Brandon Tanev

WATCH LIVE: Penguins host Bruins on NBC

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NBC’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Sunday’s matchup between the Boston Bruins 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.

Two of the NHL’s top teams meet for the second time in four days as the Bruins head to Pittsburgh to take on the Penguins. Sunday’s matchup will be the third and final game between these two this season. Boston won the first two meetings

After losing in Boston Thursday, the Penguins had a chance to get right back to it with a game against the Red Wings Friday night. Pittsburgh started slow, trailing 1-0 to the league’s worst team through two periods. But early in the third Bryan Rust scored his 20th of the season on the power play to even the score. And in overtime it was the captain Sidney Crosby who netted the game-winner on the power play to help Pittsburgh escape with a win.

Since returning from his 28-game absence, Crosby has 6 points (3G-3A) and has scored a goal in each of his three games.

With All-Star goalie Tuukka Rask (concussion) on injured reserve, the Bruins are now relying on Jaroslav Halak as their primary goalie. After starting the season on a tear, Halak has not been as sharp over the past six weeks.Halak has started (and won) both games against the Penguins this season. Over his career, he is 11-8-2 in 21 starts against Pittsburgh, with a 2.53 GAA and .921 SV%.

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

WHAT: Boston Bruins at Pittsburgh Penguins
WHERE: PPG Paints Arena
WHEN: Sunday, Jan. 19, 12:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBC
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Bruins-Penguins stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

BRUINS
Brad MarchandPatrice BergeronDavid Pastrnak
Jake DeBruskCharlie CoyleAnders Bjork
Danton HeinenPar LindholmKarson Kuhlman
Joakim NordstromSean KuralyChris Wagner

Zdeno CharaCharlie McAvoy
Torey KrugBrandon Carlo
John MooreMatt Grzelcyk

Starting goalie: Jaroslav Halak

PENGUINS
Jared McCann – Sidney Crosby – Dominik Simon
Dominik KahunEvgeni Malkin – Bryan Rust
Alex GalchenyukAndrew AgozzinoPatric Hornqvist
Zach Aston-ReeseTeddy BluegerBrandon Tanev

Jack JohnsonKris Letang
Marcus PetterssonJohn Marino
Jusso Riikola – Chad Ruhwedel

Starting goalie: Matt Murray

Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk and Brian Boucher will have the call of the Bruins-Penguins matchup on NBC from PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, Pa.

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.”

WATCH LIVE: Wild visit Penguins on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Tuesday’s matchup between the Minnesota Wild and Pittsburgh Penguins. 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 on a three-game win streak after sweeping a trio of games against three teams currently in playoff position in the Western Conference. Pittsburgh won by a 4-3 scoreline at Vegas, at Colorado (OT) and at Arizona (SO) during their road trip.

The Penguins have now won 14 of their last 18 games (14-3-1), all without Sidney Crosby. Despite their rash of injuries, Pittsburgh became the 4th team in the NHL to reach the 60-point plateau on Sunday (WSH, BOS, STL).

On the other end of the spectrum, the Wild come into this week on a three-game losing streak (0-2-1). Minnesota lost 4-1 vs Vancouver on Sunday after dropping both ends of a home- and-home series with the Flames earlier last week.

Minnesota has now lost five of their last six games (1-4-1). They haven’t dropped four straight since starting this season 0-4-0.

After games last Sunday (Jan. 5), before taking on the Flames at home, the Wild sat three points behind the Jets for the second Wild Card spot in the Western Conference. Now, after losing three straight over the past week-plus, Minnesota is seven points off the playoff pace with a brutal schedule ahead.

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

WHAT: Minnesota Wild at Pittsburgh Penguins
WHERE: PPG Paints Arena
WHEN: Tuesday, Jan. 14, 6 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Wild-Penguins stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

WILD
Jason ZuckerEric StaalMats Zuccarello
Zach PariseMikko KoivuKevin Fiala
Marcus FolignoJoel Eriksson EkLuke Kunin
Jordan GreenwayRyan DonatoRyan Hartman

Ryan SuterJared Spurgeon
Jonas BrodinMatt Dumba
Carson SoucyGreg Pateryn

Starting goalie: Devan Dubnyk

PENGUINS
Jared McCann – Sidney Crosby – Domink Simon
Dominik KahunEvgeni MalkinBryan Rust
Alex Galchenyuk – Andrew Agozzino – Patric Hornqvist
Zach Aston-ReeseTeddy BluegerBrandon Tanev

Jack JohnsonKris Letang
Marcus Pettersson  – John Marino
Juuso RiikolaChad Ruhwedel

Starting goalie: Tristan Jarry

Tuesday night’s studio coverage will be hosted by Kathryn Tappen alongside Keith Jones and Anson Carter. John Forslund and AJ Mleczko will call the action from Pittsburgh.

NHL Fantasy Hockey: Brodin, Tuch among this week’s top adds

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Welcome to our weekly Adds/Drops column, where I focus on highlighting players you should consider grabbing or be concerned about in fantasy leagues. As always, the goal here isn’t to recommend 10 players you must add and five players that need to be dropped. Context is everything and the context of each league is different. What this is instead is a guideline so that if you’re looking to make a change, you have potential players to target and if you see players I’ve suggested to drop, you can evaluate your potential alternates.

Players Worth Adding

Sami Vatanen, Devils – D: Vatanen traditionally was a solid contributor offensively for a defenseman, but the 2018-19 campaign was rough for him. He had four goals and 17 points in 50 games, which was a steep drop from his 32-point showing in 2017-18 and ended his run of five straight campaigns with over 20 points. He’s bouncing back nicely in 2019-20 with four goals and 13 points in 25 contests. He’s also doing fairly well right now with four assists in his last four contests, so he’s a pretty good short-term pickup, but he’s also a solid enough contributor that he wouldn’t look out of place as a long-term depth defenseman on most standard fantasy league teams.

Alex Tuch, Golden Knights – LW/RW: Tuch took a big leap forward in his second full NHL campaign with 20 goals and 52 points in 74 contests. An upper-body injury kept him out until Oct. 31st though and he struggled to get going after that with a goal and an assist in his first 10 games. He seems to have shaken off the rust though with four goals and seven points in his last five contests. He’s a gamble to be sure, but he has the potential to be a fairly good contributor for the rest of the season.

Brandon Tanev, Penguins – LW/RW: The Penguins decision to sign Tanev to a six-year, $21 million contract over the summer drew some immediate critics, but so far it’s worked out well. He’s chipped in regularly offensively with six goals and 16 points in 30 games, which puts him on pace to comfortably surpass his previous career-high of 29 points in 80 contests. With eligibility for both wings, he’s a solid option for most teams in general and worthy of partial consideration right now because he’ll be going into Tuesday’s contest on a three-game point streak.

Phillip Danault, Canadiens – C: Danault set a career-high in 2018-19 with 53 points and he’s on pace to top it with seven goals and 23 points in 30 contests. He’s still only owned in 21% of Yahoo leagues though, which can be partially attributed to his center-only eligibility. Even with that limitation, he’s a pretty good pickup right now given how effective he’s been for the last little while. He has two goals and 13 points in his last 13 games and is on a three-game point streak.

[For more fantasy sports analysis, check out Rotoworld]

Jonas Brodin, Wild – D: Brodin is a pretty okay defenseman offensively, but not good enough that he’s typically worth owning in standard leagues. Right now is a potential exception though given how effective he’s been lately. He has six assists in his last five contests. If you do grab him in the hopes of riding what’s left of his hot streak, don’t hesitate to drop him if he goes quiet for a couple games.

Ryan Graves, Avalanche – D: Cale Makar has obviously captured the spotlight in Colorado as far as young defensemen go, but Graves is slowly becoming a meaningful part of the Avalanche’s blueline too. After a quiet start to the campaign, he’s scored three goals and eight points in his last 14 games. It’s helped that he’s averaged 17:18 minutes over that span, up from 15:28 minutes per contest over his first 14 games. It’s worth adding that Makar unfortunately suffered an injury during Saturday’s game. At the time of writing, the extent of his injury isn’t known, but if he does miss time, then Graves’ responsibilities might increase further while he’s out.

Alex Killorn, Lightning – LW/RW: Although he’s owned in just 20% of Yahoo leagues, Killorn is having a great campaign with eight goals and 22 points in 25 games. It helps that he’s averaging 17:29 minutes, up from just 14:52 minutes in 2018-19 when he finished with 2018-19. He’s never recorded more than 47 points in a single season, so you might be worried about sustainability and that’s fair, but even as a short-term pickup, he’s worthy of consideration. He’s on a three-game goal scoring streak and is coming off a four-point game on Saturday. That’s all part of a longer-term run of six goals and 16 points in his last 12 contests.

Kevin Fiala, Wild – LW/RW: Fiala got off to a quiet start this season with just an assist in his first eight games, but since then he’s been great. He’s scored six goals and 14 points in his last 17 contests, putting him in a three-way tie for the Wild’s scoring lead from the start of November onward. He’s never recorded more than 48 points in a single season, but at the age of 23, it’s not unreasonable to believe that he’s capable of further growth. If nothing else, he’s a decent gamble while he’s hot. 

Matt Niskanen, Flyers – D: Niskanen saw his offensive contributions decline to 25 points in 80 games last season with the Washington Capitals, but the trade to Philadelphia seems to have done him some good. One big difference is that he was averaging just 0:35 power-play minutes in 2018-19 and that’s jumped to an average of 2:15 power-play minutes now that he’s in Philadelphia. He has 13 points in 30 games this season, with six of those points being scored with the man advantage in contrast to 2018-19 when he recorded all of two power-play points over the entire campaign. All this has made Niskanen a decent option in standard fantasy leagues this season and a good stopgap measure if you have any injured blueliners.

Clayton Keller, Coyotes– LW/RW: Keller had an amazing rookie campaign with 23 goals and 65 points in 82 games. He went through something of a sophomore slump, scoring 14 goals and 47 points in 82 contests last season, but he seems to be rebounding a bit in his third full season. He has five goals and 20 points in 32 contests, which doesn’t put him on pace to challenge his rookie showing, but it is still a step in the right direction. He’s also on a hot streak right now with a goal and five points in his last five games.

Players You May Want To Drop

Carter Hutton, Sabres – G: Hutton has basically had two different seasons in 2019-20. He couldn’t have asked for a better start to the campaign with a 6-0-0 record, 1.65 GAA, and .943 save percentage in six starts through Oct. 22nd. He hasn’t even won a single game since Oct. 22nd though. Instead he’s gone 0-5-4 with a 3.99 GAA and .875 save percentage in nine starts. Obviously, neither stretch is a full representation of what he is as a goaltender, but if you also take his 2018-19 campaign into consideration, then he hasn’t proven yet that he’s up for the task of being a starting goaltender. Keep in mind that he’ll turn 34 on Dec. 19th, so while he’s still relatively new to being a serious competitor for a starting gig, he’s in no way a young goaltender with upside. If you’ve been holding onto him since that hot start, you should look elsewhere.

Jared McCann, Penguins – C/LW: McCann had a terrific run from Nov. 4-27 with five goals and 12 points in 11 contests, but that hot streak is now firmly in the rear view mirror. He’s been limited to just an assist over his last five contests. McCann is still worth keeping an eye on, but given his relatively limited role in Pittsburgh – he’s averaging 14:34 minutes – the merit of keeping him on your team in a standard fantasy league when he’s not hot is still very much open to debate.

Derick Brassard, Islanders – C/LW/RW: There have been times in Brassard’s career where he’s been a solid contributor, but he hasn’t been reliable since being traded from Ottawa in the 2017-18 campaign. He went on an incredible run of six goals and 15 points in 12 games from Oct. 24-Nov. 21, but he did almost nothing offensively before that run and he’s been similarly cold since his hot streak ended. He’s not nearly consistent enough to warrant holding onto at all times.

Roope Hintz, Stars – C/LW: Hintz has 11 goals in 24 games, but that’s thanks to a 23.4 shooting percentage that he probably won’t be able to come close to sustaining. He’s already slowing down with just one goal in his last seven contests. Given that he doesn’t bring much to the table from a fantasy perspective beyond goals, there’s not much reason to keep him on your team at this time.

Tyson Barrie, Maple Leafs – D: I’m a little hesitant to suggest you should drop Barrie, but it’s certainly worth considering your other options. The Maple Leafs acquired Barrie over the summer and he was a huge disappointment early on with just five assists in his first 21 games. Then Sheldon Keefe replaced Mike Babcock as the bench boss and it looked like the coaching change might have a positive impact on Barrie in particular. He went on a run of three goals and five points in Keefe’s first three games behind the bench. Since then though, Barrie has no points and a minus-four rating in five games. That’s not a huge slump, but given the overall scope of the season, it is discouraging to see him go cold again so soon after the coaching change. So far, Toronto just hasn’t been an ideal fit for him.

If you’re looking for fantasy hockey information, Rotoworld is a great resource. You can check the player news for the latest information on any player and insight into their fantasy outlook.

Every week Michael Finewax looks ahead at the schedule and offers team-by-team notes in The Week Ahead. I have a weekly Fantasy Nuggets column where I basically talk about whatever’s captured my attention that week. Gus Katsaros does an Analytics columns if you want to get into detailed statistical analysis. If you’re interested in rookies and prospects, there’s a weekly column on that written by McKeen’s Hockey. 

How the Penguins have become one of NHL’s best defensive teams

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It is starting to look like Jim Rutherford was right.

Not long after his Pittsburgh Penguins were swept out of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, he defiantly proclaimed that the defense he had assembled was probably the best one his team had since he arrived in Pittsburgh. It seemed to be a rather dubious claim not only because of how the Penguins performed for much of the season (including the playoffs), but because he had also been the general manager for a back-to-back Stanley Cup champion in Pittsburgh.

But nearly two months into the 2019-20 season the Penguins have been one of the league’s stingiest teams defensively and that play is one of the biggest reasons they have been able to overcome a seemingly unending list of injuries to keep piling up points.

Just look at the defensive performance so far this season compared to the same date a year ago, as well as their final numbers from the 2018-19 season.

All numbers via Natural Stat Trick. The numbers in parenthesis are their league-wide rank.

They also boast one of the league’s best penalty killing units, not only in terms of success rate, but also in their ability to also limit shots and chances against.

The Penguins always had one elite defense pair in Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin but everything after that was always a question.

So what all has changed?

The arrival of John Marino and development of Marcus Pettersson. One thing that should be pointed out about Rutherford’s “best defense” comment is that there have been some personnel changes on the blue line since then that helped the team get back closer to the winning identity it had lost. Erik Gudbranson and Olli Maatta were traded, while the team also made the under-the-radar acquisition of John Marino from the Edmonton Oilers in exchange for a sixth-round pick.

From the moment they acquired Marino, the Penguins seemed enamored with his potential. After watching him play for the past month-and-a-half it is not hard to see why. He has been a game-changer on the blue line and in his first pro season has already become a 20-minute per night player and has yet to look out of place. He brings some much-needed youth, mobility, and playmaking to a defense that badly needed all three.

Combine his presence with a full season of Marcus Pettersson (acquired in December of last year for Daniel Sprong) and suddenly the Penguins have two young, mobile defenders that can help drive play for what is currently a dirt cheap price against the salary cap. And both have the potential to continue getting better.

The forwards are helping more. One of the common themes throughout the Penguins’ offseason was that they needed to play “the right way,” and that the defensive deficiencies last season weren’t just about the defensemen themselves. They also needed more help from their forwards. They are getting that this season, and it’s not just because the returning players are playing smarter. The offseason additions of Brandon Tanev and Dominik Kahun, as well as getting a full season out of trade deadline acquisition Jared McCann, have brought three more fast, defensively responsible forwards to the lineup, and all are making significant contributions in every phase of the game.

Tanev’s signing drew harsh criticism (including from me) due to the term on the contract but so far he has proven to be everything the Penguins said he would be — a menace due to his speed and an always frustrating player for opponents to go up against. Combined with the arrival of young players Teddy Blueger and Sam Lafferty the Penguins injected a ton of speed, youth, and fresh blood into a lineup that the rest of the league had not only caught up to, but seemingly passed by the previous two years. With Phil Kessel and Arizona and Sidney Crosby currently sidelined the Penguins may not be as explosive offensively, but they are making up for that with their ability to shut teams down.

Better usage and a better identity. Mike Sullivan is turning in a Jack Adams level coaching performance this season and has pushed all of the right buttons so far. He has the team buying into how they need to play, they are back to play fast, and the personnel usage is far better (trusting Marino and Pettersson in big spots; playing Jack Johnson in the third-pairing/PK role he is best suited for).

Rutherford received his fair share of criticism the past couple of years (including from, again, me) and much of it was deserved. The team became too obsessed with “push-back” and getting more physical instead of getting faster and better. There was a constant revolving door of player transactions that made it seem like they didn’t really have a plan. Tom Wilson took up residence in their front office and seemed to drive every decision.

One of the most positive things anyone around Pittsburgh could always say about Rutherford is he is quick to admit his mistakes and move on. He definitely did that by making the team faster and getting it back to what it does best. It may not have been the most direct route, but for the first time in two years the Penguins have the look of the team that was winning Stanley Cups instead of the one that was getting swept in the first round. Better late than never.

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.