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.

Canucks’ Ilya Mikheyev to have season-ending knee surgery

Ilya Mikheyev
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VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Vancouver Canucks right wing Ilya Mikheyev is set to have season-ending surgery on his left knee.

Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin said Friday night the 28-year-old Russian forward tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the team’s first preseason game Sept. 25. Mikheyev will undergo surgery next week and is expected to be ready for training camp in the fall.

Mikheyev was originally listed as week-to-week with the injury and played 45 regular-season games, finishing with 13 goals and 15 assists. He scored in his final appearance Friday night, a 5-2 home victory over Columbus.

Mikheyev signed a four-year, $19 million contract as a free agent last summer.

Maple Leafs’ Matthews out at least 3 weeks with knee injury

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Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews will miss at least three weeks with a sprained knee.

The team announced the reigning MVP’s anticipated absence Friday, two days after Matthews was injured in Toronto’s victory against the New York Rangers.

Matthews is expected to miss at least six games and could be out for a few more. The timing of the injury coinciding with the NHL All-Star break and the Maple Leafs bye week prevents this from costing Matthews more time out of the lineup.

After being voted an All-Star by fans, Matthews is now out of the event scheduled for Feb. 3-4 in Sunrise, Florida. The league announced Aleskander Barkov from the host Florida Panthers will take Matthews’ place on the Atlantic Division All-Star roster.

Matthews, who won the Hart Trophy last season after leading the NHL with 60 goals, has 53 points in 47 games this season.

Caufield opted for surgery with Habs out of playoff race

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MONTREAL — Montreal Canadiens winger Cole Caufield said Friday he wouldn’t be having season-ending surgery on his right shoulder if the team were in playoff contention.

But with the Canadiens near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, the 22-year-old Caufield said he decided to have the surgery to protect his long-term health. The procedure is scheduled to be performed by Dr. Peter Millett on Wednesday.

“I didn’t want to stop playing,” Caufield said. “I had a couple tests done to look at it more clearly but, in the end, like it could’ve been one more fall and it could have been even worse.”

Caufield, who leads the Canadiens with 26 goals in 46 games, had three different medical opinions on his shoulder before concluding that his season was over.

“I think they’ve seen a lot more than I have and they know the differences and what they like or don’t like about it,” he said about the medical opinions. “Long term, I think this is what’s best but for sure it was tough to sit out that game against Toronto on Saturday night.”

Caufield initially felt the injury in an awkward fall during Montreal’s 4-2 loss at Dallas on Dec. 23. He said his right shoulder popped, and he replaced it himself.

Caufield felt it again in the Habs’ 4-3 loss at Nashville on Jan. 12. The club announced on Jan. 21 that Caufield would miss the rest of the season.

Caufield is nearing the end of his three-year, entry-level contract and will be a restricted free agent this summer.

All-Star Matty Beniers to miss next 2 games for Kraken

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SEATTLE — Seattle Kraken rookie All-Star Matty Beniers will miss the team’s final two games before the All-Star break after taking a big hit from Vancouver’s Tyler Myers earlier this week.

Seattle coach Dave Hakstol said after morning skate Friday that Beniers would not play Friday night against Calgary or Saturday against Columbus. Hakstol did not speculate on Beniers’ availability for next weekend’s All-Star Game in Florida.

The team has not specified what kind of injury Beniers sustained from the hit. He was barreled over by Myers away from the play early in the second period in Wednesday’s 6-1 victory over Vancouver. Myers was penalized for interference on the play. Beniers returned briefly for one shift later in the period but did not play in the third period.

Beniers is Seattle’s lone All-Star selection this season. He leads all rookies in goals (17) and points (36), and is fifth in total ice time for rookies.

Seattle also placed defenseman Justin Schultz on injured reserve and recalled forward Max McCormick from Coachella Valley of the AHL. Hakstol said Schultz is improving but there’s no timeline on his return.