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The Kids Are All Right: Penguins lead goalie youth movement

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By Will Graves (AP Sports Writer)

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Jim Rutherford knows what it’s like to be a young goaltender trying to find his way in the NHL. Rutherford went through it with the Detroit Red Wings in the early 1970s, thrust into action at 21 years old with a franchise in the middle of a bumpy transition.

Yet that’s where the comparisons end between Pittsburgh’s general manager and the two young men who will play a major role in determining whether the Penguins can become the first team in more than 30 years to win three straight Stanley Cup championships.

Matt Murray and Tristan Jarry, both 23, have everything Rutherford didn’t when he broke into the league more than four decades ago, from a true position coach to copious amounts of technology at their fingertips to the kind of advanced training techniques (both mental and physical) that Rutherford believes has the NHL’s youngest goalie tandem in position to play a vital role in Pittsburgh’s pursuit of history.

The dark ages of the ’70s – when goaltenders were typically left to sort things out on their own – this is not.

”You didn’t really think about it (back then),” Rutherford said. ”You let in bad goals or have bad games, you were kind of on your own and you had to work your way through that. Now these guys have a lot more things to help (them).”

Beginning with Mike Buckley, who began working with Murray and Jarry when they were teenage prospects and has meticulously overseen their rise from draft picks to NHL starters. Buckley spent four years as the franchise’s goaltending development coordinator before replacing Mike Bales as goalie coach shortly after Murray backstopped the Penguins to a second straight Cup last spring.

”You win two championships and make a change, it kind of seems a little odd,” Rutherford said. ”But Buck has been the guy that’s developed both these guys right from the start, so it just made sense that he would move in.”

Other youngsters are shouldering the burden, too, including 24-year-old Connor Hellebuyck in Winnipeg (16 wins, 2.44 goals-against average), 23-year-old Andrei Vasilevskiy in Tampa Bay (leads league in wins) and 24-year-old John Gibson in Anaheim (an All-Star last season).

But it’s Pittsburgh at the forefront of a goalie youth movement that runs counter to how things usually work in the NHL. While it’s not unusual for a team to invest in a young goaltender, there’s typically a proven backup at the ready just in case things go awry, one of the reasons the average age of an NHL goalie is 29.

That initially was the plan this season for the Penguins.

Pittsburgh brought in Antti Niemi to play behind Murray after losing Marc-Andre Fleury to expansion Vegas in June. When Niemi stumbled through a handful of forgettable starts and was released in October, Rutherford didn’t scour the waiver wire or the trade block. He called the team’s American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and told Jarry and 26-year-old Casey DeSmith to pack their bags.

”It’s one of the things that they have a timeline and they know when you’re ready and if they think you’re ready, they’ll bring you up to play,” said Jarry, who is 5-2-2 with a respectable 2.49 goals-against average this season. ”I think that’s one of the great things about Pittsburgh over the years, they saw when Matt was ready and what he could do and I think that was one of the stepping points in helping them win those Stanley Cups.”

All Murray did as a 21-year-old in the spring of 2016 was unseat the popular, occasionally erratic Fleury, taking over early on during Pittsburgh’s playoff run and leading the franchise to its fourth Cup. By last spring Murray was the entrenched starter, though Fleury filled in admirably during the first two rounds of the postseason while Murray recovered from an injury.

Yet it was Murray, and not Fleury, who was on the ice as the Penguins surged past Nashville in the 2017 Cup Final. It was Murray, not the now 33-year-old Fleury, whom Pittsburgh chose to keep last summer. And it was Jarry the Penguins stuck with when another injury recently shelved Murray for a couple of weeks.

The Penguins say their young goaltenders have considerable mental toughness, a must when playing on a team with so much offensive firepower in superstars Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby that playing responsibly in front of its own net occasionally gets lost in the wash.

”It’s not always about technique and having your stick in the perfect position all the time,” Buckley said. ”Sometimes it’s about putting them in a position where they have to compete and battle and stay clear mentally and stay confident and put them under duress, very much like a Navy SEAL undergoes training.”

That includes things like breathing techniques they can call on during particularly stressful moments or when they’re just sort of standing there while their teammates are dominating at the other end of the rink. The tough part is getting them to do it nightly during a sprawling six-month regular season followed by what they hope is a two-month slog through the playoffs.

”I think the biggest challenge is finding consistency because they’re so young, they’re still learning because they’re so young,” said Buckley, who worked with Los Angeles star Jonathan Quick and Boston goaltender Tuukka Rask early in their careers. ”There’s a lot of ups and downs, even for an older goalie, but for a younger goalie it’s more exaggerated.”

Pittsburgh’s offseason choice will come into stark relief on Thursday when the Penguins visit Fleury and the surprising Golden Knights. Moving on from Fleury was difficult but pragmatic. The kids can play.

”To be honest with you we don’t really have a choice,” Buckley said. ”We’ve embraced that challenge … we’ll be better in the long run for it.”

Taylor Hall puts on a show as Devils end Kings’ winning streak

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The New Jersey Devils put an end to the Los Angeles Kings’ eight-game winning streak on Tuesday night with a rather convincing 5-1 win.

The Devils dominated in pretty much every aspect of the game, limiting the Kings to just 17 shots on goal and scoring five goals against a team that had not allowed more than two goals (and never more than three) during its winning streak.

The star of the game for the Devils was most certainly forward Taylor Hall.

Hall continued what could be a career year with a pair of goals, including this highlight reel play in the second period that saw him force a turnover, split through the Kings’ defense (including Drew Doughty!), then beat Jonathan Quick with a backhander.

With that performance on Tuesday Hall is now up to 11 goals and 31 total points on the season.

His first year with the Devils wasn’t quite what he or the team wanted, but he has bounced back in a big way this season. His performance, along with the development of young players Nico Hischier, Will Butcher, and Jesper Bratt have the Devils back on track to make the playoffs for the first time since the 2011-12 season.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

How good are the red-hot Kings, really?

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The Los Angeles Kings play beyond a lot of people’s sleepy times, so many might have missed this, but they’re once again boiling-hot right now, what with their seven-game winning streak. While the St. Louis Blues are up there with them, the Kings came into Friday leading the Western Conference with 41 points in just 30 games played.

With all of that in mind, let’s ponder who and what might be driving the Kings, how this year’s team remains different from the Darryl Sutter days, and the hot streaks that might cool off.

GOATpitar

Giving long-time great players “lifetime achievement” awards via individual trophies is one part charming and two parts obnoxious, but if you must force such a sentiment, Anze Kopitar‘s making quite the argument for a hat-tip Hart Trophy.

For one thing, he’s in range of the Art Ross Trophy after years of being a guy who would top out around 70 points, leaving him strong but not strong enough to threaten for the lead. With 36 points in 30 games, Kopitar could eclipse his career-best 81 points from 2009-10, the only time he hit the 80-range. As of this writing, he’s ranked sixth overall in the NHL.

That’s impressive on its own, but consider that he’s been chained to Dustin Brown (who’s MYSTERIOUSLY enjoying a profound career revival) and Alex Iafallo, an undrafted forward who came into 2017-18 with nary a game of NHL experience under his belt. Hot take: the gap between Kopitar and Brown is larger than that between Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos.

Wherever you rank Kopitar among the elite, he’s reclaimed his place as one of the best forwards – nay, players – in the NHL. As it turns out, some of those “I feel healthy!” stories have some merit, after all.

The Kings’ triumvirate reigns

So far, Los Angeles has been propelled by its biggest names: Kopitar, Drew Doughty, and Jonathan Quick, three stars so revitalized, it’s kind of surprising that someone hasn’t flopped out some asinine “The Kings hated Darryl Sutter theory.”

(Oh no, I didn’t jinx it, did I? Sorry.)

Doughty currently has 24 points on the season, ranking third among Kings scorers. He could set career-highs, and even if he slows down, seems likely to at least generate the third 50+ point season of his career. Oh yeah, Doughty’s also gleefully acknowledging the buckets of money he’ll likely collect after his contract expires following the 2018-19 campaign. Seasons like these might not hurt his value, you might assume.

Finally, there’s Jonathan Quick …

Ridiculous goaltending

… Which brings us to at least one big, red flag.

With a career .916 save percentage, Quick might be playing over his head a bit with his current season, generating a splendid .929 mark.

Then again, maybe you could argue that the Kings are playing to his strengths more often system-wise, and/or getting him to tweak his techniques to best take advantage of his outstanding athleticism. Those are all plausible points, although it’s reasonable to wonder if he might, say, slip closer to a still-very-good .920 flat.

The overall goaltending is almost certain to slip, though, as Darcy Kuemper (career .912 save percentage) isn’t likely to maintain a shockingly efficient .941 save percentage.

Now, this doesn’t mean the Kings will go from sitting on the netminding throne to allowing goals like jesters, but one would expect at least some regression. It will be intriguing to find out how much they might slip.

No longer the puck hogs

For years, the Kings were far and away the most dominant team from a puck possession standpoint, while also often suffering from poor shooting and/or save percentages. Now, according to Natural Stat Trick and other sites, they’re a middle-of-the-pack possession team with blindingly outstanding shooting and saving numbers.

The truth is out there is likely somewhere in between with this team. The organizational push toward quality after years of quantity is modern-minded, so this is ultimately a good step, even if some of the results might be a touch misleading.

Road warriors

One trait the Kings share with many of the other NHL’s top teams is just how well their game has traveled so far. Right now, they’re a bit better on the road (10-3-1) than at home (9-5-2). Maybe that will dip a bit, but it’s nice to bank those tougher wins while you can. In many cases, winning those extra road games could mean, say, getting that playoff Game 7 at home a bit more often.

Interesting supporting cast

So, there are some intriguing things to consider about the Kings:

  • Iafallo ranks as one of a few solid new/new-ish players. Adrian Kempe‘s been great so far, while established-but-under-the-radar wingers Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli are contributing nicely. Just feast your eyes on this beauty of a goal.

And, heck, this one for good measure:

  • I feel the need to mention that Jake Muzzin‘s been quite effective, too, and continues to build a nice resume as one of the other guys on the Kings defense.
  • Some veteran scorers could influence this team’s ceiling.

On one hand, you have Jeff Carter, a forward who’s carried the Kings offense during significant stretches during recent seasons, sometimes being the main catalyst when Kopitar struggled. Can he get healthy? Is he finally hitting the regression wall with his 33rd birthday looming on New Year’s Day? (Aside: today is Doughty’s birthday, fittingly enough.)

On the other hand, Marian Gaborik has six points in eight games. This isn’t to say that Gabby will find the fountain of youth and regain his status as “that high-scoring guy when he’s able to play,” but if he can even flirt with the form he showed in the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Kings suddenly have depth to go with what’s been a top-heavy group so far.

***

Overall, there are some clear signs that the Kings are probably playing over their heads.

A team that once was forced to grind through bad luck and low-percentage plays now seems to hit the lottery with percentages more than we’ve seen with L.A. in some time.

Still, it’s not all gloomy, especially if the Kings can beef up their supporting cast. Considering the age of their core players, they might just want to test their championship window and ponder a worthwhile “rental” or two.

A franchise that once seemed to be swirling down the sink now gets to swing for the fence one more time.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Gaborik scores twice, including his 400th NHL goal in win

Marian Gaborik has taken his talents coast to coast over his National Hockey League career, but he found most of his scoring success as a member of the Minnesota Wild.

So it was a tad fitting that Gaborik would reach the 400-goal milestone against his former club, scoring twice in a 5-2 win for the Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday to extend L.A.’s winning streak to six games.

Gaborik initiated a four-goal third period for the Kings, who trailed 2-1 after two frames, scoring No. 399 to tie the game 2-2 in the first five minutes of the period. No. 400 came roughly 10 minutes later as Gaborik was the beneficiary of a Kings faceoff win and buried the milestone mark past Devan Dubnyk.

Neither team could find the back of the night on a combined 19 first-period shots, but the floodgates started to crack in the second.

The Wild grabbed the first goal, with Charlie Coyle getting his stick on a centring pass.

Jake Muzzin tied the game with a blistering slap shot after Drew Doughty found his defense partner in space at the top of the left circle.

Minnesota regained the lead just over a minute later, with Tyler Ennis whacking the puck past Jonathan Quick.

But it was Gaborik’s night, and he wouldn’t be denied in the third.

After he tied the game, Adrian Kempe‘s centering pass went off the skate of Jonas Brodin and behind Dubnyk for the Kings’ first lead of the game.

After Gaborik scored his 400th, Anze Kopitar potted his 15th of the season to extend his goal-scoring streak to three games. Kopitar also had two helpers in the game, giving him 500 in his NHL career.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

WATCH LIVE: Minnesota Wild at Los Angeles Kings

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CLICK HERE TO WATCH LIVE

PROJECTED LINES

Wild

Granlund – Koivu – Zucker

Niederreiter – Staal – Foligno

Winnik – Coyle – Stewart

Ennis – Cullen – Mitchell

Suter – Dumba

Brodin – Murphy

Reilly – Prosser

Starting goalie: Devan Dubnyk

NHL on NBCSN: Rangers visit surging Penguins; Wild meet streaking Kings

Kings

Iafallo – Kopitar – Brown

Pearson – Shore – Toffoli

Gaborik – Kempe – Lewis

Jokinen – Mitchell – Brodzinski

Muzzin – Doughty

MacDermid – Martinez

Forbort -Folin

Starting goalie: Jonathan Quick