The nerves of Pittsburgh Penguins’ fans have settled a bit after two solid games in a row. But that does not mean that they should stop watching for trade news just yet.
Coach Mike Sullivan has done a good job of pulling his struggling team together to the more composed state that we have seen against Washington and Arizona. Previous Penguins’ teams, particularly those led by Dan Bylsma, have struggled when adversity strikes. Still, all may not be what it seems in Pittsburgh; general manager Jim Rutherford has some big decisions to make as the season progresses.
It may seem outlandish to say that the Penguins’ solid play has been carried by two players, but with lackluster and inconsistent play, that may be exactly what is happening.
The plus-minus statistic doesn’t carry much weight in today’s era of “fancy stats”, but if it ever had story-telling value it was Saturday night against the Coyotes. The Penguins won 4-0 with Sidney Crosby being on the ice for each tally as a direct contributor.
First goal – Crosby scored what was described by broadcaster Steve Mears as “another impossible backhand beauty”.
Second goal – Crosby controls the puck along the boards by putting on a stickhandling clinic and drawing the attention of three out of the five Coyotes on the ice. He then fed the puck to Olli Maatta who’s shot ended up with Dominik Simon scoring against a disoriented opponent.
Third goal – Crosby again drew the attention of the Coyotes and moved the puck to a wide-open Jack Johnson. The former Blue Jacket then passed it down low to Simon who would have been covered if not for Crosby pulling away the Arizona defense. Simon passed it to Hornqvist for the goal.
Fourth goal – The Penguins’ captain assists on Brian Dumoulin’s goal after avoiding a takeaway at his own blueline. He then dished a beautiful pass just inside the Coyote’s zone to the defender who is not known for his goal-scoring prowess.
He was equally dominant in the loss against the Capitals, scoring a patented goal from one knee, and nearly single-handedly willing another goal from Dumoulin. While Evgeni Malkin has shown his frustration, and his teammates have floundered, Crosby has risen to another level. At both ends of the ice number 87 has been a force and led by example.
It is no coincidence that Kris Letang has the best possession numbers relative to all of his teammates. All while having 50.8 percent of his shifts starting in the defensive zone. He averages 25:46 minutes of ice time which is four minutes more than the next player behind him. He has taken the puck away from his opponents (15 takeaways) more than any of his teammates.
The numbers are endless, and the early calling by fans for Norris Trophy consideration is justified. Letang has carried a struggling defense that should have been considered a strength of the team.
This may be the best example of Letang’s value: the 31-year old and Dumoulin have formed what many considered to be the best defensive pairing in the NHL. When the pair is together, they have controlled the puck 55.32 percent of the time. On Saturday the duo was separated, and Dumoulin’s numbers dropped to 34.29 while Letang was the best blueliner for Pittsburgh at 57.58 percent. Johnson who has a Corsi of 47.4 on the season jumped to 51.43 while playing with Letang.
The Penguins’ longest-tenured defender has arguably been Pittsburgh’s best and most consistent player all year. Letang has played a smart, skilled, and physical game all season, and has willed the Penguins’ defense into relevance since the first puck drop.
Despite the uptick in play, the Penguins need to upgrade their defense and solve the depth issue in the bottom six. But until then Crosby and Letang will continue to do what they have done for the last decade plus and be the catalyst for their club’s success.