Obviously unhappy GM rips Penguins’ slow start

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The Pittsburgh Penguins have been the ultimate Jekyll and Hyde team so far this season, going through stretches where they have looked like the Harlem Globetrotters on ice, and other times, especially recently, where they have been more Washington Generals.

Entering Wednesday’s game in Washington they were riding a four-game losing streak where they had been outscored by a 19-6 margin.  For the season they are near the bottom of the league in goals against and shots against, their once fearsome power play has struggled so much that coach Mike Sullivan opted to split up his top unit to open Wednesdays’ game and throw all of his lines and defense pairings into a blender, while nobody outside of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel or Kris Letang is providing any offense to speak of.

This is not sitting well with general manager Jim Rutherford, and he made that all very clear during his radio show on the team’s flagship radio station (105.9, The X) before Wednesday’s game.

Rutherford has always been one of the more candid general managers in the league and is never afraid to share his opinions.

Boy did he ever share his opinions on Wednesday.

Some of the highlights include…

First, on the team’s general inconsistency and how everything fell apart following their four-game winning streak in Canada.

“What I’m seeing I don’t like. Nobody likes it. We’re trying to figure out what’s gone wrong here. We went through Canada, it was a great trip where the guys came together, that team chemistry that we’ve been looking for even from last year, it was really strong and it was all coming together. It was almost like when we cleared customs coming back into the United States, we left it all there. I’d like to say we have an answer for it, but we don’t right now. We’re watching it really close. We don’t think the team’s not good enough, because if it wasn’t we wouldn’t have played the way going through Canada. But certainly if this continues in short order we’re going to have to make some changes.”

On the team’s work and energy level…

“We’re not playing with any energy or determination. We’re just trying to get through the games. These other teams are coming, they’re outworking us, and they deserve to beat us. In some of these games probably deserve to beat us worse than the score indicates. It’s just getting back to the basics and guys getting back to work and coming back to the rink determined to win, and I haven’t seen it since we came from back from Canada and it’s very concerning.”

On whether or not this team needs a BIG change…

“We really believed coming out of camp we were a contending team. We start those first four or five games and we were very inconsistent, then we played very well for four games, and then we went back to being a bad team where we didn’t play well at all. We have the players that can work through it. Sometimes they can. Sometimes they can’t. I wonder if this group has been together for too long and maybe we need to change it up, but that’s what I will watch for in the next game games.”

On young players that have found early success in the NHL and just signed big contracts, and other players that might be playing for future contracts…

“Things change, because at a young age, guys win Stanley Cups, a lot of guys go their whole career and they don’t even get close to it. We’ve had a few that have won a couple, then they get bigger contracts, and they kind of settle in and they forget what got them to where they are today. And then we have some guys that are working toward a contract next offseason, and so maybe they change their game. Maybe they think scoring more goals or getting more points is going to get them more money, so they get away from their game and what their role is. And I see that happening with some of the guys on both ends of my point here, so that’s what I was saying earlier, has this team been together too long, and that’s what you have to watch for, when do you have to make those changes. The players are doing everything they can to tell me now’s the time.”

On the lack of depth and players outside of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, and Kris Letang not carrying their weight…

“It’s almost like the guys come to the games and say, ‘Let’s just let the top guys do it.’ Let’s let Sid, Geno, Phil and Letang carry us. We’ll just get through the game and move on to the next game. Forget about the work ethic it takes or forget about the role they play. But when those top players aren’t getting it done, whether they’re shut down or they’re just not having a good game, that’s when we need those other guys to come in and contribute and help win games. We’re not getting it.”

Oh, and let’s not forget the goalies, Matt Murray and Casey DeSmith

“In the two years we won the Cup we were playing at times the way we are playing now. But between Fleury and Murray they were phenomenal in goal. They were hard to score against. That is not what we’re getting now. We aree getting inconsistent goaltending.”

There is an awful lot to unpack here, and for the most part, nothing he said is really incorrect.

The team’s energy level often times seems to be lacking, at least compared to their opponents. As one of the oldest teams in the league they no longer seem to have the same jump or speed to their game as they did two years ago, especially as the rest of the league has seemingly caught up to them (and perhaps even surpassed them) when it comes to playing a certain way. The depth scoring, which was a huge staple of the Stanley Cup winning teams in 2015-16 and 2016-17, has completely evaporated as nobody beyond the four top players (Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, Letang) is providing any sort of consistent offense. And the goalies? Well, they entered play on Wednesday with a combined team save percentage of just .903, including a dismal .886 mark for Murray.

So, yeah, there is a lot wrong there.

You can listen to his entire show here.

But while Rutherford is mostly spot-on with his criticisms, it is only fair to point out that he, too, has had some missteps over the past two years that are absolutely contributing to the team’s slow start and current position.

His moves during the summer of 2017 backfired so badly that within one year every player he acquired or signed was already jettisoned off of the team (many of them did not make it through the season with the Penguins).

The Derick Brassard trade, for one reason or another, has not panned out the way anyone expected to it after it was made.

This offseason saw the team trade Conor Sheary and Matt Hunwick in a salary dump trade, only to have it be followed up by the curious signings of Jack Johnson and 42-year-old Matt Cullen.

The Penguins had a similar slow start to the 2017-18 season and were able to pull themselves out of it, finish in second place in the Metropolitan Division, and get back to the second round of the playoffs. But they were still pretty far off from the team that won back-to-back Stanley Cups in the years before that.

So far this season they seem to be even further away from it, and now the general manager is left to contemplate some big changes. If he is going to make them, he needs to do better than he has the past two years.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Panarin, Lundqvist help Rangers take down Capitals

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If the Rangers are going to contend for a postseason position, their top players have to perform.

On Wednesday Night Hockey, Artemi Panarin and Henrik Lundqvist led the Rangers to a surprising 4-1 victory against the NHL-leading Washington Capitals.

Panarin extended his individual point streak to 12 games and is living up to the high-priced contract he signed this past summer. The Russian winger has 11 goals and 14 assists through 19 games in his first season on Broadway.

Lundqvist picked up his first win since a vintage performance against the Carolina Hurricanes in early November when he made 47 saves.

Rangers power play has the right ingredients

Any time you add a deadly scorer via free agency, your power play unit should improve. The Rangers have multiple weapons and a player to fill each critical role. For years they were missing a puck-moving defenseman, a net front presence and a big shot from the outside, but Jeff Gorton and his staff have assembled a roster that should excel when skating up a man.

Panarin notched two power-play goals on Wednesday from the left circle but is not the only threat when the Rangers are on the man-advantage. Chris Kreider is a quick power forward that can create havoc in front of the goaltender and Adam Fox has been able to quarterback the play from the point. Mika Zibanejad has been sidelined a few weeks with an upper-body injury, but also boasts a big right-handed shot when in the lineup.

Offseason changes looming in Washington?

The Capitals have been one of the most dangerous teams in the Eastern Conference for quite some time, but this might be their final hoorah with the band together.

Forward Nicklas Backstrom — who missed his first game of the season with an upper-body injury – and goaltender Braden Holtby are unrestricted free agents this upcoming summer and have been key pieces in recent years.

Backstrom has long been Alex Ovechkin’s underappreciated sidekick and Holtby is constantly having to prove himself with Ilya Samsonov waiting for his chance to become a starting goalie.

Washington is off to a tremendous start and a November slip up against the Rangers is not going to damage their postseason plans. But, this could be the final season the Capitals get another crack at the Stanley Cup with their core from the past decade intact.

Climbing up the record books

Lundqvist earned his 454th NHL victory and tied Curtis Joseph for 5th place on the NHL all-time wins list. He also surpassed Grant Fuhr to take sole possession of 10th place on the NHL’s all-time appearance list.

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

After year away, soldier surprises son during Rangers-Capitals

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It is often forgotten that sporting events serve as a form of entertainment. But on Wednesday Night Hockey, the Madison Square Garden crowd was reminded that life exists outside of the hockey bubble.

During the Rangers-Capitals game, a Staff Sergeant returned in surprising fashion. He had been deployed overseas for the past year and his son thought he was participating in a contest in which he won a Blueshirts jersey.

Instead of the sweater, Luke got to see his father and the emotional embrace delighted the crowd.

Underachieving Maple Leafs needed this change

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It was probably overdue.

It probably should have happened over the summer in the wake of another postseason disappointment, and before the 2019-20 season was allowed to turn into the bitter disappointment it has been.

But when the Toronto Maple Leafs fired head coach Mike Babcock on Wednesday, replacing him with Sheldon Keefe, they finally made the biggest change they needed to allow the organization to take the next step in its development the city — and NHL as a whole — has been waiting for it to take.

[Related: Maple Leafs fire Babcock, name Keefe head coach]

This isn’t to say that Babcock is a bad coach (he is probably not), or that he will not find a new team in the coming months or years and find success (he might).

But it was becoming increasingly clear that he was the wrong coach for this particular team and roster, and that it was never going to get where it should be without some kind of a drastic change.

When Babcock joined the Maple Leafs for the start of the 2015-16 season it was at a time when they were at one of their lowest points in franchise history. There had been just one playoff appearance in 10 years, the NHL roster was completely devoid of talent, and they didn’t yet know who their long-term impact players would be. Babcock’s hiring was one of the cornerstones of the rebuild, and by signing him to a massive 8-year, $50 million contract it was a clear sign the Maple Leafs were willing to flex their financial muscle and spare no expense in the areas where the league could not limit their spending.

It was also at a time when Babcock’s reputation as a coach still placed him not only among the league’s elite, but probably at the very top of the mountain.

It seemed to be the right move at the right time.

But a lot has changed in the years since.

For one, Babcock’s reputation isn’t as pristine as it once was. It has been 10 years since he has finished higher than third place in his division (2010-11 season). It has been eight years since he has advanced beyond Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs (2012-13). In that time there have been 28 different coaches that have won a playoff series in the league, including two (Mike Yeo and Barry Trotz) that have won playoff series’ with multiple teams.

If you wanted, you could try and find reasons for that lack of success. His team’s in Detroit at the end were getting older and losing their core players to an inevitable decline and retirement. His first years in Toronto were taking over the aforementioned mess left behind by the previous regime, and if anything those early Maple Leafs teams may have even overachieved.

All of that is true. It is also true to say that almost any other coach with that recent resume of third-place finishes and first round exits probably wouldn’t have had the leash that Babcock had. They would have been fired two years ago.

As the talent level dramatically increased in Toronto, the expectations should have changed as well. This is no longer a young team going through a rebuild where just making the playoffs is an accomplishment. This is a team of established NHL Players — All-Star level players — that should be capable of more than what they have accomplished. Not only has that not happened, but all indications were that the team was going in the wrong direction.

Last year’s Maple Leafs team won fewer games and collected fewer points than the previous year’s team despite gaining John Tavares and Jake Muzzin and getting a breakout year from Mitch Marner.

This year’s Maple Leafs team has one of the worst records in the league at the one quarter mark and has seen the once dynamic offense turn ordinary, relying on harmless point shots from defensemen.

And that doesn’t even get into the biggest issue, which was the apparent disconnect between his style and the style of the front office and roster. The Maple Leafs are built for offense, and speed, and skill, and defending by attacking and playing with the puck. Everything that came out of Babcock was always about grinding down, and defending, and you can’t score your way to a championship.

There is not any one way to win in the NHL. Some teams win with speed and skill, others win with defense. The most important thing is to play to your strength and do what you do well. The Maple Leafs are not doing that. Talk about the makeup of their defense or the way they defend all you want, but it still comes down to whether they are playing to their strengths. You can’t take a team built around John Tavares, Marner, Auston Matthews, and William Nylander and ask it to win 2-1 every night. You are wasting them by doing that and you will fail. You have to turn them loose and let them do what they do best. Babcock never seemed able or willing to trust them to do that.

Whether or not this sparks the Maple Leafs to turn their season around and go on a championship run like Pittsburgh in 2009 and 2016, or Los Angeles in 2012, or St. Louis in 2019 remains to be seen. But Keefe has coached many of the players in Toronto before, he has coached them to play a certain way, and he has won with them.

Now he gets a chance to do it on the biggest stage.

Maybe it works. Maybe it doesn’t. But the worst thing that happens is they fall short and underachieve, something they were already doing anyway. At least now they get to go down taking their best swings.

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.

Capitals vs. Rangers livestream: How to watch Wednesday Night Hockey

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Washington Capitals and New York Rangers. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Washington defeated the Rangers 5-2 on home ice earlier this season. Caps forward T.J. Oshie tallied two power play goals, while defenseman John Carlson notched three assists to help Washington continue their dominance over the Blueshirts.

The Capitals currently own the best record in the NHL (16-3-4 – 36 points) and have just one regulation loss in their last 16 games. Washington is averaging an NHL-best 3.74 goals per game and have scored the most goals in the league by far (86). They’ve been especially dominant on the road. Their only regulation road loss came on Oct. 10 in a 6-5 loss at Nashville, and they are currently on a nine-game road point streak. They own the best road record in the league (10-1-1).

The Rangers had an impressive 3-2 overtime win over the Penguins last week but followed that up with two disappointing losses in Florida. New York got obliterated by the Lightning on Thursday night, losing 9-3 in Tampa, and then blew a 3-2 second period lead against the Panthers on Saturday, falling 4-3 in regulation.

Mika Zibanejad will not suit up for Wednesday’s game as he is still recovering from an upper-body injury. Zibanejad has not played since suffering the injury on Oct. 27 against the Bruins. Wednesday will be his 10th consecutive game missed.

The Rangers will be getting their second-overall draft pick back after he missed the last two games with the flu. Kaapo Kakko was scratched prior to Thursday’s game against the Lighting and did not play in Saturday’s loss against the Panthers as he was still feeling ill. After a slow start to the season, Kakko has been one of New York’s top scorers as of late. The 18-year-old is coming off his first two-goal outing of his career in last week’s 3-2 overtime win over the Penguins, and he also tallied the first OT winner of his NHL career.

[COVERAGE OF RANGERS-CAPITALS BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

WHAT: Washington Capitals at New York Rangers
WHERE: Madison Square Garden
WHEN: Wednesday, Nov. 20, 7 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Rangers-Capitals stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

CAPITALS
Alex OvechkinEvgeny KuznetsovTom Wilson
Jakub VranaLars Eller – T.J. Oshie
Richard Panik – Mike Sgarbossa – Travis Boyd
Beck Malenstyn – Chandler StephensonBrendan Leipsic

Michal Kempny – John Carlson
Dmitry OrlovRadko Gudas
Jonas SiegenthalerNick Jensen

Starting goalie: Braden Holtby

RANGERS
Artemi PanarinRyan StromeJesper Fast
Chris KreiderFilip ChytilPavel Buchnevich
Brendan LemieuxBrett Howden – Kaapo Kakko
Tim Gettinger – Greg McKeggBrendan Smith

Libor HajekJacob Trouba
Brady SkjeiTony DeAngelo
Ryan LindgrenAdam Fox

Starting goalie: Henrik Lundqvist

Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk and Brian Boucher will call Capitals-Rangers from Madison Square Garden in New York, N.Y. Kathryn Tappen will host Wednesday’s coverage on NHL Live alongside analysts Keith Jones and Mike Milbury and NHL insider Bob McKenzie.

NHL on NBC analyst and 2019 NHL Hockey Fights Cancer ambassador Eddie Olczyk discusses his career and fight with colon cancer in an interview with Kathryn Tappen in a 30-minute special Wednesday at 11:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN following Wednesday Night Hockey. Olczyk was named the NHL’s Hockey Fights Cancer ambassador earlier this month and November marks Hockey Fights Cancer Month throughout the league. You can watch it live here.