There is no need for new whipping boys. There wasn’t a need for the old ones, either. The Pittsburgh Penguins are in the rare and unenviable position of missing most of their best players. Almost as soon as generational center, Evgeni Malkin returned to the lineup, all-time great center Sidney Crosby went out. And so did top defenseman Kris Letang. Now their second-most productive defenseman, Justin Schultz is also out of the lineup.
And yet the Penguins are tied for the second-best goal differential in the NHL. For all of the stats and advanced metrics which devotees embrace, merely look at the goal differential at the end of the season. It is the best predictor of success. Playoff teams have big green numbers, and the non-playoff teams usually have big red numbers.
With more obstacles and hardships than any other team in the first 20 games, the Penguins are in a playoff position with a goal differential behind only the defending Eastern Conference champion Boston Bruins.
Yet, if you read many of the comments on this website, Facebook, Twitter, or any other public forum, you might think the Pittsburgh Penguins have one of the worst starting goalies in the league, their fourth line has minor leaguers, and that Evgeni Malkin gives away more pucks than he keeps.
I wonder if so many of those folks can ever enjoy a hockey game. The sky is falling. The Penguins will miss the playoffs, this player sucks, gah! By the way, the Penguins were 1-0-2 this week.
Pittsburgh Hockey Now is about a love for hockey. My love for it shared with your love. We go far more in-depth, provide more content and coverage than anyone else because I believe that the model is profitable. And you’re proving that hope to be correct. I could easily take a shortcut and dump all over players, dish plates of hate and scorn, but that wouldn’t be accurate reporting.
PHN doesn’t hammer players often not because we’re pollyanna or optimistic fans, but because it’s about context, truth and presenting the real game to you.
I guess now that Jack Johnson is demonstrably playing well and his advanced statistics elevated, the hate has to go somewhere…
This week, Matt Murray took his turn in the public stockade while fans tossed rotten tomatoes. I was surprised to see Murray’s save percentage dipped to .907. He’s otherwise been solid. Not spectacular, but not bad either. If you focus too closely on any player, you can find plenty of mistakes to justify the opinion you feel. But this is where the step back to put things in context comes into play.
Did Murray misplay the New York Islanders OT goal by Brock Nelson on Thursday? No. He got beat by a player who had too much time and space. That’s overtime. Murray will never be an excellent 3v3 goalie because individual battles aren’t his strength. His strengths are anticipating plays to be in the proper position, even for Grade A chances, a calm demeanor, and he is a big goalie. Regular season overtime nullifies those strengths. So, the Pittsburgh Penguins will have to find a way to score in overtime, but they aren’t built for it, especially without Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang.
Has Murray let in a few softies? Yep. Just like every other starting goalie in the league. Context. It is possible to say Murray had a bad game, or lousy moment, without revisiting every goal he’s ever allowed or calling his career into question.
If the Penguins put Matt Murray on the trade block tomorrow, there would be a lot of takers. And yes, Tristan Jarry should play more. Perhaps a lot more. All of the above can be true: Murray to be a good goalie, to allow some bad goals, to be criticized for those softies, and for Jarry to have earned more starts.
It must cause pain for some folks to see public opinion turn positive on Jack Johnson.
Zach Aston-Reese is playing well. If he wasn’t, he wouldn’t be in the lineup. He doesn’t possess the pedigree or stature to get a free ride through a slump unless he’s contributing. Trust me. He’s feeling every moment of the goalless drought. This week, he scored a goal, only to have a video review take it away for offsides. He’s hit a few posts. It’s bad luck.
There isn’t a question about his ability to play in the NHL, at least on the part of the Penguins. He did turn the puck over twice at the blue line against New York but show me a player who hasn’t tried to get through the New York blue line wall without adverse consequences (spoiler: that list would also include Sidney Crosby).
I don’t know who said it first, but the adage is true: Hockey is a game of mistakes. If you look for them to justify a feeling or opinion, you’ll find them for every single player. EVERY player. But the trick to analysis is context.
The Pittsburgh Penguins are playing some of the best hockey they have played since 2016. Really. They simply don’t have the depth or scoring ability to win without being perfect, and yet they’re still treading water. It’s impressive and not worthy of the amount of wailing and gnashing of the teeth which currently exists.
Try to enjoy hockey and the big picture because they don’t award Stanley Cups or have parades in November.
Word around the league is he won’t coach for a while. Toronto is a pressure cooker that doesn’t forgive missteps or underachieving. Babcock didn’t fit with the team Kyle Dubas built, or the team didn’t fit with Babcock. Either way, it was a relationship which should have ended in the summer.
The great lessons from the Babock-Toronto situation are: Don’t give a coach an eight-year contract, GMs must build a team for the coach, not just a team to coach, and it’s getting harder for certain types of coaches to relate to the next generation.
The next GM to hire “Babs” will have to build a speed team to play within a system but also have a veteran heart. Hello Seattle?
Now that Toronto is applauding their new head coach in the locker room after his first win, and Tampa Bay realized their season was slipping away just like 2017-18, things are about to get interesting in the Eastern Conference.
Both Toronto and Tampa Bay trail the Penguins, but both are close behind, and both have won two in a row. Philadelphia is proving to be playoff worthy, as are the Carolina Hurricanes. The Buffalo Sabres are on the trade market. With the right move, they too could become playoff contenders.
I find this storyline fascinating as it regards the Pittsburgh Penguins and their attempt to salvage a season which has thus far been a line of dark clouds. It will be a fight to the finish, and I don’t know how it will end, but we’re at Thanksgiving, so…game on.