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.

Capitals’ Hathaway ejected for spitting on Ducks’ Gudbranson

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Washington Capitals forward Garnet Hathaway has been ejected from a game for spitting on a player from the Anaheim Ducks.

Hathaway spit on defenseman Erik Gudbranson during a brawl late in the second period Monday night with referee Peter MacDougall standing a few feet away. Officials reviewed video before confirming the five-minute match penalty that triggers a game misconduct.

Tempers flared during the first 40 minutes between Washington and Anaheim and boiled over with 33.4 seconds remaining in the second. Capitals forward Brendan Leipsic bulldozed the Ducks’ Derek Grant behind the net, sparking several fights between the teams’ fourth lines.

Hathaway was involved with Grant, Gudbranson and Nick Ritchie during the scrum before being thrown out.

Unexpected hat trick gives Ducks’ Grant rare opportunity

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If you weren’t expecting Anaheim Ducks forward Derek Grant to record a hat trick this season — as he did in the Ducks’ 4-1 win over the St. Louis Blues on Saturday night — you weren’t alone in that thought.

That thought also extended to his closest friends and resulted in a friendly wager over the summer that now gives the Ducks’ forward an opportunity to name a childhood friend’s first-born child.

Grant first mentioned it during a between periods interview on Saturday, and expanded on it on Monday.

From the Ducks’ Adam Brady:

Another buddy had suggested that if he made a hole-in-one the next day on the links he should be allowed to name the baby.

“My one friend said he should get to name it if he gets a hole-in-one that day golfing,” Grant recalled with a chuckle. “I’m not quite as good a golfer, so he made it real for me if I get a hat trick this year, I’d get to name his first child.”

Grant added that even though his friend’s fiancee was a little skeptical of the idea at first, the couple is fully on board with him naming their child.

This probably seemed like a safe bet for his friend to make because before Saturday Grant had scored just 18 goals in 228 career games and had only scored two goals in a game once. He played 92 NHL games before scoring his first career goal during the 2017-18 season.

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.

 

Hurricanes’ Haula out with more knee issues

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A couple of years ago the expansion draft process gave Erik Haula an opportunity to get an increased role with the Vegas Golden Knights.

He took advantage of that opportunity with a breakout season that saw him score 29 goals and become a key part of one of the most improbable Stanley Cup Final teams ever.

It has been a tough road for Haula in the two seasons since due to injuries, and now his first year with the Carolina Hurricanes is being sidetracked by more knee issues.

Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour announced on Monday that Haula is “going to be out for a while” and that he does not think the forward will be playing anytime soon due to continued issues with his knee. Haula had recently missed four games this season due to soreness in his surgically repaired knee before returning to the lineup on Thursday against the Buffalo Sabres. He played in each of the Hurricanes’ past two games, logging 27 minutes of total ice time in a more limited role.

Haula was originally injured a little more than a year ago when an awkward fall during a game in Toronto resulted in him being stretchered off the ice. He did not play another game for the Golden Knights and was traded over the summer in salary cap-clearing deal.

He was off to a great start this year with eight goals in his first 16 games with the Hurricanes. That total has him just one goal off the team lead where he trails Andrei Svechnikov, Sebastian Aho, and Dougie Hamilton (all three have nine goals, while all three have played in all 20 games so far).

This is a tough injury for both the Hurricanes as a team and for Haula on a personal level.

First, the Hurricanes are losing one of their most productive forwards and a player that had already seemed to be a perfect fit in their lineup. His addition was a huge boost to their forward depth and so far everything had been working exactly as planned for a team that has its sights set on becoming a championship contender.

As for Haula himself, he is currently in the final year of his contract and given the way he has produced the past three years when healthy he was playing his way toward what could be a fairly significant raise this summer, whether it was with Carolina or another team. There is obviously still a chance he can return at some point this season and pick up where he left off, but the short-term outlook is definitely concerning.

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.

NHL Power Rankings: Most dangerous duos in the league

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In this week’s PHT Power Rankings we take a break from ranking all 31 teams and instead look at some of the best, and most dangerous forward duos in the league.

We are looking at forward duos that are regularly used together on a line and can not only produce offense, but help carry their teams and drive play.

Which duos make the list? Let’s get to the rankings!

1. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers. There is not a duo in the NHL right now that is even close to these two.

Individually, the are the top-two point producers in the league since the start of the 2018-19 season and both are among the top-three in goals scored.

When they are on the ice together during 5-on-5 play the past two seasons the Oilers have outscored their opponents by an 82-57 margin (when neither is on the ice the Oilers have been outscored 67-97) while they have been on the ice for more than 55 percent of the Oilers’ total goals (all situations) during that time. As they go, the Oilers go. It is not a stretch to say this is the most dominant offensive duo the league has seen since the days of Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr in Pittsburgh. Breaking them up should be a fireable offense.

2. David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand, Boston Bruins. These two are so good that they have made Patrice Bergeron (still one of the best players in the league) arguably the third best player on his own line.

While Bergeron does drive a lot of the defensive play and plays the shutdown role to near perfection at center, the Pastrnak-Marchand duo on the wings is behind the offense. So much so that Pastrnak and Marchand have scored goals at a higher rate the past three years when they are playing without Bergeron than they do with him.

Goals per 60 minutes since start of 2017-18 season:

  • Pastrnak, Marchand, and Bergeron together: 3.64
  • Pastrnak and Marchand without Bergeron: 3.89
  • Marchand and Bergeron without Pastrnak: 3.49
  • Pastrnak and Bergeron without Marchand: 2.75

That is not to say the team would be better off without Bergeron centering the line, it is just a testament to how good Pastrnak and Marchand are offensively.

3. Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen, Colorado Avalanche. They have been to the Avalanche what the McDavid-Draisaitl duo has been to the Oilers. Top producers individually, completely dominant as a duo, and until this season the line that had to carry what was an incredibly top-heavy team. The Avalanche did serious work to address those depth concerns over the summer and it’s helped them stay afloat in the current absence of Rantanen (and the third member of that line, Gabriel Landeskog). When MacKinnon gets his regular wingers back the Avalanche should be considered one of the top Stanley Cup contenders.

4. Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel, Pittsburgh Penguins. It is easy to write off Guentzel’s success as being a product of playing next to Crosby, but here is the thing about that: A lot of players, many of them very talented, have spent significant time alongside Crosby throughout his career and have never approached the level of production that Guentzel has. He is the consistent finisher that Crosby never really had earlier in his career, and together they are the biggest driver of the Penguins’ offense.

5. Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau, Florida Panthers. These two have really emerged as top-tier offensive players the past two years. Barkov still carries the “underrated” label even though everyone around the league knows exactly how good he is (you should know how good he is, anyway). The truly underrated one in this duo at this point is Huberdeau. Both players are among the top-10 scorers in the league the past two years and have been outstanding this year. If Sergei Bobrovsky ever plays like the big money goalie the Panthers signed him to be this duo will take the Panthers to the playoffs.

6. Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point, Tampa Bay Lightning. They haven’t been quite as dominant as they were a year ago, but no one in Tampa Bay has been just yet. Plus, they are still both around a point-per-game offensively and they are carrying the play when the Lightning use them together (3.50 goals per 60 minutes; dominant possession numbers). They could be on the verge of a breakout at any moment.

7. Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty, Vegas Golden Knights. This duo became a thing last year after Vegas’ in-season trade for Stone last season, and it has been their best line ever since. Stone is one of the best all-around wingers in the NHL and should once again get serious Selke Trophy consideration, while Pacioretty still has the lightning quick release that can make him a 30-goal scorer. These two may not score as many goals as some of the duos on this list, but they control the pace of play and dictate the game as well as any duo in the league.

8. Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, Washington Capitals. You might consider this a nod to past dominance or their reputation, but these two still have it. The Capitals mix their line combinations up a bit (Ovechkin has spent a lot of time in recent years with both Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov as his center) but this is still the one that seems to work the best. Both players are in their 30s and still on track to put up huge numbers this season for a Capitals team that looks like it could win another Stanley Cup.

9. Brock Boeser and Elias Pettersson, Vancouver Canucks. This duo might change everything in Vancouver. The Canucks have had comically bad luck in the draft lottery during this rebuild, never picking higher than fifth despite being one of the league’s worst teams the past few years. They have still managed to find some incredible building blocks with their top picks including Pettersson, Boeser, and Quinn Hughes. The Boeser-Pettersson duo is a must-see every night and has helped rapidly  accelerate the rebuild. The only thing that has held them back so far in their young careers are injuries.

10. Johnny Gaudreau and Elias Lindholm, Calgary Flames. Going from Carolina to Calgary has completely turned around Lindholm’s career thanks to the instant chemistry he found alongside Gaudreau. In the three years prior to his move to Calgary he scored just 38 goals in 235 games. He already has 37 goals in only 104 games with the Flames. Since the trade the Flames have outscored teams 68-48 with the Gauderau-Lindholm duo on the ice and averaged close to three-and-a-half per 60 minutes.

(Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick)

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.