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WATCH LIVE: Washington Capitals at Pittsburgh Penguins

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2017-18 NHL season continues on Sunday as the Washington Capitals visit the Pittsburgh Penguins at 7:30 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online by clicking here. 

CAPITALS
Alex OvechkinEvgeny KuznetsovTom Wilson
Andre BurakovskyNicklas BackstromT.J. Oshie
Jakub VranaLars EllerDevante Smith-Pelly
Chandler StephensonJay Beagle – Brett Conolly

Michal KempnyJohn Carlson
Dmitry OrlovMatt Niskanen
Brooks OrpikJakub Jerabek

Starting goalie: Philip Grubauer

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

[Ovechkin, a durable ‘Russian machine,’ reaches 1,000 games]

WATCH LIVE – 7:30 p.m. ET

PENGUINS
Jake GuentzelSidney CrosbyBryan Rust
Carl HagelinEvgeni MalkinPhil Kessel (game time decision)
Conor ShearyRiley SheahanPatric Hornqvist
Zach Aston-ReeseJosh JoorisTom Kuhnhackl

Brian DumoulinKris Letang
Olli MaattaJustin Schultz
Matt HunwickJamie Oleksiak

Starting goalie: Matt Murray

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Sean Leahy is a writer forPro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line atphtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Derick Brassard trying to fit in, not be ‘savior’ with Penguins

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When Derick Brassard hits the ice for his first shift Tuesday night against the New York Islanders, he’ll be involved in his 10th game as a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Since coming over from the Ottawa Senators in that wild three-team deal just before the NHL trade deadline last month, the 30-year-old center has a goal and four points.

Any player who goes from a lottery team to a contender around the trade deadline has pressure on them. Their new team gave up assets in hopes that they were either the last piece of a championship puzzle or someone who can fill a role and strengthen an area. In Brassard’s case, he was brought over to take over third-line center duties behind Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The Penguins had options, like Riley Sheahan, but were looking for an upgrade in order to bolster their bottom six.

Luckily for Brassard, he joined a team that’s won the last two Stanley Cups and has a locker room full of stars who have mantles full of various accomplishments. The Penguins are lined up for another Cup run, and these last few weeks have given him an opportunity to blend into a lineup that’s looking for a three-peat.

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

“I know it’s going to take a little time. I feel like I have a lot more to give. It’s a process,” Brassard said last week after a morning skate at Madison Square Garden. “I’m going to take some time here and try and make sure I’m going into the playoffs with my ‘A’ game.”

Brassard admitted he’s still not at a full comfort level since the trade, but that will take time. He’s been playing mostly with Phil Kessel on one of his wings as Bryan Rust, Riley Sheahan and Conor Sheary have seen time on the other side at even strength. That’s the good fortune that head coach Mike Sullivan has — he has that option to mix and match players given the lineup he’s working with.

Brassard knows his role behind Crosby and Malkin, and that’s alleviated any pressure of trying to do too much when it’s time to hop over the boards.

“For me, playing behind those two guys I don’t try to put any pressure on myself,” he said. “I just try to be myself. This group proved that the last two years. I’m not here to be a savior. I’m just going to try and play my game and be myself.”

While on the ice he’s still finding his way, in the dressing room it’s been a smooth transition with plenty of familiarity.

• He was teammates with Carl Hagelin and Matt Hunwick with the New York Rangers, who also employed Sullivan as an assistant while Brassard was there.

• He played against Sidney Crosby in junior hockey.

• In each of the last four postseasons, his previous two teams — the Rangers and Senators — have met the Penguins and gone 2-2 against them .

Having been eliminated by the eventual champions the last two seasons, Brassard is hoping for a different ending this time around.

“It’s nice to be on this side,” he said. “It’s a really good team and I have a chance to do something special.”

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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.

Sergei Gonchar continues to work magic with Penguins’ new defensemen

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PITTSBURGH — During his playing days Sergei Gonchar spent five years as a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins and helped play a critical role in the team reaching back-to-back Stanley Cup Finals in 2008 and 2009. His impact was noticeable every time he was in the lineup. He was a 25-minute per night defenseman, the quarterback of the power play, and even scored some huge goals, including a game-winner late in Game 3 of the 2009 Stanley Cup Final to help prevent the team from falling into a 3-0 series hole.

Over the past three years he has played a different sort of role — one that is not as easily noticeable — in helping the Penguins win back-to-back Stanley Cups.

Following the end of his playing career in 2014-15, Gonchar joined the Penguins organization as a “defenseman development coach” and eventually worked his way to full-time assistant on the team’s staff. During that time he has played an influential role in helping the Penguins piece together a Stanley Cup caliber defense with a collection of players that have, at times, been overlooked and even tossed aside by their previous teams.

• During the 2015-16 season they acquired Trevor Daley from the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for Rob Scuderi. At the time, Daley was playing a career-low 14 minutes per game in Chicago and never seemed to fit with head coach Joel Quenneville or the Blackhawks’ style of play after being acquired by the team in exchange for Patrick Sharp.

• A couple of months later the Penguins traded a third-round draft pick to the Edmonton Oilers for Justin Schultz, a defensman that had pretty much become ostracized in Western Canada because he didn’t live up to unreasonable hype and expectations on a bad team. At the time of his trade he was referred to by one pundit as “the worst player in hockey.” Along with Daley, Schultz helped reshape the Penguins’ blue line and then played an even bigger role the following season in the absence of Kris Letang. He had a career year, finished 10th in Norris Trophy voting, and was rewarded with a three-year extension over the summer.

• Earlier this season with the team in a funk and struggling defensively, Rutherford swung another minor deal in sending a fourth-round draft pick to the Dallas Stars for Jamie Oleksiak. Like Daley and Schultz before him, Oleksiak seemed to have fallen out of favor with his previous team, was getting limited ice-time, and didn’t exactly receive strong reviews from those that watched him regularly. Since arriving in Pittsburgh, Oleksiak has played some of the best hockey of his career and has proven to be another strong in-season pickup by the Penguins’ general manager.

He scored his fourth goal as a member of the Penguins on Sunday night in just his 35th game with the team, and it proved to be a big win, going in the books as the game-winner. It also happened to come against the team that traded him.

“It’s always nice to contribute,” said a smiling Oleksiak when asked if the goal had any special meaning. “Just happy for the win.”

Since arriving in Pittsburgh, Oleksiak has been the latest reclamation project for Gonchar and assistant coach Jacques Martin along the team’s blue line. The early returns have been promising.

Listed at 6-foot-7 and 255 pounds, Oleksiak has the sort of size that NHL scouts and executives can lose their minds over, especially for a defenseman. He also possesses a booming slap shot and is a surprisingly swift skater for being such a massive human being. All of the tools are in place to be a solid pro, and when all of that is taken into account it is no surprise he was a 14th overall pick in the draft.

Before he was a member of the Penguins’ coaching staff, Gonchar had a chance to get an up close look at Oleksiak from a different perspective — as a player. During Gonchar’s brief stint with the Stars he spent some time playing as one Oleksiak’s first defense partners in the NHL and it wouldn’t be a surprise if Gonchar, armed with first-hand knowledge of what sort of skill set Oleksiak had, was able to get into the ear of the front office and urge them to take a shot on the player.

A future fourth-round draft pick later, here we are.

Even though Oleksiak downplayed it after Sunday’s game (“I don’t really need to be a guy that scores a lot of goals”), the Penguins seem to have turned him loose a little bit offensively and given him a bit more freedom than he may have had in Dallas. He also seems to be a more confident player and, without any prompting, mentioned the work of Gonchar and Martin on Sunday night in how he has been able to fit in with the Penguins and why it maybe didn’t work in Dallas.

“I wouldn’t say it didn’t work,” said Oleksiak of his time with the Stars. “It’s just been a great fit for me here with the people really helping me out. It’s a great cast here with this defense core and guys like Jacques and Gonch willing to work with us. It’s been a really smooth transition.”

So what is it about Gonchar that has worked for him?

“I think it helps sometimes to have a guy that’s not on the bench,” said Oleksiak. “I think sometimes assistant coaches don’t want to push the wrong buttons or get too hard on guys during games, so it’s kind of nice to have a guy that’s not on the bench, but as an eye on the sky that’s kind of been there. He’s not afraid to tell you you have to be better here, or you have to be better there, so you’re not kind of overthinking things too much.”

Over the past two years other defensemen in the Penguins’ organization have talked extensively about Gonchar’s focus on “little things” like stick position, body position, and foot position along the blue line.

Last year, Schultz told NHL.com’s Dan Rosen about a lot of the video work they did together and the things Gonchar preached to him.

An excerpt (full interview here):

“We were watching guys like Nicklas Lidstrom and Erik Karlsson, some of the things they’ve done offensively. It was when I first got here last year. We watched things they did with the puck, how they played the game. We started focusing on things like that and it helped me out a lot. I would still see video of myself, but that was the first thing, he just wanted to show me with Lidstrom, his position all the time in the defensive zone and he never got beat. He wanted to show me that you don’t have to run over guys or anything, just be in good position, good stick position. Like I said, it’s the little details. We started focusing on that and it helped me. It was just trying to take care of the [defensive] zone, be comfortable in the [defensive] zone, be relied on there. If you take care of that part you’re going to get the puck back and you’ll be on offense.”

It’s not that the Penguins have taken these players and turned them into Erik Karlsson or Nicklas Lidstrom, or even players that might win a Norris Trophy. Not every defenseman has to be play at that level, and not every defenseman can. And the Penguins still are not always a lockdown defensive team. They can be at times, but their style of play and roster construction doesn’t always lend itself to that style of play. They can get into track meets at times and have some break downs.

But what is important is that they have taken players that have some skill, maybe did not fit with their previous teams for one reason or another, acquired them for next-to-nothing, and worked to get a little more out of them.

When you are a team that spends to the upper limits of the NHL’s salary cap and have a significant portion of that money going to a small core of players, there is a ton of pressure on the GM and front office to find ways to still build a competitive roster around the edges. No matter how good your top tier players are, you can not just rely on them to cover up everything else. Otherwise you become, well, Edmonton. You still need to find talent to fill out the rest of the roster, ideally with players that don’t cost a lot to acquire or cost a lot against the salary cap.

In other words: You have to find talent where other teams might be missing it or not utilizing it as best they can.

When it comes to constructing their defense in recent years, the Penguins have been able to find ways to do that, and Gonchar’s work behind the scenes has been a huge part of that.

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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 on NBCSN: Penguins, Rangers meet on Wednesday Night Rivalry

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2017-18 NHL season continues with Wednesday Night Rivalry as the New York Rangers play host to the Pittsburgh Penguins at 8 p.m. ET. To watch the game online, click here.

Despite a brief surge following their trade deadline sell-off, the Rangers can now focus on the future.

A western Canada swing that saw them take six points from three games inched them back into the Eastern Conference playoff picture. But a trio of losses last week shoved them backward as they now sit nine points behind the final wild card spot. That means more rest for Henrik Lundqvist, who’s still committed to staying with the only NHL franchise he’s known, and more ice time for backup Alexandar Georgiev.

“For me, the rest of the year is about wanting to be able to feel good about myself and about us,” Lundqvist told The New York Post this week. “I don’t want to look at the big picture and break everything down. I’m not looking ahead to next year. I’m not thinking about whether to play in the World Championships. I just want to take it day by day and play my best for this team. That’s the challenge. When it’s over, there will be time to reflect about what happened and look ahead. But not so much now.”

[WATCH WEDNESDAY NIGHT RIVALRY LIVE – 8PM ET]

With Georgiev getting a chance, when will we see Lias Andersson and Filip Chytil get their feet wet at the NHL level?

With 12 games to go in their season, the Penguins are battling with the Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers for Metropolitan Division supremacy. The Caps have a game in-hand on their two division rivals

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

The Penguins have been keeping pace without the services of starting goalie Matt Murray, who hasn’t played since Feb. 24 and is recovering from another concussion. He’s been skating recently and head coach Mike Sullivan said he would be making the trip as they play the Rangers, Montreal Canadiens and New York Islanders all on the road before returning to PPG Paints Arena next Wednesday.

Also close to a return is Bryan Rust, who suffered a concussion last week against the Flyers. He shed a no-contact jersey towards the end of Tuesday’s practice and could also be back at some point in the next week.

“It’s a big relief,” Sullivan said via the Post-Gazette. “These guys are important players for us. The fact that they’re tracking the right way is really encouraging. We take each day as it comes with the nature of those injuries, but certainly we’re excited about the way they’re both tracking.”

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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.

Krejci, Bruins maul Penguins in 8-4 win

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Where do you begin in a game that featured 12 goals, a goalie pulled in the first six minutes of the game, a man scoring a hat trick and two behemoths fighting each other?

Pick your poison, I suppose.

An 8-4 win for the Boston Bruins against the Pittsburgh Penguins produced a number of notable moments in New England on Thursday.

Olli Maatta scored his first of two goals in the game 35 seconds into the first period. At that point, it looked like the Penguins were off to a good start sporting a 1-0 lead. But the nets behind each goaltender took a beating in the first period.

Both teams combined for eight goals, with the Bruins emerging with a 5-3 lead at the first intermission. Boston scored three straight to answer Maatta’s marker and then some, including Rick Nash‘s second goal in as many games wearing the spoked B.

David Krejci built upon his first-period goal to give the Bruins a 6-3 lead 2:16 in the second period. He would later complete his first hat trick in four years at the 14:33 mark.

It wasn’t a kind night for any of the three goalies that featured in the game.

Casey DeSmith didn’t last long in the Penguins crease, allowing three goals on five shots in the first 5:30 of the first period, a solid .400 save percentage. Tristan Jarry relieved DeSmith and got pelted all the same, allowing further five goals, albeit on 33 shots.

Rask started off a little shaky, but found his composure as the game wore on. It wasn’t pretty, allowing four on 26 shots, but the 30-year-old won’t be complaining about his 26th win.

It was the type of game where the video footage likely won’t look great on either side, but Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan will want to spend some time showing his club how poorly they played (other than blocking shots, which the Penguins did 25 times in the game).

Boston had 29 shots on goal through 40 minutes, and the score reflected it. Pittsburgh looked a mess, and they’ve now lost three straight. They sit in third place in the Metropolitan Division and need to stop the bleeding with the New Jersey Devils (who lost on Thursday) hot on their heels.

The Bruins, meanwhile, moved into second place in the Atlantic Division, leapfrogging the Toronto Maple Leafs to sit four points back of the division-leading Tampa Bay Lightning. The Bruins have two games in hand on the Lightning and four on the Maple Leafs.


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