Two months ago, the Pittsburgh Penguins were in a tailspin. There were calls for a minor roster overhaul with suggestions that non-essential pieces should be moved out in order to rejuvenate a club that had maybe spent too much time together and become complacent. But when changes actually came, they were relatively minor.
On Nov. 14, GM Jim Rutherford pulled the trigger on a swap of struggling wingers, with Carl Hagelin being shipped off to the Los Angeles Kings in exchange for Tanner Pearson. On Dec. 3, Marcus Pettersson was acquired from the Anaheim Ducks for Daniel Sprong. And two days later, the Penguins executed a minor league deal that sent Stefan Elliott and Tobias Lindberg to the Ottawa Senators for Ben Sexton and Macoy Erkamps. Hardly the type of blockbuster deals one would expect to turn the organization’s fortunes around.
Then again, maybe the mere threat of a breaking up the group — and a little bit of trade action to supplement it — was just the kick in the pants Pittsburgh needed.
In fact, since the Sprong for Pettersson swap, the Penguins have been among the league’s hottest teams. They have played 18 games in the wake of what most would consider a second- or third-tier exchange of a young middle-six forward for a young third-pairing defenseman, but the record would suggest that the deal was one that breathed new life into the Penguins. Since Dec. 3, Pittsburgh has gone a staggering 14-3-1, their 29 points putting them neck-and-neck with the Tampa Bay Lightning and Vegas Golden Knights for most in the NHL over that stretch.
However, to suggest that changes to the lineup have made the greatest impact on the Penguins’ success would be misguided. Truth be told, despite adding Pearson and Pettersson, Pittsburgh’s play has remained largely the same from a statistical standpoint. Comparing the first 25 games of the campaign to the past 18, the Penguins have actually slid slightly in Corsi percentage at 5-on-5 when adjusted for score and venue, according to NaturalStatTrick. The same can be said for shots percentage, scoring chances percentage and high-danger chances percentage, with declines ranging from 1.8 percent to 0.4 percent. But Pittsburgh has seen a pair of notable increases.
First, the shooting percentage has taken a slight uptick. What was a 9.2 shooting percentage at five-a-side through the first 25 games has risen to 9.5 percent since early-December. The result is a Penguins team that is scoring 3.13 goals per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, up from a flat three goals across the first 25 games. The more notable improvement, though, has been in goal. The Penguins had received a mere .910 save percentage from their goaltenders across their first 25 games, but since Dec. 4, the duo of second-stringer Casey DeSmith and now-healthy starter Matt Murray has neared on unbeatable.
DeSmith was the netminder who really started to turn things around for the Penguins, too. With Murray on the shelf nursing a lower-body injury through late-November and into mid-December, DeSmith strung together some outstanding performances, beginning with a 42-save victory over the Colorado Avalanche. From there, DeSmith proceeded to win three of his next five, posting a .924 SP across that span as Murray worked to return to the crease. And once the Penguins’ starter was back, he was back with a vengeance. Murray’s first game back came on Dec. 15 against the Los Angeles Kings. In that outing, he stopped 38 of 41 shots. And there’s no better way to explain the run Murray has found himself on than this: that night in Pittsburgh, he posted a .927 SP. That is the worst single-game SP he has had in his past eight outings.
Consider that upon Murray’s return from his lower-body injury, the Penguins keeper was mired in the worst stretch of his career. Through his first 11 appearances, he looked less like a two-time Stanley Cup winning netminder and more like a 24-year-old netminder who was bound to find himself back in the AHL if things didn’t turn around in a hurry. He had an ugly .877 SP, bloated 4.08 goals-against average and the only reason his record floated anywhere near .500 was the Penguins’ firepower-laden attack. In just eight games, however, Murray has risen to seven games clear of the .500 mark, he has dropped his GAA by 1.3 goals and his SP has vaulted to .917. That’s what stopping all but 10 of the past 272 shots faced will do.
The combined performance of Murray and DeSmith is reflected in the Penguins’ 5-on-5 numbers, as well. Over the past five weeks, no team has a five-a-side SP as great as Pittsburgh’s league-best .948 SP, and it can’t even really be said that some great change in defensive structure or blueline play is to thank as much as it is the masked men. Adjusted for score and venue, the Penguins are actually allowing two additional attempts, nearly one additional shot, 1.3 additional scoring chances and 1.6 additional high-danger chances per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 over their past 18 games than they were in their first 25 outings.
The chances that DeSmith and Murray continue to perform at this rate over the entire back half of the campaign, of course, are slim. It’s incredibly rare — impossible, even — for one goaltender to maintain this level of play, let alone a pair. But what is likely is that Murray and DeSmith begin to settle into the season, round into the form they should have been playing with all along and continue to help pace Pittsburgh on the road into the post-season. And with the Penguins right back in the thick of things in the Metropolitan Division, the rest of the Eastern Conference has been put on notice. Because as we’ve seen before, as long as they’re in the hunt, Pittsburgh may very well be the team to beat.