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Off Day Blog: Penguins Crash the Net, Playoffs Nearly Guaranteed

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The Pittsburgh Penguins became a high-flying act through December, culminating in their 10-game winning streak. Over the last 15 games, the Penguins have lost just twice. They’ve surged to third place in the Metro Division ahead of the Washington Capitals and on the heels of the Carolina Hurricanes and New York Rangers, which seemed highly improbable if not impossible in November.

The Penguins were double-digit points behind the big boys, and it looked like the end was near. A team can only survive so many injuries, fights with COVID, and deal with a stacked division for so long. It looked like an uphill fight for a wild card was on deck.

Nearly halfway through the season, the Penguins may eventually fight for a wild-card spot, but it will be in the context of fighting for a wild card or divisional spot, not wild-card or go home. The odds of missing the playoffs now are remote. The Penguins hold a 10-point lead with two games in hand on the rebuilding Detroit Red Wings and a 16-point lead on the Columbus Blue Jackets.

The New York Islanders are a whopping 20 points back of the Penguins (but seven games in hand) and 16 points out of playoff spot (with only four games in hand on the Boston Bruins). The Philadelphia Flyers are essentially in a Pat’s wit whiz coma. They’ve lost eight straight and are 18 points back of the Penguins with no games in hand.

It does not look like the Pittsburgh Penguins playoff road runs through Barry Trotz this season.

But with high-flying or high-wire acts, hockey has a way of knocking teams off that wire, especially in the spring when the ice gets slushy, teams get angry, officials call less, and each game means more than the last.

While the Penguins charged up the Metro Division standings with Evan Rodrigues, Jake Guentzel, and Sidney Crosby filling the net with occasional healthy contributions from Bryan Rust, they showed a different element on Monday against the Vegas Golden Knights.

The Penguins went to the front of the net. Look at the main photo above. Jason Zucker in the crease, Evgeni Malkin diving for his rebound.

Time and again, the Penguins made life uncomfortable for Vegas goalie Robin Lehner. Maybe Jeff Carter pitchforked him into the net on the first goal. Maybe defenseman Ben Hutton knocked his own ‘tendy into the cage. All that matters is the Penguins won the battle in the crease, and the officials called the goal.

“It definitely wasn’t the best played game of our season, but it was an important one for sure,” said Mike Matheson.

Sometimes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

The Penguins didn’t use a crude low-to-high game to get pucks to the net. Instead, the forwards held pucks down low, used speed to retrieve loose pucks, and played in the gritty areas. They outshot Vegas 37-26, but had only one shot in the final several minutes as they defended the lead.

Take a look at the shot chart from NaturalStatTrick.com. See the heavy blue dot with three Gs? That’s the Pittsburgh Penguins shot concentration and goals.

Pittsburgh Penguins Shot Chart vs. Vegas Golden Knights

 

Perhaps as importantly, the Penguins kept the Golden Knights away from Tristan Jarry and the Penguins net. The Penguins lost the net-front battle at the beginning of their western road trip against the Dallas Stars. In the third period, Dallas poked two goals from the doorstep, and the Penguins let one get away. 

They did no such thing on Monday, even as Vegas pressed, the Penguins worked overtime (not literally) to keep the Vegas shots to the perimeter. As you can see above, Vegas had a bulk of their shots behind the dots and out.

“We played some really good hockey as of late. You know this road trip, I think we went 4-2 (correct). Pretty good road trip, you know, points-wise, for us. I think it probably wasn’t our best hockey, but we found ways to win hockey games, and that’s what you need to do,” Jeff Carter said on Monday night.

Scoring in front of the net is a pretty good substitute for the flying circus (and any dead parrot sketches). Some nights, the connections won’t be there. The tape-to-tape passes out of the zone, and into the zone, will be bricked. Some nights, you have to work harder for the goals.

At least on Monday, the Penguins did. Jason Zucker scored a pair, one at the net and one going to the net. Jake Guentzel picked a loose puck out of traffic about 10 feet from the cage and used the wraparound to stuff it into a wide-open net. And Teddy Blueger charged the net following Brian Boyle’s semi-breakaway (Boyle had a defenseman all over his back. Is that really a breakaway for anyone but Mario Lemieux?).

Winning the net is a way to beat a hot goalie, wear down a defense, and get two points when the pretty game just isn’t working.

Vegas is a stout team that defends their net well. The Penguins method of goal-scoring was no small feat.

Whether or not the Pittsburgh Penguins continue to blitz the blue probably depends on a few players, including Zucker, Rust, and necessity. But for one game, their low game was on point.

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now Editor-in-Chief, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight, NHL Home Ice. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

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Jay95
Jay95
3 months ago

I’m just catching up to the articles. Carter seems rejuvenated since the return of Geno. That’s an awesome affect that the big man has. Kapanen still isn’t there. He likes to pull up when he has speed and circle back around way too much. But, he’s still improved in general. This team finally has multiple ingredients they’ve been missing…a lot of size WITH skill! I sometimes forget why Boyle’s been so successful in his career. He’s HUGE, hits, uses that size, but he’s also got an above average shot with slick hands. Hoping he sticks around and spends some time… Read more »

Ilja
Ilja
3 months ago
Reply to  Jay95

Excellent article on the grit game and I appreciate your take, @Jay95 – maybe because your observations agree with my own! Love Boyle’s game; it’s early days, but I think his fearlessness is rubbing off on Geno – a good thing. I wondered if we would see some tentative play out of him following the knee surgery but he’s all in, even if he hasn’t completely got his timing down. And, in particular, your point about speed. This group is as fast as any Pens team I can recall; every line can just turn it on and does. I wonder… Read more »

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