The battle against the New York Islanders is what the Pittsburgh Penguins needed. Whether the result was a win, loss, or loser point, the Penguins need a few more games against tough opponents, which force them to cling to their system, new identity, and opponents that push the Penguins beyond their comfort level. Things are not the same this season, and nor should they be. The comebacks against Boston and New York were impressive. The next step will be limiting their deficits or necessity for those comebacks.
The Penguins offense may have a couple of diamonds in the rough, a couple of gritty diamonds.
1. Bryan Rust and Jared McCann are not two players from which fans or analysts expect points, but perhaps that is about to change. McCann lit up the scoreboard last season after the Penguins acquired him from Florida and eventually tried him as a top-six winger. Last season, McCann had periods of success with Crosby. Thursday night, he melded with Malkin.
McCann and Rust boldly embody the Penguins new identity.
Rust won’t pop 80 points, but 50 would be an extraordinary plus for the Penguins. Maybe he will be a streaky scorer. Maybe his offensive game is coming along. Rust’s name has been mentioned in serious trade talks, but Rust is showing the Penguins it would be challenging to get better without him.
The speedy wingers pulled Malkin forward. He couldn’t get waste too much time with east-west play when his wingers were flying north-south.
2. Now that a few (or more) media folks are jumping on the Penguins team-first, honest play bandwagon and their puck domination, remember who has been telling you for two years the Penguins needed a gritty team concept, and they would improve through personnel subtraction.
Given the amount of snark, sarcasm, and condescension which some fans and even media tossed our way, perhaps you’ll forgive the moment of self-promotion.
3. Saturday night is a prime let down game. The Pittsburgh Penguins just beat their conquerer with an emotional comeback. Saturday night, they have an unheralded Western Conference opponent. The game screams, “coming out flat.”
It doesn’t help that Chicago seems to own the Penguins, too. In the last four seasons, the Penguins are 0-7-1 against Chicago and have been outscored 38-13. The Penguins haven’t won a game against Chicago since March 30, 2014. Dan Bylsma was the Penguins coach.
4. At some point soon, the Penguins need to give Tristan Jarry a few more starts, unless they want Murray to start 75 games. Jarry is 1-3 after being tagged with the loss when he relieved Murray in Boston, but Jarry has an excellent .929 save percentage in his four appearances. For the advanced analytics crowd, Jarry has a 2.42 goals saved above average stat, which means opponents should have scored almost three more goals in his four appearances. That’s pretty good.
5. This week proved Evgeni Malkin’s worth and served as a reminder of how they won two Stanley Cups. Beyond the Xs and Os, speed or grit, the Pittsburgh Penguins won a pair of Stanley Cups in the last four years because they had an unstoppable line beyond Sidney Crosby.
Crosby’s line did not win their battle against Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand, who had five points (2g, 3a) against the Penguins. Crosby’s line also did not win the battle against Mathew Barzal on Thursday night in Brooklyn. Yet the Penguins rallied from three goals in each game. Thursday night, Malkin’s line exploded for three goals in less than eight minutes.
In 2016, it was Nick Bonino with Phil Kessel and Carl Hagelin. In 2017, it was a team committee approach. In 2018 and 2019, secondary scoring was not higher than the opposing contributions from secondary scoring.
6. The Penguins defense corps is in a really good position. Juuso Riikola and John Marino are two young, mobile puck movers. Neither has shown the ability to produce much offense yet, but they’re both competent third pairing defenders. Riikola can play the right or left, and Marino played a fair amount of left-side D in camp and preseason.
Pump the brakes on the Penguins being better without Kris Letang. Seriously, did some of you eat paint chips as a kid?
Both Marino and Riikola played well with Jack Johnson, too. Gee, it’s almost as if a young, complimentary defender paired with Johnson has more freedom to take chances or make mistakes without being exposed.
However, one thing to note, Justin Schultz has only four points at even strength this season. I cannot say I believe the Marcus Pettersson-Justin Schultz pairing to be stout.
7. Pettersson’s warts are showing this season. That is not a unanimous opinion, though. Others have told PHN how well they think Pettersson is playing. In this regard, we’ll call it a split decision.
Opponents have beaten him to the outside several times, and his strength can be questioned as opponents have been able to win wall battles and get to the net against Pettersson. However, his strengths are the million little things which often go unnoticed.