Like most of you I am sure, it has been difficult for me at times this season to be overly optimistic about the 2020-21 Pittsburgh Penguins season. The combination of injuries, subpar goaltending, sketchy defensive play, and the lack of on-ice results made it seem like we were at the beginning of a very challenging season where even making the Stanley Cup Playoffs would be a struggle. The team not only played poorly at times, it was boring. Through the first quarter of the season there were few positives to take away from anything.
It is amazing how rapidly all of that can change because we sit today things are starting to look very interesting. Not only that, I would go as far as to say there is a lot of reason for optimism.
After the Penguins’ 3-2 overtime win against the Washington Capitals on Tuesday nighty, they are back in the top-four of the East Division (by total points and points percentage) and are just one point back of the Capitals for the second spot. They are also only three points back of Boston for the top spot. When you think about how the team has looked at different times this season that is downright stunning.
They clearly did not play their best hockey through the first 10 games.
The goaltending and defense were both at different times (and the same time) attrocious.
Scoring depth has been off-and-on.
They have dealt with some significant injuries.
Getting a lead seemed impossible at times and they spent the bulk of the season trailing on the scoreboard, rarely winning games in regulation.
They have also played what is probably the toughest portion of their schedule while all of that was going on.
Through it all, they have stuck around in the playoff race and are now currently sitting in a pretty good position while they still have all of their games against the Buffalo Sabres and New Jersey Devils (probably the two weakest teams in the division) ahead of them.
Now all of a sudden they have won five out of their past six games, held some leads, won a few games in regulation, and are getting some significant contributions from players they need to be getting contributions from.
Tristan Jarry has a .932 save percentage over that stretch. There are six different players that have at least five points in those games, including Evgeni Malkin (very significant) and Kris Letang (even more significant). John Marino and Mike Matheson have been much better, with flashes of brilliance from the latter. The buzzsaw line has been, well, buzzing since the return of Zach Aston-Reese, with the Blueger-Aston-Reese duo outscoring teams by a 5-0 margin at 5-on-5 play (with strong possession numbers) over the past six games.
All of that together has helped them not only pick up a lot of points, but also gain some significant ground in the standings by beating the Capitals and Islanders head-to-head, with three of those wins actually coming in regulation.
The injury to Jason Zucker on Tuesday night is potentially significant, and that is going to create a big absence in the top-six that will need to be addressed somehow. But there is also some good news on that front with Brian Dumoulin and Jared McCann getting closer to their returns.
There are still a lot of unknowns and wild cards that will determine what the Penguins are capable of doing this season, but for the first time all year I am actually optimistic that this team is not totally finished as a contender or a team that is capable of going on a deep run in the playoffs. They still need Jarry to play at a reasonably high level, and the defense to continue to be solid, but as that unit gets healthier and players like Matheson and Cody Ceci continue to get more comfortable and Letang and Marino find their game there is a lot of reason to be optimistic about that.
It is not a perfect team by any stretch. Some flaws still exist. But outside of Boston what team in this division is not flawed? Even Boston is not invincible on the ice and has its share of question marks (the defense is not great, and the scoring depth has been an issue again). At the moment the Penguins are starting to distance themselves from the Rangers, Devils and Sabres and finding themselves in a five-team race for those four playoff spots in the division. For the first time this season I am really starting to liking their chances to nab one of those spots.