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Monday, February 29, 2016

Game Recap: Pens Trounce Coyotes 6-0

9:54:00 PM 0

Patric Hornqvist scored a hat trick and added an assist, the Pens finally scored a power play goal, and Marc-Andre Fleury stopped all stopped all 30 shots he faced as the Pittsburgh Penguins shutout the Arizona Coyotes 6-0. Sidney Crosby had 3 assists, and Chris Kunitz, Kris Letang, and Matt Cullen also scored goals for the Penguins. The win pulled the Penguins to within 1 point of both the Detroit Red Wings and the New York Islanders for the 1st wild card and 3rd in the Metro Division, respectively. The quick 2 game home-stand gave the Pens a much needed 4 points before travelling to Washington to take on the NHL leading Capitals tomorrow night.

It didn't take the Penguins long to get on the board in this one, and that first goal was all they needed on the night. Sidney Crosby shot the puck from the goal line, where it got caught up in a tangle of players and was lying in the crease. Patric Hornqvist managed to fight off his defender to poke the loose puck into the Arizona net to give the Pens the early 1-0 lead. Malkin managed to draw a slash midway through the period, but again the Penguins power play faltered, making it 18 straight opportunities without a goal. Not long after it was the Coyotes' turn for a power play as Derrick Pouliot was sent off for a cross check that sent Jordan Martinook awkwardly into the boards. Tom Kuhnhackl made things worse with an incredibly boneheaded penalty already down a man. Kuhnhackl took out goaltender Louis Domingue behind the Arizona net to give the Coyotes a 5-on-3 power play. It was a fairly bizarre sequence on the delayed penalty in which the Coyotes held onto the puck trying to score instead of taking an extended two man advantage by giving up the puck. And while they managed to get some chances, including a couple shots that rang off the iron, the Penguins were able to kill off the opportunity.

The kill gave the Pens a chance to extend their lead before the end of the first intermission, and they took advantage when Patric Hornqvist scored his 2nd of the game with just over two minutes remaining in the 1st. Chris Kunitz wristed a shot towards the net, and it appeared to be tipped in quick succession by Martin Hanzal then Hornqvist before fluttering off Domingue's glove arm and into the net. A Carl Hagelin tripping penalty put the Coyotes back on the power play, but Pittsburgh was able to make it to the intermission with the 2-0 lead. The Coyotes started the 2nd period with 49 seconds left in their power play, but again they were unable to score. And neither were the Penguins after Sergei Plotnikov took a tripping penalty on his former teammate Ian Cole just minutes into the 2nd. The Penguins have looked primed to break out of their slump with Malkin back in the lineup, but they just couldn't get the monkey off their back.

After killing off the Pittsburgh penalty, the Coyotes managed to get some good scoring chances but couldn't get the puck past Marc-Andre Fleury. The Pens again took advantage of the Coyotes inability to score when Kunitz redirected a Kris Letang shot past Domingue. And with a delay of game penalty on Zbynek Michalek immediately after the goal the Penguins had a golden opportunity to put the game away. Sidney Crosby nearly broke the power play scoring drought himself, but he wasn't able to bat the puck out of the air off the rebound. But it was Patric Hornqvist's night, and after Evgeni Malkin dumped it off to wide open Hornqvist on the left circle it was one-timed into the empty net for the Swede's first career NHL hat trick. It was also the first goal for the Penguins on the man advantage in 20 chances, and it was a great individual effort by a player who was injured for the majority of those chances in Malkin to finally help the Pens breakthrough.

The goal seemed to give the Penguins an extra jump in their step, and instead of sitting back in a shell they started taking it to the Coyotes. They managed to draw a pair of penalties, and though they didn't score they snuffed out the ability for Arizona to get a goal and some momentum heading into the 3rd period. Even if they had managed to score, it wouldn't have mattered tonight. The Penguins continued to drive the play even with a 4 goal advantage, and they managed to tack on another couple goals in the final two minutes. Letang sidestepped Martinook and blasted a shot that beat Domingue 5 hole, and after losing the faceoff, the Pens took the puck after the Coyotes dumped it in, and Domingue couldn't glove a Matt Cullen shot on the rush to push the Pens' advantage to 6-0.

The Penguins didn't have the strongest start in the possession game, but they got stronger with each goal they scored and eventually came out on top with a score-adjusted 55.7 CF%. The addition of Evgeni Malkin came just in time for Pittsburgh as they played their 1st of 5 games in 7 days, and tomorrow night's game against the Capitals will kick off a stretch where the Penguins play 9 of 10 within the Metropolitan Division.
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Game Preview: vs Arizona Coyotes - February 29, 2016

3:00:00 PM 3

Pittsburgh Penguins (31-21-8; 4th Metro) vs Arizona Coyotes (27-29-6; 5th Pacific)
February 29, 2016 @ 7:00 PM - Consol Energy Center
TV: Root Sports Pittsburgh

The Pittsburgh Penguins faced off against the new Jets Saturday, beating Winnipeg 4-1. Tonight they'll take on the old Jets as the Arizona Coyotes come to town. After a surprisingly strong start to the season, the Coyotes have faded as of late and sit comfortably outside the playoff picture in the Western Conference. It'll give the Penguins a chance to earn 2 points against a non-playoff contender and continue to gain ground in the playoff race. It's the second meeting between the teams on the year, and the Coyotes topped the Pens in the second game of the season by a 2-1 score.

Oliver Ekman-Larsson might seem like he's been in the league for a decade, but that's largely because the 24-year-old Swede has played a high level offensively almost from the moment he entered the league and has blossomed into one of the elite defensemen in the game. He set a career high with 23 goals last season, and with 19 goals he's second in the league among defensemen and on pace to best his career high. He's leading the Coyotes with 48 points, but it's another talented young player that is right behind him. Max Domi is second on Arizona with 42 points (17 goals, 25 assists) in his rookie season after being selected 12th overall by the Coyotes in 2013. Best known for being the son of Tie Domi, the younger Domi's game is nothing like that of his father. Max Domi has high end offensive potential and should be a fixture in the Arizona lineup for a long time to come.

Speaking of fixtures, captain Shane Doan has spent each of his 20 seasons with the Arizona franchise. Doan is the last remaining active player to have suited up for the original Winnipeg Jets, and he's continuing to play effective hockey even at 39 years old, leading the team with 23 goals in 53 games played. With 935 career points, Doan is in position to potentially reach 1,000 points on his career, if he decided to continue his career into next season.

But while the Coyotes are 10th in the league in scoring at 2.69 G/gm, they are second to last in preventing goals with 3.08 GA/gm. It's become clear that Mike Smith's in his first season with the Coyotes in 2011-12, during which he posted a 2.21 GAA and 0.930 SV%, was nothing more than a mirage, anad Smith has quickly come back down to Earth since then. Unfortunately for the Coyotes, the 6 year, $34 million contract extension they gave him in the 2012 offseason won't disappear as quickly or easily as Smith's success. He's played in only 22 games this season and was playing poorly before having surgery to fix a core muscle injury, posting a 3.06 GAA and a 0.901 SV%. Unfortunately for the Coyotes their other options have played poorly as well. Louis Domingue has the best numbers at the bunch in his second season, but allowing a 2.73 GAA with a 0.912 SV% isn't saying much. Anders Lindback also joins Smith on the injury list after suffering an Achilles injury, but Lindback has proven by now that he ins't an NHL caliber goaltender and is nothing more than an injury callup.


Penguins: Conor Sheary (upper body), Ben Lovejoy (upper body), Eric Fehr (lower body), Beau Bennett (undisclosed)

Coyotes: Anders Lindback (achilles), Boyd Gordon (upper body), Mike Smith (core muscle), Joe Vitale (concussion)


- The Pens acquired Justin Schultz from the Edmonton Oilers shortly after the game on Saturday, but due to immigration issues he's unlikely to join the team before Wednesday or Thursday, according to General Manager Jim Rutherford.

- It'll be a short trip for Sergei Plotnikov to report to his new team as the Pittsburgh Penguins traded him to the Arizona Coyotes earlier today ahead of the deadline. While Plotnikov hit the ice with his new team for the morning skate, and it's likely he'll be in the lineup tonight instead of spending one final game at Consol Energy Center watching from the press box.
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David Warsofsky Claimed on Waivers

12:38:00 PM 0

The Penguins exposed David Warsofsky to waivers yesterday after he successfully completed a conditioning assignment with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Baby Penguins, and they were likely hoping to return him to their AHL club permanently once Justin Schultz was able to report to the team. Unfortunately for the Pens, those hopes were dashed when the New Jersey Devils claimed Warsofsky off waivers. Ray Shero adds another former Penguins to his collection in New Jersey, but unlike the others Warsofsky's time with Pittsburgh didn't overlap with Shero's tenure with the team. Warsofsky was signed a two-way deal this past offseason by Jim Rutherford as a free agent from Boston. He had played 10 games over the past two seasons with the Bruins, but the majority of his time was spent in Providence, where he proved to be a capable offensive defenseman at the AHL level.

Warsofsky played 12 games for the Penguins this year, and his place in the lineup and time on the top power play unit under former head coach Mike Johnston seemed to be a protest against the other struggling defenders on his team. Warsofsky had a goal and an assist on the season before sustaining a concussion in an on-ice collision with referee Tim Peel, though he did have success in driving possession with a 55.4 SACF% vs 49.2% with him off the ice. Wasofsky didn't have much of a place in the Pittsburgh lineup after Derrick Pouliot was recalled, and once Schultz was acquired from Edmonton the writing seemed to be on the wall. It ends up being a bigger blow to the Baby Pens than it does to the NHL club, and he'll join a Devils club that's 3 points out of the playoff picture.
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Penguins Offload Plotnikov on Coyotes

10:10:00 AM 0

After falling out of favor with Mike Sullivan, being a healthy scratch for the past 20 games, and having the Penguins' desire to trade him played out publicly, Sergei Plotnikov is finally moving on as Pittsburgh traded him to Arizona before the deadline for a conditional 2017 7th round draft pick and Matthias Plachta. Plachta is a 24-year-old German LW playing his first season in North America after having signed as free agent with the Coyotes this past offseason on a 1 year deal. With 2 goals and 5 assists through 46 games with the Springfield Falcons of the AHL, it doesn't appear that Plachta has much of a future with the Pittsburgh organization, and he was likely included in the deal as Arizona was at the 50 player organizational limit and needed to trade a player to take one back.

It was a curious tenure in Pittsburgh for the Russian, who bought out his KHL contract last offseason so he could jump to the NHL. Expectations were mixed heading into the season, with some believing he could find a place on fellow countryman Evgeni Malkin's left wing and others believing that he'd be more suited to a role on the 4th line. Unfortunately, Plotnikov didn't manage to live up to the most tempered of expectations. Though he posted a very high relative Corsi under former coach Mike Johnston as the rest of the team struggled with possession, he wasn't able to translate that into offensive production, managing just 2 assists in 32 games played. And when Mike Sullivan took over, the rest of the team received a huge boost in possession when Sullivan opened things up, but Plotnikov tanked in relation to his teammates. After just 10 games played under the new head coach, he was relegated to the press box, and after a stream of AHL callups found a place in the lineup due to injuries ahead of Plotnikov it was clear his time in Pittsburgh was over.

The trade allows the Penguins to free up a prorated portion of Plotnikov's $925k salary, and while the return is little it is better than nothing and allows the organization to save face instead of relegating a sought after free agent from a foreign league to the minors instead of allowing him a chance to catch on elsewhere.
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Sunday, February 28, 2016

Shades of Matt Niskanen by @BrianK_PI

10:30:00 AM 0

With a good pedigree and a strong rookie season, it appeared that big things were on the horizon. A career high in points during his sophomore campaign seemed to reinforce a long future in the league, but by his fourth season he had fallen out of favor with his team and was unceremoniously shipped out to Pittsburgh at the trade deadline. Remember those choose your own adventure books? Flipping ahead will show how this new development in Justin Schultz's career will turn out, but flipping back shows a very similar story with Matt Niskanen. And up to this point in his career, Schultz has had noticeable similarities to the former Penguins blueliner.

While he didn't have the same amount of hype as Justin Schultz coming into the league, Matt Niskanen was drafted higher than Schultz, taken 28th overall in the 1st round by the Dallas Stars in 2005. And when he scored 7 goals with 19 assists during his rookie season in 2007-08 playing with Sergei Zubov, it appeared that Niskanen had a bright future ahead of him with the Stars. And in his second season, he improved on the offensive numbers with 6 goals and 29 assists, though there were warning signs when his +22 turned into a -11. Of course, knowing what we know now, Niskanen went from a sky high 102.2 PDO his rookie season to an incredibly unlucky 97.7 PDO in his second year, likely helping to contribute to seeing his goals for drop from 56.7% to 45.2%. While it seemed like Niskanen was regressing defensively, his underlying possession numbers actually improved from his first year to his second.

But the seeds of doubt were planted, and when Niskanen's offensive numbers diminished in his 3rd and 4th seasons his earlier successes were written off as propped up by Zubov and a fluky start to his career, and he fell out of favor with the Stars organization. A year into a 2 year, $1.5 million AAV contract and with Dallas looking for help on the blueline, the Stars packaged Niskanen with James Neal and traded him to the Pittsburgh Penguins in exchange for Alex Goligoski. The Stars had moved on past the under-performing blueliner, and the throw-in to the Neal trade ended up turning out much better than anyone could have possibly imagined.

Could history repeat itself with Schultz in Pittsburgh? Schultz entered the league with more hype and had a more successful rookie season than Niskanen, posting 8 goals and 19 assists in just 48 games during the lockout shortened season. And the next season, when he had 33 points on 11 goals and 22 assists, his pts/60 at even strength actually increased to 0.89 from 0.83 despite his points per game decreasing. But 0.56 pts/gm looks better than 0.45, which looks bigger than the 0.38 pts/gm he posted in his 3rd season. Not to mention, a -17 followed by a -22 followed by a -17 looks even worse for those who put stock into those numbers.

But taking a closer look into the underlying numbers suggests a defenseman who had been progressively getting better from season to season. His goal for percentage, score-adjusted Corsi for percentage, and scoring chance for percentage all increased from season to season, and Edmonton went from being worse with Schultz on the ice to worse when he was off it. This came during a time when his even strength TOI went up each season, and his CA/60 decreased from 62.4 during his rookie season to 55.5 in his third year, again following the trend of being worse than his teammates during his rookie season and better than his teammates during his third year. While the numbers aren't good on the whole, in context Schultz has been playing for some horrible Edmonton teams - much worse teams than Niskanen played for with Dallas.

While Schultz is never going to be Norris caliber in the defensive zone, his numbers over his first 3 seasons show he was doing an increasingly good job of minimizing the time he was spending in his own zone. While this season has clearly been a trying year for Schultz that has seen him take a step back, he still has the same talent and skill set that he had last year, and a change of scenery could be a great boost to his career, much like it was for Niskanen. Like Bylsma, Sullivan also has installed a system that encourages defensemen to jump up into the play to keep the puck in the zone and values quickly getting the puck up the ice. It's a strategy that will play to Schultz's strengths while minimizing his weaknesses. His defensive game will need to be refined, but with a much stronger supporting cast in Pittsburgh he has a prime opportunity to turn the narrative on his career around and become the type of offensive defenseman the league was expecting when he entered the league.
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Saturday, February 27, 2016

Penguins Acquire Justin Schultz

6:22:00 PM 0

The Penguins originally tried getting into the Justin Schultz sweepstakes after he spurned the team that drafted him, the Anaheim Ducks, and signed as a free agent with the Edmonton Oilers. After missing out then, the Pens were able to bring him into the organization today when they completed a trade that brought Schultz to Pittsburgh in return for a 2016 3rd round draft pick. Edmonton will be retaining half of Schultz's $3.9 million cap hit, and Schultz will be a restricted free agent this offseason.

Big things were expected of Schultz coming out of the University of Wisconsin after a very successful college career, but he failed to live up to the expectations. He had originally chosen the Oilers because of the early opportunity that signing with Edmonton provided him, but the disaster that the Oiler franchise has been has prevented Schultz from having the type of success he was envisioning. Schultz had a productive rookie year on the scoresheet, posting 8 goals and 19 assists in the lockout shortened season. While he didn't continue that scoring pace, he still managed to score 30+ points in the next two seasons before taking a step back this year with 10 points in 45 games played. Schultz has a career 45.6 SACF%, which looks better in context considering that the Oilers managed the same rate of possession with him out of the lineup, and Schultz has had a positive relative SACF% the past two seasons after being in the negative the first two seasons of his career. Given that the Penguins have been a top 5 possession team since Mike Sullivan has taken over, if Schultz is able to be a break even possession player he'll have a place on the Penguins, especially if his offensive talents shine through in an environment more conducive to success.

It's not quite a rental at the deadline, as Schultz is a pending RFA at the end of the year, but it has a high potential of functioning as a de facto rental. Schultz's current salary is $3.9 million, meaning that the Pens will need to tender him at $3.9 million to retain his rights. It's certainly too high of a price tag given his play this year in Edmonton, but depending on how well he fits in with the Penguins it's definitely something that's within the realm of possibility. A Schultz tender could also be used to try negotiating a longer term deal at a lower AAV, but it would remain to be seen how receptive Schultz would be to that. All in all, it's a deal that does give the Penguins some control over the situation past this season, and even though it's a risk a 3rd round pick probably is a fair gamble considering the pedigree that Schultz has.
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Game Recap: Pens Take Care of Business 4-1

5:52:00 PM 0

The 2nd line was able to do damage offensively, Scott Wilson scored his 4th goal in 5 games, and Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 27-of-28 shots on goal as the Pittsburgh Penguins were able to take care of business against the Winnipeg Jets, winning 4-1. While Evgeni Malkin wasn't able to register a point himself, Carl Hagelin potted a pair of goals and Kessel earned an assist on a great pass to setup Hagelin's second of the game. Kris Letang had the other goal for the Pens, scoring his 10th of the season to open up the scoring, and Derrick Pouliot posted his first career multi-point game with 2 assists. The win gives the Penguins a much needed 2 points, not only to keep pace with the Rangers and Islanders in the division but to put them further ahead of the Flyers and Devils, who started the day a point back of the Pens for the final wildcard spot in the East.

In what's becoming a trend, it was an extremely slow start to the game for the Pens, but luckily Winnipeg wasn't able to threaten much themselves either. In his first game back since missing 10 with a lower body injury, Evgeni Malkin nearly got back on the scoresheet on his first shift of the game when he redirected a Phil Kessel centering pass just wide of the goal. The game would quickly turn into a back and forth neutral zone battle highlighted by some sloppy puck handling by both teams.

After a long and mostly unmemorable stretch of hockey, the Penguins had a chance to get things going when Blake Wheeler put the puck in the stands from the Winnipeg defensive zone with just under 6 minutes remaining in the period. Unfortunately, having Malkin back on the ice wasn't a remedy for the power play's issues on this opportunity. After allowing early pressure from the Jets, the Pens were able to get another great opportunity off Malkin's stick as he took a pass from a scrum in the corner and was all alone in front, but he was unable to beat Michael Hutchinson glove side. Pittsburgh wasn't able to generate much offense on the power play otherwise, and Tom Kuhnhackl nearly scored on a bouncing puck situation behind the Jets' defense on the rush, but he was unable to finish and the game entered the first intermission scoreless.

It didn't take long into the 2nd period for the Penguins to break through the sluggishness and open the scoring. 28 seconds into the period, Kris Letang took a pass from Patric Hornqvist and fired a shot that found the top corner on the far side. The Pens weren't done though, and 23 seconds after the goal they again found the back of the net when Carl Hagelin redirected an Ian Cole slapshot from the blueline past Hutchinson to increase the Pittsburgh lead to two. The Pens almost made it three just over a minute later as Kuhnhackl had a golden opportunity in front off a rebound, but he wasn't able to elevate the puck and Hutchinson was able to get enough on it to prevent the goal.

It was a big wakeup call for the Penguins, but the Jets were able to get themselves going as well as the period progressed. Midway through the period, the puck came to Sidney Crosby down low with a wide open net, but a diving Hutchinson was able to get the blade of his stick on the puck and redirect it away. Moments later, it was Marc-Andre Fleury's turn to break up a great scoring chance with his stick, as a diving pokecheck knocked the puck away Nikolaj Ehlers as he skated in alone on a breakaway. The Jets would get on the board shortly thereafter on the power play. Evgeni Malkin was sent to the box for an offensive zone trip, and the Jets wasted no time. Dustin Byfuglien ripped a shot from the blueline that Blake Wheeler was able to redirect past Fleury to cut the lead to 2-1.

The Jets would again find the back of the net with 4 minutes left in the 2nd after a mad scramble in front, but the referee behind the net lost track of the puck and was in the process of blowing the play dead when Jacob Troub took the loose puck and fired it behind Fleury. The play was reviewed, but the original call of no goal on the ice was upheld. A Dumoulin high-sticking penalty with 16.7 seconds left in the 2nd gave the Jets an opportunity to pull even coming out of the intermission. Mathieu Perreault had a chance in alone on Fleury that likely would have been challenged for offsides if the puck went in, but Fleury was able to turn the shot aside.

The Pens would take advantage of the kill and extend the lead a little over 5 minutes into the 3rd period. Derrick Pouliot wristed a shot from the blueline that Scott Wilson was able to get a stick on between the circles. The redirection bounced off the ice and over Hutchinson's outstretched right pad in the butterfly to give Wilson his 4th goal in the past 5 games. Despite increased pressure from the Jets, the Pens were able to increase the lead midway through the period on Hagelin's 2nd goal of the game. Phil Kessel found a wide open Hagelin on the far post, and Hagelin one-timed a shot that initially was stopped by Hutchinson's stick before the goaltender's momentum took the puck into the net. It was enough to put the game out of reach, as the Jets weren't able to muster much in the way of chances for the remainder of the game.

It was a slow start to the game with not many attempts at either end of the ice, but the gameplay started opening up in the 2nd period and the Penguins were able to finish the game with a comfortable advantage in possession, having posted a score-adjusted 55.9 CF%. After taking on the new Jets, the Pens will take on the old Jets as the Arizona Coyotes come to down. It'll be another good opportunity for the Penguins to take away two points, and they'll need to bank the points as they face a difficult week that sees them take on the Capitals and Rangers in their following two games.
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Game Preview: vs Winnipeg Jets - February 27, 2016

12:00:00 PM 0

Pittsburgh Penguins (30-21-8; 4th Metro) vs Winnipeg Jets (26-30-4; 7th Central)
February 27, 2016 @ 3:00 PM - Consol Energy Center
TV: Root Sports Pittsburgh

The Penguins managed to stay afloat in the 10 games that Evgeni Malkin missed, but not much more than that, just barely topping 0.500 with a 5-4-1 record. They've managed to hang on to a playoff spot, but they'll need to start winning games to keep pace in the division. They should have an easier time of it with Malkin and Bonino back in the lineup, and they get a chance to ease back into action as the Penguins take on the Winnipeg Jets, the last place team in the Central Division. It's the second and final game of the season between these two teams after the Jets won a snoozer in late December 1-0.

This will be the second game for the Jets since they traded captain Andrew Ladd back to the Blackhawks on Thursday, getting Marko Dano, a 2016 1st round pick, and a 2018 conditional 3rd round pick while also sending Jay Harrison and Matt Fraser back the to Chicago. The team was unable to come close on a contract extension with Ladd, and in Dano they get a player who was a key piece of this past summer's Brandon Saad blockbuster. The 21-year-old former 1st rounder had 21 points in 35 games last season with the Blue Jackets but wasn't able to make quite the same impact on a deeper Chicago team, scoring just a goal and an assist this year with the Blackhawks. Still, Dano and the 1st round pick give Winnipeg some pieces for the future.

A big part of the reason why the Jets were unable to come to terms with Ladd on an extension is because they had just handed one out to Dustin Byfuglien. Winnipeg signed Byfuglien to a 5 year, $38 million extension with a $7.6 million AAV, and with needing to re-sign younger RFAs like Jacob Trouba and Mark Scheifele in the offseason the cap space just wasn't there. But Kevin Cheveldayoff clearly kept the right player, as Byfuglien's presence on the blue line is invaluable, and Ladd plays a taxing brand of hockey that has already seen the 30-year-old's game start to decline this season. Byfuglien continues to be a force for the Jets, and with 15 goals and 23 assists he continues to be one of the better scoring defensemen in the league and a great driver of possession from the blueline.

Up front, the the first line tandem of Blake Wheeler and Bryan Little continues to lead the way for the Jets. Wheeler has developed into one of the better wingers in the league since coming over from Boston in a deadline deal that the Winnipeg franchise has won handedly. He's currently 9th in scoring with 17 goals and 39 assists, and his 0.93 points per game has him on pace to best his previous high of 69 points that he scored in 2013-14. Little is currently second on the team with 42 points, but he's been shut down for the season with a fractured vertebrae.

The injury to Little could be a blessing in disguise for the Jets, as they're currently just 5 points ahead of Edmonton for last place in the league. Removing Little and Ladd from the lineup takes away two of their bigger scoring threats. With nothing to play for, the trade and injury gives Winnipeg a better chance to improve their draft stock. It also gives them a chance to see how Scheifele handles responds to top line minutes. The 7th overall pick of the 2011 draft has posted a 0.60 points per game average in his three full seasons in Winnipeg, including 15 goals and 19 assists in 49 games this season, and he's responded to the extra ice time with 2 goals and 3 assists in the 3 games that Little has missed, including a 4 point effort Thursday night in Dallas.


Penguins: Ben Lovejoy (upper body), Eric Fehr (lower body), Beau Bennett (undisclosed)

Jets: Bryan Little (back), Mark Stuart (hand), Grant Clitsome (back)


- Evgeni Malkin and Nick Bonino will return to the lineup for the Penguins, and it will be a boost to a Pittsburgh team that can use the additional depth in their lineup. Bonino will play his first game after missing 17 with a hand injury, and Malkin will return after 10 out with a lower body injury. The Pens will hope that Malkin can provide a spark to their slumping power play, which has gone just 1-for-24 (4.2%) in his absence.

- The NHL trade dealine is this upcoming Monday, and indications are that Jim Rutherford will be looking to add to his team. Another move that he might be looking to make is trading Sergei Plotnikov. Plotnikov has been a healthy scratch for 19 straight games after falling out of favor with Mike Sullivan, and his preference will be to catch on with another NHL team, though the Russian has returning to the KHL to fall back on.
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Friday, February 26, 2016

Is a Fleury Trade on the Horizon? by @Nick422

12:05:00 PM 2
Olli Maatta and the Penguins surprised everyone this morning with a wonderful new contract that will keep him a Penguin for quite a while.  However, for the Penguins it's yet another heavy contract on a team loaded with them.  Is this the first sign of a Marc-Andre Fleury trade to come?

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Maatta Deal Great for Both Sides by @BrianK_PI

10:36:00 AM 0

There was never a question that the Pittsburgh Penguins were going to re-sign Olli Maatta. Maatta was scheduled to be a restricted free agent coming off a very successful entry level contract, and the Pens would have had full control over keeping him in Pittsburgh. The biggest question GM Jim Rutherford faced was what type of term to give the young defenseman, and how high he was willing to go on his cap hit. Should he sign Maatta to a bridge deal at a lower AAV to maximize the team's cap space in the next couple of seasons, trading off likely paying Maatta more later down the road to allow for more cap flexibility before Crosby and Malkin both enter their 30s? Or should he try to lock up Maatta to a long term deal at at price that becomes a steal if Maatta continues to develop?

Rutherford chose the later in signing Maatta to a 6 year, $24.5 million extension that will carry a cap hit of $4.083 million starting next year. It's a home run for the team as well as a fair deal for Maatta as well. Maatta gets financial stability with the deal, and doesn't have to worry about another potential injury that could threaten to derail his playing career and earning potential like his shoulder injury did last season. Furthermore, it sets up Maatta perfectly at the end of the contract as he'll be a 27-year-old unrestricted free agent with a prime opportunity to really cash in on his third contract.

As for the Penguins, the deal allows them to lock up another key piece long term for a below market price. If Rutherford had opted to sign Maatta to a bridge deal, it's likely that he'd have been looking around $3 million AAV anyways. By paying a fraction more, he's able to buy 2 years of Maatta's UFA status, which is invaluable to teams with young, talented RFAs and typically comes at a higher premium than Rutherford was forced to pay here. Maatta has had a solid and somewhat inconsistent season after missing all but 20 games last year with the shoulder injuries and surgery to remove a cancerous tumor. He has 6 goals and 10 assists in 53 games, and for a player that has been a solid driver of possession at such a young age he's struggled in that area this season, posting a negative relative CF% for the first time in his career.

Even still, it's a low risk, high reward deal for the Penguins. If Maatta were to remain at his current level of play over the course of the deal, it wouldn't be much of an overpayment, and even in the worst case sceneario it would probably still be a fairly movable contract. That being said, there's certainly no one with the team that doesn't expect Maatta to keep improving as he reaches his prime, and that scenario is far from the most likely outcome. But in an era where 2nd pairing defensemen are cashing in for $5 million+ AAVs in free agency it has a high potential of becoming a steal. If Maatta can continue developing into a top pair caliber player, the roughly $4 million cap hit will be an absolute bargain in the later years of the deal. It's good for the player, great for the team, and most importantly keeps a key young piece in Pittsburgh for the foreseeable future.
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Thursday, February 25, 2016

Which AHL Callups Should Stay? by @BrianK_PI

3:24:00 PM 0

With the injuries the Penguins have suffered at forward, losing Evgeni Malkin, Nick Bonino, Eric Fehr, and Beau Bennett for an extended stretch, the bottom 6 has been filled with callups from Wilkes-Barre. Over the past 10 games, the Baby Pens have gotten an extended taste of NHL action with familiar linemates. While they've struggled at times, the group as a whole has started to find their footing a bit over the past few of games as they've combined for 4 goals and 2 assists in the most recent 3 games played. But with Malkin and Bonino set to return the to Pittsburgh lineup Saturday night, two of the AHLers will be bumped from the lineup, and more will follow as the Pens return to full health. While it doesn't necessarily mean who WILL be bumped from the lineup, we list who SHOULD be bumped from the lineup, starting with the most deserving of heading back to Wilkes-Barre at #6.

6. Kevin Porter

Kevin Porter follows in the tradition started by the likes of Craig Adams and Zack Sill of Pittsburgh having at least one completely useless forward on the 4th line. He has just 3 assists in 38 games, and while his 48.6 SACF% would've been slightly below average under Mike Johnston, he played just 8 of his games this year under the former coach, and he's only missed the first game of Mike Sullivan's tenure. Which makes the 54.1 SACF% the team's posted with Porter off the ice really highlight his deficiencies.

Unlike the other 5 players, who are at most 24 years old, Porter will turn 30 next month, and as such he does have a fair amount of NHL experience, but it's mostly on bad teams without much production to show for his time in the lineup. That the Penguins would willingly play such a bad option in their lineup speaks to a soft spot somewhere along the coaching staff, but there's no doubt that Porter should be the first one out of the lineup. He would need to clear waivers to head back to Wilkes-Barre, but at this point it's hard to imagine who would want to claim him, or why it would be all that much of a loss if they did.

5. Oskar Sundqvist

Unfortunately, while Porter should be the first one gone, in reality after playing 30 games straight he likely has much more job security than he actually should. The likely first player out of the lineup is the last one recalled from WBS, and that's Oskar Sundqvist. Sundqvist is in the middle of his first professional season in North America, and so far he's about matched his scoring rates from his time in the Swedish Elite League with the Baby Penguins. He's recorded 1 assist in his 10 games in Pittsburgh, and with a 49.0 SACF% (vs 54.2 SACF% off the ice), it's clear that Sundqvist still has some developing to do. But at 21 years old, he's the youngest of the players mentioned, and his future with the Penguins should be bright as he continues gaining experience.

UPDATE: The Pens have assigned Sundqvist back to Wilkes-Barre shortly after this article was written.

4. Tom Kuhnhackl

It's a close call between number 3 and 4 on this list, but Tom Kuhnhackl just loses out despite finding the back of the net in 2 of his last 3 games. Kuhnhackl has made the second biggest contribution on the PK on this list behind Porter, but like Porter he's also been a drag on the possession, and he has the worst relative possession of the 6 players listed with a 49.2 SACF% on ice vs 56.9 SACF% off ice.

3. Bryan Rust

A case could have been made for either Bryan Rust or Kuhnhackl to be 3rd on this list, but previous experience in the NHL and marginally better possession stats give Rust an edge. Rust is the first player in the countdown to break even in possession with a 50.4 SACF%, but like the others so far the team is better with him off the ice (55.3 SACF%) than on. Another way that Rust stands above Kuhnhackl is in scoring chances. Rust has the better scoring chance numbers both on a team scale (53.6 SCF% vs 48.4 SCF%) and an individual scale (9.7 iSC/60 vs 4.8 iSC/60). But with 4 spots still open after Malkin and Bonino return, both Kuhnhackl and Rust should continue to be in the lineup for the time being.

2. Scott Wilson

The top two spots on this list really separate themselves from the previous 4 players, and when healthy they should continue to receive ice time at the NHL level. Scott Wilson is next up on the list. Wilson has found his scoring touch recently in Pittsburgh, scoring 3 goals in 3 games before being unable to increase the streak to 4 in last night's loss to the Bruins. It could be a sign that things are clicking for Wilson at the NHL level after scoring 22 goals with 14 assists in 34 games played with Wilkes-Barre this season - still leading the Baby Pens in both goals and points. Wilson has also held his own with a 54.7 SACF% this season as compared to 54.4% the Penguins have with him off the ice. As the forwards get healthy and return to the lineup, Wilson should benefit from getting to play with better teammates, which should help put him in a place to better showcase his offensive skills.

1. Conor Sheary

Despite going undrafted, Sheary signed with the Pittsburgh organization as a free agent out of UMass Amherst and immediately started tearing up the AHL. Before being recalled by the Penguins earlier in the season, Sheary had score 91 points in 88 career games with the Baby Pens. The scoring hasn't quite followed yet to Pittsburgh, where he has 3 goals and 2 assists in 26 games played, but his 1.20 pts/60 at 5-on-5 is respectable for an undrafted free agent in just his second professional season, and Sheary has been a great driver of possession as well. The Penguins have a 56.6 SACF% with Sheary on the ice vs 54.0% with him on the bench. Sheary has spent some time on the wing with Crosby and Malkin as well, with 86:06 of his 241:50 TOI at even strength with one of those two players. Sheary has earned the trust of the coaching staff more than any of the other AHL callups, and he will be looking to make the case that he belongs in Pittsburgh full time.

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Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Game Recap: Bruins Pull Away Late 5-1

10:16:00 PM 0

It was a fast paced, back and forth game between the Penguins and the Bruins, one that normally favors the Pittsburgh Penguins. However, the key injuries among the Pens' forwards, as well as a stellar effort from Tuukka Rask, was enough to doom the Pens offense, and they went on to lose to the Bruins by a score of 5-1. Daniel Pastrnak was a force early for the Bruins with 2 goals, including one on the penalty shot, and Boston was able to put the game away late with 3 goals in 4:53 in the last 10 minutes. Tom Kuhnhackl scored the lone goal for the Pens, who maintain their tenuous grip on the final wild card spot.

It was a fast paced 1st period that saw multiple scoring chances at both ends of the ice. Sidney Crosby took the puck off the opening faceoff and forced Rask to make a save seconds into the game, and it set the tone for the 1st period. The Penguins nearly got on the board with a great chance minutes into the game. Kris Letang lobbed a pass from the right boards to the left and through the neutral zone that hit Karl Hagelin on the rush, nearly leading to a Phil Kessel one-time goal. Midway through the first, Boston began turning momentum the other way. Patrice Bergeron led a rush that nearly saw Brett Connolly find the back of the Pittsburgh net, and seconds later Brad Marchand picked off a Marc-Andre Fleury pass behind the net, but fortunately for the Pens no other Bruin was in the zone to take his centering pass with the net wide open.

But it was 19-year-old Daniel Pastrnak who had some of the biggest chances of the 1st. With just over 7 minutes left in the period, Fleury again misplayed a puck behind and turned it over to a streaking Pastrnak coming out of the corner. Fleury managed to dive in front of Pastrnak's backhand shot to prevent the goal then managed to get over to turn away Pastrnak again after the young Czech corralled the rebound in front. But Pastrnak would get the last laugh. After being sprung on a breakaway, Pastrnak was unable to get a shot off as Derrick Pouliot slashed his leg from behind. It was enough to draw a penalty shot, and Pastrnak slid the puck 5 hole on Fleury to open the scoring.

Despite the wide open nature of the 1st period, the only goal was scored on a penalty shot. Early in the period, Scott Wilson and Landon Ferraro dropped the gloves off a neutral zone faceoff for no apparent reason. Moments later, it was David Pastrnak again making a difference. Patrnak picked off a lazy pass from Olli Maatta behind the goal line, and Pastrnak was able to walk in on Fleury unimpeded and wrapped the puck around the netminder and into the goal. The Bruins had the momentum and were in a position to be able to put the game away, but less than a minute later Tuukka Rask left a rebound out in front of the net, and the puck hit off Tom Kuhnhackls' skates as he tried to stop and went in. The play would be reviewed, but the situation room quickly determined there was no kicking motion and the play stood. Seconds later the Pens almost tied the game after Kevin Porter got in behind defense, but he wasn't able to finish.

The Penguins had several great chances that they weren't able to get past Rask when Ferraro was called for a hooking penalty against Letang. But it was a Pens PP that has been ice cold that took the ice, and the they weren't able to snap their 0-15 scoreless streak with the man advantage and didn't look particularly threatening in the process. In fact, the Bruins had the best chance on the Pens' power play when Marchand led a 2-on-1 the other way and rang a shot off the crossbar.

But despite the chances, the Penguins couldn't get the equalizing goal, and midway through the 3rd period the Bruins extended the lead back to 2. Ryan Spooner managed to turn a 2-on-2 into a 2-on-1 when he lost Kris Letang after cutting across the ice at the top of the Pens zone. He found an open Jimmy Hayes on a centering pass across the crease, and Hayes redirected the puck behind Fleury to make the score 3-1 Boston. It was a goal that made a comeback seem unlikely in its own right, but Olli Maatta was unable to keep the puck in the Boston zone and Ferraro was sprung for a breakaway, beating Fleury on a wrist shot that effectively ended the game. Brad Marchand would add his 31st goal of the season seconds later, and the rout was on.

The Penguins deserved a better fate than the one they received, as they managed a score-adjusted 61.3 CF% to go with a big advantage in scoring chances (63.7 SCF%) and high danger chances (58.6 HSCF%). However, the Bruins were able to convert on their opportunites, several of them off the rush, and the Penguins were not. The Pens have clearly missed having Evgeni Malkin's offensive ability in the lineup as well as bottom 6 options Nick Bonino, Eric Fehr, and Beau Bennett. They'll likely get both Malkin and Bonino back Saturday against the Jets. Luckily for the Pittsburgh offense, Winnipeg is one of the worst teams in the league and should help get the Pens back on track.

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Game Preview: at Boston Bruins - February 24, 2016

3:00:00 PM 0

Pittsburgh Penguins (30-20-8; 4th Metro) at Boston Bruins (32-22-6; 4th Atlantic)
February 24, 2016 @ 7:30 PM - TD Garden
TV: NBC Sports Network

It's a wildcard battle on Rivalry Night at the first wildcard Boston Bruins take on the 2nd wildcard Pittsburgh Penguins. With the Bruins just 5 points behind first place in the Atlantic and the Penguins 6 points behind second place in the Metro, the two points will loom large in this matchup as the teams try to keep pace in their divisions. It's the third and final meeting between the two teams this season with the Bruins having taken advantage of the Penguins coaching change, winning both games in a December home and home in Mike Sullivan's first week as Pens coach.

That the Bruins currently hold the first wild card this late in the season has been a pretty big surprise from a team many were anticipating would take a large step backwards after missing the playoffs on the last day of the season in 2014-15. The Bruins blew up a decent chunk of the organization in the offseason by firing GM Peter Chiarelli and trading away Milan Lucic and Dougie Hamilton. Expectations weren't high for the Bruins, and they certainly would have been even lower knowing before the season that Tuukka Rask would be going through his worst season as a professional. The 28-year-old Finn currently has a 0.915 SV% and 2.60 GAA through 45 appearances on the year. The save percentage would be a career worst, while if his goals against average holds up it would be the second highest he's posted. So, with their arguably their best player playing at his worst, how are the Bruins in the playoff picture?

The strength of the Bruins has been their offense, which is 3rd in the league with 3.02 goals per game. And probably their biggest surprise has been Brad Marchand, who leads the team with 30 goals, 4th most in the league this season. While Marchand has consistently been a mid-20s goal score in the NHL, he's already set a career high and is on pace for 42 goals on the year, which would shatter his previous career high of 28 goals set in 2011-12. He's done it at an age (27) at which most forwards are exiting their prime years, and most impressively he's done it with a shooting percentage (16.6%) that's in the neighborhood of his career average (15.4%). He's been incredibly strong in the possession game for Boston as well, posting a score-adjusted 54.0 CF% vs the 46.9 CF% the Bruins have managed when he's off the ice.

While it's unexpected to see Marchand have a season at this elite of a level, it's no surprise to see Patrice Bergeron leading the Bruins in scoring. The 3 time Selke Trophy winner could be one of the most underrated players in the league even with the praise he already receives. He's one of the best possession driving forwards in the league (54.5 SACF%), clearly one of the most respected players in his own zone, and with the increased burden on the Boston offense this season Bergeron is within striking distance of his personal bests of 31 goals and 73 points set in the season after the first lockout. Add in the 48 points each of both Loui Eriksson and David Krejci and the Bruins have a number of top offensive options high up on the league's list of leading scorers.

But in an unusual move for a team in the playoff picture, Loui Eriksson might very well be on the trading block heading into the deadline. The team's 2nd leading score is an impending UFA and is in line for a raise on the $4.25 million AAV he currently carries. While trading Eriksson is highly unlikely to bring the Bruins back any players that can help them in the current season, Boston GM Don Sweeney might find any return better than watching Eriksson walk in free agency. And with how unusual of a season it's been in Boston, Sweeney might decide the Bruins are in more of a rebuilding year than their current record would indicate.


Penguins: Ben Lovejoy (upper body), Evgeni Malkin (lower body), Eric Fehr (lower body), Nick Bonino (hand), Beau Bennett (undisclosed)

Bruins: Chris Kelly (leg)


- Evgeni Malkin is nearing a return from a lower body injury that has caused him to miss the past 9 games. His return couldn't come soon enough for a Penguins power play that has gone just 1-for-23 (4.3%) in his absence, including no goals in their past 7 games.

- Mike Sullivan will be looking for his first victory tonight against the team that gave him his head coaching start. Sullivan was hired as the head coach of the Bruins in 2003 and went 41-19-15-7 in his first season, good enough for 104 points and 1st place in the Northeast Division. However, Boston went from first to worst coming out of the lockout, going 29-37-16 for 74 points and last place in the division, and Sullivan would be fired at the end of the year.
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Evgeni Malkin and GoPro Return to Show Off

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Comparing Mike Sullivan by @BrianK_PI

2:55:00 PM 0

With the past few games, Mike Sullivan has matched and surpassed Mike Johnston in terms of games coached on the season. It's no secret at this point in time the series of events that brought the organization to where it is today. After blowing a 3-1 series lead in the conference semifinals against the New York Rangers, the Penguins cleared house and, after a drawn out and at times embarrassing process, hired Mike Johnston to succeed Dan Bylsma. Johnston had some early success, but questions arose about the simplicity of his scheme for opposing coaches to counter, and the wheels began to fall off late in the season with key injuries in the defensive corps. Despite the abundantly clear problem this presented, and the expiring contract of several top 4 defensemen, the position was largely neglected in the offseason. Johnston attempted to compensate by changing his system, and the resulting changes failed miserably, leading to him being fired and Sullivan being promoted in December.

Sullivan has opened things back up, and the Penguins offense has certainly responded to the lifting of the restrictions placed on them, but there are still signs of the lack of defensive depth that plagued Johnston during his tenure. And to be frank, Sullivan really shouldn't be compared to how poorly the team had been performing in the first part of the season. The Pittsburgh Penguins, with the elite talent that they possess, should never look as lethargic and anemic as they did in the first 28 games this season. A more suitable comparison is how they played last season under Johnston, or previous seasons under Bylsma. So keeping that in mind, how does Mike Sullivan compare?

It might be easy to point to the similarity in the records between Sullivan and Johnston this season, but the teams could not have played any more differently under the two coaches. While the focus of the 2015 offseason was on reinforcing the group of forwards, both at the top with Phil Kessel and in the bottom 6, Johnston turned away from the strengths of his team to try to reinforce their greatest weakness: the defense. Conversely, Mike Sullivan has played to his teams strengths. Sullivan has the Penguins much more focused on possessing the puck in the offensive zone and using their talented offense to score goals. And that 2.87 goals/gm would be 5th in the league over the course of the season - the same ranking the Penguins' offense had in Dan Bylsma's final season. Sullivan also has the power play back clicking at a level not seen under Johnston, and that's with missing Evgeni Malkin for the past 6 games and the team being scoreless on the man advantage since.

The effects of the defense can still be on Mike Sullivan's teams, though the multiple injuries at forward are likely exacerbating the issue as well. The Pens had been fairly consistent the previous 3 seasons in scoring defense across the coaching transition from Bylsma to Johnston. While Johnston had improved upon that number early in the season, it came at an enormous cost to the offense. While scoring against has gone up, and save percentage has gone down, it's not surprising given what's happened to the defense. In Bylsma's final season, the healthy lineup on defense was essentially Kris Letang, Paul Martin, Brooks Orpik, Matt Niskanen, Olli Maatta, and Rob Scuderi. Today Sullivan has Letang, Maatta, Trevor Daley, Brian Dumoulin, Ben Lovejoy, and Derrick Pouliot to work with. It's a huge talent exodus that hasn't been addressed under the current front office, and no matter how talented the team is up front it's going to hold the team back. But Sullivan is succeeding where Johnston failed because of a commitment to puck possession that keeps the play out of the Pittsburgh zone.

Whereas Johnston's commitment to defense had the Penguins defending in their zone more than attacking in the other team's, Sullivan has gotten the play pushed towards the other team's goal. In fact, their score-adjusted 54.2 CF% ranks 3rd in the league since he's taken over. It's the team's best mark since the Pens put up a 55.1 SACF% in 2011-12 - Jordan Staal's last season in Pittsburgh. And it goes to show how quickly things can change. Staal's departure created a ripple effect in the bottom 6 that caused them to drag down the rest of the team similar to the defense under Mike Johnston. And Johnston initially was a needed change of pace from Bylsma, who began to lose favor in the dressing room.

The Penguins have been playing much better under Sullivan, and they certainly are starting to more resemble their successful teams under Bylsma than they did with Mike Johnston as the head coach. They've deserved better in the win column, but even with all the good that Sullivan has done he still is limited by the lack of depth on the defense. But roster construction is something that other's need to take care of, and Sullivan certainly has the team back on the right track to get back into the championship picture; maybe not this season, but with prudent roster moves certainly sooner rather than later.
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Monday, February 22, 2016

It's Not Murray's Time, and That's Fine by @Nick422

1:03:00 PM 0
Word was released from the Penguins that hotshot goalie Matt Murray, their assumed future in net, was sent back to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton after a one game call up to, seemingly, replace the knocked around Jeff Zatkoff for more than just one game.  We know now that his time in Pittsburgh was not for the long haul.  And that's just fine.

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Stand Pat at the Deadline by @BrianK_PI

11:00:00 AM 1

The Pittsburgh Penguins currently occupy the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference with just a week to go until the trade deadline. Injuries to Evgeni Malkin, Nick Bonino, Eric Fehr, and Beau Bennett have robbed the team of depth and will provide a big boost to a team that's been back and forth between 3rd in the Metro and 9th in the East in their absence. The Penguins have undoubtedly been a much improved team under Mike Sullivan, even if the magnitude of that improvement has yet to be reflected in the standings, but the decision to be buyers at the trade deadline isn't one to be taken lightly. There needs to be a reason behind the moves, a purpose for making them, and when looking at the Penguins' situation it's abundantly clear that they need to stand pat at the deadline.

That's not to argue that the Pens don't have weaknesses that they can improve. The defense could certainly use a reinforcement in the top 4, especially given the inordinately large importance Kris Letang has for the unit. A top 6 LW could help reinforce the forward depth at the top, while a solid bottom 6 player could help reinforce the group from the bottom. There are potential deals to be made, if GM Jim Rutherford decides to go looking. He clearly has reasons to look to add players; but is there a purpose to making the moves?

With any move that Rutherford makes at the trade deadline, or in general for that matter, he needs to be able to answer what that transaction accomplishes. He had a spotty performance at the last deadline. The Daniel Winnik trade fortified a bottom 6 that was in desperate need of talent, but it came at a very high price, relatively speaking. Swapping Ian Cole for Robert Bortuzzo was hoping that his team's bottom pairing defender who didn't have a future with the team could be improved by another team's; Cole had success after the deadline last season but has been largely disappointing this season with higher expectations. And the Ben Lovejoy trade had such a narrow reasoning, adding consistency a the expense of talent for that one playoff run, that everyone involved should have immediately known to walk away.

But the question of what the transactions accomplish needs to be answered on a much larger scale. Last season, Rutherford made several largely marginal trades for a relatively high cost in an attempt to take a team that was in the middle of a logjam near the top of the conference and put them over the top. He had reasons to make the moves, but the purpose was lacking - the moves weren't enough to put the Pens over the top even if they had stayed healthy, and they certainly didn't justify their cost. Ray Shero is routinely lambasted by Pens fans for his asset management at the trade deadline, and while he arguably didn't have as much reason to make his deals as Rutherford did given the strength of his teams, he certainly had a much better purpose. Shero had teams that were at the top of the conference that if they weren't the favorite to advance to the Stanley Cup finals out of the East, they were certainly on a short list. His execution left much to be desired, but there's no doubt about the purpose behind the moves.

And viewing the 2016 trade deadline through that lens, what purpose do the moves serve? Are they being made to solidify the Penguins as a playoff team? Are they being made to improve the team's chances of moving on one more round? Whether they're in the Metro or Atlantic side of the Eastern Conference bracket, the road to the Stanley Cup is likely to travel through Washington. That's not to imply that the Capitals can't be beaten, or that they'll progress far enough to meet the Pens based on where Pittsburgh gets seeded, but they're clearly the best team in the East this season. Are deadline deals going to push the Penguins past the Capitals in terms of team strength? No, they're not. Will they pull the teams even? That's highly unlikely as well.

And if the Penguins are going to have an outside shot of beating the Washington Capitals in a playoff series regardless of the moves they make, they shouldn't look to waste the assets, especially after years of mismanaging the team's future to this point. That's not to say they should turn down a deal that improves the team in future season, or improves the team depth for a late round pick, but the major deals should be left for others. The franchise and fanbase aren't going to be satisfied with a push that gets them into the playoffs before bowing out in the 1st round. They aren't going to be satisfied watching draft picks and/or prospects shipped out of Pittsburgh to watch the team bow out in the conference semifinals. The barren state of the farm system dictates that any move needs to put Pittsburgh over the top. The problem with a short-timer like Rutherford who is used to the low expectations of Carolina is that he might read the current situation as a time to buy. For the sake of the organization, both in the present and in the future, Jim Rutherford needs to be prudent over the next week and stand pat at the deadline.
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Sunday, February 21, 2016

Game Recap: Pens Hold On, Beat Sabres 4-3

3:38:00 PM 0

Kris Letang made some great passes on his way to a 3 assist game, Scott Wilson found the back of the net again, and the Pittsburgh Penguins now have 2 wins in as many tries against former coach Dan Bylsma as the Pittsburgh Penguins held on to a 4-3 win against the Buffalo Sabres after nearly watching a 3 goal lead get chipped away late in the game. Patric Hornqvist, Phil Kessel, and Matt Cullen also scored for the Penguins.

It was a bit of a sluggish start for a Penguins team that was playing their second 12:30 start in as many days, but they managed to strike first midway through the opening period. Sidney Crosby got the puck in the corner off the rush and found Trevor Daley coming up in the second wave. Daley unleashed a shot that Patric Hornqvist got a stick on, and the puck slowly slid past Robin Lehner, who had pushed off cross crease to get in position to stop the initial shot. Minutes later Hornqvist was sent to the box for slashing, and Buffalo was able to get even. The Pens were able to do a good job of preventing the Sabres from setting up their power play, but a Zach Bogosian slapper from the blueline cleanly beat a screened Marc-Andre Fleury to tie the score 1-1.

Pittsburgh had a great chance late in the 1st period to increase the lead as Mark Pysyk took a crosschecking penalty with just over two minutes left, then David Legwand tripped Phil Kessel to give the Pens 29 seconds of 5-on-3. They weren't able to convert with the two man advantage and entered intermission with 1:17 left on the Legwand minor, but Buffalo was up to the task to start the 2nd. That made it 12 straight power play opportunities without a goal for a Penguins team clearly missing Evgeni Malkin on the man advantage.

Minutes after the Buffalo penalty kill Olli Maatta took an interference penalty, and it again lead to a goal going up on the board. The Penguins got a great chance shorthanded as Matt Cullen hit Carl Hagelin behind the defense on the rush to get him in alone with Lehner, but Hagelin wasn't able to beat his fellow Swede. However, Jack Eichel took a cross-checking penalty on the play, and the Penguins were quickly able to make Buffalo pay on the ensuing 4-on-4. Kris Letang had the puck deep in the Buffalo zone and found Scott Wilson all alone on the opposite side of the crease and Wilson buried the shot to regain the Pittsburgh lead. Wilson now has a 3 game goal scoring streak, and the player who still leads the Baby Pens in goals and points is making a great case for staying with the parent club as the team gets healthy.

The Penguins continued to press to increase the lead and saw a number of great scoring chances. Midway through the 2nd, Maatta intercepted a pass and got in alone with Lehner but rang the shot off the crossbar. Not long after the Pens had a 3 on 2 rush that nearly resulted in an easy tap in. Hornqvist got the puck between the circles and nearly hit an open Crosby on the goal line with an empty net in front of him, but Josh Gorges just barely got a piece of the pass to tip the puck to the corner and prevent the sure goal. The Pen would be able to finally turn the pressure into a goal late in the 2nd period. Kris Letang made a great slap pass to Phil Kessel on the far post, and Kessel was able to skate his way into a wide open net with Lehner down to increase the Pittsburgh lead to two. The goal gave Kessel 4 goals in his last 5 games, both playing with Cullen and Hagelin on the 2nd line and with Crosby on the 1st. If Kessel's able to heat up it'll make the Penguins infinitely more difficult to play against, especially with Malkin nearing a return.

The Pens were able to control play at the start of the 3rd period and snuff out any Buffalo attempts to close the lead, but a Connor Sheary tripping penalty midway through the period opened things up. Again, it was a Pittsburgh penalty that led to action, this time for both teams. Hagelin gave Cullen an area pass that sprung him for a shorthanded breakaway. Lehner initially made the save sliding backwards, but his momentum helped propel the puck into the net to widen the Pittsburgh lead to 3. It would prove to be a big goal as Brian Gionta deflected a Bogosian shot past Fleury for a power play goal just seconds later to cut the lead back down to 2.

However, Buffalo had trouble building much off the momentum. The Sabres had a chance on a loose puck in front of the net with 5 minutes left, but Fleury was able to cover it up before it could do any damage. Evander Kane tripped Trevor Daley behind the Pittsburgh net with 3:26 left in the game, and while the Penguins weren't able to convert, it went a long way towards killing the clock late in the game. Lehner was pulled when Kane hit the ice to even things back up, and Bogosian was able to rip a shot from the point that hit off Fleury's glove and into the net for his second of the game to bring the score within one with 21.4 seconds left, but the Sabres weren't able to get the second goal to complete the comeback, and the Pens were able to hold on for two points.

It was a slow start for the Penguins, but they managed to come roaring back and ended the afternoon with a score adjusted 55.0 CF%. The game gives the Penguins a much needed 2 points as they moved into the 1st wild card spot in the Eastern Conference. Pittsburgh will travel to Boston to face the Bruins on Wednesday, and the story until then will be whether the 3 days off will be enough to get Evgeni Malkin back into the lineup.
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Game Preview: at Buffalo Sabres - February 21, 2016

11:00:00 AM 0

Pittsburgh Penguins (29-20-8; 4th Metro) @ Buffalo Sabres (24-28-7; 7th Atlantic)
February 21, 2016 @ 12:30 PM - First Niagara Center

The Penguins lost out on a chance to gain a valuable two points yesterday as they were sunk by sub-par goaltending. Hopefully a trip to Buffalo to face the Sabres helps cure the team's ills. Marc-Andre Fleury missed the game against the Lightning due to illness, and the recalled Matt Murray from the AHL this morning. Whether it's a precautionary measure or Fleury cannot make the start again, Zatkoff cannot be trusted to start back to back games for a team desperately needing points, even against the Sabres. There was optimism in Buffalo that the additions to a historically bad 2014-15 team could push the Sabres into the playoff conversation this season. While they've been better, Buffalo is pushing more towards a lottery win than a playoff birth. The Penguins play their second matinee in as many days when they travel to Buffalo to take on the Sabres. It's the 2nd of 3 games between the teams this season, with the Pens winning the first game in Dan Bylsma's return to Pittsburgh, 4-3 in October.

The Sabres made a number of big acquisitions to a team they gutted in an attempt to win the 2015 draft lottery. While they ultimately lost out on the top pick to the Edmonton Oilers, center Jack Eichel was a great consolation prize at 2nd overall. The 19-year-old out of Boston University is second on the team with 17 goals and 24 assists in 59 games in his rookie season. Another pair of high profile forward additions have had mixed results so far. Ryan O'Reilly is on pace for a career high in points and assists with an expanded role in Buffalo after being acquired in a summer trade, though his 1.27 pts/60 is his lowest since his first two seasons in the league. Evander Kane came over in a pre-deadline deal that also brought in Zach Bogosian while shipping out Tyler Myers and Drew Stafford. After returning from a season-ending shoulder surgery, Kane hasn't brought the scoring touch his new team was expecting, and his 16 goals and 9 assists give him his worst pts/gm total since his rookie year.

Starting goalie Robin Lehner was acquired along with David Legwand for the 21st overall pick in the days leading up to the NHL draft, but he suffered a high ankle sprain in the Sabres' opening game of the season and was out until mid January. He's posted a 2.30 GAA and a 0.932 SV% on the season, give Buffalo an upgrade in net over the Chad Johnson/Linus Ullmark tandem that combined for a 2.53 GAA and 0.916 SV% in his absence. Even with an impressive amount of roster turnover that's seen only 11 of the 23 man 204-15 opening roster remain with the Sabres club, there's still a lot of work to be done in Buffalo, but with young elite talent like Eichel, one of the best farm systems in the league, and likely another top pick in the 2016 draft the future is bright.


Penguins: Ben Lovejoy (upper body), Evgeni Malkin (lower body), Eric Fehr (lower body), Nick Bonino (hand), Daniel Warsofsky (concussion), Beau Bennett (undisclosed)

Sabres: Ryan O'Reilly (lower body), Cody Franson (undisclosed), Tyler Ennis (concussion), Cody McCormick (blood clots)


- Elliote Friedman reported that the Calgary Flames inquired about the availability of Pens goaltending prospect Matt Murray but were told the 21-year-old goalie is not available. Murray should be untouchable at this point in his career, and with Pittsburgh fighting for a playoff spot he should arguably already be seeing action in the NHL beyond what today's recall is likely to provide him.

- The Penguins also announced that Daniel Warsofsky has been sent to Wilkes-Barre for a conditioning assignment. Warsofsky has been out with a concussion sustained in an on-ice collision with a referee January 17th, and his injury allowed for Derrick Pouliot to get back into the Pittsburgh lineup. It's unclear what Warsofsky's role on the team will be when healthy, and he could find himself back in the Wilkes-Barre lineup when cleared for a return.
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Saturday, February 20, 2016

Game Recap: Lightning Down the Pens 4-2

3:21:00 PM 0

The AHL callups, on the whole, played arguably their best game of the season. The AHL caliber goaltender, however, did not. Jeff Zakoff unexpectedly got the start shortly before the start of the game as Marc-Andre Fleury was regulated to being the backup due to illness. The decision to allow Zatkoff the opportunity to play for a team where every point is critical remains baffling, and he struggled fighting through traffic in this one as the Tampa Bay Lightning beat the Pittsburgh Penguins 4-2. Tom Kuhnhack and Scott Wilson scored for the Penguins, while Zatkoff gave up 4 goals on only 20 shots faced.

The Lightning opened the scoring midway through the 1st period after the Penguins had a great scoring chance that pinged away harmlessly off the post. With a number of bodies in the shooting lane, Anton Stralman fired a shot from the point that just snuck inside the far post and in. Minutes later, Tampa Bay made it 2-0 on Steven Stamkos' 300th NHL goal, again off a shot from the point with traffic in front. An Alex Killorn shot into traffic hit a body and redirected off the near post to a wide open Stamkos on the far side, who easily put the puck into the open net to double the Lightning lead.

Things started getting chippy after the second Lightning goal. Kris Letang and JT Brown got sent off for coincidental minors with 5 minutes left in the 1st after Letang retaliated with a slash against Brown after he cross-checked Letang up high in front of the net. Sidney Crosby and Tyler Johnson then got sent off on coincidental roughing minors after getting into a scrum after the final horn.

The 2-0 hole was a tough break for a Penguins team that largely controlled play with a score-adjusted 57.9 CF% in the opening period, but it would quickly get worse. Minutes into the 2nd period, the Lightning increased their lead further on yet another point shot. Matt Carle was credited with the goal, but his point shot appeared to hit Ondrej Palat before trickling through Zatkoff's open 5 hole. Things appeared to be spiraling hopelessly out of control when Trevor Daley and Cedric Paquette picked up coincidental roughing minors, but instead of 4 on 4 hockey Daley was assessed a second roughing minor.

However, it was a great individual effort by Tom Kuhnhackl that cut the lead back to 2 on the penalty kill. Kuhnhackl picked up an errant centering pass between the circles, chipped the puck past Victor Hedman, and took it in on a breakaway for his first NHL goal. Kuhnhackly brought it in down the left side of the ice, skated in on Bishop, and roofed it over Bishop on his backhand. However, the Penguins weren't able to take advantage of the momentum, and multiple breakdowns allowed the Lightning to increase their lead back to 3.

Jonathan Marchessault gained the zone down the right side and sent the puck cross ice, where it found a streaking Palat. Zatkoff took himself out of position, sliding out of his crease to try cutting off the shot from the left-handed Palat down the left wing, Derrick Pouliot abandoned Tyler Johnson in front, and Palat was able to find Johnson for an easy tap-in that Zatkoff had no chance to make a play on. However, Tampa Bay still wasn't able to fully put the game away, as late in the second Pittsburgh again pulled to within two, and it was the AHL callups again making a play. Bryan Rust got a shot off in traffic that Bishop turned aside, but Scott Wilson followed up on the rebound and fired it past the Lightning goalie for his 2nd NHL goal in as many games. The Pens had a great chance to pull things even closer before the 2nd intermission with 1:08 of 5 on 3 action, but Tampa was able to turn aside the threat and maintain the 2 goal lead into the break.

Unfortunately, the lead would prove to be too much to overcome. Chris Kunitz had a great chance midway through the period before Bishop robbed him from in close. Phil Kessel wristed a shot that Bishop turned away right to Kunitz in the middle of ice, but he was able recover just enough to get a toe on the second chance and prevent the Pens from cutting the lead to 1. Unfortunately, a missed call on part of the refs was instrumental in helping Tampa preserve the lead further. A blatant slash by Paquette caused Kris Letang to lose his stick and the play to go the other way but went uncalled. After a tussle between the two, the Letang stole Paquette's stick and continued to play with it. He was called for an illegal stick, but the refs compounded their mistake by giving him a double minor for unsportsmanlike conduct as well.

The goaltending overshadowed the fact the Pens had the upper hand of the gameplay against the Lightning with a score-adjusted 57.0 CF% at 5-on-5 play and allowing the Lightning just a 35.9 CA60. However, they weren't able to get any big saves to keep them in the game. Ben Lovejoy left the game early in the 2nd period and did not return, leaving the Pens playing with 5 defensemen for the majority of the game. The Penguins will travel to Buffalo tomorrow to take on the Sabres in another afternoon matchup. It's imperative that Jim Rutherford calls up Matt Murray from Wilkes-Barre if Marc-Andre Fleury is unable to make the start tomorrow. 
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Game Preview: vs Tampa Bay Lightning - February 20, 2016

10:30:00 AM 0

Pittsburgh Penguins (29-19-8; 4th Metro) vs Tampa Bay Lightning (31-22-4; 4th Atlantic)
February 20, 2016 @ 12:30 PM - Consol Energy Center
TV: Root Sports Pittsburgh

The fierce battle for the playoffs in the Eastern Conference continues today as the Pittsburgh Penguins host the Tampa Bay Lightning in an afternoon matchup of the two current wildcards in the Eastern Conference. The two teams are currently tied in the standings with 66 points apiece, though the Pens have the benefit of having played one fewer game than the Lightning. It'll be the third and final meeting between the two teams this season, and the Penguins will be looking to get into the win column after falling to Tampa 5-4 in OT in January and 6-3 earlier this month.

The biggest story line centering around the Lightning this season has been Steven Stamkos and his impending unrestricted free agency, but earlier this week Steve Yzerman took some of the mystery out of the situation by announcing that Stamkos would not be dealt before the February 29th trade deadline. While hamstrung by Stamkos' NTC, it would appear that Yzerman is resigned to keeping the star center to make a playoff push before losing him for nothing in the offseason. Stamkos currently is 2nd on the Lightning with 23 goals and 44 points, but those number correspond to his lowest scoring rates since his rookie season. Even with the off-year, if/when Stamkos reaches free agency he's likely to secure a deal with the highest AAV in the cap era, beating out the $10.5 million cap hit shared by Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane.

While Stamkos is faltering heading into free agency, it's another pending free agent, this time a restricted free agent, who is pacing Tampa Bay in scoring. Nikita Kucherov has 23 goals and 49 points in his 3rd season and will be looking for a handsome raise on his $700k salary this season. The 22-year-old Russian is following up a strong sophomore season in which he posted 65 points and will surely be a priority for Yzerman in the offseason.

Kucherov isn't the only young player Yzerman needs to deal with. Alex Killorn is coming up on free agency with 28 points in his 4th season, while another young Russian, Vladislav Namestnikov, has produced a respectable 26 points so far in his 3rd year. Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat will be eligible for extensions when the new league year starts July 1st, though with both players taking a big step back from the combined 135 points they scored playing on a line with Kucherov last season it's likely Yzerman will see if either rebound next season. For a much different reason, Yzerman must also figure out what to do with Jonathan Drouin. While Drouin is still suspended indefinitely for failing to report to the Syracuse Crunch, word from the Tampa Bay locker room is that the players would welcome Drouin returning to the ice with the NHL club.


Penguins: Evgeni Malkin (lower body), Eric Fehr (lower body), Nick Bonino (hand), Daniel Warsofsky (concussion), Beau Bennett (undisclosed)

Lightning: Vadislav Namestnikov (upper body), Jason Garrison (lower body), Mattias Ohlund (knee)


- Thursday's 6-3 win against the Red Wing was Mike Sullivan's 28th game coaching the Pittsburgh Penguins, the same number as previous coach Mike Johnston had this season. The Pens went 15-10-3 under Johnston, good for 33 points. Under Sullivan? 14-9-5 for an identical 33 points in what has to be one of the most shocking stats on the season for Pittsburgh.

- Mike Sullivan announced that Evgeni Malkin will miss the weekend games against Tampa Bay and Buffalo. The head coach said Malkin will need to practice with the team before he can return to the lineup.
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