NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Wednesday night’s matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins at the Colorado Avalanche at 9:30 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports App by clicking here.
Two teams tangling to keep the good times rolling?
Sounds like a recipe for an exciting game. And then you read the ingredients.
Malkin. Crosby. MacKinnon. Rantanen.
It all adds up to what should be an entertaining affair for two teams playing the second half of respective back to backs.
The Colorado Avalanche put their five-game winning streak on the line against the Pittsburgh Penguins, who came from behind on Tuesday night three times against the Winnipeg Jets and squeaked out a 4-3 win.
The travel is brutal from Winnipeg to Denver, but the Penguins are 3-0-1 in their past four games and seem to finally be gelling as a team for the time being.
The Avs have been a scoring machine with 22 goals for in during their respective streak while taking care of business at the other end of the rink with just 11 goals against in that span. Colorado is also coming off a big 3-2 win against the might Nashville Predators on Tuesday.
Colorado’s defensive prowess will be put to the test if Pittsburgh’s recent trend of goal scoring continues. The Pens have four goals or more in five of their past six games. It helps that Sid is leading that charge with four goals and 11 points in his past seven games.
Colorado counters with fellow Cole Harbour native Nathan MacKinnon. Best buds off the ice (and on Tim Hortons commercials) Crosby will be out to shut down MacKinnon and his five-game point streak.
With a nice 17-8-0 record, it’s not as if the Toronto Maple Leafs are failing to deliver on the hype so far this season.
Even so, we haven’t really gotten a taste of what kind of juggernaut this team can truly be, but that could all change if the Maple Leafs finally resolve one lingering problem and see a superstar shake off lingering injuries.
Yes, it’s looking like an exciting week for the Maple Leafs. Here’s why just about any hockey fan should share that excitement, or at least a healthy dose of fascination.
Matthews makes a comeback
To start, it sounds like Toronto will get that aforementioned superstar back from injury on Wednesday, as Auston Matthews is slated to get back in the lineup as the Buds face the San Jose Sharks. Matthews last suited up on Oct. 27, yet his numbers still look pretty splendid, as he generated 10 goals and six assists for 16 points in just 11 games, and that last contest was abbreviated by his latest, unfortunate injury.
The Maple Leafs were 8-3-0 after winning that Oct. 27 game against Winnipeg. With John Tavares and Frederik Andersen putting together excellent work in Matthews’ absence, Toronto produced a solid 9-5-0 mark without the American center, thus leaving them at 17-8-0.
Nylander, 22, has played two full seasons in the NHL, plus a 22-game run in 2015-16. He’s generated 20+ goals twice, and 61 points in each instance, giving him an impressive 135 points in 185 games. But how good is he, really?
If you spend any time on Hockey Twitter, you’ve probably seen people arguing about Nylander, whether the discussion turns to accusations of greed, being “carried” by Matthews, or – on the opposite end – bold proclamations regarding his greatness.
Long bar graphs/story short, it can sometimes feel a little vague to deem Nylander a “top-six forward,” so maybe it would be best to describe as someone who could fit into plenty of top lines around the league, and prosper along the way?
Combining Matthews, Marner, and Nylander with Tavares won’t be cheap, something the Maple Leafs are making quite clear. It will likely be worth the headaches, though, because that’s a scary group.
There also might be a silver lining to this long, drawn-out process, beyond Toronto potentially making the money work.
Gains for the supporting cast
With Matthews and especially Nylander out, other players have been asked to step up.
The most tantalizing development probably comes in the strong year for Kasperi Kapanen. Would he have received so many opportunities with high-end linemates if Nylander was around since Game 1? Judging by past seasons, the answer sure feels like “No.”
Kapanen’s really run with the opportunity, displaying speed and skill while collecting 17 points in 25 games. His 18.9 shooting percentage indicates that he might slow down a bit, yet Kapanen’s likely earned serious trust with Mike Babcock and others.
The Nylanders and Matthews of the league drive your success, yet sometimes it’s the growth of a player who could thrive or decline (possibly Kapanen, definitely someone like Brayden Point or Jake Guentzel) who can really make the difference in finding something special.
No doubt about it, the Leafs aren’t out of the woods. They still need to settle Nylander’s situation, and more strained contract talks await with Matthews and Marner.
Like just about any team in the salary cap era, they also must play well enough to make up for certain flaws. Putting a talented group on the ice doesn’t guarantee a deep run, and expectations are likely to be extremely high in Toronto if the Maple Leafs do get Matthews healthy and Nylander signed.
Success would be awfully sweet if that does happen, as the Maple Leafs could conceivably be the most dazzling team we’ve seen in some time. After all, good things come to those who wait, right?
When you have a night a special as the one Laine experienced, you get your own section.
On a night of hat tricks, Laine refused to settle for a mere three goals, nearly managing a double-hatty. Ultimately, he finished with a ridiculous five goals on five shots. If anyone can do that, it’s Laine.
This isn’t just a one-night outburst for Laine, either. By the three-goal mark, he had reached at least a hat trick for the seventh time in his young career … and the third during the month of November.
In case you’re wondering, yes, it’s been a very long time since someone managed a hat trick of hat tricks during a single month.
#NHLJets Patrik Laine is the first player with 3 Hat Tricks in a calendar month since Alex Kovalev in February 2001
Laine, 20, won’t turn 21 until April 19. That’s relevant to note because, while he’s unlikely to match this Wayne Gretzky mark, it’s also true that it was already unlikely that he’d generate three hat tricks in a single month.
Laine lands in Gretzky-rarified-air more than once. Sportsnet’s stats staff also notes that he’s the first 20-year-old to collect five goals since Gretzky managed that mark twice. Again, it would be asking a lot for the winger to match that mark by number 99, yet he also has the rest of the season to do so (Winnipeg’s last regular-season game comes on April 6, almost two weeks before his 21st birthday).
PHT’s Scott Billeck did a great job of recapping Laine’s red-hot ways:
So to recap on Patrik Laine (Take 3): – 15 goals in November – Three hat tricks in November – Two hat tricks this week' – First five-goal game since 2001 – 11 goals in his past four games – 19 goals on the season (1st in the NHL)#NHLJets
Thanks to this ridiculous night, Laine now has 19 goals in 2018-19, giving him the NHL lead. Interestingly, Saturday left him at 99 career regular-season goals. It should be fascinating to see Laine try to climb this list, too.
Patrik Laine, who will celebrate his 21st birthday on April 19, 2019, now sits one goal shy of 100 in his NHL career (177 GP).
Let’s give Laine’s partners-in-crime a little love, too.
Both Connor and Little collected four assists during Laine’s five-goal night. If you have to choose one of the two, Connor would probably get quite a bit more credit for driving play, as he finished the night with four shots on goal to go with his four assists (Little had one SOG).
Many joked about how Laine’s going to get paid on his next contract. The way things going, Connor might not be too cheap, either.
Heading into Saturday, this 24-year-old Leafs forward had two goals over his entire, young NHL career. Johnsson generated a hat trick in a single period on Saturday, and actually hit that mark with about seven minutes remaining in the opening frame.
Would Johnsson have generated even more offense if the Flyers ever got on the board in this one? Maybe, but he still enjoyed one of the night’s great performances.
(Garret Sparks‘ 34-save shutout likely kept Toronto from going too over the top.)
Laine isn’t the only youngster playing beyond his years.
Elias Pettersson is the eighth player since 1984-85 to score 13+ goals through 20 career games:@_EPettersson (13) Evgeni Malkin (13) Alex Ovechkin (15) Teemu Selanne (16) Eric Lindros (15) Rob Gaudreau (14) Dimitri Kvartalnov (14) Joe Sakic (13)#NHLStatspic.twitter.com/7UlZeMGWBs
The Pittsburgh Penguins seem to be the cure for whatever is ailing the New Jersey Devils these days.
After starting the season with a four-game winning streak, the Devils have won just three of the 12 games that followed while being outscored by 20 goals (52-32). They have been, for lack of a better word, bad.
Unless they happen to be playing the Penguins as two of those three wins have not only come against their divisional rival — including Tuesday’s 4-2 decision in New Jersey — but they have also outscored them by a 9-3 margin.
That is not a good look for the Penguins. Also not a good look for the Penguins: The fact they are now just 1-5-1 in their past seven games and are showing a lot of the same potentially fatal flaws that held them back at times a year ago, specifically when it comes to the abysmal play of their third-and fourth-lines.
Some numbers to ponder: After Tuesday’s game it has now been nine games since the Penguins received an even-strength goal from their third-or fourth-line. Meaning, a line that has not been centered by Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. The last such goal came in a 9-1 win over the Calgary Flames on Oct. 25 when Matt Cullen scored his first, and only, goal of the season.
During the stretch that has followed, the team has scored only 18 total goals, with only 14 of them coming at even-strength. One of Crosby or Malkin has been on the ice for all 14 of those even-strength goals, and at least one of them has contributed (scoring or assisting) to 11 of them.
It is not just the lack of goals, either. Their third-and fourth-lines are getting crushed in every aspect of the game, whether it’s actual goals (outscored 8-0), shot attempts (less than 44 percent) or scoring chances (also less than 44 percent).
On Tuesday, Crosby had a hand in both goals recording the primary assist on both of them, including an incredible cross-ice pass to Phil Kessel on the power play, and a controversial goal that saw Crosby plow through the crease and skate into Devils goalie Keith Kinkaid, leaving a rebound right on the doorstep for Jake Guentzel to pounce on.
The Devils challenged the goal for goalie interference but the on-ice call was upheld.
General manager Jim Rutherford addressed the depth issues a week ago when he ripped into his team’s slow start and commented on how they are not getting contributions from their depth players.
“It’s almost like the guys come to the games and say, ‘Let’s just let the top guys do it.’ Let’s let Sid, Geno, Phil and Letang carry us. We’ll just get through the game and move on to the next game. Forget about the work ethic it takes or forget about the role they play. But when those top players aren’t getting it done, whether they’re shut down or they’re just not having a good game, that’s when we need those other guys to come in and contribute and help win games. We’re not getting it.”
That was probably the most on-point and accurate thing he said.
Over the past couple of weeks coach Mike Sullivan has tried a lot of different things to jumpstart individual players in an effort to get them going.
Bryan Rust, fresh off signing a long-term contract extension over the summer, has been off to a terribly slow start and been bumped up to the top line alongside Crosby and Dominik Simon.
Carl Hagelin, who has just three points in 16 games, has remained in the top-six alongside Malkin despite his lack of offense.
With Rust and Hagelin getting those big-minute roles, it means somebody else gets bumped down the line, and on Tuesday it was Guentzel and Phil Kessel (the two most productive wingers on the team) opening the night on the third line being centered by Riley Sheahan … who has two points in 16 games, none in his past seven, and has not scored a goal since the second game of the season.
None of it has worked.
What the Penguins really need right now is for Derick Brassard to get healthy again, and once he does, they need to stick him on the third-line (which is the role they acquired him for; not to play alongside Crosby on the top line as he had been doing prior to his injury) and hope that he starts to produce as they expected him to.
They also need to hope that somebody out of the Rust, Hagelin, Sheahan trio (which accounts for nearly $10 million in salary cap space) starts to contribute something.
Or, as the GM hinted at, maybe even a trade to bring in somebody that might help add some offense.
Whatever the solution might be, they better find it fast because they are only two points out of the bottom spot in the Eastern Conference.
Yeah, it is early (and yeah, they were in a nearly identical spot at this exact same time a year ago). But it is not so early that there should not be some concern.
NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Wednesday night’s matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals at 7:30 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports App by clicking here.
The two Metropolitan Division rivals meet for the second of four games this season. On Oct. 4, the Penguins took the first meeting in a wild 7-6 overtime game. Right now the teams, who are two of the NHL’s top offenses (WSH, 3.77 goals/gm / PIT, 3.54 goals/gm – T-4th) have identical 6-4-3 records.
The Penguins are struggling at the moment and enter Wednesday’s game on a four-game losing streak, including the last two at home by a combined 10-1 score (5-0 vs TOR, 5-1 vs NJ). They’ve never lost five in a row under Mike Sullivan.
“We’ve got some balance through our lines. We’re hoping by just simplifying our game and taking some of the thinking out of it and just getting after it out there and trying to establish some momentum, that will help us,” Sullivan explained.
Washington heads into the game in the middle of a five-game homestand. They’re coming off a 4-2 win over Edmonton on Monday and a victory on Wednesday would give them consecutive wins for the first time all year.