It only took about 27 hours in real time for the Pittsburgh Penguins to stack up two wins this weekend. At 7:00 PM on Friday they were 13-11-6 and looking unsettled after just a 1-1-1 road trip that featured many opponents at the bottom of the league’s standings. But by about 10 PM on Saturday, the Pens were up to 15-11-6 and a grasp on third place in the Metropolitan Division. Not a bad stretch there.
#1: Pittsburgh dodges major bullet on Letang injury
The most important note, by far. With about 5 minutes left in Friday night’s game, the Penguins star defenseman collided with an opponent and his knee appeared to hyper-extend back a bit upon impact. Letang was in huge pain, and slowly dragged himself immediately to the locker room on one leg.
Luckily, it was not the worst case scenario of a major injury as coach Mike Sullivan updated the status on Saturday.
“He is not going to play tonight,” Sullivan said. “He is day-to-day with a lower-body injury. It could have been a lot worse. We’re going to take it each day as it comes.”
To say this is a major bullet dodged is an under-statement. Letang has been an absolute workhorse for the Pens this season averaging 25:55 per game (4th in the league).
There’s value in eating all those minutes, since not too many are capable of playing that much, but what’s more telling is what Letang is able to do in all those minutes. As Adam Gretz noted in his weekly update here on Pensburgh, Letang’s been playing some of his best hockey as of late too:
Kris Letang played 62 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey this past week. In those minutes the Penguins were a 68 percent shot attempt team (93 for, 43 against), a 70 percent scoring chance team (42 for, 18 against), a 65 percent high-danger scoring chance team (21 for, 11 against), and outscored teams by a 2-1 margin. He not only deserves to be in Norris Trophy consideration this season, at this point he should be one of the front-runners. For the season his 0.83 points per game average would be the third highest of his career while his 56.1 percent shot attempt share would be the best mark of his career. He is also leading the team in shots on goal with 99 entering play on Friday. Simply the best player on the team right now.
It seems that Justin Schultz (who has missed almost the entire season getting hurt in the fourth game of the season) is something of a forgotten man when it comes to evaluating the Penguins now, and what they might hope to become in April. Having one right handed defenseman like that out has been a huge loss. Losing Letang for an extended period of time might be the season’s death blow. Fortunately it doesn’t look like that is the case.
#2: Finally, some secondary scoring
With Patric Hornqvist and Dominik Simon both also hurt, the Pens badly needed some supporting players to step up and tangibly contribute.
And perhaps the most unlikely sources have provided it in Bryan Rust and Matt Cullen.
Rust has been a surprising recent contributor if only for a terrible start to the season with just one goal in the first 28 games. He broke out in a big way before the weekend with a hat trick against Chicago, but the momentum has rolled beyond that. Rust played a season-high 21:52 against Boston (odd how chipping in goals will earn more time, eh?) and also fired seven total shots on goal this weekend. Before Chicago, it took Rust EIGHT games from November 27 - December 8 to total seven shots on goal. So Rust is firing, and it’s working- he scored last night against LA and is obviously a player brimming with confidence right now.
Cullen barely looked like an NHL player when this season began, he appeared to be a shell of himself and his results and presence on the team were more negative than anything. After returning on December 12th from a three-week injury of his own, Cullen looks refreshed and better. He’s got two points in three games since his return, both of which were great plays on his part with a nice pass to Derek Grant against Boston and then making a huge difference and scoring a short-handed goal against LA. Cullen isn’t around to score a ton of points, but his timing to produce this weekend was a standout performance.
#3 Goalies seeing some serious rubber
On Friday night Casey DeSmith was definitely one of the best players on the ice, stopping 48 of 51 shots against the Bruins.
Saturday night, in his first game back from injury, Matt Murray saw 41 shots on his net, and he did well to stop 38 of them.
The Pens aren’t exactly a team that excels in shot suppression and limiting other team’s looks on net, but giving up an average of 46 shots on goal this weekend probably isn’t a sustainable way to find success. Alas, for a team used to getting average (at best) goaltending overall in the 2018-19 season with 16th placed save percentage entering the weekend, there’s no doubt for this small stretch they got above-average play in net. The longer that lasts, the better a chance the team has to continue to win games.
#4 Pearson’s pretty play
One great thing about Tanner Pearson is he has the ability to show flashes of brilliance. In a no doubt inspired effort against his old team on Saturday night, he showed that by stealing the puck off Drew Doughty (impressive!) and patiently out-lasting Jonathan Quick and then finishing it with a perfect shot.
Can you imagine Carl Hagelin ripping off Letang and then firing a top-shelf shot like that? Yeah, me neither.
#5 Welcome back Dupuis
It was great to see Pascal Dupuis back in Pittsburgh again.
A lot of fans were left wondering why Dupuis didn’t immediately jump into an off-ice role with the team, but it wasn’t so simple to just snap a finger and switch gears like that for Dupuis.
As Jason Mackey wrote for the Post-Gazette, it was a difficult transition from playing career to retirement for Dupuis:
Being back in Pittsburgh also led Dupuis to reflect a little on the end of his career and why he left town the way he did.
It was absolutely intentional … but not because he was unhappy or didn’t love the city. More it was something he felt he had to do for his own health.
“I needed to get away,” Dupuis said. “I still think to this day that I would’ve tried to make another comeback if I had stayed around here.”
So Dupuis said he went to his wife, Carole-Lyne, with a request.
“It was hard to stay around, even when I was around the team and not playing,” Dupuis said. “I told my wife, ‘Let’s move away from this.’ When I have the itch to move back, we’ll discuss. It’s been good. Everybody’s happy.”
After finishing his Penguins career as a part-time scout, Dupuis said he has started to think about a possible reunion with the organization. But he doesn’t question for a second what he did a couple years ago, that intentional break to make sure he didn’t try for another comeback.
“It’s always in the back of my head, for sure, every time I come back here,” Dupuis said. “But like I told you, I needed that cutoff. I needed to get away from this.”
Dupuis loves hockey and no doubt it’s a tough hand to take from being on a line with Sidney Crosby one day, to having a medical condition that would prevent him from playing high level hockey the next. It’s good to see he’s found some peace and acceptance with the end of the playing line for him, and hopefully he will be a part of the organization moving forward. You definitely want guys like Dupuis and Billy Guerin around if you can get them.