fun, because I think we’re feeling it. [Schmaltz and Panik] are playing so well at both ends of the rink. They’re playing with a ton of confidence with the puck.”

The ‘Hawks have two games left before the March 1 deadline. They host Arizona tomorrow and St. Louis Sunday.

Ducks set to debut Kerdiles, another talented prospect

PITTSBURGH, PA - JUNE 23:  Nicolas Kerdiles, drafted 36th overall by the Anaheim Ducks, poses for a portrait during Day Two of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft at Consol Energy Center on June 23, 2012 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
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Another day, another Anaheim rookie ready to make the leap.

Nic Kerdiles, the 36th overall pick in 2012, looks primed to make his NHL debut tonight when the Ducks host the Bruins. Kerdiles was recalled yesterday and, at this morning’s skate, worked on a line with Corey Perry and leading goalscorer Rickard Rakell, a good indicator he’ll be in the lineup.

Exciting times for both him and the club.

A former University of Wisconsin standout, Kerdiles’ debut was delayed due to a lengthy concussion battle that cost him most of this season. He’s only recently returned to action with AHL San Diego, but didn’t miss a beat — he has four goals and nine points through 10 games, this following a ’15-16 campaign in which he scored 27 points in 45 games (a year also marred by injuries, including broken ribs and a bruised kidney.)

This opportunity comes with Antoine Vermette serving a 10-game suspension for abuse of an official, and veteran journeyman Corey Tropp having been returned to the minors.

At 23, Kerdiles is actually one of the older prospects to join the big club this season:

— Jacob Larsson, the 19-year-old Swedish defender taken 27th overall in ’15, cracked the roster out of camp and played four games before getting returned to Frolunda.

— 21-year-old Ondrej Kase, a seventh-round pick in ’14, has become a lineup fixture, with 12 points in 43 games.

— Nick Sorensen, 22, is a Danish winger taken 45th overall in 13. He made his debut in October and appeared in five games.

— Defenseman Brandon Montour, an AHL All-Star at the center of trade rumors, got called up in January and has 12 contests under his belt.

With all this young talent — especially on defense — it’s not surprising Anaheim’s been in the middle of major trade rumblings leading up to the March 1 deadline. GM Bob Murray’s on record saying he won’t trade blueline prospects for rentals but, with all the talent at his disposal, one wonders if he’ll make a move to avoid losing a prized asset at this June’s expansion draft.

This could be why Anaheim’s debuted all these youngsters. The organization needs to see what they can do at the NHL level, and evaluate who will be in their long-term plans.

Five team stats you may find interesting

Washington Capitals' Matt Niskanen (2) and T.J. Oshie (77) celebrate with Alex Ovechkin (8) after Ovechkin scored against the Dallas Stars during the third period an NHL hockey game, Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017, in Dallas. Stars' Jamie Benn (14) skates back to the bench. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
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+50 — That’s the Washington Capitals’ goal differential in 2017. No, not for the entire season. Just for the 23 games they’ve played since Jan. 1. Over that stretch, they’ve scored 98 goals and allowed just 48, for an average score of 4.3 to 2.1. In rather stark contrast, the Colorado Avalanche are minus-30 in 2017, with just 40 goals scored against 70 surrendered.

18 — Regulation wins for the Los Angeles Kings. That’s all they’ve managed in 59 games. Yet the Kings are only two points back of Calgary for the second wild-card spot, with one game in hand. How have they done it? With a league-high 10 overtime victories, against just one OT defeat, that’s how.

53.6 — The faceoff win percentage of the Avalanche, the second-highest percentage in the league. Meanwhile, the three worst faceoff teams are the Penguins (47.8), Rangers (47.6), and Oilers (47.1), all three of which are on pace to make the playoffs. The lesson? Faceoff stats are overrated.

25-0-0 — The Penguins’ record when leading after two periods, making them the only team with a perfect record in that situation. Even more impressive? The Pens finished a perfect 39-0-0 last year, meaning they’ve yet to lose a regular-season game in that situation under head coach Mike Sullivan. (They went 12-2-0 in the playoffs.)

3.47 — Goals per game by the Penguins, putting them on pace to become the highest-scoring team since the 2009-10 Capitals (3.82). That Capitals team, by the way, was the highest-scoring team of the salary-cap era.

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Canucks’ Miller, agent to discuss trade possibilities

MONTREAL, QC - NOVEMBER 02:  Ryan Miller #30 of the Vancouver Canucks looks on from his crease during the NHL game against the Montreal Canadiens at the Bell Centre on November 2, 2016 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.  The Montreal Canadiens defeated the Vancouver Canucks 3-0.  (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)
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Vancouver’s in the midst of its bye week, and won’t play again until Saturday, but still figures to be very active next over the few days.

GM Jim Benning said he’d talk with players possessing no-trade clauses during the break, and one of those, veteran netminder Ryan Miller, will have additional discussions as well.

Per News 1130, the pending UFA will talk with agent Mike Liut about trade deadline possibilities. Liut added his client has yet to decide anything regarding his future.

More on this, from Pierre LeBrun on TSN’s Insider Trading:

Ryan Miller has a no-trade with only five teams on it, and of those five teams to go to, three are in the state of California. He spends his offseason, as most people know, in the L.A. area.

The L.A. Kings are, to me, the only real team that potentially makes sense. If they get news on Jonathan Quick in the next week that they’re not sure about him, then perhaps they have to go out and trade for a goalie — and Ryan Miller, that could be of interest.

On the flip side? The Canucks are not against Ryan Miller coming back next year at a lower salary, and being a mentor of sorts.

Miller’s in the last of a three-year, $18 million deal with a $6M cap hit. Pricey, but one that could be mitigated by salary retention.

As for potential suitors?

Today, the Kings waived current backup goalie Jeff Zatkoff, a move many have linked to Quick’s pending return. So that would (theoretically) rule out the Miller-to-L.A. idea.

In a recent radio hit, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman floated the idea of Anaheim acquiring Miller. John Gibson has been terrific and is the unquestioned No. 1, but the situation behind him is dicey. Jonathan Bernier, himself a pending UFA, has just a .901 save percentage on the year with a 2.93 GAA, and isn’t playing much. Bernier’s made just two starts this month and in his last one, he was hooked after allowing three goals on just six shots.

Then there’s San Jose.

The club has history of upgrading the backup goalie position at the deadline, most notably last year when James Reimer was acquired to replace the ineffective Alex Stalock. There have been rumblings GM Doug Wilson might try it again this season, but head coach Peter DeBoer recently gave current No. 2 Aaron Dell a vote of confidence.

“There’s probably only one or two teams in the league with the luxury that if their starter goes down they feel very confident,” DeBoer said, per the Mercury News. “At the same time, our group has a real confidence in Deller, I think he’s earned that.”

In the end, an extension in Vancouver might be the most likely outcome. Miller’s been solid, posting a .917 save percentage for a sub-.500 team with one of the league’s worst goal differentials (minus-30). Jacob Markstrom hasn’t proven he’s a legitimate full-time starter, and the goalie market could be flooded this summer with the likes of Ben Bishop, Marc-Andre Fleury, Steve Mason, Michal Neuvirth, Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson all potentially available.

Related: What does the future hold for Ryan Miller?