Olli Maatta

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NHL on NBCSN: Penguins host Flyers as chase for top spot in Metropolitan continues

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The second game on the NBC networks on Sunday will feature Keystone state rivals the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers.

Puck drop is at 7 p.m. ET, and you can catch all of the action on NBCSN or on our Live Stream.

The Penguins, currently in a three-team race (along with the Washington Capitals and Columbus Blue Jackets) for the Metropolitan Division crown, are still dealing with a mountain of injuries that has them playing without Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Jake Guentzel, Carl Hagelin, Trevor Daley, Olli Maatta, and Ron Hainsey. Even with that injured list they are still finding a way to collect points in the standings and enter Sunday’s game with an 8-1-3 record over their past 12 games.

They enter the day three points back of the Capitals for the top spot in the division and the entire league.

They have dropped two consecutive games in a shootout and are looking to avoid what would be their first three-game losing streak since January (it is also their only three-game losing streak of the season).

Given that they have been without their second best player, pretty much an entire top-four on defense (including their No. 1 defenseman), and a couple of other key forwards this has been an incredible run over the past few weeks. It speaks not only to the depth of the organization, but also to the way the top players, specifically Sidney Crosby, have been able to carry the team through the injuries in recent weeks.

Crosby has eight goals and 12 points over the past eight games alone as he tries to secure his second goal scoring crown and keep pace with Connor McDavid in the Art Ross race.

On Sunday evening the Penguins will wrap up their season series with the Flyers and are looking to win it. The Penguins won the first two meetings of the season, including a 4-2 win in the Stadium Series at Heinz Field back in February. The Flyers however won the last meeting, shutting out the Penguins 4-0 in Philadelphia earlier this month.

While the Penguins are competing for the top spot in the NHL, the Flyers are simply looking to salvage something from a season that has turned into a pretty big disappointment after appearing to be trending in the right direction back in December when they put together a 10-game winning streak. Since that winning streak however the Flyers have gone just 15-22-5 and are going to miss the playoffs for the second time in three years and the third time in the past five.

The one bright spot for the Flyers this season has been the play of power forward Wayne Simmonds who is just one goal away from recording his second straight 30-goal season.

Survival of the lucky? Stanley Cup playoff hopes can rise and fall with significant injuries

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There’s plenty of knocking on wood this time of year around the NHL as teams hope to avoid injuries that could damage their playoff hopes.

For some, it’s already too late.

The Tampa Bay Lightning lost Steven Stamkos for four months — and counting — and now Tyler Johnson. The Florida Panthers went without Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov for much of the year. The Los Angeles Kings tried to stay afloat without goaltender Jonathan Quick until late February but will likely miss the playoffs.

While the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins have withstood a barrage of injuries and the league-leading Washington Capitals have largely avoided them, they’re keenly aware of how quickly even one injury can make a difference.

“There’s other teams that are good teams that have just had some bad luck,” Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford said. “Tampa Bay just couldn’t overcome the injuries. If Tampa Bay has Stamkos all the way through the season, they’d certainly be in a different place.”

Read more: Injuries keep adding up for Lightning

Considered Cup contenders at the start of the season, the Lightning had to make a run just to get within three points of a playoff spot with nine games remaining.

The Panthers got Barkov and Huberdeau back and dug out of an early hole, but a lower-body injury to goaltender Roberto Luongo contributed to a 3-7-1 tailspin that might ultimately cost them the chance to make the postseason for a second consecutive year.

“Sometimes just your body breaks up because of the games and stuff like that,” said Barkov, who missed 15 games with a back injury. “Some teams just get more injuries, and some teams just get lucky not to get injuries.”

Injuries have again been the story of the year for the Penguins, who are currently without half their regular defense in Kris Letang, Trevor Daley and Olli Maatta, and also lost trade acquisition Ron Hainsey. But they haven’t missed a beat.

“The guys that have come in just understanding whatever role that they get, they have to be accepting of it,” captain Sidney Crosby said. “They have a lot of responsibility in most cases, too, because they’re filling in for some guys who play a lot of key minutes.”

Injuries were a severe blow to the Dallas Stars, with 292 man games lost, and 265 man games lost has put the Detroit Red Wings’ 25-season playoff streak in serious jeopardy. The Edmonton Oilers have around 300 man games lost, but unlike last year’s stumble when Connor McDavid broke his collarbone they are poised to end a 10-year playoff drought.

“This organization seems to have a way of getting beat up and having injuries and needing others to support the group, and this year I think we’ve done a better job,” coach Todd McLellan said. “We haven’t lost those key forwards, knock on wood, like we did last year.”

Tampa Bay did when Stamkos tore the meniscus in his right knee Nov. 15 after putting up 20 points in his first 17 games. Friday night marked his 57th consecutive game out of the lineup.

Yet in Washington, the Capitals have a grand total of 42 man games lost all season and have only dealt with a hand injury that sidelined forward Andre Burakovsky 15 games and upper-body ailments that cost T.J. Oshie 13. Defenseman Brooks Orpik believes the Capitals’ fortunes are a combination of off-ice injury prevention techniques and luck, while the team’s brass thinks it’s also about taxing players less each game.

“The team philosophy of going four lines and spreading the ice time out and spreading the ice time out on defense and spreading the ice time out among your goalies, I think it puts less stress on your lineup,” general manager Brian MacLellan said. “Having a deep team, I think, results in less injuries.”

Depth up front helped the Chicago Blackhawks withstand captain Jonathan Toews‘ nine-game absence with back problems, and having backup Antti Raanta kept the New York Rangers on track when goaltender Henrik Lundqvist went out for two weeks this month with a lower-body injury. Lundqvist is expected back this weekend.

The Columbus Blue Jackets feel fortunate not to need to test their depth again this season after injuries ravaged them to the count of 510 man games lost two years ago. They’ve overcome defenseman Seth Jones‘ broken foot and Ryan Murray‘s broken hand to make the playoffs for the third time in franchise history, so it doesn’t feel at all like 2014-15 in Columbus.

“It’s just too good of a league to be able to survive that type of season,” Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen said. “This year we’ve been lucky and hopefully done some things right as well where we haven’t been injured as much and knock on wood hopefully stay healthy for the rest of the year.”

Another setback in Pittsburgh for Pouliot

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When the Pittsburgh Penguins selected Derrick Pouliot with the No. 8 overall pick in 2012 (after acquiring that pick in the Jordan Staal trade) it was expected that he would one day become a focal point of the team’s defense.

Nearly five years later, it is worth wondering if his time with the team is on the verge of coming to an end without ever coming close to reaching that expectation.

The Penguins announced on Tuesday morning that Pouliot, following another disappointing recall with the big club, has been sent back to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League.

In his place, the team recalled defenseman Frank Corrado (acquired at the trade deadline from the Toronto Maple Leafs) and forward Oskar Sundqvist.

Pouliot has only appeared in 10 games for the Penguins this season, but as has been the case in all of his recent stints with the team, his play seemed to be trending in the wrong direction. He continued to be prone to the big mistake that would either see him get caught out of position, flat out beaten one-on-one, or just not making the right play with the puck. In those 10 games he did not record a single point, was a minus-four, and posted only a 46.7 percent Corsi percentage.

What is perhaps most striking about his career with the Penguins to this point is that he not only hasn’t been able to gain the trust of any coach the Penguins have had (and for good reason), but that he can’t consistently crack the Penguins’ lineup or get a solid look with the team right now. Given the number of injuries the team is dealing with on the blue line with Kris Letang, Trevor Daley, Olli Maatta and Ron Hainsey all sidelined, that is not encouraging.

He has seemingly been passed on the depth chart by the likes of Chad Ruhwedel, Cameron Gaunce and now Corrado.

Given his struggles at the NHL level during his first two years in the league, as well as the fact he is a restricted free agent after this season, this seemed to be a make-or-break year for Pouliot with the Penguins. Even though it has only been 10 games he really hasn’t done much to convince anybody that it is going to work for him in Pittsburgh.

 

Malkin making progress, but won’t travel with team to Buffalo

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The Pittsburgh Penguins’ lengthy injured list still isn’t getting any shorter, but coach Mike Sullivan said on Monday that injured players Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Olli Maatta are all making progress in their recovery from their various injuries.

None of them, however, are ready to return, and that includes Malkin as he continues to recover from an upper body injury he suffered in Calgary when attempting to block a shot.

Sullivan said that even though Malkin is making progress, he will not travel with the team to Buffalo their game against the Sabres on Tuesday night.

He has not yet been ruled out of Thursday’s game in Ottawa, however.

Said Sullivan (via Pens Inside Scoop), “We just think it’s a better situation here for him to rehab. So he won’t play in Buffalo and then we’ll go from there”

Along with the aforementioned names, the Penguins are also playing without Carl Hagelin, Bryan Rust, Trevor Daley and Ron Hainsey, a pretty significant group of players that includes two of the best players in the league (Malkin and Letang) and several key contributors to the 2016 Stanley Cup team (Hagelin, Rust, Daley, Maatta). Their health more than anything else seems to be their biggest obstacle right now when it comes to making another run at the Stanley Cup, perhaps even more so than any potential playoff matchup. Health and having all of your key players in the lineup at the same time is a key when it comes to winning in the postseason, and right now the Penguins are as banged up as any team in the league.

Still, even with all of the injuries the Penguins are on a 7-2-1 run during their first 10 games in March and are keeping pace with the Washington Capitals and Columbus Blue Jackets when it comes to the top spot in the Metropolitan Division and the Presidents’ Trophy race. The fact that Sidney Crosby and his line, which includes Conor Sheary and Jake Guentzel, are tearing up the league is certainly making things easier for the team right now.

The Penguins will clinch a playoff spot with a win in Buffalo on Tuesday.

Crosby regains goal lead, tied for points lead after hat trick

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PITTSBURGH — With his three goals in the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 4-0 win over the Florida Panthers on Sunday afternoon Sidney Crosby became the first player in the NHL to hit the 40-goal mark this season.

It also put him back into sole possession of first place in the NHL’s goal scoring race (now three goals ahead of Boston Bruins forward Brad Marchand) and moved him back into a tie with Connor McDavid for the points lead with 80. Because Crosby has more goals than McDavid (15 more to be exact, and in seven fewer games) Crosby would also be the Art Ross Trophy winner if the season ended today. It is only the second time Crosby has topped the 40-goal mark in his career, while he has a legitimate shot to win his second goal scoring crown and his third Art Ross Trophy.

The fact he is in a position to potentially lead the league in both categories is pretty incredible when you consider that it has only been done three times since 1990 (Alex Ovechkin in 2007-08, Jarome Iginla in 2001-02 and Mario Lemieux in 1995-96), and Crosby is currently doing it having missed six games this season due to injury.

Given the way he and his line are rolling right now it probably wouldn’t be wise to bet against him doing it.

With the Penguins’ lineup crushed by injuries at the moment (Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Carl Hagelin, Trevor Daley, Ron Hainsey, Olli Maatta and Bryan Rust all missed Sunday’s game) the line of Crosby, Jake Guentzel and Conor Sheary has been carrying the offense in recent weeks as they have now won seven of their past nine games (7-1-1) since March 3.

After Sunday’s game Mike Sullivan understatedly pointed out that “Sid is the glue that holds that line together” and that they have “played great for us.”

Just how great have they been?

Well, as a group that line has combined to score at least two goals in four of the Penguins’ past five games, accounting for nine of the team’s 14 even-strength goals during that stretch.

All three of them have contributed all three points (the goal and both assists) on seven of those goals. Even when they are not putting the puck in the net they just have the look of an unstoppable force right now and are creating multiple chances on almost every shift.

Sheary has been a fit on Crosby’s wing for most of the season, but the addition of Guentzel, who said on Sunday that he is just trying to make the most of his opportunity on that line, has taken it to an entirely new level.

Their speed, immediate chemistry and ability to get on the puck and create havoc for opposing defenses is pretty much unmatched anywhere else in the NHL right now.

For most of Crosby’s career there’s always been this never-ending question of as to his wingers are going to be. Right now, that question seems to have a pretty definitive answer.