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Thoughts, musings and observations from the Pens’ 6-3 win against the Minnesota Wild at PPG Paints Arena.

* The Pens continue to trend upward. Pittsburgh won its 7th game in the past 9, which includes a 4-game winning streak. With the win the Pens hopped into 2nd place in the Metro Division (barring the outcome of Columbus at Arizona). Just 3 weeks ago many had left the Pens for dead. Once again they’ve risen from the ashes.

* Sidney Crosby’s legacy is well set in the city of Pittsburgh. Although Mario Lemieux is the greatest player to ever wear a Penguins sweater (or play the game in general for that matter), Crosby removed any question as to which player is the second greatest to don the black and gold.

Crosby picked up 3 assists against the Wild to give him 1,082 career points, surpassing Jaromir Jagr (1,079) for second place on the team’s all-time scoring list. And now only Lemieux (1,723) stands between Crosby and the mountaintop.

* Sticking with the Crosby theme, he now has a season-long 9-game scoring streak for 19 points (3G-16A). That gives him 55 total on the season, and he has inched his way to within 6 (barring other game outcomes) of Nikita Kucherov for the NHL lead.

* Crosby surpassed Jagr in the most Crosby way ever. He backchecked into the neutral zone to steal a puck, pivoted and darted into the offensive zone before finding rookie Dominik Simon to give Pittsburgh a 1-0 lead.

* Speaking of Simon, the 23-year-old winger scored 2 goals against Minnesota, his first career 2-goal game. And he scored both in impressive fashion, snapping off hard wrist shots form the high slot and perfectly into the corner. Simon has an incredible release on his shot, and I love seeing him not afraid to use it.

Simon has 3 goals in his past 2 games and a 3-game scoring streak (3G-1A). The rookie has looked comfortable on Crosby’s wing, and now the production is starting to come.

* While Crosby is stealing a lot of the headlines and attention, don’t forget about Phil Kessel and Malkin. Kessel picked up 3 assists while Malkin added 3 points (2G-1A). The 3-headed Monster led the charge for the Pens.

Kessel now has 58 points on the season, just 3 behind Kucherov. And Malkin stands at 52.

* The Pens welcomed back center Matt Cullen. The former Pen signed with his hometown Minnesota Wild in the offseason. Cullen was a member of the Pens’ past 2 Stanley Cup titles. He was affectionately referred to as “dad” by his teammates for his mentor and leadership role. The crowd gave Cullen a huge ovation as the “Thank You” video played for him during the 1st period.

* One negative in the game for Pittsburgh was the number of penalties taken by the team. Pittsburgh was penalized 5 times in the contest, and twice for closing their hand on the puck. Those types of mental lapses are inexcusable at this time of the season. Luckily the Pens’ PK stood tall, but it did cost rookie goalie Casey DeSmith his shutout.

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The Pittsburgh Penguins have re-assigned forward Daniel Sprong to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League, it was announced today by executive vice president and general manager Jim Rutherford.

Sprong, 20, scored twice and had three points in eight NHL games. He is the WBS Penguins’ leading goal scorer this season with 18 goals in 29 AHL contests. His 18 goals are tied for second-most among AHL rookies.
The Penguins return home tomorrow night to begin a four-game homestand that surrounds the All-Star Break. Pittsburgh hosts the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday night at 7:00 PM ET at PPG Paints Arena.
Heading into tomorrow night, the Penguins have won three-straight home games. Evgeni Malkin (4G-3A), Phil Kessel (3G-4A) and Sidney Crosby (2G-5A) have each produced seven points during the streak. Crosby, who is tied for the NHL lead with 16 points (3G-13A) during the month of January, is riding a season-long seven-game point streak (3G-12A-15PTS). Heading into Monday’s action, only fellow Nova Scotia native Nathan MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche (9 games) has a longer active streak in the league.

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Thoughts, musings and observations from the Penguins’ 5-3 loss to Anaheim…

* The Pens got off to the start they wanted. They appeared to show no signs of sluggishness despite the time change, as they had their legs under them from the drop of the puck and controlled play for most of the first period despite being outshot. They went into the first intermission with a well-earned 1-0 lead.

* Things took a turn in the second. The Ducks ended up taking a 2-1 lead off a pair of fluky goals – one off a perfect deflection; the other when Tristan Jarry’s stick got tangled up on one side of the net and prevented him from sliding over to stop a wraparound. Even though there wasn’t much the Pens could do on those, the momentum definitely shifted. The Pens started getting sloppy with the puck, giving up odd-man rushes and quality chances against, and handed the Ducks some freebies that they promptly took advantage of.

“I thought we had moments in the game where we were really good and others where we weren’t so good,” head coach Mike Sullivan said. “You can’t give up four breakaways. We’re hitting shinpads, we didn’t take care of the puck in certain areas of the rink and when we don’t play a disciplined, diligent game in those areas, then you’re vulnerable. The real estate inside and outside the blue lines are so critically important to becoming a team that’s harder to play against and when we don’t take care of the puck in those areas, you’re going to run the risk of those types of plays.”

* The Pens did do a good job of battling back in the third. They pushed hard and made it a game, creating as much as they gave up. But unfortunately, the hockey gods weren’t on their side tonight as some of those fantastic chances just wouldn’t fall. “We fell short tonight, but we’ve just got to make sure we heed the lessons and I think the most important takeaway is that we’ve just got make sure that we take care of the puck in those critical areas of the rink,” Sullivan said.

* This was an interesting night on special teams. The Ducks dominated that area for the first two periods, where their fifth-ranked penalty kill was phenomenal against Pittsburgh’s top-ranked power play. They created more shorthanded than the Pens did with the extra man, and ended up getting a goal off a breakaway as a result. However, the Pens responded in the third with a pair of power-play goals from Phil Kessel and Jake Guentzel to cut a 4-1 deficit to 4-3.

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The Penguins begin a three-game road trip up the West Coast in Anaheim, California.

5 THINGS

1. The Pens have won four straight games entering tonight, and a victory against the Ducks would set a new season-high streak. Overall, the Pens are 5-1 in the month of January. “We’re playing fast. We’re playing hungry,” captain Sidney Crosby said. “We’re winning battles, we’re quick on pucks, we’re not spending a lot of time in our own end, which is nice.”

2. Crosby has recorded multiple-point efforts in all four wins, producing 3 goals, 8 assists and 11 points. Phil Kessel has also gotten on the scoresheet in each victory, tallying 3 goals, 5 assists and 8 points.

3. Crosby’s next goal will be his 400th. He will join Mario Lemieux (690) and Jaromir Jagr (439) as the only players in franchise history to reach that number. Since debuting in 2005-06, only Washington’s Alex Ovechkin (586) has scored more often than Crosby.

4. The Pens are looking to bounce back from a 4-0 shutout loss to the Ducks on Dec. 23 at PPG Paints Arena. “I think we just need to be more aggressive and just win more 1-on-1 battles,” winger Carl Hagelin said. “Last game, we just looked sluggish and we just looked like we weren’t the team we want to be. We know what we can do and that’s what we’re going to do next game.”

5. The Ducks are 20-for-21 on the penalty kill in January, ranking 3rd among NHL teams in PK percentage this month. They thwarted both of Pittsburgh’s power plays in the first meeting of the season. Meanwhile, the Pens are 7-for-18 on the man-advantage in January and are tied for 1st in the league overall.

INJURIES

PIT – Chad Ruhwedel  (upper body), Carter Rowney (upper body), Bryan Rust (upper body)

ANA – Patrick Eaves (Guillain-Barre syndrome), Mike Liambas (upper body)

MORNING SKATE

* The Pens have the morning off after practicing on Tuesday at Honda Center. Head coach Mike Sullivan will address the media at 8 p.m. EST with lineup updates.

* The Pens recalled Jean-Sebastien Dea from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League this morning. He is the team’s third-leading scorer this season with 9 goals, 14 assists, 23 points and a plus-13 in 36 games.

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Penguins forward Phil Kessel, the NHL’s seventh-highest scorer, was named NHL ‘Third Star of the Week’ after helping the Penguins win both games this weekend following their five-day bye week.

Kessel, who leads the Penguins across board in goals (20), assists (32) and points (52), contributed five points (2G-3A) in victories against Detroit (4-1) and the New York Rangers (5-2). He had three points against Detroit (1G-2A), and two more versus New York (1G-1A). Kessel had the game-winning goal in both wins.

This is the second-straight week that a Penguins player has been named ‘Third Star of the Week.’ Captain Sidney Crosby took home the same honor last Monday.

Sunday night against the Rangers, Kessel’s goal that gave the Pens the lead for good was his 20th of the season, the 10th-consecutive year he has reached the milestone. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Kessel joined Keith Tkachuk and Patrick Kane as the only American-born players all-time to score 20-plus goals for 10 or more consecutive years. That tally was also Kessel’s 700th NHL point, making him the 27th American-born player all-time to hit that mark. He and Kane are the only active Americans with 700 points.

This season, Kessel has been one of the most consistent offensive performers in the NHL. He has only gone back-to-back games without a point once the entire season – back on October 16 and 18. Right now, he is riding a four-game point streak (3G-5A-8PTS) and a three-game goal-scoring streak. If he gets a point on Wednesday night when the Penguins begin a three-game road trip in Anaheim at 10 PM ET, Kessel will compile his fourth five-game point streak of the season.

Kessel is on pace to score 36 goals, and to establish career highs in both assists (57) and points (93).

In January, Kessel has helped lead an offensive revival that has led to the Penguins winning five of their first six games this month. During that stretch, the Penguins have scored an NHL-high 24 goals. Kessel is one of four NHL players that have already hit double digits in points this month – a list that includes three Penguins: Crosby (3G-9A-12PTS); Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau (2G-9A-11PTS); Kessel (4G-6A-10PTS) and Evgeni Malkin (5G-5A-10PTS).

This season, Kessel (7th overall), Crosby (13th) and Malkin (14th) all rank among the NHL’s top-15 scorers. The Philadelphia Flyers are the only other team that has three players ranked that high.

Kessel and the Penguins currently sit in the top Wild Card position in the Eastern Conference playoff field. Pittsburgh aims to establish a season high by winning its fifth-straight game on Wednesday night.

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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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Thoughts, musings and observations from the Penguins’ 6-5 overtime win over Boston…

* The Pens are finally starting to build momentum. With tonight’s victory, they have now won consecutive games for the first time since going on a four-game win streak from Nov. 25 to Dec. 2. And was it ever a character victory for the Pens. They were going up against a team that was on a 10-game point streak and playing with plenty of confidence. Despite a bunch of momentum swings and a lot of adversity – most notably watching a 3-1 lead turn into a 5-3 deficit in the second period – the Pens battled through it all.

“I thought we stayed with it,” head coach Mike Sullivan said. “I give the players so much credit for just staying with it and staying in the fight. I think that’s something we’ve talked about a lot in the last couple of weeks, just making sure that we control our own attitude and own pushback when things don’t go our way during the course of a game. We certainly displayed that tonight.”

* It certainly helps the Pens’ best players were just that: Evgeni Malkin scored twice (including the game-winner), and added an assist, Sidney Crosby finished with three helpers, and Phil Kessel and Kris Letang each recorded a goal and an assist. They were absolutely dominant on the power play, in the third period and overtime, carrying play for the Pens and leading them to victory.

* This was a tough night for the starting goaltenders. At one end, Tuukka Rask was fighting the puck all night. The Pens could sense it, and they kept firing it at him, never letting him get comfortable and beating him clean on most of the goals. Putting up six on a goalie like Rask is incredibly impressive considering he had allowed one goal or less in each of his last five starts. At the other end,  Tristan Jarry had been terrific for the Pens heading into the game and earned the nod, but struggled at times against a Bruins attack that scored at least five goals for the fifth time in their last six contests.

He was replaced by Matt Murray late in the second period, who came in and was strong in relief. He made a game-changing save with 1:01 left in regulation and the teams tied 5-5. Brad Marchand was awarded a penalty shot after a breakaway attempt, but Murray turned aside his attempt to keep the score even and allow his teammates to get the overtime winner.

* The goalie switch was a wakeup call for the Pens, who responded almost immediately. With just 3.6 seconds left in the second period and Pittsburgh on the power play, Crosby made an unbelievable no-look backhand pass from the corner right on Malkin’s tape. He went down on one knee to bury the one-timer, and helped shift the momentum back on Pittsburgh’s side heading into the intermission. Riley Sheahan made sure they kept that momentum by scoring the tying goal less than three minutes in. From there, the Pens pressed and pressed and refused to let their foot off the gas pedal like they did in the second, outshooting the Bruins 17-6 in the period.

* Overall, the Penguins dominated on special teams tonight. Despite having a big challenge in Boston’s No. 2-ranked penalty kill, which has been so successful because of its aggressiveness, Pittsburgh’s No. 1-ranked power play continued to thrive as both Malkin and Kessel found the back of the net.

“I just think they’re so dynamic,” Sullivan said. “They’re instinctive. They have a scheme, there is a framework there, but what separates them from other power plays is their movement and their instinctive play when they go off the grid a little bit. As a coaching staff, we laugh a lot internally because we would say, how do you prescout our power play? I’m not sure if it’s possible because sometimes we don’t even know what they’re going to do. I think that’s just an indication of their talent level and instincts that they bring to the table.”

Meanwhile, Pittsburgh’s penalty kill thwarted both of Boston’s man-advantage attempts with some tremendous blocks and clears. They are now perfect on the PK in seven straight games. The unit nicknamed the Jacques Squad has had to use different personnel with guys in and out of the lineup, but they’ve jumped in seamlessly. Meanwhile, Riley Sheahan has been an anchor, logging a team-high 2:27 shorthanded minutes while also chipping in a goal

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The Penguins welcomed seven service and adoption dogs to PPG Paints Arena on Saturday night for their contest against the Boston Bruins.

The special guest dogs and their owners were given a red carpet entrance prior to puck drop. The “Puppy Party Suite,” sponsored by Rachael Ray Nutrish, a signature brand of Ainsworth Pet Nutrition, gave pets and their owners a night to remember as they were able to watch the game from one of PPG Paints Arena’s large party suites.

“We were really excited to do something like this; what better way to mash up the two worlds,” said Samantha Bridger, PR director of Ainsworth, describing the quality of this partnership and event between the Penguins and Ainsworth. Thanks to the help of Steve Joyce and Samantha at Ainsworth Pet Nutrition, the Puppy Party Suite was a huge success.

Guests were selected through a social media nomination process with winners being chosen for their heartwarming stories of adoption and service. For instance, “Cuspie,” a Brussels Griffon, found a home with Mariana Ortiz after Cuspie was hit by a car and needed emergency surgery.

The Puppy Party Suite had its own version of the “Two-Headed Monster” as Labrador-Husky mix named “Sidney” and a Whippet, “Geno,” were in attendance. Jake Holmes rescued Sidney just hours before she was to be euthanized and decided to name her after the first goal scorer of Game 6 of the 2016 Eastern Conference Final. But after Phil Kessel notched the first goal of the game, with a primary assist from Sidney Crosby, Holmes decided Sidney was a much better namesake instead of “Phyllis.”

“I would have never imagined this, this is fantastic, this is awesome,” said Holmes when asked if he ever thought he’d see a Penguins game with Sidney.

Geno and owner John Avolio have shared a connection since they first met, as Geno ran into John’s arms when seeing him for the first time. “He’s been an awesome rescue pet ever since that day,” said Avolio. Geno is a therapy dog at multiple oncology centers and facilities for the mentally and physically-disabled, and also participates in the Pawsitive Reading Program, where he listens to children reading him stories.

Brendan Garay and his family found a terrier laying under a car trying to keep warm. Garay brought “Kali” into their home and have had the dog since. “Morgan” helped bring happiness back to Lauren Betar and her family after they lost their dog and house in a fire, while “Biscuit” was given a home by Amanda Gribble Surratt following a fire on a Pittsburgh farm that left Biscuit in an unfavorable situation. Kacie Yost gave a home to “Missy” after Missy jumped right into her arms the first time they met.

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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.”