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Penguins Grades: Stop Pretending, THIS Should Be the Pens



Pittsburgh Penguins game, Lars Eller, Jake Guentzel

The Pittsburgh Penguins might get used to this. The Penguins again got stellar goaltending and largely outworked their opponent in the defensive zone. Their extra effort again paid off in two points as the Penguins beat the New York Islanders 3-1 at PPG Paints Arena on Sunday, their second regulation win over the Islanders in four days.

The Penguins won another gritty game by winning puck battles, protecting their net, and getting great goaltending. Maybe they’re getting the message that winning looks a little bit different than they expect or than it has in the past for this Hall of Fame-laden roster.

You know what? THIS should be the Penguins’ identity.

The team surely wants to play a certain style, and they expect to win with a specific speed and forechecking game that relies on aggressiveness.

Before the game, coach Mike Sullivan talked about the balance they’re trying to achieve.

“I think we’re a talented group. I think sometimes we can be our own biggest opponent,” said Sullivan pregame Sunday. “That’s an important element. I think winning consistently is making sure you don’t beat yourself, and you can be yourself in a lot of ways. It takes a certain discipline to develop that.

“We’ve talked a lot with the guys on our team about the difference between safe hockey, smart hockey, and reckless hockey, for example. You know, we’re seeking a smart hockey game. And when we do that, I think we’re at our best. I don’t think we’re a team that’s at our best when we play a safe game, either.”

But the reality that has been facing them for some time is that they’re not the fastest or the unquestioned better team anymore. Many nights, they might need a blue-collar shirt and a hard helmet.

Lean into it.

Their best games this season have been structured, tough wins. Think back to wins over Colorado, Vegas, Anaheim, and even Carolina last week. Add their victories over St. Louis and New York to the list. And Sullivan expounded on the difference.

“I don’t know how you define gritty hockey or ugly hockey. I think it’s beautiful hockey. We’re playing the game hard. We’re competing hard,” Sullivan said postgame. “We pride ourselves in a lot of the little things: puck battles, wall play, net-front play. And I think those are the little things that we preach to our guys all the time and the importance of those. I think the most important thing is that we value it. And when we value those things, I think it places a heightened urgency in those areas of the game, and that gives us a better chance to win.”

Perhaps it’s time for all involved to accept the gifts that time has given them and concede what it has taken. They have a few too many players who like the aggressive game but are mistake-prone.

The number of odd-man rushes the Penguins have given up this season is far too many. The number of defensive breakdowns and no-show losses have been staggering.

The answer to all of the problems is simplistic, honest hockey. They’re playing it right now, and the wins are piling up.

The Penguins cannot rely on Sidney Crosby to carry them much further. They can’t tap their foot waiting for Evgeni Malkin to score his next big goal or Erik Karlsson to click.

The last few games have also featured balanced offense. Lars Eller scored a pair on Sunday. Jansen Harkins has two points in his last two games, and Noel Acciari has hit the scoresheet in back-to-back games.

It’s no coincidence that the bottom six are starting to score when the team commits to playing their type of game.

A little more buttoned up, a little feisty, and workman-like, and the Penguins are a pretty good team; their talent shines through when they muddy the track, protect their net, and grind away on the walls.

Why fight it? Embrace the ugliness.

Penguins goalie Tristan Jarry was great Saturday in a 4-2 win over St. Louis. He’s got a .917 save percentage this season.

Alex Nedeljkovic was spectacular on Sunday. Islanders forward Casey Czikas could have netted a hat trick with several glorious chances, including a breakaway and a pair of point-blank one-timer within 15 feet.

Nedeljkovic stopped 37 shots (the total was revised up from 36 about 30 minutes after the final horn). He’s got a .924 save percentage.

The Penguins are now just three points behind the Islanders for a playoff spot with one game in hand. They’re tied with the Washington Capitals and New Jersey Devils at 40 points, but Washington has one game in hand.

The Capitals have a minus-18 goal differential. New York is minus-9. New Jersey is minus-4. Teams with negative differentials rarely make the playoffs and are usually ripe for regression.

The Penguins are plus-14.

The difference in the Penguins could also be seen and heard with Lars Eller. At multiple points this season, the Penguins third-line center has publicly rebuked his team for failure to commit to defense.

Sunday, he was comparatively beaming. He deflected attention away from his line, which scored a pair of goals, including the empty-net goal (both goals by Eller), and praised the team for finding traction and doing the things necessary to win.

 “I think it feels like the whole team is getting a little more traction. Our best players have been our best players all year,” Eller said. “But we need everybody to chip in. Tonight, we chipped in with a couple of goals, and that was huge. And so that’s what we need. We need everybody to give something.”

The Penguins will not win six of eight for the rest of the season, but it’s about finding those wins that are within reach that they’ve let slip through their fingers for a couple of seasons. It’s about winning ugly or when not at their best. It’s about getting the next puck and getting it to the net.

It’s one thing to get back in the race. Now, the Penguins must keep their momentum moving forward. The stretch of winning hockey can’t be replaced with another stretch of losing hockey.

They’ve slayed the dragons of Carolina and New York, teams they haven’t beaten since the 2021-22 NHL season.

“I give the players a lot of credit. I think they’re competing hard. I think they’re committed right now. I think it’s a collective effort throughout the lineup,” Sullivan said. “And it’s a good feeling when you can get results, and you make the sacrifices and the commitment that’s necessary for the team in order to set yourself up for (success). So, I give the players a lot of credit. I couldn’t be more proud of them the last couple of nights here.”

If the Penguins aren’t careful, they might find themselves playing genuine playoff-style hockey all the way into the playoffs. Embrace the ugliness and call it beautiful.

Penguins Grades

In keeping with the theme of the column, we won’t dish individual grades. There were some rough performances, including by Erik Karlsson, but the team came through.

Team Grade: A

That’s not an A based on domination or because they played a flawless game. They certainly did not. However, the continued progression of winning hockey trumps the mistakes and the flaws.

Now, can they keep going with another big game against the Washington Capitals on Tuesday? A win would most likely put them in a playoff spot.

Players of Note:

Lars Eller. His line was really good. Jansen Harkins and Valtteri Puustinen deserve credit, too.

Chad Ruhwedel played an especially strong game.

Drew O’Connor did his job, and the Penguins second line had good chances.

Noel Acciari.