Jake Guentzel

Injured Guentzel on schedule for possible return for Penguins

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PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins All-Star forward Jake Guentzel‘s recovery from shoulder surgery is on schedule, opening the door for him to play at some point should the NHL return this season.

General manager Jim Rutherford said Wednesday that Guentzel has not endured any setbacks since undergoing surgery on Dec. 31 for the shoulder he injured while awkwardly slamming into the end boards shortly after scoring his 20th goal of the season against Ottawa on Dec. 30.

The initial timetable for Guentzel’s potential return was 4 to 6 months. Rutherford indicated the 25-year-old Guentzel is near the front end of the timetable.

”If you take the shortest (recovery) period, that would be the end of April and if it’s six months it’s June,” Rutherford said. ”But I would expect that knowing Jake Guentzel that he’s going to be ready, and his rehab is going well. And he’s at the point now where he’s one of the guys who’s returned home and will continue to rehab on his own.

The NHL’s season remains on pause because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s possible that Guentzel – who wouldn’t have been ready for the start of the playoffs under the normal schedule – could be available immediately if play doesn’t resume for another month or so.

Guentzel was in the middle of his finest season at the time of the injury. His 20 goals led the Penguins, helping them navigate a rocky few patch that included injuries to captain Sidney Crosby and star center Evgeni Malkin. Pittsburgh was in third place in the Metropolitan Division when the season was suspended.

Panic time? Penguins staying patient during unexpected slide

Penguins losing streak reaches six games after Sharks shutout Flyers ahead
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PITTSBURGH — Mike Sullivan’s voice was calm as he urged patience and understanding, qualities that tend to be in short supply around the NHL when the calendar flips to March and the number of regular-season games dwindles.

They’re traits the Pittsburgh Penguins coach hasn’t had to rely on much during his four-plus years on the bench, which include back-to-back Stanley Cup championships. Yet with the Penguins mired in their longest losing streak since 2012 – a six-game skid that’s rendered their appearance at the top of the Metropolitan Division two weeks ago a mere cameo – the typically fiery Sullivan has taken a more muted approach.

”There’s no easy stretch,” Sullivan said Monday. ”That’s just the nature of the league.”

It’s a nature the Penguins have largely been immune to for years. Yet they have looked decidedly vulnerable while getting outscored 24-8 against a schedule littered with teams basically playing out the season. A winless road swing through California last week culminated with a 5-0 loss to San Jose that led captain Sidney Crosby to place the blame squarely on his shoulders.

Though Crosby – who has just one point since a 5-2 romp over Toronto on Feb. 18 pushed Pittsburgh into first place in the Metropolitan – hasn’t quite looked like himself of late, neither has the 19 other guys in the lineup on a given night. Asked if there was any one common thread for a swoon no one saw coming, Crosby shrugged.

”It’s hard to point the finger at one specific thing, but I think putting the puck in the net a little more would give us some breathing room,” he said.

Of course, for the puck to go into the net, the Penguins actually need to shoot it. It’s something one of the league’s most talented offensive teams has struggled to do lately. While on the surface Pittsburgh’s average of 33 shots per game during the losing streak looks healthy, the reality is that the Penguins have fallen into the habit of trying to make the pretty play instead of the right one.

”Sometimes the ESPN highlight reel kind of gets in your mind,” forward Jared McCann said. ”But I feel like sometimes, especially with the way things are going right now, we’ve just got to throw pucks on net. We’ve got to throw it at a goalie’s feet. We’ve got to make the easy shot, sometimes it’ll go in.”

McCann attributed Pittsburgh’s scoring issues partly to bad ”puck luck,” that inexplicable phenomenon associated with the whims of a one-inch piece of vulcanized rubber. Though the Penguins have had the lead just once at the end of their last 24 periods, McCann insists the players aren’t frustrated. There are times when they feel they’ve played well for extended stretches only to have nothing to show for it thanks to a bounce here or a bounce there.

”You’ve got to laugh at it,” McCann said. ”What are you going to do? Sit there and mope? And you’ll just dig yourself deeper and make it worse. I’m trying to stay positive with it.”

Having the NHL’s longest active playoff streak helps. Pittsburgh hasn’t missed the postseason since 2006 and despite its current funk is still in relatively good shape. The Penguins are third in the Metropolitan Division and have three games in hand over Columbus, which currently holds the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference. The schedule also is division heavy over the final month, giving Pittsburgh opportunity make up lost ground.

”We have the ability to control our own destiny,” forward Bryan Rust said.

Also, the Penguins, who have been ravaged by injuries for much of the season, are close to having some familiar faces back on the ice.

Defensemen Brian Dumoulin – out since Nov. 30 with an ankle injury – and John Marino – out since Feb. 6 after taking a puck to the face – are both game-time decisions on Tuesday night when Pittsburgh hosts Ottawa. Forward Nick Bjugstad has been cleared for full contact and is close to playing for the first time since mid-November. While forward Dominik Simon is week to week with an upper-body injury and All-Star forward Jake Guentzel won’t be ready until late April at the earliest as he recovers from shoulder surgery, new arrivals Patrick Marleau, Connor Sheary and Evan Rodrigues give Pittsburgh versatility, speed and, in the 40-year-old Marleau, another veteran voice.

There’s no need to panic yet. Still, the wiggle room Pittsburgh enjoyed during its torrid play through December and January is gone. Team owner Mario Lemieux took in practice on Monday with president David Morehouse and general manager Jim Rutherford. Sullivan’s voice – unlike the tone he used while addressing the media – boomed through PPG Paints Arena as he tried to steer his club back on track.

”A team goes through points in the season where it comes a little easier than other points,” Crosby said. ”We’re facing some adversity right now. We’ve faced it all year long with different things. It’s a good test and a good challenge for us.”

New-look Penguins play first game since trade deadline on NBCSN

Hockey fans get their first post-trade deadline glance at the new-look Penguins on Wednesday. Then again, it’s also true that later versions of the Penguins will look different from the group that faces the Kings on NBCSN at 10:30 p.m. ET (stream here).

Penguins roll out new trade deadline additions in these lineups — for now

Like many other NHL coaches, Mike Sullivan likes to tinker with his combinations. Injuries forced Sullivan to do so anyway this season, and the Penguins’ trade deadline investments now give him a plethora of options. When/if certain players come back, the variety will only grow.

Let’s go forward line by forward line based on NHL.com’s projected combos for Wednesday, since that’s where Pittsburgh made acquisitions.

Jason ZuckerSidney CrosbyConor Sheary

As new-look as the Penguins feel, there seems to be warm-and-fuzzy feelings for the reunion of Crosby and Sheary. Personally, I never understood why Pittsburgh broke them up in the first place. (Especially if the answer is troublingly “to afford bad defenseman Jack Johnson.”)

In a lineup breakdown from The Athletic’s Josh Yohe (sub required), both Crosby and Sheary amusingly described each other as easy to play with. Sullivan’s comments provided a little more substance.

“He brings a speed element,” Sullivan said of Sheary. “He can finish. He’s good in traffic. A lot of attributes that Conor brings to the table are complementary to Sid.”

Sheary can think the game at a reasonable level with Crosby, and the early returns on Zucker indicate the same. (On paper, Zucker seems like a no-brainer fit for Crosby, but in reality not everyone clicks with 87.)

Still, there are a number of different factors that could break these fellows up. What if Jake Guentzel beats the timeline for recovery from his shoulder surgery, at least for the playoffs? Will Penguins eventually want a right-handed shot with Crosby instead of two other lefties?

This seems like a good mix overall, at least to start, though.

Bryan RustEvgeni MalkinPatric Hornqvist

Business as usual there, basically. Rust and Hornqvist can work with Crosby if needed, so that’s nice.

Patrick MarleauEvan RodriguesDominik Simon

Trade deadline additions make two-thirds of this third line, and the potential is interesting. Simon ranks as the most feasible candidate to move up, possibly with Crosby again. While Marleau ranks as a bigger name, Rodrigues stands out as a fascinating wild card.

People have been noting Rodrigues’ potential as a hidden gem for some time.

(His underlying numbers still look good at Hockey Viz, although things slipped a bit in 2019-20 compared to more robust work in 2017-18 and 2018-19.)

The sheer variety of useful players in the Penguins’ top nine is really something, especially when you realize that Jared McCann could end up being a more regular fit as third-line center. Nick Bjugstad already feels like old news, considering the revolving door of Penguins forwards, yet he’s another interesting player if health eventually permits.

Sam LaffertyTeddy BluegerBrandon Tanev

Then you have what seems to be a pretty strong fourth line from a defensive standpoint. Quite a group.

(Oh yeah, and there’s also Zach Aston-Reese. Healthy scratches could eventually become straight-up awkward if most/everyone actually gets healthy.)

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 10:30 P.M. ET ON NBCSN]

Defense and other considerations for Penguins

NHL.com projects Pittsburgh’s Wednesday defensive pairings as such:

Jack Johnson — Kris Letang

Marcus PetterssonJustin Schultz

Juuso RiikolaChad Ruhwedel

Naturally, injuries have been a factor for the Penguins’ defense (and also goalies including Matt Murray). Moving past players who have worked past injuries like Letang and Schultz, Pittsburgh has some significant blueliners on the shelf. It’s possible Brian Dumoulin may return with time to shake off rust before the playoffs, while rookie revelation John Marino is recovery from surgery after a wayward puck broke bones in his cheek.

In other words … the Penguins’ defense could continue to look quite different as things go along, much like their forward groups.

Despite all that turbulence, the Penguins figure to be a formidable opponent, particularly after stocking up with Zucker, Sheary, Marleau, and Rodrigues in recent times. Catch your first look at that new-look group against the Kings on Wednesday on NBCSN.

More: Kings aim to upset 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.

NHL On NBC: Penguins, Capitals play for top spot in Metropolitan

Penguins Capitals
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NBC’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Sunday’s matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals. Coverage begins at 12 p.m. ET on NBC. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

First place in the Metropolitan Division is on the line on Sunday afternoon in the nation’s capital when the Pittsburgh Penguins visit the Washington Capitals (12 p.m. ET, NBC).

It is an interesting matchup not only because of what is on the line, but because neither team is all that satisfied with the way it is playing entering the game despite their overall records.

Let’s start with Pittsburgh.

The Penguins enter the game with a 23-8-2 record since the start of December (one of the best marks in the league during that stretch) despite dealing with a series of significant issues. But Mike Sullivan has been critical of his team’s commitment to defense in recent games, leaning too heavily on its goalies and coming off of ugly back-to-back losses to Toronto and Buffalo.

Saturday’s loss to the Sabres marked just the first time since November 29-30 that they lost consecutive games, and was only the third time all season they have lost consecutive games in regulation.

Sullivan said after the game that he was both disappointed and concerned with the team’s defensive play, and that even though the team is saying all of the right things, it isn’t showing up in their actions on the ice.

“It’s not enough to just play hard,” said Sullivan on Saturday. “You have to play smart.”

The Penguins are currently playing without some of their best defensive players as defensemen Brian Dumoulin and John Marino, as well as forwards Dominik Kahun and Zach Aston-Reese have been injured. The team is also playing without its top goal scoring winger in Jake Guentzel.

There is an equal amount of frustration on the Washington side.

Alex Ovechkin finally scored the 700th goal of his career on Saturday afternoon, but it was not enough to gain a point against the New Jersey Devils in a 3-2 loss. The Capitals are now just 3-7-1 in their past 11 games and have not done a lot to help out their goalies, Braden Holtby and Ilya Samsonov.

The team acquired defenseman Brenden Dillon from the San Jose Sharks this past week to help address that.

This is the second regular season matchup of the year between the two teams, with the Penguins winning 4-3 in Washington in early February.

They will play each other two more times after Sunday, with both games being played in Pittsburgh.

Matt Murray (Pittsburgh) and Braden Holtby (Washington) are expected to get the start in goal for the two teams on Sunday.

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.

Assessing the proper level of panic for Maple Leafs

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PITTSBURGH — The Maple Leafs do not exist in a world of calm, rational thought. They exist in a world of extremes. A world where they are either an elite roster where a Stanley Cup is their inevitable destiny, or a world where everything about them is a five-alarm dumpster fire where they have to trade everyone and completely change everything about them.

They have experienced both extremes during this season.

It started with the hopelessness that ultimately ended the Mike Babcock era.

The first 20 games under new coach Sheldon Keefe brought more goals, more wins, and a rapid climb up the standings.

Now, after a completely inept 5-2 loss to the Penguins Tuesday night (against a Penguins team that was already playing without Jake Guentzel, Brian Dumoulin, and John Marino, and then found out it would not have Evgeni Malkin 25 minutes before puck drop) the inferno is not only back, it is raging.

And while the Maple Leafs are dealing with their own share of injury issues (Morgan Rielly, Andreas Johnsson) it shouldn’t have resulted in an effort like that.

That loss also came on the heels of an ugly 5-2 defeat to a hapless Sabres team, and continued a disappointing February that has seen the team win just four out of 10 games. Only one of those wins (a 4-2 win over the Senators) came in regulation. Things seemed to hit rock bottom mid-way through the second period on Tuesday when, after failing to score on an eighty-five second 5-on-3 power play, they were completely embarrassed in their own zone to fall behind 5-0. The entire sequence was the hockey equivalent of the Penguins emphatically dunking on the Maple Leafs. At that point they never seemed further away from where they should be.

Maple Leafs players were grilled on everything afterward, from the urgency they need to display, to what moves need to be made to fix this mess before Monday’s trade deadline, to just what in the hell has been going on for the past three weeks.

“When things don’t go our way, we have to find better ways to respond,” said captain John Tavares. “We just don’t respond well, getting down a goal, getting down two, even though the game wasn’t being dominated on either side. We did some decent things early, then I don’t know, we were either frustrated with the way we were playing, or feel like things aren’t going our way. That’s this time of year. Things are going to be tough. You have to overcome it.”

“It looks like the process that we want to go through is to just get embarrassed enough to the point where we just really look in the mirror and recognize what’s required for us to be able to compete at a high level at this stage of the season,” said an obviously irritated Keefe afterward, before later adding that it’s not just any one thing on any given night.

“If you had special teams on your Bingo card of things that are hurting our group then you’re happy today and got that filled. I think the common denominator is just the overall urgency and competitiveness of the group.”

Urgency and compete were words that were used often after the game, with Tavares being asked directly what “urgency” looks like to him.

“Just winning our battles, and some that you shouldn’t win,” said Tavares. “Finding a way to get outside your comfort zone. Finding another level that maybe you’re not sure you even have. It’s just part of what makes winning hard. I’ve only been so far, I’m trying to find it myself, and I think as a group that’s the way you challenge and push each other, and when thing get hard you have to embrace it.”

“Everyone’s got to take a look in the mirror and we have to be better because that’s unacceptable,” said defenseman Jake Muzzin. “We have to find the urgency, the passion, the love of the game, the love to compete for each other. All of that needs to come. I don’t know why it’s not there. Sometimes when we struggle we want the easy game, and it’s not going to be easy against good teams.”

Overall, it was about as dejected and bleak as things could seem for a team following a mid-February loss.

On one hand, it is somewhat understandable. This roster is not where anyone expected it to be in the standings at this point in the season. It has also been a tough stretch of results this month, with Tuesday’s loss being the second time in as many games this season that they have been completely dominated by Pittsburgh, a team that is supposed to be a measuring stick opponent. Where the Penguins have been — and currently are — is where the Maple Leafs are trying to reach. And when you get blown out by them twice (by a combined score of 12-3 in two games) that has to be a jolt to the system.

They also remain in a fight with the FPanthers to simply secure a playoff spot (which is far from a given at this point).

But even with these past 10 games the Maple Leafs are still 22-12-4 under Keefe.

That is a 105-point pace over 82 games and the sixth-best points percentage in the league during that stretch. Their awful start put them in a hole that was going to take a ton of digging to get out of with little margin for error the rest of the way. For the most part, they have pulled themselves out of it. But they still find themselves in a position — thanks entirely to that slow start — where every loss is going to be magnified, every flaw is going to be put under the microscope, and every game is going to be the most important game of the season.

There is not much room for the middle ground in sports analysis right now as everything tends to swing to the extremes. The Maple Leafs, because of the market they play in, the demand to end a generations long championship drought, and the talent they have on paper only adds to that for them. The reality, though, often times sits somewhere in the middle. The Maple Leafs have their flaws. They have their concerns. But they are still in a better spot than they were three months ago and probably not in as dire of a situation as it seems after an ugly loss.

MORE: PHT’s 2020 NHL Trade Deadline Tracker

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.