Sam Lafferty

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The Buzzer: Rantanen dominates in return; Driedger gets shutout in first start

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Three Stars

1. Mikko Rantanen, Colorado Avalanche. After being sidelined for more than a month Rantanen returned to the Avalanche lineup on Saturday and picked right up where he left off, recording four points in a complete destruction of the Chicago Blackhawks. He is now up to 16 points in 10 games this season, and with him back in the lineup the Avalanche dominant duo of Rantanen and Nathan MacKinnon is going to start taking over games again. They are still without Gabriel Landeskog but have managed to keep piling up points thanks to the brilliance of MacKinnon and the improved depth throughout the roster. Given all of the salary cap space they still have they are going to have a chance to add a major piece before the trade deadline and be a force in the Western Conference playoffs. Joonas Donskoi also had four points for the Avalanche on Saturday, while MacKinnon added three. This game also featured one of the most random and unexpected fights of the season when Chicago’s Alex DeBrincat squared off against Colorado defenseman Samuel Girard.

2. Chris Driedger, Florida Panthers. With big-money free agent Sergei Bobrovsky off to a terrible start this season, the Panthers turned to the 25-year-old Driedger for his first career start on Saturday against the Nashville Predators. He made quite an impact turning aside all 27 shots he faced as the Panthers began a nine-game homestand. Before Saturday Driedger had only made three relief appearances (all with the Ottawa Senators) in his very brief NHL career.

3. Tanner Pearson, Vancouver Canucks. The Canucks have been waiting for some of their depth players to make an impact offensively this season, and it has finally started to happen over the past couple of games. Pearson had a huge game in their 5-2 win over the Edmonton Oilers, scoring two goals and adding two assists. Unlike Wednesday’s game in Pittsburgh, they were able to hold on to this three-goal third period lead to snap what had been a brief two-game losing streak.

Other notable performances from Saturday

  • Alex Ovechkin became just the fifth player in NHL history to record 15 consecutive 20-goal seasons to begin a career. He also moved into 10th place all-time with his 24th career hat trick. Read all about it here.
  • Thomas Greiss and Semyon Varlamov teamed up for a shutout for the New York Islanders as they beat the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Blue Jackets were one of four teams to lose a defenseman to injury on Saturday.
  • The Toronto Maple Leafs won for the fourth time in five games under new coach Sheldon Keefe thanks to a John Tavares overtime winner against the Buffalo Sabres.
  • Alexandar Georgiev stopped all 33 shots he faced for the New York Rangers in a 4-0 win over their arch-rivals, the New Jersey Devils.
  • Big night for Calgary Flames forward Elias Lindholm as he scored two goals, giving him 14 on the season, in a 3-1 win over the Ottawa Senators.
  • Defenseman Justin Faulk scored his first goal as a member of the St. Louis Blues in a 5-2 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins.
  • Logan Couture scored two goals for the San Jose Sharks as they erased an early two-goal deficit to beat the Arizona Coyotes by a 4-2 margin.
  • Jack Campbell was outstanding for the Los Angeles Kings, stopping 32 out of 33 shots in a 2-1 win over the Winnipeg Jets.

Highlights of the Night

Ivan Provorov lifted the Philadelphia Flyers to a 4-3 overtime win against the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday with this incredible goal in the extra period.

How the Penguins have become one of NHL’s best defensive teams

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It is starting to look like Jim Rutherford was right.

Not long after his Pittsburgh Penguins were swept out of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, he defiantly proclaimed that the defense he had assembled was probably the best one his team had since he arrived in Pittsburgh. It seemed to be a rather dubious claim not only because of how the Penguins performed for much of the season (including the playoffs), but because he had also been the general manager for a back-to-back Stanley Cup champion in Pittsburgh.

But nearly two months into the 2019-20 season the Penguins have been one of the league’s stingiest teams defensively and that play is one of the biggest reasons they have been able to overcome a seemingly unending list of injuries to keep piling up points.

Just look at the defensive performance so far this season compared to the same date a year ago, as well as their final numbers from the 2018-19 season.

All numbers via Natural Stat Trick. The numbers in parenthesis are their league-wide rank.

They also boast one of the league’s best penalty killing units, not only in terms of success rate, but also in their ability to also limit shots and chances against.

The Penguins always had one elite defense pair in Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin but everything after that was always a question.

So what all has changed?

The arrival of John Marino and development of Marcus Pettersson. One thing that should be pointed out about Rutherford’s “best defense” comment is that there have been some personnel changes on the blue line since then that helped the team get back closer to the winning identity it had lost. Erik Gudbranson and Olli Maatta were traded, while the team also made the under-the-radar acquisition of John Marino from the Edmonton Oilers in exchange for a sixth-round pick.

From the moment they acquired Marino, the Penguins seemed enamored with his potential. After watching him play for the past month-and-a-half it is not hard to see why. He has been a game-changer on the blue line and in his first pro season has already become a 20-minute per night player and has yet to look out of place. He brings some much-needed youth, mobility, and playmaking to a defense that badly needed all three.

Combine his presence with a full season of Marcus Pettersson (acquired in December of last year for Daniel Sprong) and suddenly the Penguins have two young, mobile defenders that can help drive play for what is currently a dirt cheap price against the salary cap. And both have the potential to continue getting better.

The forwards are helping more. One of the common themes throughout the Penguins’ offseason was that they needed to play “the right way,” and that the defensive deficiencies last season weren’t just about the defensemen themselves. They also needed more help from their forwards. They are getting that this season, and it’s not just because the returning players are playing smarter. The offseason additions of Brandon Tanev and Dominik Kahun, as well as getting a full season out of trade deadline acquisition Jared McCann, have brought three more fast, defensively responsible forwards to the lineup, and all are making significant contributions in every phase of the game.

Tanev’s signing drew harsh criticism (including from me) due to the term on the contract but so far he has proven to be everything the Penguins said he would be — a menace due to his speed and an always frustrating player for opponents to go up against. Combined with the arrival of young players Teddy Blueger and Sam Lafferty the Penguins injected a ton of speed, youth, and fresh blood into a lineup that the rest of the league had not only caught up to, but seemingly passed by the previous two years. With Phil Kessel and Arizona and Sidney Crosby currently sidelined the Penguins may not be as explosive offensively, but they are making up for that with their ability to shut teams down.

Better usage and a better identity. Mike Sullivan is turning in a Jack Adams level coaching performance this season and has pushed all of the right buttons so far. He has the team buying into how they need to play, they are back to play fast, and the personnel usage is far better (trusting Marino and Pettersson in big spots; playing Jack Johnson in the third-pairing/PK role he is best suited for).

Rutherford received his fair share of criticism the past couple of years (including from, again, me) and much of it was deserved. The team became too obsessed with “push-back” and getting more physical instead of getting faster and better. There was a constant revolving door of player transactions that made it seem like they didn’t really have a plan. Tom Wilson took up residence in their front office and seemed to drive every decision.

One of the most positive things anyone around Pittsburgh could always say about Rutherford is he is quick to admit his mistakes and move on. He definitely did that by making the team faster and getting it back to what it does best. It may not have been the most direct route, but for the first time in two years the Penguins have the look of the team that was winning Stanley Cups instead of the one that was getting swept in the first round. Better late than never.

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.

Penguins remain hot with win vs. Avalanche

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Brandon Tanev notched a shorthanded goal in overtime to lead the Pittsburgh Penguins to a 3-2 victory over the Colorado Avalanche.

Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel also scored as Pittsburgh recorded its fourth straight victory. Matt Murray added 26 saves.

Matt Calvert and Nathan MacKinnon found the back of the net for the Avalanche but their six-game point streak to open the season came to an end.

Crosby continues to dazzle

The Penguins captain has clearly moved on from a disappointing playoff run last year, which ended in a first-round sweep at the hands of the Islanders. Instead, Crosby is off to a tremendous start, recording points in each of Pittsburgh’s seven games and leading the club on the ice to a 5-2-0 record.

Crosby netted a highlight-reel backhander to tie the game late in the first period and then assisted on a Jake Guentzel tally in the second.

The superstar center craftily tipped the puck around Erik Johnson, played the puck with his glove, and then somehow had the wherewithal to outlast goaltender Philipp Grubauer until an opening appeared for him to slide a backhander into the net.

Early in the second period, Crosby intercepted a pass at the blueline, then set up Guentzel to help the Penguins grab a 2-1 lead.

While several notable players remain sidelined, Crosby will be expected to lead the Penguins on the ice, and continue to improve the players around him. Pittsburgh will need Crosby to play at the top of his game until reinforcements return over the next few weeks.

Avalanche upcoming free agents

After the Mikko Rantanen contract issue this past summer, the Avalanche have several pending RFA’s for next summer.

Colorado is expected to be a legit Stanley Cup Contender with a great mix of dynamic playmakers, infusion of youth and seasoned veterans capable of leading the way during turbulent stretches.

However, Bob McKenzie offered that general manager Joe Sakic wants to see how the first part of the season plays out before engaging in contract talks.

Andre Burakovsky, Tyson Jost and Nikita Zadorov headline the pending RFA class and all presumably have a role to fill moving forward.

Is Lafferty here to stay?

The Penguins have been bitten by the injury bug early and have been forced to rely on their organizational depth to stay afloat during a challenging stretch.

During their Stanley Cup-winning years, the Penguins have always been able to call up a role player to fill a specific need. Is Sam Lafferty the next player to seamlessly fit in?

Lafferty was close to making the team out of training camp according to Bob McKenzie, but fell victim to the numbers game of a roster. However, injuries to five impact forwards — Evgeni Malkin, Nick Bjugstad, Alex Galchenyuk, Bryan Rust and Jared McCann — created a roster spot for him to slide in.

“We always felt like Sam was close coming into this training camp this year. But I think he has a whole lot more confidence in himself that he belongs here,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “And that’s great for him, and that’s great for us.”

The 24-year-old originally from Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, about two hours outside of Pittsburgh, Lafferty has taken advantage of the opportunity recording five points over the previous three games.

“He’s earned his playing time. He’s just playing terrific hockey,” Sullivan said. “He made a difference every game he’s been in. As a result, he’s getting more ice time. He’s a very good penalty-killer. I think he really understands his role and is taking pride in it. You can see it every shift. He’s gaining more confidence.”

The Penguins have done an excellent job in sliding players into appropriate roles, and Lafferty is just the latest example. Does the kid have what it takes to stick around for a full season and continue to make a difference? We will find out as the season goes on.

MORE: Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV Schedule

Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.

The Buzzer: Namestnikov’s revenge game; Crosby keeps dominating

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Three Stars

1. Vladislav Namestnikov, Ottawa Senators. Two years ago Namestnikov was skating on the Tampa Bay Lightning’s top line alongside Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos. After boosting his value, he was then used as a trade chip for the team to land defender Ryan McDonagh from the New York Rangers before the 2017-18 trade deadline. After a mostly disappointing stay on Broadway, he was traded to Ottawa this past week for another fresh start. So far, so good, and it came at the Lightning’s expense. Namestnikov scored two goals — including the game-winner — for the Senators on Saturday to help his new team get its first win of the season. On paper, this game should have been a mismatch, but the Senators drastically outplayed the Lightning in what was probably the biggest surprise of the day.

2. Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers. After scoring 50 goals and 100 points a year ago and finishing in the top-four of the league in both categories, Draisaitl is picking up where he left and is once again looking like a superstar. He finished with three points on Saturday afternoon — including two goals — to help the Oilers improve to 5-0 on the season. He and Connor McDavid (two more points on Saturday) are carrying the offense again.

3. Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins. With the Penguins’ forward lineup dealing with a ton of injuries they are going to need their captain and his line to dominate for them to have a chance to win. Right now, they are dominating. Crosby was great once again on Saturday night, picking up two more points in a 7-4 win over the Minnesota Wild, including a highlight reel backhand goal off the rush. He has recorded at least one point in every game this season and already has eight in the Penguins’ first five games. The Penguins also received some surprising production from their recent call-ups with Adam Johnson and Sam Lafferty both recording their first NHL goals.

Other notable performances on Saturday

  • Brendan Gallagher finished with three points for the Montreal Canadiens as they handed the St. Louis Blues their first regulation loss of the season.
  • Rookie goalie Ilya Samsonov was amazing again for the Washington Capitals as they defeated the Dallas Stars. In his first two NHL starts Samsonov has allowed a total of two goals. He is the future of the position in The District.
  • Ilya Kovalchuk continued his strong start with another goal in the Kings’ 7-4 win over the Nashville Predators.
  • The Winnipeg Jets overcame an early 2-0 deficit against the Chicago Blackhawks to win in overtime on Mark Scheifele‘s second goal of the season. The Blackhawks remain winless.
  • Mark Stone, Will Carrier, and Max Pacioretty all had two points for the Vegas Golden Knights in their big 6-2 win over the Calgary Flames.
  • Semyon Varlamov picked up his first win as a member of the New York Islanders by stopping all three shootout shots against the Florida Panthers. He also made 35 saves through regulation and overtime.
  • Tanner Pearson scored a goal in regulation and then added the game-winning goal in the shootout for the Vancouver Canucks in their win over the Philadelphia Flyers.
  • The Boston Bruins’ top line was once again dominant as Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron both scored goals in a 3-0 win over the New Jersey Devils to keep them winless. Tuukka Rask was also brilliant again and has stopped 90 of the first 94 shots he has faced this season.

Highlights of the Night

It may have come in a losing effort but Kaapo Kakko‘s first NHL goal for the New York Rangers was a beautiful play.

Jacob De La Rose had one of the few highlights of the night for the Detroit Red Wings with this nice looking goal.

The Columbus Blue Jackets handed the Carolina Hurricanes their first loss of the season thanks to this great effort from Pierre-Luc Dubois.

The Colorado Avalanche improved to 4-0-0 on the season and it was new addition Andre Burakovsky scoring the game-winning goal for the second game in a row.

Blooper of the Night

There is really no other choice here, it has to be Jimmy Howard‘s gamble in Detroit that turned into a rather easy goal for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Rest in Peace

Factoids

  • The Capitals’ win against the Stars was their first regulation win in Dallas since the 1995 season. [NHL PR]
  • Phil Kessel played in his 1,000th NHL game on Saturday night, making him the third youngest active player to play in 1,000 games. [NHL PR]
  • Penguins goalie Matt Murray recorded his 100th career win on Saturday night, making him just the eight goalie since the 1966-67 season record 100 wins in 166 games or less. [NHL PR]
  • The Los Angeles Kings set a franchise record for fasted three goals, scoring three goals in 30 seconds during their win over the Nashville Predators. [NHL PR]
  • The Oilers are the first team in NHL history to come-from-behind to win each of their first five games of the season. [NHL PR]

Scores
Edmonton Oilers 4, New York Rangers 1
Ottawa Senators 4, Tampa Bay Lightning 2
Los Angeles Kings 7, Nashville Predators 4
Winnipeg Jets 3, Chicago Blackhawks 2 (OT)
Boston Bruins 3, New Jersey Devils 0
Montreal Canadiens 6, St. Louis Blues 3
Toronto Maple Leafs 5, Detroit Red Wings 2
New York Islanders 3, Florida Panthers 2 (SO)
Columbus Blue Jackets 3, Carolina Hurricanes 2
Washington Capitals 4, Dallas Stars 1
Pittsburgh Penguins 7, Minnesota Wild 4
Colorado Avalanche 3, Arizona Coyotes 2 (OT)
Vegas Golden Knights 6, Calgary Flames 2
Vancouver Canucks 3, Philadelphia Flyers 2 (SO)

MORE:
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.