NHL Weekend Takeaways: Crosby, Penguins can't stop winning

Pittsburgh Penguins forward Sidney Crosby (87) lines up for a faceoff during the second period of an NHL hockey game against the Buffalo Sabres, Saturday, March 13, 2021, in Buffalo, N.Y. (Jeffrey T. Barnes/AP)

Despite their long-standing place near the top of the NHL landscape, it’s probably a bit too severe to stick the Pittsburgh Penguins with the “greybeards” tag. After all, the face of the franchise is still sometimes referred to as “Sid the Kid,” a nickname that continues to kind of work for Sidney Crosby at age 33.

The fitting facial hair analogy for the Pens might be that they’re a now a salt-and-pepper club, one that is benefiting from a sprinkle of new contributors who are nicely complimenting the famous core.

Pittsburgh downed the Buffalo Sabres 3-0 on Saturday night in a game that was 1-0 until Crosby and Mark Jankowski deposited empty-netters to seal the deal. The result marked the Penguins’ fifth straight victory as they continue the no-nonsense business of trying to secure a playoff spot in the NHL’s Group of Death, otherwise known as the (MassMutual) East Division. The Penguins are third in the East by both points and points percentage, thanks largely to the fact Pittsburgh is now 12-4-0 in its past 16 outings.

Those games actually account for the entire time Brian Burke and Ron Hextall — both hired on Feb. 9, the former as president of hockey operations, the latter as general manager — have been in charge of the club. Obviously they haven’t had time to mark up the squad with their fingerprints, but their predecessor left them a little present that’s starting to pay off.

In his last off-season with the Penguins, former GM Jim Rutherford — whose surprise decision to step away from the club paved the way for Burke and Hextall to come aboard — obtained Kasperi Kapanen from the Toronto Maple Leafs in a deal that left most people lauding the Leafs for landing a first-round pick in the swap. Immigration issues complicated by COVID-19 delayed Kapanen’s Penguins debut and he was forced to miss the team’s initial three games out of the gate. He registered assists in his first two contests, though, and has really been proving his worth of late, going 5-6-11 in his past 11 while skating to the right of Evgeni Malkin.

Speaking of Malkin, he drew the primary assist on Jake Guentzel’s game-winner against the Sabres and the guy who can become a UFA in 2022 and always seems to see his name in summertime trade rumours is presently riding a seven-game point streak. Crosby — who endured a short stint on the league’s COVID protocol list last week — is doing his point-per-game thing; Kris Letang is among the league leaders in terms of scoring by defencemen over the past month and Guentzel is tied with Crosby for the team lead at 10 goals. Bryan Rust, who plays beside those two guys, has nine.

Though goalies Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith are not actually new to the team, they are thriving in enhanced roles. Jarry entered the season as the unquestioned No. 1 after the departure of Matt Murray. He struggled for about three weeks out of the gate, but has put together a 9-3-0 record on the strength of a .921 save percentage since Feb . 14. DeSmith — who whitewashed Buffalo this weekend — did not play a single game for the Pens last season after appearing in nearly half of Pittsburgh’s contests in 2018-19. He’s been very strong recently for the Penguins, who have the sixth-best five-on-five save percentage in the league during the past four weeks.

The win over Buffalo, by the way, was Pittsburgh second straight defeat of the lowly Sabres. However, those games represent Pittsburgh’s only two meetings with the East’s hopeless cellar-dwellers this season and the Penguins have yet to face the second-worst team in the group, the New Jersey Devils. They’ll see them three times in the coming weeks during a stretch that has Pittsburgh in Steeltown for seven of nine outings.

None of this is proof the Penguins will win just their second playoff series since taking the 2017 Stanley Cup. But Pittsburgh’s new management crew has to be encouraged by what this late-in-the-day team has shown them thus far.

Other Takeaways

• Making up ground up ground on the East-leading Islanders is a tall task for Pittsburgh and the rest of the top teams in that group. The Long Island gang won their ninth straight contest on Sunday, defeating New Jersey 3-2 in a shootout-determined outcome that was far from your standard victory. First, defenceman Noah Dobson was pulled from the pre-game warmup and eventually put on the COVID protocol list, where he joined Jean-Gabriel Pageau after both players skated in Saturday’s 3-2 win over Jersey.

Sebastian Aho quickly replaced Dobson and registered an assist on the opening goal of the game. The Devils thought they won the contest in OT before P.K. Subban’s potential winner was called back after an off-side review. Cue rookie Oliver Wahlstrom, who registered the deciding blow in the shootout.

• Also streaking; Dougie Hamilton and the powerhouse Carolina Hurricanes. The UFA-to-be defenceman scored a short-handed goal during his club’s 2-1 victory over the Detroit Red Wings on Sunday. Hamilton has two tallies and 10 points during an eight-game run, the longest active streak in the league. The Canes, by the way, have won all eight of those outings.

• Man, did things get interesting at the top and bottom of the “Canadian” division in a hurry. The Jets’ 5-2 win in Toronto on Saturday — Winnipeg’s second victory in three tries this week in Southern Ontario — preceded the Leafs’ 4-3 setback 24 hours later in Ottawa, while fifth-place Calgary beat fourth-place Montreal for the second consecutive game on Saturday night. On Monday morning one week ago, the top five teams by points percentage in the North were Toronto (.731), Winnipeg (.646), Montreal (.609), Edmonton (.577) and Calgary (.481). Today it goes Toronto and Winnipeg tied at the top (.667), Edmonton (.600), Montreal (.574) and Calgary (.518).

The entire group is starting to look like Bo Horvat’s goal versus the Oilers on Saturday night.

• It was great to see Artemi Panarin back in action on Saturday versus the Boston Bruins after the Russian — who’s been an outspoken critic of his home country’s authoritarian government — took a personal leave from the club three weeks ago. The absence was prompted by a report — widely believed to be politically motivated — in a Russian tabloid that accused Panarin of abusing an 18-year-old Latvian woman nearly a decade ago when the former was in the KHL. The 2020 Hart Trophy finalist drew a primary assist in a 4-0 win that halted New York’s three-game losing skid.

Weekend Warrior(s)

All of the Tampa Bay Lighting, who finally got to raise their 2020 Stanley Cup banner in front of more than 3,000 fans on Saturday at Amalie Arena.

The Week Ahead

• The Flames, 2-0-0 under new/old coach Darryl Sutter, re-enter the Battle of Alberta with two critical games versus the Edmonton Oilers on Monday and Wednesday.

• The Penguins and Bruins will play a big boy back-to-back when they face off Monday and Tuesday in Pittsburgh. The B’s are presently holding down the final playoff spot in the East.

• The Islanders try to make it 10 in a row in Washington against the East’s second-place club on Tuesday.

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