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Thoughts, musings and observations from the Penguins’ 2-1 loss to Carolina…

* The turning point of this game came in the second period. Late in the frame, it appeared that Jaccob Slavin had given the Canes a 2-1 lead when he beat Tristan Jarry with a bomb from the point, but the Pens used their coach’s challenge on the play. After video review, it was determined there had been goalie interference as Derek Ryan had elbowed Jarry in the head right before the puck entered the net. No goal.

That was a huge break for the Pens, and the perfect opportunity to shift momentum back onto their side. But Carolina wasn’t ready to give it up. On the next shift, the Pens got trapped in their end and began scrambling. Slavin stickhandled into the slot and Jarry pokechecked the puck, which bounced onto the blade of Sebastian Aho for the score. It took the Canes all of 21 seconds to regain the 2-1 advantage, one they would not relinquish. It always hurts giving up goals late in periods, but that one was particularly backbreaking.

* That sequence is the one that stands out from that period, but overall, the Canes were the better team in the middle 20 minutes. I thought they outplayed the Pens pretty drastically. The Pens had to expect a response from them, but they weren’t able to provide a pushback. Instead, they had a letdown. The Pens spent too much time in their own end and gave up quality scoring chances and a high volume of shots, and the Canes were eventually rewarded with the game-winner at the end. The Pens have to be able to handle that kind of pressure better.

* The Pens did get the start they wanted. That had been a big focus for them because entering tonight, the Canes had scored first in seven of their last eight games and are 6-0 in their last six games when tallying first. I thought they were incredibly solid in the opening 20 minutes from top to bottom. They didn’t give up a lot and generated a lot of offensive-zone time. Unfortunately, they weren’t able to carry that over.

* The Pens were so resilient in their last game, a 5-4 shootout win over Columbus, erasing two-goal deficits twice in the third period. But they weren’t able to do the same against Carolina. Credit to the Canes for the style of hockey they played. They played a north-south, straight-line game and did a good job of using their speed to take away the Pens’ time and space. Overall, they did a fantastic job of protecting the lead.

* Jarry had a pretty heavy workload in his first start since Dec. 11. The Canes fired double-digit shots on him in the first two periods and totaled 33 on the night. I thought he looked great and did a good job of giving his team a chance to win. He was especially strong on Carolina’s two power plays.

* Brian Dumoulin scored the Pens’ only goal of the night in the first five minutes of play. He recognized an opportunity to join the rush and took it. Jake Guentzel’s centering pass went off a skate and right to Dumoulin, who chipped it into the net. Overall Dumoulin had a solid night, as he also saved a goal by stick-checking Jordan Staal, who had a wide-open net.

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The Pittsburgh Penguins have recalled goalie Casey DeSmith, defenseman Andrey Pedan and forward Garrett Wilson from the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins of the American Hockey League, it was announced today by executive vice president and general manager Jim Rutherford.

Defensemen Kris Letang and Chad Ruhwedel, and forward Bryan Rust, have been placed on injured reserve. Letang has been retroactively placed on IR dating back to December 24.

DeSmith, 26, saw relief action in two earlier games for Pittsburgh this year. His most recent NHL appearance was December 9 against Toronto when he stopped eight of nine shots in 38 minutes. At the AHL level, he is 10-5-2 with a 2.72 goals-against average and a .911 save percentage in 17 games.

Pedan, 24, joined the Penguins in October in a deal from the Vancouver Canucks. The 6-foot-5, 213-pound blueliner has played in 13 career NHL games, all with the Canucks. This year, Pedan has 10 points (2G-8A) and is plus-5 in 26 AHL games with WBS.

The New York Islanders originally chose Pedan in the third round (63rd overall) in the 2011 NHL Draft. He is a native of Kaunas, Lithuania.

Wilson, 26, is in his second season in the Pittsburgh organization. He spent the entire season with WBS last year before joining the Penguins as a ‘Black Ace’ practice squad member during the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs.

This season, the 6-foot-2, 199-pound native of Barrie, Ontario has 14 points (6G-8A) and a team-high 54 penalty minutes in 25 games. He has played in 34 career NHL regular-season games, and six NHL playoff contests, all with the Florida Panthers.

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

ON THE HOLIDAY BREAK

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.”

ON THE REMATCH WITH CBJ AND IF THEY CAN CARRY OVER THAT EMOTION

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.”

ON THE MOOD AROUND THE TEAM DURING THEIR STRUGGLES

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.”

ON MAKING UP FOR LETANG AND HIS MINUTES

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.”

ON HAVING MAATTA STEP IN ON THE TOP PP UNIT

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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1. Forward Patric Hornqvist will be a game-time decision with an upper-body injury. He practiced on Wednesday and at Thursday’s morning skate.

2. Newly acquired defenseman Jamie Oleksiak is expected to make his Pittsburgh debut tonight. The 6-foot-7, 255-pound blueliner also will celebrate his 25th birthday.

3. Tonight marks the 2-year anniversary of head coach Mike Sullivan’s first victory behind the Pittsburgh bench. Coincidentally, that game was also against Columbus. Sullivan has won 99 games since then to become the 4th coach in team history to reach 100 victories.

4. Columbus played on Wednesday evening, a 4-2 win against Toronto. Prior to the win the Jackets had lost 3 of their past 5 games, including matching 7-2 losses to Edmonton and Boston.

5. Second-year pro Josh Anderson leads the Jackets with 13 goals in 33 games. He’s set to best his rookie production of 17.

INJURIES

PIT – Patric Hornqvist (upper-body), Justin Schultz (lower-body).

CBJ – Brandon Dubinsky (fractured orbital bone), Ryan Murray (upper-body), Zach Werenski (upper-body).

MORNING SKATE

* The Pens held an optional morning skate. The only players missing were Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang. Winger Phil Kessel, who missed Wednesday’s practice for a maintenance day, was on the ice.

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Duane and Shaney Boles have spent the last few days at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh with their 11-year-old son, Ryder.

As they were waiting to be discharged on Wednesday afternoon, a hospital worker entered the room and informed them that they would have to wait just a little bit longer – because Penguins players would be stopping by as part of their annual holiday visit.

As soon as Shaney heard the news, she couldn’t help it. She started to cry.

“I cried because he’s been a frequent flier here at Children’s since he was 15 months, honestly,” Shaney said of Ryder. “It’s been pretty much once a month for his whole life. He’s really just a pretty tough kid. He has a heart condition and some vertigo and he gets pretty sick, so that’s why he has to come in for fluids and maintenance.

“And honestly, he’s a huge Pens fan. As soon as they said that, I just knew right away he would be so excited if they came walking through the room.”

Ryder is unable to play contact sports because of his health, so he has never gotten the chance to play hockey. But he absolutely loves to watch hockey, and to see his favorite player, Sidney Crosby, from his favorite team, coming through the door was overwhelming in the best way.

“I’m really happy,” smiled Ryder, who hopes to sing the national anthem before a Penguins game someday. “I’m super excited I got to meet the players that I’ve been watching forever. I’ve been watching Sidney Crosby on the ice since I was two years old. It was just super awesome.”

Both Ryder and Shaney were overcome with emotion after such a special visit, sitting on the bed together and crying tears of joy when the players left.

“It just meant more than they really know,” Shaney said. “They were so sweet. As a mom and a dad, we see him go through all this stuff. But for them to walk in there, it was just really, really special to us. We appreciated it so much.”

The reaction of Ryder and his family was incredibly heartwarming, as was the reaction of Yaheim Young and his parents.

Crosby, Ryan Reaves, c, Tristan Jarry and newest Penguin Jamie Oleksiak delivered Yaheim a Christmas gift, which he couldn’t have been more thrilled to open.

To Yaheim’s delight, it was an Amazon Fire tablet. “Sweet! Cool! Thank you!” exclaimed Yaheim, who got up and hugged each and every player. The players’ goal is to put smiles on the kids’ faces, but Crosby had the biggest one after that interaction, who said to Yaheim’s parents, “Glad he liked it! What a great reaction.”

“We enjoy coming here and I think just to see the smiles on the kids’ faces, see their reactions – you could see the reaction of a couple kids that opened the gifts there, that says it all,” Crosby said. “That’s why we’re here.”

Phil Kessel also received a priceless reaction from a child who has been wanting to meet him for a while now.

A few years ago, Chelsey Stokes took her son Cooper to his first Penguins game and told him he could pick out one thing from the souvenir calendar. He picked out a Lego figure of Phil Kessel, and ever since then, Cooper has been obsessed with anything Phil Kessel.

Cooper, who is waiting for a multi-organ transplant, turned 8 years old in October. Chelsey said all he wanted for his birthday was a Kessel jersey and “the real Phil Kessel.” Chelsey laughed and told him that wouldn’t be possible. But they learned about a week ago that Cooper’s wish might actually become a reality, and Chelsey couldn’t be more grateful that it did.

“This is amazing,” Chelsey said. “I didn’t actually think that this would happen in a lifetime. It’s definitely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I’ve been able to take him to games and he’s been able to see him from the seats, but this is a whole new surreal thing for him and I’m super blessed and thankful that this was able to happen.”

Chelsey said that on Tuesday night, Cooper was practicing what he was going to do when he first saw Kessel, and ultimately decided he would run up and give him a hug. And that’s exactly what Cooper did when Kessel arrived. Wearing his No. 81 sweater with the rolling backpack that contains all of his IV fluids in tow, Cooper dashed over to Kessel and threw his arms around his legs.

The two of them became fast friends, playing in the Lemieux Sibling Center for over half an hour before Kessel departed to visit other patients at the hospital.

“I heard he wanted to meet me or whatever, and that’s awesome,” Kessel said. “I’m happy I could be here and meet him and have a good day.

“It’s great. I love this day. I think we make the kids happy, and I love coming in here and getting to spend time with them. It’s a great day.”

–Michelle Crechiolo

One of the other groups, consisting of Brian Dumoulin, Patric Hornqvist, Jake Guentzel and Justin Schultz, visited over a dozen rooms.

The players took a photo with each of the kids they visited and their families, but a cool moment happened in infant Simon’s room. When asked by his parents if anyone wanted to hold him, Hornqvist obliged, and Simon calmly rested in his arms for the picture. This led to his teammates dubbing Hornqvist as “The Natural.”

“It’s great, you see those kids smile when you walk in,” Hornqvist said. “We give them a present, stay and talk a little bit, take a photo with them. They all love it, and we enjoy it too.”

While the Penguins spread holiday cheer around the hospital, equipped with Santa hats and presents, an abundance of smiles decked the halls.

One of those smiles was courtesy of six-year-old Aiden. Aiden let out an enormous smile when the time came for a picture, unveiling his missing front teeth. This led to Aiden’s mom stating he looks just like a hockey player with his smile, something that Justin Schultz, missing a tooth of his own, agreed to.

While the Penguins handed out signed calendars to each patient they visited, Marcus, 13, received five special signatures on his blood pressure pump. Marcus is a center for the Mt. Lebanon Hornets and expressed how he couldn’t wait to tell his teammates about his surprise visitors.

“It was amazing,” Marcus said. “I got to see some of my favorite players and get their autographs. It’s a dream come true.”

Seeing the smile gleaming from Marcus’ face after his interaction with the players shows how meaningful and profound the visit is for the children as well as their families.

“It’s for sure one of the best events we do through the whole season,” Hornqvist said. “It’s the holiday season, we make the kids and parents happy, and it’s always great to see a smile on their face.”

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Thoughts, musings and observations from the Pens’ 4-2 win against the Arizona Coyotes at Gila River Arena

* The Pens need this win. Pittsburgh had lost 3 straight games, each by 1 goal. To be so close, but come up empty has been frustrating for the team. But to lose a 2-0 lead to the last-place Coyotes in a game that Pittsburgh completely dominated would have really been a heartbreaker.

Fear not. Pittsburgh rebounded from surrendering a third-period game-tying goal to retake the lead and win the game. Even head coach Mike Sullivan said that the feeling on the bench was that the Pens would score the go-ahead goal and win the game. That’s the kind of resilient swagger that the Pens have lacked lately. Hopefully, this win will help them get their mojo back.

* What a third period for defenseman Olli Maatta. First he was the goat for losing a puck at his own crease that culminated with Arizona tying the game. Then he made a game-saving stop by diving over his own goaltender to clear a loose puck in the crease before Brad Richardson could convert. Then he finished it all off by scoring the game-winning goal with a mere 14.7 seconds left in regulation. From goat to hero in 10 minutes.

* The game was also a little bit of redemption for center Evgeni Malkin. He was the man that threw a hard pass to Maatta that resulted in a turnover and Arizona’s tying goal. But he would go on to setup Maatta for the winner after an incredible shift in the offensive zone. Malkin was a horse on that final series, and we can’t discount his goal late in the second period either. On that tally, Malkin drove to the net and relentlessly wacked at the puck until it went in.

* The Pens finally broke though with some offense early from the least likely of sources: the penalty kill and Carter Rowney. Pittsburgh was disadvantaged late in the second period when Bryan Rust forced a turnover at the blue line. He and Rowney were off on a 2-on-2. Both ‘Yotes defenders jumped on Rust and he made a patient, perfect backhand pass around the outstretched stick of Oliver Ekman-Larsson and to a wide-open Rowney. The Pens’ winger went crossbar, post and in for the tally.

* The penalty kill stepped up with a goal, but its first priority is always to kill the penalty. And the Pens deserve an immense amount of credit for that of late. The PKers haven’t given up a goal in the past 8 straight games, a perfect 23-for-23 in that span.

* We’ll end with a congratulations to Mike Sullivan for recording his 100th win with the Pens, becoming just the fourth coach to hit the century mark for the organization.

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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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The Penguins don’t have a problem this season — they have problems, plural, and every time they think they have one figured out, another one pops up.

They’re obviously getting inconsistent scoring throughout the lineup. Jake Guentzel, Conor Sheary and Carl Hagelin are all having down offensive seasons vs. 2016-17. As mentioned here, their even-strength scoring is down overall, and the Penguins have too often looked like a team with a lot of miles on its tires from the past two Stanley Cup championship runs.

But if there’s one number that really sticks out about the Penguins this season, it’s their record in one-goal games. First, it’s the fact that they’ve played a lot of them in a season that has seen its share of large margins of victories. More than half of Pittsburgh’s games — 17 out of 32 this season — have been decided by one goal. Last season, only 22 of its 82 games were one-goal games.

Last season, the Penguins won 19 of their one-goal games and only lost three. This season? They’ve won 10 and lost seven — the most losses in games decided by one goal in the NHL. That doesn’t include three overtime losses, which are obviously also by a one-goal margin.

Their offensive woes are part of these struggles in close games, but there’s another significant change from last season on the defensive side: The Penguins have gone from a .914 team save percentage to an .896 this season. It’s no secret that Pittsburgh has gotten substandard goaltending from its backup netminders in 2017 — it was swell, Antti Niemi — but starter Matt Murray has been no great shakes either, with a very ordinary .910 EV save percentage, down from .932 last season.

The Penguins hope that Murray will bounce back now that he’s off injured reserve, and the Penguins can start picking up wins in the closely decided games.

Emily Kaplan, national NHL reporter: Score more goals at even strength! That’s a panacea for any ailing team, but the Penguins’ 5-on-5 production doesn’t resemble what we’re used to from the two-time defending Stanley Cup champs. As of Tuesday, the Penguins had 45 goals at even strength. Where does that rank in the league? A measly 29th. Only the San Jose Sharks and Buffalo Sabres are worse. Pittsburgh has also allowed 103 goals at even strength, which is tied for the second-worst mark in the league. The Arizona Coyotes and Florida Panthers join Pittsburgh in the cellar. So what gives?

Slow starts also plagued the Pens early in the season and haven’t improved much since. Bottom-six depth has been a concern for this team since it parted ways with veterans Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen. Preseason darling Greg McKegg just couldn’t keep up and landed on the waiver wire last week.

When I watch Pittsburgh, I see a team that looks tired. Maybe the past few seasons are finally taking a toll. How can this be fixed, Penguins fans might ask? An injection of energy — perhaps via a trade — can’t hurt. Offer this roster some fresh legs. Remain hopeful that 23-year-old Dominik Simon can sustain some of the excitement he brought while playing top-line minutes with Sidney Crosby this week. And score early and often on 5-on-5. For as much as the Penguins haven’t looked like themselves early on, and as wild as it is to see them fifth in the division, they’re still in the hunt.

Chris Peters, NHL Insider: I think the Penguins could potentially benefit from a trade, particularly to bring in some scoring depth to make their bottom six more of a threat. Pittsburgh has somewhat limited assets to make such a trade, however. Ian Cole seems like the obvious candidate based on the reports and rumors about him, but I feel like that might plug one hole by creating another in the defensive-depth department. I do potentially like the idea of fresh blood coming in — players who are hungry for an opportunity. Pittsburgh had been able to do that internally with Bryan Rust, Sheary and Murray two years ago, and Guentzel last year. It would be awfully hard for Simon to move the needle as much as those guys did, hence the need for [Penguins GM Jim] Rutherford to look externally.

Then again, I think the Pens still have enough talent on the roster to get out of the funk. It just may take a little more creativity. Staying the course may be an uninteresting option, but Pittsburgh has the worst 5-on-5 shooting percentage in the league right now. It’s hard to expect that to continue. It may not be as easy as snapping one’s fingers so that the goals magically start dropping, but it’s easier to expect things to change when you have this particular roster. Also, if they’re really trying to get that ol’ shooting percentage up, just keep passing the puck to Phil Kessel. The Thrill is on fire right now, with seven goals in his past nine games, and is on a career-best goal-scoring pace.

Finally, now that Murray is back, the Pens have to figure out the right workload for him. With Tristan Jarry showing that he might be ready to take on a few more starts, they can take some of the burden off of their young No. 1 goalie. The amount of hockey this team has played, coming off of back-to-back Cup seasons, undoubtedly puts a strain on the whole team, but especially on Murray, who was essentially thrust into the role while he was still figuring out how to be a goalie in the NHL (and that’s not just about stopping pucks and playing games). He has a pair of Stanley Cups to show he passed the test, but this is still his first full year as The Guy. Keeping him healthy and as fresh as possible should be a priority going forward, especially if the team keeps struggling to score.

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The Penguins fan base ranked No. 1 in the NHL and No. 4 among professional sports teams in the 2017 “Fandom 250,” announced today by FanSided of Time Inc.

FanSided’s “Fandom 250″ list ranks the best fan bases in the world of sports, entertainment, technology, lifestyle and more. FanSided editors gather information over several months and assign fandom points for longevity, worth, size, social interaction, buzz factor and passion. The list is touted as the “ultimate ranking of fandoms.”

The Penguins ranked 14th overall in world fandom rankings. For the full “Fandom 250″ list, click here.

Last year, the Penguins, ranked No. 1 in the NHL but were No. 18 in pro sports and No. 70 overall.

According to FanSided, the top five fan bases overall are the Ohio State Buckeyes, Game of Thrones, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Star Wars and Conor McGregor.

The top five in pro sports are the Pittsburgh Steelers, Chicago Cubs, Dallas Cowboys, Pittsburgh Penguins and Golden State Warriors.

The top five in the NHL are Pittsburgh, Toronto, Chicago, Montreal and Edmonton.

“Pittsburgh fans go beyond loyal, loving the athletes they cheer for,” FanSided wrote. For the Fandom 250 description of Penguins fans, click here.

Others listed in the Top 20 overall, include Netflix (6th), Beyonce (7th), Taylor Swift (10th), Lebron James (11th), The Walking Dead (15th), and Wonder Woman (19th).

Penguins captain Sidney Crosby also made the “Fandom 250″ list as an individual, ranking at No. 201. Crosby is the only NHL player and only Pittsburgh sports figure to make the 2017 list.