Is it Sidney Crosby? Jake Guentzel, who leads the team in scoring? Andy Saucier has successfully helped his team overturn four critical goals this season. No, the Pittsburgh Penguins MVP through the figurative first half of the NHL season is an easy pick from this keyboard.
The Penguins’ most reliable, consistent, and game-changing performer, and thus their first-half MVP, is Tristan Jarry.
It’s been a good while since a goalie stole the show in Pittsburgh. Perhaps not since Marc-Andre Fleury held the fort under former head coach Mike Johnston has a goalie been the best performer wearing the crest of a flightless bird.
Jarry has robbed a few teams of points while delivering them to his comrades. For much of the first half of the season, Jarry carried something close to a .935 save percentage and sub-2.00 GAA. If not for the Penguins’ recent Keystone Cops routine when handling the puck, Jarry would still be close to a .930 save percentage. Such as the no-show 6-2 loss to the LA Kings three weeks ago, Jarry was the player who most gave his team a chance to win.
No less than a half dozen times already this season, PHN has used the headline, “Jarry Steals…”
Jan. 23: THEFT! Jarry Steals Win…
Jan. 12: …Jarry Silent Assasin in Win…
Nov. 29: Jarry Robs Point in Calgary…
Nov. 26: Jarry Perfect Again…
You get the idea.
Jarry left for Las Vegas, and the 2022 NHL All-Star Game with a .923 save percentage and 2.21 GAA. Recent shellings upped his GAA to within range of the rest of the pack, but that’s on the turnover happy Penguins, which dusted off their Globetrotters game for a few weeks.
Without the Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender, in top form, the Penguins would be several points down and scrapping for one of the wild-card positions. We can’t say the playoffs would be in jeopardy because the ninth team in the Eastern Conference is Detroit, which is 16 points behind the Penguins and 13 points behind the Washington Capitals, who are the top wild-card team.
But finishing second or third in the Metro will avoid playing Florida Panthers or Tampa Bay Lightning, two of the three best teams in the NHL.
As good as the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals are, at least in theory, they are better opponents in Round One than either of the Florida teams. Also, ask the Philadelphia Flyers what happens when things go sideways during times of adversity. Sometimes, tailspins accelerate. They’re not always temporary.
Jarry was the one player who remained a constant as Crosby rehabbed from wrist surgery then contracted COVID, Evgeni Malkin missed most of the first half, and most other players missed 10 days or more due to COVID and injuries.
2nd Place: Sidney Crosby
We considered Kris Letang and Jake Guentzel. Guentzel leads the team in points and goals. Letang, until recently, was having a stellar season. Perhaps he enjoyed Malkin’s return a little too much, and a week’s respite will reset his game to the elite level.
Crosby has been a driving force in the Penguins lineup. Recall the end of October, Guentzel said he had more to give. When Crosby returned, the lineup soared. Bryan Rust was the third star of the month in January. The Penguins’ offense has revolved mainly around Crosby.
In 34 games, Crosby has 40 points (12-28-40), including the struggle of being dropped into game action without a training camp or a fully healthy wrist.
According to NaturalStatTrick.com, in the last 30 Penguins games, the team has 65 even-strength goals. Crosby has been on the ice for 26 of them. Crosby 26, Rest of Penguins 39.
If you do the math, Sidney Crosby has been on the ice for 40% of the Pittsburgh Penguins goals in the last 30 games.
Surprise of the Year: Evan Rodrigues
Did anyone else bet on Evan Rodrigues having 15 goals at the All-Star break? Rodrigues filled the net with slick hands, aggressive movement away from the puck to get into scoring position and unrelenting shots.
Rodrigues’ scoring pace has slowed as he’s bounded around the lineup over the last 13 games. Since Malkin’s return, Rodrigues has points in just one game (0-2-2), but Jason Zucker’s extended absence could mean Rodrigues returns to the Penguins top-six.
Brian Boyle is a solid second place. After signing a PTO to attend training camp, Boyle has six points (5-1-6) and has been a pillar on one of the league’s best penalty kills.
Biggest Need to Improve: Kasperi Kapanen
Jason Zucker can cite injury as a cause for a bad first half. Kapanen doesn’t have that excuse.
In 45 games, Kapanen has 24 points (9-15-24). That pace at better than .5ppg is probably better than it’s appeared. Kapanen has been a non-factor. In the penultimate game before the All-Star break, a 4-3 loss to the LA Kings, Kapanen played just over eight minutes as head coach Mike Sullivan put him and Dominik Simon on the bench for the last 30 minutes.
Kapanen and Malkin played pretty well in the final game before the break in the OT loss to the Washington Capitals. He played 16 minutes and was noticeable for the first time in some time.
“I thought they made pretty good decisions with the puck. And so there wasn’t as much risk associated with their game, which I think is an important aspect of our team game moving forward,” Sullivan said. “And I thought Kappy had an impact. I thought his speed was noticeable. I thought he was going in the net. I thought he was involved in the grind game down low. And these are all aspects of the game that our coaching staff is trying to work hard with Kappy to try to help him develop those different aspects of his game.”