NHL on NBCSN: Blue Jackets, Penguins kick off critical home-and-home series

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Thursday night’s matchup between the Columbus Blue Jackets 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.

Talk about a game with massive playoff implications.

The Metropolitan Division is so tight that the difference between third place (Carolina, 79 points) and not being in a playoff spot at all (Columbus, 77 points) is separated by two points.

It’s with this that we can understand the magnitude of Thursday’s game between the Penguins and the visiting Blue Jackets — the start of a pivotal home-and-home series between the two clubs.

The Blue Jackets are coming off a much-needed win on Tuesday after going 1-3-0 since the trade deadline when they sold the farm for Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel and Adam McQuaid. But even the win wasn’t impressive, putting up a season-low 18 shots against a bad New Jersey Devils team that should have been a cakewalk.

“Guys are panicking for some reason. We have a lot of skill players, and guys are afraid to make five-foot passes, or tape-to-tape passes,” said forward Cam Atkinson. “Guys are running around, not in position and we’re just throwing the puck off the glass and not helping our ‘D’ out.

“We’re a blue-collar team. Where we thrive is off our forecheck and banging and creating turnovers. That’s where we get our goals. For whatever reason, we think we’re a highly-skilled team that’s just going to out-skill every team. We have to get back to good habits and working hard.”

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

Atkinson then laid it out pretty straight.

“We just have to figure it the f— out,” he said.

The Blue Jackets could use quite a bit more from the guys they traded for. Duchene has three points in seven games, Dzingel has two in five, and McQuaid, well, he’s been riding the press box express.

The Penguins eeked out an overtime win of their own on Tuesday, downing the Florida Panthers 3-2.

Unlike Columbus, however, the Penguins are surging at the right time with points in their past five games (3-0-2).

“Now is the true test. We probably shouldn’t be in this position with the team we have, but we are,” said general manager Jim Rutherford. “In some ways, it may come at a good time, because if this can come together like it should and everybody plays the way they’re capable of, the momentum will be on our side going into the playoffs.”

The Penguins were boosted Tuesday by the return of Brian Dumoulin. A concussion had kept him out of the lineup since their loss to the Philadelphia Flyers in the Stadium series.

His return couldn’t have come at a better time as the Pens are reeling on the backend with Kris Letang, Olli Maatta and Chad Ruhwedel all missing because of injury. Dumoulin wasn’t nursed back into the lineup, either, playing 21:42.

John Forslund (play-by-play) and AJ Mleczko (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from Pittsburgh. Pre-game coverage starts at 6 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Paul Burmeister alongside Jeremy Roenick and Mike Johnson.


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’ injury list grows as Rust, Ruhwedel out ‘longer term’

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The playoff push has already started for the Pittsburgh Penguins and they scored a huge victory on Tuesday night with a gutsy 5-2 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets. It helped move the Penguins back into the top-eight in the Eastern Conference — for now — and came on a night where they were badly shorthanded on the back end and were playing one of the teams they are in a fierce fight with for a playoff spot … and one that just pushed all of its chips to the center of the table in a quest for a deep playoff run.

Coming out of that situation with two points was massive.

It was also costly.

[Related: Penguins push Blue Jackets out of top-eight ]

The Penguins’ list of injured players continued to grow during the game when they lost forward Bryan Rust (lower-body) and defenseman Chad Ruhwedel (upper-body) to injuries that, in the words of coach Mike Sullivan, are going to keep them out of the lineup “longer team.”

Rust is the big injury here because he is such a vital part of the team’s forward group. He is a versatile player that fits in any role, plays up and down the lineup across all four lines, and has been playing some incredible hockey over the past couple of months. After a brutal start to the season that saw him record just one goal and six assists in his first 29 games.

In the 33 games since he has scored 16 goals to go with eight assists and has already set a new career high in goals scored.

He was injured on Thursday night when he was slammed into the boards by one of the Blue Jackets’ newest additions, defender Adam McQuaid.

He skated off the ice under his own power but was clearly in a great deal of pain and did not return.

Ruhwedel’s injury is a concern because, well, the Penguins are simply running out of healthy bodies on the blue line.

They are already playing without three of their top-four defenders with Kris Letang, Brian Dumoulin, and Olli Maatta all currently sidelined due to injuries. Sullivan said on Wednesday that Letang and Dumoulin are progressing, but that neither is skating and ready to return yet. Maatta is still expected to be out for a few more weeks.

Tuesday’s defense was a patchwork group that consisted of Justin Schultz, Jack Johnson, Marcus Pettersson, Zach Trotman, and Ruhwedel, and now the latter is out of the lineup, too.

The Penguins are expected to get Erik Gudbranson in the lineup for Friday’s game in Buffalo after acquiring him at the trade deadline in exchange for forward Tanner Pearson. After playing in Buffalo on Friday, they head to Montreal for a massive game against the Canadiens on Saturday night. Getting through that stretch with this defense and this injury situation is going to take a lot.

More: Constant roster shuffling makes Penguins look directionless

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

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.

Trade: Penguins, Stars reverse last year’s Jamie Oleksiak deal

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On Dec. 19, 2017, the Pittsburgh Penguins sent a conditional 2019 fourth-round draft pick to the Dallas Stars in exchange for Jamie Oleksiak in an effort to strengthen what was at the time a very shorthanded defense. It was not a trade that moved mountains or shook the NHL to its core, and unless you are a fan of either team you probably forgot that it ever happened. Maybe you didn’t even realize that it happened.

It is worth noting today, just a little more than one year later, because those same two teams got together on Monday and decided to call a do-over on the whole thing.

It was then that the Penguins sent Oleksiak back to the Stars in exchange for … a 2019 fourth-round draft pick.

The same pick they sent Dallas a year ago.

For all intents and purposes the Penguins rented Oleksiak for one year and then sent him right back where they got him from as if the whole thing never happened.

Let’s break this down to figure out just what everybody is getting out of this, starting with Dallas.

Oleksiak, a first-round pick by the team in 2011, was once a promising prospect in the Stars’ farm system but never really developed as hoped and he certainly never seemed to fit with former coach Ken Hitchcock last season. So they shipped him away last year and gave him a fresh start with a Penguins team that desperately needed some additional defensive depth.

He returns to the Stars after a year away in almost exactly the same manner, hoping to help fill some depth on a blue line that has been without Marc Methot and Stephen Johns all season. General manager Jim Nill said on Monday after the trade, via The Athletic’s Sean Shapiro, that he wanted to add a “weight guy” to bring some size and big-minute ability to the Stars’ blue line. Oleksiak is one of the biggest players in the league so he definitely fixes the size issue that Nill was looking to address, but that ignores one really important question: Is Oleksiak going to actually improve the Stars’ defense when it comes to scoring and preventing goals, which should be the number one question that gets asked anytime you add or subtract a player from your roster.

That is a question that will be answered over the coming weeks and months.

After arriving in Pittsburgh Oleksiak’s game definitely seemed to take a step forward, and he played well enough in the eyes of the Penguins that they were willing to sign him to a three-year contract that pays him more than $2.1 million per season. Despite that promising development, and the brand new contract, he wasn’t always a regular in the Pittsburgh lineup this season and didn’t really log a ton of big minutes when he was. He showed flashes of putting all of his skills together, but it was never consistent.

So now he goes back to the team where it all started getting yet another fresh start.

In 36 games this season Oleksiak scored four goals to go with seven assists for the Penguins.

As for the Penguins, they now shed that salary and create some additional salary cap space for themselves for both this season and in the future. That will probably proved to be important once general manager Jim Rutherford really starts working the trade lines in an effort to complete his roster for a playoff run. The return of the draft pick also gives them eight draft picks in 2019, including three fourth-round selections, to use as trade capital.

It also helps ease the log-jam they were set to have on defense whenever Justin Schultz returns in the coming weeks. When that happens the Penguins would have had as many as nine NHL defenders on their roster (Kris Letang, Brian Dumoulin, Olli Maatta, Schultz, Marcus Pettersson, Jack Johnson, Jusso Riikola, Chad Ruhwedel, and Oleksiak) without making any additional moves. A trade seemed likely at some point.

With Oleksiak now back in Dallas and Schultz not quite ready to return it seems likely that Riikola will get a more extended look in the short-term, likely on the second pairing alongside Maatta.

More: PHT Power Rankings: 10 people that will impact the NHL playoff race

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, Penguins meet on Wednesday Night Hockey

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues as the Pittsburgh Penguins visit the Washington Capitals on Wednesday Night Hockey with coverage beginning at 7 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

This will mark the 48th regular-season matchup between Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, with Crosby (21G, 45A – 66 points) outscoring Ovechkin (30G, 20A – 50 points) to lead Pittsburgh to a 28-17-2 record in the previous 47 contests (WSH: 19-21-7). They also have met 25 times in the playoffs, with Crosby (13G, 17A – 30 pts) and Ovechkin (15G, 18A – 33 pts) each averaging more than a point per game and Pittsburgh holding an advantage in their head-to-head games (13-12) and series (3-1).

The Penguins fell 4-2 to the Anaheim Ducks on Monday for their fifth loss in their last 10 games. Head coach Mike Sullivan doesn’t have a lot of patience left for their lackluster play.

“There needs to be a level of accountability and ultimately that falls on me,” he said. “Sometimes the biggest hammer a coach has is ice time, and there have been situations over the last little while where the coaching staff has utilized that. That’s not something this coaching staff likes to do. We want our guys to take ownership for their own expected games, and we want them to take ownership for the way this team is going to play.”

One example of this accountability was playing Guentzel just 3:40 in the second period on Monday. Given 8:36 on ice in the third period, Guentzel responded with several strong shifts and three shots.

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

Washington enters tonight as one of the hottest teams in the league, winners of five straight games and 12 of their last 14. They’ve also been lighting the lamp at a furious pace, scoring three or more goals in every game during that 12-2-0 stretch (4.29 goals per game).

Alex Ovechkin is riding a career-best 14-game point streak (17G, 6A), the longest active streak in the league. Ovechkin is on pace to score a career-high 74 goals this season. His current career best was 65 goals in 2007-08. The last person to score 74+ goals was fellow Russian Alexander Mogilny, who tallied 76 goals in 1992-93.

While Ovechkin has deservedly dominated headlines, Evgeny Kuznetsov is currently on an eight-game point streak (1G, 9A) and has also tallied at least one assist in all eight of those games.

[Related: Alex Ovechkin’s stunning numbers]

What: Pittsburgh Penguins at Washington Capitals
Where: Capital One Arena
When: Wednesday, Dec. 19, 7 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Penguins-Capitals stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

PENGUINS
Jake Guentzel – Sidney Crosby – Bryan Rust
Zach Aston-ReeseEvgeni MalkinPhil Kessel
Tanner PearsonDerick BrassardPatric Hornqvist
Riley SheahanMatt Cullen – Garrett Wilson

Olli MaattaJamie Oleksiak
Marcus PetterssonJack Johnson
Juuso RiikolaChad Ruhwedel

Starting goalie: Matt Murray

CAPITALS
Alex Ovechkin – Nicklas BackstromT.J. Oshie
Jakub Vrana – Evgeny Kuznetsov – Tom Wilson
Brett ConnollyLars EllerDevante Smith-Pelly
Dmitrij JaskinNic DowdTravis Boyd

Michal KempnyJohn Carlson
Dmitry OrlovMatt Niskanen
Jonas SiegenthalerMadison Bowey

Starting goalie: Braden Holtby

Six-time Emmy Award-winner Mike ‘Doc’ Emrick, U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame member Eddie Olczyk, and ‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst Pierre McGuire will have the call from Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C. Kathryn Tappen hosts NHL Live ahead of Penguins-Capitals on Wednesday, alongside analysts Mike Milbury, Keith Jones and insider Darren Dreger.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule