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February 11, 2016
by Bill West


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Rangers postgame

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In late December and early January, the Penguins spoke of strong performances and elusive rewards. All signs, particularly on the puck possession front, pointed to better play. But wins, particularly decisive ones, remained hard to come by.

Then the Penguins strung together six wins in seven games, and fans forgot that sometimes hockey is a cruel, quirky sport.

Let Wednesday’s 3-0 loss to the New York Rangers serve as a refresher.

Pens vs Rangers finalAs the Hockeystats.ca chart to the right shows, the Penguins built and sustained an edge in shot attempts. Two early power plays helped, but even in five-on-five action, the hosts at Consol Energy Center generated more on offense than they allowed. Score effects, which tend to give teams that trail a bump in shot attempts, took hold after the Rangers went up 2-0. But the chart reflects score-adjusted Corsi, so a considerable gap in attempts remained.

Coach Mike Sullivan and various players expressed some frustration about the disconnect between the performance and the outcome. My cohort, Jonathan Bombulie, said Kris Letang, in an honest, non-hostile way, asked him what the Penguins should’ve done better or differently other than change the goal totals.

(Here’s the direct quote. — jb)

“Other than the fact that we didn’t score goals, would you change something in the game?” Letang asked. “Tell us that we need to score goals. We did score goals lately. It’s hard. They’re a team that retreats when they get the lead. They jam the front of the net, so it’s hard to score goals. They block shots. Their goalie is an outstanding goalie. But I think for the most part, we had control of that game. We were playing well. We had the puck. We were shooting the puck. We outchanced them. We outshot them. I think it’s just a question of finishing.”

Skeptics of advanced metrics might scoff at this as a silver lining, but I’m inclined to note that the Penguins’ bottom six — i.e. the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton call-ups — again fared well from a puck possession standpoint. Patric Hornqvist and Chris Kunitz, in a departure from the recent norm, finished with the worst Corsi-For Percentage among the skaters.

I realize possession does not equal points on the board, and a couple games do not comprise a sufficient sample size, but it’s impressive to see the call-ups do their part to keep the Penguins in games. Only Derrick Pouliot would qualify as a serious prospect.

Is it fair to ask Kunitz, Hornqvist and Sidney Crosby, along with the team’s other proven stars, to put the puck in the net night after night? No.  Even the Baby Pens will say that. They want to score, and both Conor Sheary and Bryan Rust came close tonight.

As long as the call-ups continue to do their jobs, I suspect the Penguins will remain on an upward trajectory. This loss is not a reason to panic. Three more shorts at King Henrik and the Rangers lie ahead. If each side’s play remains the same, I anticipate the next few outcomes will prove more favorable.

Let’s wrap up with some postgame quotes:

— Phil Kessel has four goals and 10 assists in his last 17 games. In Florida the other night, Sullivan bumped Bryan Rust up to his spot with Carl Hagelin and Matt Cullen for a while. So, Sullivan on whether he wants to see more from Kessel:

“When Phil scores, we’re a better team. I don’t know if you would call the adjustment we made in Florida a demotion. It was more an adjustment to try to create a spark for our group. But obviously, we can’t rely on just one line or one guy to generate our offense night in and night out. We have to find ways to get more contributions from throughout our lineup. When we’ve been winning here for this last little while, we found that. Tonight, for the most part, I thought it was a pretty even hockey game.  I thought we generated a fair amount of scoring chances. Our power play had some real high-quality chances. We don’t score. We hit a post. They score on a two-on-one. We get a two-on-one and we don’t score. It’s a fine line. For me, my initial reaction to the game is that we didn’t quite execute the way we have the last little while here, but for the most part, it was a lot closer game than the score indicated.”

— Crosby was very level-headed after his 11-game scoring streak and seven-game goal streak ended:

“It was just different things. Had some good chances that hit the post. A few got blocked. (Lundqvist) made some good saves on a couple other ones. We had some good looks. That’s what you’re trying to do is give yourself a chance to get looks like that and you try to put them in.”

— Brian Dumoulin on his bad pinch that gave the Rangers their second goal:

“That was a tough read. I obviously wish I didn’t pinch now, looking back. I saw Sid backhand it, and I thought the puck was going to come off a little bit harder and more at an angle, and it didn’t. I was already headed there, and I thought if I’m going to go, I’ve just got to try to go. Obviously I wish I didn’t do it and just backed out, lived to fight another day. That’s on me.”

— Alain Vigneault sums it up from the Rangers side:

“There’s no doubt that our goaltending was outstanding tonight. Hank made some big saves at the key times and we were able to get some timely goals. … I thought for the most part, we played their top players well. We made sure we had back pressure. We made sure we had numbers. Yes, they probably got a lot of shot attempts, but we were keeping it to the outside, and when they go on the inside, Hank made some real big saves for us.”

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February 10, 2016
by Jonathan Bombulie


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Remembering an overtime goal

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This is the last time the Rangers scored a goal against the Penguins. It was more than nine months ago in the fifth and final game of a first-round playoff series.

The Penguins are a completely different team since then. Only seven of the 20 players from that game are expected to be in the lineup tomorrow night at Consol Energy Center. Also, the overtime hero has switched jerseys.

I asked Carl Hagelin if he had to mend some fences when he joined the Penguins. After all, he did end their season last spring.

“(Chris Kunitz) wasn’t too happy. He was on the ice when it happened. He said he was going to jump me, but the season was over. A couple guys have mentioned it.”

Penguins manager of content Michele Crechiolo then asked if goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was one of the players he talked to about it. Hagelin said he didn’t remember.

Fleury remembered.

“Oh, that guy. He doesn’t know yet, but he’s going to pay at some point.”

Given Fleury’s reputation for practical jokes, Hagelin better watch his back.

Couple other notes from today’s practice:

— Coach Mike Sullivan said the Penguins will keep Evgeni Malkin out another week with his lower-body injury. It doesn’t strike me as an odd course of action. I don’t have any firm info on this topic, but you’d have to imagine we’re talking about a knee here. As long as it’s not the type of injury that requires surgery — and there’s no reason to believe it is — the more rest and rehab he gets, the better the chance of a lack of lingering effects when he gets back.

That said, the lack of a reasonable injury disclosure policy in hockey leaves room for rampant, irresponsible speculation, so have at it.

— The Penguins, obviously, have been fine without Malkin the last two games, but it reminds me of a story Michel Therrien told me one time.

If Celine Dion gets sick and her understudy has to step in, she might sound great for one song. She might even sound great for one concert. But eventually, the tour isn’t going to be as good without Celine.

It’s not an all-time great analogy or anything, but Therrien’s French-Canadian cultural references are always awesome.

— Otherwise, Matt Cullen and Kris Letang had the day off for maintenance, but they’re expected to play tomorrow.

Bye for now,

jb

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February 9, 2016
by Bill West


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Ducks postgame (Or, in praise of Crosby)

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Sidney Crosby creates a conundrum for those of us who cover the team every day, especially when he shines as he did Monday night with two goals and two assists in a 6-2 win over Anaheim.

How does one adequately describe what he does on the ice as one of the league’s best players? Unlike Alex Ovechkin or even Evgeni Malkin to some extent, Crosby is not easily classified by any one skill or style of play. Ask teammates and opponents about him, and you’re bound to find a lot of quotes that describe him as elite at almost everything a forward does.

This leads to another challenge: How does one tell a unique story night after night about the star whose all-around skill simply puts him on another level? Sure, every once in a while, a truly exceptional Crosby goal emerges, and a defining moment to craft a story around presents itself. His second goal tonight, in which he scored on a breakaway as Cam Fowler hooked away with all his might, probably qualified.

Crosby, of course, never devotes too much time or energy to praising his performances. He turns every question about him and his success into an assessment of the team’s play. Another dilemma in the quest for a distinct “Crosby dominates” tale.

So I’ll just leave this GIF here for everyone to admire. I could rattle off Crosby’s streaks and statistical excellence since Mike Sullivan’s arrival or Christmas Break or New Years, but this is one of those times where a picture (or snippet of video) trumps 1,000 words.

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February 8, 2016
by Bill West


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Ducks pregame

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If any team deserved to discuss the disparity between performance and results as much as the Penguins did in late December and early January, Anaheim fit the description.

Just as the Penguins (26-18-7), by almost every measure, became a better team when Mike Sullivan took over as coach, the Ducks (25-18-7) also began to live up to their reputation as one of the Western Conference’s finest teams. In fact, though they differ stylistically, the Penguins and Anaheim are seeing almost the same outcomes in terms of shots for and against these days.

Corsi since Sully takeoverThe Penguins enter tonight’s game as winners of five of their last six, while the Ducks are on a six-game win streak. As the tweet from Micah Blake McCurdy and less the useful but still slightly informative screen shot from NHL.com’s stats page show, the Penguins and Anaheim are dictating play about as well as any teams out there — the NHL.com chart shows which teams had the greatest difference in shot attempts since Dec. 14, Sullivan’s debut. One theory: The Carl Hagelin-David Perron trade inspired both sides. (I kid, I kid. Only the truly lazy writers out there might embrace that narrative, though both teams have benefited from the swap, as the tweet up top indicates.) In actuality, anyone familiar with hockey’s advanced metrics saw the surge from each team coming.

Explanations of why the Penguins were 16-14-3 and the Ducks were 12-15-3 at the Christmas Break can’t be boiled down to one statistic, but shooting percentage is a good place to start. At the break, Anaheim’s percentage sat  at 5.0, lowest in the league by 0.8 and about 3.0 below the league average. The Penguins’ 5.9 shooting percentage tied for 27th.

History shows that team shooting percentages rarely end up far from the league average over the course of an entire season. There are peaks and dips, but rarely do teams finish well outside the 7-8 percent range.

Pens Sh pcg since XmasAs the NHL.com chart to the right shows, the Penguins and Ducks’ shooting percentages since the end of the Christmas Break are no longer in the league’s basement. And when these teams get normalcy in that regard, the results speak for themselves.

There’s no telling where the Penguins or Ducks will end up in the final shooting percentage rankings. Putting the puck in the net is a fickle trick. But as long as both teams continue to outpace their opponents in scoring chances and shot attempts, they’ll continue to climb up their respective division’s standings.

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February 7, 2016
by Jonathan Bombulie


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Florida postgame

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It’s hard to describe just how dead the Penguins were midway through the third period tonight in Florida.

Deader than dead.

Playing on back-to-back nights on the road against a pair of very good teams. Facing a Panthers team that had won five in a row and had a red-hot goalie in Roberto Luongo. Playing without Evgeni Malkin. Playing with a Malkin-free power play that was 0 for 7 on the weekend.

Literally half of their forwards were recent Wilkes-Barre call-ups. I mean, the bottom three lines, after a shuffle, were Hagelin-Cullen-Rust, Kuhnhackl-Sundqvist-Sheary, Wilson-Porter-Kessel. That’s like a weird exhibition game lineup at Columbus on a Thursday in September.

And they were down 2-0 after giving up a gut punch of a shorthanded goal for the second straight game.

That’s pretty damn dead.

But Sidney Crosby digs out a puck on the wall and hits Kris Letang for a one-timer with 5:04 left. Then a Letang shot from the point with 1:15 left hits Crosby in the knee and shaft of his stick and banks in off Luongo. Finally Crosby, camped out on the goal line, hits Letang for another one-timer, this one on an overtime power play, to give the Penguins a ridiculous 3-2 win.

Crosby had nice things to say about Letang.

“He’s been all over the ice. Every situation, he’s been involved and a big part of every game. His impact on the game is huge.”

Letang had nice things to say about Crosby. I asked Letang if this is among the best hockey he’s ever seen Crosby play. He laughed.

“We say that every season when he’s got a streak or something going. In my mind, he’s the best player in the world. There’s no doubt about it.”

Coach Mike Sullivan said nice things about them both.

“Those two guys, I thought, put the team on their backs tonight. They raised their level at a critical time in the game.”

Not dead after all.

Beyond that, I feel like some screencaps can best sum things up here from Sunrise.

standings0206

The Penguins have passed the Islanders and moved into the third and final guaranteed playoff spot in the Metropolitan Division for the first time since sometime in November.

leaders0206

Crosby, speaking of being left for dead, has moved up into the top 10 in the league in scoring. No joke, he could be in the top five by Friday.

alltime0206

Crosby hit the 900-point milestone tonight as well. Left Chicken Parm in the dust. Some heavy hitters ahead, too.

That’s it for a remarkable night in Florida. Bill West will have you covered for Monday’s game against Anaheim, so make sure to stop back.

Bye for now,

jb

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February 6, 2016
by Jonathan Bombulie


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Tampa Bay postgame

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The Penguins lost 6-3 to the Tampa Bay Lightning tonight in large part due to subpar performances from players that no one wants to blame.

No one wants to blame Marc-Andre Fleury. The guy’s been dynamite all season. He kept the bottom from falling out on the season many times in the first few months of the year. But he stopped 10-of-14 shots three nights after stopping 18 of 23 against Ottawa. None of the goals the Lightning scored could be described as goaltender errors, but the game-saving stops he made so often in October and November were absent.

No one wants to blame the power play. It’s been so electric in recent weeks, the best in the league since Sullivan took over. But tonight, it went 0 for 3 and gave up a shorthanded goal to Ondrej Palat. Don’t be fooled by the final score. The Penguins were in this in the third period, only down 4-3 after Matt Cullen’s goal in the first minute. The shorthanded goal and a subsequent power-play goal by Tyler Johnson in the second period were the difference in the game.

No one wants to blame the recent Wilkes-Barre call-ups. They’re playing hard and doing what they can given less-than-idea circumstances with Evgeni Malkin, Eric Fehr, Nick Bonino and Beau Bennett out with injuries. But when that game was 4-3 in the third period, the table was set for an unlikely hero to emerge. A bottom-six forward, a defenseman, somebody. No one did.

Palat’s shorthanded goal came at the end of a long, 90-second shift for the first power-play unit. Normally, you’d blame them for staying out so long. But the second power-play unit was Trevor Daley and four call-ups —  Derrick Pouliot, Bryan Rust, Scott Wilson and Conor Sheary. Hard to blame the top unit for staying out a little longer than usual.

Sidney Crosby’s line with Patric Hornqvist and Chris Kunitz was great. Cullen’s line with Carl Hagelin and Phil Kessel scored that big third-period goal. But against a really good Tampa team that has won 10 of 11 and eight in a row at home, the Penguins needed a little more than that. They needed contributions from the guys no one wants to blame.

A couple of quotes before I go:

— Sidney Crosby on a Malkin-free power play: “You can’t replace him out there, but we still have to go out there and execute. Geno’s a special player and there’s not going to be one guy out there that replaces what he does, but I think as a group, we have to find a way to execute. The mentality of the power play has to be to outwork the other team’s penalty kill and I don’t think we did a good enough job of that tonight.”

— Oskar Sundqvist on his NHL debut: “The speed surprised me a little bit. Even if I knew it would be going faster, at the same time, Tampa is a really fast team. It was a quick game out there with a lot of guys who can skate.”

— Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper on the Penguins’ start: “That was as good a team as we’ve seen play against us all year. Fortunately for us, we came out of that period up 2-1. Pittsburgh was probably scratching their head a little bit.”

More from Sunrise tomorrow. Bye for now,

jb

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February 5, 2016
by Jonathan Bombulie


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Tampa Bay pregame

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Here’s what I think is the most interesting part of the pregame chatter before the Evgeni Malkin-less Penguins take on the red-hot Tampa Bay Lightning tonight: How does Malkin’s absence change how Sidney Crosby is defended? And will that change affect Crosby’s production, which has been so impressive lately?

As we discussed on today’s TribLIVE Radio podcast, the last time the Penguins visited Tampa, the Lightning’s top defender, Victor Hedman, played 9:31 at even strength against Crosby’s line and 5:14 against Malkin’s line.

With Malkin out, does that mean Crosby will see even more of the 6-foot-6, 220-pound Hedman?

I asked Lightning coach Jon Cooper if Malkin being out changed his philosophy on matching up with the Penguins.

“We’ll have to see how tonight goes. There’s no question we would have a specific line on his line, for sure. We have to see how things play out. So yes. To answer the question, it very well might.”

(Funny side note: Cooper, one of the NHL’s most well-spoken coaches, didn’t really say much there and he knew it. He apologized to me for the quality of his answer on the way out of the press conference room.)

OK, same question to Hedman.

“It might change a little bit, but we’re comfortable with either pairing out on the ice. Crosby scored three the last game. He’s been on fire as of late. We know we’re going to have our hands full tonight.”

A little more to chew on there, but not much.

Finally, I asked Crosby what he expected.

“It won’t really change much. We’re going to play against, I’m sure, the same forward group. D pairing, it depends on the game, how everyone’s doing. We’ll probably see similar guys. It’s about being ready to compete and being ready to work and understanding the situation.”

OK, I give up. Maybe it’s a topic of interest only to me. Or maybe it’s a topic where no one wants to give away state secrets. I’m going to keep an eye on the Crosby-Hedman matchup regardless.

Some other pregame notes:

— Not sure if Cooper was doing a Lou Holtz-talking-up-Air-Force kind of deal here, but he was very complimentary of the Penguins.

“Pittsburgh has won four straight. Their power play is on fire, scoring at will. Under Sully, they’re playing really, really well. We’re probably catching them at their peak in the way they’re playing, so I think you take one guy out, that’s not going to change the way the rest of everybody is playing. Although he is a big piece of their puzzle, I think they’re playing too well. They brought Hagelin in and he’s playing real well for them. They’re just clicking on all cylinders. We have to be worried about stopping their team, not one guy.”

— Oskar Sundqvist skated this morning and looks ready for his NHL debut. Tampa’s quick forward corps makes for a tough first matchup for a checking center, but he’s got a mature game. I expect more positive than negative from him tonight.

— The entire bottom six — some combination of Kuhnhackl, Sundqvist, Rust, Wilson, Porter and Sheary — will be recent WBS graduates. You can add Derrick Pouliot and Mike Sullivan to that list too.

— I think Matt Cullen will be effective at even strength with Carl Hagelin and Phil Kessel on his wings. Cullen understands what changes need to be made to his game when he’s on a top line. I wonder how the power play will fare without Malkin, however. His 23 power-play points are second in the league, only two behind scoring machine Patrick Kane.

More after the game. Bye for now,

jb

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February 3, 2016
by Bill West


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Ottawa postgame

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In a variety of ways, the Penguins, reflecting upon their 6-5 win on Tuesday night at Consol Energy Center, did their best to describe the majority of Ottawa’s goals as fluky without completely dismissing the Senators’ talent and effort.

Sidney Crosby, responsible for a game-deciding natural hat trick, said “everything is bouncing wacky out there.”

Coach Mike Sullivan used the word “opportunistic” in reference to the Senators’ goals.

Patric Hornqvist mentioned the always popular “puck luck.”

Watch the clips of the goals below. I suspect most people would find the Penguins’ descriptions fair.

https://twitter.com/Senators/status/694692825884184576

No one among the Penguins viewed the win as anything other than a lopsided affair with a deceptively close score, though. Sullivan, Marc-Andre Fleury and Hornqvist each mentioned puck possession while explaining their reasoning, and hockeystats.ca’s Corsi chart certainly confirmed their theories.

Pens vs Sens final Corsi chartPens vs Sens final shot location

 

Here’s a different way to slice possession, as portrayed by chart wizard Sean Tierney.

If there’s a legitimate negative for the Penguins to take from this game, it’s that they’re unsure about Eric Fehr’s status. Sullivan only confirmed Fehr’s “lower-body injury” after the game and offered no further details or outlook.

Take a glance at the Penguins’ Corsi Against per 60 minutes leaders, courtesy of stats.hockeyanalysis.com. Fehr might not bring much to the Penguins’ offense, but he’s a big reason the team has seen such a significant drop in opponents’ shot attempt totals under Sullivan.

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February 2, 2016
by Bill West


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Ottawa pregame

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Tonight marks the start of the Penguins’ post-All-Star march toward a potential playoff berth. If you want some big-picture thoughts on what lies ahead, read what we put in today’s newspaper.

Little in the way of news emerged out of Penguins’ morning skate in advance of this matchup with Ottawa, which is a positive for the team. Kris Letang and Chris Kunitz practiced, giving the Penguins arguably their most complete collection of skaters at a practice since mid-January. Nick Bonino, Beau Bennett and David Warsofsky remained out of action, but I’d argue they are less essential pieces of the puzzle than Kunitz and Letang.

Assuming Kunitz, still described as a “game-time decision”  by coach Mike Sullivan, lands in the lineup, the Penguins will host the Senators with no shortage of winger options. The top three lines at Tuesday’s morning skate remained the same as they have been for a couple weeks, while Scott Wilson, Sergei Plotnikov and Conor Sheary each worked into winger rotation.

With their winger corps regaining its depth, the Penguins are poised to sustain if not increase their NHL-best five-on-five shots-for per 60 minutes rate of 31.8 tonight. They’re not likely to face much resistance on that front from Ottawa, which is last in the league in five-on-five shots-against per 60 minutes (31.6), according to Puckalytics.com.

In their only previous meeting of the season, the Penguins topped the Senators, 2-0, at Consol Energy Center. That win ended the Penguins’ season-opening three-game losing streak and ultimately served as one of the high points of Mike Johnston’s portion of the 2015-16. As the chart below shows, even at five-on-five play, the Penguins put together a rare performance where they dictated possession under their former coach.

Pens vs Ott Oct 15

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February 1, 2016
by Jonathan Bombulie


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Back to reality

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After the Metropolitan Division lost 4-3 to the Atlantic in the first game of the three-game All-Star tournament today in Nashville, Penguins representatives Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin were released from their All-Star obligations.

Both seemed to enjoy their time in the town nicknamed Nash Vegas, and it’s not hard to see why. It requires no social skills to wander down Broadway in this town and have a good time. Honkytonks, BBQ emporiums and hot chicken joints as far as the eye can see.

But both also seemed genuinely excited to return to Pittsburgh to start the second half of the season.

“We understand how important the second (half) is because we didn’t play good in the first (half),” Malkin said. “A little bit of change and we started to play better. Of course I want to play in the playoffs. I believe in the team. I believe in everyone in the locker room. We started to play better. I know we’ll make the playoffs.”

Since Dec. 21, the night of Mike Sullivan’s first win behind the bench, the Penguins are first in the league in shots per game (33.6), first in power-play goals/60 (11.7), third in goal differential (plus-13), third in scoring chances per game (33.6) and fifth in Corsi For percentage (53.8). I could go on and on.

Individually, Malkin has 17 points in his last 13 games, Letang has 17 points in his last 11., and Sidney Crosby has 11 goals and 11 assists in his last 17.

“Really excited,” Letang said. “We have a good group of guys. We’ve been playing a lot better. We have a great goaltender. Sid is playing unbelieveable. He’s playing really well. Geno too. We have a lot more structure.”

The Penguins are going to need more than a positive attitude to extricate themselves from the scrum of 11 teams within nine points of the last six playoff spots in the Eastern Conference, of course, but compared to the “mad at each other” night in New Jersey about two months ago, it’s a pretty remarkable turnaround already.

x x x

One quick note to wrap up the All-Star experience in Nashville. The star of this show, with all due respect to Jaromir Jagr, was obviously John Scott.

This situation could have been a disaster.

Scott was voted into the game thanks to a campaign based on nothing but snark. Scott’s article in The Players Tribune showed the Coyotes and the NHL in a terrible light.

But Scott was as affable and engaging as an athlete can be throughout this whole process. The players rallied around him. The fans made him a cult hero. His kids are adorable. His wife is charming. The glee he showed when he scored two goals and won a 2016 Honda as game MVP was heart-warming.

Against all odds, it turned out to be a great day for hockey.

“You can’t write this stuff,” Scott said. “It’s unbelievable how it happened.”

x x x

Bill West has you covered as I make my way back from Nashville and then head out to Florida for next weekend’s two-game road swing. A reminder that he’s @BWest_Trib on Twitter.

Bye for now,

jb

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