The Pittsburgh Penguins are starting to get back on track, and it is no coincidence that things started to turn around when Tristan Jarry, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang started to play better.
Overall, the Penguins have won 10 of their past 14 games and have put themselves in a good position for a potentially strong second half of the season. Not only is the team having more success overall, it is going hand in hand with the improved play of some of its most important players.
Throughout the first month of the season the struggles of Jarry, Malkin, and Letang were three of the most glaring issues facing the team. They were clearly off their game and not playing anywhere close to the level that is expected of them. The hope was that it would only be a matter of time until things turned around. We seem to be at that point as Malkin continues to build a chemistry with Kasperi Kapanen and Tristan Jarry starts to resemble the form that made him such a promising goalie a year ago.
For now though let’s focus a little on Letang and the return of his long-time defense partner, Brian Dumoulin. Because they are starting to become really important.
Along with being one of the team’s best players, Letang has always been one of the driving forces behind the Penguins’ success. When he plays well, the team tends to play well. When he struggles or is out of the lineup, the team tends to struggle. For all of the criticism he tends to get at times from a decent sized portion of the fanbase, he remains a key cog and a bonafide No. 1 NHL defenseman. When he is at this best there are only a handful of players in the league that can impact a game the way he can for as many minutes as he can. We are slowly but surely starting to see that version of Letang again.
He has scored at a point-per-game pace over the past 14 games and is far more noticeable offensively than he was at the start of the season.
Over the past 10 games, the Penguins are outscoring teams at a 9-3 pace with him on the ice during 5-on-5 play. While his underlying numbers are a little lower than you might expect from him during that stretch, he is still performing at a rate better than the rest of the team’s defensemen. He also just looks better. The puck management is better, and you are seeing more of those shifts where he serves as a one-man breakout and just has control of the game.
What is really encouraging most recently is that with Brian Dumoulin back in the lineup after an extended absence the Penguins have their top defense pairing back together. They are also playing great.
The Letang-Dumoulin duo has been one of the league’s most effective and efficient units for several years now, and when they are both in the lineup together it gives the Penguins a top-pairing that you know is going to make a positive impact for close to 20 minutes every game.
What makes Dumoulin such a perfect complement is that he has that defensive responsibility the Penguins always try to put next to Letang, but he also has enough skating ability and puck skills that it does not hold the pairing back. Every time the Penguins tried to pair Letang with a “defensive, responsible” partner they always saddled him next to an anchor like Brooks Orpik, Rob Scuderi, or Jack Johnson that could not keep up with that style of player. It only held everything back and made things worse. Letang has always played better next to a partner that can also make plays with the puck. While Dumoulin will never be confused with in-his-prime Erik Karlsson, he is hardly a statue out there. They work together perfectly.
That has been on display in the three games since Dumoulin has returned to the lineup.
The Penguins have not allowed a goal at 5-on-5 with those two on the ice over the past three games, while scoring three. They also have the best possession numbers of any pairing on the team during that stretch. If you look at the season as a whole, the Letang-Dumoulin duo has registered numbers comparable with the rest of their careers. They are controlling shot attempts and scoring chances at a better than 53 percent rate, and hold a 7-4 goal advantage.
There are a lot of reasons to be optimistic about the Penguins right now, especially when compared to the first month of the season.
Malkin’s steadily improving play, Jarry’s bounce back, and even their place in the standings in relation to their second half schedule. But Letang returning to form next to a healthy Dumoulin should also be right at the top of that list. It gives them a championship caliber defense pairing at the top of the lineup that they can heavily lean on for a third of the game every night. That makes the defense better, and it makes the team better overall.