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.
VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Vancouver Canucks right wing Ilya Mikheyev is set to have season-ending surgery on his left knee.
Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin said Friday night the 28-year-old Russian forward tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the team’s first preseason game Sept. 25. Mikheyev will undergo surgery next week and is expected to be ready for training camp in the fall.
Mikheyev was originally listed as week-to-week with the injury and played 45 regular-season games, finishing with 13 goals and 15 assists. He scored in his final appearance Friday night, a 5-2 home victory over Columbus.
Mikheyev signed a four-year, $19 million contract as a free agent last summer.
Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews will miss at least three weeks with a sprained knee.
The team announced the reigning MVP’s anticipated absence Friday, two days after Matthews was injured in Toronto’s victory against the New York Rangers.
Matthews is expected to miss at least six games and could be out for a few more. The timing of the injury coinciding with the NHL All-Star break and the Maple Leafs bye week prevents this from costing Matthews more time out of the lineup.
After being voted an All-Star by fans, Matthews is now out of the event scheduled for Feb. 3-4 in Sunrise, Florida. The league announced Aleskander Barkov from the host Florida Panthers will take Matthews’ place on the Atlantic Division All-Star roster.
Matthews, who won the Hart Trophy last season after leading the NHL with 60 goals, has 53 points in 47 games this season.
MONTREAL — Montreal Canadiens winger Cole Caufield said Friday he wouldn’t be having season-ending surgery on his right shoulder if the team were in playoff contention.
But with the Canadiens near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, the 22-year-old Caufield said he decided to have the surgery to protect his long-term health. The procedure is scheduled to be performed by Dr. Peter Millett on Wednesday.
“I didn’t want to stop playing,” Caufield said. “I had a couple tests done to look at it more clearly but, in the end, like it could’ve been one more fall and it could have been even worse.”
Caufield, who leads the Canadiens with 26 goals in 46 games, had three different medical opinions on his shoulder before concluding that his season was over.
“I think they’ve seen a lot more than I have and they know the differences and what they like or don’t like about it,” he said about the medical opinions. “Long term, I think this is what’s best but for sure it was tough to sit out that game against Toronto on Saturday night.”
Caufield initially felt the injury in an awkward fall during Montreal’s 4-2 loss at Dallas on Dec. 23. He said his right shoulder popped, and he replaced it himself.
Caufield felt it again in the Habs’ 4-3 loss at Nashville on Jan. 12. The club announced on Jan. 21 that Caufield would miss the rest of the season.
Caufield is nearing the end of his three-year, entry-level contract and will be a restricted free agent this summer.
SEATTLE — Seattle Kraken rookie All-Star Matty Beniers will miss the team’s final two games before the All-Star break after taking a big hit from Vancouver’s Tyler Myers earlier this week.
Seattle coach Dave Hakstol said after morning skate Friday that Beniers would not play Friday night against Calgary or Saturday against Columbus. Hakstol did not speculate on Beniers’ availability for next weekend’s All-Star Game in Florida.
The team has not specified what kind of injury Beniers sustained from the hit. He was barreled over by Myers away from the play early in the second period in Wednesday’s 6-1 victory over Vancouver. Myers was penalized for interference on the play. Beniers returned briefly for one shift later in the period but did not play in the third period.
Beniers is Seattle’s lone All-Star selection this season. He leads all rookies in goals (17) and points (36), and is fifth in total ice time for rookies.
Seattle also placed defenseman Justin Schultz on injured reserve and recalled forward Max McCormick from Coachella Valley of the AHL. Hakstol said Schultz is improving but there’s no timeline on his return.