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How the Penguins have become the league’s best team without Sidney Crosby

Lots of injuries, but no problem for the Pens who have been the NHL’s best since early November. A look at how they’ve done it

Pittsburgh Penguins v Edmonton Oilers Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images

To say the Penguins have been holding strong despite several important injuries is an understatement. Just look at this handy visual from @NHLInjuryViz:

In the regular tweet you can’t even see Pittsburgh and have to click on them to see the x-axis busting location that they’re at.

That is just truly absurd to see how far out there the Pens are, and really shows how much of their lineup has not been available this season.

Here’s another look by position, where Pittsburgh is again first (by far) in a very painful way.

Other than Anaheim in recent years, this year’s Pens team is one of the most injured among expensive players in the recent NHL history. And really, the man games lost being low just makes it that much worse for the quality that Pittsburgh has lost is quite significantly higher than an Anaheim team who had Patrick Eaves and a few other long-term injuries to deal with.

That said, the Pens have still found a way to be the league’s very best team since Sidney Crosby went down over two months ago now. Here’s an NHL standings chart since then, sorted by points percentage.

How is this possible? It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but the team has been able to band together. All facets have played pretty well — from goaltending to coaching to impressive shot share control and defensively suppressing chances to generating goals, pick any category or aspect of hockey and the Pens have probably been very above average at it this season.

So while the cliche answer isn’t far from the truth that it’s a team effort, and the whole group is pitching in, here’s the individual biggest reasons they are where they’re at, even with so much missing.

#1 Tristan Jarry

Jarry’s been great all season, and the last stretch of 29 games without Crosby has been no exception. Consider that Jarry has as many shutouts as he does regulation losses (both 3) since 11/9/2019. His record overall is 14-3-1, which makes it no surprise why the Pens keep going back to him. Jarry’s save% since Crosby has been hurt is .932%, and is the biggest single reason the Pens are the top team in the league since that time, especially when you hold those numbers up against struggling Matt Murray’s .878 save% in the same period. Jarry has been the steady presence making all the saves and keeping the team in the game on a nightly basis.

#2 Evgeni Malkin

In the 29 games since Crosby has gone down, Malkin has 40 points (playing 27 games himself, missing two more to illness). That’s 1.48 points/game which ranks fourth in the league over the time period, behind only Artemi Panarin, Connor McDavid and Nathan MacKinnon. Malkin is back in a major way this season. All around the ice he has been playing at an MVP caliber since Crosby went down, which is very encouraging to see after a not-so-great 2018-19 season by his caliber.

#3 Bryan Rust

Since coming back from his own broken hand injury on October 26th, Bryan Rust has an eye-popping 18 goals and 20 assists in 31 games. That ranks him top-15 in the league in both goals and points since then. Rust going from supporting player to a starring role has been a major factor in the Pens’ success this season and really can’t be under-stated. 18 goals ties his career high, which took him 72 games last season to set. He’s done it in 31 games this year!

#4 John Marino

Since Crosby’s injury, John Marino is playing 21:47 per game. That’s second highest on the team behind Kris Letang. While Crosby’s injury is the easiest to frame the season, defensively the Pens have lost Brian Dumoulin, Justin Schultz and even Letang for chunks of the season. But it hasn’t mattered because they found a way to materialize a top-four rookie defensemen who is adept in all three zones of the ice, makes great decisions, can skate and move the puck. Marino’s offense has been on display too, recording 19 points (3G+16A) in the last 29 games to lead all Pens’ blueliners.

#5 The buzzsaw line

I know I said individuals reasons, but this group almost operates as an individual item. The Pens have pushed what they wanted to be their fourth line up to a bigger role (all are playing 14-16 minutes in the stretch of the Crosby absence) and have hit paydirt. Brandon Tanev has 14 points in the last 29 games (7G+7A). Teddy Blueger is blossoming into a legit NHL option to lean on, with the Pens turning to him in short-handed and key faceoff situations. Zach Aston-Reese is able to suppress opposition shots and chances and goals as well as any forward in the league this season. Add it all up and it’s a heck of a weapon to have.

The Pens will definitely welcome Crosby, and Dumoulin, and Schulz and Nick Bjugstad back as soon as they can get them. And they’re definitely going to miss Jake Guentzel, who was another big reason the team has not only stabilized but found a way to thrive after all these injuries. But for all the adversity they’ve dealt with in the first half, it’s opened up a lot of doors for opportunity to guys like Rust and Marino and Jared McCann and Dominik Kahun to step through. None have disappointed.