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Rangers beat Penguins in OT thanks to Kakko’s big night

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Kaapo Kakko looked dominant, at times, against men before he was drafted, including versus some NHL talent during the 2019 IIHF World Championship. The feeling was that he could make an immediate and successful jump from being the second pick of the 2019 NHL Draft to becoming an instant impact player for the New York Rangers, possibly outshining top pick Jack Hughes for the Devils.

A little more than a month into his career, it’s been up-and-down for Kakko, but we might just look at Tuesday’s game against the Pittsburgh Penguins as a breakthrough moment.

Rangers start strong

Kakko took advantage of a bodacious Brendan Lemieux pass to score the first goal of Tuesday’s game, then ended up collecting the game-winner in overtime as the Rangers beat the Penguins 3-2 (OT). You could call it a big night not just for Kakko, but the Rangers’ youth in general, as Adam Fox set up Kakko’s OT game-winner, and also scored the Rangers’ second goal off of a great feed by Artemi Panarin.

Here’s that OT-winner for your viewing pleasure:

The Rangers dominated the first period, ending in 2-0, and credit to Matt Murray for keeping it from being any worse. Natural Stat Trick’s period-by-period graph provides another way of showing how dramatic the bad start was for Pittsburgh:

Penguins roll with the punches, and break a slump

The point’s been made that the Penguins have had a knack for rallying lately, and they did again on Tuesday — just not for the win.

Pittsburgh scored two goals in the second period to tie things up. Maybe the biggest sigh of relief came on the second tally, and not just because it made the game 2-2 at the time. After going 0-for-28 in their last power-play opportunities and failing to score on the man advantage for almost a month, Jared McCann finally ended that drought.

That second-period effort was enough for the Penguins to secure a standings point despite falling behind 2-0 early on, but Fox and Kakko combined for the game-winner.

Kakko is now at six goals and eight points over his first 16 NHL games, while this also marks his first point streak (he scored a goal against the Panthers on Sunday). With that goal and assist, Fox generated his first multi-point game, but the defenseman has already been a quick study (insert Harvard joke), as this pushes his own point streak to five games (two goals, four assists for six points during that span). Fox also has eight points in 16 games this season.

Recent play of both teams

The Penguins will get a dose of the top two picks of the 2019 NHL Draft this week, as their next game is against Hughes and the Devils on Friday. After that, the Penguins play five of their next six games at home from Nov. 16-27, so maybe they’ll get some confidence in breaking that PP drought and at least getting a point with Sidney Crosby on the shelf for an unclear duration of time. Pittsburgh’s record sank to 10-6-2 for 22 points.

The Rangers, meanwhile, continue to quietly build up steam. They’ve gone 4-0-1 in their last five games, five of their last seven (5-1-1) to improve to 8-6-2 overall.

If young players like Kakko and Fox keep improving, the Rangers might just manage more hot stretches down the road in 2019-20.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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 NBCSN: Penguins eyeing end to power play woes vs. Rangers

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Tuesday’s matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

It’s pretty unusual to see the Penguins near the bottom of the NHL in power play efficiency, but here we are.

Sitting with the fourth-worst success rate (12.5%) in the league, the Penguins are hoping to snap out of their funk Tuesday night against the Rangers. New York’s penalty kill has been okay so far, killing off 80.3% of man advantage opportunities. Pittsburgh, meanwhile, has not scored a power play goal since Oct. 13 and have failed in their last 26 chances.

During Monday’s practice, there were times when head coach Mike Sullivan had his power play units work 5-on-0 against goaltender Matt Murray. There was success in beating the netminder, but Sullivan’s goal was to make his players realize they just have to follow the K.I.S.S. method: keep it simple and execute and their fortunes will change.

“We scored some goals,” Sullivan said afterward. “So that’s progress, you know?”

The Penguins will be without Sidney Crosby, Patric Hornqvist and Kris Letang against the Rangers. Those are three huge pieces of their power play setup gone. In their place, the top setup at Monday’s practice featured Evgeni Malkin, Jake Guentzel, Alex Galchenyuk, Nick Bjugstad and Justin Schultz.

Hornqvist’s absence means there is a need for another havoc-creator in front of opposing goalies, someone to set screens and cash in on those greasy goals right in front of the net. That will be Bjugstad’s role for now.

“That’s one thing that [Hornqvist] brings to our power play that’s important,” Sullivan said. “You have to make it tough on the goalie. You’ve got to take sight lines away. You have to limit his ability by being in and around the crease. I just don’t think we’ve gone there enough.”

Sullivan feels that the length of the current man advantage drought is playing into his players getting away from keeping it simple.

“It’s only been most recently that the power play has struggled in the sense that there hasn’t been execution,” he said. “There was a long time there that we felt the power play was doing everything except put the puck in the net, and so as that starts to evolve, if you don’t start to score, I think it’s a natural inclination to start to squeeze your stick and press a little bit, and that’s a whole different challenge, and so these are some of the dynamics that we are trying to work through as a group.

“But I do believe that part of the solution has to be just simplifying everything we do, and it starts with just shooting the puck more and getting more pucks and people to the net.”

MORE: Crosby out vs. Rangers, injury still being evaluated

Brendan Burke and Joe Micheletti will call the Penguins-Rangers showdown from Madison Square Garden in New York, N.Y. Paul Burmeister will anchor studio coverage with analysts Keith Jones and Patrick Sharp.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Penguins rally from down 3-0 to end Islanders’ streak at 10

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The New York Islanders didn’t end Thursday’s game against the Pittsburgh Penguins empty-handed, but the Islanders didn’t get the win.

Despite starting the third period with a 3-0 lead, the Islanders couldn’t keep their outstanding winning streak going. It concluded at 10 consecutive wins, as the Penguins scored three times in the third period (over a span of just 7:10) and then clutch Bryan Rust scored the OT-winner, pushing the Penguins to that 4-3 OT victory.

On one hand, it stinks for the Islanders to lose to a divisional rival in the Penguins, even if Isles fans still have the recent trash-talking point of that first-round sweep. A dazzling Matt Murray save showed how close the Islanders were to making it go to 11.

On the other hand, the Islanders managed to draw a point out of the proceedings, so now they’re 10-0-1 in their last 11 games. If there’s bitterness in seeing it all end beyond regulation – one can almost hear the “they’re still undefeated at real hockey” gripes – three of the Islanders’ first four wins during the streak happened beyond regulation (two in OT, one in a shootout).

It would likely be unfair to put too much blame on Semyon Varlamov for this loss. While the Penguins punctured him late in the game, maybe there was an element of it being a matter of time until Pittsburgh broke through, as they generated a 39-23 shots on goal advantage, and had more SOG in each period.

The Islanders have often controlled quality (high-danger chances) while giving up quantity (shot volume) during that 10-game streak, but the Penguins applied a lot of pressure, taking an 11-6 high-danger chance advantage at 5-on-5, according to Natural Stat Trick.

So …  it has to sting for Barry Trotz to see his defensive system yield a loss after the Islanders built a 3-0 lead, but when the Islanders zoom out, they might see some silver lining.

They also get a chance to avenge this loss. The Islanders will have a home-and-home series (at Pittsburgh on Nov. 19, home on Nov. 21) to get back at the Penguins for ending this historic streak.

If you want to look back at this run, check out PHT’s recent posts on the matter.

MORE ISLANDERS STREAK:
• Stunning numbers from their 10-game streak
• Anders Lee … leads.
• What was driving the streak when it was at seven wins.
Also: Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Smith, Draisaitl steal one for Oilers against Penguins: 3 takeaways

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The first Sidney CrosbyConnor McDavid matchup of the 2019-20 season ended up being stolen by a great goaltending performance from Mike Smith, goals by Colby Cave and Brian Dumoulin, and one of the *other* superstars in the game scoring the game-winner in overtime.

Mike Smith’s 51 saves and Leon Draisaitl‘s league-leading 13th goal of the season 2:37 into overtime proved to be the difference for the Edmonton Oilers on Saturday afternoon as they went into Pittsburgh and stole a 2-1 win against the Penguins.

What all stood out from this game? Here are three quick takeaways.

1. Mike Smith stole this. The Penguins welcomed Evgeni Malkin back to the lineup on Saturday afternoon and for the first time all season had their full roster healthy at the same time. They carried the play all day, outshooting the Oilers by a 52-28 margin and constantly buzzing around the Edmonton net generating chance after chance. And all day Smith was up to the task, turning aside 51 shots in what was not only his best performance of the season but probably one of the best games of his career.

For as many games as the Oilers have won so far this season they still have a lot of questions regarding their forward depth and their defense and even with Saturday’s win a lot of those issues were on display against the Penguins. If they keep playing like this they are going to need their goaltending to be nearly flawless for them to have a chance to maintain their early success. Fortunately for them Smith was able to give them that sort of performance on Saturday because anything less than that and this game could have easily had a very different result.

2. Leon Draisaitl is incredible. Draisaitl added to his league-leading point total by scoring the overtime winner, holding off Alex Galchenyuk and beating Penguins goalie Matt Murray to the far side. It ended an incredibly exciting back-and-forth overtime period that saw the two teams exchange prime scoring chances at both ends of the ice.

Draisaitl may not be on McDavid’s level as a player, but at this point it is starting to become impossible to argue that he is not one of the four or five best players in the world. After scoring 50 goals and 100 points a year ago, he is already up 13 goals and 26 points through the first 15 games this season and is well on his way to making a run at both numbers again this year. The Oilers still need to find some offense outside of him and McDavid, but those two guys are borderline unstoppable right now.

3. It was a quiet day for the Crosby-McDavid matchup. This was the first head-to-head matchup between Crosby and McDavid where neither player recorded a point, while they managed to combine for just five shots on goal.

The Penguins did a great job containing the McDavid-Draisaitl duo during regulation, attempting 25 of the 28 shot attempts when they were on the ice.

It is a testament to how great Smith was for the Oilers that they were able to get two points on what was such an off day for their top duo.

It also says a lot about Draisaitl that on a day where he and McDavid were mostly quiet he could still end up being one of the difference-makers in the game.

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.

Rask, Rinne, Fleury are NHL’s hottest goalies so far

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With every team except the New Jersey Devils at 10 games played or more – New Jersey’s played nine – this seems like a good time to check in on the most important (yet also most unpredictable) position in hockey: goalies.

These netminders are off to the hottest starts so far in the young 2019-20 season.

Tuukka Rask

If forced to name a top goalie so far, I’d lean toward the Boston Bruins veteran.

Rask is 6-0-1 so far, with a league-leading .951 save percentage.

The 32-year-old sparkles in deeper categories, too. Rask ranks third in even-strength save percentage at .961. According to Hockey Reference’s Goals Saved Against Average (GSAA) – a metric that attempts to account for the difficulty of shots a goalie faces – Rask leads all goaltenders by a healthy margin with 8.69 GSAA.

Every single one of his starts has been considered a “quality start.”

Pekka Rinne

Big-time Finns are off to great starts.

Rinne is tied with Penguins backup Tristan Jarry for the league’s best even-strength save percentage at .964, and Rinne’s off to a great start in the standings, going 7-0-1. Rask and Rinne are in a four-way tie for first place in shutouts with two alongside Carter Hutton and Petr Mrazek.

Rinne’s 6.53 GSAA ranks third. There was a time when people chalked up some of Rinne’s success to the team in front of him, and a brief period (especially 2015-16) when Rinne struggled by any measure. That’s looking more like a blip in an increasingly brilliant career.

Darcy Kuemper

I must admit, I wondered if the Coyotes were being hasty in extending Kuemper, as great as he was basically since the calendar hit 2019. Instead, GM John Chayka’s proactiveness might pay off big time, as Kuemper’s carried over that great finish from 2018-19 to 2019-20 so far.

If Arizona can give Kuemper more consistent goal support (5-3-0), he might get the sort of wins that Vezina-voting GMs gravitate to. Otherwise, he checks out with a .933 save percentage and 5.62 GSAA.

Marc-Andre Fleury

At some point, it feels like the Golden Knights are going to overwork their workhorse. The 34-year-old remains sturdy and often spectacular right now, though.

His eight wins (8-3-0) lead the NHL at the moment, and his 334 saves top all as well (though John Gibson‘s generally being asked to do even more in Anaheim, which is sadly not much of a surprise). Fleury’s .928 save percentage might not be outright spectacular compared to the best on this list, but his second-ranked 7.14 GSAA helps illustrate just how much Vegas depends upon “The Flower.”

Lightning round

  • Robin Lehner: The Blackhawks have fond memories of Corey Crawford (.888 save percentage), but might want to ride the hot hand in Lehner, who has a .936 save percentage through six games. There are signs that Lehner might be able to bail out a shaky Blackhawks defense, considering a high GSAA.
  • When you consider how well Pittsburgh’s played despite injuries that are finally healing up, give Sidney Crosby a lot of credit. Don’t sleep on Jarry and Matt Murray, though, as they have put together great stats early on.
  • The Canucks renaissance is based on a hot top line, but also Jacob Markstrom and Thatcher Demko, with Demko maybe arguing for a bigger slice of the starts with a .941 save percentage. Both have been lights out, though.
  • Connor Hellebuyck: For all the doom and gloom for Winnipeg, the Jets would be in bigger trouble without a so-far redemptive season for Hellebuyck, who has a .924 save percentage and has generally saved their bacon.
  • Linus Ullmark and Carter Hutton have both been fantastic for the Sabres, ranking alongside each other at seventh and eighth in GSAA, and each have the requisite strong vanilla save percentages.
  • By John Gibson standards, a .920 save percentage is pedestrian, but again, the Ducks are asking him to work miracles. He’s pulling off magic, at minimum.
  • Last season, Thomas Greiss was almost as great as Lehner. So far in 2019-20, Greiss is … almost as great as Lehner (.931 save percentage, 4.02 GSAA).
  • To round out this post, Philipp Grubauer and Mikko Koskinen have had the occasional off start, but have mostly been strong for the Avs and Oilers respectively.

When you consider how many of these goalies are on teams that are mysteriously red-hot, maybe those torrid runs aren’t such a mystery. The bigger mystery is: how many of them can keep at least most of this up?

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.