Teddy Blueger

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.

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.

Penguins lose Malkin, Bjugstad to ‘long-term’ injuries

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Just two games into the season and the injury bug has already taken a significant bite out of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Coach Mike Sullivan announced on Monday that centers Evgeni Malkin and Nick Bjugstad will both be sidelined with lower-body injuries that are expected to keep them out of the lineup “long-term.”

Sullivan said that Malkin’s injury will likely sideline him longer than Bjugstad’s.

TSN’s Darren Dreger reported on Monday that Malkin’s injury is a “soft tissue” injury and that he is expected to be sidelined for around a month.

Both players exited the Penguins’ 7-2 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Saturday night.

Malkin was injured when he lost his balance through the neutral zone and fell awkwardly into the boards. He immediately went to the locker room and did not return. Here is a look at the play.

Big things were expected for Malkin this season as he was looking to rebound from a down 2018-19 season. He came into camp motivated and with a chip on his shoulder and was looking to show he is still one of the league’s top players. He had been playing on a newly formed second line alongside offseason additions Alex Galchenyuk and Brandon Tanev that had made a strong first impression.

Both injuries are pretty big losses in the short-term for a Penguins team that is already short on depth and was going to need its star players — and especially Malkin — to play big roles this season. They still have Sidney Crosby to drive the top line, and as long as Matt Murray can keep playing the way he has in net there is still every reason to believe they can compete. It just makes things a lot tougher for them until their center depth returns.

With Malkin and Bjugstad sidelined Jared McCann will likely take over as the team’s second line center, with Teddy Blueger presumably moving to third line duty.

The team announced on Monday it has recalled Sam Lafferty and Andrew Agozzino from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

MORE:
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.