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January 2, 2015
by Josh Yohe


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Which defensemen should the Penguins trade?

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Greetings, hockey fans. Happy New Year! Hope your celebrations were fun and safe.

You know what isn’t fun or safe? Being Jim Rutherford in the next couple of months. There is a lot of pressure on GMJR to deliver a couple of impact wingers before the trade deadline. It is widely assumed by the fan base that trading a couple of defensemen is the simple solution to acquiring forwards. This makes perfect sense to me.

However, we must take into account the salary cap situation, some injury issues that could disrupt Rutherford’s plans and the reality that the Penguins don’t want to trade away all of their young players.

I’ve ranked the organization’s top 10 defensemen. Here’s a look at where each stands, who is a candidate to be traded, and some other nuggets.

No. 1 Kris Letang

 

He’s having arguably his finest season and is a legitimate star. Letang isn’t going anywhere, of course. For the Penguins to compete for a championship, Letang needs to stay healthy and play even better, particularly on the power play. He’s in his prime and looks terrific.

 

No. 2 Paul Martin

 

Assessing Martin’s season has been difficult. He’s been perfectly fine, though I don’t think he’s played at last season’s level. Granted, that would be difficult. Martin was arguably the Penguins’ best player in the 2014 postseason. It was just an awesome performance. He hasn’t been bad this year, but I feel like his level of play has slipped slightly. That said, Martin and Letang are so good together. It will be tempting to keep Martin through the season simply to let those two play together for the duration. That said, Martin is an unrestricted free agent this summer and seems quite unlikely to return to the Penguins. Will they trade him? Perhaps, though I’d be careful. If you’re going to trade a player of Martin’s caliber, you better be getting a big return. Still, it remains very possible.

 

No. 3 Christian Ehrhoff

 

I didn’t like his game in October. Or maybe I just needed a month to fully appreciate Christian Ehrhoff. What a good player. He’s very economical with the puck, makes excellent decisions, owns a booming shot and remains, at 32, an above average skater. He isn’t the least bit physical and isn’t what I’d consider a shutdown guy. Interestingly, the Penguins haven’t displayed any interest in putting him on their top power play. I don’t see the Penguins trading Ehrhoff, even though you could receive something decent in return. GM Jim Rutherford really, really likes this guy. It’s more likely he receives an extension or walks this summer. A trade is unlikely. He’s just an unassuming, quality top-four defenseman. Those guys don’t grow on trees.

 

No. 4 Olli Maatta

 

Here’s where things get interesting. Will Maatta be healthy for the second half of the season and the playoffs? You tell me. Maatta visited one doctor and was told he needed surgery to repair his balky shoulder and that his season could be finished. So, he sought a second opinion and was told that he merely required a month of rehabilitation. I’ll respect the doctor’s opinion here. I’m no doctor, after all. But it sounds like the kind of injury that could linger. Maatta has been through so much already this year, it really wouldn’t be fair for him to sustain another shoulder surgery. Still, it’s impossible to predict how his shoulder will respond and whether he can play top-four minutes in the playoffs. He could find himself as Letang’s defense partner if he is healthy, especially if Martin is moved. I can’t imagine the Penguins trading him, certainly not now, as his health has become an issue because of the shoulder problem.

 

No. 5 Simon Despres

 

How about this guy? Simon Despres has suddenly given the Penguins a ton of flexibility. Is he a top-four defenseman? Yes, yes he is. Despres has been magnificent all season, a physical force who still possesses plenty of untapped offensive ability. You can see the offense methodically starting to come in Despres’ game. The physical play has been stunning. He’s a beast. And he’s also a fine puck-moving player, the kind of guy who usually makes a good first pass. There isn’t much to dislike here. Despres isn’t perfect – he has a bizarre habit of falling down for no reason and does occasionally make glaring mistakes – but he’s been really, really good. I believe Despres’ emergence allows the Penguins to trade someone like Martin, should they choose to. I wouldn’t have said that three months ago. But Despres is a different player now. Would I trade Despres? Heck no. You’ve got him for cheap this season and next. Take advantage of it.

 

No. 6 Rob Scuderi

 

The advanced stats community isn’t a big Scuderi fan, and it’s no secret that the 2013-14 campaign was a total disaster for the veteran. But give Scuderi credit. He has been much better this season and has been a fine defense partner for the developing Despres. In fact, Scuderi has been good enough this season that I suspect the Penguins could trade him to get rid of his contract. But perhaps they don’t want to. With the possibility that the Penguins could lose Martin and Ehrhoff this summer, the Penguins could be extremely young on the blue line next season. Yes, the young guys are great talents. But keeping one veteran around isn’t a bad idea. And like I said, this guy is playing much better this season.

 

No. 7 Robert Bortuzzo

 

I’m a Bortuzzo fan. He’s perfect solid. If he’s your No. 6 defenseman, you’re doing fine. He works relatively cheap and wouldn’t fetch a huge return in a trade, so I don’t know that dealing him makes sense, unless he’s part of a package deal. He’s one of those guys who just needs to stay healthy and play every night. He’ll keep getting better. He’s never going to be a star, but he should have a perfectly long NHL career.

 

No. 8 Derrick Pouliot

 

What a talent. I’ve talked with about 10 different people in the organization regarding Pouliot in the last two weeks. Everybody is smitten with this kid. Everyone. People in the front office, Penguins coaching staff and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton coaching staff all think he is going to be a star. By all accounts, drafting him with the No. 8 pick in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft was a wise move by the Penguins. Is there a chance Pouliot could be traded? Well, sure. If the Penguins intend on making a blockbuster trade in the next few months – we know they’re going to be active, just not to what extent – Pouliot’s name will pop up. He’s by far their best prospect. Most believe he is a can’t miss, future NHL all-star defenseman. Those guys don’t come around often. Pouliot isn’t untouchable. For the right deal, the Penguins would consider trading him. But the only way the Penguins would trade Pouliot is if they receive an overwhelming offer. They don’t want to trade this kid and the odds of them doing so are small. I suspect he’ll be back in Wilkes-Barre soon, and that’s fine. Look at the depth chart and the number of impending free agents next summer. Starting in October, Pouliot will have played his final AHL game. Heck, if a couple of guys are traded away or injured during the rest of this season, Pouliot could be in Pittsburgh to stay. He’s not a great defensive player, but he’s an offensive wizard. The likes of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin thoroughly enjoy playing with him, and you can see why.

 

No. 9 Scott Harrington

 

He’s going to be a very, very solid NHL defenseman. You can just tell. Harrington doesn’t possess Brian Dumoulin’s size, and probably isn’t as slick a skater. But the organization likes him a lot. Harrington has wonderful defensive instincts and is remarkably comfortable in his own skin. He knows he’s a defensive defenseman, albeit one with perfectly decent puck skills, and he’s OK with that. Harrington projects as a Rob Scuderi type, but will be much better with the puck and is a better skater. Is he going to be a top-four guy? Yeah, I think so. Worst case scenario, Harrington turns into a very reliable No. 5 or No. 6 guy. Nothing wrong with that. But I think he’ll be even better. Is he attractive trade bait for other teams? Absolutely. Do the Penguins want to part ways with him? Absolutely not. He isn’t untouchable, but the return would have to be significant.

 

No. 10 Brian Dumoulin

 

The Penguins still view him as a very attractive prospect, even though his miserable night at Madison Square Garden last month was somewhat memorable. This guy doesn’t project as a star, but he definitely is an NHL-ready player who simply needs to see more game action. Will the Penguins trade him? It certainly wouldn’t surprise me. They like him, but they like Harrington more. I don’t know that Dumoulin could fetch a significant return, but he could be part of a package. Of course, if they want to keep him, there’s nothing wrong with that. He’ll be a solid enough pro.

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January 1, 2015
by Jason Mackey


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Postgame: Penguins 2, Hurricanes 1

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A game story off of Wednesday’s 2-1 win over the Carolina Hurricanes could have gone a thousand different ways.

Maybe two thousand.

I chose Beau Bennett. I wrote about the Penguins winger, and what a healthy Bennett could mean for this
team.

Spoiler: good things.

They need scoring punch. Their goals per game in December dropped 1.38 from the first 23 games of the season. Their power play is struggling, with three goals in 51 chances over the past 16 games.

Bennett — and the second power play unit — provided the most push with the man-advantage all night. His line with Brandon Sutter and Chris Kunitz created both Penguins goals.

“I thought that line had a very good game,” coach Mike Johnston said after. “They had some great chances. They were responsible.

“Beau Bennett was a help. Beau Bennett and Sutter were a good combination, and I think Kunitz topped it off there.”

You can read the game story for Bennett.

Here are a few other nuggets.

—Defenseman Christian Ehrhoff and forward Craig Adams returned and played great. Ehrhoff was especially solid, I thought.

“I felt pretty good,” Ehrhoff said. “A couple of times I wish I had quicker feet. But that’s normal after being out for two weeks. But I felt good.”

I could have just as easily taken the game story a different route and focused on Marc-Andre Fleury. He was simply spectacular. He denied Jiri Tlusty and also Jay McClement in impressive fashion to help the Penguins snap a four-game losing skid.

“It seems forever since we got a win, you know?,” Fleury said. “Great feeling. We’re home. It was a tough battle and a close game until the end. We’re happy to see Sutter score a big goal.”

Fleury stopped 23 of 24 shots.

Johnston wanted to limit Sutter’s minutes late and used Andrew Ebbett on four shifts — Johnston’s estimate — between Bennett and Kunitz. Ebbett won a key faceoff and got a secondary assist on Kunitz’s goal.

The Penguins (23-9-5) avoided losing back-to-back home games for the first time all season and improved to 7-2 in their past nine home games against Carolina, 10-3 overall in their past 13 against the Hurricanes (10-23-4).

The Penguins racked up 71 shot attempts compared to only 46 for Carolina and held a 39-25 advantage in shots on goal.

Sutter recorded the game-winner when he whipped a puck past Cam Ward blocker side at 18:18 of the third period.

“On the goal, I called for it,” Sutter said, “and (Bennett) put it right on my tape.”

The Penguins also got a key penalty kill — on a Kunitz slashing minor at 6:33 of the third.

All told, it was a much-needed way to open 2015.

Club practices tomorrow at noon. Talk to you then. Happy New Year everyone.

Be GRATEFUL to each other,

Mackey

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December 31, 2014
by Jason Mackey


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Pregame: Penguins vs. Hurricanes, 7 p.m.

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The Penguins need offense, preferably from their power play. They’ve scored 11 goals over their past six games. They haven’t scored more than four in a game during that stretch, which dates back to Dec. 15 against Tampa Bay.

Yet, they have just nine regulation losses, tied for second-fewest in the NHL.

Pretty impressive stuff, but not a statistic that will hold, especially if the power play doesn’t start converting.

I loved coach Mike Johnston’s answer to Phil Bourque’s question about simplifying the power play. Just outstanding, and I will post it below. No introduction necessary.

“Since I came into the NHL in 1999-2000, I’ve always worked with the power play on each of the teams I’ve been with as assistant coach or associate coach. The key thing for all power plays … it was the same when you played, the same over time, is what do you need for a good power play?

“You need to generate shots from the point. You need a good net guy. Those are the two key ingredients. In the last little while, we haven’t done that as well. To execute well and create seams and those types of opportunities, you need a good point shot. You need good net traffic.

“I still think with our power play, the biggest issue we’ve had over the past month has been personnel changes. It’s been one player after another, whether it’s been Sid out, Hornqvist out, Kunitz out and Letang out, we’ve had everybody off that power play to a degree, and it’s really changed the dynamic of that group. They haven’t been in sync.

“I liked the first step; the entries last game were great. Now I maybe have to resort to getting more point shots. Then now we make the play off the point shot. Those seams will start to open up.

“Power plays are always under the microscope at the NHL level because it’s an easy stat. Power play and penalty kill are easy stats. Early in the year, for the first 15 games, our power play was phenomenal. Our penalty kill, for the first five, was awful. Then we’ve evened it out through the middle portion. Now our power play has been struggling.

“But it is an easy thing, and it’s like scorers. Why aren’t guys scoring? Well, it’s a feel. It’s a confidence thing. Good scorers have that, and right now our power play just doesn’t have that. They’re going to get it. They’re very good players. Do we have to add a little bit more structure to it? Yes. But I believe we had structure before as well.”

Carolina, which topped the Penguins here for one of their four road wins, does present a decent challenge, even though former Penguin Jordan Staal is questionable for the game.

Jeff Skinner, Jiri Tlusty and Eric Staal are all legitimate threats, and Johnston noted as much this morning.

“They’re forward depth is good,” Johnston said. “I like their top three lines. They have a good balance of scoring on those three lines. The game we played against them here, we allowed them some time and space, a lot of shots against us, especially in the first and second periods.

“When we went down there, I thought we were better at eliminating time and space for their forwards. Adding Jordan Staal to their group tonight is a big plus. With both Staals and (Nathan) Gerbe on that line, that was a very dynamic line.

“Recognizing where their strengths are, where their weaknesses are, that’s what we have to do tonight. Also, I think, now that we’re hopefully getting some bodies back, we need to play our game and really start to refocus on our game and make sure our habits and our details are really good.”

News out of the skate: Defensemen Olli Maatta and Paul Martin skated early, as did forwards Steve Downie and Zach Sill. … Expect forwards Beau Bennett and Craig Adams, as well as defenseman Christian Ehrhoff to play. … No Downie, Maatta, Martin or Sill. … Skate was optional, and Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Chris Kunitz, Marcel Goc, Kris Letang and Rob Scuderi took the option.

TV/Radio: Root Sports/105.9 FM

About the Hurricanes: Carolina has 24 points, the fewest in the Eastern Conference and the second-fewest in the entire league behind Edmonton (23). … In 13 December games, the Hurricanes have 13 goals. … Jordan Staal returned from a 35-game absence and made his season debut Monday against Montreal. Staal, a former Penguin, fractured his right fibula during a preseason game Sept. 23 against Buffalo. He centered a line with his brother, Eric, and  Gerbe then eventually Elias Lindholm. Jordan Staal played 19 minutes over 26 shifts and finished with three hits, two shots and was 15-10 on faceoffs. … Tlusty, who leads the Hurricanes with 10 goals, returned Monday after a seven-game absence and played on a third line with Victor Rask and Chris Terry. … Alexander Semin is out with an upper-body injury, though he was cleared to practice Tuesday. … Carolina ranks next-to-last in goals per game at 1.97.

The series: The Penguins are hoping to avoid losing back-to-back home games for the first time all season. … They’re 6-2 in their last eight home games against Carolina. … Overall, the Penguins have won nine of their last 12 meetings with the Hurricanes. … Carolina has four road wins this year, but one of them came here on Nov. 28. Tlusty had a pair of goals, while Gerbe and Patric Dwyer also tallied. The Hurricanes outshot the Penguins, 35-22.

Next up: Friday vs. Tampa Bay, 7 p.m.

Links:
The Trib’s Penguins page
The Penguins’ gameday page
The Hurricanes’ gameday page
NHL.com’s preview and box score

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December 31, 2014
by Jason Mackey


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More on Paul Martin’s return

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The Penguins hope to get a solid infusion of players back Wednesday. There’s a solid chance forwards Beau Bennett and Craig Adams, defenseman Christian Ehrhoff and goaltender Thomas Greiss could all be back after missing multiple games.

By the weekend, defenseman Paul Martin should be back, too. Or at least he hopes so. It was an undisclosed injury keeping Martin out.

“I think I can, but I’m pretty sure I’m not playing (Wednesday),” Martin said Tuesday after practice at Southpointe. “I’d like to play by the weekend. Looking ahead, we don’t play until (next) Wednesday (against Boston). It feels better every day. As it continues to get better and feel better on the ice, I think it’s going to short; not too long.”

The Penguins, winless in their past four, need a lot of things, but they really need Martin. He’s a solid defender with maybe the best stick skills on the team. He leads them in blocked shots with 58. He’s a mainstay on the second power play, could play on the top unit and not look out of place and leads the Penguins in shorthanded ice time per game at 3:13.

The key, Martin insisted, is not pushing. He wants to come back at full strength with an eye toward the rest of the season.

“I want to get out there as soon as I can and chip in and help as soon as I can,” Martin said. “But the closer I come back to 100 percent, the more it will help down the stretch.”

Martin and Ehrhoff both talked today about how difficult it’s been to sit out. Martin didn’t take contact. Ehrhoff did. Martin, who has one goal and six assists in 31 games, said watching the team struggle and not being able to do anything about it was definitely all the incentive he needed to get back in there.

“When you’re out for awhile and watching it on TV, you’re skating by yourself with (strength and conditioning coach Mike Kadar), I think it gives you that incentive to start feeling better and want to be out there with the guys.”

As I wrote about for Wednesday’s paper, there was a good vibe at Southpointe today. Guys are excited to get teammates back. There was energy usually not seen around a team that has lost four in a row.

“It was great today,” coach Mike Johnston said. “In the dressing room for the first time, when we have our meetings in the morning, usually the injured guys are on the ice. We had a lot more players in. We had a lot more guys in practice. Even ‘Marty’ was out there today in practice, which was a good sign.

“Hopefully he will be getting closer to play. It’s a big boost to be able to get some guys back in our lineup, for sure.”

Morning skate tomorrow at 10:30. Talk to you from there.

Be GRATEFUL to each other,

Mackey

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December 29, 2014
by Jason Mackey


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Saturday’s game tough to move

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One thing I’ve been cautioned on this job is never say never. Whether it’s a trade involving Derrick Pouliot or this Saturday’s home game against Montreal, it’s important to remember that anything is possible.

Considering Pouliot is now on the Penguins’ No. 1 power play, we’ll address Saturday’s game instead.

Don’t expect the time to be moved given the fact the Steelers have a home playoff game against the Ravens at 8:15 p.m.

For one, both hockey teams play Friday, the Penguins at home against the Lightning, the Canadiens at New Jersey.

By NHL rules, the visiting team can agree to move the game at the home team’s request. But considering there are back-to-backs for both teams, there’s only two hours of play; the earliest the game could start is 5 p.m.

Also remember that Montreal is in Canada, and this game will be the centerpiece of Hockey Night in Canada. It would be like us moving Monday Night Football. It could happen, but it’s not likely. I don’t see Montreal agreeing to it, TV rights and priorities aside.

Oh, and Sidney Crosby is kind of popular in Canada, in case you’re curious.

Plus, what would shifting it to 5 p.m. really do? Yinz would be leaving, as the Steelers crowd was coming. Maybe it allows for fans to get from one to the other, but I think we’re going to be stuck with a crowded Downtown scene Saturday.

Be GRATEFUL to each other,

Mackey

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December 20, 2014
by Jason Mackey


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Pregame: Penguins vs. Panthers, 7 p.m.

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What is it about this time of year?

As I wrote for today’s paper, the Penguins, from Dec. 16-23 of last year, relied on a group of young defensemen.

They will again, hence the story. Even younger, too, given the news Saturday that they called up Derrick Pouliot, their 2012 first-round who will make his NHL debut tonight. Pouliot had 7-13–20 in 23 games with the WBS Penguins.

Christian Ehrhoff is out for at least three games. Paul Martin is out tonight and maybe the next two. Robert Bortuzzo skated on his own prior to the gameday Saturday and probably won’t play before Christmas.

The Penguins now have four defenseman who are 23 years old or younger in Brian Dumoulin (23), Simon Despres (23), Scott Harrington (21) and Pouliot (20).

Coach Mike Johnston knows Pouliot better than any of us, having coached him in Portland. Johnston approached Pouliot following the gameday skate to tell him to get some rest – he left after Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s game last night and arrived here in the middle of the night – and that he’d be playing with Rob Scuderi.

“It was a late night,” Pouliot said. “It was unexpected. It just happens. It’s very exciting. Very happy to be here.”

Pouliot spent time on the No. 2 power play this morning and figures to log quite a few minutes tonight. That was not the plan. The plan was to let him develop, but a blue line ravaged by injuries has changed the plan.

“With Derrick not participating in training camp, the idea was to leave him down there, let him play, let him experience playing a lot of minutes, playing on the power play,” Johnston said of Pouliot, who missed training camp after offseason shoulder surgery. “The same with Harrington, the same with Dumoulin.

“We were fortunate we were able to do that. Now we’re in a position where we have to call them up.”

More good news comes in the form of forward Chris Kunitz tonight. He will return, giving the Penguins an intact top power play unit for the first time since Nov. 28, the game where defenseman Kris Letang hurt his groin. They’re 2 for 29 in the 10 contests since.

“We need to bring it back to what it was at the beginning of the year,” Kunitz said of the power play. “Have a bunch of urgency with scoring goals at timely situations.”

It will also be interesting to see how Johnston configures his top six. Does he play Kunitz with captain Sidney Crosby and right wing Patrick Hornqvist? Does Brandon Sutter stay at center with Evgeni Malkin and Blake Comeau?

With Craig Adams out – his 319-game streak no more – the final roster decision likely comes down to Andrew Ebbett or Bobby Farnham. I think Bryan Rust has done enough to warrant a spot, and I’d maybe try him with Malkin to see what happens.

That could bump Sutter to the third line between Nick Spaling and Steve Downie – those three, remember, were excellent before Beau Bennett came back – and play Marcel Goc with Rust and Farnham.

We shall see.

In the meantime, be GRATEFUL to each other,

Mackey

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December 19, 2014
by Jason Mackey


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Postgame ramblings: 1-0 over Colorado

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The game plan was to generate second- and third-chance opportunities against Colorado goaltender Calvin Pickard, a rookie playing his 11th NHL game.

The Penguins followed the game plan perfectly and wound up with a season-high 48 shots on goal. Only one small problem: They couldn’t get one to go in; only No. 48 found its way through.

That was when defenseman Rob Scuderi took a shot from the left point, Evgeni Malkin tipped the puck, and Blake Comeau swatted home the rebound for his 11th goal of the season, his 10th at home, at 2:24 of overtime.

It’s been a rejuvenating season for Comeau, who was acquired in the offseason via free agency after two down years with Columbus.

“We had lots of chances, lots of pucks around the net,” Comeau said. “It just seemed like we couldn’t get any. It was definitely a nice feeling to get that one.”

Some numbers to pass along:

>>Scuderi has three assists over his past five games. Dead serious there.

>>Malkin’s assist extended his scoring streak to six games, his third of that length this season. He has points in 26 of the Penguins’ 31 games (84 percent).

>>Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury is earning a shutout once every four times out – six shutouts in 24 starts. If he makes 60 starts this season, Fleury would have 15 shutouts. Obviously the pace is insane, but that’s how good he’s been playing.

I asked coach Mike Johnston what’s up with Fleury that he has six shutouts through 31 of his team’s games. The answer was kind of not good yet still kind of funny.

“I don’t really know other than that he’s a really good goaltender,” Johnston said.

>>Johnston talked more in depth about why he likes forward Bryan Rust so much, and I thought the answer was interesting. Think back to the one-timer from the slot off a feed from Andrew Ebbett Monday against Tampa Bay.

“I really like his stick,” Johnston said. “I think he has a very good stick. What I mean by that is when the puck is on his stick, he can make a play quickly. He can get a shot away quickly, as you saw him score the goal.”

Johnston admitted he was trying Rust with better players – he’s seen shifts with Malkin and Sidney Crosby the past two games – to gauge his offensive upside, which Johnston views to be considerably high.

“I’m trying to put him with some players who can make plays, to see where he can get to,” Johnston said. “Tonight in overtime, I put him out there, and I really thought he helped create that goal. He made the hit in the corner, kept the puck alive in the zone, made the change – Geno got on – then Geno and Comeau got the goal together.”

I wrote Fleury for Friday’s paper, but I just as easily could have written Comeau, the Offseason Acquisition of the Millennium. His 11 goals are as many as he had the previous three years combined.

He’s become a regular with Malkin, a role that I wouldn’t change when the Penguins start to get reinforcements back healthy or a trade is made.

“I feel like I’ve got a lot of confidence back this year to go make plays,” Comeau said. “Obviously there’s going to be mistakes made, but I don’t feel like if I make one mistake the opportunity is going to be taken away.”

Club practices at 11:30 a.m. Friday at Consol Energy Center. Be GRATEFUL to each other.

Mackey

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December 18, 2014
by Jason Mackey


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Pregame: Penguins vs. Avalanche, 7 p.m.

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Few people know much of anything about Colorado Avalanche goaltender Calvin Pickard, who’s 10 games into his NHL career.

Penguins coach Mike Johnston is one of them.

Johnston coached against Pickard in the Western Hockey League from 2008-09 through 2011-12, the former as head coach of the Portland Winterhawks, the latter the backstop of the Seattle Thunderbirds.

They saw each other a lot, too. Sometimes 12 times a season, Johnston said following Thursday’s gameday skate at Consol Energy Center.

“He was a reason the team had a chance most nights,” Johnston said of Pickard. “They were in a rebuilding phase, and he was outstanding.”

Peppering the opposing goaltender with shots is always part of the Penguins’ plan, although they haven’t done it as much of late; they’ve reached 35 shots – Johnston’s admitted goal – twice in the past 14 contests.

Doing so for a third time in 15 would be wise tonight, Johnson said.

“He’s a very good goaltender,” Johnston said. “He’s a very good first shot goaltender. You have to move him side-to-side. Like any other goaltender, you’ve got to hunt down rebounds.”

Why Colorado has the third-fewest points in the Western Conference is a bit of a mystery to me, other than the fact that the Avalanche have lost 162 man-games to injury. (The Penguins, even with all the drama lately, have lost 83.)

Colorado’s top line, starting last Thursday, has been switched to Matt Duchene between Jarome Iginla and Alex Tanguay. The second line is Gabe Landeskog between Nathan MacKinnon and Ryan O’Reilly.

Those guys, as you will note, don’t stink.

“Their first two lines are really solid,” goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury said. “They have a lot of skill and speed. Their goalie has been playing well. It’s going to be a good challenge for us.”

News out of the skate: Fleury returned, and his test for mumps came back negative. He’ll start tonight. … Thomas Greiss, meanwhile, is being tested for mumps and is in isolation. … Captain Sidney Crosby returned and skated with the team for the first time since he missed last Friday’s home game against Calgary. He’s a game-time decision. … Mumps test results on defensemen Robert Bortuzzo and Olli Maatta aren’t back yet. Ditto for results the second opinion the Penguins got on Maatta’s shoulder. Or at least they haven’t felt like sharing them. … Chris Kunitz skated today with teammates, but he still needs to take contact before returning. … Defenseman Scott Harrington will make his NHL debut and replace Brian Dumoulin in the lineup tonight.

TV/Radio: Root Sports/105.9 FM

About the Avalanche: They’ve been off since Saturday, when they suffered a 3-2 overtime loss at home to St. Louis. T.J. Oshie scored in overtime. … Defenseman Brad Stuart will appear in his 1,000th game. He will become the 293rd player in NHL history to reach that milestone and the 100th defenseman. … Pickard was recalled from Lake Erie of the AHL on Dec. 9 and has started the last three games and six of the past eight. … Duchene and defenseman Tyson Barrie lead with 20 points. … Colorado is 3-4 over its past seven road games. … Colorado is allowing 3.20 goals per game, the third-worst mark in the league.

The series: The Penguins have won five of the last six meetings with the Avalanche, including three of the last four games played here in Pittsburgh. During the past six meetings, Penguins have outscored Colorado, 20-10. … The road team won both meetings last season.

Next up: Penguins vs. Panthers, Saturday, 7 p.m.

Links:
The Trib’s Penguins page
The Penguins’ gameday page
The Avalanche’s gameday page
NHL.com’s preview and box score

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December 16, 2014
by Jason Mackey


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Mackey: Leftovers from Monday’s win

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The Penguins’ first period against the Lightning Monday was not their best.

Far from it, actually.

Yet they hung around, and a lot of credit goes to goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. His save, the one where he used his left armpit to rob Alex Killorn, was simply fantastic. He stopped Killorn again early in the second on a breakaway, another key stop that he used his left leg pad for.

“We hung in there in the early stages, and we responded well,” forward Steve Downie said. “Flower showed up tonight and won the game for us.

“He made some incredible saves out there. He kept us in it early and gave us a chance to win.”

The Lightning outshot the Penguins, 12-5, in the first. It felt every bit that lopsided.

It took a beautiful shorthanded goal from center Brandon Sutter at 19:09 to snap the Penguins out of their funk; won a foot race to a loose puck and ripped a shot that ricocheted off of the knob of Tampa Bay goaltender Ben Bishop’s stick.

It’s the Penguins’ second shortie in as many games, and it came from a guy who has been as important as any to the Penguins’ success despite a boatload of injuries.

The rub around the league is that Sutter is a third-line center. He’s not. He has proven this season that he’s every bit capable of a top-six role, and his does it with his usual, steady style.

Win faceoffs. Play defense. Use your wingers. Sutter also plays plenty on special teams.

“I thought early in camp you could see right away that he can play as a second line center,” Penguins coach Mike Johnston said. “He can play as a top line center. He’s a guy who coaches trust because he plays the right way all the time.”

Johnston also matched Sutter, Nick Spaling and Patric Hornqvist against Tampa Bay’s top line of Steven Stamkos, Ryan Callahan and Valtteri Filppula. The final tally: Filppula contributed one assist.

“I thought the team responded well to it,” Johnston said. “Sutter responded well to it. He’s not afraid to play that shutdown role, but I’ll bet you tonight he had three really good scoring chances as well.”

The Penguins have played three games in four nights. They won two of them and lost a third in the shootout, some fine work despite a slew of injuries and a localization of the mumps scare.

Plenty to be proud of, Johnston said.

“We knew it was going to be a tough three in four nights,” Johnston said. “The guys need a day off (Tuesday). Then we’ll hopefully not have any more occurrences of the mumps, and we can get that quieted down and start to get some people back.”

Be GRATEFUL to each other,

Mackey

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December 15, 2014
by Jason Mackey


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Pregame: Penguins vs. Lightning, 7 p.m.

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For much of the season, the Penguins have been the preeminent offensive team in the NHL.

That’s not the case anymore.

And the team directly above them in goals per game – Tampa Bay – visits Consol Energy Center on Monday night.

“They’re a puck-possession team,” coach Mike Johnston said. “They’re a team that can really attack with numbers. Obviously they have some dynamic players. “We’ve got to be careful of space tonight and how we handled pucks.”

The Lightning average 3.36 goals per game, while the Penguins are at 3.17.

They will probably be cognizant of center Steven Stamkos as well. Stamkos ranks third in the league with 17 goals, and his 34 points are the fifth-most. Right wing Ryan Callahan, Stamkos’ linemate, has 11 goals and 23 points.

“(Stamkos) has a great shot, one of the better ones in the game,” Penguins defenseman Paul Martin said. “You have to take away his time and space. It will take everyone to make sure we know where he is on the ice at all times.”

The Penguins have won nine straight against the Lightning, the longest winning streak in the history of the series. They’ve also won seven in a row against Tampa Bay here in Pittsburgh.

The Penguins’ power play hit a rough patch and needs to find some sort of momentum; Pittsburgh is 4 for 39 over its past 16 games with the man-advantage.

News out of the skate

General manager Jim Rutherford spoke and said they believe captain Sidney Crosby is no longer contagious. … Also, forward Beau Bennett could have mumps. He’s been tested, and the results are due back Tuesday. Separate story on that stuff here, which also includes the fact that Bennett was among the group to visit Children’s Hospital. … Chris Kunitz skated with fellow forward Pascal Dupuis and strength and conditioning coach Mike Kadar this morning. Johnston said he was hopeful Kunitz could practice later in the week. … No defenseman Olli Maatta, of course, who’s getting an opinion on his surgically repaired right shoulder today. … Defenseman Robert Bortuzzo is out tonight and day-to-day with an upper-body injury. … Defenseman Brian Dumoulin, and not defenseman Scott Harrington, will play tonight against the Lightning.

Be GRATEFUL to each other,

Mackey

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