Checking in on the Penguins three-peat status
The Pittsburgh Penguins and their fans would love to see a third title in as many years, but in a league as competitive as the NHL, this is no simple task. In an article last week, we looked at three questions posing a threat to the Penguins’ ability to ascend to the top of the mountain again. This week, we’ll look at how they have done answering those questions so far before asking some new questions to be on the lookout for moving forward. If anything has been apparent so far in the season, it’s that it will be an entertaining ride.
The first question facing the Penguins last week was regarding their hunger level to compete for another title. After two straight losses, which included a 10-1 thrashing at the hands of the Chicago Blackhawks, this seemed fair to ask. However, leave it to some good old-fashioned rivalries to revive the fire in the heart of the Penguins. They bounced back from the embarrassment of the Chicago game to shutout the Nashville Predators 4-0 in the first rematch of the Stanley Cup finals. Then, the Penguins put on a convincing performance against the Washington Capitals, holding on for a well-earned 3-2 victory. A 5-4 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning the next night may have seemed like a setback, but the Penguins still showed up to compete and never quit in the game despite trailing by two goals three separate times. The defending champs then got a game to regain their footing against the Florida Panthers, winning 4-3.
Fans worried about the competitive level in the first two games should be satisfied with what they’ve seen since, especially with the return of Patric Hornqvist. In the three games he has played since returning from injury, Hornqvist has two goals and an assist, but more importantly has an infectious energy for the entire team. Seeing him fight in the crease inspires something that the team could use a whole lot of. If that infection lasts, this concern is not one at all.
Current concern status of hunger level: Not a concern.
The second question facing the Penguins was one of depth following an offseason that saw them lose two starting centers and two starting defensemen. It’s only six games into the season, so having a concrete answer is impossible at this point, but right now, the team appears ok on this front as well. Greg McKegg and Matt Hunwick have each contributed a goal in the last two games. The ability to interchange Jake Guentzel, Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust, and Patric Hornqvist on Sidney Crosby’s wings is one great example of potential depth as Coach Mike Sullivan sees no problem with going with whichever pair seems to have the energy that night. It’s quite a luxury to have four potential wingers for the top line and to be able to put top-line talent on the third line for an entire game. Also, Kuhnhackl and Rowney have shown their worth on those bottom lines, grinding and hustling the way they need to in the bottom six. However, the two big names to stand out so far for forward depth are Bryan Rust and Carl Hagelin. Rust is tied with Crosby for the team lead in points with eight. He creates chances often throughout games, finding the right spots on the ice and using his speed on the rush. He is someone to keep an eye on as a difference maker this season. Some people might be pulling their hair out looking at Hagelin’s stats – one assist and a minus-one through six games – but if you watch the games, you can see how much his speed is impacting the game positively for the Penguins. He looks like the Carl Hagelin of 2016, which the Penguins could use in that bottom six.
Defensive depth shows no signs of trouble this far, even with Ian Cole out after taking a puck to the mouth. Chad Ruhwedel has played effectively as a replacement, even sending a perfect pass through two zones to get Conor Sheary a breakaway goal against the Lightning. It’s not so much the depth that’s concerning for the defense as much as it is their performance overall, but we’ll get to that later.
Current concern status of depth: less of a concern than last week, but keep an eye on it.
The last question asked last week was about goaltending, which might still be the most troubling for this team. Murray showed his ability to still play at a high level without Marc-Andre Fleury behind him by turning in strong performances against the Predators, Capitals, and Panthers. We’ll have to stay alert to see how he progresses this season with a heavier workload than he’s ever seen before, but at least for now, he seems capable. Niemi has such a small sample size to make a fair judgment on right now. His game against the Lightning was much better than his showing against the Blackhawks. He even made some highlight reel saves to keep the Penguins in it while they came out sluggish at the start. However, giving up five goals makes it tough for the Penguins to compete in games where Murray needs a rest. As stated last week, the Penguins lead the league in back-to-back game situations with nineteen such occasions. They need their backup goaltender to get them a good amount of wins if they want a strong standing in the playoffs when April comes around. We’ll have to see how Niemi performs this week when the Penguins again play back-to-back nights on Friday and Saturday.
Current concern status of goaltending: Substantial worry.
While keeping an eye on those questions, there are others that have surfaced so far in the season as well. First of all, where is the second line? Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel have combined for four even-strength points through six games. That is not enough. Also, Malkin’s play has yet to reach expectations this year as he turns the puck over too much with lackadaisical passes. The Penguins need more out of the elite players on their second line.
People can have faith that these players will start to show up because they always have, but probably the biggest question the Penguins need to ask right now is: where is the defense? And I don’t just mean the six guys on defense, but the team defense is inconsistent at best right now. There is only one player on the entire roster who is on the positive side of plus/minus through six games: Tom Kuhnhackl. Sixteen players are sporting a minus in that category, and only three players sit at even, two of which have only played three games. This stat might be deflated by a 10-1 loss, sure, but it should still raise some eyebrows that the Penguins have given up twenty-five goals through six games. Everyone needs to step up their defensive play right now to protect the goalies. The team is currently giving up a lot of shots, and a good number of those are high-quality scoring chances. This needs to get corrected if the Penguins hope to have a chance at achieving the improbable and three-peating.
It is tempting to ask about discipline at this point in the season because opposing power plays have hurt the team, but right now every team is trying to figure out the new rules, especially the strict slashing penalties. Fans can hope that the players will figure it out, and in the meantime, hope that Hagelin and Kuhnhackl continue their strong play on the penalty kill.
We’ll check back next week to see where the Penguins stand in response to these questions in their quest to three-peat. For now, we can all enjoy watching.