Breaking down Penguins’ red-hot streak

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Pittsburgh Penguins’ blazing finish to 2018 would be staggering if this sort of thing hadn’t already happened several times in the Sidney Crosby/Evgeni Malkin era.

(Seriously, it almost feels like old hat to see Pittsburgh struggle to start a season – to the point that there were concerns about missing the playoffs – only to see them rattle off a ton of wins.)

It’s easy to forget that the Penguins began December with a troubling 10-10-5 record after falling 4-2 to the Flyers. Since then, they’ve been one of the hottest teams in the NHL, surging to 21-12-6, including an active six-game winning streak.

With the Penguins hoping to extend this run into 2019 by beating the Rangers on Wednesday, this seems like as good a time as any to analyze their winning ways.

[Penguins – Rangers preview]

Getting the stops

During a 11-2-1 run over 14 games, the Penguins enjoyed a robust +18 goal differential (49 for, 31 against) despite being outshot 486-458. Even if you chalk up some of that difference to “score effects,” it’s clear that Pittsburgh hasn’t exactly channeled the Dead Puck Era with its defense. A look at possession stats during that span backs up the larger picture of them being middling during this streak, too.

Unsustainably brilliant goaltending has been the biggest difference during the past 14 contests.

To some extent, Casey DeSmith has only been a bit hotter during his past nine games (.932 save percentage) than he has been overall (.926 over 25 GP). Instead, it’s Matt Murray who’s flipped the script, winning all five of his starts with a gorgeous .959 save percentage after abysmal work in October and November.

Goaltending ranks as just one of the areas where Pittsburgh’s results have been erratic, but it’s overall a strength, as Natural Stat Trick ranks the Penguins’ 92.47 even-strength save percentage as the 10th-best in the NHL.

It’s unrealistic to expect Pittsburgh’s goaltending to be anywhere near as strong as it’s been lately, yet if Murray’s rebound is for real, the Penguins must be taken as seriously as ever. Especially since DeSmith’s recent stats at the NHL and AHL levels indicate that he might be able to hold down the forth even if Murray struggles again.

Mostly the usual suspects

Six Penguins generated at least 10 points over the last 14 games:

Kessel (18.4 shooting percentage) and especially Rust (25.8) should see their puck luck cool off a bit, but as much as anything else, this is a reminder of how much of a difference Letang can make when he’s in the lineup.

Also, a prolonged hot streak for Rust could really cement him as Crosby’s other regular winger alongside Guentzel, and such stability is likely to be a boon for a player as cerebral as Crosby.

Special, indeed

The Penguins’ power play has been connecting at a league-best 30.8-percent rate since Dec. 4. The good news for the rest of the NHL is that Penguins are unlikely to maintain that pace. The bad news is that, as you’d expect, the Penguins were still really strong in that area before the hot streak.

Interestingly, the Penguins’ penalty kill was fantastic before this stretch, and was comparably effective during it.

It’s plausible that Pittsburgh’s PK might slip from elite to middle-of-the-pack, yet special teams seems likely to be a net positive for the Penguins thanks to all of that talent on the man advantage.

Conclusions

Despite this hot streak, the Penguins aren’t an absolute lock for a berth in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Islanders could feasibly knock them out of third place in the Metro, which would create a dogfight between Pittsburgh and strong Atlantic teams (Buffalo, Montreal, or Boston?) for one of the two wild-card spots. They can’t exactly kick back and relax just yet.

That said, it’s easy to picture the Penguins looming as a real threat in the coming postseason, even if their headline-grabbing star power will keep them from truly “sneaking up” on contenders like the Lightning, Maple Leafs, or Capitals.

Are the Penguins as good as this recent streak indicates? That’s unlikely, because their goaltending is virtually certain to cool off.

There are enough factors for the Penguins to remain scary, however, and the reasons even go beyond the reliable talking point of “they employ Crosby and Malkin.”

MORE: Your 2018-19 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.

The Buzzer: Crosby sparks Penguins; Aho extends point streak

Pittsburgh Penguins Center Sidney Crosby (87)
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Three Stars

1) Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins

Alex Ovechkin, the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Boston Bruins have dominated the Eastern Conference storylines this season. But Sidney Crosby and the Penguins jumped into first place of the Metropolitan Division after a thorough 5-2 win against the Toronto Maple Leafs Tuesday. Pittsburgh’s captain recorded four points in his third consecutive multi-point game. Crosby has netted seven goals and dished out 16 assists in 13 games since returning from a core muscle surgery that kept him sidelined since mid-November. No. 87 has also tallied 11 points during a five-game point streak. The Penguins have flown under the radar for most of the season but should be considered one of the elite teams in the Eastern Conference and a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.

2) Blake Wheeler, Winnipeg Jets

The Jets increased their winning streak to three games with a 6-3 victory against the Los Angeles Kings. Wheeler recorded two goals and added an assist as Winnipeg looks to keep pace in the Western Conference wild-card race. Wheeler was rewarded late in the second period for darting toward the back post during an odd-man rush. Mark Scheifele took the puck from Trevor Lewis in the defensive zone then raced up ice to set up the captain. Wheeler’s second goal of the night came late in the final frame when he redirected a shot from Neal Pionk into the back of the net.

3) Anthony Angello, Pittsburgh Penguins

No matter the circumstances, Jim Rutherford and Mike Sullivan expect every player in any lineup to contribute in a meaningful way. The Penguins have done a fantastic job integrating players from the minor leagues into their NHL lineup in recent years. Anthony Angello didn’t even expect to play Tuesday, but alternate captain Evgeni Malkin was unable to complete warmups and left an opening in the lineup. Angello participated in the pre-game skate and was ready to fill the void. In only his fifth NHL game, the 23-year-old scored his first career goal late in the first period. Sam Lafferty fired a shot from the top of the circles and Angello provided a screen and masterfully redirected the puck past Frederik Andersen. Patric Hornqvist retrieved the milestone puck for the young forward.

Other notable performances

  • Sebastian Aho extended his point streak to 10 games with a third-period goal in the Hurricanes’ 4-1 win against the Predators.
  • Jordan Binnington picked up his second shutout of the season as the Blues blanked the Devils for their first win since the Jay Bouwmeester incident.
  • Nikolaj Ehlers had two assists and the eventual game-winning goal in the Jets’ 6-3 win against the Kings.
  • Andreas Athanasiou scored twice as part of a three-goal third period to help the Red Wings snap a four-game losing streak with a 4-3 win against the Canadiens.
  • Artem Anisimov scored twice in the Senators’ 7-4 victory against the Buffalo Sabres.
  • Vladislav Namestnikov scored his fourth shorthanded goal. Ottawa Senators lead the NHL with 13 shorthanded goals this season.
  • Travis Konecny recorded three points as the Flyers gained ground in the Metropolitan Division with a 5-1 win against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Highlights of the Night

Auston Matthews hammered this pass from William Nylander to score his 43rd of the season. He took sole possession of the top spot on NHL goal-scoring list.

Sean Couturier whiffed but ends up with credit for the goal after Elvis Merzlikins lost sight of the puck before it trickled through his legs

Paul Byron stole the puck from Athanasiou then Nick Cousins set up Nate Thompson for the easy tap-in goal.

Stats of the Night

Scores

Philadelphia Flyers 5, Columbus Blue Jackets 1

Pittsburgh Penguins 5, Toronto Maple Leafs 2

Ottawa Senators 7, Buffalo Sabres 4

Detroit Red Wings 4, Montreal Canadiens 3

St. Louis Blues 3, New Jersey Devils 0

Carolina Hurricanes 4, Nashville Predators 1

Winnipeg Jets 6, Los Angeles Kings 3


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.

Crosby’s four-point performance helps Penguins claim top spot in Metro

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The Pittsburgh Penguins have quietly claimed the top spot in the Metropolitan Division with an impressive 5-2 win against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The Washington Capitals have lost four of five while Alex Ovechkin has not been able to score his 700th goal and Pittsburgh has taken advantage with a four-game winning streak.

Sidney Crosby had a goal and three assists as Pittsburgh improved to 6-1-1 following the NHL All-Star break in late January. Bryan Rust had a goal and two assists while Jason Zucker recorded his third goal in four games with Pittsburgh.

Evgeni Malkin took part in warmups prior to the game but was a late scratch due to an illness. Anthony Angello filled in and scored his first career NHL goal.

“The amount of injuries we have had and what we have gone through, different guys have stepped up,” Crosby told Pierre McGuire after his third straight multi-point game. “But our work ethic has stayed consistent all the way through and that’s the identity of our team.”

Crosby helped the Penguins expand their two-goal advantage with contributions on three consecutive goals in the second period. Crosby set up the recently acquired Zucker with a cross-ice pass 2:52 into the middle frame. The Penguins captain would then add a power-play goal and set up Teddy Blueger to put the game out of reach.

Rust opened the scoring when Crosby delivered a perfect pass 11:41 into the first period. Angello redirected a shot from Sam Lafferty with less than three minutes remaining in the opening frame to double Pittsburgh’s lead.

Pittsburgh took a commanding 5-0 lead before Auston Matthews scored his NHL-leading 43rd goal to spoil Tristan Jarry’s shutout bid. Kyle Clifford scored his first goal as a member of the Maple Leafs since being acquired from the Los Angeles Kings earlier this month.

Pittsburgh entered the final period with a 5-2 lead and improved to 22-2-1 this season when leading after 40 minutes.

Maple Leafs goaltender Frederik Andersen has been dreadful since an injury forced him to miss four games earlier this month. The netminder has allowed 13 goals in three straight losses since returning to the lineup.

The Maple Leafs entered the season with hopes of competing for the Atlantic Division title. The Stanley Cup Playoffs were initially a given for a such a talented roster, but Toronto has only a slim two-point advantage on the Florida Panthers.


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.

WATCH LIVE: Penguins host Maple Leafs on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Tuesday’s matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Toronto Maple Leafs. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Penguins come into this game having won five of their last seven games (5-1-1) and have closed in on the division leading Capitals. Pittsburgh trailed Washington by 13 points entering play on Dec. 12, 2019, but have gone 19-5-2 (40 points) in 26 games since then to close the gap to just one point.

The Penguins have earned at least one point in each of their last six games at PPG Paints Arena (5-0-1) and recorded their 21st home win of the season overall – matching the Bruins for the most home wins in the NHL.

Jason Zucker, who was acquired on Feb. 10 from the Wild for Alex Galchenyuk, prospect Calen Addison and a conditional first-round pick, has three points in three games for the Penguins and has been skating on the top line with Sidney Crosby. He tallied his first multi-goal game of the season in Friday’s 4-1 win over the Canadiens, and then added an assist in Sunday’s 5-1 win over the Red Wings.

The Leafs enter this game having lost five of their last eight games (3-4-1). Toronto is coming off a 5-2 loss at Buffalo on Sunday night where they gave up three goals in the span of 91 seconds in the third period after the score was even at 2-2. Toronto sits in third place in the Atlantic, but the fourth place Panthers are just two points back with one game in hand.

Leafs star forward Auston Matthews is currently tied with Boston’s David Pastrnak for the league lead with 42 goals this season, and his 42 tallies have already set a career high. The Leafs star has done the majority of his damage on
home ice with 30 goals in 30 games any Scotiabank Arena.

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6 P.M. ET ON NBCSN]

WHAT: Toronto Maple Leafs at Pittsburgh Penguins
WHERE: PPG Paints Arena
WHEN: Tuesday, Feb. 18, 6 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Maple Leafs-Penguins stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

MAPLE LEAFS
Zach Hyman – Auston Matthews – Mitch Marner
William NylanderJohn TavaresAlexander Kerfoot
Pierre EngvallFrederik GauthierKasperi Kapanen
Kyle CliffordJason SpezzaDmytro Timashov

Jake MuzzinJustin Holl
Rasmus SandinTyson Barrie
Travis DermottMartin Marincin

Starting goalie: Frederik Andersen

PENGUINS
Jason Zucker – Sidney Crosby – Dominik Simon
Jared McCannEvgeni MalkinBryan Rust
Brandon TanevTeddy BluegerPatric Hornqvist
Dominik KahunAndrew AgozzinoSam Lafferty

Jack JohnsonKris Letang
Marcus PetterssonJustin Schultz
Juuso RiikolaChad Ruhwedel

Starting goalie: Tristan Jarry

Kenny Albert and Pierre McGuire will call the action at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, Pa.

An hour-long special on Connor McDavid, titled Connor McDavid: Whatever It Takes will premiere following the game at 10:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. The feature provides an inside look at McDavid’s comeback from a knee injury in last season’s final game. Click here for a trailer.

The Miracle on Ice – 40th Anniversary, featuring Al Michaels, who called the momentous matchup in 1980, and Mike Tirico, will premiere on Wednesday night at 11:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. 40 years to the month, this 30-minute special will feature Tirico’s wide-ranging conversation with Michaels about the buildup to the game, his iconic call, as well as the legacy of the moment that became bigger than sports and still resonates today.

Trades: Habs send Scandella to Blues; Jets deal for DeMelo from Sens

Scandella to Blues DeMelo to Jets NHL defensemen trades
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Brenden Dillon wasn’t the only defenseman on the move on Tuesday, as Marco Scandella and Dylan DeMelo were also traded.

Jets get a possible gem in DeMelo from Senators

Winnipeg figures to be in a tough fight to earn a playoff spot. DeMelo could be a nice find for a defense that badly needs help.

Jets get: DeMelo (26, pending UFA, $900K AAV)

Senators receive: 2020 third-round pick

 

DeMelo generated 20 points in 2017-18, followed by a career-high 22 in 2018-19. He hasn’t scored a goal so far this season, but has 10 assists in 49 games. DeMelo can be a helpful offensive piece in a limited role.

[PHT’s 2020 NHL Trade Deadline Tracker]

Blues add Scandella, Canadiens get more than Sabres did for their trouble

Back in early January, the Sabres traded Marco Scandella to Montreal for a fourth-round pick. From there, they traded for Michael Frolik. About a month and a half later, Montreal’s sly fox GM Marc Bergevin landed a better package for Scandella.

Blues receive: Scandella (29, pending UFA, cap hit currently $2M)

Montreal gets: 2020 second-round pick, conditional 2021 fourth-round pick

Via Cap Friendly, the conditions are:

Montreal will receive the 2021 4th round pick if St. Louis re-signs Scandella before Oct. 7, 2020 or if St. Louis wins two rounds of the playoffs and he plays in at least half of the games.

The Blues are mired in a five-game losing streak. And, really, they’ve been struggling for a month, if not all of 2020. Add that to Jay Bouwmeester‘s health scare and it’s not shocking St. Louis wanted to bolster its blueline depth. Scandella isn’t spectacular, yet he could be quite useful for the defending champs:

The Canadiens gained some serious draft assets by essentially laundering the Scandella contract. That’s good stuff from Bergevin, and won’t make Sabres fans one bit happier.

Montreal already stockpiled quite a few draft picks, and could beef up even more depending upon who they might be willing to move.

DeMelo and Scandella bring different things to the table, but overall, they add to a defense-heavy day of trades.

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.