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The 4 Big Reasons for Penguins Turnaround



Pittsburgh Penguins. Sidney Crosby and P.O Joseph

WASHINGTON, D.C. — It was perhaps the biggest win for the Pittsburgh Penguins since they won Game 4 of the 2022 Round One series against the New York Rangers. Thursday, the Penguins forcefully asserted themselves back into the Stanley Cup playoff picture with a 4-1 win over the Washington Capitals.

The Penguins were not always in control of the game, but they were in control of themselves. They limited Washington’s “unleash the fury” charge in the third period and took advantage of the Capitals’ mistakes.

Not only did the Penguins play something akin to a perfect road game, but they maintained it for 60 minutes despite what must have been very tired legs. They played three games in four days, as part of eight games in 14 days, including six on the road.

What should have been their death march became their rebirth.

April of the Penguins?

Several factors led to the Penguins’ turnaround, but we’ll take one of those for granted: Sidney Crosby. Before Thursday’s buttoned-up win over Washington, Crosby had 15 points in six games.

Ho hum. Nothing to see here. Just one of the greatest of all time doing all-time great things at a clutch moment.

Alex Nedeljkovic has started seven straight, and the Penguins have points in seven straight (5-0-2). Nedeljkovic’s play has ranged from steady to spectacular. He’s on a heater and making timely saves.

Good goaltending is something the Penguins have gotten a lot of this season, only to be on the wrong end of the scoreboard anyway, but is sure doesn’t hurt.

4 Factors for Penguins Turnaround

P.O Joseph-Kris Letang

The defensive pair has not only provided reliable defense in the last couple of weeks, but Joseph has produced the best hockey of his career. He has skated the puck out of trouble, been well-positioned in the defensive zone, and he’s been intelligently active in the offensive zone.

The difference between Joseph’s work in the top four with Letang and that of Ryan Graves cannot be ignored. What was a problem no longer is. The differential is significant.

“I think (my game) is improving. Definitely helps when you play with Kris and these guys,” Joseph told PHN Thursday night. “I’m just trying to do my part. I think (I’m) defending well, bringing some offense whenever the time comes. But I just try to stay in my square and help the team win as much as possible.”

The duo’s speed, puck movement, and ability to transition to offense and back on defense is a feature.

Hoagies and Grinders/Net Front Battles

Michael Bunting and Bryan Rust. Rust provides more sandpaper on Sidney Crosby’s line with a good degree of finish. Bunting drags the play to the net, creating space for Evgeni Malkin and opportunities in the scoring zones.

To steal coach Mike Sullivan’s vernacular, Bunting drags the second line into the fight and creates a gritty top-six.

Bunting is just plain scrappy. The combination of more talented grinders in the top six forces opposing defensemen–usually the top pairs–to defend on the wall and in front of the net. The more time top defensemen spend battling near their crease, the less time opposing top lines have to battle at the Penguins’ crease.

The flip has been significant. The Penguins were losing games because they were losing net-front battles. That’s no longer the case.

Drew O’Connor also continues to improve. He’s flying, and the defensemen who are trying to defend him are being forced to turn and chase him as he streams past. His penalty kill shift Thursday was as good as the Penguins have seen all season.

Jack St. Ivany

St. Ivany isn’t a savior or even a top-four defenseman (yet), but his steady and physical work in the defensive zone deserves recognition. He might dust the puck a little too much and won’t put up many points, but he keeps the crease clear, and he keeps opponents to the perimeter.

He’s a missing ingredient that keeps goals off the board.

Like Joseph and Bunting, he’s a step forward in areas where the Penguins struggled. St. Ivany hasn’t been as noticeably physical in the NHL as he was in the AHL, but by getting his 6-foot-3, 201-pound frame between his net and opponents, he’s keeping the Penguins goalies’ eyes on the prize, not the back of their pants.

“I think (Ryan Shea) and Jack have played really well together as a pair. They’re defending hard. They’ve been good on the penalty kill,” Sullivan said. “They have pretty good chemistry. That’s something that we noticed watching watching them in the time we’ve had them here.”

St. Ivany averaged 16:08 of ice time over the last three games. If there’s a sign that the coach trusts you, it’s ice time, and he’s getting more.


Is it the injection of youth? Sure, a little. Is it seeing their season flash before their eyes, going down in a ball of flames? Possibly.

Whatever it was, the Penguins snapped to against Colorado, racing to a 4-0 lead. Colorado stormed back to win 5-4 in overtime, but somehow, the team managed to take the positives rather than crumble.

Two days later, they skated with and controlled the Carolina Hurricanes. In the next two games, they relaxed against the lowly Columbus Blue Jackets, winning one but squandering another and getting only a loser point.

Hey, you can’t rewrite DNA overnight.

The win over the New York Rangers on Monday was as equally impressive as the one over Carolina, but the comeback win over the New Jersey Devils on Tuesday was the rocket fuel they’d been looking for. They were desperate, hungry, but exhausted. And facing an ignominious end to their small streak, a season’s worth of frustration turned to resilience.

Weary legs became energized.

For once, the Penguins did not give up a third-period lead but took one back as the tired crew boat raced New Jersey into the Hudson for a 6-3 win.

I think the players are committed to playing on both sides of the puck. I think they’re getting to the blue paint in the offensive zone, for example … But I think the thing I’m most proud of is just the commitment to play defense,” Sullivan said. “We’ve got numbers (back). There’s there’s sticks everywhere. I think we’re hard to play against when we have numbers, and there’s a collective effort out there. And a lot of it just boils down to details and commitment. And I think the guys have it right now, and they deserve a lot of credit.”

Something changed. Perhaps a fear of the end. Perhaps those missing elements, like the very best of Erik Karlsson combined with the improvements on the blue line and the middle six. Maybe it was a few new faces who weren’t burdened by the losses.

Factors changed. The team changed.

A few wins combined with a surprising number of losses by the teams in front of them allowed them to catch the draft and pull closer.

Now, it’s momentum.

“I think, without a doubt, (getting close in the standings) has an inspirational effect. To know we have a legitimate chance — We can say all along, ‘just keep going, keep going. Anything can happen.’ But when it’s tangible, it’s right in front of you, I think that gets the guys excited,” Sullivan said. “I give the players a lot of credit. We’ve worked extremely hard to get to this point.”