Is this where it begins? Are we watching the beginning of the turnaround? Or is this just another moment where they take one step forward before taking a couple of steps back? We will obviously find out over the next couple of weeks which path they take, but hanks to the Penguins’ blowout win over the New York Islanders on Thursday night they moved back into a playoff position for the first time in ... honestly, who knows how long ... and are now 5-2-2 in their previous nine games. That is a 110-point pace over 82 games, which is obviously more of what is expected out of this group.
Let’s take a look at who is driving that recent turnaround (and who is not) in this week’s Trending Penguins Players.
Who Is Up
Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin — Letang played what was probably his worst game of the season in Saturday’s loss to the Philadelphia Flyers, but he rebounded in a huge way with back-to-back strong games against the Colorado Avalanche and Islanders, including the latter game where he scored a pair of goals.
He was once again tremendous alongside Brian Dumoulin.
When he and Dumoulin were on the ice together during 5-on-5 play this past week the Penguins were north of 58 percent in the shot attempt and scoring chance shares, while also outscoring their three opponents by a 7-2 margin. Big time play from a big time duo. That performance includes the game against Colorado where they spent the bulk of their night going up against the NHL’s most powerful scoring line (Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog) and completely shutting them down, something almost no one has been able to do this season.
I still encounter people on a regular basis that tell me the Penguins just HAVE to trade Kris Letang, or that he should be a forward (yes, I still hear that), or that he’s overrated or not good or pretty much any other tired criticism you hear about him. It still baffles me. He is going to get caught on occasion because of his aggressiveness, but that aggressiveness is what makes him such a great player and you know every year the plays he makes because of it are going to outweigh the plays where he gets caught.
As for Dumoulin, he is simply as steady as they come. That is why when Jim Rutherford says he sees Marcus Pettersson potentially being a Dumoulin type of player it sets an incredibly high bar.
He is not a superstar by any means, but he is a hell of a top-pairing defender.
If you have three or four Brian Dumoulin’s on your blue-line you are going to have one hell of a defense.
Phil Kessel — It seems like he’s been a little quiet lately, but he still has 17 points in his past 13 games, including four in Thursday’s win over the Islanders. Don’t let the trade speculation be a distraction. He is not going anywhere and he is going to get his 85-90 points this season.
Patric Hornqvist — He has always been the player talking about how it will only take one shift or one game to turn things around, and just when the Penguins needed someone to come though with a big game on Tuesday night, he did it. After the Penguins let a three-goal lead slip away in the second period, he responded with the fastest hat trick in franchise history. Sure, two of the goals were the result of some lucky bounces but the important goal — the game-winner — was a classic Hornqvist goal right in front of the net. Only bad thing for him this week was the injury that took him out of the Islanders’ game.
The Power Play — Ugh. They are still scoring goals (like that tic-tac-toe beauty to Phil Kessel on Thursday night) but the truly alarming thing is how many goals they are giving up. For the season they are up to eight shorthanded goals against, by far the most in the league.
Over the past week the power play has actually been outscored by a 3-2 margin. That should never happen.
Mistakes, turnovers, missed assignments, losing their man, overpassing. All of it is a problem. This power play unit has a pretty extensive track record of being one of the best in the league, and eventually they will get back to there, but the shorthanded goals and the chances going the other way have to stop.
Casey DeSmith — He is still getting wins, but his overall performance is starting to regress toward the level we should probably expect Casey DeSmith to play at. In his past four starts he has a .906 save percentage and has let in some real clunkers over the past month. Look, he’s been fine to fill in for Matt Murray in the short-term, but if this team is going to go anywhere this season it is going to need its two-time Stanley Cup winning goalie to be healthy and to play like ... well ... a two-time Stanley Cup winning goal.