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Matt-alytics: Penguins ‘Big Three’ Doing Great Things Post-30, But How?

There’s no doubt the power play has given the Penguins’ stars welcomed mid-career lifts.

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Evgeni Malkin Pittsburgh Penguins
Jeanine Leech / Icon Sportswire

A Pittsburgh Penguin has won the Art Ross Trophy 15 times, easily the most for one franchise in NHL history, but it doesn’t look like a 16th will be added in 2018.

Even though Evgeni Malkin has surged to second place in the scoring race with 70 points, he sits eight behind Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov, who’s on pace to deliver the Lightning’s third scoring title.

But Malkin won’t need hardware to validate what has been an encouraging season for him and the Penguins, if only for the fact he’s been on the ice more often. Not since 2011-12 has the 31-year-old Malkin played more than 70 regular-season games, but he’s missed just four of the Penguins’ 61 to date.

Speaking of 2011-12, that’s also the last time Malkin has scored goals at such a rapid rate, at least on a per-game basis. With 33 goals heading into Friday’s matchup with the Hurricanes, Malkin not only is just three behind Alex Ovechkin for the league lead, he has a 0.58 goals-per-game rate. Only in 2011-12, when he won his second Art Ross, has Malkin posted a better goal-per-game average (0.67) in a single season.

Goal-scoring can be fickle, subject to the vagaries of chance and goaltending. Malkin’s 18.9 shooting percentage is the highest of his career, so there might be some regression coming late. Still, lamp-lighting is the most valued commodity in the sport and Malkin has recaptured some magic there.

The same could be said for his fellow big-time scorers, Sidney Crosby and Phil Kessel.

Each member of the trio ranks in the top 10 of the points race, a three-pronged onslaught the Penguins haven’t seen for a full season during this current era of Stanley Cup contention:

If another championship was in the offing, the Penguins’ embarrassment of top-end talent was going to provide much of the thrust, but that seems to be the case even more so during this drive to a three-peat.

But how?

Getting Their Phil

I took some heat on social media for suggesting earlier in the week that the Penguins’ stars might not be top-20 players in a few years. Considering the common aging curve in hockey, I didn’t consider my statement to be particularly controversial. All three men have crested 30 years of age, and hockey remains a young player’s game.

Still, I understand why some Penguins fans may think their stars could be exceptions to the rule. Hey, there’s always the possibility, especially because of the way they’ve combined on the power play this season.

For instance, take Malkin’s quest for his third scoring title. Despite his high level of production, his 2.38 points per 60 minutes of even-strength play is actually the fourth-lowest rate of his career.

Crosby’s reliance on the power play is even more pronounced. The captain’s 66 points puts him in a tie with Kessel for 10th in the league, but get this: Crosby is on pace for his worst five-on-five season in terms of goals per hour (0.39), points per hour (1.56) and shots per hour (7.34).

Those are concerning metrics, for sure, especially considering they’re not even close to what Crosby put up last year, but power-play production counts just the same. With the man advantage, Crosby has produced his highest-ever assist rate (6.1 per hour) in a full season, in addition to goal and shot rates close to career averages.

If there’s anyone who’s loaded up on the power play, though, it’s Kessel. Phil has found a home in Pittsburgh overall, but especially in that left circle when the Penguins have the extra man. Of forwards who have played more than 10 games this season, only Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine has a higher percentage of power-play points (25 of 48 total) than Kessel’s 50 percent (33 of 66).

Kessel has had exactly one season in which he averaged more than a point per game, when he put up 82 in 82 games played back in 2011-12 for the Maple Leafs. At 30 years old and in his 12th NHL season, Kessel might just have a career year, with much of that thanks to power play.

On this team, this year, he’s not alone.

Powerful X-Factor

What does all this mean? It’s difficult to nail it down.

On one hand, the Penguins’ ‘Big Three’ are to be commended for making the power play as potent as its been. Even after slowing down lately, the Penguins’ power play is still converting at 26.5 percent, which would be one of the best full-season marks this century. Much of that success is due to Crosby, Malkin and Kessel executing well in tandem with their teammates.

At the same time, five-on-five scoring has been a problem for the Penguins all year, and the stars have to bear some of the burden for that. While special-teams situations have higher leverage than even strength because goals are more likely to be scored with fewer players on the ice, the fact remains that even the most penalty-filled games are played mostly with five skaters aside.

During their 16-4-1 surge into solid playoff position, the Penguins have gotten better at both producing and preventing even-strength goals. Give the stars some credit for that, even on the defensive side, but this year’s edition remains particularly reliant on the power play.

That’s fine, as long as the big boys keep popping in the goals. Not sure I’d bet against them at this point, even if Malkin might not continue to shoot the lights out and if opponents have a little more success denying Crosby and Kessel’s playmaking from both sides of the ice.

The one thing that might really slow them down? Officiating. Power-play opportunities are up to 3.13 per team per game after an all-time low of 2.99 last season. Just a slight downtick in penalties and the Penguins would be getting squeezed.

Just another reason why a well-rounded offense is best over the long haul, even if watching some of the premier attackers on the planet feast on the man advantage is always a marvel. There’s no doubt the power play has given the Penguins’ stars welcomed mid-career lifts.

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A lifelong hockey addict, Matt has been fortunate enough to make his career in his sport of choice, working in high school, juniors, college and the pros in various multimedia roles. Previous to joining PHN, Matt was a credentialed Penguins/NHL beat reporter for the past two seasons, including coverage of the 2017 Stanley Cup Final. He signed on with PHN in Feb. 2018 as co-owner, contributing commentary and analysis in various forms.

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