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Penguins ready to welcome back Murray, but Letang’s status is in doubt

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PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Penguins are set to welcome back the one player that could significantly alter their 2018-19 season, and are also facing the possibility of being without the one player they may not be able to replace.

Matt Murray, the team’s regular starting goalie over the past two years, is expected to be back in the lineup on Saturday night for the first time since Nov. 17 when the team plays host to the Los Angeles Kings.

His return could potentially coincide with the loss of their top defenseman, Kris Letang.

Letang had to leave the Penguins’ 5-3 win over the Boston Bruins on Friday night with just under eight minutes to play in the third period after he found himself tangled up with Bruins forward Joakim Nordstrom and awkwardly fell to the ice. He struggled to make it back to the bench with an apparent leg injury, and then needed help getting down the tunnel from the team’s bench to the locker room.

When asked after the game if he had any update on Letang’s status, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan simply responded with “no” and gave no other details.

It is still not yet known what his status for Saturday’s game is, or if he will be sidelined for any length of time.

If he is, that would be brutal news for a Penguins team that is trying to play its way back into a solid playoff spot after an inconsistent start to the season. Letang has probably been their best, most irreplaceable player this season and has bounced back from a down 2017-18 season in massive way. He is playing more than 26 minutes per night at a Norris Trophy level. He already has 25 points in 30 games and fairly dominant numbers across the board, from his ability to generate shots, to his possession numbers, to the way he has played alongside his defense partner, Brian Dumoulin.

When asked about potentially losing Letang, Dumoulin said “Obviously it’s tough, we need that guy in the lineup.”

He is not wrong.

The Letang-Dumoulin duo has been one of the NHL’s best this season. During 5-on-5 play the Penguins are outscoring teams by a 28-14 margin when Letang and Dumoulin are on the ice, and controlling more than 57 percent of the total shot attempts and more than 58 percent of the scoring chances.

It is a night and day difference between them and their bottom-two pairings that are currently made up of Olli Maatta and Jamie Oleksiak on the second period, and Jack Johnson and Marcus Pettersson on the third. When Letang and Dumoulin are not on the ice together the Penguins’ goal differential drops to minus-1 while their shot attempt and scoring chance percentage all plunge to under 48 percent.

The common refrain from the Penguins on Friday night is that they have succeeded in Letang’s absence before, specifically during the 2016-17 season when they won the Stanley Cup with him missing the second half of the regular season and the entire postseason.

“We’ve done it before,” said Dumoulin. “We know we can do it. We’ve been carrying eight defensemen so far this year, everyone can play, everyone needs time and action and we want to just keep it simple as a defense corp if he is missing.”

“Because we think we have NHL defenseman,” said Sullivan when asked why he thinks the team would be able to succeed again if Letang has to miss time. “Juuso [Riikola] has played extremely well. Chad [Ruhwedel] is an NHL defenseman. He’s played for our team for a few years, he’s played in the playoffs, he’s won the Stanley Cup with us. These guys are NHL defensemen, and regardless of who is in our lineup we believe we have enough to win.”

Honestly, there is no other approach for the coaches and players to take. But looking at things objectively from an outside perspective it’s easy to see how that team was very fortunate to win without such an important player, and also how different this team is.

With Justin Schultz already sidelined (and he is still expected to miss a couple more months), the only defenders still left over from the 2017 Stanley Cup winning team are Maatta, Dumoulin, and Ruhwedel, the latter of which only appeared in six playoff games that year and has only been a role player this season.

This team also isn’t getting the same level of goaltending that 2017 received, and that was probably the biggest driving force behind that championship run.

Which brings us to the news of Murray’s likely return on Saturday.

Injuries and ineffectiveness have limited him to just 11 games this season and an .877 save percentage that is among the worst in the league. He was activated from injured reserve late in the week and backed up Casey DeSmith in the Penguins past two games, including for DeSmith’s 48-save performance on Friday night.

Overall DeSmith has done a fine job filling in, mixing in some spectacular saves and games with some rough patches as well. But if they are going to get back to the top of the NHL and compete for a championship again it is awfully hard to see them doing that without Murray playing some kind of a significant role in that.

Goaltending was one of the biggest factors in the Penguins’ early postseason exit a year ago (and some of their regular season struggles), and it’s played a role in their early struggles this season. Even if Murray and DeSmith end up splitting time they’re going to need strong performances from both no matter who is in the lineup on defense.

The position is going to take on even more importance if their top defender has to miss any extended time as they attempt to play their way out of their mediocre start.

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Sabres’ hot start; Coaches on hot seat

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Matt Dumba and Haydn Fleury got a tattoo to honor a friend that committed suicide. (NHL.com)

• Players and coaches deserve credit for the Buffalo Sabres hot start. (Buffalo Hockey Beat)

• Former NHLer Chris Joseph is still fighting for the victims of the Humboldt bus crash. (The Hockey News)

Ryan O'Reilly will need to be more selfish if he wants to find the back of the net more often. (In the Slot)

• Seattle hockey fans will have to pay a high price to watch their team play in person. (Seattle Times)

• Avs captain Gabriel Landeskog sat down for a Q & A with ESPN.com. (ESPN)

Patrick Kane believes, Kirby Dach and Dylan Strome can build chemistry together. (NBC Sports Chicago)

• 32-year-old pending unrestricted free agent Nicklas Backstrom still feels young. (Nova Caps Fans)

• Sam Gagner is still trying to stick in the NHL. (Sportsnet)

• Canadian NHL markets have seen their attendance numbers drop early on this season. (Sporting News)

• How long can the Penguins continue playing the way they’re currently playing and how will they integrate their injured players back into the lineup? (Pensburgh)

• Jets head coach Paul Maurice admitted that he steals from each one of the coaches in the NHL. (Winnipeg Sun)

• Here’s how the zamboni changed the game for ice rinks all over the world. (Smothsonianmag.com)

• Which coaches are on the hot seat right now? (Scotty Wazz)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

The Buzzer: Eichel explodes for Sabres; More history for Caps’ Carlson

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Three Stars

1. Jack Eichel, Buffalo Sabres

The Sharks ended the first period up 2-0 against the Sabres, so it took quite the surge from Eichel & Co. to win that one 4-3 in OT.

Eichel was involved in all four of Buffalo’s goals, scoring two goals and two assists. That included the game-winner in overtime for the Sabres. The American-born forward ended the night with six shots on goal, a +2 rating, and went 12-10 on faceoffs.

The 22-year-old went two games without a point, but he’s still off to a hot start in 2018-19, as Tuesday pushed Eichel’s totals to 14 points in 10 games.

2. Eric Staal, Minnesota Wild

Minnesota’s showing some signs of life with a two-game winning streak, but some of the joy was muted thanks to Devan Dubnyk leaving the game with an injury after a bad collision.

As ominous as that seems, it has to be a relief for the Wild to see Eric Staal finally have a breakthrough night on Tuesday. Staal scored two goals (including the 1-0 tally, thus the game-winner) and an assist, with those two goals being Staal’s first of the season. The 34-year-old’s been a revelation in Minnesota (peaking with 42 goals and 76 points in 2017-18), and he seemed to give the Wild a pretty sweet deal with his latest contract. Well, it’s a sweet deal if Staal’s game doesn’t sink too much; otherwise, you wonder if they’d be better off moving on and getting younger.

Anyway, this was a nice overall effort from Staal, who also had a +2 rating, five SOG, and went 8-7 on draws.

3. Bo Horvat, Vancouver Canucks

Like the Sabres, the Canucks fell behind early on Tuesday. The Red Wings opened up a 2-0 lead against Vancouver, only for the Canucks to explode with five unanswered goals in the third period.

Horvat contributed three of those goals. While Staal gets the higher star because all of his points came against a goalie (Horvat’s third tally was an empty-netter), it was still a strong night from Horvat.

Similarly to Staal, Horvat came into Tuesday on a quiet start, as Horvat only had two goals and one assists for three points through eight contests. He managed his first career NHL hat trick on Tuesday, pushing him to six points in nine games.

Highlight of the Night

It was already covered here (alongside a fun blooper), but it has to be David Pastrnak‘s between-the-legs goal, right?

Factoids

  • John Carlson cemented his spot alone atop the NHL’s scoring leaders list by generating two goals, pushing him to 20 points on the season as Washington beat Calgary. NHL PR points out some impressive history for Carlson, including that he joined Bobby Orr (twice) and wonderfully old-timey-named Baldy Northcott (in 1932-33) as the only defensemen to lead the league outright in scoring through 20 days. Carlson reached 20 points in 11 games, tying Orr (in 1974-75) as the second-fastest surge to 20 points for a defenseman. Only Paul Coffey hit 20 faster, doing it in 10 games in 1988-89. Sportsnet notes that Carlson’s already off to one of the best Octobers for a defenseman, and the Capitals have three more games left in the month.
  • Marc-Andre Fleury earned his 446th NHL win, breaking a tie with Terry Sawchuk for seventh all-time. Henrik Lundqvist is at sixth with 450, while Curtis Joseph ranks at fifth with 454. It should be interesting to see if MAF ends up higher than Lundqvist when they’re both done — which hopefully isn’t anytime soon.
  • Sabres wunderkind Rasmus Dahlin has 10 points through his first 10 games, landing on a short list of defensemen who managed such a short at 20 years old or younger. Another Sabres stat: Eichel scored his sixth overtime goal, already tying the franchise record at 22.

Scores

BOS 4 – TOR 2
BUF 4 – SJS 3 (OT)
FLA 4 – PIT 2
ARI 3 – NYR 2 (OT)
VAN 5 – DET 2
NSH 6 – ANA 1
MIN 3 – EDM 0
LAK 3 – WPG 2
VGK 2 – CHI 1 (SO)
WSH 5 – CGY 3

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Two goals, two extremes: Pastrnak beauty and Murray blunder

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You don’t often hear the phrase “keep your eyes on the puck.” Greg Wyshynski basically wrote a hockey book about watching how things develop away from the puck, for instance.

Tuesday presented one great highlight reel moment, and one for the bloopers, and you may note that the key figures involved either kept their eye(s) on the puck or couldn’t quite manage it.

To start, you have Boston Bruins star David Pastrnak in the moment that will probably linger in the memories of more hockey fans beyond Tuesday. After being robbed of an impressive goal thanks to an offside review early against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Pastrnak made a tremendous between-the-legs move to score for Boston, and add to his gaudy goal-scoring start.

Also notice that Pastrnak was able to keep his eye on the puck as it went into the net, as he gestured as such while others seemed bewildered — maybe by him being audacious enough to make that move.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Matt Murray. He allowed a goal he’ll undoubtedly want back against Noel Acciari of the Florida Panthers, and it’s about as close to hockey’s version of “losing a baseball in the lights” as I think you’ll see:

It’s hard not to feel for Murray there, and one cannot help but feel pity for any goalie facing Pastrnak lately.

Pastrnak’s Bruins ended up beating the Maple Leafs 4-2, while Murray’s Penguins fell 4-2 to the Panthers.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

NHL over/under: How many goals will Pastrnak, Neal finish with?

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Entering play on Tuesday night David Pastrnak (Boston) and James Neal (Edmonton) sit on top of the NHL’s goal scoring leaderboard with nine goals each. They have been two of the hottest players in the league to start the season and are in action on Tuesday looking to increase their lead.

Pastrnak’s climb to the top isn’t all that surprising given how good he has been the past few years. He is coming off of his third consecutive 30-goal season and is part of one the league’s top lines alongside Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand. He scored 38 goals in just 66 games last season, a pace that would have had him pushing the 50-goal mark had he stayed healthy. Including his start this season, he has scored 52 goals in his last 82 regular season games played dating back to the end of the 2017-18 season.

He is simply one of the best finishers in the league and is just now entering what should be his peak years for offense.

Neal’s early success is a little more surprising.

He has always been a good goal scorer, but was coming off by far his worst season in the league in Calgary, scoring just seven goals in 63 games. He has already blown past that number this season.

With both players pacing the rest of the league so far, let’s try to project what they might be capable of for the entire season.

Let’s start with Pastrnak — As already mentioned, he has a recent track record of being a lethal goal scorer and is surrounded by two elite players in Boston. Their line is driving all of the offense in Boston right now and Pastrnak is at the center of it. He entered the season looking like a lock for at least 35 goals as long as he was able to stay healthy. Nothing he has done so far has shaken that belief. As is the case with most players on a nearly goal-per-game hot streak, he is carrying a shooting percentage well north of 30 percent, a number that is no doubt going to drop as the year goes on. Even the best players don’t shoot above 20 percent (and even that is an outrageously high number for a full year) for a full season, while Pastrnak himself has consistently settled around the 14 percent mark.

So let’s use some simple math here: If Pastrnak maintains his current 3.38 shots per game average (he easily could) and shoots at his normal 14 percent on those shots, that would be an additional 35 goals on top of what he already has this season. That would give him 44 goals, just shy of the pace he was on last year without the injury and that seems like a pretty fair projection.

Can he hit that? Or exceed it? And can he continue to make a run at knocking Alex Ovechkin from his goal scoring throne?

What about Neal? — Everything disappeared for Neal in Calgary last season. His shot volume plummeted, his shooting percentage cratered, he seemed like a player that was just totally out of it and had seen his career wash out. But given his track record there was always a chance he could rebound, and the Oilers are the team that is benefitting from it.

He is back to averaging close to three-and-a-half shots per game (up a full shot from Calgary) and so far is riding the same shooting percentage wave that Pastrnak is in Boston. He also has the added bonus of getting to play on Edmonton’s power play (an area he has always excelled) alongside Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. That is going to help a lot, but not so much that he keeps scoring on 30 percent of his shots.

The Oilers have 72 games remaining on their schedule. With his same shot rate and career average shooting percentage that would put Neal on a 35-goal track for this season, a number that the Oilers would have almost certainly signed up for in the preseason when they made the trade.

Can he get there? Or will he exceed it?

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.