The Pittsburgh Penguins are officially back in the playoffs. Not that it was ever really in doubt, but just in case you thought it was, you can now breathe easy. This will be the 13th consecutive playoff appearance for the Penguins organization, continuing what is the longest streak in franchise history.
It has been an incredible run and would be almost impossible to argue that this is not the most successful team of the salary cap era to this point.
As of this posting, they have the second most regular season wins in the salary cap era (trailing only the San Jose Sharks), by far the most playoff wins (97, with the next closest team — the Chicago Blackhawks — having only 76, while only two other teams — Anaheim Ducks and Sharks — have topped even 70), five Eastern Conference Final appearances (most), four Stanley Cup Final appearances (most), and three Stanley Cups (tied for the most with Chicago).
Not to mention some of the greatest players in the world playing for them.
No matter what they do this postseason (they could go far, or they could lose in the first round) enjoy this run while it is happening, because it is not something that will happen all the time.
That is the big picture outlook.
For the short-term outlook, let us check out who is hot and who is not in this week’s Trending Penguins Players.
Who Is Hot
Phil Kessel — Maybe this is the start. If the Penguins are going to go on a deep postseason run they are going to need their second line to be a factor, and especially Phil Kessel. That is why the past two games have been so encouraging as he has finally found the back of the net, scoring three goals (including his first even-strength goal in what seems like an eternity). Overall it has been a really weird season for Kessel. He has taken a ton of heat for his play, and especially lately. But his overall production is as good as it has ever been. In some ways, I get the criticism. He has not always looked good, and the goal scoring at even-strength has been a concern because it is true they acquired him — and pay him — to score goals. But they also paid him to generate offense, and he has still done that at a very high level. Even with the goal-scoring funk he is averaging more total assists and primary assists per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play than everyone on the team except Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. He is in the top-25 in both categories league-wide (among 260 forwards that have skated at least 1,000 minutes). In other words, his line is still generating offense and scoring goals when he is on the ice. The goals are just not always coming off of his stick. But as long as the offense is still there from somebody that is what matters.
Matt Murray — Just playing at an absolutely incredible level right now, and for most of the season. At least ever since he got fully healthy in mid-December. He was great on Thursday night, especially early in the second period when the Detroit Red Wings built some momentum and had a lot of sustained offensive zone time and chances. Overall Murray had a .935 save percentage this past week in four starts, but only managed to win two of them because the offense struggled so much at times. For the season his save percentage is now up over .920 for the season and is among the top goalies in the league. It is starting to appear as if the 2017-18 season was the outlier for him.
Who Is Not
The offense as a whole — A lot of this was obviously due to not having Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin in the lineup. Those two are kind of important. Without Malkin in the lineup it is easier for teams to put all of their focus into shutting down Sidney Crosby’s line, and without Letang the defense becomes seriously lacking in mobility along the blue line and struggles to get the puck to the forwards. Before Thursday’s game they had scored just 18 goals in their previous eight games. With Malkin and Letang back in the lineup that sort of slump should not be expected to continue.
The Justin Schultz-Jack Johnson pairing — It seems this pairing is going to stay together for the foreseeable future, even when and if everyone gets healthy on the blue line, and I am not entirely sure how I feel about it. They did not look good on Thursday night and their overall numbers for the week from a shot attempt and scoring chance perspective were as bad as they can get (around 40 percent in each category via Natural Stat Trick). Not really what you want to see. It seemed like every time they were on the ice on Thursday the Red Wings were generating offense and keeping the puck in the offensive zone. When it comes time for the playoffs opposing teams always find a weakness and an area they can exploit. This should be a concern.