Kris Letang

Undermanned Penguins shut down Blues: 3 takeaways

PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Penguins were facing quite the challenge on Wednesday night.

They had just lost two games in a row, were playing without seven regulars in their lineup (Sidney Crosby, Bryan Rust, Patric Hornqvist, Nick Bjugstad, Brian Dumoulin, Justin Schultz, and Jack Johnson), and had the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues roll into town riding a four-game winning streak where they had been dominating everyone they faced.

All the Penguins did was put together one of their best and most complete efforts of the season in a convincing 3-0 win.

Three big things that stood out from this one.

1. There might be a goalie controversy in Pittsburgh, at least for now. With No. 1 goalie Matt Murray mired in a month-long slump, backup Tristan Jarry has been getting more starts over the past couple of weeks and got the call again on Wednesday in a huge home game.

He took advantage of the opportunity and stopped all 28 shots he faced to record his first shutout of the season (and the third of his career).

With that performance he is now up to a .936 save percentage for the season and has earned the win in five of his past six appearances, allowing only 10 goals in those games.

“He was terrific,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan regarding Jarry’s play on Wednesday. “He’s playing with a lot of confidence right now and is seeing the puck well.”

He also added that Jarry was the team’s best penalty killer on a night where the unit was a perfect 4-for-4

Murray is still probably going to end up being “the guy” in Pittsburgh this season, but with the team trying to fight through an absurd injury stretch they are going to need goaltending to help carry them until they start getting some players back, especially on the blue line.

Right now Jarry is the goalie giving them the best chance.

2. Next man up. After losing wingers Rust and Hornqvist in two different practices over the past week (while already being without Crosby and Bjugstad) the Penguins were quite literally running out of forwards and had to sign veteran Stefan Noesen to a two-way contract. He had been playing for the team’s AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on a minor league deal, and was thrown into second-line duty on Wednesday.

He ended up making an immediate impact by scoring a goal late in the second period to give the Penguins a 2-0 lead.

The most impressive thing about the Penguins’ performance on Wednesday is that it was not the big-name players making the impact. The trio of Evgeni Malkin, Jake Guentzel, and Kris Letang combined for zero points in the win, while only one of them (Malkin) was even on the ice for any of their three goals (he was on for one). It was the depth players that stepped up and made the impact with Noesen, Teddy Blueger, and Alex Galchenyuk (only his second goal of the season in 20 games) scoring the goals.

As great as the Malkin, Guentzel, and Letang trio is they are not going to score every night, meaning someone else is going to have to chip in some offense for the team to have a chance with so many players out.

They received those contributions on Wednesday.

3. Binnington was a bright spot for the Blues. Jordan Binnington may have given up three goals, but he also made a handful of huge saves that kept this game close and at least gave his team a shot. It is also kind of tough to really fault him too much for the ones that went in. Blueger’s goal to open the scoring in the opening minute came off a deflection right in front, and he was kind of left on an island on the final two.

One of the biggest questions for the Blues this season in their repeat attempt was always going to be whether or not his success from a year ago was something he could sustain over a full season. There has been nothing in his play so far this season to suggest he can not.

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.

NHL Power Rankings: Best landing spots for Taylor Hall

Taylor Hall‘s contract situation with the New Jersey Devils was always going to be a big storyline this season, and with the team off to a disappointing start and the possibility of him re-signing looking slimmer by the day it was only a matter of time until trade talk picked up.

Over the weekend The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun reported that teams around the league are calling the Devils regarding their top player, and general manager Ray Shero is starting to listen.

With that in mind, this week’s PHT Power Rankings takes a look at the best possible landing spots for the former league MVP.

Which teams make the most sense?

To the rankings!

1. New Jersey Devils. Honestly the ideal situation is Hall staying right where he is in New Jersey with one big if — If he is willing to re-sign there. I am just looking at this from a Devils perspective because trading Hall would be a pretty significant blow to what general manager Ray Shero has tried to build here. It is nearly impossible to get fair value for players of this caliber in trade, they have the salary cap space to make a new contract work, and even though he is no longer considered “young” by NHL standards, he is still at an age where he can absolutely be a part of a contending team in New Jersey around Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes. Will it work out that way? It is looking less and less likely with each passing day. But you have to keep trying!

Having to trade him after getting just one playoff appearance out of his four years with the team would just seem like a waste and missed opportunity.

So what are the best options assuming they have to trade him?

2. Colorado Avalanche. The worst nightmare for the rest of the Western Conference, and something that is absolutely possible given their situation. The Avalanche roster is already loaded with top-line talent, they have more salary cap space than all but two teams in the league, they have young assets to deal, and they are in a position to win right now. Could you imagine Hall on a team that already has Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, Gabriel Landeskog, Nazem Kadri, and Cale Makar? They would go from Stanley Cup contender to Stanley Cup favorite.

3. Montreal Canadiens. They have been hoarding salary cap space and desperately trying to find an impact forward, going as far as to actually signing a restricted free agent offer sheet (Sebastian Aho) over the summer. They need a star, they need an impact forward, they need something to try and break the cycle of mediocrity the Marc Bergevin era has produced.

4. St. Louis Blues. The salary cap is a real obstacle here, but smart teams can find ways to make that work to get the player they want (or need). The Blues look like a Stanley Cup favorite again, but with Vladimir Tarasenko sidelined for most of the season they have a huge hole on the wing. It is a long shot, but it works from a hockey standpoint.

5. Pittsburgh Penguins. The Penguins could definitely use another winger with some finish, and let’s be honest here, finding a way to trade for an impact player like Hall is exactly the type of blockbuster move the Penguins are known for going after as they try to maximize the best years of the Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang core. Salary cap space is tight, but it only seems to be a matter of when Jim Rutherford dumps Alex Galchenyuk and/or Nick Bjugstad (once he returns from injury) to clear more space.

6. New York Islanders. They have the goaltending, they are shutting teams down defensively, and they are showing their 2018-19 performance was no fluke. They just need one more impact player up front to bring the whole thing together.

7. Edmonton Oilers. After wasting the first part of Hall’s career then trading him for pennies on the dollar, there has been speculation that they could be interested in a reunion with their former No. 1 overall pick. On one hand it would also give us an opportunity to see the Connor McDavid-Hall combination that we never really had a chance to see. On the other hand, they already had their chance with Hall and blew it.

8. Calgary Flames. After finishing the 2018-19 season with the best record in the Western Conference the Flames have badly regressed this season and have been one of the league’s worst offensive teams. It would also add a fascinating twist and storyline to the Battle of Alberta.

9. Nashville Predators. This entire team is built on big trades and free agent acquisitions, so you know general manager David Poile is not afraid to do something like this. They are not a bad offensive team at this point so it is not like Hall would be addressing a huge need, but the team does look stale and in need of a spark. Their window should not be closing, and with no truly dominant team in the Western Conference they should still have a chance to do something this season.

10. Boston Bruins. They would have to get extremely creative with the salary cap and convince New Jersey to eat some salary, but the Bruins have a window to win right now and need some offense beyond the David PastrnakBrad Marchand duo.

11. Carolina Hurricanes. Not sure how realistic it is given the salary cap, but I am including them just because I think it would be a fun match. They have a ton of draft picks at their disposal to use as trade chips, they are obviously a contender, and adding another impact player like Hall to an already underrated group of forwards would make them a fierce team to defend.

12. San Jose Sharks. It makes no sense, but would it really surprise you if it happened? Or if they tried for it? They have very limited salary cap space, no first-round draft pick this year, and their biggest need is still a goalie. All of that makes it tough to consider them an option. But they are desperate to win a Stanley Cup for Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, and Erik Karlsson, and with the goalie trade market being slim maybe they just try and outscore their hole in net.

Adam Gretz is a writer forPro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line atphtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Penguins rally vs. Canucks in wild 14-goal game

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PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Penguins 8-6 win over the Vancouver Canucks on Wednesday night was a result they absolutely deserved.

It was also a minor miracle that they were actually able to pull it off.

They were the better team for most of the game only to find themselves trailing by three goals with 15 minutes to play in the third period, mostly due to one of starting goalie Matt Murray‘s worst performances of the season (and a tough luck goal against backup Tristan Jarry after he came on in relief). It was at that point that they rallied for five consecutive goals as part of a six-goal third period to win their third game in a row and extend their current points streak to six games.

Let’s take a look at some of the madness.

1. At one point a win seemed nearly impossible for the Penguins. The Penguins opened the game by scoring two goals in the first 12 minutes and were holding a 12-0 edge on the shot chart. The crazy thing? The game itself was probably even more one-sided than those numbers indicated. It was total domination. But the Canucks found a way to turn the tide in their favor, took advantage of another off night from Murray, and scored six goals in just under 30 minutes of game-time to somehow hold a three-goal lead with 15 minutes to play in regulation.

They were also set to go on a power play at that point after Penguins defenseman Kris Letang was whistled for delay of game. That should have been game over.

According to the hockey analytics site Moneypuck, the Penguins had only a 1.5 percent chance of winning the game at that exact moment.

But after a J.T. Miller hooking penalty negated the power play, the Penguins started their rally with a Dominik Kahun goal at four-on-four which was then followed just 68 seconds later by an Evgeni Malkin power play goal to bring the Penguins to within one.

Just three minutes after that, Zach-Aston Reese scored his fourth goal of the season to tie the game, which was followed by a Kris Letang goal with under four minutes to play to regain the lead for the Penguins. Vancouver made a desperation offside challenge hoping to have the goal overturned, but the call was upheld. Coach Travis Green admitted after the game they weren’t very optimistic about the challenge but felt they had to take the chance.

Malkin added an empty-net goal with less than a second to play, capping off another dominant night for him and his line.

“As I said to the players after the game we love the resilience this group shows,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan. “It’s just a never say die attitude regardless of what the score is or the challenge is in front of us. We just go out and play.”

The frustrating thing for the Canucks is they were not only in a position to win, but they received offensive contributions from players beyond their top duo (Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser) and were still unable to finish it.

“It’s unfortunate,” said coach Travis Green. “This could have been one of our best wins of the year.”

2. The Penguins need to get Matt Murray right. This is the one big concern for the Penguins right now. The biggest reason they even needed that late rally was because of the continued struggles of their starting goalie. Wednesday’s game was the sixth time in his past eight appearances that Murray finished with a save percentage under .900, and the seventh time in that stretch he was at .905 or lower.

His 10 save on 14 shot performance on Wednesday lowered his season save percentage to just .901 in 19 appearances. That is simply not good enough. With the way Jarry has performed in his limited work this season he has absolutely earned more starts in the short-term. They have the defense to win. Now they just need to get the goaltending.

3. Evgeni Malkin is back. The big wild card this season for the Penguins was always going to be Malkin’s ability to bounce-back from what was by his own admission a down year.

He is back, and he is dominating.

With Sidney Crosby sidelined due to injury, Malkin has taken the center spot on the top line between Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust, a trio that has been taking over games for the past month. That trio combined for five of the Penguins’ eight goals against the Canucks and has been a complete nightmare for opposing defenses to try and slow down since they were put together.

He finished with five points (his first five-point game since 2012) and is now up to 19 points in 14 games. They have the depth, and now they have one of their best players playing close to his highest level.

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.

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.

NHL injury roundup: Nugent-Hopkins out; Letang, Brodie nearing returns

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Checking in on some injury news around the NHL on Sunday evening.

Oilers will be without Nugent-Hopkins for at least two games. Shortly before puck drop against the Arizona Coyotes on Sunday night the Edmonton Oilers announced that center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins will be sidelined for at least the next two games due to a hand injury. He has five goals and 15 total points in 25 games this season for the Oilers. While his overall numbers are down a little offensively this season he has been one of the team’s top offensive players the past few years and helps drive their second line. Without him an already thin forward group gets even thinner. Assuming the two-game time frame remains he would miss Sunday’s game against Arizona as well as Wednesday’s game at Colorado. He could be in line to return for a big home-and-home set with the Vancouver Canucks next weekend.

Letang to be game-time decision for Penguins. The Pittsburgh Penguins have been hit harder by injuries than any other team in the league, but are getting closer to getting one of their top players back in the lineup. Defenseman Kris Letang, who has missed the past eight games, will be a game-time decision for their game against the Calgary Flames on Monday night. In his first 15 games before injury Letang had been averaging more than 25 minutes per game and had already recorded 12 points (four goals, eight assists) on the season. With Justin Schultz also sidelined the Penguins have been playing with a patchwork defense but have still found ways to collect points. They are also currently playing without captain Sidney Crosby and forward Nick Bjugstad due to injury. Crosby, Letang, Schultz, Evgeni Malkin, Jared McCann, Bryan Rust, Brian Dumoulin, Patrick Hornqvist, Alex Galchenyuk, and Bjugstad have combined to miss more than 70 man games due to injury. The Penguins are still 12-7-4 on the season while their underlying numbers in terms of shot attempts, scoring chances, and expected goals are among the best in the league. They also have one of the best goal differentials in the entire league.

Brodie will also be game-time decision for Flames. Some great news for Calgary Flames defenseman T.J. Brodie. As long as he gets medical clearance on Monday, he is expected to be back in the lineup when they visit the Penguins on Monday. Brodie has been sidelined after collapsing at practice more than 10 days ago. He was back skating by himself this past week as he continued to undergo tests to figure out what caused his collapse, but so far everything has come back negative and all indications in his recovery have been promising. The Flames snapped what had been a six-game losing streak on Saturday with a shootout win over the Philadelphia Flyers.

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.