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Penguins Six-Pack: Handling a Graves Situation; Can a Win Be a Loss?



Penguins celebrate Malkin goal

Defenseman Ryan Graves logged just five minutes, 27 seconds of ice time before leaving the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 3-2 win over Columbus Thursday night at PPG Paints Arena because of an unspecified upper-body injury.

His departure put the burden of handling the duties that normally would have been given to Graves on the five defensemen who remained.

That’s what one would expect, anyway.

The reality, though, is that Kris Letang appears to have almost singlehandedly picked up most of the ice time that Graves would have gotten if he stayed in the game.

Letang ended up playing a season-high 31 minutes, 15 seconds. Playing time for the other defensemen ranged from 13:56 (Jack St. Ivany) to 21:59 (Erik Karlsson).

This hardly was the first time the Penguins have gone down a defenseman during Letang’s 18 seasons with them, so he’s developed a strategy for dealing with that situation.

“You try to simplify things,” he said. “Obviously, you don’t want to get caught out there too long. I mean, it’s going to happen … You want to play simple, short shifts, try to stay as fresh as you can.”

While that’s a sound plan, it didn’t quite work out. Letang’s average shift was 69 seconds long, which was 16 more than Marcus Pettersson, whose shifts were the second-longest on the Penguins’ defense.

Here are six more observations from the Penguins-Blue Jackets game:

1. A good win … or was it?

This was a very good night for the Penguins.

Or a very bad one, depending on one’s perspective.

The two points they earned against Columbus — coupled with losses by Philadelphia, Washington and Detroit, all teams the Penguins trail in the Eastern Conference playoff race — moved them to within seven points of the Capitals, who hold the second wild-card spot in the East, and eight of the Flyers, who are third in the Metropolitan Division.

While conceding the long odds they face, the Penguins insist they haven’t given up hope of qualifying for the playoffs, so every win they get helps in that regard.

At the same time, the victory moved the Penguins into 22nd place in the overall standings, which means there are now 10 clubs below them.

That matters because the Penguins have the right to hold onto their 2024 first-round draft choice, which they sent to San Jose in the Erik Karlsson trade, and replace it with their No. 1 choice in 2025 if they finish in the bottom 10 of the league.

If the season ended today — and no, that won’t happen — the Sharks would indeed get the Penguins’ first-rounder this summer.

2. Net intrigue

Alex Nedeljkovic made his third consecutive start in goal, and stopped 17 of 19 shots to raise his record to 12-6-5.

While it’s not known whether Nedeljkovic will be called upon again when the Penguins visit Columbus Saturday, his heavier-than-usual workload might be as much of a tacit expression of dissatisfaction of No. 1 goalie Tristan Jarry’s performance of late as it is a reward for Nedeljkovic’s solid play.

Jarry has given up 16 goals on 86 shots during his three most recent appearances and is 1-5-1 in his past seven decisions.

Nedeljkovic, meanwhile, is bolstering the case for the Penguins to aggressively try to re-sign him when his contract expires after this season.

3. Bemstrom bottoming out

The Penguins sent forward Alex Nylander and a sixth-round draft choice in 2026 to Columbus for winger Emil Bemstrom on Feb. 22, with a provision that the pick would become a third-rounder if Bemstrom scores six goals before the end of the regular season.

The Penguins probably don’t have to worry much about parting with a third-round selection.

Bemstrom scored in his first game with the Penguins, then went 15 in a row without a goal before being a healthy scratch for the past two games.

When — or even if — he will get back into the lineup isn’t clear. Bemstrom is scheduled to be a restricted free agent with arbitration rights after this season.

Nylander, conversely, has thrived in Columbus, putting up eight goals and three assists in 20 games. That contrasts rather vividly with the one goal and one assist he had in 14 games with the Penguins in 2022-23 and this season.

He didn’t get an opportunity to show off for his most recent former team, however, because he is nursing an injury that has caused him to sit out Columbus’ past two games.

4. Crosby’s closing in

Sidney Crosby got the primary assist on Evgeni Malkin’s second power-play goal of the game late in the second period, then set up Drew O’Connor’s game-winner 35 seconds into the third.

Those points pushed his team-leading total to 78, and put him on the cusp of hockey history: He has gotten those points in 72 games, which means he needs only four more goals and/or assists in the next 10 games — assuming he plays in all of those — to guarantee that he’ll average at least a point-per-game for the 19th time in his career, which would tie Wayne Gretzky’s NHL record.

Given the way he’s piled up points lately, there’s not much reason to believe Crosby will need all 10 of those remaining games. He has nine in the past three games, which means he’s had a hand in nine of the Penguins’ 11 goals during that span.

5. Welcome to the big time

While much has been made of the infusion of young players into the Penguins’ lineup in recent days, Columbus used a line more raw than any unit the Penguins sent out.

Members of the Blue Jackets’ fourth line — James Malatesta, Tyler Angle and Carson Meyer — began the evening with a combined total of 39 games of NHL experience, only 10 of which had been accrued in 2023-24.

Those three did not record a shot, but did account for 10 of the 25 hits with which Columbus was credited. That included five by Malatesta, which tied him for the most in the game.

While Malatesta (20) is young enough to qualify as a true prospect, Angle (23) and Meyer (26) have been around the pro game for a while.

6. The gang’s all here (mostly)

Perhaps it’s because of the financial investment required to purchase tickets to most NHL games.

Or maybe it’s just evidence of how much of deep the passion for hockey in this region is running these days.

Whatever the reason, there were surprisingly few empty seats for a game between a couple of clubs that are in the final throes of a disappointing season for both.

While the actual turnout didn’t appear to be quite as high as the announced attendance of 18,191, which reflects the number of tickets in circulation rather than bodies in seats, there were few significant expanses in either bowl with no occupants.

March 28, 2024 crowd

PPG Paints Arena crowd during first period.