Checking in on the Penguins three-peat status
The Pittsburgh Penguins appeared in some sort of malaise through the first half of this season, rarely stringing wins together and barely hanging on to the playoff bubble. At the start of the new year, the question didn’t seem if GM Jim Rutherford would make a big move, but when and how. However, 2 weeks into 2018, Rutherford has yet to pull the trigger on any moves, in part because the team put together some strong efforts to begin the new year.
The Penguins are finishing up their 5-day break in the schedule, not playing any games from when the Bruins visited on January 7 up until the Red Wings visit on January 13. As of the morning of Friday, January 12, no roster moves have taken place for the Penguins. This might have something to do with scoring 10 goals in their last 2 games and going 3-1-0 in 2018.
The team is starting to show more positive progress, though a lot more work needs to be done. Their 6-5 overtime win over the Bruins showed a lot of that progress, but it also highlighted areas of concern for a team hoping to be in the mix for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Sure, the Penguins’ offense erupted against one of the NHL’s hottest teams, scoring both at even strength and from their NHL-best power play unit, and their defense got in on the score sheet with goals from Kris Letang and Jamie Oleksiak, and their penalty kill was perfect on the night to continue as the best penalty killing unit since Thanksgiving. But on the other hand, Tristan Jarry gave up 5 goals – several of them that should have been saved – despite the fact that many both within the organization and outside of it believed that he deserved to take on a more prominent role because of his strong play and Matt Murray’s struggles as of late; the team gave up some unnecessary odd-man rushes and breakaways that resulted in some nervous moments (penalty shot against with one minute left in a tied game). The Penguins may have come out on top with the win, but some things definitely still need attention.
Regardless of the negatives, it was nice to see Pittsburgh earn back-to-back victories for the first time since the beginning of December. Their play has been so inconsistent this season that even stringing 2 victories together is cause for celebration. 2 nights before playing Boston, the Penguins defeated the New York Islanders 4-0 with an effort requiring the full team’s commitment. They had lost only one night before by the exact same score, 4-0, to another division rival in the Carolina Hurricanes. It’s those efforts that frighten fans and cause doubt as to whether or not this team will even make the playoffs.
They entered the break as the last wild card team in the east – thanks to those 2 wins – but with the Hurricanes’ victory on Thursday night, the Penguins once again find themselves on the outside looking in. Looking away from their record, though, Penguins’ fans do have reasons for optimism. Pittsburgh leads the league in shots per game. They are 6th best in shots against per game. They have the best power play in the league and the 10th best penalty kill in the league (again, trending upwards to 1st since Thanksgiving). Those are just the statistical positives.
Watching the games, you notice other positives too. Sidney Crosby looked engaged in the last two games, especially compared to the lackadaisical stranger present for most of the first half of the season. Maybe chemistry with Daniel Sprong and Dominik Simon is helping to wake up the captain. The fourth line looks revived and relevant with Riley Sheahan centering Ryan Reaves and Tom Kuhnhackl, earning them more ice time and allowing the stars a few more minutes of rest. The Oleksiak trade is looking like a positive move so far as he’s made his presence felt on the ice in each of the 9 games he’s played so far. And even with hiccups like Sunday night, the goaltending situation looks again like the Penguins have a solid 1-2 combination for the crease and don’t need to rely as heavily on Murray as once believed.
Of course, things need to continue in this positive direction if players hope to hold Rutherford’s hand much longer – especially players like Ian Cole and Conor Sheary who have been tied to trade rumors often this season. The Penguins return from their break with two big games against eastern conference foes in the Red Wings and the Rangers before taking a road trip to the west coast. If they can put together some victories, they might find themselves in a completely different place by the All-Star Break – in both the standings and in their mental state. Fans can hope as much, anyway.