We are nearly a quarter of the way through the 2021-22 NHL season (yeah, believe it) and we are starting to get a real sense for what this version of the Pittsburgh Penguins can be.
They have managed to stay competitive despite some major injuries and having a shorthanded lineup for much of the first part of the season, and they are showing plenty of signs that there is the potential for a really good hockey team here.
Those back-to-back games against Ottawa and Washington really seemed to sour some people on this group, but over the past week they have locked things down defensively and just completed an impressive sweep on a three-game road trip.
Even more than that recent road trip is the fact a lot of the wild cards on this team are working out the way they needed to for the team to be a success.
Tristan Jarry has been great
This was always going to be the biggest variable for this team.
Expectations were low after his showing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs a year ago, but the Penguins’ faith is being rewarded so far this season. After allowing just three goals in his past four starts, including two shutouts, he now has a .930 save percentage for the season and is looking like he did a couple of years ago when he earned an All-Star nod.
The depth players are still controlling play at a winning level
The Penguins have yet to get one minute of play from Evgeni Malkin this season, and have had Sidney Crosby for only six games and he has not yet started to get rolling. That is a lot of time without your two best players.
The depth players are not only holding their own, they are outplaying everybody else.
In more than 800 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey with neither Crosby or Malkin on the ice the Penguins are outscoring their opponents by a 37-28 margin and controlling shot attempts, scoring chances, and expected goals at a rate of 52 percent or better. That is a continuation of what we saw from the team a year ago. It is a testament to how important the addition of Jeff Carter has been, as well as the emergence of Teddy Blueger and Zach Aston-Reese as a shutdown line.
This is a balanced team on the same level as the 2015-16 and 2016-17 teams, and every number supports that.
The key, again, will be if the goaltending holds out.
They have the 5-on-5 play and the penalty killing unit
Those are two pretty important areas for a contending team to be good in.
We know how good the PK is (best in the NHL), but look at the Penguins’ current rankings during 5-on-5 play.
Goals For Percentage: 54.7 (seventh place)
Shot Attempts Percentage: 52.8 (eighth place)
Expected Goals Percentage: 54.8 (fourth place)
High-Danger Scoring Chances: 54.4 (fourth place)
This is, again, with only six games total between Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
Their top players have not really started to get going yet
The Penguins are 18 games into the season, have managed to stay afloat and in the playoff race, they have great 5-on-5 numbers, and they only have three total goals from Crosby, Malkin, Kris Letang, and Bryan Rust.
Eventually that is going to change.
Crosby is going to get hot and start producing. Malkin will return. Rust will start finding the back of the net a little more frequently. Even if you assume that Crosby, Malkin, and Letang are starting to slow down, they are still capable of playing at a high level and being more productive than most NHL players.
After a quarter of a season you should start to know what your team looks like, or have an idea for that.
This team looks really good so far with every potential to be even better.