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Penguins at the halfway point: the one big change to turn their season around

Let’s take a look at where the Penguins stand going into their final 43 regular season games.

Los Angeles Kings v Pittsburgh Penguins Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images

If you can believe it the NHL season has already reached its halfway point because, well, time flies when you’re having fun. Or something. For the Pittsburgh Penguins, it’s been an interesting first half of the season.

Entering play on Wednesday they are in third place in the Metropolitan Division and have played their way back into a playoff spot by winning 11 out of 15 games (including their current six-game winning streak heading into play on Wednesday night) after a brutal start to the season. That start was one of the worst ones they have experienced in more than a decade and had them sitting at 8-8-4 through the first 20 games. Things were not looking great!

In the 19 games that have followed the Penguins have been, as far as the standings go, a completely different team.

But have they been?

What is fascinating about this season is that the Penguins have remained remarkably consistent in the way they have played, at least when it comes to anything even remotely objective.

Let me just throw a bunch of numbers out there at you from the first 20 games and the most recent 19 games.

What we we are looking at here are the shots on goal per game, shots against, goals per game, goals against, scoring chances for, scoring chances against, power play percentage, penalty kill percentage, and — and this is the big one — save percentage.

Pittsburgh Penguins First Half Of 2018-19 Season

Games Corsi % Shots/Game Shots Against/Game Goals/Game Goals Against/Game SC/60 For SC/60 Against PP% PK% Save Percentage
Games Corsi % Shots/Game Shots Against/Game Goals/Game Goals Against/Game SC/60 For SC/60 Against PP% PK% Save Percentage
1-20 50.1 32.9 32.4 3.45 3.25 28.1 27.1 24.6 81.5 0.899
21-39 49.6 32.5 33.7 3.31 2.52 25.6 25.6 29.2 86.7 0.925

Those are interesting numbers.

From a shot attempts and shots on goal perspective there is virtually no change. Their scoring chance numbers for and against have dropped just a bit (both for and against) and their special teams have been slightly better.

Have those changes been enough to improve their record by as many games as it has? Not on their own, no.

That is why that category all the way over on the far right is so important. The save percentage. The goalies have been playing spectacularly over the past 19 games, whether it’s been Casey DeSmith or the recently returned Matt Murray (who, again, has been playing some of the best hockey of his career since returning from injury).

I know it’s over simplistic to say “the goalies have been better” when examining the turnaround, because there are almost certainly other factors at play.

Marcus Pettersson has been a nice addition on the backend.

Tanner Pearson has given them more offense than Carl Hagelin was.

They have been a bit crisper in their overall play and don’t seem to be giving up quite as many odd-man breaks and breakaways (though, they do still exist). But the thing about the first part of the season is that it wasn’t just those plays that saw them give up goals. They were not getting any key stops. The goaltending, simply put, was lousy and that more than anything was contributing to the lousy start. They are getting those saves now.

Nothing can make or break a season in the NHL like goaltending can. Great play from one can lift an average team. Terrible play from one can sink a good team. The Penguins’ first half of the season has been defined by the play of their goalies, and that will likely continue to be true in the second half. It is just a matter of which goalies we see that will determine where they go.

While we are, let us take a look at a few other first-half Penguins thoughts.

First half team MVP: Kris Letang

With all due respect to Sidney Crosby (who has also been consistently great this season), I am not even sure there is anyone close to Kris Letang at this point, either. He has rebounded from a down year in 2017-18 to once again be one of the best all-around defenders in the league and a constant difference-maker every single time he is on the ice. Right now he would be in the top-three on my Norris Trophy ballot along with Calgary’s Mark Giordano.

Biggest first half surprise: Marcus Pettersson

He has been ... solid. Just flat out solid. I had relatively little expectation for him when he came over in the Daniel Sprong trade, mainly because I did not think they would be able to get all that much for Sprong after the way his development in Pittsburgh had completely stalled out. But he looks like he has a shot to be a regular on the blue line and has made a couple of really big plays.

Who the Penguins need more from in the second half: Derick Brassard

My thoughts on Derick Brassard remain complicated. Love the trade for him. It should have worked. If you look at the way the Penguins play when he is in the lineup it not only has worked, it has done everything they could have possibly hoped for it to do. It still feels like they need more from him, especially if they are going to put Phil Kessel with him and go for the three scoring line approach.

Who is your first half MVP? Who has surprised you? Who do you need to see more from in hte second half? What are the Penguins right now? Share some of your thoughts on the Penguins at the halfway point.