Despite the ugliness of the weekend, getting blown out by the St. Louis Blues, and allowing a key point to slip away against the Philadelphia Flyers (again), there is still a lot to like about where the Pittsburgh Penguins are right now.
They finally seem to be trending in the right direction in terms of their overall play. The results (this weekend aside) are there and so is the process you want to see behind the results.
The top line is as good as it gets in the NHL.
Matt Murray is playing extremely well and has been for more than three months since returning from injury in mid-December.
The defense has held its own and kept its collective heads above water despite a tough injury situation.
They even seem to have found something on the third line with Nick Bjugstad and Patric Hornqvist.
Even with the two losses, their playoff position is still solid. Yes, I know you want to stay in the top three of the Metropolitan Division to avoid a Wild Card spot and what would be a potential first-round matchup against the Tampa Bay Lightning, but when it comes to actually making the playoffs the Penguins are still in solid shape. Entering Monday, they still have a seven-point cushion over the Montreal Canadiens, the first team on the outside of the playoff picture, and with a three-game lead in the first tiebreaker column that means Montreal needs to gain eight points on the Penguins in 10 games to knock them out. Even if the Penguins were to only win three of their remaining nine games, Montreal would have to go 7-3-0 to jump ahead of them.
So again, not the worst position to be in. Could be better. Maybe should be better had it not been for the three points they pissed away over the past month in games they absolutely should have won (one in Philadelphia; one in Buffalo; one on Sunday). Still not the worst position to be in.
The development over the weekend that hurts, of course, is the injury to Evgeni Malkin because we really don’t know how long he is going to be out, and with Kris Letang still sidelined on a vague timeline that is the thing that is going to be a little concerning. You might be able to put up a formidable fight in the playoffs without one of them, but doing so without both them is asking too much.
In the short-term, the focus is going to need to turn to Phil Kessel to carry the Penguins’ second line, and that brings us to a rather perplexing question this season: Just what in the hell do you make of Phil Kessel right now, and what is a fair way to evaluate his season?
Because honestly, I don’t have a damn clue.
There is plenty of objective evidence to say it is fine. There is plenty of subjective evidence to say it is fine.
There is also plenty of both to say it is not fine.
It is a truly perplexing individual season.
You can not argue with point-per-game production. Even if offense is up across the NHL, a point-per-game player is still among the top tier players in the league, and if he maintains that pace would finish with what would be tied for the second-highest point total of his career.
Watching him at times, though, and you wonder just what in the hell is going on.
He has not scored an even-strength goal since Jan. 30, which was his last goal before he went on that 16-game goal-scoring drought where he pretty much became invisible and even the shots on goal disappeared.
He has since scored three goals in the past seven games, with all of them coming on the power play. He is one of the key players that makes that power play unit click when it is at its best, but as we saw on Sunday night he can also be one of the key players that makes it fall apart (he had three egregious turnovers on the power play, then took a penalty to wipe out one of their power plays).
The 16 games without a goal does not bother me all that much, nor does the extended streak without an even-strength goal because that is just how hockey works, even for the elites. Sometimes the puck just doesn’t go in the damn net. Granted, it is not always 16 games or two months or anything that extended, but it happens. The thing that was most concerning about the 16-game streak wasn’t the lack of goals — it was the lack of shots.
You can’t score goals if you are not getting shots on goal, and getting shots on goal is the thing Phil Kessel has to do.
He is now doing that again.
Over his past 13 games dating back to Feb. 20, Kessel has 47 shots on goals, more than 3.5 per game, and he is creating some really good chances. There have been times over that stretch where you ask yourself “how did that not go in.” Even on Sunday with some of his sloppy play on the power play, he still had two or three prime scoring chances that were just simply stopped by a goaltending playing an amazing game.
Over that same stretch no player on the team has more 5-on-5 scoring chances that Kessel’s 35. He is averaging 11.6 scoring chances per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time during that stretch, which is again the most on the team. His 5.3 high-danger scoring chancers per 60 minutes is third behind, of all people, Nick Bjugstad and ... Teddy Blueger?
The shots on goal are there, and the chances are there. If you keep creating the shots on goal and the chances, the goals will soon follow.
We know that Phil Kessel’s production always seems to elevate late in the season and in the playoffs and in big games.
We know he can carry a line when he is the focal point of it.
Well, these are now big games, and with Evgeni Malkin sidelined for the time being the second line is going to be Phil Kessel’s to carry.
It has not always been a smooth season for him, and it has at times been a frustrating one to watch, but there are some signs that maybe — maybe — he is on the verge of doing something big for the Penguins.
They really need him to right now.
(Scoring chance data in this post via Natural Stat Trick)