Brian Dumoulin

Penguins rally again but Crosby leaves with injury

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PITTSBURGH — For the second game in a row the Pittsburgh Penguins were able to come back from a multiple goal deficit to take two points in the standings, erasing a two-goal deficit to pick up a 3-2 shootout win against the Chicago Blackhawks on Saturday night.

This latest win came with a potentially big cost, however, as Sidney Crosby exited the game early in the third period after a tough shift that saw him get tangled up with Blackhawks’ defenseman Erik Gustafsson, and then later block a shot with his foot.

That was his only shift of the period and it is not clear what exactly caused the injury.

The only update Penguins coach Mike Sullivan had after the game was that Crosby was in the process of being evaluated for a “lower-body injury” and that an update is expected on Monday. The Penguins’ next game will be on Tuesday night against the New York Rangers.

Crosby is the engine that drives the Penguins’ team and he has been his usual dominant self this season in all phases of the game. Losing him would be a pretty significant blow, especially as the team is already playing without No. 1 defenseman Kris Letang and forward Patric Hornqvist.

The season is not even a quarter of the way old and injuries have been a constant issue for the Penguins from the very beginning. At various times they have been without Evgeni Malkin, Alex Galchenyuk, Bryan Rust, Jared McCann, Nick Bjugstad, Brian Dumoulin, Letang, Hornqvist, and now — potentially — Crosby. They have only had their full roster as it was intended to look for a handful of games. They have dominated in those rare instances where they have been fully healthy, they have just not had a chance to see it very often.

Even with the injuries Saturday’s win improved the Penguins to 10-6-1 on the season. They are currently on a 4-1-1 run over their past six games. The only regulation loss came on Monday night in Boston when they erased a 3-0 deficit only to lose late in the third period.

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.

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.

Penguins finally starting to get healthy

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Even though they are already 12 games into the season we still really do not have a solid understanding of what the 2019-20 Pittsburgh Penguins will look like, mainly we have not actually seen them.

From the very beginning the preferred lineup constructed by general manager Jim Rutherford has been limited by significant injuries that have kept several key players out of the lineup.

That is now finally starting to change for them.

The team announced on Tuesday that forward Alex Galchenyuk and defenseman Brian Dumoulin have been activated from injured reserve, and it seems possible — if not likely — that both could be in the lineup for their game against divisional rival Philadelphia on Tuesday night.

Dumoulin has been sidelined for the past four games, while Galchenyuk has not played since the third game of the season.

Dumoulin is half of the team’s top defense pairing alongside Kris Letang, while Galchenyuk was expected to play a major role in the top-six after being acquired from the Arizona Coyotes in the Phil Kessel trade. Injuries have put those plans on hold.

The Penguins already got forwards Nick Bjugstad and Bryan Rust back from injury at the end of their most recent road trip, while superstar center Evgeni Malkin (who has played in just two games) is hoping to be ready for Saturday afternoon’s game against Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers.

Suddenly, the Penguins’ roster is starting to take shape.

As a group the Penguins have already lost 45 man-games to injury this season for players that were supposed to play major roles (Malkin, Galchenyuk, Rust, Dumoulin, Bjugstad, Jared McCann), and often times left them with a patchwork lineup filled with call-ups. Their forward depth was so gutted that defenseman Juuso Rikolla had to suit up as a forward for multiple games. Their second line was supposed to feature Malkin and Galchenyuk (a duo that showed great chemistry throughout training camp and the preseason) and they have actually seen them on the ice at the same time for exactly 20 minutes.

Despite all of the injuries the Penguins have still managed to play solid hockey and win the majority of their games. Even when they have not won a lot of them have been right there for the taking. The effort, structure, and style of play that coach Mike Sullivan has wanted has consistently been in place, but they have a times just not always had the talent or finishing ability in the lineup to convert and turn it into consistent results. Rutherford and Sullivan have been bullish on this team’s chances to contend for a Stanley Cup after their disappointing postseason exit a year ago, and it seems like we will finally get an opportunity to see if the roster they have constructed can match their vision.

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.

Wednesday Night Hockey: Penguins, Lightning on two different paths

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

As two of the NHL’s best teams over the past five years there is always a championship expectation for the Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning. With both coming off of similarly disappointing postseason exits in 2019 (combined postseasons win between the two teams: zero) there was no doubt plenty of additional pressure on both teams at the start of this season.

For the Penguins, it is about regaining the identity that helped make them a back-to-back Stanley Cup champion and trying to maximize the remaining window they have in the careers of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang. You only get players of that caliber for so long, and you owe it to them — and the franchise — to put them in the best possible situation to win. Anytime you do not win, and especially when you lose like they did to the New York Islanders, it is going to feel like a missed opportunity.

For the Lightning, it is about shaking the bad memories of so many recent postseason disappointments and finally breaking through with a championship for what is probably the league’s most talented roster on paper. After blowing 3-2 series leads in two different Eastern Conference Finals, as well as a 2-1 series lead in a Stanley Cup Final, the 2018-19 season seemed like it was finally going to be the year for Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and Victor Hedman as they rolled through a 62-win regular season. What followed was the most disappointing of their postseason shortcomings, losing four consecutive games to the eighth-seeded Columbus Blue Jackets.

[COVERAGE OF LIGHTNING-PENGUINS BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

So far this season the two teams have been on slightly different paths in their quest to reach the top, even if there isn’t much difference in their overall records.

The Penguins entered the season with several questions, ranging from the state of their defense, to their forward depth, to how the power play would look without Phil Kessel following his offseason trade to Arizona. As if that wasn’t enough, the team has been dealt a brutal hand with early injuries as Evgeni Malkin, Alex Galchenyuk, Bryan Rust, Nick Bjugstad, Jared McCann, and Brian Dumoulin have all been sidelined for a total of 38 man-games due to injury. Despite that, they have not only managed to win the majority of their games, they have carried the play more often than not, even in defeat. Even their two most recent losses (Vegas and Florida) probably had more to do with some bad puck luck than bad play.

They are playing smart, they are limiting odd-man rushes against, they are playing sound defensively, and they have received strong goaltending from the duo of Matt Murray and Tristan Jarry. Add in more dominance from Crosby and they are keeping pace with the rest of the top teams in the Eastern Conference with a lineup that has been pieced together through call-ups.

There is an argument to be made that they have probably overachieved given the circumstances.

It’s been a slightly difference experience so far for the Lightning.

Other than Brayden Point, who missed the first three games of the season as he continued to recover from offseason hip surgery, they have been 100 percent healthy from the start and have had the roster they have wanted to have at their disposal. Despite that, neither the results nor the process are what they want to be.

Entering Wednesday’s game they have won just four of their first eight games and they are probably fortunate to have won as many as they have. At times they have looked like a fraction of the team that dominated the regular season a year ago. In one early game against Carolina they recorded just three shots on goal over more than 40 minutes of hockey. In another, they were dominated by an Ottawa team that has just one win on the season (the win against the Lightning).

Overall there is nothing about their performance that is close to being up to their level of expectation.

Andrei Vasilevskiy has struggled in goal, their penalty kill is among the worst in the league, and their overall 5-on-5 performance has at times just simply been bad. Entering play on Tuesday they are 26th in the league in shot attempt percentage and 24th in scoring differential, both signs that they are not yet carrying the play in those situations. Given the roster they are returning it has been a rather underwhelming start.

Wednesday seems like a great opportunity to get things trending back in the right direction.

They are rested, they are at home, and they are playing a banged up, tired Penguins team that just dropped a 4-2 decision on Tuesday night against Florida.

It is still too early to be too worried, but at some point they would probably like to start playing closer to their level of expectation. Everything is set up for them to start getting there on Wednesday. If they can not take advantage of the situation in front of them it might be another red flag in a start that has already had too many of them.

NBC Sports will showcase a group of Congressional Medal of Honor recipients that are being recognized by the Tampa Bay Lightning in pre-game ceremonies as part of its Wednesday Night Hockey coverage. Jeremy Roenick will interview Medal of Honor recipients during pre-game and game coverage on Wednesday night, and NHL Live will air a feature with interviews of both current Lightning players and Medal of Honor recipients.

Kathryn Tappen will host Wednesday’s coverage on NHL Live alongside analysts Mike Milbury and Keith Jones and NHL insider Bob McKenzie. Jeremy Roenick will report on-site from Amalie Arena in Tampa, Fla. Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk and Brian Boucher will call Penguins-Lightning.

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.

What Penguins need to become championship team again

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There is going to come a point in the next few years where the Pittsburgh Penguins are no longer a playoff team.

Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang are all over the age of 32 and probably only have a handful of high-level years ahead of them. When they start to decline or retire there is going to be no replacing them and no matter what moves the Penguins make today there is not going to be anything that stops them from needing an extensive rebuild in the not-too-distant future. That future is not quite here yet.

After barely making the playoffs and getting swept in Round 1 with a roster that seemed to lose its way, it is not unfair to say that the team has slipped a bit in its standing as a Stanley Cup contender. What do they need to get back closer to the top?

We know the Sidney Crosby-Jake Guentzel duo is going to excel on the first line and the Kris Letang-Brian Dumoulin pairing is going to be great. After that it is a bunch of questions. The obvious keys focus on Alex Galchenyuk fitting in, Evgeni Malkin being better (especially at even-strength), and Matt Murray playing at his best (all things we already looked at today).

But that alone will not be enough.

[MORE: 2018-19 Summary | Under Pressure | X-Factor | Three Questions]

1. Rediscover their identity. I touched on this immediately after their Round 1 loss but the single biggest flaw the Penguins have is their sudden fascination with having players that provide “push back.” For a team that won two Stanley Cups under the mantra of “just play” it was a needless overreaction to some perceived injustices from a select few opposing players. The result was a shift away from what made team so tough to play against (balanced offense, mobile defense, speed, four scoring lines) and a rapidly growing collection of long-term, pricey contracts for depth players (Jack Johnson, Erik Gudbranson, Brandon Tanev). The big thing that would help address this: Another mobile, puck-moving defender that can play on the second pair. The big intangible thing: Go back to “just play” instead of worrying about pushing back.

2. A resurgence from a (hopefully) healthy Patric Hornqvist. Hornqvist’s status as a team leader and gritty forward with a non-stop motor masked the fact that his play rapidly deteriorated in the second half of the season, to the point where he was a complete non-factor offensively. It was a stunning slump after a strong first half. The thing that stands out about that is there is a pretty firm line that separated his season. That line was another head injury that kept him out of the lineup midway through the season. Was it a fluke slump? Was it a result of the injury? Was it a sign of things to come for him in the future now that he is 32 years old? A combination of all three? Whatever it was, the Penguins have Hornqvist signed for four more years at more than $5 million per season. The work ethic and effort are great, but at that price the Penguins need him to produce more than he did this past year or that contract will quickly turn into another drain on the salary cap.

3. Some young players need to emerge. The big focus during their mid-season turnaround in 2015-16 was on the coaching change. But there was another element at play: A bunch of young players became impact players at the same time (Murray, Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust, Tom Kuhnhackl; Guentzel a year later). The Penguins need that again. While the farm system is thin, there are some candidates to take big steps forward at the NHL level. Dominik Simon is polarizing because he is a favorite of the coaching staff and struggles to score goals, but he is a good defensive player and playmaker. Jared McCann is a favorite of the front office because they love his potential and he had a strong showing after the trade from Florida. He needs to show it was not a fluke. Dominik Kahun is an intriguing add from Chicago and is coming off a solid rookie season. And even though this might be for a couple years down the line, Pierre-Oliver Joseph is the exact type of defender they need to emerge and become a regular.

The three superstars at the top are the most important ingredient. But they are only part of the recipe. These three keys are just as important.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• 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.