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.

Ovechkin to play role of NHL ambassador in China

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Alex Ovechkin will be taking a week away from his summer break to play a different kind of role in the NHL next month.

Ovi is heading to China as the NHL’s international ambassador on the week of Aug. 4. He will travel to Bejing, China’s capital, a trip that will include the Russian superstar holding youth hockey clinics, a media tour and business development meetings.

“It is a huge honor for me to be an ambassador for the entire Washington Capitals organization and the National Hockey League for this special trip to China,” Ovechkin said in a release from the Caps. “I think it is very important to spend time to help make people all over the world see how great a game hockey is. I can’t wait to spend time with all the hockey fans there and I hope to meet young kids who will be future NHL players. I can’t wait for this trip!”

The NHL continues to try and grow the game at the international level in places traditionally not hotbeds for hockey.

China has been seeing a lot of the NHL over the past three seasons. Although no preseason games are scheduled for the 2019-20 season, the NHL has played a total of four since 2017, with the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks contesting two games in 2017-18 and the Boston Bruins and Calgary Flames playing the other two prior to last season.

The Stanley Cup found its way to the country for the first time last September, as well.

“We are very excited that Alex Ovechkin will be joining us in China this summer,” said David Proper, NHL Executive Vice President of Media and International Strategy. “Alex represents the best in sports, as he epitomizes that combination of great talent, great personality and great sportsmanship. He is the perfect person to represent the NHL’s efforts to grow hockey in China.”

China, with a population of over 1.3 billion, expects to expand its participation in winter sports, including hockey, to 300 million people by 2022.


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

Report: Police say Greg Johnson’s death an apparent suicide

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DETROIT (AP) — A police report says the death of former Nashville Predators captain Greg Johnson was an apparent suicide, according to the Detroit News.

The paper said Wednesday it had obtained a Rochester Police report, and that Johnson was found by his wife shortly before 10 a.m. on July 7. A gun and a single bullet were found near him. No suicide note was left.

The Oakland County Medical Examiner declined to discuss findings from an autopsy, according to the paper.

Johnson was with Nashville for the franchise’s first season in the league. He spent the last seven years of his career with the Predators. He also played for Detroit, Pittsburgh and Chicago during his 12 years in the NHL.

The Detroit News said Johnson’s agent, Tom Laidlaw, declined to discuss the specifics surrounding the former player’s death. Johnson was 48.

PHT Morning Skate: Penguins need summer miracle again; Devils begin new chapter

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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.

• The Pens need to make another mid-summer magical change. (Pensburgh)

• Maple Leafs almost certain to lose any trade involving Mitch Marner. (Editor In Leaf)

Zack Kassian to get his chance to play alongside Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl. (The Hockey Writers)

Ryan Spooner heading to Switzerland next season. (Sportsnet)

• The RFA waiting game for big-name players is the norm now, in Winnipeg and the rest of the NHL. (Winnipeg Sun)

• Each team’s worst contract heading into the 2019-20 season. (Puck Prose)

• Biggest fantasy winners thus far in the offseason. (Yahoo Sports)

• Devils begin a new chapter with additions of Jack Hughes, P.K. Subban. (NHL.com)

• Oft-Overlooked Hurricanes On the Rise. (Featurd)

• The oddsmakers are taking the Colorado Avalanche seriously, and so should you. (The Hockey News)

• NHL Network analyst believes Andre Burakovsky will score ‘a minimum’ of 20 goals next season. (Russian Machine Never Breaks)

• The Nashville Predators should go all-in and trade for William Nylander. (Pred Lines)


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

Analyzing the Avalanche after Colorado re-signs J.T. Compher

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The Colorado Avalanche’s offseason continues to come into focus, even as we’re in more of a housekeeping mode, rather than a more exciting time of dramatic renovations.

Earlier, the Avalanche signed intriguing new addition Andre Burakovsky at a bargain $3.25 million rate. While I would’ve been even more excited if the Avalanche would have bought more term, it’s still a nice move, and Burakovsky’s still slated to be an RFA after this one-year re-up expires.

The medium-sized moves continued on Wednesday, with Colorado handing forward J.T. Compher an interesting four-year deal reportedly worth $3.5M per season.

Overall, it’s fairly easy to understand. Compher scored both 16 goals and assists on his way to 32 points last season, despite being limited to 66 games. He quietly logged a lot of minutes (17:29 TOI per game), and had some utility, although the Avalanche might be wise to ease some of his PK duties going forward.

You can dig deeper into certain numbers, or make some tough comparisons, and start to feel not-quite-as-good about Compher’s new contract.

After all, Compher possesses the same contract as now-former teammate Alex Kerfoot, who will carry $3.5M for four seasons with Toronto. On one hand, it’s not as though Colorado necessarily chose to keep Compher over Kerfoot; it’s very plausible that the analytics-savvy Maple Leafs wanted Kerfoot to make that Nazem KadriTyson Barrie deal work, in the first place. On the other hand, the comparisons are natural when you consider their identical deals. Comparing the two using visualizations including Evolving Hockey’s Regularized Adjusted Plus/Minus (RAPM) makes this contract look less appealing:

via Evolving Hockey

Compher doesn’t need to equal or exceed Kerfoot’s value to be worth $3.5M per year to the Avalanche, though, and there’s a solid chance that they’ll be fine with this contract.

It does open up an opportunity to ponder where Colorado is, though.

The Avalanche still have a big-ticket item to re-sign, as Mikko Rantanen is one of the many RFAs heading for a big raise alongside the likes of Mitch Marner and Brayden Point. If Colorado can convince Rantanen to sign somewhere in the team-friendly range that the Carolina Hurricanes enjoy with Sebastian Aho, or the borderline insane deal the San Jose Sharks landed with Timo Meier, then Colorado would continue to look like one of the smartest people in the room.

But how many steps have the Avs taken after upsetting the Flames in Round 1 and pushing the Sharks hard in Round 2 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs?

Tom Hunter of Mile High Hockey projected next season’s lineup, figuring that Compher will center a third line with two sneaky-good analytics wingers in Colin Wilson and Joonas Donskoi, while Kadri could center a second line with Tyson Jost and Andre Burakovsky around him.

Losing Kerfoot stings, but on paper, that does seem like a middle-six that could ease some of the burden for that all-world trio of Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon, and Gabriel Landeskog. It’s also plausible that the Avs could try to move different pieces around to see if one of MacKinnon or Rantanen could carry their own line, thus diversifying the Avs’ attack.

Yet, with the Central Division continuing to look like a beastly group, it’s tough to say where Colorado fits. Is this team more wild-card material, or will a boosted supporting cast push them to a new level? There’s also the possibility that things don’t work out the same way as they did in 2018-19, from that MacKinnon line slowing to maybe the goaltending falling short.

Whatever value Compher ultimately brings, along with newcomers like Burakovsky, Kadri, and Donskoi, a mild itch for something bolder remains for some of us (I blame the NBA’s run where the West is revolutionized every week, seemingly). At least Avs fans can let their imaginations run wild, as there could be some space left over, even after Rantanen gets paid:

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.