Connect with us


Kingerski: Yes, Penguins Have Several Real Reasons for Optimism



Pittsburgh Penguins, Rickard Rakell

PHILADELPHIA — The Pittsburgh Penguins have won nine of their past 15 games and seven of their past 10.

Their recent run of gritty play, net-front battles, and victories began in the lowest moments. The team was absolutely embarrassed by the Toronto Maple Leafs on Hockey Night in Canada on Dec. 16.

Circle that game. Circle the fallout.

In the aftermath of that game, players, including Erik Karlsson, called out their team. The frustration and disgust were palpable in the locker room and in the hallway, but it was bigger than that. The negativity hung over the franchise like a cold, wet fog over Lake Ontario.

I wrote a postgame headline, “Penguins Internal Frustration; Something is Deeply Wrong.”

The words were harsh, but easy to stand behind. The Canadian media seized on the moment, as did many Penguins fans, to begin the rumination about a Penguins trade involving Evgeni Malkin or Kris Letang. The bad vibes were as inescapable as the poor performances from many of the Penguins’ new acquisitions and role players.

Karlsson indirectly slammed teammates following that Dec. 16 humbling.

“And you can’t just be satisfied putting your skates out there,” he said. “We have a lot of guys that have played a long time in this league, and that’s why you play a long time in this league (because they’re not satisfied). And we have a lot of guys that need to find a way to — even though they’re not filling the net, scoring goals every night — you’ve still got to go out there and bring something.”

Destruction by implosion seemed inevitable.

However, if this were a 1980s movie, we’d cut to a montage with inspiring music.

Since that horrid performance, the Penguins have won seven of 10 games, and the two regulation losses were the dominating performance against the Buffalo Sabres and the two periods worth of storming the Washington Capitals. The other loss was an OT stinker against the Ottawa Senators in the final game before the holiday break.

Counting Toronto as rock-bottom, the Penguins have changed. Sometimes, changes take a long time, and sometimes, a team gets scared straight. Most definitely place the Penguins in the latter group.

Facing an early expulsion from the playoff race and a potential dismantling at the hands of president of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas, the Penguins responded. They barely resemble the team they were one month ago.

And therein lies the greatest reasons for optimism … if you want them.

Almost overnight, the Penguins’ style of play has become tough. They’re fighting for space around the net and winning it. They’re generally making good decisions with the puck, not gifting odd-man rushes to opponents by forcing bad plays. They’re maintaining defensive responsibility.

The Penguins are playing the body at both ends.

“I don’t want to say it’s been an area of emphasis in the last few weeks, it’s something that we’ve been working on since training camp … you can’t just rely on offense of the rush when teams have numbers back,” Sullivan said after the morning skate on Jan. 6. “You can’t just rely on your power play. You have to develop a grind game.”

The Penguins have.

There is suddenly a toughness to a team that wanted to be pretty. The simple style is replicable and does not lean on a winger’s hot streak or a defenseman playing above his pay grade.

That’s the first reason for optimism. There are more.

Penguins’ Defense Improving

While a country mile from perfect, the Penguins’ defense has performed significantly better in the last handful of games, with Marcus Pettersson joining Letang on the top pair. It’s been even better in the last few with P.O Joseph beside Karlsson and Ryan Graves on the third pair with Chad Ruhwedel.

The unit took its first step forward a couple of weeks ago when coach Mike Sullivan and associate coach Todd Reirden stopped trying to spread out the struggling players and flipped Graves to Karlsson’s left side, thus creating a strong top pair with Pettersson and Letang.

The move created at least one shutdown, stable pairing which has paid dividends.

Adding Joseph after John Ludvig suffered an upper-body injury has accelerated the improvement. Ludvig added a physical presence to the blue line and did nothing to lose his sweater, but coaches probably weren’t going to dunk him in the deep waters playing beside Karlsson because his skillset doesn’t match.

Joseph’s skills do match.

“I think he’s played pretty well the last couple of games since he’s been back. He’s playing the game that sets him up for success,” Sullivan said on Jan. 6. “And I think his greatest attributes (are) his foot speed, his mobility, his ability to use his skating and his stick to defend. He also uses those same attributes to help us on the breakouts. He’s moving the puck well, I think he’s just playing a more assertive game.”

Drew O’Connor & Penguins Lines

O’Connor has asserted himself in the Penguins’ top nine. His progression has been rapid, but it’s also been an incremental process in which each step has been visible. He was playing small, trying to use his speed on the outside. When Bryan Rust was injured on Dec. 4, O’Connor was thrust into a top-six role.

He didn’t do a lot with the opportunity, but he focused on puck-retrieval — getting loose pucks and getting on the forecheck to establish possession for the star players. In the process, O’Connor discovered his “big” game.

Confidence begat more, and building on his top-six experience, he began to use his offensive instincts, too. He stacked lessons and has begun to unlock his potential.

The importance can’t be overstated. It’s like trading for a top-six winger, but has cascading effects on the lineup, too.

O’Connor’s ascension allowed Sullivan to drop ice-cold Reilly Smith to the third line with Lars Eller. Like magic, that line clicked during the Penguins’ 4-1 victory at Wells Fargo Center Monday, too.

Rickard Rakell is scoring on the top line. With Bryan Rust and Drew O’Connor, Malkin is scoring again. Smith and Eller had a strong debut. And the fourth line has added some offensive-zone time to its strong defense.

With O’Connor’s emergence, it seems Sullivan has stumbled upon the perfect Penguins lines.

Of course, there are 42 games remaining. We’ll see some hot and cold streaks; perhaps Sullivan will flip Rust and Rakell back and forth with Sidney Crosby and Malkin a few more times, but the framework might finally be set.


Good goaltending makes coaches look smarter, scorers more dynamic, and everyone else six inches taller.

With a couple of days off, Sullivan surprised some by starting Alex Nedeljkovic against the Flyers. Tristan Jarry made several tough saves, but allowed a soft goal in the Penguins’ 3-1 loss to Buffalo on Saturday, and Nedeljkovic getting the next start speaks loudly.

Sullivan’s move seems to indicate he’s steering toward a goalie rotation rather than a more defined starter-backup setup. Regardless of the label, the goalies are stopping pucks and giving the Penguins a chance to win.

The Penguins dug themselves a hole too deep and allowed too many teams to get between them and a playoff spot, but they are officially back in the race after teetering on the brink of destruction one month ago.

No, the Penguins won’t be trading Kris Letang, Evgeni Malkin, or even Sidney Crosby this season.

Yes, there are plenty of reasons for optimism that the season is turning around … if you want them.