Consistency. Pittsburgh Penguins GM Ron Hextall used the word to prescribe one thing he’d like his team to improve. Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan has used the word like a swiss army knife to describe what his team has lacked and what the Penguins coaches have been diligently stressing to individual players.
If the Pittsburgh Penguins want to make the playoffs, the consistency they’ve (mostly) displayed over the past week must continue.
Consistency isn’t optional. Great game. Stinker. Good game win. Bad game, maybe win. Stinker. If the Penguins season were a ride at Kennywood, the inspectors would have shut it down for dangerously sharp turns and hazardous free falls.
For one example, Sunday.
“We’re just trying to help John establish consistency on both sides of the puck,” was part of Sullivan’s answer on defenseman John Marino on Sunday morning.
“Consistency. I’d like to see more consistency from the group. It’s a tough season with so many games in so few days, but it’s something you’ve got to battle every night,” was Hextall’s response on Feb. 27.
Perhaps the elevation derived from truly having their backs against the wall over the last four games. If the Pittsburgh Penguins lost two of three to Philadelphia, they would have trailed by at least four points, but by as much as eight for a playoff spot. Overcoming an eight-point deficit with a division-only schedule in just 33 games would have been a brutal challenge requiring a hefty winning percentage.
Instead, the Penguins have won three of four games and are technically in a playoff spot on Monday morning.
There have been three factors beyond Sidney Crosby’s line with Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust, a constant force. Goaltending, special teams, and Evgeni Malkin. WIth Jarry making big saves, the special teams holding its own, and Malkin pressuring defenses, it opens the game for the rest of the team. It also picks up the bench, which must be feeling a little weary in the midst of a 14-games-in-23-days stretch.
I know I sure as hell am feeling it.
Hockey is often like a band. When everyone connects on the same wavelength, it is harmonious. Malkin was the big piece out of rhythm. When the band plays the same tune instead of workshopping a Frank Zappa avant-garde riff, successes heighten, and problems are fewer.
1. Evgeni Malkin-Kasperi Kapanen
Malkin and Kapanen were a slow boil. That is to say, at first, it was ice-cold water.
It may be oversimplifying it, but Malkin didn’t have his legs until the last two weeks, but the line with Jason Zucker was almost painful to watch as Zucker and Kapanen (or Rust) zoomed up the ice like Blue Angels, and Malkin was crop dusting behind the play.
Wait, I should rephrase. Anyhoo…
“I think they’ve established some pretty good chemistry. Geno is a really dangerous player off the rush. He sees the ice so well,” Sullivan said. “He commands so much attention. With (Kapanen)’s speed, Kappy can open up the ice for him, and Geno can get the puck to Kappy with the speed that he has.”
Refer back to the band playing together. What was painful to watch is becoming cohesive. The line has accounted for four goals in the last three games, though we’re counting Jared McCann’s game-winner on Saturday with Malkin and Brandon Tanev because Tanev hopped onto the end of their shift.
Some combination of the Malkin line has been on the ice for five even-strength goals in the last five games. The rest of the team has only five, according to Natural Stat Trick.
“They’ve had some chemistry. We’ve really liked them when we’ve put them together,” Sullivan said.
The Penguins coach also praised the “details” of Kapanen’s game over the past two weeks since his third-period benching against the New York Islanders. Kapanen has six points in his last four games.
If that plate of goodies needs to be sold to you as a good thing because you’re still trying to trade Malkin, you’re stubborn. Lighten up, Francis.
2. Fourth Liner, Evan Rodrigues
The Penguins fourth line was visible and competent over the last two games, which coincides with the return (or arrival) of Evan Rodrigues from the IR.
Always factor the adrenaline rush for a player’s return, but Rodrigues has been killing penalties, and the zippy forward the Penguins hoped they had.
“He had a good game (Saturday). He hadn’t played in 15 plus games or so. That’s not an easy experience to get thrown into the game environment like that …. he played 10-plus minutes,” Sullivan said Sunday morning. “We used him on the penalty kill, I used him at five-on-five, he helped us defend the lead at the end so I could have two centermen on the ice–Teddy Blueger’s line–both a left shot and right shot.
That’s the value that Evan brings to our team. He’s such a versatile player…”
Sullivan rolled out the laundry list of things Rodrigues has done with the Penguins or can do, including top-six minutes because of his offensive instincts, second PP time, and is defensively responsible.
If the Penguins can get a fourth line going, that will alleviate some stress on Sidney Crosby and allow Sullivan to deploy Crosby in more advantageous positions.
Three wins in four games changed the color of the standings from red to black. Three wins in regulation worked miracles. I’m beginning to see the factors which would need to be present for the Penguins to win a playoff series against the grimy New York Islanders or Boston Bruins. And how they could win against Washington or Philadelphia.
It’s not impossible, but first, they need to get there. The optimists point to 16 games coming against the Buffalo Sabres and New Jersey Devils. For those games to be the boon to the Pittsburgh Penguins that some hope, the Penguins must outperform the teams they’re chasing in those games.
Head to Head:
NYI: 6-0-0 vs. Buffalo. 2-1-0 vs. New Jersey, 14 of 16 points. Seven games remaining.
WSH: 4-0-1 vs. Buffalo. 3-0-0 vs. New Jersey. 15 of 16 points. Eight games remaining.
BOS: 0-0-0 vs. Buffalo. 1-2-1 vs. New Jersey. 3 of 8 points. 12 games remaining.
PHI: 3-1-0 vs. Buffalo. 2-0-0 vs. New Jersey. 10 of 12 points. 10 games remaining.
As you can see, the Penguins will need to essentially be undefeated against the bottom feeders to keep pace. The Penguins winning record against the New York Islanders and Washington Capitals is thus far deceiving. While the Penguins have gained eight of 12 points against Washington, the Capitals have earned seven.
The Penguins’ trend of regulation wins must continue, as well as the recent attention to small details. Sunday night was a prime example of team-first, selfless defense. We explained more in the report card.
The Pittsburgh Penguins have games against Boston coming as well as the cupcakes on the schedule. The Penguins need the Ws, boys.
The picture is far rosier than it was just a week ago. Ask again next week. Consistency. Forecheck, backcheck, paycheck.