Old cogs, new tricks? Penguins eye reboot after flameout

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CRANBERRY TOWNSHIP, Pa. — The Pittsburgh Penguins began the franchise’s longest offseason in more than a decade with general manager Jim Rutherford talking about the need for its stars to get past the complacency he feared had crept in during consecutive Stanley Cup title runs in 2016 and 2017. Head coach Mike Sullivan stressed the need for “100% buy-in” on a style of play that demands responsibility at both ends of the ice.

Yet after hinting at massive changes, Rutherford opted to take a scalpel to the roster instead of a chain saw.

Phil Kessel is now in Arizona. Olli Maatta is in Chicago. Otherwise, the group that takes the ice Thursday night against Buffalo in the season opener will look a lot like the one that was swept by the New York Islanders in the first round last spring. Whether the Penguins take a step forward following months of self-reflection will depend largely on whether a core group that includes Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Patric Hornqvist and Kris Letang – all on the other side of 30 – can make the adjustments Sullivan is asking for.

“I think everybody has the ability to adapt to the role that they’re asked to play,” defenseman Jack Johnson said. “It’s just whether or not you want to do it. But everyone in here and the physical capabilities of doing it.”

Capability and willingness are two very different things. The Penguins have plenty of the former. It’s the latter that was lacking at crucial times last season, most notably during that four-game sweep at the hands of the Islanders. The logistics of training camp make progress tough to judge. A better gauge will likely come in a month. Yet Sullivan is upbeat about his team’s receptiveness to the message the staff has repeated incessantly since watching the Islanders celebrate at PPG Paints Arena last April.

“I sense a different attitude, a different mindset right now surrounding this team that for me is encouraging,” Sullivan said Wednesday. “I think when you go through some of the experiences that we went through, when don’t live up to your own expectations, it forces everyone involved to do a little bit of soul searching and figure out how can we get back on the right track.”

The path relies on the Penguins becoming more disciplined and persistent. No inattentive backchecking. No unnecessary risks without having the proper support behind you. No silly penalties that can blunt momentum. All three of them were issues for Malkin during perhaps the most difficult season of his career, and he knows it. The 33-year-old spent a significant portion of the summer back home in Russia focusing on his conditioning and rekindling a passion that ebbed and flowed last winter.

Malkin knows he was part of the problem during a year in which he scored just 21 goals and had a career-worst minus-25 plus/minus ratio. He’s just as eager to be part of the solution.

“We always talk about D-zone you know, turnovers, bad penalties,” Malkin said. “Couple things we need change, like my penalties. Turnovers in neutral zone. Sometimes we need to play simple. And also, first period when we lead (by a) couple goals, we need to play simple, play for team. … Small details, like (if we) fix it, we’ll be fine.”

Sullivan stressed he’s not asking his team’s high-end talent to completely overhaul the approach that’s made them champions. He would just like a renewed focus on the benchmarks of a team that can play into May and beyond.

“I think sometimes there’s a misperception that when I suggest that we need to be hard to play against, it just means physical play,” Sullivan said. “But it’s a whole lot more than that. It starts with our own decisions we make with and without the puck. So there’s a lot that goes into it. We try to define that for our guys specifically and we talk about it daily.”

How well his players translate the talk into action will determine whether Pittsburgh finds a way to keep pace in the hyper-competitive Metropolitan Division. For the first time in years, the Penguins are not among the favorites. Crosby remains at the top of his game in his early 30s. Yet there are questions on the bottom six and whether Alex Galchenyuk – acquired in the trade that sent Kessel to the Coyotes – can mesh with Malkin.

The margin for error Pittsburgh had several years ago has been erased by time and a league that has caught up to the speed advantage the Penguins enjoyed early in Sullivan’s tenure. They can still be among the league’s elite, but their wiggle room is gone. Still, Sullivan made it a point on Wednesday to gather his group and reinforce the belief that the window to be a contender during the Malkin/Crosby era is far from closed.

“I think we have the ability to be a really competitive hockey team,” he said. “But as I said to them, nothing is inevitable. We’ve got to go and earn it. We’ve got to earn it every day. It’s for real now.”

The Buzzer: Aho shines again, Fleury’s big return, Red Wings lose 12th in a row

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Three Stars

1. Sebastian Aho, Carolina Hurricanes. Aho followed up his five-point effort against Minnesota over the weekend by scoring a pair of goals in the Hurricanes’ 6-3 win over the Edmonton Oilers on Tuesday night. After recording just one point in his first six games, Aho has been dominant for the Hurricanes and is now up to 28 points in his past 25 games. His assist numbers are still down a little bit this season, but he is now on pace for 48 goals this season. That number would shatter his career high.

2. Marc-Andre Fleury, Vegas Golden Knights. Fleury made his return to the Golden Knights’ lineup on Tuesday night after being away from the team due to a personal matter. He was outstanding in the Golden Knights’ 5-1 win over the Chicago Blackhawks, turning aside 28 of the 29 shots he faced. It was his first start since Nov. 23 and he missed a shutout by only 27 seconds. This game quickly turned into a rout as the Blackhawks’ already undermanned defense lost Calvin de Haan during the game (it sounds like a significant injury according to coach Jeremy Colliton), but it still had to be a positive sign for the Golden Knights to see Fleury step right back into the lineup and play the way he did. He is also now just three wins away from tying Curtis Joseph for sixth on the NHL’s all-time wins list.

3. John Tavares, Toronto Maple Leafs. The Maple Leafs did not play their best game on Tuesday, but they still picked up a much-needed win in Vancouver thanks in large part to huge games Tavares and starting goalie Frederik Andersen. Tavares finished the game with two goals and an assist in the Maple Leafs’ 4-1 win. They have won two games in a row and are now 6-3-0 under new coach Sheldon Keefe. Tavares’ performance on Tuesday snapped what had been a three-game scoreless streak.

Other notable performances from Tuesday

  • There is no stopping Milan Lucic right now! After scoring zero goals in his first 27 games this season he has now scored three goals in the past four games. That includes his latest goal in the Flames 5-2 win over Arizona on Tuesday night. Zac Rinaldo also scored two goals in the win for Calgary. The Flames have now won six games in a row.
  • Ben Bishop stopped all 26 shots he faced for the Dallas Stars to record his first shutout of the season, giving new coach Rick Bowness his first win behind the Stars’ bench.
  • Nick Bonino scored his 12th goal of the season in the Nashville Predators’ 3-1 win over the San Jose Sharks.
  • Jonathan Quick played what might have been his best game of the season as he helped the Los Angeles Kings to a 3-1 win over the New York Rangers.
  • The Minnesota Wild picked up another point, but lost in a shootout to the Anaheim Ducks. The big story out of that game for the Wild is the injury to Eric Staal after he was injured in a collision with a linesman. Read all about it here.

Red Wings losing streak reaches 12 games

Times are tough in Hockeytown right now as the Red Wings’ losing streak reached the 12-game mark on Tuesday in a 4-1 loss to the Winnipeg Jets. The past 10 games are all regulation losses, while the team has been outscored by a 53-23 margin during the streak. The Red Wings also have a minus-62 goal differential for the season in just 32 games. That is the worst goal differential for any team through 32 games since the 1992-93 Ottawa Senators — an expansion team that went on to win just 10 out of 84 games — and the 1992-93 San Jose Sharks, a second-year franchise that won just 11 out of 74 games. The Red Wing are 7-22-3 this season.

Highlights of the Night

Shea Weber is playing some incredible hockey for the Montreal Canadiens right now, and this goal in Pittsburgh late in the second period was a massive momentum swing.

Patrik Laine made this goal look easy. It almost certainly was not as easy as it looked. But wow did he make it look easy.

Jack Eichel extended his current point streak to 14 consecutive games by scoring the game-winning goal (then adding an empty-net goal later in the game) against the St. Louis Blues on Tuesday night. It was a beautiful play made possible by a baffling defensive breakdown by the Blues. Read more about the Sabres’ win here.

Blooper of the Night

It was a tough night for the Oilers on the blooper front. First, not only did starting goalie Mikko Koskinen get fooled by Dougie Hamilton on a goal from the center red line (read about that one here), but Connor McDavid had this happen to him on a penalty shot attempt.

 

Factoids

  • After posting back-to-back shutouts Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Tristan Jarry set a franchise record for longest shutout streak. [NHL PR]
  • Auston Matthews scored his 100th career goal on Tuesday. Alex Ovechkin is the only active player that hit that mark faster than him. [NHL PR]
  • The Jets scored two goals in 11 seconds on Tuesday night, the third-fastest sequence in franchise history and the fastest since the team moved to Winnipeg. [NHL PR]
  • Alex Pietrangelo scored his 100th career goal on Tuesday, joining Al MacInnis as the only Blues defenders to score 100 goals for the team. [NHL PR]
  • Weber’s highlight reel goal was his 10th of the season, making it the 11th time in his career he has hit that number. That is most among active defenders. [NHL PR]

Scores

Tampa Bay Lightning 2, Florida Panthers 1
Montreal Canadiens 4, Pittsburgh Penguins 1
Buffalo Sabres 5, St. Louis Blues 2
Nashville Predators 3, San Jose Sharks 1
Anaheim Ducks 3, Minnesota Wild 2 (SO)
Winnipeg Jets 5, Detroit Red Wings 1
Dallas Stars 2, New Jersey Devils 0
Carolina Hurricanes 6, Edmonton Oilers 3
Calgary Flames 5, Arizona Coyotes 2
Toronto Maple Leafs 4, Vancouver Canucks 1
Vegas Golden Knights 5, Chicago Blackhawks 1
Los Angeles Kings 3, New York Rangers 1

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.

Dougie Hamilton tricks Koskinen, scores from center red line (Video)

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Even though the Edmonton Oilers entered Tuesday’s game in a tie for first place in the Pacific Division there are plenty of reasons to be concerned about what they are actually capable of this season.

They are still the most top-heavy team in the league, relying almost entirely on one line for offense.

They have also been playing below .500 hockey for the better part of the past two months, and after Tuesday’s 6-3 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes have won just 11 of their past 25 games. Not great!

This most recent loss also included a rather embarrassing play as goalie Mikko Koskinen was faked out by Hurricanes defenseman Dougie Hamilton and allowed a goal from the center red line.

As Hamilton controlled the puck at the red line off of a face-off win, he made it look like he was going to simply dump the puck into the corner. That resulted in Koskinen starting to leave the net so he could cut off the dump-in and hopefully make a play to gain possession for his team.

The problem for Koskinen? Hamilton ended up putting the puck on net — while still looking at the corner! — and scored his 11th goal of the season, continuing what might turn out to be a Norris-worthy campaign.

You can see the play in the video above.

Giving up a red line goal is always tough for a goalie, but this one had to especially sting because the Oilers had just rallied from a two-goal deficit earlier in the period only to give up three consecutive goals — including Hamilton’s goal — to lose their second game in a row and their fifth in their past seven games.

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.

Wild’s Eric Staal injured in collision with linesman (Video)

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Minnesota Wild forward Eric Staal had to leave Tuesday’s game against the Anaheim Ducks after he was involved in a scary collision with a linesman along the boards in the first period.

As Staal and Anaheim forward Derek Grant raced for a puck, Staal went head first into linesman David Brisebois and immediately fell to the ice. He remained down for several minutes before finally being able to get to his feet and skate to the bench with assistance. He did not return to the game, while the Wild have yet to offer an update on his status.

You can see the play in the video above.

It could be a significant injury for the Wild as they are already playing without veterans Mikko Koivu and Jared Spurgeon due to injuries at the moment. Staal entered Tuesday’s game tied with Jason Zucker for the team lead in scoring with 21 points (eight goals, 13 assists) in his first 30 games this season for a Wild team that has rapidly been turning its season around after a brutal start.

The Ducks ended up winning Tuesday’s game, 3-2, in a shootout. The Wild are still 8-1-4 in their past 13 games.

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.

 

Eichel’s point streak reaches 14 as Sabres send Blues to third straight loss

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There is simply no stopping Jack Eichel right now.

The Buffalo Sabres’ captain extended his point streak to 14 consecutive games on Tuesday night by scoring the game-winning goal five minutes into the third period (then adding an empty-net goal), helping to send the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues to their third straight loss in a 5-2 decision.

The win helped the Sabres keep pace in the tight Atlantic Division playoff race and was their second in a row.

Let’s take a quick look at three big takeaways from this one.

1. The Eichel line keeps dominating. Eichel’s two goals on Tuesday give him 20 on the season — a mark that is good enough for third in the league behind only David Pastrnak and Alex Ovechkin — and currently has him on a 51-goal pace for the season. It is worth pointing out that the Sabres have not had a 50-goal scorer since Alexander Mogilny (76) and Pat Lafontaine (53) both hit that mark during the 1992-93 season.

This hot streak all started with a four-goal game back on Nov. 16 and he has not slowed down since then. After Tuesday’s game he is now up to 12 goals and 25 total points during the streak, leading the league in both categories during that stretch.

But it’s not just the play of Eichel that is making things click.

Sam Reinhart and Victor Olofsson, the other two members of the team’s top line, are also playing some outstanding hockey right now and helping to carry the team’s offense. Olofsson, who has in the middle of an outstanding rookie season, picked up two helpers on Tuesday to give him five goals and 10 assists over the past 14 games, while Reinhart’s two points (one goal, one assist) give him 10 points during that stretch.

2. The Blues fell asleep on Eichel’s game-winner. Seriously, what happened here?

The Blues have been one of the NHL’s best defensive teams going back to last season, but this was a terrible breakdown at the worst possible time. There is no reason for Eichel to be able to walk in front of the net completely uncontested like this in a five-on-five situation. Everyone just fell asleep here and made it way too easy for the league’s hottest player to get a wide open look. You are not really helping your goalie here at all.

3. This is the Blues’ first real slump of the season. Yes, they did lose four games in a row earlier this season but they lost two of those games in overtime and were at least able to collect a couple of points. This is the first time all year they have lost three consecutive regulation games, while they have been outscored by a 13-5 margin during that streak. It is also the first time since last November that they have dropped three consecutive regulation games. Over an 82-game season even the best teams are going to run into slumps like this, so it’s probably not a cause for huge concern at the moment. But the Blues still have to be a little worried about the state of their offense without Vladimir Tarasenko. Since he went out of the lineup in late October this has been one of the league’s worst offensive teams, currently sitting in the bottom-10 in shots and goals per game at both even-strength and in all situations. Yes, they are defensive team. But they still need to find more offense than this.

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.