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Penguins Hitting Stride, Is It Sustainable? 3 Issues to Watch

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Pittsburgh Penguins, Kris Letang, Jake Guentzel, Sidney Crosby
PITTSBURGH, PA - JANUARY 24: Pittsburgh Penguins Left Wing Jake Guentzel (59) celebrates his goal with Pittsburgh Penguins Center Sidney Crosby (87) and Pittsburgh Penguins Defenceman Kris Letang (58) during the third period in the NHL game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the New York Rangers on January 24, 2021, at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, PA. (Photo by Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire)

For all of the handwringing over star players, imminent rebuilding, and goaltending, those concerns or talking points aren’t in the top 50 for the current Pittsburgh Penguins. They will live on in talk radio, blogs, and Twitter battles because those are the most fun things to discuss, but the Penguins have won five of their last six games, and the real challenges facing the crew are being separated from the fiction.

The Penguins currently have a playoff spot in the East Division but are tied for fourth place with the New York Islanders.  Much like the Flint Tropics, fourth place is paramount (Semi-Pro reference) to survive. The Penguins have a game in-hand, so they have the winning percentage tiebreaker, but New York has more ROWs, the most likely decider.

First, we’ll get a couple of things out of the way. See, I told you so. Tristan Jarry is a legit starting goalie; the 25-year-old puck stopper needed to get his legs beneath him and a healthy dose of confidence. He’s got both. And Evgeni Malkin is not going to be traded. Nope, not gonna happen unless HE decides he wants to finish his career with a C on his sweater somewhere else.

And if you watched Sidney Crosby’s 1000th game ceremony, you probably realized how deeply Malkin cares for his team, and I’m willing to bet thoughts of receiving his own tributes popped into his noggin during the quiet moments. That would happen sometime next January if he stays healthy.

And yes, we have not included Kris Letang on the list because he isn’t one of the Penguins’ biggest issues or worries. Just remember, confirmation bias is real. If you’re looking for mistakes, you’ll surely find them. But an accountant counts the debits AND the credits.

In no particular order…

3 Issues to Watch for the Pittsburgh Penguins

1. Special Teams

The Penguins dominated the Washington power play on Tuesday night. We broke down how the Penguins PK did it. They absolutely squashed the Washington PP, as penalty killing units have done to them. Or, perhaps more accurately, like the Penguins have done to their own power play.

“I thought our forecheck was great. I don’t think they got set up for very long on either of their power plays,” Teddy Blueger said. “We were able to disrupt their entries and make it difficult to enter the zone…”

The Penguins PK and their power play still rank in the mid-20s but are climbing.

A team with good 5v5 scoring can survive a punchless power play, but a team cannot survive a 73% PK and make the playoffs.

Penguins assistant coach Mike Vellucci came with years of minor league coaching success and was an under-the-radar hire as the WBS Penguins head coach last summer. He’s finally getting a taste of the NHL, and his strategies and schemes bear watching as much as the Penguins execution.

After a rocky start, things are improving on both sides of the special teams puck.

2. Double Shifting Two Lines, Benching Two Lines

For the hubbub and attention that we paid to head coach Mike Sullivan nailing Kasperi Kapanen to the pine on Saturday, it has gone largely unnoticed (though not unreported, especially if you subscribe to PHN+) that Sullivan has essentially benched two of his lines in recent third periods.

The Evgeni Malkin line plays only sparingly in the last 15 minutes. The Penguins fourth line has been reduced to splinter collectors, too.

If the second and fourth lines are riding the pine, that means Sullivan is leaning heavily on the first and third lines. Those are the Sidney Crosby and Teddy Blueger lines. The Blueger line has been extraordinary defenders, again, but this season the trio with Zach Aston-Reese and Brandon Tanev has filled the score sheet, too.

“I think they all have some offensive instincts, so we were hopeful these guys had the ability to produce offensively, and they have at times during their tenure with the Pittsburgh Penguins,” Sullivan said. “They’re doing it more consistently this year, and that’s good for our team…”

Now, here’s the wrinkle. Aston-Reese may jump up to the Malkin line while both Jason Zucker and Jared McCann are absent. Aston-Reese reported that he skated with Malkin on Wednesday.

McCann is on the trip, but the Penguins have not yet activated him. But, McCann will not solve the defensive trust issue between Sullivan and the second line.

It’s an issue in the short term and the long term because the Penguins should not want to lean so heavily on a 33-year-old top center in a compressed season, even if that center is Sidney Crosby.

Save a little for the end.

3. Physicality

On Tuesday, the Penguins pushed back in the third period and dished 10 hits. To that point, Washington was outhitting them 26-5. Part of that disparity is because the Penguins dominated the puck in the first period, but a larger reason was Washington took every chance to finish their checks or rough up the Penguins’ top-six wingers. And defensemen.

The Penguins don’t have an answer for slobber knockers. You can bet your sweet bippie that opponents took notice of Washington’s ability to punish the Penguins.

The Penguins won, but no team wants to be prey. It’s a mindset. It’s an attitude. Having some pushback leads to aggressive play in other areas. Getting pummeled eventually leads to less aggressive play in other areas.

As we detailed last weekend, the Penguins’ fourth-line players (Sam Lafferty, Colton Sceviour, Mark Jankowski, and Drew O’Connor) have fewer hits combined than Brandon Tanev.

As President of Hockey Operations Brian Burke said about the last few Stanley Cup winners (and it became my go-to quote), “They play long pants hockey.”

The Penguins are wicked fast. But, enough other teams are close enough, so the Penguins’ speed advantage is not as pronounced. And, some of the bruisers can skate with the Penguins (see also, Boston Bruins). Other teams know how to handle the Penguins’ speed (see also, New York Islanders).

The Pittsburgh Penguins have speed and talent. Are two tools enough to get to the playoffs, and more importantly, do something special in the playoffs?

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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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