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Analysis: How Penguins Can — and Must — Get Better

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Pittsburgh Penguins, Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang, Evgeni Malkin, NHL news

There were times during the first quarter of the season when the Pittsburgh Penguins looked fully capable of contending for another Stanley Cup.

There were others when they seemed incapable of competing for anything more lofty than a prominent spot in the 2023 NHL draft lottery.

They opened the season with a 4-0-1 burst, and take a four-game winning streak into their game at Philadelphia Friday at 5:38 p.m.

That all is pretty impressive. Trouble is, those streaks are bookends to a 2-7-2 free fall.

Distill the first quarter of their season, which technically will end at the midpoint of Period 2 in their game with the Flyers, to a single word, and “Inconsistent” would be an obvious (and wholly appropriate) choice.

Forget playing the same from week-to-week. There have been times when the Penguins failed to produce similar performances from game-to-game. Or period-to-period. Even shift-to-shift.

Now, there are some perfectly good explanations for that. It turns out that the other 31 teams also have some good players and, in general, a strong interest in accumulating as many points as possible.

That certainly can complicate things.

The Penguins’ issues with consistency have affected not only the team, but many of the guys on it, including some with particularly high profiles.

Consider Sidney Crosby, who put up 11 points in the first six games of the season and 11 more in the past five, but just five in the nine games in between. Or Tristan Jarry, who might have been their best player early in the season, but who was subpar for a few weeks before stopping 65 of 66 shots during his past two starts.

Mind you, the Penguins hardly are the only team that hasn’t always performed to expectations, which is no surprise. Frankly, the only safe prediction going into any season is that some things no one could have predicted would happen.

Did anyone really foresee New Jersey having a 13-game winning streak between Oct. 25 and Nov. 21? (Or at any other time, for that matter.) Who envisioned that Anaheim wouldn’t get a victory in regulation until Thanksgiving Eve? Or that San Jose defenseman Erik Karlsson would be tied for fourth place in the NHL scoring race in late November?

Regardless, the Pittsburgh Penguins seem to be righting themselves, and are now tied with Tampa Bay for the final wild-card playoff berth in the Eastern Conference.

They have proven how well they can play; their challenge now is doing it on a more regular basis, including in these areas:

Too Many Power Failures

The Penguins have a No. 1 power play unit that is built around future Hall of Famers.

Evgeni Malkin and Crosby could have started working on their induction speeches years ago, Kris Letang will be in the conversation and Jake Guentzel certainly has the potential to do likewise if he becomes a regular 40-goal man.

There is no question about the group’s star power. Just as there are none about how badly it is underachieving.

Or why that is the case.

The Penguins enter the Flyers game in 26th place in the league rankings, with a conversion rate of 17.9 percent. That’s absurd for a team with their talent.

Or at least it would be if they’d ever come up with a net-front presence anywhere near as effective as Patric Hornqvist was in that role. Then again, there can’t be much incentive to hang out around the crease when the puck doesn’t get sent that way very often.

Overpassing has been a chronic issue for this power play. Mike Sullivan tried to address it by moving Jeff Petry onto the top unit for the Penguins’ 2-1 shootout victory against Calgary Wednesday, and they launched five shots at Flames goalie Dan Vladar during four minutes, 48 seconds with the extra man.

They didn’t score on any of their three power plays, but that should change if they consistently send pucks — and bodies — to the net.

That concept is not complicated. It’s the execution of it that seems to be for the Pittsburgh Penguins. That has to change if they are to reach their potential.

Get Letang Going

It was suggested in this space before the season that Brian Dumoulin was the linchpin of the defense corps, that if he played well on the top pairing, other members of the unit could be slotted into roles befitting their talent.

Well, Dumoulin, whose mobility never has been the same since he suffered an ankle injury that had to be surgically repaired three years ago, is now working with Jan Rutta on the third pairing, so that obviously didn’t work out as the Penguins expected. Or, at least, hoped.

It’s not an issue of effort — Dumoulin is an earnest pro for whom an honest effort on every shift is a given — but he seems more suited to (and more comfortable in) the niche he now fills.

More vexing is the play of his longtime partner, Letang. He still is capable of taking his game to rarefied heights few defensemen can reach, but sometimes seemed to lose focus and concentration, and his play suffered for it.

Although plus-minus ratings can be superficial and misleading, it’s striking that Letang is minus-10, while no other Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman is worse than even.

Marcus Pettersson has been a pretty fair fit as Dumoulin’s replacement on Letang’s left side, and perhaps their partnership will help Letang regularly elevate his game to where his team needs it to be, game-in and game-out.

More Supplemental Scoring

Bryan Rust, Danton Heinen and Jeff Carter have combined for two goals in the past 10 games.

That is, on the surface, a pretty troubling number, since all three are regarded as reliable, if not spectacular, goal-scorers, but the reality is even worse than that raw statistic suggests, because the goal Carter scored during that span was an empty-netter, and the one Rust got effectively was.

Last Saturday, Winnipeg goalie Connor Hellebuyck, after trying to vacate the net in favor of an extra attacker and then having to retreat, turned the puck over to Crosby with a blind, backhand pass.

Crosby promptly set up Rust, who threw a shot past Hellebuyck before he could get into position to stop it.

The last time any of the three actually put a puck behind a goaltender in a conventional game situation was Nov. 1, when Rust swiped a shot past Boston’s Linus Ullmark.

Rust has had some tough luck since then — Wednesday, for example, he blew a shot past Calgary goalie Dan Vladar from inside the right circle, only to have the goal disallowed when a video review determined that the play had been offside — and he obviously contributes in other ways, but the Penguins need more scoring from a top-six winger who has a history of providing it.

The offensive expectations are a bit lower for Carter and Heinen, who work on the third line, but more is needed from both of them, as well.

Heinen scored three times in the first five games, but has none in the past 15. Carter got two in the first four, but his empty-netter in Chicago Sunday is the only one he’s scored in his past 13. (He missed three because of injury.)

Although they’re not counted on to be difference-makers, getting a goal from each of them every four or five games isn’t an unreasonable ask by the Pittsburgh Penguins.

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Pete
Pete
9 days ago

PP is 26th. Wow. That is amazing. If it can start clicking we can really make a run at 1st or 2nd in the division.