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Penguins Six-Pack: Graves Gains Ground; Scenario for Guentzel Return



Jeff Carter goal celebration 3/5/24

The Pittsburgh Penguins are a lot of things.

In denial is not one of them.

They are all too aware of where they sit in the Eastern Conference and Metropolitan Division standings. Of how remote their chances of getting into the Stanley Cup playoffs are. Of how very different their roster might look after the NHL trade deadline passes at 3 p.m. Friday.

But recognizing those realities does not mean they are ready to give in to them.

At least, that’s what Marcus Pettersson insisted after the Penguins’ 5-3 victory against Columbus Tuesday night at PPG Paints Arena.

“We can’t be focused on anything other than the next effort, the next shift and the next game,” he said. “We’re not going to give up until we’re very, very mathematically out of it.”

That doesn’t mean he was particularly impressed by anything he saw from either team.

“It was a sloppy game, overall,” Pettersson said.

Coach Mike Sullivan gave a rather lukewarm endorsement of his team’s performance — “For the most part, I thought we played OK,” he said — and acknowledged that the Penguins being sellers as the deadline approaches seems to be affecting his personnel.

“Obviously, there’s a lot of noise around the team right now,” Sullivan said. “Probably more so than there’s been in a lot of years.”

1. Graves making strides

Defenseman Ryan Graves, who has had a disappointing first season with the Penguins, assisted on first-period goals by Jesse Puljujarvi and Evgeni Malkin, his first multiple-point game since Nov. 11.

Graves was signed as a free agent to provide a defense-oriented presence alongside Kris Letang or Erik Karlsson, but underachieved his way from that top-four role down to the third pairing.

His play has improved of late, however, and Graves contributed four blocked shots to go with his pair of assists against Columbus.

“I think he’s played a lot better over the last few weeks,” Sullivan said. “I think (Graves) has done a much better job here over the last three-plus weeks, and I think his confidence has grown because of it.”

2. Bizarre bounces

Neither Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Tristan Jarry nor his Columbus counterpart, Jet Greaves, figures to look back fondly on this game, in part because both were victimized by tough-luck goals.

Malkin inadvertently deflected a shot by Columbus defenseman Andrew Peeke past Jarry for the second Blue Jackets goal, and Greaves twice was burned by unfortunate caroms during Penguins power plays.

The first came when a clearing attempt from behind the goal line by Blue Jackets defenseman Erik Gudbranson hit Rickard Rakell, who was standing near the right post, and went into the net. On the second, which proved to be the game-winner, Jeff Carter’s centering pass caromed off Peeke, who was hunkered down in the crease, and got by Greaves.

“It’s just one of those nights where you need to keep battling,” said Jarry, who stopped 34 of 37 shots. “I don’t think both of us, both goalies, expect those kind of bounces to happen, but you have to be prepared and sometime they go in. You just have to move by it.”

3. Not how they Drew it up

There has not been much for the Pittsburgh Penguins to enjoy this season.

Now when they entered it intent on challenging for a championship, but seem doomed to sit out the playoffs.

One bright spot, though, has been the work of forward Drew O’Connor, who has flashed top-six potential while playing a solid two-way game.

Which is why it was almost inevitable that some misfortune would befall him, as it did Tuesday, when he sat out the third period because of a concussion.

Sullivan announced the injury, but gave no indication of its severity or how long O’Connor is expected to be out.

The Columbus game was a demonstration of O’Connor’s versatility, as he shifted from top-six winger to third-line center.

He logged nine minutes, seven seconds of ice time (all at even-strength) and won three of five faceoffs before leaving the game.

Precisely where O’Connor will fit in with the Penguins when he returns, regardless of when that might be, is unclear, but there’s little doubt that he’s earned a place in their plans.

4. Back so soon?

With the NHL trade deadline closing in, it’s entirely possible that some of the players the Penguins used Tuesday won’t still be on the roster when Washington visits PPG Paints Arena Thursday. Or, certainly, when the Penguins go to Boston Saturday.

And while there have been reports that Kyle Dubas, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ president of hockey operations and GM, would like to have a deal in place for Jake Guentzel Wednesday, Dubas’ first priority must be to maximize the return for Guentzel, not to finalize a trade as quickly as possible.

Most of the interest in Guentzel appears to be coming from the Western Conference, with Vancouver among the teams expected to make a serious bid for him.

Edmonton also has been mentioned as a possible suitor, and it could be quite a story if the Oilers land him, since Guentzel will be eligible for return from the Long-Term Injured list Sunday, which just happens to be when Edmonton is scheduled to play at PPG Paints Arena.

That crew that puts together those video tributes to returning players (the ones who were key members of a championship club, anyway) might want to begin working on the one for Guentzel, just in case.

5. Open seating

The official attendance was 17.072, well below PPG Paints Arena’s capacity of 18,187 for hockey.

And that figure reflects tickets in circulation, not actual people in seats.

The latter total would have been considerably lower, because there were plenty of unoccupied ones.

That’s not surprising, given how the Penguins tumbled out of serious playoff contention, and while it might seem logical that the situation won’t improve, five of the Penguins’ 10 remaining home games will be played on Saturdays and Sundays, when turnouts tend to be higher.

Still, the likely loss of playoff revenue, coupled with a drop in regular-season attendance, isn’t like to please the corporate accountants.

Then again, maybe that decline in money coming in will be offset by what is pared from the payroll between now and the trade deadline.

6. Trading places

Alex Nylander, who went to Columbus in the trade for Emil Bemstrom last week, got a torrid start with the Blue Jackets, with four goals and two assists in his first five games with the Blue Jackets, including a hat trick Monday night against Vegas.

He wasn’t much of a factor against the Pittsburgh Penguins, though, recording three shots on goal in 15 minutes, 19 seconds of ice time.

Bemstrom, meanwhile, had four shots and an assist on the Penguins’ second power-play goal in 12 minutes, 31 seconds of playing time.

There is another factor that will determine which team fared best in the trade, however: Columbus also is getting a sixth-round draft choice that will be upgraded to a third-rounder if Bemstrom scores five more goals during this regular season.