The first week of the season is always about knee-jerk reactions, and the first three games of the Pittsburgh Penguins season have given us plenty of them. Frankly, it has not always been pretty.
They dropped the first two games in Philadelphia while giving up 11 goals, then needed to come from behind and scratch out a shootout win against Washington on Sunday to get their first win of the season. The first part of the schedule is going to be brutal in terms of the opponents, and given the shortened season avoiding a slow start would be pretty beneficial.
While the early results are not great, there are some positives that have stood out.
The third line looks shockingly fierce and could be a potential difference maker if they can maintain this start.
For as sloppy as they looked in the first period on Sunday, the defense completely locked things down against the Capitals over the final 45 minutes and limited them to just 11 shots on goal (and only seven during even-strength play) during that time. I also think the two games in Philadelphia were a lot closer than the final scores looked.
But even with those positive developments you can not ignore the actual results.
Only two out of six points in the standings so far, 14 goals against in three games, and a lot of sloppy play with the puck. Some of that is to be expected early in the season (and it is happening to every team around the league right now) given the shortened training camp and lack of preseason games.
How much of it is a legitimate concern, and how much of it is just small sample size overreactions? Let’s get into it a little.
The Power Play still stinks
This was a big issue a year ago, and so far nothing looks improved. I made the point on Sunday that it often times looks like the Penguins power play unit is the group that is outnumbered on the ice. They just never seem to have any time or space to do anything. They can never seem to get set up. There does not seem to be any sort of rhythm or flow or mindset to any of it. It is just, for lack of a better word, sloppy.
There is really no excuse for that given the talent on the ice. And yes, it is still a talented group.
Level of concern: High. This is not a new problem that just showed up in the first three games of the season. It is a carryover of something that troubled them for a significant portion of the 2019-20 season and I am not sure what the fix is. Playing well at 5-on-5 is a far better predictor of future success than a team that gets carried by the power play, but power play goals count just as much as any other goals and at some point you are going to need to get something out of that group.
Evgeni Malkin has been invisible
A lot of this season is going to depend on the top two lines being able to carry a significant portion of the offense. That is always the case to a point, but especially this season given that we still have no idea what to expect from the bottom-six offensively.
The problem is those top two lines have been mostly quiet.
That is especially the case with Malkin’s line, with Malkin himself being a complete non-factor.
It was not until late in the third period and overtime on Sunday that he was actually noticeable with the puck on his stick with a couple of late scoring chances.
Level of concern: Lukewarm. We have to accept the reality that Malkin is 34 years old, and that at some point he is not going to be Evgeni Malkin anymore. At least not the version we have come to know and expect. Maybe that time is starting. Over the past two years there have been stretches where it looked like that was the case. But there have also been stretches of that familiar dominance and brilliance. I think it is still in there, and when we look at him at the end of the season the numbers are going to be there. If the Penguins are going to do anything of significance this season they are going to need to be.
What to make of the goaltending?
Through three games the Penguins goalies have allowed 13 goals on only 69 shots. That is an .811 save percentage. That is quite obviously an unsustainably low (and bad!) number.
If you go back and look at all of the goals against so far you can probably make a strong case on most of them that the goalies were left in a bad position. It would not be an unfair position to take. It is probably even a valid position. But that happens. Sometimes your goalies are going to have to face a breakdown, or a scoring chance, or a wide open player in a scoring chance area. Sometimes you need a big save. So far, those have been few and far between (and almost non-existent in the minutes that Tristan Jarry has played).
Level of concern: Medium. I do not want to put all of the early goal prevention problems on the goalies because that would not be fair. But, they are also not helping. Given the lack of a proven track record from both goalies at the NHL level this is going to be a question mark and a concern until one (or both) prove that they can handle the job at a playoff/championship level. If they are not good none of these other strengths or concerns are going to matter.
The defense has been all over the place
There have been breakdowns. There have been turnovers. There have been penalties. There was John Marino inexplicably not paying attention to Tom Wilson closing in on him on Sunday afternoon.
There have also been moments of lockdown play, like on Sunday. There was Marcus Pettersson picking the corner on Ilya Samsonov to tie the game on Sunday. There is also the fact that for all of the breakdowns and big mistakes, there is the fact they are only allowing 39 total shot attempts per 60 minutes during 5-on-5 play, which is the second lowest number in the league so far (ridiculously small sample size alert!) despite playing all of their games against potential Stanley Cup contenders.
Level of concern: Medium. They have not consistently shown it through the first three games but I really do believe in this top-four and think it can play at the level you want to see for a Stanley Cup contender. The wild card is that third pairing, and what it looks like when everyone is healthy. Mike Matheson has had a rough start, and nobody seems all that excited about Cody Ceci. It is a bit alarming that they played their best overall defensive game on a day when those two and their nearly $6 million salary cap hit were out of the lineup and replaced by Juuso Riikola and Chad Ruhwedel and their $1.8 million salary cap number.
Can they maintain that same level of shot suppression while also cutting down on the big mistakes? Is Matheson’s start a small sample size blip, or a real cause for concern? If it is the latter, do they have the courage to make the tough lineup decisions they have not been willing to make in the past? These are the big questions on defense.