Getty Images

The Buzzer: Big night for Coyotes — and Kucherov

1 Comment

Three Stars

1. Nikita Kucherov

Let’s keep this one pretty simple, because we went deep on where Kucherov’s 115 points ranks in recent history here.

Narrowing the focus to Kucherov scoring two goals and two assists for four points in Thursday’s game is impressive enough. Kucherov grabbed the game-winning goal in this one, his second GWG in his last three games (both of those decisive goals came against Detroit, by the way).

Kucherov had a +1 rating in that tight win against the Red Wings, firing five shots on goal and ending up with just under 21 minutes (20:58) in that game. Masterful work by the clear frontrunner for the Hart Trophy.

2. Vinnie Hinostroza

While he’s been streaky in 2018-19, nights like these provide useful reminders of why a lot of stats-minded people were excited about Hinostroza’s potential after he was traded from Chicago.

For the first time in his career, the 24-year-old generated a hat trick, and Hinostroza added the flourish of making it a natural hat trick. Despite a modest 13:43 in ice time in Arizona’s win against Anaheim, Hinostroza fired eight SOG on his way to that hat trick.

Hinostroza now has 15 goals and 34 points in 61 games this season, and four goals in his last two contests. With the Wild losing in regulation and the Coyotes winning big, the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs suddenly look remarkably likely for Arizona.

They’re also only four points behind Vegas for third place in the Pacific, although that’s a big hurdle to leap with the Golden Knights also holding a game in hand.

3. Anders Nilsson

There were some very strong goalie performances beyond Nilsson on Thursday, with Darcy Kuemper stopping 37 out of 38 shots, Thomas Greiss making 33 out of 34 saves, and Casey DeSmith managing a 26-save shutout. There were also other worthy scoring performances, particularly by Brett Connolly (two goals, one assist) and Mark Scheifele (one goal, two assists).

But Nilsson managed an impressive 35-save shutout, boosting his 2018-19 save percentage from .908 to .915. He did so against a strong Blues team, too.

It doesn’t really do the lowly Senators a whole lot of good, but it might improve Nilsson’s chances of staying in the NHL in 2019-20, whether he remains with Ottawa or lands somewhere else.

Highlight of the Night

This got its own post, but it’s tough to top Zdeno Chara being strong enough to send Scheifele’s stick soaring, only for Scheifele to score a goal. Good times.

By the way, the lowlight was really a highlight, too, as Tyler Seguin was a good sport in absorbing grief for missing on an empty net. That got its own post as well.

Factoids

Scores

PIT 5 – BUF 0
NYI 2 – MTL 1
WAS 5 – PHI 2
OTT 2 – STL 0
TBL 5 – DET 4
DAL 4 – MIN 1
WIN 4 – BOS 3
ARI 6 – ANA 1
NSH 3 – LAK 1
FLA 4 – SJS 2

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.

Kane’s spying sparks big Penguins, Sharks scrum

AP
21 Comments

PITTSBURGH — It turned out to be a pretty lousy Thursday night for Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan.

Not only was his team completely outclassed and outmatched in a decisive 4-0 loss to the San Jose Sharks, but he also ended up getting himself ejected late in the third period after a line brawl nearly broke out during a commercial break.

The entire ordeal started at center ice and seemed to be the result of Sharks forward Evander Kane trying to sneak a look at the Penguins’ white board as they were drawing up a play after pulling goalie Casey DeSmith for an extra attacker.

We know this is what started it because Kane admitted as much after the game.

“I was just standing there, looking at their bench, just looking at their board that they were using and one of their players, not really sure who it was, jumped over and tried to do something about it and it just kind of escalated,” said Kane when asked about what happened.

He was then asked if that is something he normally does.

“Well they were about to pull their goalie, right?” Just like to think that is little bit of a savvy veteran thing to do. If you can see it, why wouldn’t you do it?”

Touche.

The result of that was a heated scrum at center ice involving all of the players that were on the ice at that time.

Things really started to escalate when Sharks defender Brenden Dillon punched an unsuspecting Marcus Pettersson in the face, infuriating Penguins captain Sidney Crosby. Crosby, Kris Letang, Dillon, and recently acquired Sharks forward Michael Haley were all involved in the altercation.

While that was happening, Kane ended up getting the better of a fight with Penguins forward Tanner Pearson.

The next thing everyone knew, Sullivan was exiting the Penguins’ bench after being seen screaming at the officials.

For the Sharks, Haley and Dillon both received 10-minute misconducts for their roles, while Kane was given a five-minute major for fighting.

On the Penguins’ side, Crosby and Pettersson were both given 10-minute misconducts,

Pearson was given a five-minute major for fighting, and Sullivan was given a game misconduct.

The Penguins’ coach had absolutely zero interest in discussing the matter after the game, highlighted by this exchange that took place during an uncharacteristically short and tense press conference.

Reporter: “Mike can you describe as best you can what happened there at the end?”

Sullivan: “No.”

Reporter: “Or what led to your ejection…”

Sullivan: “No.”

Maybe it was the events that preceded the brawl, or the ejection itself, or just his overall disappointment with the way his team played in what should have been a measuring stick game that soured his mood.

Or perhaps it was the way the Penguins’ meltdown continued after the brawl with Phil Kessel taking an offensive zone penalty right off the ensuing face-off, which was quickly followed by Kris Letang going off for cross-checking Tomas Hertl after the latter took a late swing at Penguins goalie Casey DeSmith. That sequence resulted in an extended two-man advantage for the Sharks that produced Brent Burns‘ 12th goal of the season, turning the game into a rout.

All four of the Sharks’ goals on Thursday came as a result of their special teams, scoring three power play goals and a shorthanded goal.

The Penguins still occupy the third playoff spot in the Metropolitan Division but are just one point ahead of the Carolina Hurricanes (winners on Thursday night) and only two points ahead of the Columbus Blue Jackets, who are currently on the outside of the playoff picture.

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.

Penguins’ Murray suffers yet another injury

Getty
2 Comments

The Pittsburgh Penguins embarked on a three-game road trip with an all-too-familiar and unpleasant update: Matt Murray is injured.

Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said that Murray didn’t miss a Wednesday practice because of a maintenance day, instead deeming it an upper-body injury that leaves Murray day-to-day. On the bright side, Sullivan said it was not a concussion, according to reports including Penguins Inside Scoop.

Looking at Murray’s recent injury history, and realizing that teams sometimes describe concussions as upper-body injuries, it’s understandable that some jumped to the concussion conclusion. Murray somehow only missed one game in October with a concussion, and missed nine games with one last season (in March).

The 24-year-old also missed some time in 2018-19 with a lower-body injury, so it feels like the only breaks Murray usually catches are literal ones.

Murray’s season has been up-and-down when he’s actually been on the ice, too. His numbers are a touch disappointing but not disastrous overall (15-9-1, .909 save percentage), yet if you look at his split stats, Murray’s been all over the place; he generated a .959 save percentage in five December games after suffering through an .850 slog in five November contests.

That’s frustrating, and for as brilliant as his postseason work has often been, you have to wonder if the Penguins truly feel that they can count on the two-time Stanley Cup winner.

On the bright side, the Penguins have Casey DeSmith, who’s been as sturdy (.918 save percentage, 13-9-4 record) where Murray’s been more erratic. This latest stretch is another example that the Penguins made a wise value proposition with his extension.

One other bright side: Murray and other injured Penguins are on that three-game road trip, so this might just be a blip on the radar. Those other injured Penguins are Evgeni Malkin and long-injured defenseman Justin Schultz, so things could look up for Pittsburgh in a hurry, if all three situations work out.

Here’s the road trip, which begins in Florida against the Panthers on Thursday:

Feb. 7:  at Florida
Feb. 9: at Tampa Bay
Feb. 11: at Philadelphia

After that, the Penguins play five of six games at home, although one of those “home” games is actually the neutral side 2019 Stadium Series against the Flyers. (With two fairly recent upcoming matches against Philly, the Penguins have to hope that their unfriendly neighbors cool off soon.)

So, overall, it could be worse for Murray and the Penguins, and it has been before. It still must be frustrating for a goalie and team that would really like to solidify not only a spot in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, but also ideally enter the postseason on a high note.

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.

Copley latest young, promising goalie to sign team-friendly deal

Getty Images

It’s been a subtle but important trend in the NHL over the last year — highly-rated, young backup goalies signing very team-friendly deals on clubs that are (or will be) up against the salary cap.

The latest came on Monday when Washington Capitals backup Pheonix Copley inked a new three-year pact with the club to the tune of $1.1 million annual average value.

He became another promising netminder that a team signed a ‘smart deal’ in recent months.

Here’s the list:

Copley has proved he is on the right track as a full-time NHL backup this season. His .903 save percentage in all situations isn’t pretty, sure. But consider his five-on-five is sitting at .921, a very respectable number on a team that leads the league in minor penalties taken this season and has taken a nosedive as of late.

DeSmith, by comparison, is a .925 and Saros is just behind and a .924 in 5v5 situations. All three are in the Top 30 among goalies in goals saved above average, too, with each of them on the positive side of that category.

All three are backups with good-to-great upside and are signed to deals that aren’t forcing the team to choose between them and another roster player.

Copley and Saros project to be future signings, with Saros is the heir to Pekka Rinne’s’ throne and Copley the competent backup behind Ilya Samsonov if the Capitals decide to move from Braden Holtby after next season, or an asset down the line if Holtby re-ups. DeSmith is an excellent insurance policy for the oft-injured Matt Murray in Pittsburgh, having already proved his worth in that role this season.

You can throw another guy like Minnesota Wild puck-stopper Alex Stalock into this mix, too, after he signed late last month.

It’s a trend that could catch on elsewhere, as well.

The Winnipeg Jets would likely love to sign Laurent Brossoit to similar terms, for example. He’s having a stellar season in Winnipeg after escaping from Edmonton.

Los Angeles has decisions to make with Jack Campbell and Cal Petersen, both who have shown promise this season filling in for Jonathan Quick.

And then there’s the not-so-distant aspect of this: they represent expansion draft protection, allowing these teams to expose the mandatory one goalie without having to expose the team’s No. 1 (Saros will be the exception here).

The risk with these deals is low. We’ve already seen high-risk this year, with the Oilers shelling out $13.5 million for Mikko Koskinen, who has similar numbers to Copley but is three years his senior. It’s the above contracts that make that Koskinen extension so perplexing.


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

Penguins sign goalie DeSmith to cheap, smart extension

2 Comments

The Pittsburgh Penguins are guilty of their fair share of salary cap snafus (screams in horror at Jack Johnson‘s contract), but they’re among the NHL’s sharpest when it comes to handling their goalies.

Yes, Marc-Andre Fleury has been absolutely outstanding in Vegas, but there are many teams that saddle themselves with problem contracts.

Instead, the Penguins have found ways to carve out impressive flexibility at the position by being proactive.

While Matt Murray‘s struggled with injuries and the occasional bout of inconsistency, he’s only carrying a $3.75M cap hit through 2019-20, and Pittsburgh locked him up after his brilliant work in their 2015-16 championship run.

Now they’ve managed to land some cost certainty with Casey DeSmith, as the team announced a three-year extension that will carry a paltry $1.25M cap hit beginning next season.

“Since joining the Penguins’ organization, Casey has excelled for us at every level, first in Wheeling and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, and now here in Pittsburgh,” GM Jim Rutherford said. “We’re pleased to have him signed with our organization for the next three-and-a-half seasons.”

Rutherford isn’t wrong there.

Obviously, Smith’s NHL numbers jump out at you first. The 27-year-old is 12-7-4 with a splendid .924 save percentage this season, and he also has a .923 save percentage over 40 career NHL games. Sean Tierney’s visualization of Corsica’s Goals Saved Against Average numbers show that DeSmith’s been one of the more valuable netminders so far in 2018-19:

Now, sure, it’s likely that DeSmith will cool off from here, but the Penguins aren’t really making that large of an investment in him. This decision compares nicely to the Predators locking down Juuse Saros for three years at $1.5M a pop (Saros has the better pedigree; DeSmith’s having the better 2018-19).

And, as Rutherford mentioned, DeSmith’s had success at other levels.

Check his AHL and NCAA numbers and you’ll see that DeSmith’s enjoyed success in most other seasons. That might not sounds like much, but compare his work at other levels to, say, Scott Darling, who faced a bumpy road through the ECHL and other leagues before things took off for him starting in 2013-14.

It’s not that difficult to picture a scenario where DeSmith got a much richer deal if he waited, particularly if he was the guy who helped Pittsburgh make a big run.

Instead, the Penguins went low-risk, with some enticing potential rewards.

The best-case scenario is that DeSmith ends up being a legitimate difference-maker who can sport something close to a .920 save percentage at that bargain-basement price. The worst? Maybe DeSmith flops and the Penguins have to buy him out or bury his contract in the AHL, while possibly stunting the growth of Tristan Jarry and others.

Cutting in between, it’s quite possible that DeSmith could be a useful backup who might be able to provide relief if Murray struggles or gets hurt.

***

Looking at the Penguins’ salary structure at Cap Friendly, there are a lot of players above the age of 30 who are receiving a lot of money and sometimes-scary term. There are risks of the Penguins slipping into a Kings-like lull if too many players hit the wall.

Still, Murray and DeSmith will carry just a $5M cap hit next season, compared to $6M per year for 32-year-old Jonathan Quick.

Sure, it’s easier to herd cats than predict which goalies will excel in a given year, but all things considered, this is some masterful work by the 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.