Checking in on the Penguins three-peat quest
One win or one loss can drastically change the outlook of a fan base. After a slight victory, fans will sing the praises of their team and believe that everything is pointing towards long-term success, but then a lopsided loss sends them into a panic, relenting that this team will never figure it out. We all understand the rollercoaster of being a sports fan, and we stick around for those highs. However, to get an accurate assessment of how a team looks, we must maintain a level head, sometimes avoiding the results on the scoreboard to look at the play on the field – or in this case, the ice.
Throughout the 2017-2018 season, I have been delving into the progress of the Pittsburgh Penguins as they pursue their third consecutive Stanley Cup Title. This team has not started the way that fans would have liked, stumbling through three backup goaltenders, penalty trouble, offensive struggles, and questions of depth to an underwhelming record through one-quarter of the season. However, with a convincing win on Saturday against the NHL’s top team, the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Penguins proved that fans shouldn’t panic yet. The defending champs are still capable of beating any other team in this league when they put together the right effort. That’s not to say there’s nothing to worry about, though. Just look at the last week of games.
The Penguins played three games this past week, losing two of them. The Vancouver Canucks won 5-2 in Pittsburgh on Wednesday before the Penguins lost in Boston 4-3 to the Bruins. Both of those losses hurt, especially after a 2-1 loss to Chicago to end last week, but the team showed promise in all three of those losses. Against Vancouver, the Penguins put 45 shots on net and battled hard all game. If not for some unlucky bounces (a goal off the shin pad of Brian Dumoulin) and some excellent goaltending, Pittsburgh might have had a more favorable result. In Boston, the Penguins got off to a poor start, trailing by scores of 2-0 and 3-1 before showing some moxie to tie the game at 3. Only a third period Kris Letang turnover cost the Penguins a game that they looked so much more in control of for the final two-thirds of the competition.
Fans could easily have justified doubting this team in its current state. A three-game losing streak is not ideal in any season, let alone one of a team chasing a championship. It’s not the box scores that reveal progress for the Penguins, though; it’s the games. The team battled throughout the games, and the scorers started doing what fans have been waiting for: scoring. Kessel, Guentzel, and Crosby showed up to make plays, just not often enough to get the wins. This last part changed on Saturday for the Penguins.
For the 7th time this season, the Penguins’ schedule had them play a game the day after playing a game. For the third time, that second game was against the team with the best record in the NHL, the Lightning. Pittsburgh had yet to win any of the previous 6 games on the second night of a back-to-back. In the two prior games against the Lightning, the Penguins lost 5-4 and 7-1. This third and final meeting between these two teams during the regular season gave Sidney Crosby and company the opportunity for some redemption.
Though the first few shifts favored the Penguins, the Lightning seemed to take over the game from there. Tristan Jarry held the fort until something happened to completely shift the momentum of the game: the Penguins took a penalty. On the ensuing power play for the Lightning, Bryan Rust scored a shorthanded goal, completely tilting the game in the Penguins’ favor. After that, the Penguins benefitted from some penalties on Tampa Bay, scoring three power-play goals throughout the remainder of the game. A 5-2 victory where stars Sidney Crosby and Phil Kessel had 3 and 4 points respectively helped to ease the woes of fans, at least temporarily.
Just as fans can’t freak out because of some losses, they also can’t swing to satisfaction because of one win, even if it is against a strong opponent. What fans should feel encouraged by is what is happening in these games. Tristan Jarry made several timely saves to earn the first win for a Pittsburgh backup goalie this season. The team started putting pucks in the back of the net again after a stretch of weak offensive output. Their power play looked strong. Their penalty kill showed up in a big way, though they still gave up a goal later in the game. In the prior game against Boston, the team showed their mettle in never giving up when trailing. In the absence of Evgeni Malkin, the offensive lines have begun to find chemistry.
For some perspective, look back to 2015-2016 when Evgeni Malkin missed some time due to injury. The Penguins shifted lines around to fill in for the meantime, eventually putting Nick Bonino between Phil Kessel and Carl Hagelin, a line soon to be dubbed the HBK line as it led the way to a Stanley Cup Title in 2016. On Saturday, without Malkin, the Penguins put Riley Sheahan between Phil Kessel and Jake Guentzel with success. Conor Sheary and Patric Hornqvist continued to perform well together, though now flanking Crosby instead of Sheahan because of Malkin’s injury. Bryan Rust and Carl Hagelin made their presences felt. Carter Rowney progressed in finding his rhythm after an extended absence. Things might be shaping up as the team works to compensate for Malkin missing.
If this trend continues, then the Penguins’ lines might be finding chemistry, they may have found their backup goaltender, and their stars could be waking up from slumps. Of course, no one should yet believe that the Penguins have everything figured out, but at least there are some positives to build on moving forward. The Penguins and their fans hope this is the case so they can start stringing some wins together and earn a playoff position for another push toward a title.