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Penguins Newbies: Blame Kulikov for Comeback, Sullivan Likes Nylander



Pittsburgh Penguins, Alex Nylander

CRANBERRY — New Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Dmitry Kulikov was shocked that was the biggest Penguins comeback in 16 years. He wasn’t shocked that the Penguins came back from four goals against the Columbus Blue Jackets but that the Penguins haven’t done it more often.

Kulikov was part of the cardiac kids in Minnesota last season, and it seems he brought the comeback chaos with him.

According to Kulikov’s recollection, the team pulled the goalie with nine minutes to go in one game. Seven minutes to go in the 2022 Winter Classic. In both instances, they almost pulled off an incredible comeback, scoring goals with an empty net.

Last season, Minnesota scored a league-leading 21 goals with an empty net behind them. That was six more than second-place Tampa Bay Lightning and 11 more than third-place. That’s a lot of 6v5 goals.

So, blame Kulikov for the crazy comeback.

“It was my first game. You’re just trying to stop the bleeding,” he said as we chatted informally. “I wanted to make sure I didn’t get scored on.”

Joining a new team is entirely like stepping onto a moving train, an analogy coach Mike Sullivan uses often.

The Penguins’ new defenseman is an affable sort. If he sticks around, I think you’ll come to like him, though his recent career path and the NHL trade deadline have not been kind to stability. The Penguins are his seventh team in seven seasons since playing six seasons with the Florida Panthers.

Nick Bonino /  Mikael Granlund

The Pittsburgh Penguins’ old/new center doesn’t remember the old PK system of which he was an integral member en route to a pair of Stanley Cup parades. Still, admittedly the new PK under assistant coach Mike Vellucci is much different than what he’s been doing in San Jose.

“I honestly can’t really remember (the old Penguins system), but I know it’s way different from what I’ve been doing for two years, so I’m just trying to watch video and wrap my mind around it,” Bonino told PHN. “I know our basic setup, but it’s those in-between pucks and the broken plays off the rush, Shots that you’ve got to figure out where to be, not to give up a quick hit.”

Bonino will be a vital cog in the Penguins’ special teams, which have recently not been very special.

“We’ve given up some goals, so we don’t feel good about that. But we also feel like these guys are smart players. They’re trying to learn a different type of kill than they were accustomed to,” said Sullivan. “And so we understand there’s going to be a bit of an adjustment process there.”

Off the ice, the Penguins’ new fourth-line center is also a chauffeur for new Penguins forward Mikael Granlund.

“Don’t tell him, but he’s a good guy,” Bonino joked.

For now, it’s a new-guy ride share as Bonino, with a wry smile, tried to pass off Granlund on Jake Guentzel for an afternoon.

Such is life after the NHL trade deadline when players often live in a hotel for a week or two sans their car or many of the comforts of home. Some even remain in a hotel for the remainder of the season, though Granlund doesn’t sound like the type who will crash in a hotel for a couple of months.

Having a contract for two more years certainly helps.

Alex Nylander

In a couple of days, the Pittsburgh Penguins can afford to make his emergency recall from the WBS Penguins a regular recall. Though the particulars of how a team gains salary cap space over a few days could drive a few accounts mad, it’s legit. 

Tuesday, PHN wrote about Nylander playing a simple game and playing hard at both ends of the ice. Wednesday, Sullivan expounded further with ample praise.

Take it for what it’s worth. By now, I think I know Sullivan’s tone and hints well enough to make educated guesses on what he’s really saying or thinking, even when his actual words intentionally obfuscate such directness.

He liked Alex Nylander. For real.

Rather than take a snippet, here’s the lengthy answer, including Sullivan expounding on the little things Nylander did to impress.

“So the coaches were really impressed with Alex’s game. We knew he was a guy that could make plays. He’s got good offensive instincts. I think that’s the strength of his game. But what really impressed us was just his 200-foot game, his game away from the puck, and some of the details of defending — his strength along the walls and protecting pucks,” Sullivan began.

“He made good decisions with the puck. He wasn’t a high-risk player, and that’s an important aspect of winning — making sure that you make good decisions when you have the puck, so you don’t put your team in vulnerable spots. I thought he made some (good) decisions coming through the neutral zone with the puck where there wasn’t a lot going on, and he was willing to play behind our opponent’s defensemen and try to create offense in different ways. He didn’t force things that weren’t there.

“And I thought his play away from the puck was pretty solid. His recognition skills, his details of whether it be D-zone coverage or face-off responsibilities, things like that, he was locked in. And I think there’s a lot of growth there, and he deserves a lot of credit for it. I think our coaching staff in Wilkes-Barre did a really good job with Alex in trying to impress upon him the importance of that and establishing himself as a regular NHL player. But we were really impressed with his game.

I thought he had a really solid game for us.”

I repeat: that was nothing close to resembling the player PHN graded in October. Who doesn’t love a good comeback story? We may have one soon.

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11 days ago

Detroit used to be a model of dont call up a guy until he is ready. Worked for them for a very long time.

11 days ago

Sullivan should like Heinen as well having 7 points in last nine games he played. Hard on the puck to that creates plays and goes to the front of the net and scored a goal.

Doug Ukish
Doug Ukish
11 days ago
Reply to  Rob

I think he needs some downtime, and when he gets back in the lineup he’s noticeable. When he’s lineup staple, he’s complacent.