Checking in on the Penguins quest to three-peat
When we last checked in on the Penguins’ pursuit of a third Stanley Cup title in three years, it looked like the team might be figuring things out to put together a more complete game. They were still losing games, but with a much more competitive showing than many of their earlier games, and then they finished the week off with a convincing win against an elite NHL team. Things appeared to be shaping up for the defending back-to-back champions, but it was up to them to keep that momentum moving in the right direction. Well, it was sort of up to them. The makers of the NHL schedule also seemed to give them a period of reprieve here, especially after such a brutal stretch to start the season. Regardless, the Penguins did take advantage of a relatively light week in their season.
Following a 5-2 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning to close out last week, Pittsburgh continued to go 3-0-0 this past week with a 5-4 overtime win over their bitter rivals in Philadelphia and consecutive 4-goal victories over the Buffalo Sabres on back-to-back nights. At 4 games, this is the longest win streak of the Penguins’ season so far.
However, one shouldn’t ignore the quality of the competition to declare that championship-level hockey has returned to Pittsburgh. Philadelphia was on a 7 game losing streak when they came to Pittsburgh, and that streak is now up to 10 games. Buffalo sits in last place in the entire NHL as of Monday morning. Earning three victories against these two teams hardly seems worth celebrating, but watching how the Penguins played these games does give fans some reason for encouragement.
Against the Flyers, the Penguins battled back from a deficit of 3-1 and scored with just over a minute remaining while their goalie was pulled before earning the victory in overtime. They did all of this without Evgeni Malkin in their lineup and after losing starting goaltender Matt Murray when Jakub Voracek crashed into the crease, causing a lower body injury to Murray (who is currently listed as week to week). The fact that the team put together such a strong effort with their backup goalie to get the win was huge for the Penguins, especially against their hated cross-state rival. Jake Guentzel continued to find his scoring touch with two goals, and Sidney Crosby also sustained his return to the score sheet after a lengthy absence, scoring the overtime goal on a well-placed deflection from the side of the net. Though the win looked and felt good, the concern over losing Murray put a pall over the celebrations.
In an article analyzing how the Penguins’ goalie depth would respond to the loss of Murray, I said that the next two games against Buffalo would provide the opportunity to grow confidence for the young goalies stepping in, and boy did they. Tristan Jarry earned his first career shutout on Friday in a 4-0 win at Buffalo. He looked so comfortable in net that the coaching staff decided to give him the start the next night as well instead of going with Casey DeSmith. Jarry did not disappoint, making many saves, especially at the start of the game when the Penguins came out looking sluggish. He did finally give up a goal in the third period, but the Penguins still got a 5-1 victory.
Evgeni Malkin returned for the 2 games against the Sabres, and he and the offense looked great, posting 9 goals in two games. As stated last week, the offensive lines seem to be finding their groove now, and if they keep it up, then the worries about 5-on-5 offense from earlier in the season might dissipate.
However, there are still concerns for the Penguins moving forward. First, how long will Matt Murray be out? The fact that he is listed as week to week doesn’t give fans a very clear picture of how long Jarry and DeSmith will have to hold the fort in his absence. If it extends for a long stretch of games, it is a big question of whether or not the two inexperienced backups can perform well enough to keep the Penguins churning up the standings. Also, what’s up with the power play? In the two games against Buffalo, the power play looked sloppy for most of their opportunities. Sure, they got one power play goal on a fantastic individual effort from Crosby, but they went 1 for 7 on power play opportunities over the course of those two games, with lots of missed passes and failed entries into the zone. If the Penguins want to continue this momentum against stiffer competition in the coming weeks, their power play needs to figure it out. Another worry that either got answered or more confusing this past week: What’s the deal with Ian Cole? The defenseman was a healthy scratch for 3 consecutive games until the series against Buffalo, and rumors of a trade began to swirl, especially after Murray got hurt. However, Mike Sullivan vehemently denied that Cole was going anywhere and inserted him back into the lineup for the last 2 games this week. This will be something to keep an eye on moving forward.
The last concern, for now, will be if the Penguins can keep this up as their competition strengthens moving forward. Their next 2 games are against division rivals just behind the Penguins in the standings, then they have to play the up-and-comers in Toronto. The good news is that these games are all at home, where the Penguins have only lost 3 of 12 games. This next stretch will show if the Penguins are really starting to look like a three-peat contender or if their generous schedule fooled us.