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TRAIKOS

'We get everybody's A-game': Rutherford on Penguins being NHL's measuring stick

By Michael Traikos, Postmedia Network

Pittsburgh Penguins centre Sidney Crosby and Florida Panthers left winger Jamie McGinn watch the puck during an NHL game on Oct. 20, 2017. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Pittsburgh Penguins centre Sidney Crosby and Florida Panthers left winger Jamie McGinn watch the puck during an NHL game on Oct. 20, 2017. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

PITTSBURGH — Jim Rutherford won’t use the term “three-peat.”

It’s a superstitious thing. As a longtime hockey executive who has won three Stanley Cups — one in Carolina, two in Pittsburgh — the Penguins GM has learned not to tempt the hockey gods.

Toss in the fact that he’s also a former NHL goalie and, well, you’ve got a general manager with quite a few quirks, including an old goalie staple of not talking on game days.

What Rutherford will say is that the bulls-eye on his club's back is a lot bigger these days.

How big? The Penguins have been blown out twice already — a 10-1 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks on the second day of the season and a 7-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning this past Saturday.

Heading into Monday night's games, Pittsburgh had the second-best record in the Metropolitan Division. But, aside from a 4-0 victory over Nashville, all of the Penguins' wins so far this season have been decided by a single goal.

“We don’t get any easy games, that’s for sure,” Rutherford told Postmedia on Monday. “We get everybody’s A-game and over the long haul it works out better for us, because it pushes us during the season. Anyway, that’s part of winning.”

Indeed, most teams would love to have the Penguins’ problems.

After winning the Stanley Cup last season, they became the first back-to-back champs in nearly two decades. With Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the roster's core intact, online betting website Bodog.com recently listed Pittsburgh — along with the Blackhawks and Edmonton Oilers — as 12/1 favourites to win the Cup.

Then again, this squad hasn’t looked like a Cup favourite in the early going.

Maybe that’s why Rutherford has been tinkering with the lineup in the last few days, having acquired centre Riley Sheahan from the Detroit Red Wings and placing goalie Antti Niemi on waivers over the weekend.

“We’ve had some games where we’ve played as a team, had our A-game and we’ve been really good, and then we’ve had some games where we haven’t been as good,” Rutherford said. “But there’s not a lot of things in the first nine or 10 games that have overly surprised me. I can’t say that I’m fine with where we’re at, but I feel pretty good about my team.”

In other words, the expectations remain the same as last year. Yet, the reality is that Pittsburgh has a tougher road to travel this time around.

For one, the Penguins are not nearly as deep between the pipes, having lost backup Marc-Andre Fleury to the Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft. Niemi, Fleury’s replacement, was in net for all three regulation-time losses this season and assigned to the minors after giving up seven goals to the Lightning on Saturday.

Casey DeSmith was called up from the AHL on Monday. He has a 3-0 record and 0.98 goals-against average with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

Rutherford said that the 2016-17 tandem of Murray and Fleury was a big reason for Pittsburgh’s success.

“It goes without saying,” he said. “(Murray and Fleury) are both No. 1 goalies. It was a nice luxury. But of course, for cap reasons, that couldn’t keep forever.”

The team is also without third-line centre Nick Bonino and veterans Chris Kunitz and Matt Cullen, which is why Rutherford picked up Sheahan. “Last year, I think we only made one change and we were fortunate where we were in the cycle, contract-wise, where we didn’t have to make big changes because of cap purposes. But this season, there had to be more changes made.”

The biggest year-over-year change is that there is more mileage on the players’ bodies.

Appearing in back-to-back Cup finals adds up. Crosby, for instance, has played in 203 games — 155 in the regular season and 48 in the playoffs — which is 63 more games than Edmonton’s Connor McDavid over the same span.

For that reason, Rutherford isn’t putting too much stock in the first three months of the season. He’s happy that Crosby and Malkin each have 10 points in nine games and that Murray has helped the team pick up a point in every game that he has started.

Really, though, he’s looking forward to the spring.

“It’s not about getting the players thinking about being hungry enough,” Rutherford said. “We have a real character group of players that are hungry and want to win. It’s more about having the proper time to be rested, not only physically but mentally, and sometimes that takes a little bit of time into the season. As time goes on here, our team will get on track and become more consistent.”

“Now if we didn’t have a short off-season, I would have a totally different viewpoint.”

mtraikos@postmedia.com