52 games into a third potential Stanley Cup run and on the heels of a 5-2 win against San Jose, the Penguins trademark enticing, exciting speed game hasn’t been consistently delivered, including last night. The rematch of the 2016 Stanley Cup Final provided the perfect comparison between the 2016 Penguins and the current club
The Penguins are no longer able to outskate a team with four lines.
Let’s rewind–The 2016 mid-season renovation had a very clear proclamation from the team management: Get faster.
Speed. The team took on that new identity. They went from being one of hockey’s most milquetoast renditions to the exhilarating and dominant Penguins that raised the Stanley Cup six months later in San Jose, and did it again in Nashville 364 days later.
The Sharks have the ability to create low-high plays with wingers who lug the puck deep and pass to the point.
Last night, the Penguins adjusted as the Sharks continued to create offense from the point. Structurally, Penguins wingers pinched up on the defensemen and the defensemen shifted tighter towards the faceoff dots.
Goaltender Matt Murray was the only reason the game was competitive after two stanzas. He made 34 saves on 36 shots, after 40 minutes.
The Penguins quickly resorted to double-shifting Crosby. The move distributed talent and speed throughout the lineup.
Forwards (and Backwards)
The well documented vacating of the 3rd line center in the offseason has affected this greatly. Not just the slower transitions and playing the center of the ice, but the overall ability to distribute speed and talent throughout the lineup.
The talent distribution was most prominent during the 2016 Stanley Cup Final with the HBK line. Nick Bonino’s body and skillset featured an ability to play with more free skating players than that of Riley Sheahan, who is 6’3, 214 pounds. Laws of physics. More mass; not necessarily more acceleration.
Certainly not a faster transition, which creates the rush.
Phil Kessel has been the Penguins most consistent player this season, but has struck a goal-scoring wall since flanking Sheahan consistently on the third line. He has zero goals in his last five games, although he is racking up assists on the power play and in limited time with Evgeni Malkin.
In the 6-3 win over Minnesota before the All-Star break, Kessel had three assists but two were power-play tallies and one was with Malkin and Carl Hagelin. Sheahan and winger Jake Guentzel, the third line left wing, didn’t record a shot.
In the past two seasons, Nick Bonino and his linemates also excelled with give-and-go passes. They were a staple of the offense. These plays generated offensive zone time consistently, and created sustained pressure. Something that isn’t happening that often with Sheahan and fourth line center Jean-Sebastien Dea.
In years past, Mike Sullivan took the liberty of pairing a more offensively gifted defenseman with a more defensive minded player.
Without a puck moving defenseman on the third pairing, this allows opponents to be more aggressive on the forecheck. This is where Matt Hunwick is struggling, and it is amplified greatly.
Oleksiak has been worth every bit of the conditional 4th round pick for which he was acquired. Matt Hunwick, not so much.
Hunwick is cradling the puck like it’s a bowling ball, and passing it like fine china. Wingers gravitate to the puck, forcing turnovers in front of the Penguin net. In turn, the Penguins can’t start the rush, minimize pressure or even get a line change against 3rd and 4th line forwards in many circumstances.
Ian Cole however, has eight even-strength points this season in only 38 games played.
Riley Sheahan has played very good hockey as the season has progressed. With that progression, it seems as though the Penguins are figuring out ways to distribute speed in ways reminiscent to the past two years.
Sheary with Crosby, Hagelin flanking Malkin, Kessel with the 3rd pivot and a healthy Bryan Rust replacing Reaves on the bottom bring consistent speed throughout the forward lines.
Get faster. The Penguins did in the 3rd period last night and need to keep the wheels turning with Washington on deck.