Connect with us


Kingerski: Ned’s Net, Why Sullivan Should Start Nedeljkovic



Pittsburgh Penguins, Sidney Crosby, Alex Nedeljkovic. Stanley Cup playoffs await

In the face of all logic, the Pittsburgh Penguins surged back into the Stanley Cup playoff race. They rode a chaotic and frantic 10-game points streak back into contention even as their best came and went, sometimes from shift to shift. Yet they collectively rose above themselves and their opponents.

All 10 games and their unsuccessful attempt at 11 featured Alex Nedeljkovic in net. In that same vein, coach Mike Sullivan should keep Nedeljkovic in the net instead of No. 1 goalie Tristan Jarry for their penultimate game Monday against the Nashville Predator at PPG Paints Arena.

The Penguins’ points streak wasn’t always pretty, but they did so with Nedeljkovic as the starter. However, that alone is not enough reason to reinsert him in the cage Monday.

There is no more “hot hand” to play. The Penguins have surrendered five or more goals in each of their last two games and four or more in three of their last four.

No, let’s skip past the superficial and bumper sticker arguments, the anti-Jarry sentiments, and the golden-boy backup syndrome.

Sullivan should keep, and the Penguins need Nedeljkovic in net for all of the reasons that cannot be proven. It was Nedeljkovic who showed genuine character when he faced the media Saturday night after a soul-bruising 6-4 loss to the Boston Bruins.

He wasn’t very good and didn’t last beyond Boston’s third goal, yet he faced the media and took the hardball questions that followed. He also took responsibility, calling his performance, among other things, “not good enough.”

It was a show of leadership and accountability. It was also a show of the qualities that Sullivan has recently praised. Sullivan has been asked by multiple reporters in multiple cities about sticking with Nedeljkovic, or “Ned’s play,” and perhaps it’s time to read more into Sullivan’s comments. For example, Sullivan’s comments from last Thursday after the Penguins beat the Detroit Red Wings 6-5 in overtime.

“He’s making timely saves, and he’s finding ways to help us win games. And I think there’s something to that. I just love his compete level. I love his battle level. His demeanor,” Sullivan said. “I didn’t think he had his best early in the game, but then I thought he found it, and he made some big saves. His puck handling is a real asset in helping us with breakouts. He puts our defensemen in pretty good positions and handles some of the pressure forechecks that a lot of the league is bringing in today’s game. So I think he’s really competing hard in there. And I think he’s finding ways to help us win games.”

Sullivan could have stopped after praising his demeanor. That’s all he needed to say.

Conventional wisdom is to start Jarry. He’s the franchise No. 1 goalie on a five-year contract with an average annual value of $5.375 million. The book says to play him when he’s healthy.

But sometimes your gut at the blackjack table necessitates hitting on 16 or standing on 12.

Sullivan is faced with one of those moments Monday. Simple logic posits Jarry should return to the cage, and the Penguins will have their best chance to win with their more talented goalie. Until a team-wide swoon in early March, Jarry’s save percentage hovered around .915.

Given the new golden age of offense in the NHL, that’s a solid number. Yet, Jarry’s record was rarely much, if at all, above .500.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Nedeljkovic had a lower save percentage, and despite getting the second of back-to-backs, his record was well into positive territory. Currently, Jarry is 19-25-5 with a mere .903 save percentage, while Nedeljkovic is 17-6-7, also with a .903 stopper rate.

If Jarry and Nedeljkovic are stopping the same number of shots, how is Nedeljkovic’s record so much better?

It’s those intangibles that could make the difference in the final two games of the season.

The scrappiness, battle, and compete level that Sullivan likes to cite are the very reasons Nedeljkovic should start.

Jarry might be far more talented than Nedeljkovic, but the situation calls for a scrapper. The Penguins need that energy and attitude to rescue their season and keep alive their playoff hopes.

Sullivan and president of hockey operations Kyle Dubas can worry about the future effects of the Nedeljkovic and Jarry discussion this summer. In the here and now, it should be Ned’s net.