Crosby’s return makes resilient Penguins diligent, dangerous

PITTSBURGH — Mike Sullivan’s messages can be relentless. The Pittsburgh Penguins coach peppers his team with a handful of mantras that seemingly run on a loop during every practice, every period, sometimes every shift.

They run from ”play the right way” to ”get to our game” to ”keep it simple.” All of them code words of sorts to a star-laden roster that in recent years got so caught up in its own offensive talent it occasionally forgot to do the little things like, say, play responsibly on both ends of the ice.

No more. The sometimes-careless group that was outclassed, outsmarted and outworked while getting swept by the New York Islanders in the first round of the playoffs last spring has been replaced by a team that’s returned to the NHL’s elite through a mix of grit, resiliency and maturity.

Tuesday night’s 7-3 romp over Minnesota gave the Penguins their fourth consecutive victory and drew them within four points of Washington for the top spot in the Metropolitan Division as the All-Star break looms. It’s heady territory for a group that spent the last four months watching one high-profile player after another limp down the tunnel and onto injured reserve, the most jarring being captain Sidney Crosby‘s slow skate toward the bench in the third period of a shootout victory over Chicago on Nov. 9.

Five days later Crosby underwent surgery to repair a hernia. The Penguins were in the middle of the pack in the Eastern Conference at the time, their season at an early tipping point. Crosby had led the charge in making sure Pittsburgh played the 200-foot game Sullivan craves. Without him, the Penguins easily could have lost their way.

Instead, they reclaimed the identity that symbolized the teams that won back-to-back Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017. Their offensive wiggle room basically gone, the Penguins tightened things up in front of goaltenders Tristan Jarry and Matt Murray. They made small plays in their own end that led to big opportunities at the other.

They knew that to stay afloat in the NHL’s best division, they didn’t really have a choice.

”It was kind of a catalyst for why we had to play the game the way we did, more defensively, less risky and ultimately why we’ve been giving up fewer chances as a team,” forward Zach Aston-Reese said.

What followed was an 18-6-4 stretch that propelled Pittsburgh to fourth in the overall standings during Crosby’s 28-game absence, the second-best record in the league over that span and absurd total for a group that has missed nearly 200 man games due to injury.

”When you miss a player of Sid’s caliber, obviously the game changes a lot,” forward Jared McCann said. ”You’ve got to simplify things. You’ve got to take it one period at a time, one shift at a time and we did that. We showed we could do it and now that we have him back, we’re a deadly team.”

It sure looked like it against the Wild.

Crosby needed less than eight minutes to pick up his first point since before Halloween when he assisted on the first of Evgeni Malkin‘s two goals, an opportunity that arose thanks in part to Crosby’s mere presence.

With the Penguins on the power play, Crosby skated into the zone and fed Malkin before darting to the far post, leaving Wild forward Jason Zucker with an unenviable choice. Zucker could either stick with Crosby or try to slow down Malkin streaking down the middle. Zucker opted to shadow Crosby, giving Malkin all the room he needed to tap in Bryan Rust‘s centering pass.

”Every player is important here in locker room but Sid is captain,” Malkin said. ”We know how important again, like he is our leader. He’s great player, great teammate. … Power play is better. We’re lucky he’s back.”

And determined not to backslide into the old habits that have crept in at times since their last championship parade. Asked if Crosby’s return means the Penguins can start taking unnecessary chances knowing he is there to bail them out if necessary, McCann laughed.

”We can’t do that,” McCann said. ”We know we can’t go back to the way we started. We were a different team at the start of the year and now we’ve found our way and we know what we’ve got to do.”

Namely clear traffic in front of Jarry, an All-Star for the first time after supplanting (at least for now) Murray as the team’s top goaltender. The Wild generated few quality chances while the Penguins built a four-goal lead on Tuesday and after Minnesota drew within two early in the third, Pittsburgh responded almost immediately.

The final margin pushed the Penguins to the top spot in the NHL in goal differential, a testament to the focus they’ve brought on a regular basis. A lineup infused by new speedy, slick-skating arrivals like forward Brandon Tanev and John Marino has helped. Yet Pittsburgh’s surprising rise during Crosby’s extended layoff is due mostly to a shift in mindset and execution.

It’s a mindset Crosby stressed he has no plans to upset as he gears up for the grind ahead. Even after finishing with four points on a goal and three assists, he kept his eye on the bigger picture, channeling his inner Sullivan in the process.

”It’s going to get more difficult with every game, especially in the second half, things tend to tighten up,” Crosby said. ”We’re going to have to continue to make strides. But our work ethic and attention to detail has been pretty good throughout.”

The Penguins became diligent during Crosby’s long break. Having his familiar No. 87 back makes them dangerous.

”If we keep doing the things we’ve been doing, plus him,” Rust said, ”I think that just makes everything that much more exciting.”

The Buzzer: Mangiapane tricks Ducks; Lightning win record 11th straight

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THREE STARS

1. Andrew Mangiapane, Flames

The Flames’ 6-4 win over the Ducks was powered by Mangiapane’s first career hat trick. Two of his three goals came during a third period where Calgary entered it trailing 3-1 and scored five times en route to the win. He would register an assist on Matthew Tkachuk‘s 20th of the season to add to a career-best four-point night. The hat trick is also the first by a Flames player this season.

2. Antti Raanta, Coyotes

Arizona won for the second straight game behind Conor Garland‘s 20th goal of the season and 28 saves from Raanta. The 2-1 win over the Islanders gives the Coyotes a winning streak for the first time since Dec. 31-Jan. 7 and also puts them into a tie for the final Western Conference wild card spot. Raanta’s been in net for both wins and has stopped 64 of his last 66 shots faced.

3. Nikita Kucherov, Lightning

The Lightning set a franchise record with their 11th consecutive win by topping the Avalanche, 4-3, in overtime. During the extra period, it was Kucherov beating Pavel Francouz five-hold to keep Tampa red-hot. How hot? They are 23-2-1 since Dec. 21.

AVS LOSE RANTANEN

Adding to the bad night against Tampa, the Avalanche lost Mikko Rantanen to an upper-body injury in the second period. He’ll be out for “weeks.”

HIGHLIGHTS OF THE NIGHT

• Here’s Alex Ovechkin catching up with old teammate Nate Schmidt:

• They don’t see each other often, but the temperature certainly rose when the Avs and Lightning met:

STATS OF THE NIGHT

Jonathan Huberdeau picked up his 50th assist of the season in the win over the Sharks. He now joins Aleksander Barkov as the only two players in Panthers franchise history to record multiple 50-assists seasons.

• Via the NHL, Matthew Tkachuk is now the fourth player in Flames history to record three 20-goal seasons before his 23rd birthday. Sean Monahan (4 times), Robert Reichel (3 times) and Jarome Iginla (3 times) are the only others on the list.

SCORES
Coyotes 2, Islanders 1
Panthers 5, Sharks 3
Flames 6, Ducks 4
Golden Knights 3, Capitals 2
Lightning 4, Avalanche 3 (OT)

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Avs lose Rantanen for weeks after crash into boards

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Avalanche forward Mikko Rantanen will miss “weeks,” per the team, after he crashed into the boards during Monday night’s loss to the Lightning.

Rantanen was on a 2-on-1 with Andre Burakovsky in the second period when he tripped over a diving Erik Cernak and slid into the end boards behind the Tampa net. He left the ice favoring his left shoulder and was later ruled out for the rest of the 4-3 overtime defeat.

Rantanen, who has 19 goals and 40 points in 41 games, missed 16 games this season due to ligament damage in his left ankle.

The injury comes on the day it was announced goaltender Philipp Grubauer is day-to-day with a lower-body injury suffered during the Stadium Series game, Matt Calvert is out long-term, and a week after Nazem Kadri was ruled out for “weeks, not days” with an LBI.

Colorado sits one point behind the Blues and Stars for the top spot in the Central Division with 24 games to go.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Canucks strengthen up front by acquiring Tyler Toffoli

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Tyler Toffoli‘s final game with the Los Angeles Kings was a memorable one.

After notching a hat trick during their Stadium Series win over the Avalanche, Toffoli was dealt to the Canucks on Monday. Heading back to LA is a package of Tim Schaller, the rights to NCAA prospect Tyler Madden, and a 2020 second-round pick.

The deal also includes a conditional draft pick, which would see a 2022 fourth rounder going to the Kings if Toffoli re-signs, per Pierre LeBrun. LA will also not be retaining any of Toffoli’s $4.6 million salary this season.

“Tyler brings goal scoring abilities and is good in battles,” said Canucks GM Jim Benning. “He has great offensive instincts and experience playing in high pressure, meaningful games. We look forward to adding his skill and strength to the line-up.”

The 27-year-old Toffoli can become an unrestricted free agent this summer and was one of the bigger name forwards likely to be on the move with the NHL trade deadline a week away. In 58 games this season he has 18 goals and 34 points.

As the Canucks sit one point behind the Oilers for tops in the Pacific Division, this is Benning bolstering his roster with 23 games to go. Vancouver has been a surprise this season and with the opportunity present to make a run at the playoffs and division title, the move is a boost to the players for the stretch run.

Adding Toffoli also helps the Canucks’ forward group after the news that Brock Boeser will be out of the lineup with a rib injury and will be re-evaluate in three weeks.

The question to be answered is whether this was a premature move for Benning to pull off given the price and where the Canucks are in their turnaround. Madden, who is currently dealing with a broken finger, has 19 goals in 27 games this season at Northeastern University and adds to an already strong prospect pool for the Kings. There’s also no guarantee that Toffoli, who is reunited with his “That 70s Line” mate Tanner Pearson, will stay in Vancouver.

We always see GMs gamble this time of year, but there’s certainly an opening in the West this season, and Benning clearly has confidence his group can do something special.

MORE: PHT’s 2020 NHL Trade Deadline Tracker

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Ovechkin continues chase for 700 goals Thursday on NBCSN

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The Capitals lost for the fifth time in seven games and Alex Ovechkin remained stuck on 698 goals as the Golden Knights came out on top, 3-2, Monday night.

NBCSN has added the Capitals’ next game, Thursday at home against Montreal (7 p.m. ET), to its schedule as Ovechkin continues chasing goal No. 700.

The Golden Knights built up a 3-0 lead by the second period and held off a Capitals’ comeback as T.J. Oshie cut the led to 3-2 with pair of goals. Marc-Andre Fleury, who has surrendered the most goals to Ovechkin of any NHL goalie (24 goals in 42 games), stopped 24 shots for his second straight win. Ovechkin finished with eight shot attempts and four shots on goal.

Ovechkin is now goalless in five straight games after registering a hat trick against the Kings on Feb. 4. Of the seven members in the 700-goal club, five players took five games or longer to go from 698 to 700 career goals – Jaromir Jagr (5 games), Marcel Dionne, Wayne Gretzky, Mike Gartner (6 games), and Brett Hull (12 games).

MORE OVECHKIN:
NHL Power Rankings: Ovechkin’s top 10 goals
By the Numbers: Ovechkin’s 698 NHL goals
Stunning Numbers as Alex Ovechkin closes in on 700 goals
Can Alex Ovechkin break Wayne Gretzky’s record of 894 goals?
My Favorite Goal: Ovechkin scores ‘The Goal’

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.