The Pittsburgh Penguins started slow on Friday night. A long layoff will do that, but the Penguins were not playing poorly. Instead, the Penguins were part of an exercise in patience. They controlled territory and the puck for most of the first period. In a sense, the Penguins passed another test of a team trying to wait out the Penguins, in hopes they would begin to press or make mistakes.
That’s what the New York Islanders did to the Penguins last April. And that’s another reason why the 2019-2020 Pittsburgh Penguins will be a tough out in the playoffs.
Things are coming into focus for the Penguins, including the current goalie situation.
1. Penguins goalies
Fans won’t be happy Sunday morning when head coach Mike Sullivan announces Matt Murray will start against the Capitals. A little birdy indicated that’s the way Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan planned to go for the first meeting with the arch-rival on Sunday afternoon. Things could change, but as of now, we expect Murray.
Sullivan means it when he says they have two good goalies. However, what has changed is Sullivan’s perceptions of Jarry. The Penguins “backup” goalie had not only to prove himself against NHL competition but prove himself as a locker room presence. He had to show maturity and seriousness about the task at hand.
“I felt like they had some good chances in the third. I was just trying to get to the top of my crease and trying to get in front of them,” Jarry said of his third period heroics.
Jarry has stolen or preserved no less than a half dozen points this season. He is earning Sullivan’s trust. That is the reason Jarry got the first start out of the break and the reason he got the last start before the break despite Murray’s improved play.
Jarry has won the short term competition, but the Penguins have a two-time Stanley Cup-winning goaltender who they know is a pressure goalie. Before the Twitter meltdown Sunday morning, think big picture. The Penguins are going through a long selection process for April.
But I too want to see Jarry in a high stakes game against a team like the Washington Capitals. It will be interesting to see if Washington starts Braden Holtby, who is on his way out, or the kid Ilya Samsonov who is pushing him out.
2. No TV?
The Pittsburgh media. Don’t get me started. There were precisely zero TV reporters in attendance at the game on Friday night. None. Zip. Zilch.
I know the TV folks. They’re good people, and they’re employees. The folks who make decisions in this town don’t get it. Hockey matters. Has anyone looked at the hockey TV ratings? Make hockey an event. The local networks should absolutely cover the Penguins as intently as they do a Steelers mini-camp, or every time Ben Roethlisberger has the slightest bit of gastrointestinal distress.
When it’s Steelers season, none show up because…it’s Steelers season. It doesn’t matter if it’s Tuesday or Wednesday. It’s…Steelers season. Nothing else matters.
Pittsburgh TV still covers the Penguins like a tertiary event or the third team in town. In fairness, Pittsburgh TV is run by old people who have been ensconced for decades. The thinking and routines haven’t changed despite massive shifts in the market.
Here’s a funny thing about media–consumers respond to the energy you put out. If you don’t cover hockey, despite massive TV ratings and tens of thousands of people who attend games, then it won’t matter to your viewers. Local TV stupidly ignores the Penguins. If only local media put in the effort BEFORE the playoffs, consumers might actually respond.
As usual, Pittsburgh media is 10-years behind and still fixated on the Steelers. Or the Pirates. Kids, it ain’t 1975 anymore.
Better yet, put honest effort into real coverage. Pass along knowledge and information like there is an inch of snow coming and the barometric pressure is dropping. It’s not like a hockey-only website run by a radio guy without much of a name in this city has become one of the most-read sites in Pittsburgh or anything.
But hey, everyone shows up for the playoffs! And it just feeds the cycle that only the playoffs matter. The first TV station to establish itself as the hockey channel will be rewarded.
3. The Pittsburgh Penguins will be a very tough out in the playoffs.
We dissected what the Penguins did to beat the Alain Vigneault 1-3-1 trap, which has historically given them fits. The Penguins were ready for it after being swallowed by it on Jan. 19.
Not only were the Penguins ready for the trap, but they also made had several adjustments as Philadelphia adjusted. Read the breakdown in the PHN Report Card.
It’s the ability to adhere to the system, to adjust in-game, and stay within the game that makes the Penguins much different this season. They’re fast, but you already know that. The Penguins are hungry, but you’re learning that. What separates them from their recent failures is the ability to beat teams on the chalkboard, too.
That’s culture. That’s identity, and that’s Mike Sullivan.
The Penguins will be able to adjust to any scheme or strategy that Barry Trotz, Todd Reirden, Alain Vigneault, or John Tortorella throw at them. The ability doesn’t guarantee they will beat their opponent, but it does ensure they won’t beat themselves.
4. John Marino
Marino was flawless on Friday night. The Penguins rookie blueliner keeps getting better and better. He was noticeably stout on the blue line, and it made an interesting contrast to Justin Schultz.
Friday night was Schultz’s first game since Dec. 17, so the next few are a work in progress, but the Penguins coaches, including Jacques Martin were not wrong to keep Marino on the second pairing with Marcus Pettersson and use Schultz on the third pair.
5. Defensive Depth
Penguins GM Jim Rutherford has been flawless this year. Going back to last February and the heist of the Florida Panthers for Jared McCann and Nick Bjugstad, the acquisition of Erik Gudbranson, who fit very well, trading Phil Kessel in June and the signing of Brandon Tanev on July 1, Rutherford has been on his game.
There is one area that will hamper the Penguins for the next several weeks and perhaps longer if another injury occurs. The Penguins lack defensive depth. Chad Ruhwedel was both forced to play on his off-side on Friday night and benched later in the game after a few turnovers in his own end.
Juuso Riikola didn’t distinguish himself in his playing time throughout January.
The Penguins currently lack physicality and strength on the blue line. The Philadelphia game-tying goal was the result of effectively running over the Penguins defensemen, Schultz and Ruhwedel. Heavier teams will be able to get to the Penguins defensemen. Low zone puck battles are a problem for the current group.
Count me as solidly in the corner who believe the Pittsburgh Penguins need a veteran defenseman. If the Penguins suffer another left-side defenseman injury, they will have a hard time winning a second playoff series with the pairs they had last night.
A little extra muscle on the blueline wouldn’t hurt either.