There is no way to sugarcoat it. The Pittsburgh Penguins season has been filled with more disappointments and chaos than positives through the first month of the season. Always falling behind, bad special teams, the inability to get a lead, hold a lead, and build on a lead.
The fact that until Sunday they had won just a single game in regulation, and even that was on a night where they scored the game-winning goal with a minute to play in the third period.
Injuries, shoddy defensive play, bad goaltending, no depth scoring, and pretty much every “what if” you could have imagined going in the complete wrong direction.
That should not sound overly dramatic or hyperbolic. That is just what the season has looked like for the most part.
But over the past couple of games I think there are a few encouraging signs starting to develop that give me some reason for optimism that maybe, perhaps, things could be on the upswing a little.
After all, they did just win two games in a row, they did get a lead, they did build it to a two-goal lead (and then a three-goal lead!) and then they held on for a regulation win. And there was even a power play goal mixed in. Baby steps!
But let’s start with the biggest positive at the moment, which is the fact the top line is starting to click on all cylinders. While this team had several X-factors and “what if” scenarios at the start of the season, all of those were still dependent on the top-six playing like we have come to expect them to play. That has not always happened so far this season. Lately, it is starting to, and that is especially true with the Sidney Crosby line.
They were on the ice for three more goals on Sunday and have been dominating together as a unit.
For the season they are outscoring teams 8-4 during 5-on-5 play (more than 100 minutes) and doubling up teams in terms of shot attempts, scoring chances, expected goals, and actual goals. Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust are both scoring at a 30-goal pace over 82 games, while Crosby is once again bus driver for the group. That trio has been on the ice for 14 goals in all situations.
Over the past three games alone, a stretch where the Penguins are 2-1 (and probably should have been 3-0), they have been on the ice for eight of the Penguins’ 13 goals. When none of them were on the ice the team was outscored by a 6-5 margin.
I know there was an expectation for Kasperi Kapanen to take that spot next to Crosby and Guentzel, but as long as Rust keeps playing at that level there is no need to change it up. It would not be the first time a player acquired to play next to Crosby ended up finding a spot on a different line.
Going a little further down the lineup, Zach Aston-Reese has helped make a pretty big impact in his first two games back. Reunited on a line with Brandon Tanev and Teddy Blueger, that group has already scored two 5-on-5 goals (while also adding an empty-netter on top of that) over the past two games. And Aston-Reese has already been a big part of that production. I still think this group is an ideal fourth line given that it is not going to consistently produce a lot of offense, but these three are so good together defensively that I still like seeing them together. That still creates a need for more middle-six production offensively, but this group DOES work well together. It is good seeing them back together and making an immediate impact.
This team still remains a total mystery to me, though. For all of the flaws, for all of the struggles, for all of the question marks that fill the roster the overall performance of the team statistically has not been bad at even-strength. They are on the plus side when it comes to pretty much every possession metric, and for as much as they have struggled defensively in terms of breakdowns and obviously bad plays that end up in the back of their net the defensive numbers are not bad. They do suppress shots. They do not give up scoring chances in terms of quantity.
But man, when they DO make a mistake and give up a chance, they go all in with it. The defense is still somewhat of a makeshift unit with Brian Dumoulin and Marcus Pettersson injured and John Marino playing on his offside, so there is hope that things could improve there when everyone gets healthy.
Nobody is going to say that this team is where it wants to be, needs to be, or should be right now. There is also no guarantee that it will get there even when those players do come back because the special teams, goaltending, and the big mistake on defense are all still big issues that need to be corrected. But the past few games have at least provided a bit of encouragement that maybe this season can get turned in the right direction.