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Monday musings: Pens starting to come together with Rust’s star turn?

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Random thoughts about the first line, Aston-Reese, Cody Ceci, and what to do with the bottom six

Washington Capitals v Pittsburgh Penguins Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images

Some stray, random, Monday thoughts..

—The Penguins top line has really come to life lately.

Rust, with points in 10 out of the 13 games of the season, has really been fantastic. Especially since it’s somewhat hidden now in the midst of what is becoming a tremendous season, but Rust really didn’t start that great, then on the Evgeni Malkin line. Rust only had seven total shots on goal in the first four games of the season, and while he did record three points in the opening four games, they were all assists, and frankly I didn’t think he was playing well.

That’s all long in the rear-view mirror. Rust has 20 SOG in the last three games along. He’s scored three goals in those last three games, and it easily could have been at least double that amount because Rust is leading the team routinely in shots and scoring chances. He’s going to the net and scoring “easy” looking goals, because he’s presenting great passing targets for his teammates on the door-step.

It was a fair question to wonder how Rust would follow up on a career high 2019-20 — and let’s face it, they’re called “career high” seasons because that’s the top of the mountain and the peak performance for many players. But Rust has picked up right where he left off, and his play is really helping boost the team right now. For his efforts, Rust was named the NHL’s third star of the week.

Thanks to Marcus Pettersson’s continued recovery, coach Mike Sullivan is back to his preferred pre-season defensive lineup. Albeit with rookie P.O Joseph substituted for the injured Brian Dumoulin.

The most interesting names are probably the off-season additions in Matheson and Ceci. Each have been seeming to settle in with their performances in recent games, doubly encouraging for Matheson since he missed some time with injury.

Quietly, and with merit, Ceci is earning his keep and a spot in the top six. In the last five games, Ceci has a 59.1% CF% (tops among Pens blueliners), has only been on ice for one 5v5 goal against in 73 minutes (0.81 GA/60, also tops on team), has a 65.8% xGF% (again, tops on team), the Pens have enjoyed a 60.5% Scoring Chance% and 64.0% High Danger Scoring Chance% (both...you guessed it, best on the team among blueliners).

Ceci hasn’t just been solid the last handful of games, he’s been downright good. This comes with a bit of a limit, Ceci has played 14-17 minutes in each of these games. That’s his sweet spot. Play him in a ton of minutes and against too tough competition, and well, it’s not pretty. But in a limited, sheltered role, he’s excelling right now.

With two goals in two games back, Zach Aston-Reese has been bringing the offense we were asking for and hoping for last week. The Buzzsaw line is excellent, they can matchup and limit opponent’s scoring lines and grind their way to some offense. In a perfect world they would be a “fourth line that really plays like a third line”, but in reality, if this is a championship team, the Buzzsaw is a fourth line.

Thus it’s a new year, but in some ways the Pens have the same issue to address as last year: how to build a competent OTHER bottom six line. Jared McCann will be back and the key to the line, but it is looking like he will need some new faces. Mark Jankowski is dropping and fading from sight more each game than the game prior. Drew O’Connor doesn’t look very visible at the NHL level. Sam Lafferty hasn’t impressed. Evan Rodrigues never got the opportunity to be in a lower line role before he got hurt.

It’s easy to understand why the Penguins, like the rest of the league, passed on Paul Byron due to his contract situation. With Pittsburgh having salary cap issues AND Byron being 31 and having a $3.4 million cap hit through 2023, that’s not a great fit. Shame though, Byron might have something to offer on the ice.

A potential third line with McCann and Byron on it would give the Pens two players with 20 goal skill (in a typical 82 game season). That would be a really nice starting point. It isn’t to be, but it’s looking like Ron Hextall’s first important upgrade in the “win now” area is going to be how to upgrade his third line.

Last year, the Patrick Marleau addition flopped miserably, and while Patric Hornqvist didn’t perform poorly, he always seemed at least style-wise to be a sort of square peg in a round hole when outside of a scoring line and real skilled players.

How Hextall goes about building another capable forward line will be a key to the season. The Crosby line and Buzzsaw look great right now, the Malkin line hasn’t gotten it going but it’s that last line right now that is the real area of concern that might need external attention to address.

For a while, I’ve been of the train of thought that there would be one playoff spot that the Penguins and Islanders would fight for...But is this trending towards two spots between PIT, NYI and Washington? The Caps have lost four straight games.

They have had some injury and COVID issues earlier on, but their limitations and weaknesses are also showing through. As much as goaltending has been a question and a worry in Pittsburgh, it’s shaping up equally so in DC. Which is another fitting parallel for the two rivals who are often much more of a mirror image of one another than perhaps either side would realize or like to admit.

Vitek Vanecek saved their bacon early by playing at NHL rookie of the month levels in January, when Ilya Samsonov was on the COVID list. Vanecek only has a .866 save% average in his last four starts, all losses. Samsonov is finally back to health, but got lit up for 5 goals in a loss in an AHL conditioning start on Sunday.

One area the Pens and Caps aren’t similar at is defensive foot speed. Brendon Dillon, Zdeno Chara and Justin Schultz are all average to worse skating in 2021 and all are currently in the Caps’ top four. The mobility of the Pens’ defense is better, and as we saw with the Crosby line and the Buzzsaw line, Washington is prone to get pinned and picked on in their own end.

Here’s the latest playoff projection from Micah at @Ineffective Math

The Bruins are clearly on a different left, and then the rest of the division is more of a dog-fight. The Isles have been hot as of late, the Caps and Rangers, not so much. The big unfortunate is that not many teams have been playing as of late.

As of now, there have been a total of 98 team-games played. The season total was scheduled to be 448 (56 games * the 8 teams). That’s about 21% of the season. Pittsburgh’s 7-5-1 record puts them on a pure pace for 64.8 points just based on if their prior results hold.