John Marino

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Marino, Dumoulin make instant impact as Penguins snap losing streak

PITTSBURGH — They may not be their biggest stars, but the Pittsburgh Penguins got two of their most important players back on Tuesday night with the returns of defensemen Brian Dumoulin and John Marino.

It is not a coincidence that their presence helped spark one of the Penguins’ best overall games in weeks to help them snap what had been a six-game losing streak with a 7-3 win over the Ottawa Senators.

It did not take them very long to make an impact, either.

Marino opened the scoring for the Penguins with a goal just 48 seconds into the first period.

That was followed by Dumoulin making a smooth play in the offensive zone to set up Conor Sheary less than a minute later to give the Penguins a two-goal lead they would never come close to surrendering.

Bryan Rust also recorded a hat trick in the win, while Evgeni Malkin had four assists.

Sidney Crosby also recorded the 800th assist of his career.

But the big picture news here for the Penguins is what the return of two of their top blue-liners could mean.

Their absence put a significant dent in the lineup (Dumoulin had been sidelined since the end of November, while Marino had missed about a month) the past few weeks. It not only took away two of their best defensive players, but it also put them into a situation where the remaining blue-liners had to take on bigger roles than they’re accustomed to playing. Jack Johnson had to move up to the top pairing alongside Kris Letang, Justin Schultz had to play on the second pairing, and their third-pairing was a revolving door of extra defensemen.

On Tuesday, everything was back to the way they intended it to be: Letang with Dumoulin, Marino with Marcus Petterson, and Schultz and Johnson on the third pairing.

The other underrated part of their presence is what they can do for the offense due to their ability to get the puck out of the defensive zones and feed the Penguins transition game. That element had also been lacking in recent games.

“They’re such good players on both side of the puck,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan of Marino and Dumoulin. “They defend so well, they have puck poise and good breakouts, and they help us create some balance throughout our pairs. It just makes us a better team when they’re in the lineup.”

Marino, one of the league’s top rookies this season, now has six goals and 26 points in 52 games this season thanks to his early tally on Tuesday.

“Honestly just tried to get it to the net,” said Marino when asked about his goal. “I saw [Rust] had a good screen in front and luckily it went in.”

Along with the goal he also broke up a 3-on-1 rush in the second period, nearly scored a second goal later in the period, and was at times a one-man breakout coming out of the defensive zone. The Penguins acquired him from the Edmonton Oilers for a sixth-round draft pick over the summer and it has helped completely transform their defense.

Even with their recent slide the Penguins are still in a pretty good spot in the Eastern Conference playoff race. Their win on Tuesday gives them a seven-point cushion over the non-playoff teams, while they are also four points ahead of the Wild Card teams. They are also just one point back of the Philadelphia Flyers for the second spot in the Metropolitan Division. They still sit four points back of the Capitals for the top spot, which could be difficult to make up, but they do have two head-to-head meetings (both in Pittsburgh) remaining.

“Honestly, every team goes through this,” said Marino of the team’s recent slump. “We happen to be going through right now, but other teams go through it. There’s a lot of veteran players here that know to stay calm. We have the right guys in the room to do what we want. As long as we just stick to our game we will be fine.”

Related: Penguins get two important players back with John Marino, Brian Dumoulin

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.

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.”

Help appears to be on the way for Penguins

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The solution to the Pittsburgh Penguins’ recent struggles is a simple one, and it appears to be on the verge of happening.

That solution: the return of a healthy Brian Dumoulin and John Marino on defense.

After both players were full participants in practice on Monday, coach Mike Sullivan confirmed they will be game-time decisions for the Penguins’ game against the Ottawa Senators on Tuesday night as they try to snap their current six-game losing streak.

Dumoulin skated next to Kris Letang at practice on Monday, while Marino was next to Marcus Pettersson.

Their pending returns is one of the biggest reasons general manager Jim Rutherford did not address the team’s blue line ahead of the NHL trade deadline. Given the way the team played defensively this season when both were healthy it’s not hard to see why they were willing to be patient.

Getting them back in the lineup not only gives the Penguins two of their top-four defensemen, it also helps get everyone else on defense back to the roles they are best suited for.

The Dumoulin impact

With Dumoulin sidelined the Penguins have been playing Jack Johnson in his spot on the top-pairing next to Letang. It has not only not worked, it has been one of the least productive defense pairings in the league by pretty much every objective measure.

Johnson had been effective earlier this season in a third-pairing role but recently was being asked to play too many minutes in a role he is simply not suited for.

Letang and Dumoulin, on the other hand, has been one of the league’s best defense pairings for the past three years. Since the start of the 2017-18 season there have 160 different defense pairings across the NHL that have played at least 500 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey together. The Letang-Dumoulin pairing ranks among the top-25 in that group in shot attempt share, scoring chance share, and is a plus-17 overall in terms of goals. Dumoulin may not be a superstar, but he is a smart, defensively sound player that possesses enough mobility and puck skills to perfectly complement Letang. They simply work together exceptionally well.

Over that same time period, the Letang-Johnson duo ranks among the bottom-20 in the same categories and has been outscored by nine goals.

Do not overlook Marino’s impact

Marino has been one of the biggest surprises in the NHL this season and has helped completely overhaul the Penguins’ defense.

He has not only been one of the best rookies in the NHL this season, he has been one of the most impactful defensive players in the entire league regardless of position or experience. Of the 517 players to log at least 500 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time this season Marino currently ranks 73rd in total shot attempts against per 60 minutes, 17th in expected goals against, 64th in scoring chances against, and 39th in high-danger chances against. Pretty much the top 10 percent of the league across the board.

It is not a coincidence that the team’s overall defensive performance started to trend in the wrong direction when he was sidelined a few weeks ago. It was also around that same time that they lost forward Zach Aston-Reese, one of their best defensive forwards and a huge part of their shutdown line alongside Brandon Tanev and Teddy Blueger.

Marino’s return allows allows Justin Schultz to slide down to the third pairing alongside Johnson, where they can be sheltered a bit more and not have to be relied on to play more than 20 minutes a night against the other team’s best players.

It is going to make everyone better.

Even with their current losing streak the Penguins are still within striking distance of the top spot in the Metropolitan Division and were 23-6-2 in the games prior to that.

(Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick)

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.

The NHL’s All-Underrated rookie team

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Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar and Vancouver Canucks defender Quinn Hughes have long been thought of as the only two legitimate Calder Trophy candidates. But is it really just a two-horse race? One of those two players will likely be named rookie of the year, there are other first-year players having impressive seasons in 2019-20.

So, we decided to build the all-underrated rookie team for the 2019-20 season. We’ll pick two wingers, a center, a pair of defensemen and a starting netminder. These first-year players have received their share of recognition, but none of them has gotten serious Calder consideration.

Here we go:

Dominik Kubalik – W – Chicago Blackhawks: The 24-year-old scored a hat trick in last night’s win over the Tampa Bay Lightning. He’s now up to 29 goals and 44 points in 62 games this season. That puts him on pace for 37 goals in 2019-20. That’s an impressive total for any player, let alone someone who is in their first season in North America.

Even his teammates are openly campaigning for him now:

Kubalik’s numbers are even more impressive when you consider that 25 of his 29 goals and 35 of his 44 points have come at even strength. No other rookie has more than 12 even-strength goals in 2019-20. That’s how good the ‘Hawks freshman has been.

Nick Suzuki – C – Montreal Canadiens: Suzuki was acquired from the Vegas Golden Knights along with Tomas Tatar and a second-round draft pick. The Habs had to give up captain Max Pacioretty to them that haul, but it’s a deal that’s worked out well for both sides.

Suzuki started the year playing wing on the fourth line and he’s since emerged as a valuable contributor down the middle. The 20-year-old is in the middle of a four-game pointless drought, but he’s managed to pick up 13 goals and 40 points in 66 games. His numbers are solid, but don’t jump off the page. That’s mainly because he didn’t start getting power play time until later on in the season.

He deserves to be mentioned among the group of under the radar rookies. He’s shown that his hockey IQ is up there for a player of his age and he has the offensive instincts to chip in offensively with regularity.

“He’s a smart player, he figures it out, but at the end of the day it’s having been through that grind before,” head coach Claude Julien said of the rookie’s heavy workload in junior hockey, per CBC. “Once the guys go through it once they’re a lot better the second time around. So to me, he had it before he got here and that’s why he’s doing well.”

Victor Olofsson – W – Buffalo Sabres: Olofsson is to power play goals what Kubalik is to even-strength production. The Sabres rookie has scored 19 goals this season and 11 of them have come on the man-advantage. Sure, you’d like to see him produce more at five-on-five, but when you can get this type of offense from a player drafted in seventh round, you shouldn’t complain.

No matter what you think of his even-strength production, you have to be encouraged by the fact that his first NHL campaign has gone this well. It’s definitely something he can build on going forward. And since when is being a lethal weapon on the power play such a bad thing anyway?

Adam Fox – D – New York Rangers: How is it possible to be underrated in New York? Well, Fox has found a way. The 22-year-old has an impressive seven goals and 34 points in 63 games this season. He’s also averaging 18:45 of ice time per game, but he’s played over 20 minutes in each of the last eight games.

It’s always good for a youngster to be mentioned in the same breath as a player like John Carlson. The numbers in the above tweet are really impressive.

Canadiens forward Max Domi banked a puck off Fox and into the Rangers net in the first period of last night’s game, but the rookie responded with a goal and an assist in his team’s comeback victory.

Ethan Bear – D – Edmonton Oilers: Penguins defenseman John Marino would’ve probably been in the spot had he been healthy, but he’s been sidelined for a while now. Bear is worthy of being here. The 22-year-old played 18 games in the NHL last year, but he still qualifies as a rookie in 2019-20.

He’s emerged as a key piece on a team that’s been lacking quality defenders for a while now. Bear has begun getting more power play time recently and he’s also averaging 21:42 of ice time, which is more than Makar (20:52) and slightly less than Hughes (21:44).

Bear has five goals and 20 points in 64 games this season. Those numbers should continue to climb now that he’s getting added time on special teams.

Elvis Merzlikins – G – Columbus Blue Jackets: How could it not be Elvis? Yes, Capitals goalie Ilya Samsonov has also put together a strong rookie year, but no one expected the Blue Jackets to compete for a playoff spot this year.

Merzlikins suffered an injury on Tuesday night and Columbus needs him to get back as soon as possible. He’s posted a 12-9-8 record with a 2.39 goals-against-average and a .922 save percentage this season. And, oh by the way, he’s also tied for the league lead in shutouts, with five.

The 25-year-old’s first season in North America has gone as well as anybody could’ve expected. The Blue Jackets are 1-4-5 in their last 10 games, but they’re still clinging on to the final Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference. They need Elvis to get back in the building (sorry) as soon as possible.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

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.