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Trending Penguins Players: There’s a big gap between the Penguins and the contenders

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The San Jose Sharks showed that on Thursday night.

NHL: San Jose Sharks at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

One thing should be pretty clear after two head-to-head matchups with the San Jose Sharks this season — there is a pretty sizable gap between them and where the Penguins currently are. I feel like Thursday’s ugly loss was something that had been brewing for a while now because even though the Penguins had been collecting points and had won four of their previous five they weren’t really doing it in a very convincing way.

They were fortunate to escape the Philadelphia and Edmonton games with wins, they had to hold on for dear life against the Rangers, and outside of a dominant second period were not really that impressive against the Devils. Getting the points matter, especially given the current situation in the standings, but as I wrote last week the process matters, too.

And the process resulted in a blowout loss to a legitimate Stanley Cup contender in a game that was not really very competitive and another loss to the other Stanley Cup contender (Calgary) that they played this past week.

Let’s take a look at some trending players this week.

Who Is Up

Evgeni Malkin He was not great against the Sharks, but really, who the hell was? He has, however, carried the offense this week and looked like the Evgeni Malkin the Penguins need to make some noise. He nearly stole a point for them on Saturday, did steal two points for them on Sunday, and is looking like he might be starting to get back on track.

Sidney Crosby Not the most dominant he has ever been but he does have seven points over the past four games, so that has to be worth something.

Who Is Not

Phil Kessel It does not bother me that he has gone a stretch without scoring. That happens. Slumps are nothing to worry about because no one is immune to them over 82 games, especially when even with this current slump he is still better than a point-per-game player for the season. What does bother me is that this might be the worst stretch of hockey we have seen from Phil Kessel in his four years with the Penguins. He had an especially tough game on Thursday with that turnover at the blue line that led to the shorthanded goal and inexplicably trying a drop pass right in front of the goal crease. What is going on here, Phil?

Patric Hornqvist Speaking of what is going on ... we are not up to zero points in 14 games for Patric Hornqvist, and even worse, he just has not been noticeable. I still feel like he is doing a lot of the little things he always does, but he has just not made a noticeable, positive impact since before he missed time with his most recent concussion. I want to believe this is just a short-term thing, but with that new contract, his recent health history, and what could be the start of a decline there might be some real cause for concern here. It goes without saying that the Penguins are not going to go anywhere this season with Kessel and Hornqvist playing at their current levels.

Jim Rutherford — Yes I know you’re tired of hearing about Jack Johnson, and yes I know that horse is dead, beaten, buried, dug up, beaten again, buried again, dug up, buried again, and then beaten after it has been buried. But here is what I did not like about Jim Rutherford’s passionate defense of his big free agent signing.

All season Rutherford has been quick to publicly criticize just about anyone on the team for not playing up to their standard. He called out the entire team earlier this season and pretty much accused recently signed young players of slacking off after getting paid. He ripped the goalies. He has been vocal, and candid, and honest with everybody at one point or another. The only players that have seemingly escaped his public wrath have been Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang (and for good reason) and now ... Jack Johnson. I’m sorry, but that is lunacy. It also came at such a random time, too. And I was happy to see the beat writers around the team call him on his “the way he was treated at his introductory press conference” comment for being a baseless criticism of the coverage of Johnson. Especially since the local media has been mostly supportive of the signing and, if anything, not critical enough.

I see it as one of three things.

Either the continued trend of my working theory on Johnson that no one in the NHL wants to admit they mis-evaluated his potential 12 years ago, including, in this case, the man that actually drafted him and then gave him a long-term contract this summer.

Or Rutherford hearing the criticism from, well, people like me, or fans, and feeling the need to defend his biggest signing of the summer and maybe try to boost him up. I have a hard time believing this because I don’t think people in the position of Jim Rutherford and Jack Johnson give two craps about what people like me or fans think or say. I also think there is a chance that something like that could have the opposite effect and make fans turn oh Johnson even more because now he’s perceived as being above criticism within the organization.

Or he knows he messed up on the signing and is trying to save face.

Other than these three theories I am not really sure what the end game was with that.

Mike Sullivan — What reason could there possibly be for scratching Teddy Blueger? He is without question one of the team’s 12 best forwards right now (probably one of their 10 best) and was even elevated up to the third line at one point and responded with more goals, including a game-winner. Now he is a healthy scratch two games in a row? What could have possibly happened? And while I am not blaming Casey DeSmith for the loss on Thursday (he played fine overall, and the rest of the team stunk) I don’t like the idea of starting your backup, with plenty of days for rest around it, against what is perhaps the second best team in the league. If Matt Murray is your starter — and he has to be, I think — you have to play him in that game. You just have to.