It is Friday and that means it is time for our weekly look at which Penguins players are trending up, and which Penguins players are trending down.
It has been three games since we checked in exactly one week ago and the Penguins have been a pretty big mixed bag during that time. Early on it looks like they just need a reason to care.
Matt Murray — One of my favorite things about Matt Murray is just how downright defiant he is after bad games.
In having a discussion about him during his second season in the league, it was pointed out to me, probably half jokingly, that someone, at some point in his life had to have given him the speech Crash Davis gave to Nuke LaLoosh at the end of Bull Durham when he finally got called up to the show. Be cocky and confident, even when they are crushing you.
Whenever Murray has a bad game he doubles down on his confidence in himself, puts it behind him, and usually responds with a big game. In his first two starts this season Murray was, if we are being honest, quite bad. Then he got injured and then Casey DeSmith got another start even after Murray was cleared to play. You had to know given all of that he wanted to play a great game in Toronto on Thursday night, especially against the high-powered Maple Leafs that had been steamrolling everyone.
He did more than that. Murray played his best game in probably more than a year by turning aside 38 shots in a 3-0 win that was highlighted by an Evgeni Malkin power play goal and then two hilarious empty net goals at the end.
Murray was not the goalie anyone expected him to be during the 2017-18 season and his 2018-19 season did not get off to the start he wanted. But that two-time Stanley Cup goalie is still in there, and maybe we started to see it on Thursday night.
The Kris Letang-Brian Dumoulin pairing — So far this season Kris Letang has been the Penguins’ best player, and I am not really sure there is anyone close to him. If there is, it might be his defense partner, Brian Dumoulin. Together they have been a huge bright spot this season and were once again great on Thursday night.
So far this season the Penguins are controlling more than 62 percent of the 5-on-5 shot attempts when those two are on the ice, more than 62 percent of the total scoring chances, and nearly 70 percent of the “high-danger” scoring chances.
When those two are not on the ice all of those percentages drop down around the 40 percent range. That is not good for the rest of the crew.
Letang looks to be back to being the player he was before 2017-18 and is making an impact all over the ice. His empty-net goal on Thursday is already his fourth of the season and the 100th of his career. As noted by KDKA’s Bob Pompeani, Letang is only the second defender to score at least 100 goals as a member of the Penguins, joining only Paul Coffey. What is remarkable about that is Coffey only played four-and-a-half years with the Penguins.
Letang now has eight points in six games this season.
Dumoulin, meanwhile, has just been his usual rock solid self, quietly going about his business.
(All shot attempt and scoring chance data via Natural Stat Trick)
Phil Kessel — He has been a regular here, but with his level of play so far this season how can he not be? He has been awesome this season and already has eight points in six games. Even when the team has lost he has made an impact, recording two points in the shootout loss to the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday and setting up Carl Hagelin’s game-tying goal on Tuesday night to send the game to overtime. That play is probably what stands out the most to me about Kessel and his time with the Penguins. It wasn’t him scoring a goal; it was him setting up a goal. When he first arrived in Pittsburgh he came with the reputation of being somewhat of a one-trick pony, in that if he was not actually scoring goals he was not really doing anything else. But for as great as a goal-scorer that he is his ability as a playmaker is what really helps make him one of the league’s elite offensive players. That pass to set up Hagelin on the odd-man rush was especially brilliant because everyone in the building, including Canucks goalie Anders Nilsson, assumed he was going to shoot the puck. Instead, he froze everyone to set up Hagelin up for the tap-in goal right on top of the crease. Perfect decision, perfect play, perfect pass.
Speed. Speed. Speed.— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) October 17, 2018
GAME-TYING GOAL! pic.twitter.com/gQ6bjoqGQf
Bryan Rust — The Penguins love Rust because he is so valuable in his ability to play all over the lineup. He is not out of place on any of the four lines and can always find a way to contribute, especially in the big games. It is no surprise they were willing to give him a four year contract extension worth $3.5 million per season over the summer. So far in 2018-19 he is struggling a bit and has yet to find his game. Six games into the season he has just a single point (an assist on Letang’s empty-net goal on Thursday), is a minus-3 in terms of goals, and when he had a wide open look on a three-on-one on Thursday night he completely whiffed on the shot, missing the net entirely. The bad news: That was the first time I really noticed him this season. He can be better. He needs to be better.
Daniel Sprong — Not really sure what is going on here. Overall, I thought Sprong showed a lot in the first few games. He seemed to put an ugly preseason performance behind him and was pretty noticeable when he was on the ice, even recording a point in three of his first four games. Then they just stopped using him. He has logged just around 24 minutes of total ice time over the past three games, never playing more than eight minutes in any of them. On Thursday he spent almost the entire third period glued to the bench, taking just one 23-second shift over the final 26 minutes of the game. At this point we really have no idea what he is as a player or what he can be. At some point the Penguins will have to figure it out. Sprong has just three total shots on goal this season.
The rest of the defense — This kind of follows up what was mentioned earlier when talking about the Letang-Dumoulin duo, but the other four defenders are not exactly helping the team carry the play at this point. You can have whatever feelings you want about analytics and shot metrics. You can discount them and argue they are misleading or not the end-all, be-all of evaluating hockey. You can point to the occasional big hit that Jack Johnson or Jamie Oleksiak delivers, or Olli Maatta getting his stick on the puck, or anything else you want to point to. But there are not many advantages for your team when it is getting dominated on the shot and chance charts the way the other four defenders currently are. At some point that will hurt you. Giving up fewer shots is always better. The Penguins need more from those four players.