December 3rd was just over three weeks ago, but feels like a lifetime away when you’re thinking about the course of the Pittsburgh Penguins 2018-19 season.
The Pens were coming off blowing a lead and dropping a home game to the lowly Flyers, one of just a few teams beneath them in the standings. Pittsburgh’s 10-10-5 record at the time was only 25th in the NHL, 12th in the East and 6th in the division. Things were looking, if not dire, than certainly uncertain and less than promising.
As we’ve mentioned a lot in the game previews, December 4th - 22nd was a crucial and trying stretch of the schedule. The Pens had to play 11 games in the course of those 19 days, including two sets of back-to-back games. They dealt with injuries before and during the portion of the schedule, as most NHL teams do during most mid-season chunks of time.
It was a stretch that really could have sunk the season. And, to be fair, time was already wasting - since Sportsnet figured that in the last five seasons that 77.5% of teams in playoff spots at Thanksgiving end up making the playoffs. Here Pittsburgh was almost two weeks past Turkey day and still well behind the 8-ball and figuring to get lost in the shuffle as a tight clump of teams all struggled to try and climb past one another and into the playoff hunt.
Instead, the December busy stretch might just be looked on next spring as what ended up being - if not the turning point of the season, then certainly a majorly important positive step forward for the team to set them up for the future.
The Pens went 8-2-1 since losing that game to Philly:
Ironically the games they lost fall in the “shoulda woulda” category - in OT to Ottawa, to a Blackhawks team that lost eight-straight coming into that game, and to an Anaheim team they held a 2-0 lead against. All of those games were winnable, and probably should have been won by a good team. Alas, the Pens made up for it with impressive road wins in Washington and Carolina last week, as well as finding a way to bounce back from their Chicago disaster by playing well at home.
And, if you’re still looking at the glass half full of egg nog, it’s definitely encouraging to see 4-0 this month on the back-to-backs, especially after there was so much difficulty in that category last season.
Here’s a look at the individual stats over this course of play
The first line players are showing their stuff, and unsurprisingly Bryan Rust has been on an unreal hot streak. Since 12/4 only Steven Stamkos (11), Alex Ovechkin (10) and Jack Eichel (9) have more goals in the entire league than Rust. Spoiler alert - Rust isn’t going to shoot 27.6% indefinitely so his production will fall back to earth here soon, but it was great while it lasted for him to get some positive regression after such a tough start.
Sidney Crosby has had his passing gloves on with the 10 assists in this stretch. His vision and ability to make plays is obviously the gift that just keeps on giving.
Phil Kessel and Evgeni Malkin feel a bit out of sorts but their boxcars aren’t terrible. The key for them in a big way is shots on goal. Last year Malkin scored 42 goals, taking 239 shots on goal. That’s north of three per game. In this stretch 27 SOG in 11 games is 2.45 shots per game. That’s actually an improvement too since Malkin is at just 85 SOG in 36 games, or 2.3 shots per game.
Coaches always harp on simplifying one’s game and shooting the puck to get out of slumps and that definitely should be a focus here. It’s obvious, easy and really intuitive - the Pens want and need Malkin to score more than the two goals he has in the last 11 games, and he just needs to make concerted efforts to get more rubber flying at the goalie in order to get back on track. Obviously his resume speaks for itself and he’s going to get going sooner or later with that.
A stretch like this and you can see why the Pens are growing impatient with Derick Brassard. At just 14:38 played in this stretch though, the answer could be showing a bit more faith and giving the player more shifts to try and accomplish more. It’s always a difficult proposition for a coach to play a quiet player out of a slump, but it’s tough to imagine Brassard (or anyone) doing much more with less time to do so.
The best picture of all is this next one from the goalies
Casey DeSmith having to start eight of the 11 most critical games of the season probably wasn’t something anticipated by the organization in the pre-season. But DeSmith passed the test by far, proving .932 save% overall and an impressive 5-2-1 record that you’ll take any day of the week.
The potential difference maker though is Matt Murray. 3-0, a shutout, a .964% save percentage (including an even strength save % of an absolute monstrous .969%) this is the 2016 and 2017 playoff version of Matt Murray. This is what Pittsburgh is looking for.
Of course, the usual caveats apply - small sample, Murray was injured for most of this stretch, the best ability is availability, yadda yadda. And, naturally, Murray isn’t going to cary a .950%+ and win every game, there’s going to be more bumps in the road ahead for him, just like any goalie.
Other than the 8-2-1 record though, getting Murray back on track and healthy and playing well looms very large for the Pens as we move into 2019. I shudder to say they’ve “turned a corner” or any other buzzwords to indicate that it’s only onwards and upwards from here, but all we can say for sure is what has happened. And that was the Pens clearing an important and tough challenge after a sluggish 2018-19 season start and getting right back into a solid position for the second half of the regular season.