When the Pittsburgh Penguins left for their four-game Canadian road trip we really did not have a good sense as to what they are as a team.
They were collecting points, yes, but they had won just two of their first five games and had a minus-three goal differential. At times they looked sloppy and a had couple of clunker performances. Sidney Crosby and Patric Hornqvist had not yet scored a goal. Goaltending had not been great.
They returned after a perfect 4-0-0 trip in first place in the Metropolitan Division and owning a plus-14 goal differential that is tied for the league’s best mark. Sidney Crosby not only started finding the back of the net (five times! sometimes in spectacular fashion!), he helped completely shut down two of the best players in the league by going head-to-head against Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid in consecutive games. Evgeni Malkin is, quite literally, averaging two points per game.
Amazing how quickly things can change.
Let’s take a quick look at some of the more encouraging developments from the past four games, aside from the ones just mentioned above.
They did what they were supposed to do
I don’t want to say they “flipped the switch,” because that phrase was so overused a year ago (including by me) that it made me want to rip my eye balls out, but they definitely looked like their give-a-crap meter was a lot higher than it had been in the first part of the season. That is usually the case when you outscore your opponents by a 23-6 margin over a four-game stretch and only play one game that is even remotely close on the scoreboard at the end of the night.
The star players dominated. Some secondary players chipped in. They made highlight reel plays and at times looked like they were just toying with their opponents.
Now, if you wanted to, you could point out that other than Toronto they played against three teams that missed the playoffs a year ago and could quite possibly miss them again this season. They weren’t exactly playing top-tier teams every night. You could say that. But a four-game road trip in the NHL is still tough (they get paid, too) and, at the end of the day, this is what you want to see from a Stanley Cup contender. You want to see them stomp the teams they should stomp. That was a problem before the road trip when they got blown out at home by Montreal, lost to Montreal again a week later, and then lost at home to the same Vancouver team they beat on Saturday night.
That all changed on the trip.
This was a big problem for the Penguins a year ago, and they did not have a great start this year, either, as starter Matt Murray gave up 11 goals in his first two games before missing some time with a concussion. When he got back in the lineup at the start of the road trip all he did was shut out the highest scoring team in the league, come within two minutes of recording another shutout, and even though he gave up five goals in Edmonton (including one he probably should have stopped on a McDavid shot) he still made more than 40 saves that night including a couple of huge ones — especially huge considering it was a wild one-goal game that could easily gone in either direction.
Then, his backup, Casey DeSmith recorded a shutout of his own in Vancouver.
The Penguins still have their flaws defensively, especially outside of the Kris Letang-Brian Dumoulin pairing (as we have discussed extensively around here), and they are still giving up a ton of shots per game, which is not great. That makes goaltending all the more important and the Penguins got a lot of it on this past road trip.
Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel are obviously going to be the players that drive the bus for this team offensively. We know that. It is not a surprise when they score the way they have been lately. It is expected, we know it is going to be there, it is always there. It is what makes the Penguins contenders. What makes them a championship-level team is when the players that are not Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel start providing offense, too.
That started to happen over the past two weeks.
Patric Hornqvist has been all over the lineup so far this season but finally had his big breakout in Edmonton and Calgary when he tallied five total points (including four goals) after having just a single assist in the first six games of the season.
Bryan Rust, having not really made a significant impact since signing his big contract extension over the summer, finally found the scoresheet and tallied three points (including his first goal) on the trip.
Matt Cullen had two helpers in Edmonton and a goal in Calgary.
On the back end Jamie Oleksiak was ... kind of awesome? With Justin Schultz out of the lineup they need someone else on the blue line to help fill that void offensively, and all Oleksiak did on the trip was put together a three-game point streak, including a two-goal effort, and finish as a plus-nine over the four games.
Some of these are just little hot streaks (Oleksiak didn’t suddenly turn into Bobby Orr; Patric Hornqvist will finish the year with his usual 25 goals, 45-50 points) that are not going to be sustained. But you still need them, and you still need people that are not your big-three to score some goals.
Daniel Sprong’s Vancouver Game
We still don’t know what the Penguins have in Daniel Sprong because he has hardly played, and when he has, he hasn’t really been noticeable. He has a ton of talent and has performed well at every level prior to the NHL, but it has not yet translated to the NHL. He had a terrible preseason, had a few points early in the regular season and a couple of shifts where he really stood out, but he always seems to be one mistake away from being glued to the bench. At one point on the trip he found himself as a healthy scratch.
He was put back into the lineup on Saturday night against Vancouver and played what was probably one of the best games of his young career. He not only received a season-high 11:46, he recorded another assist (he does have four of them in only 67 minutes of ice-time this season), finished with six shots on goal, and for the first time this season did not get totally crushed in the shot attempt metrics. It was good. It was encouraging. It was, hopefully, a sign of things to come for him and will not just be another blip on the radar we have seen from him at times in the past only to be forgotten about when he is back to getting four minutes of ice time