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As President Barack Obama once said: Phil Kessel is a Stanley Cup champion. What he’s not, inexplicably, is a 2018 NHL All-Star.

Kessel was, perhaps, the most prominent snub when the rosters were announced on Wednesday, with Pittsburgh Penguins teammate Sidney Crosby getting the nod instead at forward. Kessel leads the Penguins in goals (18) and points (47) and even tops Crosby in points per game (1.07). He’s been demonstrably the best player on the Penguins this season. Yet not only did Crosby get in ahead of him, so did defenseman Kris Letang, who is 13th among NHL defensemen in scoring.

So what is this? Long-game punishment for Kessel tweeting snarky things about the World Cup of Hockey in 2016? Some twisted “Black Mirror” scenario in which Crosby, who has dutifully avoided the All-Star Game throughout his career and recently said “I don’t expect to be going” because Kessel was so good in the first half, is now forced to attend or pull out of the event? I mean, isn’t it bad enough that Crosby owns Kessel’s 2016 Conn Smythe? Now he gets his All-Star Game spot, too?

The other two most egregious snubs were in the Pacific Division. Vegas Golden Knights center Jonathan Marchessault has 40 points in 38 games and is driving one of the best lines in hockey, which also features William “Wild Bill” Karlsson and his team-leading 22 goals. But the Vegas pick at forward is … James Neal? Look, clearly this isn’t a meritocracy, but outside of Neal’s appeal to Penguins and Nashville Predators fans there’s no reason why he gets the nod over either of these guys. And unlike Neal, we’re pretty certain Marchessault and Karlsson will be with the team next season …

The other snub of note also involves the Golden Knights: On what plane of reality does Marc-Andre Fleury, who has all of 14 starts during an injury-shortened first half, an All-Star Game selection over John Gibson, who has 33 starts and a .923 save percentage? Did Gibson hurt his back carrying the underwhelming husk of the Anaheim Ducks to within a sniff of the wild card?

But hey, Fleury’s a better quote than Gibson. And like Neal, will have other markets beyond his current one cheering for him.

Emily Kaplan: The St. Louis Blues have dropped off lately. They’ve lost 10 of their past 15 and no longer lead the Central Division, which they dominated for the first two months of the season. But they’re still in playoff contention, they’re still a dangerous team and they still have one of the league’s most elite talents in Vladimir Tarasenko. I am stunned he was left off the Central Division’s roster. The Blues did have two representatives in Brayden Schenn and Alex Pietrangelo. I don’t want to take anything away from the terrific season Schenn is having — reviving his career after a trade from the Philadelphia Flyers. Pietrangelo, too, deserves the recognition. As a Central Division goalie told me last month: “I don’t think [Pietrangelo] gets enough press for how big of a role he plays for that team. He’s a great defenseman. Obviously, I think people talk about him and what he’s doing offensively, and people get too into his offensive numbers. But your first job is to play defense, and he does it just about as good as anyone in the league.”

That quote from a piece about the NHL’s most underrated stars. Tarasenko is on a different plane. He’s a superstar.

The league clearly is looking for starpower in this event — choosing, as Greg noted, Crosby over Kessel; Fleury; Neal over his two younger (and more productive teammates) in Marchessault and Karlsson; and Mike Green over the Detroit Red Wings’ two younger and arguably more valuable players in Dylan Larkin and Anthony Mantha. Tarasenko should hold the same celebrity weight as Crosby, in my opinion. But the difference is, the Russian winger actually deserves to go.

If I’m an opposing coach, I’m terrified of Tarasenko every time he’s on the ice. I hate to make this a Schenn versus Tarasenko debate. They have nearly identical stats — 44 points through 46 games, while Tarasenko slightly edges Schenn in average ice time (19:50 versus 19:34). Tarasenko does lead the Blues in goals (19). Minnesota Wild center Eric Staal is likely the player I’d replace (since he’s 41st in the league, with 37 points). Now it’s moot, but it’s a shame that a player of Tarasenko’s caliber will have to watch at home.

Ben Arledge: Listen, Kessel and Tarasenko are, hands-down, the biggest snubs, as Greg and Emily mentioned. There’s also definitely an argument that Sean Couturier or Jakub Voracek should have made it from the Philadelphia Flyers, or that Sergei Bobrovsky, Gibson or Devan Dubnyk could have earned spots in the net in Tampa. My biggest issue, however, aside from Kessel and Tarasenko, is with the Metropolitan Division defense selections.

Washington Capitals blueliner John Carlson, Philly’s Shayne Gostisbehere and Columbus Blue Jackets youngster Zach Werenski all made convincing cases for All-Star roster spots. They were snubbed in favor of Noah Hanifin, Seth Jones and Kris Letang. Carlson’s 34 points trail only Dallas’ John Klingberg among all defensemen, while Gostisbehere is fourth with 32 — 18 of which came on the power play. Additionally, Carlson is fourth in the NHL in average ice time, with 26:17. Meanwhile, Werenski, just 20 years old, is pacing NHL defensemen in goals, with 11. It’s a loaded division, but that is some serious talent left off the list.

I can see the case for Jones over Werenski for Columbus, and someone had to go from the Carolina Hurricanes (Hanifin is having a decent season with 21 points), but leaving both Carlson and Gostisbehere off in favor of Letang makes little sense. We’ll get to hear Pierre McGuire refer to him as “Kristopher” for the entire broadcast, but it also means two dominant first-half defensemen stay home.

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Here’s what the Pens were saying in the locker room heading into their Metro Division rematch with Columbus.


Crosby: “I think you always like getting away a little bit. Especially that time of the year. For us, it’s probably a good thing to get away. Recharge a bit and make sure we come back ready to have a good second half.”

Reaves: “It was really nice just to kind of get away from the rink and spend some time with some family. We were gone a lot the first chunk of the season, so just getting three days straight with the family is nice.”

Rust: “I think for us it was a good time for us to take away a few days away from the game. For each guy to just reset his mindset and come back fresh, a little more enthusiastic with a little more energy. For us I think that’s the biggest thing (having that) from the start of the game. We seem to find it later in games, but I think at the start is big.”

Maatta: “Three days, feels really good to just get away from hockey a bit. I think we just have to pick it up now. To spend time with your family, I think that’s huge, get away from hockey. Recharge physically, and just as important mentally.”

Sullivan: “I think it’s good for all of us. We get so immersed in our jobs day-to-day. When you have an opportunity to step away from it, spend some time with family and get away from the game a little bit. It also gives some quiet time for yourself that gives you an opportunity to maybe reflect on the circumstance that you’re in. I think we can all gain an appreciation for what we do and how lucky we are to play the game that we love.

“I think the reality is it’s hard to win. There’s a lot of really good teams in this league. There’s a lot of really good coaches, really good players, competitive teams and it’s hard to win. I think that’s the reality of it. Certainly, from my perspective by having the opportunity to get away from the game a little bit it gives us the benefit of perspective. The way I look at it is we have a great opportunity in front of us. We’ve got a real good team, we’ve got good players, these guys are battle tested guys. We have a big challenge ahead of us and we have to do everything in our power to get the results we’re looking for.”


Cole: “I hope so. We had a good game and obviously played with some emotion. I hope there’s some carry over for sure.”

Reaves: “You don’t want to try to do too much, too quick. I think you can’t let them get under your skin but at the same time we have to try and get under theirs. They like throwing the body around. I think we’ve got to try and play the same game plan. I expect it to be just like last game.”

Crosby: “You look at that game, they’re good for building character and coming together as a group, especially when you’re down and have to come back. Those are games you have to build off of. Unfortunately we didn’t follow it up, but those are the kinds of games you want to see a lot more of.”

Rust: “It’s a rivalry game. Any time you get two teams together that have some history in the playoffs and a little bit of bad blood, those things are going to happen. I don’t expect any different tonight.”


Crosby: “I think we have high expectations. I think that we expect better and want to be more consistent and we haven’t found that consistency to the point that we’d like to. But I think it’s a constant battle every night no matter who we play, you’ve got to find a way to show up and make sure you give yourselves a chance to win and we probably haven’t done that consistently. We feel like that’s an area we’ve got to improve in. You look at the standings, you look at how tight everything is, there’s a lot of teams that are still searching for that too and it’s whoever does a better job of that here in the second half. That’s the way we have to look at it.”

Reaves: “I think a lot of the mistakes we’re making are correctable. I think we’ve talked a lot about line changes, that’s something that is easily correctable. You change going down into their zone, not on the way back. Little things like that are going to go a long way in this second part of the season.”


Cole: “I think it’s similar to what we did last year for the large portion of the year. He’s a guy you can’t replace. You can’t just plug someone in and say ‘hey, do what Kris Letang does.’ That being said, there are little things that everyone can do to chip in and take his minutes. Really do a good job of playing defense and get out of our end quickly. When we do that, obviously don’t turn pucks over, I think we’re a good team.”

Maatta: “It’s a lot of minutes that he plays, I think 25-30 minutes. I don’t think there’s one guy can do it. Everyone has to play more minutes now. We have a lot of depth in our D corps. We have guys stepping in, everybody has to play a little bit more and have more responsibility.”


Sullivan: “I think he distributes the puck pretty well at the blue line, he’s got real good hockey sense, he sees the ice well and he has a pretty good shot. For all those reasons he’s a guy that we’ve used on the power play since I’ve been here. We’ve used him obviously mostly on the second unit because of the guys we have here when we’re at full capacity with Letang or Schultzy. Olli’s a guy that we have faith in and we’re confident he can get the job done.”

Maatta: “I think just give the puck to the other guys to make the plays. Try to do nothing too much. I don’t think you have to do anything different. Just let Geno, Sid, and Phil do their thing. They’re such good players, they make things happen.”

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Thoughts, musings and observations from the Pens’ 4-0 setback against the Anaheim Ducks at PPG Paints Arena

* The Pens literally and figuratively gave this game away. Costly giveaways, sloppy play and unforced errors were the culprit in the Pens’ loss to Anaheim. The Ducks are playing in the final game of a 6-game season-long road trip, and the Pens could have used that to their advantage by making the Ducks exert what little energy they had left. Instead, Pittsburgh Christmas gifted Anaheim the opening 3 goals – all a result of poor decisions and execution.

This was not the performance the Pens wanted to show heading into the Christmas break. Perhaps getting away from hockey for a couple of days is what the Pens need to regroup mentally and return fresh for the second half of the season.

* The Ducks took an insurmountable 3-0 lead in just 23:42 minutes of play. Kris Letang’s errant pass led to Ondrej Kase’s breakaway goal just 3:10 into the game. A friendly fire collision between Carter Rowney and Jamie Oleksiak, who vacated his spot in an attempt to throw a check, led to Rickard Rakell walking untouched to the net for a backhand tally. Sloppy positioning on a power play gave Andrew Cogliano a shorthanded breakaway goal. Just like that, Pittsburgh dug itself a deficit that it couldn’t overcome.

* On a happy note, it was nice to see Pittsburgh-native John Gibson picked up his first career victory in his hometown. Gibson, who grew up in the suburb of Whitehall, made a fantastic diving blocker save to deny Sidney Crosby of a goal. “Johnny Whitehall” grew up a Pens fan and he had a lot of family in friends in the crowd to see his big win. He was named the game’s No. 1 star while picking up the shutout.

* It was an uninspiring performance by the Pens. But what’s most concerning is their current positioning in the Metro Division. With Carolina’s win tonight, the Pens are only 1 point ahead of rival Philadelphia, who sits in last place.

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The Pittsburgh Penguins knew that this day would eventually come.

That is, the day that they would be face their former longtime teammate, goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.

“It’s going to be an emotional night (Thursday) when we’re facing him,” said Fleury’s close friend and fellow French Canadian Kris Letang.

Those same sentiments are shared by the rest of the team. Fleury has been beloved throughout the Penguins locker room ever since he arrived in Pittsburgh in 2003, and many will find it bizarre seeing him in the opposing net.

“I tried not to focus on that,” Letang said. “It became a big part of the business that we’re in, you lose friends and make new ones. Obviously Marc-Andre was a special guy, a special player for the Penguins. It’s going to fun to see him. It would be better (to see him) on our side.”

But Fleury, who played 14 years in the Penguins organization after it drafted him first overall, is no longer on the Penguins’ side, thanks to his selection by the expansion Vegas Golden Knights.

Fleury, who owns every Penguins franchise record for a goaltender, became expendable with the emergence of Matt Murray. The younger Murray, 23, shared the crease with Fleury last season and has helped Pittsburgh win back-to-back Stanley Cups.

Murray credits much of his early success to Fleury.

“(Fleury) was definitely the biggest mentor I’ve had in my pro career,” Murray said. “I wish I had more time to study under him and be around him. Unfortunately, we’re on different sides now. It’ll be interesting. It’ll be a bit surreal seeing him at the other end, and competing against him. It’ll be a lot of fun as well.”

Murray, who continues to recover from a lower-body injury and hopes to start opposite Fleury on Thursday, recounted his first interaction with his elder mentor.

When Murray made the jump to pro hockey he joined Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. The then 19-year-old had a historic debut in 2014-15. He won AHL Goalie of the Year and Rookie of the Year while setting a league record 304:11-minute shutout streak over the span of a calendar month.

That success caught the eye of the goaltender in Pittsburgh.

“We’d never really met before. (Fleury) sought out my number and texted me, ‘Congrats on a great season. See ya next year in training camp,’” Murray said. “It was short, brief, but I still remember it to this day.

“That tells you everything you need to know about the type of person Marc-Andre is. He was a really good friend to me and helped me through every challenge that we faced. I can’t thank him enough.”

But perhaps no player on the roster was closer to Fleury than Pittsburgh’s captain Sidney Crosby. The two were seatmates on the plane and spent a lot of time together during their dozen years as teammates.

And there’s no doubt Crosby would love to score against his old friend.

“When you shoot on a goalie for 12 years I think he gets to know your tendencies pretty good,” Crosby said. “I like to think I know a few things about him too.”

Crosby added that if he does score he will have “a pretty big smile” on his face.

But one thing is certain, regardless of how the game plays out Fleury will not shy away from being vocal in his crease. It’s just another aspect of his personality that made him so endearing to his teammates.

“I’ll talk to them for sure. I always did. It’s not something I’ll change now,” Fleury said.

“He’s pretty vocal in there,” Crosby said with a smirk. “If he’s hooting and hollering that’s probably not good for us. Hopefully it’s not too much on his side.”

But what’s most important for both teams is getting a win, regardless of who is or isn’t in the lineup.

“At this point it’s a big game for both teams,” Crosby said. “I’m sure it’s one that he’s been looking at for a while. We had a great time playing together. It’s different looking at him on the other side. We’re both going to try to do our best to come out to win.”

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Thoughts, musings and observations from the Penguins’ 4-1 loss to Washington on Friday at Capital One Arena…

* The difference in this game was special teams. The Caps went 2-for-6 on the power play and held the Pens scoreless on all of their opportunities, including two chances in the first five minutes of the third period. The teams played a fairly even game at even-strength, with a decent amount of scoring chances on both sides.

* The Caps may have scored twice on the man-advantage, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a reflection on Pittsburgh’s penalty killers. They did a good job considering the circumstances. The Pens gave the Caps too many opportunities, exemplified when Kris Letang got called for two penalties on the same play like Jake Guentzel did earlier this season. The PKers didn’t give up much, and seemed set to kill it off when an opportunistic T.J. Oshie was able to sneak a shot in with just one second left to break a 1-1 tie, and it stood as the game-winner. Tough break for the Pens, who certainly have to be more disciplined moving forward. They can’t give up that many opportunities to a dangerous power play like that without any consequences.

* The Pens talked afterward about needing to be more resilient. That goal by Oshie, as Sullivan put it, definitely stung, but they needed to have a better pushback, especially on the first shift coming out of it.

* The Caps were able to get timely, opportunistic goals on their power plays, while the Pens were not. It wasn’t for lack of trying. The Pens had a lot of zone time and puck movement, but just weren’t putting it on net enough. “I thought we had opportunities to shoot the puck. We’ve been reluctant for whatever reason the last couple of games to shoot the puck, and I think we can generate offense off of it,” Mike Sullivan said after the game. “When we have that shot-first mindset, I think that’s when the power play is at its best.” I thought Patric Hornqvist was the glue out there tonight. His battle level and work ethic created a lot for his teammates.

* As Sullivan said this morning, there’s always a heightened emotional level between the Pens and Caps because of the rivalry and some of the high-stakes games they’ve played the last couple of the years. That manifested tonight in the form of physicality. Players on both teams were hitting everything that moved and making sure to finish their checks, which meant a lot of bodies flying. Brian Dumoulin took a check in the first period that sent him to the locker room, but he was able to return. Ryan Reaves dropped the gloves for a fight with Liam O’Brien, quickly laying him out with a few well-placed right hooks.

* Sullivan decided to switch up his lines towards the end of the second period, and I thought the team got a spark. He put Guentzel with Sidney Crosby and Patric Hornqvist, Bryan Rust with Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel, and Conor Sheary with Riley Sheahan and Carl Hagelin. The trios were connecting for some pretty passing plays, which was exemplified on Kessel’s goal from Rust and Malkin, the lone tally of the night for Pittsburgh.

* Kessel has been consistently producing for the Pens this season. His goal was his sixth of the year, and team-leading 20th point. He has tallied at least a point in all but four of the Pens’ 18 games, including goals in two straight. Both have come at even strength, which is positive step considering most of his production had been coming on the power play.

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The Pittsburgh Penguins had one of those four-aspirin aftermaths in October, after winning their second consecutive Stanley Cup in June. They gave up 50 goals in 13 games last month, which is one Arizona Coyotes dumpster fire away from being worst in the NHL. The Penguins lost to the Chicago Blackhawks, Tampa Bay Lightning and Winnipeg Jets by a combined score of 24-3. They’ve already expelled their backup goalie and traded for a depth forward.

But they’re 7-5-1. Which is fine, all things considered.

Here are the four major points of concern for the Penguins:

Kris Letang

Letang had an epically bad opening month, with just two even-strength points in 10 games (although he had six on the power play). Letang skated to an NHL-worst minus-14, but seeing as how plus/minus tells you nothing, we’ll go to the possession story: He’s minus-10 in Corsi counts at even strength and has only finished on the negative side of that ledger once in his nine-year career. (The only Penguins defenseman seeing regular time with that kind of shot-attempt deficit is Justin Schultz at minus-24 in 10 games, and he’s currently out with a concussion.)

There’s no question that Letang’s offseason preparation was interrupted by neck surgery, so maybe that’s what has led to a parade of blown coverages and intercepted passes. His 25 giveaways are second-most in the NHL this season.

Yet the Penguins are skating him out like there’s nothing inherently wrong with his game, to the tune of 26:30 on average. It’s been too much, too soon. GM Jim Rutherford told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette this week, “He’s coming off a very serious injury. I believe he’s tried to do too much. I believe we’ve played him way too many minutes because we’ve had to with the injuries.”

Their starts stink

The Penguins have been outscored in the first period 21-10, second only to the Montreal Canadiens for opening-period futility. Pittsburgh leads the league in first-period goals surrendered, giving up one more than the New York Rangers (20), whose lack of preparedness in the opening frame has nearly cost coach Alain Vigneault his job.

The Penguins are getting off to slow starts, especially on the road. They’re also 1-4-0 when their opponents score first.

The bottom six

‘Twas a time in recent Penguins history when a general manager was fired for not having the third and fourth lines in order.

This isn’t to suggest that current GM Rutherford is in Ray Shero territory — hell, after two straight Cups, he could probably run for governor were it not what we assume are citizenship requirements — but rather to say that the Penguins’ bottom six is in its weakest state in years.

The losses of Nick Bonino, Chris Kunitz and Matt Cullen will likely be felt most in the postseason, when their heroism during the last two runs to the Cup was invaluable. But Pittsburgh misses them now too: The Penguins have gotten 12 points so far at 5-on-5 from their bottom-six forwards, which is equal to what Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have generated on their own.

Getting Riley Sheahan from the cap-strapped Detroit Red Wings was a solid addition. He’s been fine, although not the ultimate answer at third-line center. While one assumes that Rutherford will need to add some low-cost veteran adornments to his lineup for another Cup run, one hopes that players such as Tom Kuhnhackl and Greg McKegg can hold the fort during the regular season.

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Perhaps the biggest question regarding the Pens’ power play is who will be the team’s quarterback.

Defenseman Kris Letang has been a staple in that position for the past several years. But after a herniated disc in his neck sidelined him in February, Justin Schultz stepped into that position and filled in admirably.

“These are two guys that are real good power-play guys. And they’re both going to see some time there,” head coach Mike Sullivan said. “That’s how I envision it moving forward. They’re both No. 1 power-play defensemen.”

Letang, 30, is a workhorse for the Pens, averaging 25-plus minutes per game over the past three seasons. Splitting some power-play minutes with Schultz could help alleviate some of Letang’s minutes.

“It should give us the ability to spread the minutes evenly,” Sullivan said. “Maybe we can take some workload off of both guys. They’re both bonafide No. 1 power-play defensemen and we’re fortunate to have them.”

Schultz’s presence will also be an asset to the Pens considering Letang is returning from surgery on the aforementioned herniated disc in his neck. So the team has the luxury to ease Letang back into the lineup and build up his minutes.

Letang and Schultz are similar players as both are offensive-type of defensemen. They are great skaters, can carry the puck through traffic and can make plays.

But they also have some differences. Letang likes to freelance from the mid-point position and create offense on his own. Schultz prefers to remain along the blue line as a safety valve and will either dish the puck or tee up a slap shot.

“It’s a huge asset to have two guys like that,” Recchi said.

The Pens’ power play will also be making another adjustment, though this one is not on the ice.

Rick Tocchet, who served as the team’s assistant coach and oversaw the power play, has departed for Arizona to become a head coach.

Now, new assistant coaches Mark Recchi and Sergei Gonchar will take over in that department, with the help of head coach Mike Sullivan, of course.

“We collaborate on everything. We’re working on things together,” Recchi said. “We have different ideas, bounce things off of each other. None of us have egos so we’ll have fun with it. When you have a group like this, it’s enjoyable and seeing what we can do.”

There’s a reason Recchi is excited to inherit this group. The Pens’ power play features all the ingredients needed for success with some of the best offensive players in the entire league in Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Letang and Phil Kessel.

The unit ranked third in the National Hockey League last season with a success rate of 23.1 percent. The Pens even had three players reach double digits in power-play goals with Crosby (14), Malkin (11) and Patric Hornqvist (10), while Kessel totaled 30 power-play points.

“A lot of the video we watched, it’s simple why we’re effective,” Recchi said. “We’ll try not to get in the way.”

Having too many capable people is certainly a nice problem to have. Beyond the top unit, the Pens have a plethora of players that can step in and delivery like Jake Guentzel, Conor Sheary or Bryan Rust.

“You go down the list, it’s a great thing,” Recchi said. “We have a lot of guys that can get that opportunity. Whoever is playing well is going to get that opportunity. That’s the nice thing. We can reward guys for playing well. When guys are struggling we can put them in situations to get them out of it.”