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Penguins climb back into playoff spot — for now

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The Pittsburgh Penguins could have sulked, but then Evgeni Malkin turned into “The Incredible Hulk.”

During the first game of NBC and NBCSN’s “Hockey Day in America” extravaganza, the Penguins saw a 3-1 lead evaporate into a 3-3 tie heading into the third period. Pittsburgh had also lost a 5-4 game in regulation to the Flames the day before on Saturday. Sometimes, that combination of fatigue and disappointment can deflate a team to the point of defeat. That’s especially worrisome since the Penguins entered Sunday on the outside looking in at the East playoff picture.

Then the Penguins’ big guns intervened in what was a hectic, messy, and ultimately important win.

To start an explosive third period surge, Kris Letang scored an emphatic goal — his second of the game, and somehow already his 15th of this season.

For a while, it seemed like the Penguins’ defense would be the story of the game. Pittsburgh’s first four goals came via blueliners: two from Letang, one from Marcus Pettersson, and one from Brian Dumoulin.

Evgeni Malkin found another gear, though, in a way few others can. Malkin scored two goals about 90 seconds apart. His 6-3 tally at the time seemed like it wouldn’t be the game-winner, but in a lot of ways, it’s fitting that this beautiful backhander was the decisive goal:

Kevin Hayes and Mika Zibanejad scored late goals to generate some drama in the closing moments of Sunday’s game, and that was fitting too, as the Rangers were not an easy out in this contest.

The Penguins were able to dig in and win 6-5, even if it wasn’t pretty. This leaves Pittsburgh as the second wild-card in the East with 69 points and 30 regulation/overtime wins in 59 games, giving them a slight edge in front of ninth-place Carolina (68 points, 30 ROW, 59 GP).

If Pittsburgh wants to make it into the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and make a run once they get there, then they’ll need to dig deep like they did today. (They might need to tighten things up a little, though. Just saying.)

NBC Sports is celebrating Hockey Day in America with an NHL Sunday tripleheader on NBC and NBCSN, as well as a collection of stories and features which explore hockey’s impact and influence across the U.S.

Remaining NBC Hockey Day in America schedule:
St. Louis at Minnesota – NBC – 3:30 p.m. ET (Watch live)
Philadelphia at Detroit – NBCSN –  6 p.m. ET (Watch live)

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: Crosby’s Penguins vs. McDavid’s Oilers on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Edmonton Oilers and Pittsburgh Penguins. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Never beating the Pittsburgh Penguins when Sidney Crosby‘s been in the lineup is the least of Connor McDavid‘s concerns, but it’s one of the many ways you can remind people that the Edmonton Oilers haven’t really put him in a position to succeed.

It’s almost too fitting that McDavid’s been fantastic in the five Oilers losses against the Penguins, generating nine points in those games, but not yet getting the win.

[Comparing McDavid’s early days to Lemieux’s troubles]

Both superstar players are hurting for a win, but not really because of an easily packaged rivalry.

Instead, their teams simply need it. The Oilers are a Dumpster fire right now, with things being so bad that Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman discussed rumblings about Ken Hitchcock straight-up wanting to walk away.

Things aren’t as dour for the Penguins, but they don’t have a large margin for error when it comes to making the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, so they’ll be keyed-in. With injuries mounting for the Pens, they might ask Crosby to do even more than usual. McDavid can relate.

One benefit for McDavid is that Evgeni Malkin won’t suit up, as he’s serving a one-game suspension for his wild stick-swinging at Flyers forward Michael Raffl.

Is it too greedy to hope that all of these circumstances will lead to another great duel between number 87 and number 97? Maybe, but let’s cross our fingers for that, anyway.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Edmonton Oilers at Pittsburgh Penguins
Where: PPG Paints Arena
When: Wednesday, Feb. 13, 7 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Oilers-Penguins stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

OILERS

Leon Draisaitl — Connor McDavid — Zack Kassian

Jujhar KhairaRyan Nugent-HopkinsJesse Puljujarvi

Milan Lucic — Brad Malone — Alex Chiasson

Tobias RiederColby CaveTy Rattie

Oscar KlefbomAdam Larsson

Darnell NurseKris Russell

Alexander PetrovicKevin Gravel

Starting goalie: Mikko Koskinen

PENGUINS

Jake Guentzel — Sidney Crosby — Bryan Rust

Tanner PearsonNick BjugstadPhil Kessel

Teddy Blueger — Jared McCannPatric Hornqvist

Zach Aston-ReeseMatt CullenGarrett Wilson

Brian DumoulinKris Letang

Juuso RiikolaJack Johnson

Marcus PetterssonChad Ruhwedel

Starting goalie: Matt Murray

John Forslund (play-by-play), U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame member Eddie Olczyk (analyst), and Emmy Award-winner Pierre McGuire (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh. Pa. Pre-game coverage starts at 7 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Liam McHugh alongside Mike Milbury, Keith Jones and Bob McKenzie. Additionally, Kathryn Tappen will be providing reports and conducting interviews on-site in Pittsburgh.

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.

Should Penguins spend at trade deadline to replace Maatta?

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Sometimes, when a struggling defenseman gets injured, there can be a sort of dark silver lining: it may force a coach to play someone better. Considering how tough it is to find good defensemen, though, there’s the scarier – and probably more likely – reality that they’d be replaced by someone even worse.

That’s the situation the Pittsburgh Penguins are struggling with right now, as they announced that Olli Maatta is out indefinitely with an upper-body injury suffered during Monday’s win against the Philadelphia Flyers.

Considering that Evgeni Malkin might get suspended for his stick-swinging, that could be a costly win in the short-term, but the long-term implications are more fascinating.

Should the Penguins dip into the trade market for a defenseman, preferably of the top-four variety?

A thin group

Again, there’s no denying that Maatta has been struggling mightily for some time, but more Jack Johnson is frightening, as you can see from how pitiful they both look via Bill Comeau’s SKATR comparison tool, which uses Corsica’s data.

/Insert horror movie scream.

As far as other Penguins defensemen go:

Schultz has missed most of the season with a pretty freakish injury, having not played since Oct. 13. It seems like he’s slated to return soon, but expecting him to hit the ground running with heavy minutes seems like asking a lot — yet that might be exactly what the Penguins need.

And, let’s face it. Schultz has been a fantastic reclamation project for the Penguins, but he’s most useful when he’s placed in nurturing situations. During four seasons with the Penguins, Schultz has started an average of 55.7-percent of his shifts in the offensive zone, according to Hockey Reference. If he’s asked to shoulder a tougher defensive burden – as he did early this season, albeit in a small sample size – will his game fall apart?

  • Pensburgh and others point out an interesting plug-in option: Ethan Prow.

The undrafted 26-year-old has never played an NHL game, yet he’s tied for second place among AHL defensemen with 37 points this season. Offense isn’t everything, but it’s a positive sign that maybe he can help, and it wouldn’t hurt for the speed-and-skill-oriented Penguins to add another potential weapon.

Shaky market

When you look at TSN’s trade bait list, Craig Custance’s Top 20 Trade Board (sub. required), and other compilations of trade targets, you’ll see a lot of fascinating names, from Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky to more grounded considerations, like Wayne Simmonds.

Things are a lot thinner when you’re looking for defensemen, though.

Normally, I’d personally recommend going after Dougie Hamilton, a defenseman who is likely to exceed his perception. Dougie’s not a perfect option for the Penguins for simple money reasons, though: his (actually decent value) $5.75 million cap hit runs through 2020-21. Hamilton also plays for the Hurricanes, who likely wouldn’t be thrilled about the prospect of enriching a team ahead of them in the East bubble. Similar problems crop up with, say, Trevor Daley.

Granted, there are interesting options here and there. Alec Martinez is a little cheaper than Hamilton ($4M through 2020-21), and the left-hander’s shown he can play on his off-side.

Maybe most importantly, the Kings are eyeing the future, so they might be willing to retain some of Martinez’s salary, and one Penguins issue might be something they’d work with better than others …

Sunk costs

The Penguins have already given up a ton of futures in landing the likes of Nick Bjugstad, and previously, Derick Brassard.

As you can see from Cap Friendly’s chart, the Penguins lack:

  • A second, third, or sixth-rounder in 2019. They have Buffalo’s fourth-rounder and Vegas’ seventh-rounder, with Buffalo’s pick currently slated to be a little better, while Vegas’ is likely to be worse than Pittsburgh’s would-be seventh-rounder. The point is, there aren’t a ton of 2019 picks remaining.
  • They don’t have their 2020 second-round pick.

The Penguins, then, would need to part with first-round picks in bigger trades, or a would-be seller would need to accept a third-rounder or worse in 2020, or wait until 2021 to get a second-round pick. (Maybe the Kings would be willing to take a 2021 second-rounder for Martinez, possibly as part of a larger package?)

Not just eyeing this year

Ultimately, Pittsburgh might just look at the landscape and determine that they don’t need to take a big shot in 2018-19, instead allowing things to play out.

After all, much of the Penguins’ planning has been getting “extended” rentals. Bjugstad is signed through 2020-21, as is Tanner Pearson. Jared McCann is cost controlled through 2019-20.

Much of the context points to sticking with this current setup, or at least not making another big splash.

Who knows when the window will close?

There’s also a danger in assuming that Sidney Crosby (31), Evgeni Malkin (32), Phil Kessel (31), and Kris Letang (31) can fight off Father Time enough to keep the Penguins in the contender mix in 2019-20. Sometimes the drop-off can be very, very steep; just ask those selling Los Angeles Kings.

Yes, the Penguins won their 2017 Stanley Cup with Letang injured, and that repeat run came with a defense that wasn’t world-beating even with Letang feeling spry. That doesn’t mean Pittsburgh can always clear those hurdles, so it’s fair to point out that defense is a clear need.

***

To reiterate, the widespread “eye test” matches the numbers: Maatta hasn’t been very good this season.

Still, things could get even worse for the Penguins defense with him sidelined, so it’s not shocking that some might call for more trade deadline spending.

All things considered, should the Penguins roll the dice by being spenders … or take different types of risks by sticking with what they have?

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.

Kendall Coyne Schofield talks All-Star Skills, bubble hockey with Penguins’ Dumoulin

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Prior to setting a blistering time around the rink at the NHL All-Star Skills this past weekend, Kendall Coyne Schofield made sure Connor McDavid was in the same boat as she was.

“I asked him if he was nervous,” Coyne Schofield told the broadcast team on NBCSN prior to Wednesday Night Hockey. “He said he was, so that made me feel a little better. I got to the starting line and the crowd just erupted.”

The chants of ‘USA, USA’ and the rest of the yelling and screaming help propel Coyne around the rink, and then it came: a 14.346-second lap, just a second off McDavid’s time and faster that Arizona’s Clayton Keller, who also participated.

“It was go time,” she said.

McDavid may have won the event, but Coyne Schofield won the hearts of the hockey community.

Coyne, who currently plays for the Minnesota Whitecaps of the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL), became the first woman to compete in an NHL All-Star Skills and along with fellow U.S. National team member Briana Decker who participated in the Premier Passer event, stole the show.

In fact, it was so inspiring that NBC hired Coyne Schofield to be an analyst on Wednesday night during the game between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Pittsburgh Penguins.

“This past weekend has just been incredible,” she said. “Just to see the barriers that have been broken, the historic moment that was made and the response… just seeing all of those messages, young girls picking up skates for the first time, young boys saying I want to be as fast as her. It changed the way society views women and specifically women and girl’s hockey. It’s just been tremendous.”

Part of Coyne Schofield’s assignment on Wednesday was playing a little bubble hockey with Penguins defenseman Brian Dumoulin.

She won, of course.

The two have a little in common. Coyne Schofield attended Northeastern while Dumoulin attended rival Boston College. Both played in the Beanpot Tournament, which pits Boston University, Boston College, Harvard University and Northeastern in a two-round tournament for state bragging rights.

Dumoulin is a three-time winner of the tourney, while Coyne Schofield won it twice.

Coyne Schofield will go between the glass with Pierre McGuire during Wednesday’s game, along with providing analysis during both intermissions with play-by-play man, John Forslund.

Her chance to shine isn’t too far off, either.

Coyne Schofield and the rest of her USA teammates are gearing up for the 2019 Rivalry Series against Canada. The three-game series takes place in Toronto and London, Ont., with the final in taking place at Little Caesars Arena on Feb. 17 as part of Hockey Week Across America.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

WATCH LIVE: Penguins host Lightning on Wednesday Night Hockey

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Pittsburgh Penguins. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Tampa Bay, which last played on Jan. 19, comes out of the All- Star break with the best record in the NHL at 37-10-2. With 76 points, the Lightning occupy first place in the NHL, and are five points ahead of the Calgary Flames for most in the league entering Wednesday night’s action.

Tampa Bay has been in first place in the NHL since Nov. 29 – just more than two months – and are looking to capture the Presidents’ Trophy for the first time in franchise history. They are currently on pace to win 62 games this season, which would tie NHL record (set by the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings – 62 wins).

The last team to win the Presidents’ Trophy and win the Stanley Cup was the Blackhawks in 2013, and before that was the Red Wings in 2008.

[WNH: Sidney Crosby’s Selke Trophy push]

On Monday, the Penguins lost at home to the New Jersey Devils, 6-3, its fourth loss in the last five games (all in regulation – 1-4-0 record since Jan. 12). Pittsburgh has allowed five-plus goals in all four of those losses. This recent stretch of struggles follows Pittsburgh’s hottest streak of the season, when they won 10 of 11 games from Dec. 19 – Jan. 11.

One thing the Penguins need to improve is on the power play. They are just 2-for-13 (15.4%) on the power play in their last four games, and have allowed three shorthanded goals in the last six games. In fact, Pittsburgh leads the NHL with 11 shorthanded goals allowed this season. Last year they were tied with Tampa Bay and San Jose for the fewest shorthanded goals allowed (3).

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Tampa Bay Lightning at Pittsburgh Penguins
Where: PPG Paints Arena
When: Wednesday, Jan. 30, 7 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Lightning-Penguins stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

LIGHTNING
Ondrej PalatSteven StamkosYanni Gourde
Tyler JohnsonBrayden PointNikita Kucherov
Alex KillornAnthony CirelliJ.T. Miller
Adam ErneCedric PaquetteMathieu Joseph

Victor HedmanDan Girardi
Ryan McDonaghErik Cernak
Mikhail SergachevAnton Stralman

Starting goalie: Andrei Vasilevskiy

PENGUINS
Jake GuentzelSidney CrosbyDominik Simon
Bryan RustEvgeni MalkinPhil Kessel
Tanner PearsonMatt CullenPatric Hornqvist
Riley Sheahan – Teddy Blueger – Garrett Wilson

Brian DumoulinKris Letang
Olli MaattaJuuso Riikola
Marcus PetterssonJack Johnson

Starting goalie: Matt Murray

MORE: Kendall Coyne Schofield to serve as NBC Sports analyst on Wednesday Night Hockey

Coyne will join the broadcast team of John Forslund (play-by-play), U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame member Eddie Olczyk (analyst) and Emmy Award-winner Pierre McGuire (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) for the call from PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, Pa., on Wednesday night.