Penguins trying to stay the course during bumpy start

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By WILL GRAVES (AP Sports Writer)

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Mike Sullivan’s regular film sessions with the Pittsburgh Penguins don’t lack for clues on why one of the NHL’s marquee franchises is in the midst of its bumpiest stretch in more than a decade.

The defense can morph into a disjointed mess under sustained pressure, particularly right in front of the net. The crisp breakouts that used to trigger odd-man rushes featuring some of the league’s most skilled players moving at warp speed have largely vanished and been replaced by something significantly sloppier.

Oh, and the NHL at large has caught up to the frenetic tempo Sullivan introduced when he took over nearly three years ago, a hiring that – combined with a roster makeover authored by general manager Jim Rutherford – helped power the Penguins to consecutive Stanley Cups. In that way, Pittsburgh’s current struggles are a byproduct of its not-so-distant glory.

”For the most part it’s a copycat league and teams tend to try to emulate the teams that have success,” Sullivan said Tuesday. ”When you look at our team over the last handful of seasons, we’ve had pretty good success with a certain style of play.”

A style Sullivan has no plans to abandon even with Pittsburgh mired in a 1-7-2 funk that has dropped his club into a tie for the fewest points in the wide-open Eastern Conference a quarter of the way through the season.

”You look at the core of our players, (Sidney) Crosby, (Evgeni) Malkin, (Phil) Kessel, (Kris) Letang, all those guys can skate,” Sullivan said. ”They can still skate.”

The thing now is, so can everyone else.

The proof came to life over the last 30 minutes against Buffalo on Monday night, when the Sabres reeled off the final four goals, including Jake Eichel’s game-winner 45 seconds into overtime at the end of a sequence that began with a Malkin giveaway in the offensive zone.

It was the kind of miscue Pittsburgh used to pounce on with ruthless efficiency. Now it’s the Penguins who are making the crucial mistakes, ones that are ending up in the back of their own net with alarming regularity.

”I think we’ve been doing some really good things the last handful of games but we’ve been shooting ourselves in the foot a little bit with a few plays,” forward Bryan Rust said. ”We’ve got to be a little bit more mindful of that and just dig down a little bit deeper and the bounces will eventually go our way.”

There is a fair amount of ”puck luck” that’s abandoned Pittsburgh at the moment. The Penguins were up two goals late in the second period against Buffalo when Pittsburgh defenseman Jack Johnson locked up Sabres forward Conor Sheary in front of the net. No matter. Casey Nelson‘s shot from the point deflected off Johnson’s skate and by goaltender Casey DeSmith.

Watching from afar while sitting out a third straight game nursing an upper body injury, Crosby could only scratch his head.

”I think the thing for us that’s probably been a little more difficult is, it’s not necessarily the same thing,” said the two-time MVP, who hopes to play on Wednesday when Pittsburgh hosts Dallas. ”We’ve found different ways to lose games and you know, we’ve probably corrected one thing and something else has been a factor in another game we lost.”

One thread, however, has been a constant: defense. The Penguins – particularly early in the season during the Crosby era – have occasionally been slow to tighten things up because they are so talented offensively that the finer points of playing responsibly in their own end can be lost.

In past years, Pittsburgh has been able to outscore opponents even on nights it didn’t particularly play well. That’s not happening at the moment. The loss to Buffalo marked the eighth time in 19 games the Penguins have allowed at least five goals, something they did 13 times all of last season.

While Sullivan is quick to point to the number of quality chances Pittsburgh created against Buffalo, he’s well aware his team was far too generous in front of DeSmith. Pittsburgh dominated the first period but only had a 1-1 tie to show for it after forward Dominik Simon lost his footing while attempting to help clear a puck. Buffalo kept it in the zone and a cross-ice pass led to a one-timer that Tage Thompson buried to even the game.

”We’ve got to do a better job defending and making sure we stay on the right side of the puck and the right side of people in the critical areas of the rink,” Sullivan said. ”That’s an area we can all improve as a team.”

Pittsburgh hasn’t missed the playoffs since Crosby’s rookie year in 2005-06 and Crosby stressed it is far too early to panic.

”It’s tight but we just have to make sure we eliminate our mistakes and give ourselves the best chance and I thought for the most part (against Buffalo) we were pretty in control of that game,” Crosby said. ”I think if we keep trending that way, we’ll learn from that one and get a lot more wins.”

Three quarters of the season remains. Though the Penguins have been ”meh” at best, the rest Metropolitan Division hasn’t exactly been lights out. Only eight points separate the Penguins from first-place Columbus. One good consistent stretch of hockey and things can change very quickly.

”You can’t control the ones you’ve let slip away,” Crosby said. ”Ten games from now, you don’t know where you’re going to be.”

Full AP NHL coverage: http://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Wednesday Night Hockey: Memorable goals from Crosby, Ovechkin

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Wednesday night’s matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals at 6:30 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

We’re in Year 14 of the Crosby vs. Ovechkin debate. Now in their 30s, both are still at the top of their games and the last three Stanley Cups have been won by either the Penguins or Capitals.

Both Crosby and Ovechkin have delighted us with numerous moments since they entered the NHL in 2005-06. Highlight-reel goals, assists, moves and moments. As they renew their rivalry again Wednesday night, we decided to pick out our favorite goals from both over their future Hall of Fame careers.

Let us know your top moments from each in the comments.

SEAN

Both of these goals are very similar in nature. When a player of elite talent grabs the puck and picks up steam flying through the neutral zone, that situation won’t end well for the opposing team.

Ovechkin’s goal begins as he picks up a rebound in front of Braden Holtby. He loops around the Capitals net and starts driving up ice. It’s basically a 1-on-3 situation and Ovi knows from the moment he puts his head up that he’s doing this by himself. Rick Nash shows why he’s never won the Selke Trophy an Ryan McDonagh is just hoping he can get his stick or body on it, but to no avail.

Crosby takes the pass from Mark Recchi as he’s entering the neutral zone. He’s not bothered by Blair Betts’ backchecking or Jason Ward’s desperation stick check and then splits a hole between the Rangers defense before beating Henrik Lundqvist. The goal was point No. 37 for Crosby during a season where he would finish with 120, winning his first Art Ross Trophy.

JAMES

During the nascent days of Hockey Twitter, there was a certain level of animosity toward all of the attention Crosby and Ovechkin received. “What about our guy, these two haven’t even done anything yet?”

Such resentment was always silly because the two stars delivered essentially since day one – both eclipsed 100 points as rookies – but their incredible displays in trading “dueling hat tricks” in Game 2 of their memorable, eventual seven-game series in 2008-09 really silenced a lot of critics. (Granted, it also fueled a new obnoxious narrative, as Ovechkin’s successes soon were dismissed in light of Crosby’s greater team triumphs, a plot that’s only now been softened.)

One remarkable thing is that the actual goals were pretty easy to forget, as the sheer force of the narrative – and the exhilaration of the series – really lingered. All three of Crosby’s goals were “workmanlike,” as he was essentially hacking away close to the net. Meanwhile, Ovechkin basically scored from “his office” for his first two goals, while his third was a great one-on-one move off of the rush.

Both players would go on to do bigger and better things from team standpoints in particular, yet this was their glorious answer to that Michael Jordan – Larry Bird “H-O-R-S-E” commercial. Like any classic moment, it holds up today.

ADAM

I am going with this goal in 2009 against the Montreal Canadiens with the behind-the-back pass off the boards to himself at center ice, and then scoring while being hauled down on his way to the net. It is just a completely freakish play that I think gets a lost in the shadow of the goal he scored against the Coyotes in his rookie year. Which was also insane.

Crosby is tough because he doesn’t score as many highlight reel goals. He usually scores the rebound goal, or the deflection, or is just so much better than everyone else that he gets to the puck before anyone else does and just straight up beats the goalie. Think my personal favorite goal of his was probably in his return from the concussion because, one, he scored it like five minutes into the game, and two, it was one of his vintage backhand goals where he just skates by everyone and delivers an unstoppable backhand shot.

[WATCH LIVE – 7:30 P.M. ET]

SCOTT

Here you have Alex Ovechkin sapping the will out of his opponents. He splits Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh and scores off his knees with a filthy wrist shot. The goal itself is incredible, and then Girardi’s face on the replay said it all: “What am I even supposed to do about that?” Hacked, hauled down and still scored. Ovechkin at his finest. 

A goal that ignited a nation. After Canada’s disappointment in Turin in 2006, Crosby restored a country with one quick flick of the wrist. It wasn’t his flashiest or even most impressive. But it was his most important. With everything on the line, Crosby did what Crosby does.

JOEY

There’s so many different way you could go when choosing a favorite Ovechkin goal because he’s the best goal scorer of this generation, but how about this individual effort against the New Jersey Devils? Not only does he make defenseman Jon Merrill look silly, he also owns goalie Cory Schneider just seconds later. There’s not many players in the world that can pull that off. 

Crosby grew up cheering for the Montreal Canadiens because his dad was drafted by the team in 1984. So naturally, he had to do something remarkable when he played against them for first time in his NHL career. We’ve all come to appreciate Crosby’s ability to use his backhander, and that’s exactly what he used to beat Jose Theodore in the shootout. Bonus: he totally obliterated the water bottle on top of Theodore’s net. Incredible.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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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.

Crosby continues goal-scoring resurgence with another backhand beauty

Associated Press
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Halloween is fast approaching and Sidney Crosby is reminding the NHL that he’s still the wizard.

Crosby’s latest sorcery? His backhand shot.

The victims? The Edmonton Oilers and now the Calgary Flames. Crosby is casting spells on Alberta and there’s not a darn thing they can do about it.

The proof? Here’s Flames forward Sam Bennett. He’s draped himself all over Crosby, presumably to try and stop any sort of shenanigans. Crosby, unfazed, decides to score anyway as he forces his backhand shot (which appeared to be a one-handed effort) past Mike Smith.

It’s sort of unfair.

Crosby’s latest goal — his third of the season and third in his past two games after a slow start — comes after making particularly nasty work of Oilers forward Ryan Strome on Monday.

You can only feel bad for Strome here. There wasn’t a thing he could have done as Crosby did Crosby and scored an incredible backhand goal to steal back the best-player-in-the-league title.

Crosby’s slow start had people wondering if, finally, the man would start to slow down. It seems now that he was just lying in wait.


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

Crosby looking to jump-start offense vs. McDavid, Oilers

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As fun as the “best hockey player in the world” debate has been through the early weeks of the season, that conversation has deflected some attention from Sidney Crosby not exactly being at his best.

About a week ago, PHT’s Adam Gretz discussed Crosby’s scoring struggles, noting the belief that it’s “only a matter of time” before number 87 finds his offense again. To be more specific, Crosby hadn’t scored a goal yet, and he still hasn’t; he now sits at zero goals and five assists in six games.

Of course, the Penguins have been off since blanking the Maple Leafs 3-0 on Oct. 18, so it’s not as though Crosby’s added many more goal-less games since then. Even so, that’s given him that much more time to stew over any frustrations that might be lingering – as early as we are in the season, Crosby’s nothing if not a perfectionist – which makes Tuesday’s game against the Edmonton Oilers that much more tantalizing.

[More on the best debate from AP; don’t sleep on Crosby’s buddy Nathan MacKinnon]

Could Sidney Crosby finally enjoy a truly transcendent performance against Connor McDavid?

It’s probably bittersweet (and all-too-familiar) for McDavid to review the four Penguins – Oilers games that involved the two superstars:

  • McDavid has been splendid, scoring two goals and five assists for seven points in those four contests.
  • For whatever reason, Crosby hasn’t really taken off in the battle of number 87 vs. number 97, as he’s only generated a single assist.
  • Despite that disparity, the Penguins won all four games.

That last point underscores the fact that hockey is a team sport, and underlines the greatest difference between the two right now: Crosby has a lot more help. After all, Evgeni Malkin (98 points) and Phil Kessel (92) finished last season with more points than Crosby, who generated 89 in 2017-18. That trend has carried over to this early campaign, as Malkin has doubled Crosby’s points (12 to 6) heading into Tuesday’s game.

So, yes, it’s overly simplistic to boil down this poster to a boxing or pro-wrestling style poster of Crosby and McDavid staring each other down.

That said, it’s not just the media and fans who are getting revved up for this one. Milan Lucic ranks among those who acknowledge the buzz around this game, as Sportsnet’s Mark Spector reports.

“It’s really special,” Milan Lucic said of the matchup. “It’s a game a lot of people tune into and I know, as an athlete, it’s a game you want to be in, playing in front of and with greatness. It’s kinda like back in the day when Mario and Wayne would play against each other.”

Interestingly, Crosby is playing more of the Gretzky role to McDavid’s Lemieux, at least in broad strokes.

Crosby’s team is deeper, as Wayne’s was during his Edmonton run; McDavid, meanwhile, might feel the same frustrations Mario did (although at least McDavid has Leon Draisaitl and some other quality players Lemieux lacked for some time). Crosby’s the guy who might be at the twilight of his peak, and he has the rings, while McDavid is that magical, almost-alien talent whose ceiling sometimes seems limitless.

This makes for incredible fodder, but again, there’s the question of whether Crosby can slip out of his funk.

Six games don’t give you anywhere near enough of a sample size to get too worried about anything. Much like Tom Brady, we’ve been down this road about wondering if Crosby’s finally hit the wall, only to have that door emphatically slammed shut. Let’s not forget that he’s close to a point-per-game, anyway.

It is, however, fair to note that – for his standards – Crosby has been pretty quiet.

As much as Crosby’s known as a passer, he tends to affect multiple levels of the game, so seeing barely more than two shots on goal per game (13 in 6, or 2.17 SOG each game) is noteworthy. Crosby’s developed into quite the volume shooter over the years, as his career average is 3.28 SOG per game, and last season’s 3.01 per contest marked his career-low.

Again, six games represent less than 1/15th of a hockey season, and Crosby’s adjusting to a new season, not to mention a mixture of wingers. While he’s clearly developed chemistry with mainstay Jake Guentzel over the years, the Penguins have placed his other winger in the old line blender, spitting out the likes of Derick Brassard, Patric Hornqvist, and Bryan Rust.

You wonder how long the Penguins can ask Crosby’s to carry another forward or two, as he’s managed for so much time. Perhaps this relatively slow start, if nothing else, calls for a little more help.

One way or another, Crosby is almost certain to find answers, and the net. Bonus points if it happens with the spotlight shining during tonight’s game against McDavid and the Oilers.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Will Sidney Crosby win another scoring title in his career?

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Sidney Crosby is one of the most accomplished players in NHL history with a resume that is pretty much unmatched by, well … anyone.

He has already won three Stanley Cups, three Ted Lindsay Awards, two Conn Smythe Trophies, two MVP awards, two goal-scoring crowns, and two scoring titles.

The only players in league history to win at least two Stanley Cups, MVPs, scoring titles, and goal-scoring crowns includes only Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Phil Esposito, Gordie Howe, and Crosby. That’s it.

Had it not been for injuries during the prime of his career that individual collection of trophies would probably be significant larger, especially when it comes to the scoring titles.

For the five-year stretch between 2010-11 and 2014-15 Crosby finished as the league leader in points per game every single season (and by a ridiculously large margin each year) but only managed to win one scoring title during that stretch, almost entirely because he appeared in just 256 out of a possible 376 regular season games (only 68 percent of the team’s games).

It is not out of the question to think injuries robbed him of at least two more Art Ross Trophies. Maybe more.

Given that Crosby just celebrated his 31st birthday earlier this month it is worth asking a very simple question: Will he ever win another scoring title in the NHL?

History is not on his side in that discussion.

First, let’s just look at Crosby’s recent performance. Over the past four years he has been pretty consistent in his production, averaging around 89 points per 82 games played, a stretch that has seen him finish third, third, second, and, most recently, 10th in the overall scoring race, while also being first, third, second, and 12th in points per game.

In other words, he has been close to the top spot. Very close. He has also been one of the best and most productive players in the league even if his level of production has dropped off a bit from where it was when he was in his early-to-mid 20s (which should not be a surprise — players score at their peak levels before age 26).

[’17-18 review | Under Pressure: Johnson | Breakthrough: Oleksiak | 3 Questions]

The two factors working against him when it comes to winning another Art Ross Trophy are, 1) the fact that Connor McDavid has emerged as the dominant offensive player in the NHL and probably hasn’t even entered his peak years yet, and 2) the Art Ross Trophy is historically won by younger players, like McDavid currently is.

As mentioned above, Crosby is now entering his age 31 season, and while that’s not quite over-the-hill for an elite, all-time great player, it’s still an age where leading the league in scoring is almost unheard of. In the history of the league there have only been 11 players that have finished as the league’s leading scorer at age 31 or older.

Here is the list (Update: We initially forgot about Mario Lemieux’s scoring title in 1996-97. It has been added).

Only four of them happened in the post Original Six era, while only three of those happened in an 82-game season. Martin St. Louis won his in a lockout shortened 48-game campaign, and had it not been for Crosby missing 11 games that year he probably would have won it himself.

Six of them happened before 1950, with four of those happening before 1934.

Among the NHL’s most prolific scoring champions…

  • Wayne Gretzky only won one of his 11 scoring titles after his 31st birthday, and only had two other top-five finishes.
  • Only one of Gordie Howe’s six scoring titles came after turning 31.
  • All five of Jaromir Jagr’s came before turning 30, with his last one coming at age 28. He finished in the top-10 just twice after age 30, with only one top-five finish.
  • Guy Lafleur never won a scoring title after age 26.
  • Phil Esposito won four of his five before turning 31 (his fifth came in his age 31 season). After turning 31 he had one top-10 finish in seven years.
  • The last of Stan Mikita’s four scoring titles came at age 27, while his Blackhawks teammate Bobby Hull won all three of his before turning 28.

Assuming he stays healthy he is still going to be one of the most productive players in the league for the foreseeable future. But history seems to suggest that he may have already won his last scoring title. Even winning two of them puts him in exclusive company, but it still seems amazing he may not win another given how dominant he has been in the NHL.

Even with everything he has accomplished, Crosby’s career still presents one of the NHL’s greatest “what if” questions when it comes to what he could have done with better health during his prime years.

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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.