Hope for the best and plan for the worst. The Pittsburgh Penguins find themselves in a precarious situation for the next six weeks, or more as they stare at life without their best player, captain, top center, and all-time great Sidney Crosby. It’s not going to be easy. Goal scoring was already hard enough, now they must do it without Crosby. The Crosby situation is only one of several which hang above the Penguins heads like an evil mistletoe.
The six-goal outburst against the Toronto Maple Leafs brought smiles to the locker room and everyone breathed easy for a game. Secondary offensive players finished their chances. Bryan Rust and Dominik Kahun each had three points and Evgeni Malkin was dominant.
However, not every player is producing at expected or even acceptable levels. In fact, one of those players strolled into the arena just before 5 p.m. Saturday. Perhaps he had a good reason, but it’s not usually a good look for a struggling winger to just beat the deadline as his teammates are already in the hall playing soccer and warming up. More than PHN noticed and more than PHN was surprised by the time of arrival.
Those are also the things which raise eyebrows in the wrong places, if there wasn’t a good reason (hey, we all get flat tires, take a wrong turn, get sick, or the dog takes a little longer “walk”).
1. The Penguins season is absolutely in jeopardy. There isn’t any question. It’s unlikely the Tampa Bay Lightning will remain mired in their funk much longer, and Toronto is far too talented to slide too far down the standings. A coaching change may finally spark that team (and cost Toronto ownership a truckload of cash).
Carolina is starting to get in gear. The Philadelphia Flyers are already stacking wins and are in the top three of the Metro Division.
Don’t let the St. Louis Blues near-mythical comeback last season fool you. Six or more points behind in January aren’t easy to overcome, in fact, trailing at the Christmas break reduces playoff chances to below 25%.
The Pittsburgh Penguins cannot afford to let things go sideways.
2. The fan’s temperature has been curious. Many are placing more expectation on Sullivan and expecting the Penguins to hold the fort. Trust me, it’s not that easy. As you’ve witnessed in the last week, scoring goals is a skill. The Penguins have a lot of good hockey players, but not a lot of goal scoring skill. One commenter on our site asked: How Barry Trotz or Craig Berube succeeded without talent, and the answer is quite simple. The New York Islanders and St. Louis Blues had far more talent than the Penguins currently have in a sweater.
That’s not a knock on players like Sam Lafferty or even Brandon Tanev, who have each proven their worth, but it is to say don’t expect points from them every night. Any offense is purely a bonus. Teddy Blueger and unfortunately Zach Aston-Reese are also in this category, too.
“I’m getting chances, so there’s nothing to get frustrated about,” Aston-Reese told PHN. Our fun video chat will publish tomorrow.
Realize the Penguins second and third-line centers are Jared McCann (a better winger) and bubble NHL player Joseph Blandisi. Respect for both, but those are some big shoes to fill for players who wouldn’t fill those roles on other teams.
3. The Penguins power-play was simple and ruthlessly effective Saturday night. They only got one chance but packed a game’s worth of shots into just one. It was bombs away from the point and dig for rebounds.
That’s exactly how it’s done. No coaching, no schemes needed. Players making plays. PHN asked head coach Mike Sullivan and the point-men about the change. We also asked Justin Schultz, Juuso Riikola, and John Marino about the simple look power play.
Without giving away the story, Sullivan’s comment was music to hockey lover’s ears, “I hope it becomes a habit, not a trend.”
4. Count me as increasingly impressed by Jack Johnson’s recent play. He’s activating. He’s pushing the offense when possible. He has two points in the last two games without Sidney Crosby, i including his first goal of the season. Not coincidentally, Johnson sneaked into the offensive zone and was uncovered in the left-wing circle.
Success breeds confidence. Confidence breeds more success. Johnson has been the right veteran counter-balance for Riikola and John Marino and has been a valuable asset to the team. Any trade talk around the defenseman is probably null and void.
5. Why doesn’t Tristan Jarry get more starts?
“Just working harder. That’s been the big thing. Last year, they wanted me to improve my practice habits, and going to (Wilkes-Barre/Scranton) I had the mindset that I wanted to get better every day,” Jarry said.
Jarry has talked openly, and did so again Saturday night, about the coaches telling him to improve his practice habits. OK. The kid has done that, and he is stopping pucks at a brick wall rate. Let’s see a little more, eh?
Jarry’s stat line reads: 2-3-0. 1.99 GAA. .938 save percentage.
That’s really, really, good.
6. There was a hole in Canada’s heart and mine Saturday night without Don Cherry and Coach’s Corner. I hope “cancel culture” is happy. I hope the silence was a wake-up call to the rest that we do not need to silence someone we disagree with. He neither incited violence or, in this case, belittled anyone. He said new Canadians should honor those who gave their lives for Canada and it upset him to see new Canadians not honour them. As usual, Don was brash, gruff, and not smooth with his words.
We’ve reached a terrible tipping point in which “incorrect” opinions cannot be held without a great penalty. Do most Canadians of all stripes and colors agree with Cherry? No. But can most adults understand that’s his opinion and doesn’t have to be theirs? Yes.
His was a voice for the soul, history, and passion of hockey. He was a window into the game for many of us. And most adults were smart enough to allow him to say what he wanted because, in addition to things we didn’t like, he spoke volumes about the thing we love.
You don’t have to agree with me. That’s the beauty of this. You don’t have to agree with me to be my friend, to read my columns, or to discuss anything else. I am afraid to write this and afraid of the Twitter backlash. But that’s also why I did. This isn’t about agreeing or disagreeing with Don Cherry. This is about the ability to agree or disagree with each other.
7. Evgeni Malkin is on his game. His game is coming. He may reach those heights he desperately wanted to reach again. His game is worlds better when he takes care of the puck and plays 200 feet. He is truly one of the best of his generation but always falls short in public opinion because of the Sidney Crosby shadow, but also because of his occasionally sloppy play.
He could be the Pittsburgh Penguins life preserver.
Look out, NHL. This could be fun to watch.