Front-office situation settled, Penguins press forward

PITTSBURGH — Ron Hextall, Pittsburgh Penguin. Yeah, it might take some getting used to.

Still, longtime Penguins captain Sidney Crosby pointed to the club’s decision to hire Hextall – long associated as both a player and an executive with cross-state rival Philadelphia – as the team’s new general manager as proof that the NHL is in essence one big family.

“It’s funny when you think about it, you don’t ever anticipate that,” Crosby said Wednesday, a day after the Penguins brought in Hextall to replace Hall of Famer Jim Rutherford, who resigned abruptly last month. “I think you find yourself saying that a lot in hockey, that it finds a way of bringing people together in different circumstances.”

Hextall spent 11 of his 13 seasons in the NHL as a goalie with the Flyers, often clashing with Pittsburgh superstar Mario Lemieux, who now happens to be Hextall’s boss. He even spent four-plus years as Philadelphia’s general manager, where one of his main jobs was to find a way to build a roster capable of toppling Crosby and the Penguins. Now, his gig is to surround Crosby and Evgeni Malkin with a team talented enough to make a deep playoff run.

Bringing on a former nemesis to build a winner isn’t exactly new territory in Pittsburgh. The Penguins acquired Philadelphia forward Rick Tocchet in February 1992 on the way to the Stanley Cup. Tocchet won two more Cups as an assistant coach with the Penguins in 2016 and ’17.

It speaks to the whirlwind nature of Hextall and new president of hockey operations Brian Burke’s courtship that neither had spoken to Crosby or Penguins coach Mike Sullivan until after the ink on their respective contracts was dry.

While they exchanged pleasantries on Wednesday morning, there’s no time for a honeymoon period. Most front-office overhauls happen during the offseason. Not this one. Rutherford’s stunning exit came two weeks into a 56-game sprint. There will be no feeling-out process. It will be trial and error done on the fly in one of the NHL’s most competitive divisions.

Yet filling the positions does give Pittsburgh something it’s lacked during the last month: some semblance of normalcy. The 5-5-1 start has been filled with a steady stream of injuries to defenseman, a power play that’s been largely ineffective and a schedule that’s been erratic thanks to a COVID-19 outbreak involving the New Jersey Devils. They’ve played just once over the last week, a double-edged sword of sorts.

Sure, it allows some of their injured players to get healthy. Defenseman Marcus Pettersson practiced Wednesday and is nearing a return from an upper-body injury. And it lets the coaching staff address some of the issues that have popped up. But it’s also allowed things like the sting of a 4-3 loss to the New York Islanders last Saturday – a game in which the Penguins let a third-period lead slip away – linger longer than usual.

Throw in the regime change above them and yeah, it’s a lot to take in.

“I think there’s so much going on from an injury standpoint, games being shifted and moved,” Crosby said. “Our job is just playing and focusing on that … our mindset and mentality is just on playing games and making sure that we’re just getting better.”

Sullivan and Rutherford worked together closely while helping lead the Penguins to consecutive Stanley Cups. While Sullivan has a relationship with Burke stemming from their time working with the U.S. World Cup team, he and Hextall haven’t frequented the same circles.

Asked if he could recall the one goal he scored against Hextall during his own decadelong career as a defensive-minded forward – a late game-tying tally on Dec. 12, 1992, while Sullivan was with San Jose and Hextall was in Quebec – Sullivan said he did not.

“My recollection of Ron as a goalie was that he was a fierce competitor and he wanted to win,” Sullivan said. “He had a tremendous career. I’m sure he’ll bring that competitive spirit to our management team as well.”

Sullivan disagreed with the idea that trying to develop a rapport in midseason is a “challenge,” repeatedly using the word “opportunity” instead.

“These guys are really smart guys,” Sullivan said. “I think the objective is the same. And that’s to try and win the Stanley Cup with the core we have here and … from my standpoint, my job doesn’t change. I’m going to coach this team the best way I know how. We’re going to coach this team the best way we know how to give us the best chance to win every night.”

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    Thompson nets 4 in 1st, 5 overall, as Buffalo tops Columbus

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    COLUMBUS, Ohio — Tage Thompson matched an NHL record by scoring four times in the first period and finished with five goals and an assist as the Buffalo Sabres won their third straight road game, 9-4 over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday night.

    Thompson is the second U.S.-born player to score five goals in a game. He is the fourth player in NHL history to record four goals in the first period of a regular-season game, joining Peter Bondra (1994), Grant Mulvey (1982) and Joe Malone (1921). He is also the fourth active player to score five goals in a game, joining Timo Meier (Jan. 17, 2022), Mika Zibanejad (March 5, 2020) and Patrik Laine (Nov. 24, 2018).

    “It’s definitely a rewarding feeling,” Thompson said. “You’ve spent a lot of years working to get to this point and to be rewarded for it is a pretty good feeling and it just leaves you hungrier.”

    Thompson’s outburst helped Buffalo score six times in the first 16:40.

    “That was an amazing performance by Tage, and really, the whole group set the table,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “I thought the energy, the collective effort, the focus to start was really good and enabled that to happen.”

    Alex Tuch had a goal and three assists, Dylan Cozens added a power-play goal and two assists and Rasmus Dahlin finished with a goal and two assists. Peyton Krebs also scored. Jeff Skinner picked up four assists and Jacob Bryson had two. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen stopped 20 shots.

    Patrik Laine and Gustav Nyquist each scored twice for Columbus.

    Joonas Korpisalo stopped two shots before being pulled in the first in favor of Elvis Merzlikins, who stopped 15 shots through the second period. Korpisalo returned in the third and finished with six saves.

    Columbus has lost six straight home games and five of its last six overall.

    “We didn’t have an answer for that one line,” Blue Jackets coach Brad Larsen said. “Tage Thompson just tore us up tonight.”

    Buffalo dominated from the puck drop, scoring four goals on its first six shots.

    Cozens put the Sabres on the board at 3:21 of the first, 53 seconds into a Blue Jackets penalty, and Thompson made it 2-0 just 2:09 later. Dahlin scored Buffalo’s third goal at 7:28 of the first, driving Korpisalo from the net in favor of Merzlikins, who gave up Buffalo goal No. 4 to Thompson 32 seconds later.

    Thompson’s third career hat trick and second of the season came on a power-play goal at 12:22 of the first. He followed with his fourth goal, also on the power play, at 16:40.

    Columbus scored two goals in just over a minute, with Laine at 10:49 and Nyquist at 12:04, before Buffalo reeled off three straight in just over three minutes to end the period, including Thompson’s fifth, and goals by Krebs and Tuch.

    Laine and Nyquist scored in the third period for Columbus.

    STREAKING

    Cozens has 12 points in his last five games and is riding a career-best, five-game point streak. Thompson has eight goals and five assists in his last five games and 10 multi-point games. Dahlin has a five-game point and assist streak, and Gaudreau stretched his points streak to six games.

    NOTES: The Sabres joined the Kraken as the second team this season to score nine goals in a game. … Thompson is the second player in Buffalo history to have five goals in a game, joining Dave Andreychuk, who had five goals and an assist on Feb. 6, 1986.

    UP NEXT

    Buffalo: Hosts Pittsburgh on Friday.

    Columbus: Hosts Calgary on Friday.

    Ovechkin, Strome lead Capitals past struggling Flyers 4-1

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    PHILADELPHIA — Alex Ovechkin scored two empty-net goals, Dylan Strome had a goal and an assist and the Washington Capitals defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 4-1 on Wednesday night.

    T.J. Oshie also scored for the Capitals, who finished 3-3 on a six-game trip. Charlie Lindgren made 29 saves.

    Kevin Hayes scored for Philadelphia, which has lost 13 of 15 games. Carter Hart made 23 stops.

    Strome broke a 1-all tie with 10:41 remaining when he deflected John Carlson‘s shot from long range past Hart.

    Hayes had a golden opportunity to tie it on a Philadelphia power play, but Lindgren made a great right pad save on a try from close range with 8:20 remaining.

    Ovechkin iced it, scoring into an empty net with 1:35 left and adding another empty-netter with 8.2 seconds left for his 15th of the season. Ovechkin has 795 career goals, good for third all-time. He is six goals away from tying Gordie Howe for second place. Wayne Gretzky, with 894 goals, tops the list.

    Hayes scored his ninth goal of the season for his team-leading 28th point with 4:14 left in the first period to give the Flyers a 1-0 lead. Hayes rushed to the bench after breaking his stick on a slap shot attempt, and scored on a wrist shot from the high slot with his new stick.

    The Flyers had a power-play goal for the third straight game and have four overall in that stretch. Philadelphia, which began play ranked 30th in the NHL in scoring on the man advantage, now has converted 16.7% (14 of 84) of its chances.

    Oshie tied it 3:51 into the second on the Capitals’ fourth power play as the Flyers continued to take sloppy penalties. This time, James van Riemsdyk committed Philadelphia’s third tripping minor of the game. Oshie made them pay with his fifth goal of the season when he finished a nifty passing sequence with Strome and Evgeny Kuznetsov with a perfectly placed one-timer over Hart’s left shoulder.

    NOTES: Van Riemsdyk returned after missing the last 20 games due to a broken right index finger. . Flyers forward Tanner Laczynski was placed on injured reserve after departing midway through the third period of Monday’s 5-3 win over Colorado with what looked like an injury to his left leg. . Washington was without several injured players, including starting goalie Darcy Kuemper (upper body). Kuemper was with the team, but missed his second in a row. . Carlson had two assists. . Philadelphia’s Cam Atkinson, out all season with an upper body injury, has been practicing and is close to returning.

    UP NEXT

    Capitals: Host Seattle on Friday night.

    Flyers: Open four-game trip at Vegas on Friday night.

    Penguins prospect Sam Poulin taking leave of absence

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    PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins forward prospect Sam Poulin is taking a leave of absence from the club’s American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

    Penguins general manager Ron Hextall announced on Wednesday that the 21-year-old Poulin, Pittsburgh’s first-round pick in the 2019 draft, is stepping away due to “personal reasons.”

    “The Penguins support Sam’s decision to take time away from hockey to focus on himself,” Hextall said in a release. “As with all of our players, our priority is them as individuals first. We look forward to having him back with the team when he is ready.”

    Hextall said Poulin will return home to Quebec and continue to work out on his own.

    Poulin made his NHL debut in October and had one assist in three games before heading back to the AHL. Poulin had four goals in 13 games for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton at the time of his decision.

    Nathan MacKinnon sidelined about a month with upper-body injury

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    DENVER — The injury-riddled Colorado Avalanche will be without leading scorer Nathan MacKinnon for about a month after he suffered an upper-body injury in a loss to Philadelphia.

    The team announced the news on social media.

    MacKinnon has eight goals and 26 assists for a team-best 34 points this season for the defending Stanley Cup champions. He joins a long list of banged-up players, including Valeri Nichushkin, Evan Rodrigues, Bowen Byram, Kurtis MacDermid, Josh Manson, Darren Helm and captain Gabriel Landeskog. Forward Artturi Lehkonen also missed the game in Philadelphia.

    The 27-year-old MacKinnon signed an eight-year extension in August. He was coming off a postseason in which he tied for the league lead with 13 goals, helping the Avalanche raise their third Stanley Cup in franchise history.