It was a great question during our live postgame chat on Saturday night. There are times that I’m reminded PHN has cultivated a pretty smart crowd that knows hockey, and after the Pittsburgh Penguins beat the Toronto Maple Leafs 2-0, I got a question that set my wheels spinning.
Who is the Penguins Jenga piece?
In other words, if you removed one piece, it would topple the tower.
So who is the Penguins Jenga piece?
Sidney Crosby? No.
I think everyone’s first reaction is Crosby. The undisputed leader and one of the all-time best to ever wear skates, Crosby has been the Penguins identity and franchise since the team won a 30-team lottery for the right to draft Crosby in 2005.
However, with Evgeni Malkin to return next month or in January, and with Jeff Carter, the Penguins tower wouldn’t topple without Crosby.
It might not be a strong tower, but it wouldn’t come crashing down.
Kris Letang? No
The Penguins have had to play with and without Kris Letang. Make no mistake, the Penguins are much better with Letang, and they don’t have a winning record without him, but without Letang, the Penguins tower wouldn’t be pieces on the floor.
Without Letang this season, the Penguins are 1-3-0. However, it wasn’t just Letang that was missing from those four games.
Jeff Carter? Perhaps.
Big Jeff Carter adds a unique dynamic to the Penguins lineup. It’s been a long time since the Penguins had an offensive weapon in the middle that didn’t wear No. 87 or 71. Perhaps not since young Jordan Staal have the Penguins had an offensive threat like Carter, who played third-line duty.
Of course, in Malkin’s absence, Carter has been the second-line center. In 14 games, he has a respectable eight points (4-4-8), but it’s the energy and leadership Carter also brings.
The Penguins’ acquisition of Carter last February was a boon to the lineup. Yes, he scored goals by the bunches, but he revitalized a waning team. It appears Carter is fresh tires on a slowing race car.
For the praise Evan Rodrigues received when he stepped into the Penguins second-line center role, there’s a “big” difference. Over a greater length of time than 10 days, the Penguins would sorely miss Jeff Carter.
But Carter isn’t the big piece that would topple the Pittsburgh Penguins Jenga tower.
No, when you factor current performance and replacement difficulty, the piece that would tumble the Penguins’ hopes is goaltender Tristan Jarry.
You may have noticed a pair of shutouts over the past four days. Jarry made a few difficult saves in the first period against both the Montreal Canadiens and against Toronto.
If he doesn’t make those saves, those are different games. A three-game Penguins losing streak might be a five-game slide with big-time worries.
Instead, the Penguins found their legs in each game and have won two in a row.
While injury and illness racked the Penguins defense, Jarry has stopped .927 of the shots and boasts a 2.17 GAA.
After 17 games, the Penguins are 7-6-4, but a couple of those wins and more than a few points belong to Jarry.
With respect to Casey DeSmith, who has been a capable backup over his career, the Penguins need a goaltender to save their bacon. In three games this season, DeSmith stopped just .856 and has a 4.72 GAA.
Those numbers would improve with more playing time, but DeSmith’s career save percentage is .913, and that’s probably higher than DeSmith would give the team an extended run as the starting goalie.
Like Jason Zucker and Marcus Pettersson, Jarry is laying waste to the bad memories of last season. He looks and sounds more confident, too.
Because Jarry had his meltdown in the playoffs, that question mark will hang over him until he removes it. The irony is–if the Penguins make the playoffs this season, Jarry will be one of, if not the biggest reason they get there.
And the Pittsburgh Penguins hope no one pulls that piece out of the tower.