Somewhat missed in the Eastern Conference hoopla surrounding the stellar run by the New York Islanders is just how good the Pittsburgh Penguins have been recently. On the surface, a 5-2-3 record over the past 10 games isn’t anything special, but few teams have had to deal with the calamity the Penguins have faced on injury reserve.
Just to give a brief summary: Evgeni Malkin missed 11 games with a leg injury; Alex Galchenyuk missed nine with a lower-body issue; Bryan Rust needed an 11-game break to recover from a hand injury; Brian Dumoulin missed four games with a lower-body problem; Nick Bjugstad sat for nine games to kick off the year but will miss another eight weeks with a muscle injury; Justin Schultz is out “long term” with an upper-body injury; Kris Letang just returned from a lower-body contusion; and Sidney Crosby is in the midst of a six-week break with a sports hernia.
So, yeah, the injury ninja hasn’t been pleasant to the Penguins, but the results don’t suggest that. Pittsburgh sits in the top wild-card spot with a 13-7-4 record, beating out the likes of Tampa Bay, Philadelphia and Toronto. The Pens have a 5-2-3 record over the past 10 games, with two of the overtime losses coming against the red-hot New York Islanders. The Pens have handled the adversity with ease this season, but it also gives a glimpse as to how the deep the team is without star players in the lineup.
Since returning from the IR, Malkin has been Pittsburgh’s best player with 13 points in his past 10 games – Crosby has been out for seven of them. But it’s not the first time Malkin exploded offensively with Crosby sitting out, either: Malkin’s first 100-point season came in 2007-08 in a year where Crosby missed nearly 30 contests with a high-ankle sprain. In 2011-12, when Crosby missed all but 22 games with a concussion, Malkin stepped up to the plate and led the NHL in scoring with 50 goals and 109 points. When healthy, he seems to play his best hockey when he’s the main man in Pittsburgh.
The Penguins knew shipping Phil Kessel out to Arizona – fresh off of 92- and 82-point campaigns – would result in fewer goals this season, and Galchenyuk, his replacement, hasn’t done much to change that belief with just one goal through 15 games. But when you take into account that six of Galchenyuk’s nine points have come over the past six games despite playing less than 13 minutes a night, it’s starting to look like he’s figuring things out in his new home. He’s a pending UFA this summer, and with just two 50-point campaigns over the past seven years, he hasn’t lived up to the hype that made him the No. 3 pick by Montreal in 2012. Every good stretch helps, and playing with Jared McCann and Brandon Tanev has seemed to get his game back in gear.
Elsewhere in the lineup, McCann’s 11 points in the past 10 games have put him on a 58-point pace this season, far surpassing his previous best of 29 points last season. Jake Guentzel and Dominik Kahun have seven points each over the past five games – Rust has six in the same span. Defensively, only the Islanders (54), Arizona (58) and Boston (61) have allowed fewer goals than the Penguins, a team that employed Johnson and Erik Gudbranson at one point this season and missed No. 1 defenseman Letang for a few games.
Perhaps the most underrated aspect of the Penguins is the play of rookie defenseman John Marino. The 22-year-old joined the Penguins after a three-year stint at Harvard University, recording a career-high 16 points in 2017-18. This season, Marino has nine points through 22 games, finding his groove with Jack Johnson on Pittsburgh’s second pairing. But it didn’t come easy for the former sixth-round pick by the Edmonton Oilers in 2015 (154th overall), sitting out the first two games before only playing a handful of minutes through his first few outings. When paired with Dumoulin on Pittsburgh’s second pairing, the pair has an expected goals percentage of 62.4 percent, good for sixth among all defensive pairings. Marino is still a work in progress, but given that GM Jim Rutherford only sent a 2021 sixth-round pick to Edmonton for him, you can’t go wrong.
The one question mark that remains is the team’s goaltending situation. At 24, Tristan Jarry needed a big prove-it year after losing the backup role to Casey DeSmith last season, and he’s lived up to the task thus far. Before Monday night’s victory over the Calgary Flames, Jarry’s six previous starts were on the second-half of back-to-backs, but his .965 save percentage at 5-on-5 is the best among all goalies with at least five games played. His 7.96 goals-saved above average is good for fourth in the league, and while the seven-game sample size isn’t huge, he’s getting the job done with four wins so far. But while having a backup shine is good, you can’t have an underachieving starting goalie, and that’s Matt Murray’s issue. Even with a 9-4-4 record, Murray’s .909 save pct. at 5-on-5 puts him 31st among 41 goalies with at least 10 games played, with his goals saved above average sitting at a rough -3.65 for 34th in the league. That’s not going to fly long-term, but Murray’s career has been built upon rising above the pressure; perhaps Jarry’s strong play is exactly what Murray needs to get back in his comfort zone.
As a whole, the Penguins can’t be overlooked. They still have many key players that won consecutive Stanley Cup championships just a few years ago, and they’re showing that the club can handle adversity. It’s better to have that issue now when the stakes are low compared to in April, and while another Cup still seems far-fetched, the Penguins have proven they can thrive regardless of who’s missing.
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