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What have we learned about the Penguins this season?

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A break allows some notes and tidbits about Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel and other Penguin players about their seasons so far

NHL: MAR 06 Flyers at Penguins Photo by Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

With so many games in so few days, it’s been easy to get swept up in the day-to-day hustle and bustle routine of being able to handle just the very short-term and next game around the bend.

This week is a little different for the Penguins. For the first time in a while, they don’t have four games on the schedule this week. This bit of a breather is welcomed, and also provides us the opportunity to step back and look at what developments have emerged.

The Pens have played 32 games already, which is 57% of their 56 game schedule, if you can believe it. A lot of the picture of this season is already coming into focus, with Pittsburgh collecting 40 points for the standings in those 32 games. On pure math, that’s a pace for 70 points this season. It would be a pace of 102 points in a traditional 82 game season, which is about in-line with where they have ended up in the past handful of seasons.

The main points of interest that I found is probably the best thing the Pens have going right now, their first line.

Sidney Crosby and the first line

For the usual high production of his career, 32 points (12G+20A) in 31 games doesn’t pop off the page for Sidney Crosby. With each division not playing one another, it’s really more like the NHL is actually four self-contained little leagues this season.

With that perspective in mind, the captain is third in the Eastern division in points (behind Boston’s Brad Marchand and Washington’s Nicklas Backstrom, who both have 34 points). It’s not inconceivable that Crosby could end up as the Eastern’s highest scorer this year. With all the firepower in the division, that would be a pretty impressive achievement in Crosby’s age-33 season to be the highest scorer among the teams in his little mini ”league” and will be fun to monitor and track.

Besides simply the points, a hidden force for the Pittsburgh first line has been their defensive work. It might be difficult to think that Crosby, Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust are a great defensive trio, given their style and offensive talent and flair. Yet their results are driving them to truly become just that.

As a group, the Pens have only given up an actual 1.64 Goals Against/60 with Guentzel-Crosby-Rust on the ice. That’s more impressive still considering the Crosby line usually plays against the opponent’s best players more often than not.

Sidney Crosby has received some momentum in the Selke voting for the league’s best defensive forward, of occasional merit. This year, however, it is not an exaggeration to say that Crosby’s defensive impact for the Pens is as good as it has ever been, and is indeed one of the most elite performances in the league.

Guentzel has an xGoals Against in the 92nd percentile, Rust is in the 88th by the same metric. While their strengths stand out as offensive-minded, it’s worth pointing out that the Penguins are only giving up 48.9 Corsi Events Against/60 with Crosby on the ice. That would be the lowest amount in a season in his illustrious career.

Pittsburgh only gives up 9.62 high danger scoring chances per 60 minutes when Crosby has been on the ice, the second best mark of his career there (behind his 2013-14 season). Can’t get scored on when the other team doesn’t have the ability to shoot much or from dangerous places, and suppressing these opportunities against has been a major success point for the Pens’ first line.

Crosby has only averaged 0:08 per game on the PK unit, he only has so much energy and is such an elite offensive weapon that it isn’t an efficient use of his limited time to play at 4v5 regularly when he will get more opportunities to effect the game at 5v5 situations. Perhaps in that regard, it’s fair to say Crosby hasn’t had well-rounded enough defensive role to merit legitimate Selke talk, but his on-ice work has resulted in excellent even strength defensive play that is worth noticing.

Jake Guentzel

Producing 30 points in 32 games so far, Guentzel has done well to shake off any rust or doubts that his major shoulder injury would lessen his offensive effectiveness. With 13 goals, Guentzel is a few goals off his typical 40-goals-per-82 pace that we’ve grown accustomed to seeing from 2018-20. But he isn’t very far off to be terribly concerned, especially in the midst of an ongoing hot streak now that has seen Guentzel score six goals in the last eight games.

Really, the bigger and more pronounced drop for Guentzel this year has been his even strength assists — he had 19 ES assists in 39 assists last year, only nine in 32 games so far this year. That could be more about Crosby’s finishing (see the low number in the graphic above) and Sid does have a 12.1% shooting percentage so far this year, slightly off from his career 14.5%. That suggests evidence the top line might produce even more with a little more luck on those close plays or a better bounce to beat a goalie or a post.

Bryan Rust

Rust was one of the more intriguing players to monitor this season, coming off his 56 point in 55 game campaign in 2019-20. It was obvious his 17.9% shooting percentage from last year wouldn’t travel to this season (and it hasn’t, he’s shooting at a 10.9% rate), but could Rust continue to perform and produce now fully integrated into the role of a key player?

Rust has delivered, as he always seems to do. His 23 points in 32 games is a bit off last year’s possible career-best season, yet Rust has been a consistent and dangerous force for the Pens and has totally lived up to expectation.

It’s recent, but still so impactful to see Rust’s hands, ability to fend off the defender and then the confidence of the deft touch of the perfect backhand shot the other day against the Devils. This is the move of a pure goal scorer.

There are a lot of valuable pieces in the puzzle to credit how and why the Pens’ season stabilized in February, but the move of Rust to play with the Guentzel-Crosby line has to be pretty high among the reasons for the team’s recent success. His metrics are there, and while Guentzel and especially Crosby will attract more of the spotlight and praise, it’s probably likely that Rust brings the “secret sauce” to the equation that has pushed this line to where it is.

Coming up a bit later today in this mini-series....Analyzing some Jim Rutherford hits and misses that have shaped the 2020-21 Pittsburgh season.