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5 Thoughts: Kapanen for Malkin, injuries and early season standings watching

A look at what is going on with the Penguins. Is Kasperi Kapanen the new James Neal?

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Pittsburgh Penguins v Boston Bruins Photo by Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images

Some random off-day thoughts and tidbits...

#1: Penguins acquire top-end winger with stated goal to play with Sidney Crosby. Then through unforeseen events, winger ends up with Evgeni Malkin and it works well. Talking James Neal in 2011 or maybe, just maybe Kasperi Kapanen in 2021?

The answer could be yes. Kapanen helped Malkin to probably his best and most dangerous game of the season last night, with the Russian center coming alive as the game went on. Twice Malkin sprung Kapanen with a pass to put him behind the Bruin defense, including the game-tying goal late in the third period. Malkin seemed to feed on this and was involved on two breakaways in overtime (though the less said the better about that one rush that didn’t even get a shot on goal).

It’s potentially a good start. For whatever reason the Malkin + Bryan Rust combo that worked so well last year didn’t get off to a tremendous start this season. Jason Zucker on the left has been even quieter, which makes the addition of Kapanen a perfect catalyst to try out with Malkin. Kapanen has speed and just his style of play seems to mesh well with the way Malkin likes to play. We’ll see what happens, but it could be the start of another unexpected partnership from the initial plan of acquiring a winger for Crosby only to see it work better for Malkin.

#2: And the other benefit of this would be the reunion of Crosby and Rust. Rust has often been the direction coach Mike Sullivan has turned for Guentzel and Crosby, and this is no different. The trio was great in Sunday’s win against the Rangers, with Rust scoring early and Guentzel scoring the game winning goal late in the third.

Overall this year, Guentzel-Crosby-Rust has a 59.2% Corsi For% in just 24 minutes. Last night Boston held the group to a 53% CF%, but the line still was crushing it in scoring chance% (63.6%), expected goals (59.9%) and high danger chances (66.7%).

#3: After a really nice first game or two with the Penguins, Mark Jankowski is unfortunately cratering back to earth in a big way.

There’s been signs of this, with Teddy Blueger moving up to play with Jared McCann and Brandon Tanev. Blueger, regardless of what line he really plays on, is the Penguins’ third line center in usage and ice time — and really has been for some time. But now, the team is having to protect and bury a player in Jankowski who is getting caved in big time and really showing to not be NHL quality. While the Pens obviously have a big problem on defense due to injuries, they also have a developing issue about needing another NHL caliber center down the line, because the Jankowski experiment looks like it’s trending towards a bad ending.

#4: Point four, as in the number of injuries the Pens currently have to their top 4 left handed defensemen. We’ll see how the evaluation of Brian Dumoulin’s injury goes, but at this point, what can you do? Teams just can’t handle 4 injuries all to the same position.

The good news is Mike Matheson skated yesterday — though coach Sullivan was also quick to point out his status is unchanged from his initial injury. Also, quietly, P.O Joseph has done pretty well in a sheltered role as he gets acclimated to playing in the NHL.

The bad news is the games just don’t stop. The Pens don’t have two days in a row off until February 7-8th. Last Friday they started a spot in the schedule of playing nine games in 16 days. Starting tomorrow they play six games in 10 games.

It’s very tough, the schedule isn’t going to let up, and apparently neither are the injuries to the left handed defensemen. After last season, I thought we would never see a John Marino - Kris Letang top pair again, but sadly it is looking like that might be the only resort.

#5: Yesterday was a big day for the division, with all eight teams in action. The best sign below? Only one OT game, and the Pens were in it. Stealing a point when down 2-0 in the third period proved to be a really nice result considering it very easily could have been no points at all.

Overall, the standings are generally as expected, though seriously bunched together.

The Devils might be the surprise team of the division so far, starting out a bit better than expected. The Capitals have also found a way to go 2-0-1 without their COVID absent key players, all in one goal games.

The Pens’ mission at this point to make the playoffs might be as simple as staying above the Islanders. If Pittsburgh manages to do that, it’s tough to believe they won’t be in the top four by the time 56 games have been played.

It’s still an incredibly tight division that will have a lot of twists and turns. Six of the teams are lumped together between 6-9 points with only a game or goal here or there difference between what could be a 3rd place team or a 7th place team. Plenty further to go, but one thing I’ve been watching is the playoff cut line. Micah from Ineffective Math has it at about 61 points (yesterday’s data that doesn’t count results from last night, but you get the idea.)

Dom over at The Athletic has it for the Penguins at 63 points right now.

Split the difference and as of right now it looks like 62 points likely is the minimum target to shoot for to feel pretty confident about the Pens making the playoffs. If they get more than 62, a playoff spot is almost assured. Less, and it could be dicey. But that’s a fun target number to think of right now.

With nine points in seven games, that would be a 72 point pace for Pittsburgh. Which is to say, though they’re not necessarily pleasing or a satisfying style right now, the results they’re getting would EASILY put them in the playoffs if they are able to continue to get the same results.

To end up with 62 points, the Pens still need 53 more in the last 49 games. So they could go 24-20-5 the result of the way, losing well more than they win and still be in position to hit the magic mark of 62.

Of course, 62 points right now is just a tracking point that could adjust up or down depending on future results. If a team like NJD or NYI pushes to join the higher-end teams (BOS, WSH, even PHI) that would be bad news for teams like the Pens and possibly Flyers if another group is making a run. It’s far to early to say that is happening or has happened, but is worth keeping an eye on in this unique season where there are only intra-division games.

If you’re a Pens fan, just keep cheering for no overtime. And probably against Philly and NYI for the time being, because if Pittsburgh can stay in front of one of those teams it will be a very good sign the Pens are going to the playoffs. If the Pens can get ahead of both of those teams, they almost certainly will be going to the playoffs.

It’s never to early to start watching the standings!