After some months of grinding their gears trying to find a better game that suits their identity, based on winning percentage, the Pittsburgh Penguins would be in the playoffs if the season ended today.
It’s been a slog. A climb. And an uphill battle after the team narrowly avoided a couple of potentially season-killing protracted free falls.
Yet they survived, and despite eight wins in 13 games, it’s also hard to say they are thriving.
“We’ve not really had any long stretches of playing at our absolute best that has allowed us to gain separation as it pertains to the playoffs,” said president of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas on his bi-weekly radio show Wednesday. “Especially before the All-Star break, we’ve got two games on this (road trip), then we come home, (have a) longer break and then two more games. I think it’s imperative that we finish that off well and set ourselves up well (to get into the playoffs).”
As Tristan Jarry unironically pointed out to us last season, winning is better than losing. The Penguins are still working toward their finished product, and it sometimes feels like they are searching for their game.
As they move in that direction, yes, wins are better than losing. The recent run of success has put the Penguins in the thick of the playoff race, and with a couple of bounces or falters by teams above them in the Metro Standings (Carolina Hurricanes, Philadelphia Flyers), the Penguins could sneak into the top three, avoiding a potential playoff series against a division winner.
It’s a hallmark of a good team when it can win without its best. The Penguins have a .571 winning percentage and are 20-15-6.
The Penguins are chasing teams they should pass. Can the Philadelphia Flyers and Washington Capitals truly keep this up for 82 games? Can the Carolina Hurricanes survive with Antti Raanta in net? Can the New Jersey Devils thrive with Nico Daws in the cage?
Wins will add more pressure to those external situations, increasing the chances one or more falter.
It’s been 42 games, and we haven’t seen any consistently great play from the team. Largely on the back of Sidney Crosby and goaltending, the Penguins have won a few games or earned points in recent games, which they probably should have lost convincingly.
With their season on the line, why can’t a team of veterans dial it in and show their best stuff?
The fourth line. Jansen Harkins and Jeff Carter began the 2023-24 NHL season in similar ways. Each was essentially left for dead, though in a different context. Penguins fans had discarded the “Big” Jeff Carter moniker, and many of us believed his playing days were just about over.
Harkins couldn’t crack the Winnipeg Jets lineup and was summarily waived before the season.
Yet here they are. After scratches, demotions, and largely ineffective play, the Penguins’ fourth line with Noel Acciari centering is scoring a few points, defending the opponent’s top lines, and generally creating a little havoc with the forecheck.
Show me a team with an irritating fourth line that can add a few points, and I’ll show you a good team.
It’s not only that the Penguins’ power play has the same effectiveness as a cheap paper facemask around your chin, but it’s also that it drags down the team’s momentum and sometimes its morale.
The power play is converting around 13% of the chances, and there are no answers in sight. The five or six players who have cycled through the top unit have failed to generate enough positive traction in 42 games to believe it can improve without significant changes.
There are options, some traditional, some not. Whether coaches take the more dramatic step of moving Erik Karlsson off the point or replacing Evgeni Malkin, something must change, or the man advantage will be in name only.
Ryan Graves was supposed to be the silent, effective, stay-at-home Brian Dumoulin replacement. Instead, he’s struggled with the Penguins system and to keep track of his freelancing defense partners, Karlsson and Kris Letang.
Chad Ruhwedel has played significantly better than he did last season and at the outset of this one, but P.O Joseph has not yet found his stride. Ryan Shea was a nice story, but his play significantly fell off after about 15 games.
Karlsson has not yet found his stride with the Penguins, either. It is very much all a work in progress, that feels like it should be closer to completion.
Sidney Crosby dominates opponents every night.
Nedeljkovic has not just been a very good goalie for the Penguins, but he’s also done something equally, if not more valuable. He’s pushing Jarry.
Jarry responded to Nedeljkovic’s recent string of starts in very positive ways.
“I think you learn a lot about somebody when they’re placed in a true competition. Early in the year, it was undisputed that Tristan would get the bulk of the starts, but then Alex played so well (he had to play),” Dubas said. “…We needed to give (Nedeljkovic) the opportunities that he’s earned.”
Coach Mike Sullivan had to pull Nedeljkovic after the first period of the Penguins game last weekend against the Vancouver Canucks. The Penguins were lifeless, and the goalie was left out to dry.
However, Jarry was brilliant in that game, willing the Penguins to a point. Jarry stole a point against the Carolina Hurricanes in the following game before shutting out the Seattle Kraken.
If nothing else, Nedeljkovic was a good spur to Jarry, but it’s far more likely that the Penguins now have two goalies who will remain in competition with each other, probably creating an even better situation.