Another game, another deficit, another comeback, and somehow another point in the standings. The Pittsburgh Penguins have played seven games of the 2020-21 season and are somehow 4-2-1 with points in five consecutive games, a stretch where they have collected nine out of a possible 10 points against some really good teams.
They have done all of that despite playing only 34 minutes of the season with the lead, and more than 213 trailing. Many of those minutes have been with a two-goal deficit. Only Vancouver (a team that has played one additional game than the Penguins) has spent more time trailing and it is less than seven additional minutes.
Basically, no team spends more time trying to play catchup than the Penguins, but they have still found a way to catch up.
This is obviously not in any way sustainable.
At this point we are seven games into a 56-game season, which would be the equivalent of 10 games into an 82-game season. That is usually a pretty good indicator of what type of team you should expect. And man ... I just don’t know with this team. I think a lot of it comes down to what you WANT to see.
If you want to see a team with heart that overcomes adversity and is never out of a game, you can see that.
If you want to see a team built around aging stars that are starting to slow down with a rather ordinary supporting cast around them, you can see that.
If you want to see a boring team that lacks any kind of an identity, you can see that as well. About midway through the third period on Tuesday I made the comparison that they are — so far — the hockey version of a plate of boiled chicken. Yeah, it gets the job done. But it is not really satisfying. That is how this team has played so far.
That brings me to the two main thoughts I had on this team before the season. The first was that I had no idea what their identity was going to be. There was no real defining characteristic of the roster on paper, and outside of the three superstars at the top no real known commodities. There were a lot of ifs. A lot of maybes. A lot of questions. And maybe even some answers that we knew were going to be a problem. And that is always dangerous because the more ifs and maybes that you throw into the equation the more likely it is that something is going to go wrong.
Through seven games some of those things have gone wrong (the goaltending, injuries, the power play is still a mess) as well as some unexpected developments (Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang struggling; John Marino starting off with somewhat of a sophomore slump). Sprinkle in the usual injury madness and things could have easily gotten away from them, especially with six of their first eight games coming against teams as good as Washington, Philadelphia, and Boston.
The fact they have so far collected 9 out of 14 points with all of those things going wrong is significant especially in this division. Sure, the process behind it stinks. But early season points matter just as much as points in the middle and at the end. If nothing else the Penguins have found a way to bank a bunch of them during a time where they clearly did not play the way they wanted to (or need to) against three top teams. For the first time this season I thought they showed some real signs of improvement in the second half of Tuesday’s game. Malkin’s line had life. They carried play at 5-on-5. Was it a turning point kind of game? Or just a brief surge when the team was in desperation mode? We might find out more on Thursday.
Even though it is still early we are starting to get to a point where the sampling is getting big enough where we should have some idea what this team is capable of. It still seems like that question is as unknown as it was before the season began.