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Penguins Stretch Run: Issues, Possibilities, and Potential

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Pittsburgh Penguins, Sidney Crosby, Kasperi Kapanen

The special feeling as they galloped through a 10-game winning streak, spanning a holiday break and additional COVID time off has waned. The question of how good the team can be has been replaced by again asking if the team is good. Regular season results notwithstanding, issues and potential lay at the Pittsburgh Penguins doorstep.

The Penguins will begin the figurative second-half of the season without a win in their last four games. Despite a superior effort against the Washington Capitals before the All-Star break, the Penguins lost in overtime.

The cupcake heavy schedule with the bottom feeders such as the Detroit Red Wings, Arizona Coyotes, and Seattle Kraken will soon be replaced with the top of the Metropolitan Division. More Capitals, Carolina Hurricanes, and New York Rangers, finally.

The increased level of competition is likely a positive. The Penguins energy level flatlined over the last few weeks of the first half.

Issue #1: Learning to Play with Malkin

And, yes, much of the struggle began when Evgeni Malkin returned. As I told Josh Rowntree on 93-7 the Fan on Saturday, it’s not Malkin’s fault that opposing forwards are getting behind Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin. Or that Evan Rodrigues, Danton Heinen, Kasperi Kapanen, and even Jeff Carter have been conspicuously absent from the scoresheet.

Sidney Crosby has been on the ice for 26 even-strength Penguins goals over the last 30 games. The rest of the team has scored 39. Stats according to NaturalStatTrick.com.

The 26 goals-for is a solid number for the top line, but 39 for the rest? Evgeni Malkin’s line is only one-third of that disappointment and he seems to have the pretty good excuse of shaking 10 months of rink rust.

There is no denying the dynamic changed, as was unavoidable, but the disruption has been even more significant than worst-case scenarios.

No more globetrotter hockey. No more waiting for Malkin to rescue them. And no more high-risk, sloppy play by Malkin and surrounding Malkin. Settling down, playing with Malkin will be the biggest issue.

Issue #2: Net Fronts

One bugaboo has cost the Penguins a couple of games: the front of their net.

Another issue has kept them off the scoreboard in others: the front of the opponent’s net.

The playoff slog is about grimy, greasy hockey. The Pittsburgh Penguins have shown an ability to get there in the offensive zone, and an ability to protect goalie Tristan Jarry in the defensive zone, but both have been inconsistent.

Fortunately, for the Penguins, Jarry has been an umbrella in a rainstorm and bailed them out of more than a few jams.

Issue #3: Kasperi Kapanen

No reason to kick him further. His play and production have to improve.

“I thought the line was pretty good. I thought they had a fair amount of scoring chances. I thought they made pretty good decisions with the puck. And so there wasn’t as much risk associated with their game, which I think is an important aspect of our team game moving forward,” Mike Sullivan said after the Penguins’ OT loss to the Washington Capitals.

More of that, less of the perimeter free-skate.

Issue? Possibility? Contracts

Penguins GM Ron Hextall has deferred public discussion of new contracts for Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and Bryan Rust. Hextall said talks are ongoing.

However, as PHN reported more than a week ago with on-the-record comments, serious talks have not yet occurred, at least with Kris Letang. His agent, Phil Lecavalier, expressed a desire to have talks, soon.

Perhaps Hextall has a plan and there isn’t urgency to get anything done. Or, perhaps that plan involves not re-signing two, or maybe all three.

How will a team react if they conclude this is the end? That answer could go to the extreme on each end of the spectrum. IF (if, if, if), they conclude it’s the last ride, it could be a galvanizing rallying cry. Or it could also lead to hurt feelings, disillusionment, and “screw-this-place-itis.”

Potential:

The Stanley Cup.

I won’t back down from that one. The team has the ability and depth to play with any and every team in the league. It wasn’t a playoff game, but Tristan Jarry was a brick wall in the final minutes of the All-Star Game as the Central Division team pushed. There was even some urgency in the game, at least for a moment.

Jarry and Guentzel helped the 11-member Metro Division squad split $1 million for winning.

Jarry is proving to be a top goalie in the game. A team in the playoffs with a top goalie (we won’t say elite for a couple of years) can do a lot of damage.

His Jedi training will not be complete until he steals a game or two in the playoffs, but then, he will get his just deserves.

And that’s the Pittsburgh Penguins ceiling. We wondered if they would make the playoffs. That question has been answered to almost a certainty. Now it’s about hockey’s second season, and jelling around good hockey, not pond hockey, nor haphazard globetrotter puck management.

Now it’s about reforming the identity that shined brightly just one month ago. The issues, the challenges, and the potential lie ahead.

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now Editor-in-Chief, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight, NHL Home Ice. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

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Jack McCrory
Jack McCrory
3 months ago

That’s an excellent article Dan. I think your observations are dead on.

wesman33
wesman33
3 months ago
Reply to  Jack McCrory

So your telling us that Malkin, one of twenty two skaters on any givin night can single handedly dictate how well or how poorly the team jells and plays. I personally think you guys have (MDS) you know the same as (TDS). Just my opinion and it sounds like your grasping, there are no perfect teams and the season is long with ups and downs. Pens will settle down and win the Metropolitan with 71 or without him. Carolina is due for a bump or two down the stretch

Eric Bouchard
Eric Bouchard
3 months ago

I was wondering about…one guy….that COULD help Geno….If GMRH can pull this kind of trade. OK i would LOVE JT Miller who i heard would be on the trade market.IM not sure if they can afford him. MOney wise and what they would have to give for Miller. But what about Joe Pavelski. 37y old. Shoots R. Can play Center AND Rwing. WOUld add a little sand paper to Geno’s line. IS a heck of a Net front presence. Great hands…etc… He will be UFA (last year of a 7M contract)….right now has around 2.9M left on his contract. Maybe… Read more »

William Maloni
William Maloni
3 months ago

Excellent analysis, DK, but I’m not optimistic with this group.

Robert Shoemaker
Robert Shoemaker
3 months ago
Reply to  William Maloni

Its all about who catches fire once the playoffs begin. The canadiens made it to the final and they are not a good team. They rhode the coattails of 2 players that are now lost and they are at the bottom of the standings. The islanders got hot for a couple of rounds and beat the penguins with their 4th line scoring at an unrealistic rate and Sorokin playing lights out. They are not a good team either.

The penguins have those tools and more. Its about it all coming together at the right time.

Last edited 3 months ago by Robert Shoemaker
Frank
Frank
3 months ago

There is no disputing the points of the article. They are clear and easily identifiable and have to be addressed in whole or part . . .. but. . .they are chronic. The “adjusting to Malkin” issue is decades old now. When he returns to the line-up after extended absences lots of things happen and for completely inexplicable reasons much of that is not very good. Great talent .. . future Hall of Famer . . multiple Stanley Cup winner . . but this nearly neutralizes the positive things he adds. So I am not optimistic that after all these… Read more »

Fredrick
Fredrick
3 months ago
Reply to  Frank

I agree with the concern of the net front with out current D. I feel our GMs always do the same thing each year. They build to our teams strength of athletic skilled players. They report they want more size, but we miss out on players like Gudbranson who Dan brought up before he signed with Calgary. He would have been a good pickup. I think Petry who Dan also brought up would be another great pickup. I brought up bringing in both Petry and Anderson from Montreal if Hex was able to make it happen. I think it is… Read more »

Katz
Katz
3 months ago
Reply to  Fredrick

I agree on Gudbranson but he really got a lot of money

Katz
Katz
3 months ago

Yes Jarry is the major factor. However the secondary scoring , the lack of physicality especially on Defense, and the resistance to change when things go South by HCMS are factors which again do not bode well for the “Real” season. And this team is not assured of qualifying for the “Real” season yet. Hopefully a key addition by trade will make a significant impact., I will not say “Stanley Cup” cavalierly or “speaking to my book”, there is virtually no chance of that occurring w/o a catalyst roster move going forward.

D1VE is Dumb
D1VE is Dumb
3 months ago
Reply to  Katz

Weird, the Penguins lose a few games and you come crawling out of your hole to post on here about the “Real” season instead of “it’s all about the playoffs,” or “anything less than the Stanley Cup is a failure.”

Does your mom take your computer away when the Penguins are winning?

Its good to know that you didn’t use your own belt to do yourself in with your lovely doom and gloom attitude.

Robert Shoemaker
Robert Shoemaker
3 months ago
Reply to  D1VE is Dumb

I endorse your comments

Katz
Katz
3 months ago
Reply to  D1VE is Dumb

Thank you for your thoughtful and insightful commentary . FYI I’d be very happy just to exit the First Round .

Brandon O
Brandon O
3 months ago

Pretty spot on analysis. The Malkin enigma is no knock on his talent or commitment. He has clashed with the style of this team in the past, and there has also been times when he takes over the ice and plays like the best player in the league for stretches. The most recent example… when it seemed the pens were well on the way to missing the playoffs last year and he went geno machino for 2 months. He was beginning to form something special with Kapanen, and this was really the only time Kap has played well. Malkin’s injury… Read more »

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