At various times this season I have been very critical of the 2018-19 Pittsburgh Penguins, what exactly they are, and what they are capable of doing as they have been constructed. At times, I think the questions and criticisms have been totally justified.
They have been maddeningly inconsistent at times.
Sometimes their defensive play has been shaky or just downright bad.
They did give away a lot of points that could be the difference between a division title and home-ice advantage in what could be the first two rounds of the playoffs and opening on the road.
Jim Rutherford has made some bizarre decisions over the past two years and had to frantically work to re-do just about all of them within a year of making them.
All of that is 100 percent true, and hiding from it is simply taking an “everything is cool” approach and appealing to authority. There are flaws and mistakes have been made.
The wild thing is, though, even with all of that this Penguins team is absolutely starting to trend in the right direction as the Stanley Cup Playoffs approach. They are getting results, they seem to have the right process behind the results, and things are starting to click in some key areas.
- For as critical as I have been about a lot of the roster moves over the past two years, the Penguins appear to have hit a home run with the Jared McCann-Nick Bjugstad trade, and those two, along with the call-up of Teddy Blueger (as long as he gets to play) have helped solidify the depth in a way Derick Brassard, Riley Sheahan, and Tanner Pearson simply were not. That could be huge because it was having three or four lines that could score that made the Penguins a championship team in 2016 and 2017. Hell, even Erik Gudbranson has looked astonishingly good (maybe I was wrong about this, too?!)
- Matt Murray has also been a season-changer for the Penguins. No matter how good you play defensively or how many goals you score the level of goaltending they were getting from him a year ago and in the first two months of this season was simply not good enough. Since returning to the lineup in mid-December he has been one of the best goalies in the league and his performance during these past three-plus months has lifted his overall numbers into the top-12 of the league.
- Sidney Crosby is playing at an MVP level and alongside Jake Guentzel gives them one of the best top-line duos in the league.
They still need to get way more out of Patric Hornqvist and Phil Kessel (at least during 5-on-5 play) but there are a lot of key elements in place right now on both a team and individual level.
Over their past 20 games they are 12-4-4, a points percentage of .700 that is the fifth best in the league since that date.
While their shot attempt numbers are still middle of the pack (just a tick above 51 percent, 12th best in the league since then) their scoring chance (53.4, sixth best in the NHL) and high-danger scoring chance (58. 2 percent, second best in the NHL) differentials are as good as it gets in the NHL.
They have also done a lot of that with a shorthanded lineup that, for several games, has not included two of their three best players in Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang, both of whom were playing great before their injuries.
Encouraging signs all around.
Then there is the fact they still have an outside shot at winning the Metropolitan Division, or at least getting home-ice advantage in round one. The most important thing, though, is securing a spot in the Metropolitan Division bracket and avoiding the second Wild Card spot and having to go through Tampa Bay and then Boston or Toronto just to get to the Eastern Conference Final.
Nothing is a guarantee in the Metropolitan, obviously, because the New York Islanders’ goaltending has played at such a level this season that they could easily win a series, Carolina is looking like it is no joke, and the Washington Capitals are still ... well ... the Washington Capitals and the defending Stanley Cup champions. But at this point it is not a stretch to see the Penguins winning any of those matchups or any combination of two of them to make a serious run.
I mean, for as good as the Islanders’ goaltending has been and for as big of a surprise as they have been they have started to regress lately and are only 2-5-0 in their past seven games against teams in a playoff position, only scoring 10 total goals in those games. Six of those goals came in one game. Sometimes getting the right matchups is a big part of winning, and if the Penguins can take care of business in these remaining regular season games the matchups could be there.
They are still not on the same tier as Tampa Bay as a contender, or maybe even Boston, but right now a potential run in the playoffs is looking a lot more realistic than it did two months ago. Or even two weeks ago.