All season we have been waiting for that moment when things suddenly decide to click for the Pittsburgh Penguins. After months of maddening inconsistency and some roster shuffling they might be finally starting to get to that point where everything comes together as it should.
With Thursday’s 5-0 win over the Buffalo Sabres, the Penguins enter Friday with a six-point cushion over the non-playoff teams, are just two points back of the New York Islanders for home-ice advantage in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, have won seven out of their past nine games, have at least one point in nine of their past 10, and are 11-3-2 in the past 16 games.
What is most impressive is they are not even fully healthy yet.
Let us check in and see who has helped get them back on track in this week’s edition of Trending Penguins Players.
Who Is Hot
Erik Gudbranson — This is still shocking to me. The Penguins are not really producing a ton of offense when he is on the ice (to be expected I think) but they are not giving up anything either (a surprise!). We are not just talking about goals, either. The shots, scoring chances, everything has been great from a defensive standpoint and I really don’t think he has played a bad game since joining the Penguins. I remain a skeptic, but he has played 20 minutes per night so far and played them exceptionally well. Kudos, Erik. Kudos.
Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel — This might be the best duo going in the league right now. Every game you can count on them for at least one goal, and maybe two. Or even three. At this point I am out of positive things to say about them. Sidney Crosby is going to be, at worst, a finalist for the MVP and Jake Guentzel has a legitimate chance to score 40 goals.
Jared McCann — Yes, he is an empty-net vulture right now (and that is not a bad thing because says a lot when your coach constantly trusts you to be out in those situations) but he remains a fantastic addition to the lineup and, lately, the top line alongside Crosby and Guentzel. His play to strip Evgeny Kuznetsov of the puck on Tuesday night changed the game against the Washington Capitals because up until that point the Penguins just looked ... uninspired for such a big game. Then they scored three goals in under two minutes to take over the game, and it all started with McCann’s defensive play creating an offensive play.
The Goalies — Goaltending has been a huge part of this recent turnaround, especially as it relates to Matt Murray who started nine games in a row and continued to play at what has been a pretty dominant level since returning from injury in mid-December. Then Casey DeSmith goes in the lineup after not appearing in a game in three weeks and gets a shutout on Thursday night. That decision to start him was one I didn’t agree with going in because I thought they should have kept riding the hot hand to secure what were two important points in the standings, then rest Murray over the weekend in the back-to-back (which they still might?), but in the end the Buffalo Sabres, especially without Jack Eichel, are such a sorry team right now that it probably did not really matter which goalie got the start.
Who Is Not
Garrett Wilson — At this point we know what Garrett Wilson is as an NHL player, and he is not going to score. At all. So the fact he is not producing offense is not a real surprise, and it is not even the reason here is in the “Who Is Not” section. It is just that I feel like his game has regressed a bit from where it was a couple of weeks ago, because even then when he wasn’t scoring or producing points I still felt like he was creating chances and making plays and at least getting close to scoring a goal. I have not really seen that much lately. I am also admittedly nitpicking here because there really are not many players that truly belong in this section right now.
Dominik Simon — The most polarizing player in Pittsburgh right now. I still think he is a good enough NHL player that just has one significant flaw to his game: He can not score. Sure, that is a big flaw, but he does enough things well to be a useful player. But he has not had a strong week, his ice-time has been greatly reduced in recent games, and he has just one assist in his past seven games.