It has not been an easy slog against a Herculian gauntlet of teams representative of the task the Pittsburgh Penguins will face on the road to the Stanley Cup. Yet the Penguins have fared well enough to believe bigger things than a fourth straight early knockout are possible. Of course, the NHL trade deadline is just a few days away.
The Penguins measured themselves against the stacked Florida Panthers (loss), the deep and fast Carolina Hurricanes (win), the defensive and heavy Nashville Predators with great goaltending (loss), and the 2019 Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues (win), who also bring the heavy.
And before that, the Penguins stared down the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning. The Penguins boat raced them out of Amelia Arena.
However, over the last four games, head coach Mike Sullivan began pressing buttons, pushing players out of their comfort zones, trying different combinations, and making a concerted push to find his optimal lineup before the playoffs begin in about six weeks.
In that effort to find their best lineup, the Penguins have probably learned a few things.
3 things we’ve learned about the Pittsburgh Penguins
1. Tristan Jarry is a liferaft
As you and I have communicated this season, I’ve described Tristan Jarry’s improved body language and noticeable chip on his shoulder. He interviews with a smile, his shoulders back, and a different sort of confidence.
Sullivan acknowledged that Thursday night, too.
“He’s a great kid. He really prides himself on his game, and I have so much admiration for how he’s approached this whole season. He has a certain look in his eyes that he’s determined to prove people wrong, that he’s a legit No. 1 goaltender in this league,” Sullivan said. “We believe in him, and he’s done a great job for us.”
Jarry gives the Penguins a chance against anyone.
2. Mike Matheson is a spark plug
Over the past week, the reconfigured defensive pairings included Mike Matheson with Kris Letang and, on Thursday, with John Marino.
We detailed the offensive title wave when Sullivan pairs Matheson with Letang. The difference was more than 20%. More goals, more scoring chances, and a lot more high-danger chances.
Thursday night, while paired together, Matheson and Marino looked like Orr and Potvin. Ok, it’s not THAT good, but it was John Marino’s best game and maybe best in a couple of seasons. He was on his edges. He pushed the play and defended well.
Matheson has brought a spark to each pairing since he was activated from the IR over the past two weeks. He’s been the version we saw last season with Cody Ceci, and the Penguins offense has been far more dynamic.
He scored his ninth goal of the season Thursday night on a three-wide rush with Jeff Carter and Radim Zohorna. He becomes a weapon if he continues to play like he’s capable.
3. The Pittsburgh Penguins must add finish
Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, this team can’t finish. Michaelangelo laid on his back for five years to finish the Sistine Chapel. It seems it takes the Penguins as long to score even-strength goals and slightly more effort.
The Penguins bombarded St. Louis and Nashville with shots, scoring chances, and controlled puck possession.
In that time, the “Penguins forwards have scored one goal. The Penguins forwards, not counting the Sidney Crosby line, scored zero goals.
Where is the Penguins scoring? As GM Ron Hextall noted, “it depends which part of the season you look at.”
The Penguins had ample secondary scoring in the first 35 games. In the last 27, not so much. Secondary helpers have only intermittently shown up.
With respect to Danton Heinen, Evan Rodrigues, even Jason Zucker, and Brock McGinn, the Penguins need someone to finish more of their 35 scoring chances against St. Louis or their nine high-danger chances against Nashville.
Perhaps it was too optimistic to think Rodrigues could keep up his 30-goal pace. Heinen is a nice depth-scoring option, but the Penguins are asking too much of him. Zucker will be back soon, but he only has 13 points (6-7-13) in 31 games.
More than the last few games, we’ve learned the Penguins need finish, but the last few days have taught us the prices aren’t conducive.