The Pittsburgh Penguins have 15 wins but the fifth-best winning percentage in the East Division. Both statistics are the good news and bad news scenarios. At the current pace, if the Boston Bruins, Philadelphia Flyers, and Penguins maintained the same pace, it would be the Penguins watching the playoffs on TV.
But the Penguins are not maintaining their current pace, and that’s good. Boston and Philadelphia are struggling to maintain their pace, and that’s good–for the Penguins.
As FoD (Friend of Dan) Joe Haggerty wrote, the Boston 5v5 offense has sunk to the bottom tier of the league. As new FoD Ryan Gilbert wrote, the Flyers increasing “defensive lapses” and “laziness.”
Now, what does the above mean? One thing it means is other teams struggle, too, just as the Penguins struggled mightily through the first four weeks of the season.
But it also has much greater implications.
I write this for subscribers because generally, you’re a smarter crowd who is more intent on hockey than the fluffy kindergarten stuff that goes boom on Facebook. Our video of the Penguins completing 21 passes received an obscene number of clicks. But I’m going to dive into real hockey analysis here.
Oh–one thing first. Just remember this in two or three weeks. We have a nasty habit of being too far ahead. By the time everyone else starts talking about something, you’ve already read all about it, and we’ve moved on.
The Pittsburgh Penguins might just be a lot better than any of us thought they could be. Brilliance, I know. But, really, I’m genuinely beginning to wonder if I should prepare to cover hockey into June. Or July, one more time.
The Penguins have won four of five. Tristan Jarry has won eight of 11. And, as others struggle, the Penguins are coming into their own. It’s not the start, it’s the finish, and the season will be 50% complete on Tuesday.
The level of competition in the East is impactful. And the Penguins have shown an interesting ability to beat the Washington Capitals, Philadelphia Flyers, and even the New York Islanders — when they want.
The other teams have not generally shown an ability to get to the Penguins unless they allow it. The structured and defensively rigid New York Islanders couldn’t hold leads against the Penguins, just as the Flyers’ aggressive forecheck couldn’t get in the Penguins’ way, just as Washington looked like Bauer introduced a new hockey skate made of recycled cement.
But more specifically to the flightless birds, several factors could be kindling for one more moment in the sun.
First, goaltending. I laid the groundwork on Wednesday that Tristan Jarry is hugely important to the Pittsburgh Penguins’ success. He is, but having a goalie on his game who can steal points is the very missing ingredient the Penguins have been missing since 2017.
What if Matt Murray made one more save in 2018?
A rock-jawed goalie is a must. The Penguins again have that, which ups their playoff potential by a factor of 10.
“That is part of winning in this league. You’ve got to get a timely save. And he provided it for us (Tuesday),” Sullivan said of Jarry.
Second, separating Jason Zucker and Evgeni Malkin was a blessing. Zucker’s lineup absence created a spot for Jared McCann, an emerging offensive player in the league. He has a chance to be the next Bryan Rust, a fourth-liner with seemingly zero offensive instincts who becomes a 20-goal scorer and impactful player.
Together, Zucker and Malkin are trash. That’s not a bag on either player, but together, good grief. In our offseason writings, we fully detailed just how ineffective they were last season. In 60 minutes of 5v5 hockey, the pair saw just one Penguins goal scored when on the ice together.
Combining their futility last season with their bungling this season made Harry and the Royals seem tight-knit.
Here are the lowlights in 218 minutes played: On the ice for nine goals for, 12 against. Expected Goals-For, 44%. Just 47% of the scoring chances and 36% of the high-danger chances. And, worst of all, the Penguins on-ice save percentage, when they were together, was a whopping .883.
And, the pair started 63% of their shifts in the offensive zone to boot. All stats according to NaturalStatTrick.com.
Zucker’s injury was unfortunate, but separating him and Malkin was not.
Conversely, McCann can be hot then fade into the background, but the overall numbers are good. In 160 minutes played: 12 goals for, five against. Expected goals-for, 8.85, which is a high number, and 60%. They had 57% of the scoring chances and 53% of the high-danger chances, and 83% of the high-danger-chance goals scored.
Important as offense, when Malkin and McCann are together, the Penguins’ on-ice save percentage is .940.
Third, Improved defense.
The Pittsburgh Penguins don’t possess a shutdown pair. That might become Marcus Pettersson and John Marino, but otherwise, that duty will fall again onto Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin.
We’re aware of recent attempts to cast Mike Matheson in a bad light. We don’t get it. The professional coaches and scouts we speak to don’t get it either. Believe me, when the smart folks in the room tell me otherwise, I’ll let you know.
But what Matheson does provide is one more offensive weapon that the opponent must defend. His speed out of the defensive zone is especially helpful against teams like New York, which prefer to get back into a defensive posture and clog up the ice.
Matheson is ahead of the “clog,” which means the Penguins can play on the rush against teams that absolutely do not want it.
Letang reaching peak form surely doesn’t hurt, just as Brian Dumoulin being in the lineup steadies the entire corps.
Fourth, like it or not, coaching.
The Penguins’ adjustments against Philadelphia were adroit. The Flyers nearly had whiplash because the puck and the Penguins rush moved past them so quickly.
A little success creates more success. And it creates buy-in. The Penguins will ebb and flow a little more over the next 32 games.
Fifth, Kasperi Kapanen.
The speedy, gritty winger is the perfect follow-up to Bryan Rust. The Penguins’ top-six crew now has a pair of players able to pressure defensemen with speed and tenacity. When Kapanen is playing well, he is the definition of holding onto pucks down low. He goes to the net, and he has some creativity.
He must avoid the big ups and big downs that have plagued him in the first three years of his career.
And, the trade deadline is one month away. The Penguins have time to address things like their fourth line or their roster of penalty killers.
It’s not official, but it is trending that way. The Pittsburgh Penguins could be a lot better than we thought.