Saturday’s comeback win against the New York Islanders was significant for a couple of reasons for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
For one, it gave them a clean two-game sweep of a team they are competing with for a playoff spot. They took four points, did not give any back to the Islanders, and are now in the middle of a stretch that has seen them win four out of their past five game (three of which were against that very Islanders team).
But it was also important because of the players helping to drive the bus for the win.
Mike Matheson was outstanding for the second game in a row and scored the game-tying goal late in the third period to continue to give some hope that his season is salvageable after a miserable start.
The most important contributors, though, were starting goalie Tristan Jarry and top defenseman Kris Letang. Jarry was sensational in stopping 33 out of 35 shots in the win, and keeping the Penguins in it through the first period when they came out slow, while Letang scored his first two goals of the season to help drive the offense.
Nothing — absolutely nothing — will do more to get the Penguins season back on the right track than these two players getting right.
Let’s start with Jarry.
Through the first quarter of the season it has been clear that goaltending has been one of the Achilles Heels of this roster. You can pinpoint defensive breakdowns and scoring chances against all you want, but the harsh reality is Jarry did not play well at the start. Not only did he not play well, he was flat out bad. Probably one of the worst goalies in the league bad.
But he has started to show signs of a bounce back in his most recent starts, putting together a 3-1-0 record in his past four appearances with a .935 save percentage. His three best individual game save percentages of the season have come over the past three games.
Look, it’s not hard to figure out. Goaltending is the ultimate X-factor in the NHL. Show me a team that has a good goalie (or a great goalie) and I will show you a good (or great) hockey team. Show me a team that has a bad goalie, and guess what? I will show you a bad hockey team. For as much as Jarry struggled at the start you had to expect at some point that a bounce back stretch was going to happen. Now that it is happening, it is helping the Penguins collect some must-needed points in the standings.
Jarry was always a wild card this season for the Penguins because he was such an unproven commodity. It is a weird thing to say about a guy that played in the most recent All-Star game, but he had never been a featured starter, and even in that All-Star season had some stretches where he did not play well. His career to this point was pretty much defined by one 20-game hot streak at the start of the 2019-20 season.
Even now we still do not fully know what to expect from him going forward. He does not need to maintain the .935 mark he has over the past four games for the Penguins to win. He just needs to avoid going back to the .860-.880 mark that was resulting in some early season losses.
In other words: He does not necessarily have to win the game. He just has to avoid losing it. There is a difference.
The other big development on Saturday was Letang. He has been way off his game at the start of the season and struggled to make his usual impact at 5-on-5 and on the power play. He entered Saturday’s game with zero goals on the season and finally broke through with two goals, including the game-winning goal late in the third period.
The most encouraging sign though was the shoot-first mentality that was on display from everyone (him included) on the power play that resulted in his first goal. For the power play to work some people need to be selfish and take some shots. They have not done that anywhere near enough this season and it has been the single biggest detriment to that unit. On that advantage everything changed, and it resulted in a huge goal.
Letang may not be the player he was in his prime, but he is still an extraordinarily important piece for the Penguins’ defense. When he is good, there is a very strong chance the Penguins are going to be good. So far this season, he has not always been good.
The interesting thing to watch here is to see how much Letang is able to adapt his game at age 33 (and turning 34 later this season). He has always been a player that relies on his skating and talent to make plays. He is a gambler, a risk-taker, and he will take chances.
When it works, it is spectacular.
When it does not work, everybody is trying to figure out where the hell he was going or what the hell he was doing.
For the overwhelming majority of his career the former far outweighed the latter. But as he gets older, it is only natural that he is going to maybe lose a step and not be able to skate his way out of danger or back into a play. He has to be able to play smarter and not rely entirely on his athleticism and instincts.
No matter how he does it, if he can play like the top-pairing defender he has been throughout his career the Penguins still have a bonafide No. 1 NHL defenseman to go with a better-than-expected group on its blue line. That sort of player is a game-changer for any team.
He and Jarry leading the way on Saturday not only helped the Penguins in the standings, it created some hope that they can win a lot more games this season.