Inconsistent Penguins scrambling as stretch run looms

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

PITTSBURGH — The faces around Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang have changed over the years.

Coaches have come and gone. General managers, a litany of players – some of them forever etched in Pittsburgh Penguins lore, others not-so much – and owners too.

Yet Crosby, Malkin and Letang have remained. Through heartache and triumph. Milestones and giddy early summer parades along packed downtown streets, the Stanley Cup in tow.

They are the fulcrum around which the organization revolves, their presence in the NHL playoffs practically a given for 16 years and counting.

Yet nearly three-quarters of the way through their 17th season together, the group known simply as “The Big Three” finds itself in practically uncharted territory: scrambling to stay in the midst of a playoff chase.

The Penguins enter play against Connor McDavid and Edmonton on the outside of the top eight in the Eastern Conference looking in.

And while there is plenty of time for Pittsburgh to right itself, the reality is the Penguins have rarely looked as beatable during the Crosby/Malkin/Letang era as they have over the past five middling and maddening months.

The latest proof came in a frustrating 4-2 loss to the New York Islanders, a game in which the Penguins dominated play for the first 45-plus minutes only to crumble down the stretch on their way to a ninth straight loss to a Metropolitan Division rival.

The setback marked the sixth time in 14 games the Penguins lost after leading through two periods. A team long known for its ability to finish has become vulnerable to late lapses that have cost them precious points in the standings.

“I mean, it’s not ideal when you lose games and you have leads but the only way out of it is to find a way to win one and try to get some momentum from that,” Crosby said. “We can’t dwell on it.”

Mostly because there’s no time.

The NHL’s oldest roster finds itself facing a daunting sprint down the stretch. Pittsburgh will play its final 26 games in the span of 50 days. Not ideal for a group that save for a brilliant 14-2-2 run from Nov. 9-Dec. 15 has been ordinary at best.

While it’s not the first time during the Penguins’ streak of 16 straight playoff appearances that they have looked iffy as March looms, it may be the first time their options to rectify things have been so limited.

There are no young legs ready to come up from their American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton as Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust and Conor Sheary did in 2015-16, an arrival that coincided with a dash to the franchise’s third Stanley Cup.

And there may be little in the way of reinforcements coming at the trade deadline. The players the Penguins have that are considered the most attractive to other clubs are the same players they can’t succeed without, and general manager Ron Hextall has a very different mandate than his predecessor, Jim Rutherford.

Where “Trader Jim” moved the parts around Crosby, Malkin and Letang frequently in search of a mix that worked, Hextall has been far more deliberate in his approach. He’s loathe – publicly anyway – to trade Pittsburgh’s first-round pick in this year’s draft as Pittsburgh keeps an eye toward the post-Big Three Era.

That’s left Hextall in a tight spot as he attempts to fix a top-heavy team that for all of its star power is deeply flawed. The top two lines are fine. It’s what happens when the 35-year-old Crosby and the 36-year-old Malkin – both of whom are averaging a point a game – aren’t on the ice that’s the issue.

The third line of Jeff Carter, Kasperi Kapanen and a rotating group that has included Drew O'Connor and Brock McGinn has made little if any impact, a far cry from the vaunted “HBK” line of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel that made the Penguins one of the deepest teams in the NHL during their back-to-back Stanley Cups in 2016-17.

The goaltending behind starter Tristan Jarry has been spotty at best and Jarry looked rusty against the Islanders in his return from a monthlong absence because of a lower-body injury. Even a power play that features two players with more than 2,600 combined career points is decidedly average.

Still coach Mike Sullivan, who signed a contract extension last fall, remains optimistic his team is close to figuring it out. His mantra of “playing the right way” hasn’t changed much from the day he was hired in December 2015.

Asked if there’s concern that Sullivan’s message may not be impactful as it once was, Hextall shook his head.

“I think Sully is a terrific coach,” Hextall said when he last spoke to reporters earlier this month. “I would put him up against any coach in the league and if there’s any players that are not responding to him, I would look to move those players.”

Maybe, but barring something drastic, Pittsburgh will head into the final seven weeks of the season with essentially the same group that has flip-flopped between electric and erratic since October. It means the answers to what is ailing one of the league’s marquee franchises will likely have to come from within.

“There’s a lot of belief in here,” Crosby said. “It hasn’t gone our way lately but this is when you get tested as a group and you’ve got to make sure you respond the right way.”

The clock is ticking.

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    Malkin’s late goal lifts Penguins past Ovechkin, Caps 4-3

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    Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY Sports

    PITTSBURGH — Evgeni Malkin remains a live wire. Even now, 17 seasons into a career that is likely destined for the Hall of Fame, there’s an unpredictability the Pittsburgh Penguins star plays with that can be both endearing and exasperating to teammates and coaches alike.

    The latest proof came against Washington on Saturday.

    An untimely roughing penalty in the third period helped spark a Capitals’ rally from a three-goal deficit. Malkin made up for it by burying a breakaway with 1:20 left in regulation that lifted the Penguins to a 4-3 victory.

    “His care factor and his compete level for me is off the charts and that’s what I love about him and usually when the stakes are high that’s when he’s at his best,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said. “He gets a huge goal for us tonight at a key time.”

    Malkin’s 25th goal of the season – a low wrist shot to the far post – helped the Penguins avoid a potentially messy collapse. Pittsburgh appeared to be ready to cruise to victory after Jake Guentzel‘s power-play goal 27 seconds into the third period made it 3-0.

    Washington instead stormed back, with Alex Ovechkin right in the middle of it. Ovechkin scored his 42nd goal of the season and 822nd of his career from his favorite spot in the left circle with 6:42 to go in regulation. Washington drew even when Dylan Strome flipped the puck into an open net with 2:44 to go in regulation.

    Yet instead of sagging, the Penguins surged. Malkin stripped Washington’s Anthony Mantha near center ice and broke in alone on Kuemper. Seconds later, the puck was in the net and Malkin was on one knee celebrating while pumping his fists, the kind of display of raw emotion that’s become one of his trademarks.

    “It’s a huge goal for me, and two points for the team,” Malkin said.

    Pittsburgh moved three points clear of Florida after the Panthers lost to the earlier Saturday. Both teams have nine regular-season games left.

    Ryan Poehling and Chad Ruhwedel scored a little over two minutes apart in the second period for Pittsburgh. Jake Guentzel added his team-high 32nd goal early in the third before Washington scrambled back. Casey DeSmith played spectacularly at times while finishing with 31 saves.

    Tom Wilson started the Capitals’ comeback with his ninth goal of the season 5:19 into the third. Kuemper stopped 36 shots, but was outplayed by DeSmith as Washington’s hopes of making a late push for a playoff berth took a serious hit. The Capitals are six points behind Pittsburgh with only eight games remaining.

    “It’s a tough one,” Washington center T.J. Oshie said. “I don’t think that last play was the only thing that lost the game for us. I know that (Mantha) feels terrible about it, but we trust him with the puck. It just wasn’t a good enough 60 minutes against a good hockey team over there.”

    It felt like old times for much of the night for teams that usually enter late March battling for a spot near the top of the Metropolitan Division.

    Not this season.

    While the 35-year-old Crosby is averaging over a point a game as usual and the 37-year-old Ovechkin is steadily making inroads on Wayne Gretzky’s all-time goal record, their teams have spent most of the year skating in place.

    Pittsburgh has been wildly uneven thanks in part to goaltending that has fluctuated between solid and shaky, the main reason a 17th straight playoff appearance is hardly assured. Washington, meanwhile, appears to be pointing toward the future after injuries and a small sell-off at the trade deadline.

    Pittsburgh put itself on slightly firmer footing with DeSmith making a compelling case that he should supplant Tristan Jarry as Pittsburgh’s top goaltender down the stretch.

    DeSmith was spectacular at times, including stoning Ovechkin on a breakaway near the end of the second period in which Ovechkin deked DeSmith to his knees, only to see DeSmith extend his left leg just enough to knock the puck out of harm’s way.

    “I’m not very tall,” the 6-foot DeSmith said. “But I had that one inch that I needed.”


    Capitals: Host the New York Islanders on Wednesday.

    Penguins: Visit Detroit on Tuesday.

    Devils defeat Senators 5-3, clinch playoff berth

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    NEWARK, N.J. — Jack Hughes had a goal and an assist, Mackenzie Blackwood had 25 saves and the New Jersey Devils defeated the Ottawa Senators 5-3 and clinched a playoff berth on Saturday night.

    “It means everything to the group. I went into the dressing room after the game and just said that I was proud of the work that was put in, proud of where we got to clinch tonight to be one of three teams that have an X next to their name,” Devils coach Lindy Ruff said. “All the work that’s been put in, the adversity they face during the year. The adversity they face right at the start of the season to where we’ve got to now.”

    New Jersey could have clinched its first postseason berth since 2018 with a win, but it happened before their first intermission when the Florida Panthers lost to the New York Rangers in regulation.

    “I had a lesser role then,” said Jesper Bratt, who was a rookie for the Devils in 2017-18. “I would say at a younger age, it’s kind of like you think that just because it happened your first year that it might happen every year. And then it goes pretty fast with reality that was not the case and you got to work extremely hard for it.

    “It’s a really tough league. So this feels really good. It’s been a lot of years with struggle, not winning, and it’s just awesome coming out now playing these kinds of games and getting that.”

    Bratt, Dawson Mercer and Dougie Hamilton scored for the Devils and Tomas Tatar scored an empty netter with 42.3 seconds left to put things away.

    Brady Tkachuk, Thomas Chabot and Mark Kastelic scored for the Senators and Dylan Ferguson had 30 saves.

    Tkachuk scored his 33rd goal of the season to give the Senators the 1-0 lead 3:14 into the first period. The Devils responded midway through the first period with Hughes’ 40th goal of the season on a breakaway, going five-hole to tie it.

    Nick Holden gave the puck away and Bratt scored his 31st goal of the season on the breakaway 2:24 into the second period to give New Jersey the 2-1 lead. Mercer’s 23rd of the season came just over a minute later.

    The Senators answered midway through the second period when Thomas Chabot scored his 11th goal of the year to cut the deficit to 3-2. They knotted things up 16:03 into the second when Kastelic scored his fifth of the season.

    “We were confident going into the third period. We felt like the game was there for our taking,” Travis Hamonic said. “They score on their chance, and that’s game.”

    Hamilton scored 3:34 into the third period to give the Devils the lead. His 19th goal breaks the franchise record for goals in a season by a defenseman, surpassing Scott Stevens – the Devils great whose number is hanging in the rafters – record of 18 in 1993-94.

    NOTES: This was the first game for the Devils backup Blackwood since Feb. 19. … Nico Hischier has a six-game point streak after recording two assists.


    Senators: Host the Florida Panthers on Monday night.

    Devils: Play at New York Islanders on Monday night. —

    AP NHL: and

    Kings tie franchise mark with point in 11th straight game

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    LOS ANGELES — Viktor Arvidsson had two goals and the Los Angeles Kings matched their longest point streak in franchise history with a 4-1 victory over the Winnipeg Jets on Saturday afternoon.

    Drew Doughty had a goal and an assist and Alex Iafallo netted a power-play goal for Los Angeles, which has earned points in 11 straight games for the fourth time. The last occurrence was 2013-14, when the Kings won their second Stanley Cup championship.

    Joonas Korpisalo stopped 25 shots for Los Angeles.

    Pierre-Luc Dubois scored for Winnipeg and Connor Hellebuyck made 25 saves.

    Arvidsson – who has 22 goals on the season – has four in the last four games while Doughty has found the net four times in the last five games.

    Arvidsson’s first goal came 82 seconds into the game. Trevor Moore won the faceoff in the offensive zone and made a backhand pass to Arvidsson, who snapped it into the net from the back of the left faceoff circle.

    He also had an empty-net goal late in the third period.

    The Kings extended their lead to 2-0 five minutes into the second period on the power play. Phillip Danault made a great pass between Jets defenseman Brenden Dillon and Hellebuyck as Iafallo buried it into the short side of the net.

    Doughty extended the lead to 3-1 27 seconds into the third period with a wrist shot from outside the right faceoff circle near the boards after Anze Kopitar won the faceoff.


    Winnipeg got its first power-play goal in seven games with 1:23 remaining in the second period when Dubois took a cross-ice pass from Kyle Connor and scored from the left faceoff circle to get the Jets within 2-1.

    The Jets got a five-minute power play after Los Angeles’ Blake Lizotte received a five-minute match penalty for a vicious cross-check to Josh Morrissey’s face. The goal came with 33 seconds left in the man advantage.

    NOTES: Danault picked up his 300th career point and 200th assist. … Winnipeg’s Connor set a career high for most assists in a season when he got his 47th on Dubois’ goal.


    Jets: Travel to the San Jose Sharks on Tuesday.

    Kings: Host the St. Louis Blues on Sunday.

    Coyotes minority owner suspended by NHL following arrest

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    NEW YORK — Arizona Coyotes minority owner Andrew Barroway was suspended indefinitely by the NHL on Friday following his arrest for domestic violence in Colorado.

    Online court records show Barroway was arrested on Thursday on suspicion of second-degree assault strangulation, a felony, and third-degree assault, a misdemeanor. He appeared in court Friday to be advised of the possible charges he is facing and is scheduled to back in court on April 3.

    Barroway spent Thursday night in Pitkin County Jail after police arrested him at an Aspen hotel, according to a police report obtained by the Aspen Daily News.

    “The National Hockey League is aware of the arrest of Arizona Coyotes’ minority owner Andrew Barroway,” the NHL said in a statement. “Pending further information, he has been suspended indefinitely.”

    The 57-year-old Barroway was arrested after a verbal altercation with his wife turned physical, according to the police report. He is prohibited from having contact with his wife, except when it involves their children, and can’t consume alcohol under a court order.

    A prominent hedge fund manager, Barroway owns 5% of the Coyotes.

    “We are aware of the allegation regarding Mr. Barroway and we are working with the League to gather more information,” the Coyotes said in a statement. “When we have enough information, we will have an appropriate response. Until the investigation is complete, we will have no further comment.”