Brandon Tanev

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Help appears to be on the way for Penguins

The solution to the Pittsburgh Penguins’ recent struggles is a simple one, and it appears to be on the verge of happening.

That solution: the return of a healthy Brian Dumoulin and John Marino on defense.

After both players were full participants in practice on Monday, coach Mike Sullivan confirmed they will be game-time decisions for the Penguins’ game against the Ottawa Senators on Tuesday night as they try to snap their current six-game losing streak.

Dumoulin skated next to Kris Letang at practice on Monday, while Marino was next to Marcus Pettersson.

Their pending returns is one of the biggest reasons general manager Jim Rutherford did not address the team’s blue line ahead of the NHL trade deadline. Given the way the team played defensively this season when both were healthy it’s not hard to see why they were willing to be patient.

Getting them back in the lineup not only gives the Penguins two of their top-four defensemen, it also helps get everyone else on defense back to the roles they are best suited for.

The Dumoulin impact

With Dumoulin sidelined the Penguins have been playing Jack Johnson in his spot on the top-pairing next to Letang. It has not only not worked, it has been one of the least productive defense pairings in the league by pretty much every objective measure.

Johnson had been effective earlier this season in a third-pairing role but recently was being asked to play too many minutes in a role he is simply not suited for.

Letang and Dumoulin, on the other hand, has been one of the league’s best defense pairings for the past three years. Since the start of the 2017-18 season there have 160 different defense pairings across the NHL that have played at least 500 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey together. The Letang-Dumoulin pairing ranks among the top-25 in that group in shot attempt share, scoring chance share, and is a plus-17 overall in terms of goals. Dumoulin may not be a superstar, but he is a smart, defensively sound player that possesses enough mobility and puck skills to perfectly complement Letang. They simply work together exceptionally well.

Over that same time period, the Letang-Johnson duo ranks among the bottom-20 in the same categories and has been outscored by nine goals.

Do not overlook Marino’s impact

Marino has been one of the biggest surprises in the NHL this season and has helped completely overhaul the Penguins’ defense.

He has not only been one of the best rookies in the NHL this season, he has been one of the most impactful defensive players in the entire league regardless of position or experience. Of the 517 players to log at least 500 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time this season Marino currently ranks 73rd in total shot attempts against per 60 minutes, 17th in expected goals against, 64th in scoring chances against, and 39th in high-danger chances against. Pretty much the top 10 percent of the league across the board.

It is not a coincidence that the team’s overall defensive performance started to trend in the wrong direction when he was sidelined a few weeks ago. It was also around that same time that they lost forward Zach Aston-Reese, one of their best defensive forwards and a huge part of their shutdown line alongside Brandon Tanev and Teddy Blueger.

Marino’s return allows allows Justin Schultz to slide down to the third pairing alongside Johnson, where they can be sheltered a bit more and not have to be relied on to play more than 20 minutes a night against the other team’s best players.

It is going to make everyone better.

Even with their current losing streak the Penguins are still within striking distance of the top spot in the Metropolitan Division and were 23-6-2 in the games prior to that.

(Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick)

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.

New-look Penguins play first game since trade deadline on NBCSN

Hockey fans get their first post-trade deadline glance at the new-look Penguins on Wednesday. Then again, it’s also true that later versions of the Penguins will look different from the group that faces the Kings on NBCSN at 10:30 p.m. ET (stream here).

Penguins roll out new trade deadline additions in these lineups — for now

Like many other NHL coaches, Mike Sullivan likes to tinker with his combinations. Injuries forced Sullivan to do so anyway this season, and the Penguins’ trade deadline investments now give him a plethora of options. When/if certain players come back, the variety will only grow.

Let’s go forward line by forward line based on NHL.com’s projected combos for Wednesday, since that’s where Pittsburgh made acquisitions.

Jason ZuckerSidney CrosbyConor Sheary

As new-look as the Penguins feel, there seems to be warm-and-fuzzy feelings for the reunion of Crosby and Sheary. Personally, I never understood why Pittsburgh broke them up in the first place. (Especially if the answer is troublingly “to afford bad defenseman Jack Johnson.”)

In a lineup breakdown from The Athletic’s Josh Yohe (sub required), both Crosby and Sheary amusingly described each other as easy to play with. Sullivan’s comments provided a little more substance.

“He brings a speed element,” Sullivan said of Sheary. “He can finish. He’s good in traffic. A lot of attributes that Conor brings to the table are complementary to Sid.”

Sheary can think the game at a reasonable level with Crosby, and the early returns on Zucker indicate the same. (On paper, Zucker seems like a no-brainer fit for Crosby, but in reality not everyone clicks with 87.)

Still, there are a number of different factors that could break these fellows up. What if Jake Guentzel beats the timeline for recovery from his shoulder surgery, at least for the playoffs? Will Penguins eventually want a right-handed shot with Crosby instead of two other lefties?

This seems like a good mix overall, at least to start, though.

Bryan RustEvgeni MalkinPatric Hornqvist

Business as usual there, basically. Rust and Hornqvist can work with Crosby if needed, so that’s nice.

Patrick MarleauEvan RodriguesDominik Simon

Trade deadline additions make two-thirds of this third line, and the potential is interesting. Simon ranks as the most feasible candidate to move up, possibly with Crosby again. While Marleau ranks as a bigger name, Rodrigues stands out as a fascinating wild card.

People have been noting Rodrigues’ potential as a hidden gem for some time.

(His underlying numbers still look good at Hockey Viz, although things slipped a bit in 2019-20 compared to more robust work in 2017-18 and 2018-19.)

The sheer variety of useful players in the Penguins’ top nine is really something, especially when you realize that Jared McCann could end up being a more regular fit as third-line center. Nick Bjugstad already feels like old news, considering the revolving door of Penguins forwards, yet he’s another interesting player if health eventually permits.

Sam LaffertyTeddy BluegerBrandon Tanev

Then you have what seems to be a pretty strong fourth line from a defensive standpoint. Quite a group.

(Oh yeah, and there’s also Zach Aston-Reese. Healthy scratches could eventually become straight-up awkward if most/everyone actually gets healthy.)

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 10:30 P.M. ET ON NBCSN]

Defense and other considerations for Penguins

NHL.com projects Pittsburgh’s Wednesday defensive pairings as such:

Jack Johnson — Kris Letang

Marcus PetterssonJustin Schultz

Juuso RiikolaChad Ruhwedel

Naturally, injuries have been a factor for the Penguins’ defense (and also goalies including Matt Murray). Moving past players who have worked past injuries like Letang and Schultz, Pittsburgh has some significant blueliners on the shelf. It’s possible Brian Dumoulin may return with time to shake off rust before the playoffs, while rookie revelation John Marino is recovery from surgery after a wayward puck broke bones in his cheek.

In other words … the Penguins’ defense could continue to look quite different as things go along, much like their forward groups.

Despite all that turbulence, the Penguins figure to be a formidable opponent, particularly after stocking up with Zucker, Sheary, Marleau, and Rodrigues in recent times. Catch your first look at that new-look group against the Kings on Wednesday on NBCSN.

More: Kings aim to upset Penguins

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.

WATCH LIVE: Penguins host Maple Leafs on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Tuesday’s matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Toronto Maple Leafs. 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 Penguins come into this game having won five of their last seven games (5-1-1) and have closed in on the division leading Capitals. Pittsburgh trailed Washington by 13 points entering play on Dec. 12, 2019, but have gone 19-5-2 (40 points) in 26 games since then to close the gap to just one point.

The Penguins have earned at least one point in each of their last six games at PPG Paints Arena (5-0-1) and recorded their 21st home win of the season overall – matching the Bruins for the most home wins in the NHL.

Jason Zucker, who was acquired on Feb. 10 from the Wild for Alex Galchenyuk, prospect Calen Addison and a conditional first-round pick, has three points in three games for the Penguins and has been skating on the top line with Sidney Crosby. He tallied his first multi-goal game of the season in Friday’s 4-1 win over the Canadiens, and then added an assist in Sunday’s 5-1 win over the Red Wings.

The Leafs enter this game having lost five of their last eight games (3-4-1). Toronto is coming off a 5-2 loss at Buffalo on Sunday night where they gave up three goals in the span of 91 seconds in the third period after the score was even at 2-2. Toronto sits in third place in the Atlantic, but the fourth place Panthers are just two points back with one game in hand.

Leafs star forward Auston Matthews is currently tied with Boston’s David Pastrnak for the league lead with 42 goals this season, and his 42 tallies have already set a career high. The Leafs star has done the majority of his damage on
home ice with 30 goals in 30 games any Scotiabank Arena.

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6 P.M. ET ON NBCSN]

WHAT: Toronto Maple Leafs at Pittsburgh Penguins
WHERE: PPG Paints Arena
WHEN: Tuesday, Feb. 18, 6 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Maple Leafs-Penguins stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

MAPLE LEAFS
Zach Hyman – Auston Matthews – Mitch Marner
William NylanderJohn TavaresAlexander Kerfoot
Pierre EngvallFrederik GauthierKasperi Kapanen
Kyle CliffordJason SpezzaDmytro Timashov

Jake MuzzinJustin Holl
Rasmus SandinTyson Barrie
Travis DermottMartin Marincin

Starting goalie: Frederik Andersen

PENGUINS
Jason Zucker – Sidney Crosby – Dominik Simon
Jared McCannEvgeni MalkinBryan Rust
Brandon TanevTeddy BluegerPatric Hornqvist
Dominik KahunAndrew AgozzinoSam Lafferty

Jack JohnsonKris Letang
Marcus PetterssonJustin Schultz
Juuso RiikolaChad Ruhwedel

Starting goalie: Tristan Jarry

Kenny Albert and Pierre McGuire will call the action at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, Pa.

An hour-long special on Connor McDavid, titled Connor McDavid: Whatever It Takes will premiere following the game at 10:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. The feature provides an inside look at McDavid’s comeback from a knee injury in last season’s final game. Click here for a trailer.

The Miracle on Ice – 40th Anniversary, featuring Al Michaels, who called the momentous matchup in 1980, and Mike Tirico, will premiere on Wednesday night at 11:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. 40 years to the month, this 30-minute special will feature Tirico’s wide-ranging conversation with Michaels about the buildup to the game, his iconic call, as well as the legacy of the moment that became bigger than sports and still resonates today.

Penguins, Murray hold on to beat Capitals: 4 takeaways

If the Pittsburgh Penguins are going to catch the Washington Capitals in the Metropolitan Division race they are going to have to take advantage of the four head-to-head meetings they have over the next two months. Sunday in Washington they played the first of those games, and it was the Penguins getting a hard fought 4-3 win.

The Penguins are now four points back of the Capitals in the standings while also having one game in hand.

Here is what stood out from Sunday’s game.

1. Matt Murray came up big for the Penguins in the third period

Yes he allowed three goals and had some help from his goal post on one or two occasions, but he was a game-changer for the Penguins in the third period where the Capitals owned a 14-5 shots advantage and carried the play as they tried to complete the comeback. After a slow start to the regular season Murray is starting to get his game going in the right direction. With Sunday’s win he has now won six decisions in a row and is 7-1-0 in his past eight starts. He has a .922 save percentage during his individual winning streak. Murray and Tristan Jarry are both going to get their share of playing in the second half, and right now both are playing well.

2. The Penguins’ depth players came through again

Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin both had an assist and played well, but it was their depth players coming through with the actual goals. This has been a continuing trend all season, and one of the biggest reasons the Penguins have been as good as they have been. Your superstars are not going to score every night, and there has to be other options in your lineup to provide some offense.

On Sunday, it was Sam Lafferty, Dominik Simon, Patric Hornqvist, and Brandon Tanev finding the back of the net.

Lafferty’s goal came just one minute after the Capitals scored the game’s first goal and was a perfectly placed shot off the rush, beating rookie goalie Ilya Samsonov.

Tanev’s goal came with just under three minutes to play in regulation and ended up going in the books as the game-winner.

3. Lars Eller was incredible for the Capitals

Speaking of important depth players, Eller was a beast for the Capitals on Sunday. He scored two goals, hit the post on a wide open look late in the second period, and seemed to be at the center of everything positive that was happening for them. Eller is never going to be one of the first players you think of on the Capitals, but you absolutely need players like him if you are going to be a contender, and he is having an outstanding season. He has a chance to set new career highs offensively (20 goals and 45 points are within reach) and is one of their best defensive forwards and possession drivers. Everything you want in a complementary piece.

4. Of course this would be another great playoff series

It has been so long since these two teams actually played each other (Sunday’s game was their first meeting of the season) that it was easy to forget just how intense and amazing these games can be. The skill on display, the dislike they have for each other, and the way every game seems to come down to a late push at the buzzer. They have met four times in the Sidney Crosby-Alex Ovechkin era, and with the way they are playing this season a fifth matchup could be a couple of months away.

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.

WATCH LIVE: Capitals host Penguins on NBC

NBC’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Sunday’s matchup between the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins. Coverage begins at 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The top two teams in the Metro Division meet for the first time this season, both coming in off wins on Friday night. This is the latest date of a “first meeting” between these clubs in a non-shortened season. Sunday’s game is exactly four months since opening night of the NHL season.

Pittsburgh heads to D.C. following an OT win over their cross-state rival Flyers on Friday. After falling behind 1-0 in the first period, the Pens scored 3 straight goals to take a 3-1 lead before allowing Philadelphia to come back and tie the game at three. In overtime, captain Sidney Crosby came through with the game-winning goal just 55 seconds into the extra period.

As for the Capitals, they’ll return home after a 5-3 win in Ottawa on Friday. After jumping out to an early 2-0 lead thanks goals from T.J. Oshie and Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington was able to keep the Senators at bay despite Ottawa cutting the lead to one goal on three separate occasions. The Caps have now won five of their last six games (5-1-0).

Alex Ovechkin continued his goal-scoring tear on Friday, scoring twice more to pass Mark Messier for eighth on the all-time goal list. Ovechkin now has 695 goals, five away from becoming just the eighth player in NHL history to reach 700 career goals. Ovechkin now needs 200 goals to pass Wayne Gretzky for most in NHL history.

Ovi has been incredible in recent weeks, scoring 11 goals over his last five games. He had eight in the final three games before the bye week and All-Star break. Then, after serving his 1-game suspension for skipping the All-Star Game, he has come back with three goals in the last two games. His 13 goals in January led the NHL for the month.

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 12:30 P.M. ET ON NBC]

WHAT: Pittsburgh Penguins at Washington Capitals
WHERE: Capital One Arena
WHEN: Sunday, Feb. 2, 12:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBC
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Penguins-Capitals stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

PENGUINS
Jared McCann – Sidney Crosby – Dominik Simon
Bryan RustEvgeni MalkinPatric Hornqvist
Zach Aston-ReeseTeddy BluegerBrandon Tanev
Alex GalchenyukAndrew Agozzino – Anthony Angello

Jack JohnsonKris Letang
Marcus PetterssonJohn Marino
Chad RuhwedelJustin Schultz

Starting goalie: Matt Murray

CAPITALS
Alex Ovechkin – Nicklas BackstromTom Wilson
Jakub Vrana – Evgeny Kuznetsov – T.J. Oshie
Carl HagelinLars EllerRichard Panik
Brendan LeipsicNic DowdGarnet Hathaway

Michal KempnyJohn Carlson
Dmitry OrlovNick Jensen
Jonas SiegenthalerRadko Gudas

Starting goalie: Ilya Samsonov

Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk, and Brian Boucher will have the call from Capital One Arena in Washington D.C. Sunday’s studio coverage on NBC will be hosted by Liam McHugh with analysts Keith Jones and Mike Milbury.