Weeks ago, I asked Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Jack Johnson if he had ever seen a team with such a rash of injuries at one time to key players. He recounted a few years ago with the Columbus Blue Jackets when the injury bugs descended upon the team like biblical locusts and the angel of death. Those are my words not his, but he emphasized his point when he reached over and knocked on wood to ward off the evil spirits which have thus far laughed off the superstitious knocks.
The Penguins injury saga doesn’t seem to be over with Patric Hornqvist out long term and Kris Letang hurt on Monday night. However, the immediate Penguins worries of losing two straight (0-1-1) and again facing the dilemma of serious absences shouldn’t overshadow the very good things presented by the existing team.
Believe it or not, there is far more good to view from the last two games than you may expect. In the words of Zach Aston-Reese, “there is a right way to lose and a wrong way,” and the Penguins are losing in the right way.
To explain that counter-intuitive sentiment a little further, the Pittsburgh Penguins are blitzing their opponents. They are not only playing well, but they’re also hogging the puck, scoring chances, and playing well in all three zones. Until Monday night and the rare goaltending let down, the Penguins had allowed just two goals in their previous three games. On the flip side, the Penguins have scored 12 goals in their last three games.
In the last two games, the Penguins unleashed 96 shots while allowing just 53. They have also similarly dominated scoring chances, 48-27. That is a 64% rate. They’ve lost both and earned just one point but that isn’t the only storyline or even the most important takeaway.
“I thought this was one of the best games we’ve played all year,” head coach Mike Sullivan said.
Generally, a team which can lock down the opponent, play keep-away with the puck while providing oppressive forechecking pressure, disruptive backchecking, and consistent effort is going to win many more games than they will lose. Don’t let the aberration of six goals allowed to the best team in the NHL on Monday night fool you.
In some aspects, this team is playing very similar to the 2016 Pittsburgh Penguins team which needed well more than the average number of scoring chances to light the lamp but routinely outskated opponents. Those Penguins needed 12 to 13 scoring chances to put one on the scoreboard, which is well above the average of about 10 chances.
The 2019-20 Penguins are a streaky bunch. Their goals come in flurries but their effort does not.
As one trusted hockey professional recently texted, “Pittsburgh has evolved into an honest hockey club.”
For those without a Hockey to American translator, honest means the team plays hard-nosed, does not cheat for offense and is responsible defensively. As part of our chat with Kris Letang on Sunday, he admitted the same, “We got away a little bit from that game plan but this year we’re making a statement and paying attention to details.”
For those without a Hockey to American translator, attention to detail means…oh, never mind, you get the idea.
Could the Penguins use a professional scorer able to convert a few more chances? Yep.
Could the Penguins use more skill in their lineup to increase offensive consistency? Yep.
As one loyal reader pointed out:
Brutal honesty . I’d say I’d agree with an article you wrote earlier, scoring will be tough to come by.
— Christopher (@christpher44) November 5, 2019
The Penguins won’t score as much as they did but they need to maintain the significant gains towards honest hockey that they’ve made this season. Letang’s blunt admission that the Penguins are making a statement fits with the style of play. After a couple of years of playing the wrong way and squeezing out victories with power-play goals or short bursts of offensive hockey, the Penguins are following the lead of lesser talented teams that won with all-encompassing efforts, five-player cooperative play, and relentless pressure.
And the Penguins have a bit more talent than teams like Columbus or the New York Islanders, too. They still have two guys named Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
The power-play goals will come. They had 11 shots on five chances Saturday.
The Penguins are just getting their bearings. Perhaps someday, the team will get healthy and head coach Mike Sullivan will be allowed to play with the full complement instead of a patchwork lineup. When they do, we and GM Jim Rutherford will finally get a look at his vision and understand the potential of his team. For the moment, shutting down opponents, dominating scoring chances and opportunities is a good starting point.
Because it’s certainly better than the recent starting points.