Just a little over two weeks ago the Pittsburgh Penguins’ season looked like it may have hit a turning point. A bad turning point.
They dropped a brutal game and important point in Philadelphia in the 2019 Stadium Series game when they lost a two-goal lead with three minutes to play, then lost in overtime after a tough night for starting goalie Matt Murray. The injury situation was starting to border on comical with Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin both being lost in that game, Olli Maatta going out of the lineup before that, and then Bryan Rust and Chad Ruhwedel exiting the lineup after that. Their playoff position was iffy at best, the upcoming schedule was looking brutal, and they were set to be without three of their top-four defenders for the foreseeable future.
On top of that, the loss to Philadelphia came just after the Penguins had been completely annihilated for the second time this season by the San Jose Sharks, one of the true Stanley Cup contenders in the league, and following a stretch of games where the Penguins were getting positive results, but not always playing well to get them. Things were not looking great.
How have the Penguins responded in the games since? By going 5-1-1 with huge wins over Columbus (two), Montreal, and on Sunday night, the hottest team in the league, the Boston Bruins. They are, for now, in third place in the Metropolitan Division, two points back of second place and what could be home-ice advantage in the first round, and four points clear of the non-playoff teams in the Eastern Conference.
Here is how they have done it.
- Matt Murray Rebounded — (Read all about that here!)This is, perhaps, the biggest key. Goaltending is the most powerful, influential position in hockey and can either mask a lot of flaws that you do have, or create what you think are a lot of flaws that you don’t have. Since the Philadelphia game Matt Murray has played every minute of every game for the Penguins, including a pair of back-to-back situations. It is clearly playoff mode for him and the team as the coaching staff has made it clear he is their No. 1 goalie and the player that is going to take them to where they want to go. In his past seven starts he has a .937 save percentage and has lifted his overall mark to .917 for the season, a mark that is good enough for 10th (among 40 goalies that have appeared in at least 30 games) this season, while his even-strength save percentage of .928 is ninth. Since returning from injury on Dec. 15 his save percentage of .931 is the third best (among the 30 goals that have played in at least 20 games during that stretch) in the league. The big thing we always talked about with Murray during the back-to-back Stanley Cup years is that you always had the sense he was going to rebound from a bad game. He has done that this season.
- Simplify, simplify, simplify — With so many players out of the lineup, and especially on the blue line, the Penguins had to play desperate. They had to play within their means. There is not another Kris Letang (or, really, even another Brian Dumoulin) on the roster and you can not try to play like there is. Doing so would lead to a mess. Instead, the Penguins have responded to the situation, simplified their game, and basically played a bunch of what you might call “good road games” (even if they are at home) to get through it. The much-maligned defense (and defensemen) have done everything that has been asked kept the team afloat. Perhaps some of those lessons they have learned now will be in place when the likes of Letang, Maatta, and Rust return to the lineup.
- Jared McCann and Nick Bjugstad have been just what they needed — I am still 110 percent convinced Jared McCann was the key to this trade and that Nick Bjugstad, probably, will be playing for another team within the next year-and-a-half (maybe?) but they have provided the necessary scoring depth that Derick Brassard and Riley Sheahan were not, and have stepped up while the likes of Phil Kessel and Patric Hornqvist fight through their own personal scoring slumps. McCann has a legitimate shot to be a 20-goal scorer this season and has already matched his goal-scoring output from this season in Florida in 27 fewer games. He has five goals and three assists in the past seven games. Bjugstad hasn’t been quite as noticeable, but still has three goals during this recent stretch.
- The Sid and Jake show — Next to Matt Murray, this might be the biggest development as these two are pretty much putting the rest of the team on their back. Let us just take a look at the past seven games. During that stretch Sidney Crosby has five goals and eight assists, Jake Guentzel has six goals and four assists, together they have scored 11 of the team’s 24 goals, while McCann is the only other player on the team that has scored more than three goals during that stretch. Crosby is on pace for 105 points this season and has a pretty good Selke Trophy argument behind him, Guentzel is on pace for 40 goals, and together they have been one of the best duos in the league this season. They are playing their best right now when the Penguins need them most.