It wasn’t long ago that the Pittsburgh Penguins trailed the Washington Capitals and Carolina Hurricanes by double-digit points. The Penguins were a country mile behind in the Metropolitan Division, even behind the New York Rangers, but a seven-game winning streak later and a six-week run have erased the Penguins’ difficult start.
Like every great horror-movie villain, just when the others thought they were clear of the Penguins, they appear closer than ever.
Perhaps most importantly, the Penguins have created significant separation between themselves and the wild-card chasers.
The Detroit Red Wings shockingly, surprisingly, amazingly hold the second wild-card spot, but trail the Penguins by six points. The Boston Bruins season was paused before the break, but trail the Penguins by somewhere between one and nine points, pending their four games in hand.
No one else is within shouting distance.
And the most important thing is the on-ice product. The Pittsburgh Penguins haven’t just closed the standings gap with the Carolina Hurricanes and Washington Capitals, they have closed the performance gap, if not erased it entirely.
“I think we’ve obviously got a good penalty kill and we’ve got great goaltending this year. I think that’s just the key to success, whether you’re home or on the road. And special teams and goaltending are huge,” Brian Boyle said before the holiday break. “I honestly just think it’s the way we go about every day, whether we’re practicing here, or we’re practicing on the road, or it’s a game here or a game on the road. We have to stay consistent with it. We have a script that we want to play by. We work towards getting better at that every day. And that’s kind of the recipe, right?”
With only a few bobbles in the last six weeks, the Penguins have been the stingiest team in the NHL. Since they were bombed for six goals by the Ottawa Senators and Washington in mid-November (Nov. 13 and 14), the Penguins have slammed the door. The Penguins are 12-3-1 in their last 16 and have allowed only 26 goals. Their 5-2 loss to the Edmonton Oilers and 6-3 loss to the Montreal Canadiens factor into the 26 goals, including the few empty netters.
The Penguins have four shutouts in the span and have allowed two or fewer goals in 14 of their last 16 games.
Before the extended run, PHN asked Kris Letang on Dec. 13 about the team being streaky.
“Because we lost a game in between,” he quipped. “…So we’re playing well, but we’re not perfect. And there are some games we lost because of maybe a 10-minute gap or a period, you know. We’ll correct that as the year goes on and try to be good for 60.”
That improvement was never more evident than in Washington during the Penguins’ 4-2 win on Dec. 10. The Penguins controlled the entirety of the game. The outcome, while close, was not in doubt.
But two or fewer in 14 of 16? That’s not very Penguins-like, and indicative of the change in strengths.
Pittsburgh Penguins Advantages
It’s not just that the Penguins have won a pile of games and suppressed their opponents. To be blunt, the Penguins have had a fair amount of bad teams on the schedule lately. Vancouver twice (before the coaching change), Montreal twice, Buffalo twice, Seattle, and New Jersey. The New York Islanders aren’t exactly lighting it up this season, either
But the Penguins have also won the games against the playoff teams, such as Washington, Toronto, and Anaheim.
The Penguins do have some surprising advantages over both teams they’re chasing atop the Metro Division.
Stats since Nov. 16, according to Natural StatTrick.com:
Penguins shots on goal: 3rd (567)
Shots against: 7th (436)
Goals against: 1st (26)
Goals-for %: 1st (65.33%)
Expected Goals-For: 2nd (56.13%)
Scoring Chances: 3rd (510)
Scoring Chances-For: 3rd (56.86%)
Scoring-Chance Save Percentage: 1st (89.55%)
High-Danger Chances-For: 5th (55.85%)
High-Danger Save Percentage: 3rd (84.68%)
So, to encapsulate the above list, the Penguins are getting the better of their opponents in nearly every significant advanced metric, and the baseline stats, too. However, Jarry is showing incredibly well with the high-danger save percentage and leading the league in nullifying opposing scoring chances.
At the risk of kicking past Penguins goalies, that was always a burden. The Penguins have not typically been ahead of the game in scoring chance save percentage. For context, the Washington goalies are last in high-danger to save percentages (76%). Carolina is 20th at 79.67%.
Tristan Jarry is laying waste to last season’s disappointing finish. The 26-year-old is getting better…and better. In 24 starts this season, Jarry has a sub-two goals-against-average (1.92) and an impressive .932 save percentage.
The Capitals goalie tandem of Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov each sport a .910 save percentage and a GAA above 2.50.
Carolina netminder Frederick Andersen has kept pace with Jarry. Andersen is at .930 and 1.93, but those are well below Andersen’s career numbers. Whereas Jarry has done this before (see also, 2020 All-Star Game), Andersen hasn’t had a sub 2.60 GAA since 2015-16.
Jarry has carried the Pittsburgh Penguins to several wins or points on nights, as Letang observed, “we didn’t deserve to win.”
A goalie who erased a team’s mistakes is a big advantage. See the high-danger differences above. Erasing high-danger chances picks up the bench, it gives your team confidence, and…keeps a digit off the scoreboard.
The Penguins depth has been stretched to the limit this season. They were not so good without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. After Crosby returned in mid-October, he was almost immediately shoved into the COVID protocol.
The Penguins treaded water near the bottom of the Eastern Conference without No. 87.
But they did unearth a few diamonds in the rough, too. Meet Evan Rodrigues, Danton Heinen, and Brian Boyle. Maybe add Dominik Simon to that list, too. We’ve written extensively about Rodrigues’ emergence, here, here, and more Evan Rodrigues here. Heinen has also soared past last year’s seven-goal output and has nine already.
With Kasperi Kapanen’s roller-coaster season and struggles, Heinen has recently claimed the second-line RW.
Boyle and Simon aren’t locks to be in the lineup every night, and perhaps neither will get a sweater when Jake Guentzel Bryan Rust, and Evgeni Malkin return, but their contributions on the fourth line are statistically significant and impactful. The scoring chances are lopsided in the Penguins’ favor, which means the puck is in the offensive zone or the game is tilted that way when Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel are on the ice.
Boyle and Simon have played 13 games together (Boyle has played in 19 games, total) and the pair have a 58% Corsi, 60% expected goals-for, 58.6% scoring chance rate, and when they’re on the ice, Penguins goalies have a .944 save percentage.
In short, allowing Sidney Crosby to attack rather than first defending is worth more than a few goals.
Eventually, Teddy Blueger, Zach Aston-Reese, and Brock McGinn will be the Penguins fourth line–which will further exacerbate the Penguins advantage here.
For comparison, the Capitals depth is not on the same level. Typical fourth-liners Nic Dowd and Garnett Hathaway are underwater or near even in nearly every category. The Carolina Hurricanes bottom six has most recently been more of a committee than a consistent roll-through but are getting a good bit of production from Derek Stepan, Jack Drury, and Stefan Noesen.
The Penguins stability and eventual use of Teddy Blueger on the bottom line, however, set them apart. Teams don’t score against the Penguins’ bottom lines, and the ice is tilted.
Those are the Penguins advantages. Surprise–it’s the depth, bottom six and goaltending. It’s not the usual Penguins formula, but there’s also Sidney Crosby, too. After a sideways beginning to the 2021-22 NHL season, the Penguins and Capitals are again on a collision course. The old lions have company with newbies Carolina Hurricanes and the New York Rangers, but whenever the next chapter of the season begins, the Penguins are again in the mix.
The Pittsburgh Penguins will go through some adjustments with Malkin and Rust coming back to the lineup, but when it’s strength on strength, the Penguins have indeed closed the gap. In fact, it’s not hard to argue the Penguins have a better formula for success because of goaltending and depth.
Hockey can’t return soon enough…