Patric Hornqvist

Pittsburgh Penguins: Biggest surprises and disappointments so far

With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the surprises and disappointments for the Pittsburgh Penguins. 

The emergence of John Marino

General manager Jim Rutherford faced some intense — and at times very justified — criticism for some of his roster moves before and during the 2018-19 season. He rebounded in a big way this past offseason. The signing of Brandon Tanev turned out better than expected, while they seemed to have parted ways with Phil Kessel at the exact right time. The most important move, though, was the acquisition of defenseman John Marino from the Edmonton Oilers this past summer for the bargain basement price of a conditional sixth-round draft pick.

The Penguins immediately liked Marino’s potential thanks to an outstanding training camp performance, but no one could have possibly anticipated the impact he has made.

Marino has helped completely transform the Penguins’ defense, adding mobility, puck skills, and shutdown defense to the team’s top-four. He has quickly become a significant part of their blue line and given his entry-level contract situation is going to be a steal against the salary cap in the short-term.

He should be considered part of their long-term core.

Justin Schultz‘s tough year

This was always going to be an important year for Schultz and the Penguins.

From a team perspective, they needed him to have a big year to help solidify their defense after he was limited to just 29 games a year ago.

When Schultz has been at his best in Pittsburgh he has been a productive player offensively and a major asset on the power play. He needed to be put into a specific role, but he has at times excelled at it.

He was also entering a contract year with something to prove. A big year for him would have made him a hot commodity on the free agent market this summer. But it did not really work out that way.

Schultz not only missed more time due to injury, but he struggled at times when he was in the lineup at both ends of the ice. He has never been a shutdown player defensively, but his ability to produce offensively was always a positive. But this season even that aspect of his game disappeared for him. It has ended up being his most disappointing season in Pittsburgh and it could not have come at a worse time for him given his contract situation.

Tristan Jarry pushes Matt Murray

The Penguins have always had high hopes for Tristan Jarry and given his draft position (first goalie taken in his draft class) he has always come with a lot of pedigree. The potential has always been there. Still, he was facing an uphill battle when it came to making the opening roster this season with Matt Murray (a two-time Stanley Cup winner) and Casey DeSmith (who had just signed a long-term contract extension) in place.

Because Jarry counted less against the salary cap, he ended up starting the season as the backup to Murray and used that opportunity to start playing his way into the starting position.

Or at least challenging for it.

Jarry has been the Penguins’ most productive goalie this season (.921 save percentage to Murray’s .899), started to get the bulk of the starts in the middle of the season, and played his way into the 2020 NHL All-Star Game.

Both goalies are restricted free agents after this season and it is going to be fascinating to watch how this situation plays out.

The non-stop injuries

It is not just that the Penguins have had to deal with a ton of injuries this season that has been a disappointment for them. It is the fact that it has been their top players.

Just a quick run down on which players have missed games this season.

That is a lot. Through it all, the Penguins have remained in contention for the top spot in the Metropolitan Division, or at the very least, home-ice advantage in Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs all season.

Bryan Rust has a breakout season offensively

Since becoming a regular in the lineup during the 2015-16 season Rust has been an outstanding “glue” guy in the Penguins’ lineup. He can play all over the lineup and contribute in any role. He is not out of place on the first line, he can handle himself defensively, he is an outstanding penalty killer, and he just does everything well.

This season his game has gone to an even higher level thanks to a breakout performance offensively, recording 56 points (27 goals, 29 assists) in 55 games. He has set career highs in every meaningful offensive category.

The biggest part of that emergence has just been the simple fact he has been able to take on a bigger role with more ice-time, and especially on the power play, allowing his offense to shine.

MORE PENGUINS:
• Looking at the 2019-20 Pittsburgh Penguins
Examining the Penguins long-term outlook

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 Buzzer: Zibanejad stars on Broadway; Blackhawks remain in playoff race

Mika Zibanejad #93 of the New York Rangers scores his fifth goal of the game in overtime
Getty Images
1 Comment

Three Stars

1) Mika Zibanejad, New York Rangers

The 26-year-old scored five times as the Rangers defeated the Washington Capitals in overtime, 6-5. Zibanejad is the first NHL player to score five goals and the game-winning goal in overtime since Sergei Fedorov on Dec. 26, 1996. The alternate captain joined Don Murdoch and Mark Pavelich as the only players in franchise history to score five times in a single game. Zibanejad established himself as a top-line NHL center last season with a breakout campaign but reached new heights this year with 38 goals and 33 assists. The Blueshirts trail the New York Islanders by two points for the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference playoff race but have played one additional game.

2) Alex DeBrincat, Chicago Blackhawks

Only four points separate six teams within striking distance of the wild card spots in the Western Conference. DeBrincat scored twice as the Blackhawks defeated the Edmonton Oilers 4-3 at the United Center Thursday and extended their winning streak to four games. DeBrincat lit the lamp twice in the second period as Chicago pulled away from Edmonton. Leon Draisaitl recorded two assists in his Hart Trophy campaign.

3) Alain Vigneault, Philadelphia Flyers

It takes time for an NHL coach to implement his system in his first year with a new club, but AV has quietly led the Flyers to a tie for first place in the Metropolitan Division with 15 games remaining in the season. Philadelphia has recently climbed the standings and are in position to earn home-ice advantage in the first two rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Vigneault helped the Flyers move past an emotional win against the Capitals Wednesday and extend their winning streak to eight games with a 4-1 victory against the Carolina Hurricanes.

Highlights of the Night

Artemi Panarin delivered a sensational stretch pass as Zibanejad closed out the Capitals with the overtime winner.

Patric Hornqvist converted a spinning backhanded shot to record his first of two goals in the Penguins’ 4-2 win against the Sabres.

Patrick Kane netted his 30th of the season with this sharp-angled shot in the Blackhawks’ 4-3 win against the Oilers.

Brady Tkachuk looked off a defender before firing this short-side snipe as the Senators defeated the Islanders, 4-3.

Ivan Provorov scored for the second straight game as the Flyers tied the Capitals for the top spot in the Metropolitan Division.

Torey Krug launched a slap shot in overtime to propel the Bruins to their fourth straight win.

Push for the Playoffs

Stat of the Night

Scores

Pittsburgh Penguins 4, Buffalo Sabres 2

Tampa Bay Lightning 4, Montreal Canadiens 0

Boston Bruins 2, Florida Panthers 1 (OT)

New York Rangers 6. Washington Capitals 5 (OT)

Philadelphia Flyers 4, Carolina Hurricanes 1

Ottawa Senators 4, New York Islanders 3

Nashville Predators 2, Dallas Stars 0

Chicago Blackhawks 4, Edmonton Oilers 3

Los Angeles Kings 1, Toronto Maple Leafs (SO)

Minnesota Wild 3, San Jose Sharks 2


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.

Penguins fall behind Flyers as losing streak hits six games

Penguins losing streak reaches six games after Sharks shutout Flyers ahead
Getty Images

Remember when it looked like the Penguins might push the Capitals for the Metropolitan Division title? With the Penguins losing streak now at six games, they risk falling out of the Metro top three entirely.

Their slump hit what sure felt like a new low on Saturday as the Sharks shut them out 5-0. Martin Jones frustrated the flustered Penguins with a 30-save shutout. San Jose received contributions from the expected (Evander Kane, Logan Couture, Joe Thornton) and the not-so-much (25-year-old Joel Kellman scoring his third NHL goal).

Penguins lose ground as streak reaches six games

Consider a few factors in the Penguins’ six-game skid:

  • The Flyers have been almost as hot as the Penguins have been cold. Philadelphia seeks its sixth consecutive win when the Flyers face the Rangers on NBC on Sunday afternoon (watch live).
  • To make matters worse, the Penguins dropped all six games in regulation.

Look at how precarious the situation is becoming:

Metro 1: Capitals – 84 points in 64 games played (39-19-6)
Metro 2: Flyers – 81 points in 64 GP (37-20-7)
Metro 3: Penguins – 80 points in 64 GP (37-21-6)

East WC 1: Islanders – 78 points in 64 GP (35-21-8)

As you can see, the Penguins would begin the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs on the road if they began right now. The Islanders are nipping at their heels for that third spot, too.

  • Don’t totally discount the potential importance of home-ice advantage. The Penguins are 22-6-4 at home and just 15-15-2 on the road, while the Flyers see an almost identical gap (23-5-4 at home; 14-15-3 away).
  • The Penguins played five of their last six games on the road, including their last four. Losing to the Capitals is one thing, but failing to get a single standings point against California’s three NHL teams is shaky in 2020. Things could get pretty dicey if the Penguins can’t beat the Senators in Pittsburgh on Tuesday.

Wake-up call didn’t happen yet

The Athletic’s Josh Yohe reports (sub required) that the Penguins viewed Saturday’s game as a chance to “stop the bleeding.” (Insert some “Sharks smelling blood” one-liners right here.)

“We’re digging ourselves a hole right now,” Patric Hornqvist said after Friday’s 3-2 loss to the Ducks. “So let’s figure out what we’re made of.”

Well, Saturday’s shutout to the Sharks was made of … ugh.

It’s probably not a coincidence that Sidney Crosby is suffering through a brief lull.

From Feb. 8-18, Crosby generated an impressive five-game point streak, managing three goals and eight assists for 11 points. He’s only managed a single goal and suffered through a -8 rating during this six-game skid.

Perhaps some of these struggles stem from the Penguins trying to get acclimated to quite a few new names after making their typical run of aggressive trade deadline moves. As much as anything else, it’s also indicative of the ups and downs of a marathon 82-game season. You don’t see Martin Jones pitch a 30-save shutout every week, after all.

How worried should the Penguins be about their six-game losing streak, and where do you think they’ll finish in the standings?

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.

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.

The Buzzer: Crosby sparks Penguins; Aho extends point streak

Pittsburgh Penguins Center Sidney Crosby (87)
Getty Images
1 Comment

Three Stars

1) Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins

Alex Ovechkin, the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Boston Bruins have dominated the Eastern Conference storylines this season. But Sidney Crosby and the Penguins jumped into first place of the Metropolitan Division after a thorough 5-2 win against the Toronto Maple Leafs Tuesday. Pittsburgh’s captain recorded four points in his third consecutive multi-point game. Crosby has netted seven goals and dished out 16 assists in 13 games since returning from a core muscle surgery that kept him sidelined since mid-November. No. 87 has also tallied 11 points during a five-game point streak. The Penguins have flown under the radar for most of the season but should be considered one of the elite teams in the Eastern Conference and a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.

2) Blake Wheeler, Winnipeg Jets

The Jets increased their winning streak to three games with a 6-3 victory against the Los Angeles Kings. Wheeler recorded two goals and added an assist as Winnipeg looks to keep pace in the Western Conference wild-card race. Wheeler was rewarded late in the second period for darting toward the back post during an odd-man rush. Mark Scheifele took the puck from Trevor Lewis in the defensive zone then raced up ice to set up the captain. Wheeler’s second goal of the night came late in the final frame when he redirected a shot from Neal Pionk into the back of the net.

3) Anthony Angello, Pittsburgh Penguins

No matter the circumstances, Jim Rutherford and Mike Sullivan expect every player in any lineup to contribute in a meaningful way. The Penguins have done a fantastic job integrating players from the minor leagues into their NHL lineup in recent years. Anthony Angello didn’t even expect to play Tuesday, but alternate captain Evgeni Malkin was unable to complete warmups and left an opening in the lineup. Angello participated in the pre-game skate and was ready to fill the void. In only his fifth NHL game, the 23-year-old scored his first career goal late in the first period. Sam Lafferty fired a shot from the top of the circles and Angello provided a screen and masterfully redirected the puck past Frederik Andersen. Patric Hornqvist retrieved the milestone puck for the young forward.

Other notable performances

  • Sebastian Aho extended his point streak to 10 games with a third-period goal in the Hurricanes’ 4-1 win against the Predators.
  • Jordan Binnington picked up his second shutout of the season as the Blues blanked the Devils for their first win since the Jay Bouwmeester incident.
  • Nikolaj Ehlers had two assists and the eventual game-winning goal in the Jets’ 6-3 win against the Kings.
  • Andreas Athanasiou scored twice as part of a three-goal third period to help the Red Wings snap a four-game losing streak with a 4-3 win against the Canadiens.
  • Artem Anisimov scored twice in the Senators’ 7-4 victory against the Buffalo Sabres.
  • Vladislav Namestnikov scored his fourth shorthanded goal. Ottawa Senators lead the NHL with 13 shorthanded goals this season.
  • Travis Konecny recorded three points as the Flyers gained ground in the Metropolitan Division with a 5-1 win against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Highlights of the Night

Auston Matthews hammered this pass from William Nylander to score his 43rd of the season. He took sole possession of the top spot on NHL goal-scoring list.

Sean Couturier whiffed but ends up with credit for the goal after Elvis Merzlikins lost sight of the puck before it trickled through his legs

Paul Byron stole the puck from Athanasiou then Nick Cousins set up Nate Thompson for the easy tap-in goal.

Stats of the Night

Scores

Philadelphia Flyers 5, Columbus Blue Jackets 1
Pittsburgh Penguins 5, Toronto Maple Leafs 2
Ottawa Senators 7, Buffalo Sabres 4
Detroit Red Wings 4, Montreal Canadiens 3
St. Louis Blues 3, New Jersey Devils 0
Carolina Hurricanes 4, Nashville Predators 1
Winnipeg Jets 6, Los Angeles Kings 3


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.