Sam Lafferty

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: Dubois shines as Blue Jackets keep rolling with another win

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Three Stars

1. Pierre-Luc Dubois, Columbus Blue Jackets. Their incredible season continued on Sunday with a 4-3 win over the Montreal Canadiens, and it was a huge performance from Dubois that was the difference. In 17 minutes of ice-time he scored two goals, recorded an assist, won six out of eight faceoffs, and was a plus-two in the win. His 17 goals and 42 total points for the season lead the team while he continues to be their best two-way forward. The Blue Jackets are now 17-2-5 in their past 24 games (the only two losses in regulation were against the San Jose Sharks) and are in third playoff spot in the Metropolitan Division, moving ahead of the New York Islanders. The Islanders do, however, still have three games in hand.

2. Matt Murray, Pittsburgh Penguins. Do not let the three goals against on the stat sheet fool you. Murray was the difference for the Pittsburgh Penguins on Sunday in their 4-3 win against the Washington Capitals thanks to his incredible third period performance. He has now won six starts in a row and seven of his past eight games. Read more about his recent play and the Penguins’ win on Sunday right here.

3. Andrei Svechnikov, Carolina Hurricanes. He is quickly turning into a superstar for the Hurricanes, and he scored an absolute beauty of a goal on Sunday to give them a third period lead.

His line was dominant for the Hurricanes in a 4-3 shootout win on Sunday and his goal gives him his second straight 20-goal season to start his career. Keep in mind he is still only 19 years old. He is just the 16th player in NHL history to have two 20-goal seasons before their age 20 season. Read more about the Hurricanes’ win and their Super Bowl Sunday football-themed Storm Surge right here.

Highlights of the Day

It did not result in two points in the standings, but Vancouver Canucks forward Elias Pettersson scored two great goals on Sunday to continue his magnificent sophomore season. He scored his second goal from an absolutely ridiculous angle to tie the game in the third period to help get it to overtime and give them at least one point in the standings.

This shot by Penguins forward Sam Lafferty was a thing of beauty to tie the game in the first period not long after Lars Eller scored the first goal of the game.

Dubois earned his second goal of the game with his effort on this shift.

Factoids

  • Elvis Merzlikins won his sixth game in a row for the Blue Jackets, extending the franchise record for longest winning streak by a rookie goalie. [NHL PR]
  • Elias Pettersson’s two goals on Sunday give him 50 for his career, making him one of the fastest players in franchise history to reach that mark. [NHL PR]
  • The Carolina Hurricanes won their 30th game of the season and are back in a playoff spot. [NHL PR]

Scores

Pittsburgh Penguins 4, Washington Capitals 3
Columbus Blue Jackets 4, Montreal Canadiens 3
Carolina Hurricanes 4, Vancouver Canucks 3 (SO)

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, Murray hold on to beat Capitals: 4 takeaways

If the Pittsburgh Penguins are going to catch the Washington Capitals in the Metropolitan Division race they are going to have to take advantage of the four head-to-head meetings they have over the next two months. Sunday in Washington they played the first of those games, and it was the Penguins getting a hard fought 4-3 win.

The Penguins are now four points back of the Capitals in the standings while also having one game in hand.

Here is what stood out from Sunday’s game.

1. Matt Murray came up big for the Penguins in the third period

Yes he allowed three goals and had some help from his goal post on one or two occasions, but he was a game-changer for the Penguins in the third period where the Capitals owned a 14-5 shots advantage and carried the play as they tried to complete the comeback. After a slow start to the regular season Murray is starting to get his game going in the right direction. With Sunday’s win he has now won six decisions in a row and is 7-1-0 in his past eight starts. He has a .922 save percentage during his individual winning streak. Murray and Tristan Jarry are both going to get their share of playing in the second half, and right now both are playing well.

2. The Penguins’ depth players came through again

Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin both had an assist and played well, but it was their depth players coming through with the actual goals. This has been a continuing trend all season, and one of the biggest reasons the Penguins have been as good as they have been. Your superstars are not going to score every night, and there has to be other options in your lineup to provide some offense.

On Sunday, it was Sam Lafferty, Dominik Simon, Patric Hornqvist, and Brandon Tanev finding the back of the net.

Lafferty’s goal came just one minute after the Capitals scored the game’s first goal and was a perfectly placed shot off the rush, beating rookie goalie Ilya Samsonov.

Tanev’s goal came with just under three minutes to play in regulation and ended up going in the books as the game-winner.

3. Lars Eller was incredible for the Capitals

Speaking of important depth players, Eller was a beast for the Capitals on Sunday. He scored two goals, hit the post on a wide open look late in the second period, and seemed to be at the center of everything positive that was happening for them. Eller is never going to be one of the first players you think of on the Capitals, but you absolutely need players like him if you are going to be a contender, and he is having an outstanding season. He has a chance to set new career highs offensively (20 goals and 45 points are within reach) and is one of their best defensive forwards and possession drivers. Everything you want in a complementary piece.

4. Of course this would be another great playoff series

It has been so long since these two teams actually played each other (Sunday’s game was their first meeting of the season) that it was easy to forget just how intense and amazing these games can be. The skill on display, the dislike they have for each other, and the way every game seems to come down to a late push at the buzzer. They have met four times in the Sidney Crosby-Alex Ovechkin era, and with the way they are playing this season a fifth matchup could be a couple of months away.

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: 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.