Despite only a few games with both Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in the lineup together, the Pittsburgh Penguins have 21 wins and no less than a five-point lead over the Buffalo Sabres for a playoff position in the Eastern Conference. Despite a myriad of injuries, the Penguins keep winning games and despite a lack of injuries, their primary competition for the Wild Card position is not keeping pace.
Even Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan is enjoying his team.
The first 36 games of any regular season are rarely memorable but this one is different. In 10 years, you’ll be able to harken back to “that” year everyone was injured. Just as 2011 stands out as the year the Penguins were short Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby in a playoff series against Tampa Bay (and blew a 3-1 lead), this season will stand out, too.
But instead of frustration or earned excuses, the Penguins have thrived. Here are five observations of the season and reasons the Pittsburgh Penguins are winning, so far.
5. Unanswered Prayers
There was a flurry of activity in General Manager Jim Rutherford’s office in the days leading up to the regular season. There was something said to a player in the locker room about a trade (involving a goalie), there was a potential trade, and there was the disputed Jack Johnson trade discussion. That could have been one situation or a couple of different deals. Only a few folks know and they kept quiet.
Through different sources, Pittsburgh Hockey Now has pieces of the puzzle, but perhaps not the full story. A source mentioned Bryan Rust’s name as one potential trade, but then he was diagnosed with a longer-term injury, the disputed Jack Johnson deal may or may not have fallen apart, and we were told Casey DeSmith was then informed he would be in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton for a while.
So, one, two or three of Bryan Rust, Jack Johnson, and Tristan Jarry may have been on their way to a new team. Talk about luck. All three of them have been backbones of the Penguins success in the first half of the season. All three are playing the best, or some of the best hockey of their careers.
Some of God’s greatest gifts…are unanswered prayers.
4. Tristan Jarry
I’m not sure that Tristan Jarry will be the Pittsburgh Penguins No. 1 goalie, but I’d like to find out. Head coach Mike Sullivan has thus far avoided that declarative statement, hoping to resuscitate Matt Murray’s season and is content to let Jarry win games and prove himself.
There are more reasons not to anoint Jarry as the starter, officially. Jarry is battling for his NHL career and I believe Jarry when he says he feels like he has to prove himself and improve himself every day.
A proclamation would add a heap of pressure on Jarry and perhaps deflate Murray. They are very different personalities and Sullivan’s method of handling them has thus far been effective. There isn’t a reason to change the current dynamic.
4a. Matt Murray
He was very good in the first month of the season, and it was perhaps the best start of his career. Then he struggled. And those struggles continued until Jarry was given a couple of starts.
Jarry hasn’t looked back but Murray is a bit of an enigma. Shooters solved parts of his game, but he adjusted. He was brilliant in the second half last season (fans seem to have forgotten that or didn’t realize it). Murray had a .930-plus save percentage from Dec. 27 to the end of the season.
Murray can stop pucks with the best in the NHL, but we’ve learned a few things since his rookie year. He is prone to soft goals; he allowed too many in the 2016 Stanley Cup run but made every other save. Murray is also prone to extended periods of mediocre play, though he did not have a good defensive team in front of him until this season.
We’ve also learned he is at his best when challenged. The second half could be interesting (and so too could the offseason).
3. Dominik Simon
Wow, has he disappeared? It appeared Simon had turned the corner and took a step forward in scoring development, but as soon as it came, it went. Simon has not been the wind beneath his linemates wings, as he has in the past, either. The Simon bashing is still stilly and over-the-top, as he has become an outlet for angst now that Jack Johnson is officially out of the public doghouse, but this was his opportunity to shine.
He’s a good kid and could be with the Pittsburgh Penguins for a while, especially at his bargain-bin price, but he must pick up his play. He’s one of the few Penguins with a minus (-5). Given the Penguins large goal differential (+24), that stands as a stark contrast.
He’s got to play at the level which lifted his teammates or he doesn’t have enough scoring value to stay in the lineup.
2. Mike Sullivan
Barry Trotz always has a disciplined team which overachieves. Travis Green is finally pulling Vancouver together. But Mike Sullivan had to fight for his team, and he won that fight. No coach in the league has done more with less. The players have been admirable in their effort, unwavering belief they can win games and their execution.
But it’s Sullivan which has pulled it all together. He reversed course to put Jarry in net, he demanded and is receiving buy-in from the entire locker room, and the Penguins are winning. Pierre McGuire was spot-on. He is the coach of the year.
1. Evgeni Malkin
Despite a month-long injury absence, Malkin has been the story. He too changed course for the good of the team and himself. Malkin submitted himself to the team and has been arguably the best player in the NHL this season. Malkin has not only carried the Penguins, but he has also resurrected his career. He is playing defense like it matters. He is pushing the play like “Geno’ of old. And he is taking care of the puck, too. There are very few of those ghastly turnovers which ruined his previous season.
Malkin is back, and everything else is in some way related to that. It’s been a joy to watch a player who was so frustrated and confused, burst from that malaise and be great, again. The Pittsburgh Penguins are better off for keeping Evgeni Malkin, short and long term.
Happy Chanukah! And, Merry Christmas, ya filthy animals (Home Alone reference)!