With a suppressing win over the Montreal Canadiens, the Pittsburgh Penguins got back to .500 after 16 games, and a few players finally put their name on the score sheet. Sidney Crosby got a little reward for his comeback. Teddy Blueger sniped a pair, while Zach Aston-Reese had probably his best game of the season and a pair of assists.
Tristan Jarry got a shutout, and the Penguins rolled to a 6-0 win.
And all is fixed, right?
The Pittsburgh Penguins steamrolled a team ready to be steamrolled. Montreal didn’t quite have the same fightback that the Toronto Maple Leafs or Winnipeg Jets will present. Or the New York Islanders and the rest of the Metro Division.
Our colleagues at Montreal Hockey Now used the headline, “Back to Rock Bottom,” to describe Montreal’s flatline.
A win is a win, but the Penguins won without needing to play their best game. Or their hardest game.
The Penguins goals were on odd-man rushes, long wrist shots, and a 25-foot carom off the back wall, for which Cayden Primeau was surprisingly unprepared.
What the Penguins Did Right
Tristan Jarry has been a rock for the Penguins all season. He’s 6-4-3 with a .922 save percentage. Buffalo didn’t bother to shoot in the third period on Tuesday, or his save percentage would be higher.
Jarry has started eight of the Penguins last nine games, and he’s given them a chance to win. He was stellar on Thursday night which allowed the Penguins to put enough distance between themselves and Montreal.
Marcus Pettersson and Penguins depth players were on their toes.
Teddy Blueger and Zach Aston-Reese were especially good in all three zones. Aston-Reese is usually good in the defensive zone, but he finally emerged in the offensive zone and notched a pair of assists.
“They made some real good plays offensively too, but it was nothing forced. It was the right play that was there. There was no cheating for offense,” acting coach Todd Reirden said. “They got what they deserved with their offense. For me, if you play the right way like that, and that’s how hockey works out like that. If you do the right things and you get rewarded. And I thought that was the case.”
Scoring chances behind opposing defensemen seem to follow Jeff Carter, too. The guy is 6-foot-3 with curly hair. Perhaps he could be tough to miss? But he’s slippery and gets behind defensemen at least twice per game.
Jason Zucker is also playing on his toes and efforting to play near the blue paint. I don’t think that’s his natural inclination, but he’s putting a hand on the shovel.
What the Penguins Must Continue to Improve
The Pittsburgh Penguins did not defend their own zone cleanly, at least while the game was competitive. Montreal exposed seams in the coverage and found wide-open soft spots. Four of Montreal’s five first-period shots were scoring chances.
Montreal had good looks from the slot and even a couple of pokes near the net.
The Penguins cannot let better opponents have that freedom. A hungrier or more confident team would have built on those chances. A hungrier team would have added more of those chances.
Sidney Crosby gets a pass from any criticism. He can acknowledge he wants to be better, and that’s true, but Crosby has earned enough markers to cash in a few while he essentially tries to hop on a moving train.
“It’s getting better every game. (In) Washington (it) didn’t feel great, and (I) didn’t expect it to…it felt better tonight–started off a little better. So it’s one of those things. It’s just going to take time,” Crosby said of his recovery and getting back to speed. “I’m still learning, and this is a new scenario for me…I’ve come back from injury, but never that long and missing camp and going through the stuff with the virus. So it’s hard to be patient, but you know, you kind of have to be.
It’s a lot easier when you get a win to kind of get through it.”
The last sentence speaks for many of the Penguins. They’re going through a process we haven’t seen in a long time. They’re struggling to play to their identity, despite many familiar faces. And they’re not hitting their marks in customary fashion.
Thanksgiving remains a tell-tale milepost, and standings on turkey day are a good predictor of the final standings. The Penguins will be out of the playoff picture on Thanksgiving unless the six teams in front of them all lose every game from now until next Thursday and the Penguins win all three.
The Penguins also did not follow one of Mike Sullivan’s favorite edicts: Hang onto pucks down low.
And here’s where the Penguins recipe is missing ingredients. They are shooting more than 30 other NHL teams, but the shots are often singular without enough traffic or net-front battle. Instead of hanging onto pucks down low, the Penguins are firing away, but it’s a one-and-done.
That was largely true against Montreal, too.
If the Penguins do that against Toronto, Tristan Jarry might need a long shower and a short memory. Good teams like Toronto will transition that into offense.
The Penguins broke their three-game losing streak and put up big numbers. It is easier to breathe after a win. A fourth loss in a row, especially to another bad team, would have been a cause for deep concern.
Now comes the tough part. Now, their A-game has to emerge. Or they’re right back to chasing the standings, and we’re right back to questioning everything.