Despite a lot of adversity in their way, the Pittsburgh Penguins just completed a very successful and very impressive month of March.
The first obstacle was the compressed schedule itself. The Pens played 16 games in a 28 day span from March 2nd - 29th. There was some positives nuances in the schedule — 12 of the 16 games were at home and also the Pens only played games against four teams in playoff positioning. But 16 NHL games in 28 days is still a challenging path to navigate.
The Pens not only got through it, they thrived and have set themselves up to look like contenders:
The @penguins concluded March with 12 wins – their second-highest total in a single calendar month – and entered tonight tied with Colorado for the most points since March 1 (23). #NHLStats: https://t.co/K9drTGRQ1Y pic.twitter.com/ikcoR4yEae— NHL Public Relations (@PR_NHL) March 30, 2021
This would be a nice accomplishment under normal times, but considering the injury history of this month, it becomes even more impressive. Here’s a list of the important games missed in March for the Pens, either due to injury or COVID protocol reasons:
- Jason Zucker: 15 games
- Teddy Blueger: 8 games
- Evgeni Malkin: 7 games
- Brandon Tanev, Jared McCann: 6 games
- John Marino: 4 games
- Kasperi Kapanen: 3 games
- Brian Dumoulin: 2 games
- Sidney Crosby: 1 game
That’s just about a “who’s who” of the team, made worse considering that Malkin and Blueger’s injuries have perfectly overlapped to really stress Pittsburgh’s center position by suddenly losing two of their top three players at the position.
Winger wasn’t much better though, being as Zucker missed almost the whole month (but fortunately made a quicker than expected recovery) and the Pens having to deal with missing McCann, Tanev and Kapanen, often with those injuries piling up at the same time as well.
For the Pens to still go 12-3-1 on the month, there are several key factors and players who have stepped up. Here’s a list of the stats for the month:
Having to use 27 different skaters in a game, just in the course of a month, it’s just astounding. Only 18 need to dress for a game, so that really shows a picture of just how banged up and how many players the Pens were cycling through.
What really stands out is the top players were playing like it. Sidney Crosby was among thel league’s leading scorers in month. Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust weren’t far behind him. Frequent on-ice partner Kris Letang was right there with them. Crosby, Guentzel and Letang all recorded 6+ power play points on the month.
The much-maligned Pens’ power play hit at 28.3% in March, a badly needed turn around to help supply the team with goals. The Pittsburgh PK was just as good, at 85.7% on the month and finishing up killing 18 of the last 19 opponent power plays, without several key PKers like Blueger and Tanev.
Malkin’s injury came at a doubly depressing time, because he was playing by far his best hockey of the season and lighting up the scoreboard just prior to getting knocked out of the lineup.
The second level of player is why the Pens were able to win so many games. Jared McCann played at a point per game level. Kasperi Kapanen wasn’t far behind, and the team got some clutch contributions from players like Brandon Tanev and Zach Aston-Reese as well.
Oh, and you can’t forget the goaltending. The Penguins had a really, really special month in the net.
Casey DeSmith’s numbers are downright dominant and he ends the month giving up only one goal in the last 152 minutes he has played. Good thing too, because Tristan Jarry is fitting in with the theme of the season, he left the game last night too with an upper body injury.
Pittsburgh got the 30th ranked 5v5 goaltending in the NHL from the start of the season until February 14th (892 save%). From February 15th - present, the Pens have the best 5v5 goaltending in the NHL at .949%.
Goaltending just makes no sense. Tristan Jarry had no confidence and couldn’t keep the puck out of his net in January and early February. Then, as if magic, he flipped a switch and has been playing at an elite level. Why? How? These are reasonable questions with no real meaningful answers. Goaltending performances can just have incredibly broad swings with no real deeper analysis than “he was playing poorly early, focused, adjusted some aspects of his game and now is playing really well”. The important aspect really isn’t how goaltending has turned around, but simply that it has.
Up ahead, Pittsburgh has a somewhat mixed bag of positives and minuses in April. The Pens don’t have a home game until April 15th — the NHL team has to yield to the NCAA’s Frozen Four which PPG Paints Arena is hosting. That means a six game road trip to start the month, and the trip starts in Boston, a place the Pens haven’t won since Mike Sullivan has been the head coach!
A positive aspect is that the Pens only have six games in the first two weeks of the month. They have a two day right now leading into April, then another two day break on the 4th-5th and then, get ready, a season-high three day pause between games on April 12, 13 and 14. After that, it gets hectic for the last three+ weeks of the season with the team settling into an every other day type of schedule.
Ideally the month ahead won’t be filled with as much adversity and individual pain as what the Pens endured in March, but endured it they did. And now have come out at the end of the month in excellent shape to extend their NHL postseason streak to 15 straight seasons.