The Pittsburgh Penguins have not been this good in a couple of years, maybe even a few years. They’ve earned points in six straight games and have won three in a row. The streak technically pales in comparison to their eight-game winning streak in December through January but this recent run has something different: Legitimacy.
The Penguins won games in the middle of the season with great individual efforts, a great period, or on talent. They did not win with complete team efforts throughout an entire hockey game. They certainly didn’t win a lot of games by adhering to their core construction.
Now, they are. Now, they’re not just beating good teams, they’re shutting them down. And now, by playing to their identity and eschewing their high-flying desires, the Pittsburgh Penguins are again contenders.
Circle the Stadium Series game, as Jack Johnson said that’s when the team rallied around their defensemen.
Circle putting Nick Bjugstad and Patric Hornqvist together. The pair have been good and are becoming dominant. The play in the low zone with a physical presence not seen in these parts in a long, long time (my best comparison is young Jaromir Jagr with Bryan Trottier circa 1991). Their corner work has been extraordinary. Last night, they had a 90 percent scoring chance ratio with Dominik Simon. Then 82 percent with Jared McCann after Sullivan flipped McCann and Simon on the first and third lines.
“These guys play fast. It’s a fun, fun way to play,” Bjugstad said. “You can’t get fancy. You’ve got to be smart in certain areas.”
Circle the arrival of Erik Gudbranson who has added more physicality on the Penguins blue line. The front of the Penguins net has been a no-fly zone as the Penguins have a second pairing able to defend it. It isn’t a coincidence that Matt Murray is seeing and stopping shots. Gudbranson has been worlds better than anyone (including me) thought possible.
Circle the struggles of Phil Kessel and Evgeni Malkin. Each had to humble themselves to play better hockey. Each are dealing with the new realities and the results will pay dividends for themselves and the team. Individually, Phil Kessel is playing his best hockey since late 2016. Hint, hint, hint.
Circle the emergence of McCann as another fast, tenacious puck hound who can disrupt, defend, dig, and occasionally score. And a kid who is ecstatic to be a Penguin.
Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan has been preaching a simple brand of hockey. If you’d like, go ahead and circle Sullivan’s recognition of the changing game and where the Penguins needed to be in the changing landscape. GM Jim Rutherford has not been grocery shopping independent of his cook’s menu.
“We’ve talked a lot about just simplifying our game, and when you do that you tend to manage the puck better; you’re on the right side of the puck, you’re on the right side of scrums,” Sullivan said. “As a result, you become a team that is harder to play against.”
These Penguins have become very hard to play against. They’ve arrived at this point out of necessity. Without three of their four top defensemen, the Penguins felt a call to their own zone. Pittsburgh Hockey Now asked Bjugstad if there was a talk about it, but he said simply the group knew what had to be done.
“There is a standard that has been set and everyone seems to strive for it,” Bjugstad told PHN.
That standard is Sidney Crosby, who has goals in six straight games but “sadly” ended his streak of five consecutive multi-point games. In 62 games, Crosby has 87 points (31g, 56a). Crosby has been carrying the Penguins offense while the Penguins searched for second and third lines.
Circle GM Jim Rutherford. He took a ton of criticism, some earned, over the Derick Brassard situation, the Jack Johnson signing, the Erik Gudbranson trade and everything else. Guys who are supposedly bad at hockey are playing pretty well and providing the Penguins with their strengths, literally and figuratively.
It’s just six games and three wins in a row, but it feels like the titanic shift the Penguins have been talking about, preaching to, hoping for, and wanting for a long time. The style of play is radically different than what the Penguins fancy themselves but adversity forced them to buy-in. The Penguins haven’t paid lip service to help their defensemen or “playing on the right side of the puck,” they’ve simply done it.
Color me as more impressed with their efforts in the past two weeks than I have been since 2016. And that team emerged in March, too.
Kris Letang will presumably return soon. If and when Bryan Rust returns, the Penguins will only get better.
March of the Penguins, Part II?