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WATCH LIVE: Penguins host Blackhawks on NBCSN

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Sunday night’s matchup between the Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins with coverage beginning at 7 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Penguins are one of the hottest teams in the league, with wins in eight straight games. They defeated the Winnipeg Jets 4-0 on Friday night in a 33-save shutout by Matt Murray. After struggling to start the year and missing time with an injury, Murray has now won seven in a row, matching the best stretch of his career.

Sidney Crosby is riding a six-game point streak (3G, 10A) and has 51 points (19G-32A) in 38 games this season, a 1.34 points per game clip. He hasn’t had a scoring rate that high in a full season since 2009-10 (1.35 ppg). He’ll skate in his 903rd career regular-season game as he closes in on Mario Lemieux’s franchise record (915 GP).

Kris Letang has also tallied a point in six straight games (3G, 6A) and is leading the team in time on ice per game during the winning streak (26:16).

Erik Gustafsson leads all Blackhawks defensemen with 23 points and eight goals, both of which are already career highs for the 26-year-old, who is in his third NHL season. Jeremy Colliton scratched Gustafsson on December 2, and since being benched, Gustafsson has responded with 12 points (4G, 8A) in 13 games.

Gustafsson has been on the top pair with Duncan Keith while Henri Jokiharju is at World Juniors. He has also been the primary point man on the power play unit.

“He’s got the world at his feet if he wants…we push him because we know he can do it,” said Blackhawks head coach Jeremy Colliton. “At times, he does do it, as far as his gap and being aggressive to get pucks back, and being physical at times, and even better around his own net. He can do it. It’s not a question of ability. It’s a question of committing to it. So it’s an easy decision to try to hold him accountable, because he can give us so much.”

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

What: Chicago Blackhawks at Pittsburgh Penguins
Where: PPG Paints Arena
When: Sunday, Jan. 6, 7 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Blackhawks-Penguins stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

BLACKHAWKS
Brandon SaadJonathan ToewsDominik Kahun
Artem AnisimovDylan StromePatrick Kane
Alex DeBrincatDavid KampfBrendan Perlini
Chris KunitzMarcus KrugerDrake Caggiula

Duncan Keith – Erik Gustafsson
Gustav ForslingBrent Seabrook
Carl DahlstromConnor Murphy

Starting goalie: Cam Ward

PENGUINS
Jake Guentzel – Sidney Crosby – Bryan Rust
Dominik SimonEvgeni MalkinPatric Hornqvist
Tanner PearsonDerick BrassardPhil Kessel
Riley SheahanMatt CullenZach Aston-Reese

Brian Dumoulin – Kris Letang
Marcus PetterssonJack Johnson
Olli MaattaJuuso Riikola

Starting goalie: Casey DeSmith

MORE: Kris Letang is playing the best hockey of his career

WATCH LIVE: Rangers host Penguins on Wednesday Night Hockey

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Both of these teams are headed in the right direction after rough stretches earlier this season. For Pittsburgh, a 1-7-2 mark from late October into November dropped its record to 7-8-4 and they sat last in the Metro. They’ve since turned things around and their current win streak has catapulted them into the top-3 in the division on the strength of both a strong offensive and defensive showing.

New York, meanwhile, and first-year head coach David Quinn, began the season 0-3-0 and lost 11 of 14 (3-6-5) since Thanksgiving before going on the road and winning its last two games at Nashville and St. Louis. The Rangers return home now, but only briefly as they are in the midst of a period that takes them on the road (see schedule below) after they ended 2018 with a majority of home games.

Pittsburgh’s “Big 3” is leading the way once again as Sidney Crosby, Phil Kessel and Evgeni Malkin are the top three on the team in points. Crosby has 48 points (18G-30A) in 36 games this season, a 1.33 points per game clip. He hasn’t had a scoring rate that high in a full season since 2009-10 (1.35 ppg).

Perhaps the best story on the Rangers this season has been the play of Chris Kreider, who leads the team with 20 goals (2nd-best is Mika Zibanejad w/ 11). You’ll remember he missed 24 games last season with a blood clot. Kreider has an active 5-game point streak (5G-3A)

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Pittsburgh Penguins at New York Rangers
Where: Madison Square Garden
When: Wednesday, Jan. 2, 6 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Penguins-Rangers stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

PENGUINS
Jake Guentzel – Sidney Crosby – Bryan Rust
Dominik Simon – Evgeni Malkin – Patric Hornqvist
Tanner PearsonDerick Brassard – Phil Kessel
Zach Aston-ReeseMatt CullenRiley Sheahan

Brian DumoulinKris Letang
Marcus PetterssonJack Johnson
Olli MaattaJuuso Riikola

Starting goalie: Matt Murray

RANGERS
Chris Kreider – Mika Zibanejad – Jesper Fast
Vladislav NamestnikovKevin HayesMats Zuccarello
Boo NievesBrett HowdenPavel Buchnevich
Cody McLeodRyan StromeFilip Chytil

Marc StaalNeal Pionk
Brady SkjeiAdam McQuaid
Fredrik ClaessonKevin Shattenkirk

Starting goalie: Henrik Lundqvist

Kenny Albert (play-by-play) and Brian Boucher (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will call Penguins-Rangers from Madison Square Garden.

Breaking down Penguins’ red-hot streak

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers. 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 Pittsburgh Penguins’ blazing finish to 2018 would be staggering if this sort of thing hadn’t already happened several times in the Sidney Crosby/Evgeni Malkin era.

(Seriously, it almost feels like old hat to see Pittsburgh struggle to start a season – to the point that there were concerns about missing the playoffs – only to see them rattle off a ton of wins.)

It’s easy to forget that the Penguins began December with a troubling 10-10-5 record after falling 4-2 to the Flyers. Since then, they’ve been one of the hottest teams in the NHL, surging to 21-12-6, including an active six-game winning streak.

With the Penguins hoping to extend this run into 2019 by beating the Rangers on Wednesday, this seems like as good a time as any to analyze their winning ways.

[Penguins – Rangers preview]

Getting the stops

During a 11-2-1 run over 14 games, the Penguins enjoyed a robust +18 goal differential (49 for, 31 against) despite being outshot 486-458. Even if you chalk up some of that difference to “score effects,” it’s clear that Pittsburgh hasn’t exactly channeled the Dead Puck Era with its defense. A look at possession stats during that span backs up the larger picture of them being middling during this streak, too.

Unsustainably brilliant goaltending has been the biggest difference during the past 14 contests.

To some extent, Casey DeSmith has only been a bit hotter during his past nine games (.932 save percentage) than he has been overall (.926 over 25 GP). Instead, it’s Matt Murray who’s flipped the script, winning all five of his starts with a gorgeous .959 save percentage after abysmal work in October and November.

Goaltending ranks as just one of the areas where Pittsburgh’s results have been erratic, but it’s overall a strength, as Natural Stat Trick ranks the Penguins’ 92.47 even-strength save percentage as the 10th-best in the NHL.

It’s unrealistic to expect Pittsburgh’s goaltending to be anywhere near as strong as it’s been lately, yet if Murray’s rebound is for real, the Penguins must be taken as seriously as ever. Especially since DeSmith’s recent stats at the NHL and AHL levels indicate that he might be able to hold down the forth even if Murray struggles again.

Mostly the usual suspects

Six Penguins generated at least 10 points over the last 14 games:

Kessel (18.4 shooting percentage) and especially Rust (25.8) should see their puck luck cool off a bit, but as much as anything else, this is a reminder of how much of a difference Letang can make when he’s in the lineup.

Also, a prolonged hot streak for Rust could really cement him as Crosby’s other regular winger alongside Guentzel, and such stability is likely to be a boon for a player as cerebral as Crosby.

Special, indeed

The Penguins’ power play has been connecting at a league-best 30.8-percent rate since Dec. 4. The good news for the rest of the NHL is that Penguins are unlikely to maintain that pace. The bad news is that, as you’d expect, the Penguins were still really strong in that area before the hot streak.

Interestingly, the Penguins’ penalty kill was fantastic before this stretch, and was comparably effective during it.

It’s plausible that Pittsburgh’s PK might slip from elite to middle-of-the-pack, yet special teams seems likely to be a net positive for the Penguins thanks to all of that talent on the man advantage.

Conclusions

Despite this hot streak, the Penguins aren’t an absolute lock for a berth in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Islanders could feasibly knock them out of third place in the Metro, which would create a dogfight between Pittsburgh and strong Atlantic teams (Buffalo, Montreal, or Boston?) for one of the two wild-card spots. They can’t exactly kick back and relax just yet.

That said, it’s easy to picture the Penguins looming as a real threat in the coming postseason, even if their headline-grabbing star power will keep them from truly “sneaking up” on contenders like the Lightning, Maple Leafs, or Capitals.

Are the Penguins as good as this recent streak indicates? That’s unlikely, because their goaltending is virtually certain to cool off.

There are enough factors for the Penguins to remain scary, however, and the reasons even go beyond the reliable talking point of “they employ Crosby and Malkin.”

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Blackhawks vs. Bruins: 2019 Winter Classic by the numbers

NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the 2019 Winter Classic between the Boston Bruins and Chicago Blackhawks. Coverage begins at 1 p.m. ET from Notre Dame Stadium. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

0 – Total hat tricks in NHL outdoor game history. 

2 – Number of outdoor games that Brad Marchand has missed playing in due to various circumstances. He was in the AHL during the Bruins’ 2010 game at Fenway Park and he was suspended for the 2016 game at Gillette Stadium.

3 – The Bruins will take part in their third Winter Classic on Jan. 1. They previously participated in the event in 2010 (Fenway Park vs. Flyers) and 2016 (Gillette Stadium vs. Montreal Canadiens).

4 – Number of Winter Classics that have gone past regulation. Two of which (2008 – BUF-PIT and 2014 – TOR/DET) needed the shootout to determine a winner.

5Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Brent Seabrook, and Duncan Keith are the only current Blackhawks who have played in all five of the franchise’s outdoor games. If they all hit the ice at Notre Dame Stadium they will be the only NHL players to play in six outdoor games.

6 – The Blackhawks are outdoor game veterans. They have played in six total outdoor games and the meeting with the Bruins will be their fourth Winter Classic. They are 0-3-0 in Winter Classics (2009 vs. Detroit Red Wings, 2015 vs. Washington Capitals, 2017 vs. St. Louis Blues) and 1-1-0 in Stadium Series games (2014 win vs. Penguins, 2016 loss to Minnesota Wild).

6 – All-time outdoor game points by Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews, second to Henrik Zetterberg’s seven.

6 – The NHL returns to Indiana for its sixth regular-season game in the state and first since 1992. The Blackhawks have played in all five previous matchups, including a 3-2 loss to the Bruins on Jan. 21, 1954 at the Indiana State Fairgrounds Coliseum in Indianapolis.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 1 P.M. ET – NBC]

10 – Record for goals scored in a Winter Classic, set by the Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings in 2009 (6-4 Detroit win). The Red Wings’ six goals is the most by one team in a Winter Classic.

11 – This will be the 11th NHL Winter Classic and the second to be held in a college football stadium (2014 – Toronto vs. Detroit at Michigan Stadium). Six others have been held in baseball stadiums and three in NFL stadiums.

13 – Degrees in Fahrenheit of the coldest recorded temperature at puck drop for a Winter Classic (2014, Ann Arbor, MI).

19 Average low temperature, in degrees Fahrenheit, for South Bend, Ind. on Jan. 1, according to accuweather.com.

26 – This will be the 26th NHL outdoor game. The first outdoor game was the 2003 Heritage Classic in Edmonton between the Oilers and Montreal Canadiens. Chicago vs. Boston is the first of two outdoor games this season. The Pittsburgh Penguins will play the Philadelphia Flyers on Feb. 23 (8 p.m. ET, NBC) from Lincoln Financial Field.

32 – Average high temperature, in degrees Fahrenheit, for South Bend, Ind. on Jan. 1, according to accuweather.com.

36 – Total number of games in Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy’s NHL career, all of which were played with the Blackhawks, who drafted him in the first-round in 1983.

50 – Degrees in Fahrenheit of the warmest recorded temperature at puck drop for a Winter Classic (Pittsburgh, 2011).

84 – Number of Notre Dame Fighting Irish hockey players drafted to the NHL, including four Stanley Cup Champions; Bill Nyrop (1976, 1977, 1978 with Montreal), Don Jackson (1984, 1985 with Edmonton), Ian Cole (2016, 2017 with Pittsburgh) and Bryan Rust (2016, 2017 with Pittsburgh) according to University of Notre Dame Hockey.

350 – Gallons of paint used to make the ice at Notre Dame Stadium white.

708 – Number of players and coaches who have participated in the NHL’s 25 regular-season outdoor games to date.

1995 – Year in which Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman graduated from Notre Dame University.

Mike Tirico will host the network’s Winter Classic pre-game coverage alongside the NHL Live studio team of host Kathryn Tappen, and analysts Mike Milbury, Keith Jones and Jeremy Roenick. Six-time Emmy Award-winner and La Fontaine, Ind., native Mike ‘Doc’ Emrick, U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame member Eddie Olczyk, and ‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst Pierre McGuire will have the call from Notre Dame Stadium.

The Buzzer: Rust continues dominance; Ehlers clutch once again

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Three stars

1. Bryan Rust, Pittsburgh Penguins

On the morning of Dec. 12, Rust had just one goal to his name this season, one he scored back on Oct. 25.

As of Dec. 20, he now has nine goals. Yes, in the span of nine days, Rust has scored eight goals, including a hat trick back on the 12th, and goals in four straight games now dating back to Dec. 15.

Rust’s two goals were all the Pens needed in a 2-1 win against the Minnesota Wild. Rust is on quite the heater right now, with five goals and an assist in his current run and eight goals in his past six games.

2. Nikolaj Ehlers, Winnipeg Jets

Ehlers had scored earlier in the game, but it was his two third-period goals — a go-ahead goal to make it 4-3 and then the automatic empty-net goal to put the Jets up 5-3 — that cemented his second hat trick of the season.

Ehlers has been solid this season with 16 goals, including two hat tricks and six markers in his past five games.

He’s also been clutch. His goal last Sunday against the Tampa Bay Lightning tied the game 4-4 and forced overtime. His goals on Thursday were self-explanatory in their importance. He’s got three game-winners now this season.

3. Morgan Rielly, Toronto Maple Leafs

Sure, John Tavares and Auston Matthews each had a pair of goals — Matthews also had two assists for a four-point night — but someone has to be setting those up, right?

Well, in the case of those two, maybe not. Still, four assists in a game are nothing to scoff at and the above two get enough time in the spotlight.

The four apples matched a career-high for Rielly, who is well on his way to setting new career highs in assists and points. He has 11 goals (already a new career high) and 29 assists for 40 points this season.

He’s also on a three-game point streak.

Other notable performances:

  • Carter Hart won his second game in as many starts and is now 2-0-0 record with a 1.50 goals-against average and a .944 save percentage. Pretty, pretty good.
  • Claude Giroux put up a career-high 10 shots on goal and one of them, a second-period strike, stood up as the game winner.
  • Jonathan Bernier stopped 39 shots in a 4-1 Red Wings win against the Hurricanes
  • Cam Atkinson scored a ridiculous penalty shot (watch it below) to help the Blue Jackets past the Devils. It was his 20th goal of the season.
  • David Pastrnak had a goal and two assists in Boston’s 3-1 win against the Ducks.
  • Patrick Kane (two goals, one assist) and Alex DeBrincat (one goal, two assists) help the Blackhawks to their third win in their past five games.
  • Nate Schmidt had a goal and two assists to help Golden Knights down the Islanders 4-2
  • Jets captain Blake Wheeler had three assists and now has 42, tying Colorado’s Mikko Rantanen for the NHL lead.

Highlights of the night

This doesn’t need an introduction:

Oh my goodness is right.

The old strip and score:

Defying geometry:

Factoids

Scores

Bruins 3, Ducks 1

Maple Leafs 6, Panthers 1

Flyers 2, Predators 1

Penguins 2, Wild 1

Blue Jackets 2, Devils 1

Red Wings 4, Hurricanes 1

Blackhawks 5, Stars 2

Lightning 5, Flames 4 (SO)

Canadiens 2, Coyotes 1

Canucks 5, Blues 1

Golden Knights 4, Islanders 2

Jets 5, Sharks 3


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