When the 2020-21 NHL season began expectations for the Pittsburgh Penguins were probably as low as they had been in quite some time. When they won just seven of their first 14 games and went through several major front office changes it did not really do much to change those expectations.
Entering Monday, though, the Penguins find themselves with one of the league’s best records and in a fight for the top spot in the East Division alongside the Washington Capitals and New York Islanders.
There are some surprising developments that have produced that performance.
Let us take a look at them.
Forward depth is better than I expected
This is a major factor. The common denominator on the Penguins most recent Stanley Cup winning teams has always been a great third line and a bottom-six that can chip in some offense and take pressure off of the Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin lines. As great as those two are, they are not going to score goals every game. Their lines are not going to score goals every game. You need a third-and fourth-line that can contribute.
Given the makeup of the roster on paper at the start of the season that seemed to be a major question mark. The forward depth has actually turned out to be better than anticipated, even with a fourth-line that is a constant problem spot.
Entering Monday the Penguins actually have a plus-seven goal differential during 5-on-5 play when neither Crosby or Malkin is on the ice, while they have mostly stayed in the positive when it comes to scoring chances.
Just look real quick at how the Penguins have performed in recent years when neither Crosby or Malkin is on the ice. This year is the best it has been for the Penguins since the 2015-16 season.
Pittsburgh Penguins 5-on-5 Performance From Third-And Fourth-Lines
Absolutely did not see that development this season. Jared McCann has been fantastic across the board. Evan Rodrigues has produced more than expected. Zach Aston-Reese, Brandon Tanev, and Teddy Blueger have been great when healthy. Players like Frederick Gaudreau, Anthony Angello, and even Radim Zahorna have contributed. All of that adds up. Is it sustainable? Will these players be good enough to keep playing that way for the remainder of the regular season and the playoffs? That is the big question. For right now though they are making big contributions.
Goaltending has been great lately
The other big question mark at the start of the season is whether or not Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith could give the Penguins enough goaltending. It was simply a matter of it the duo being a complete unknown as it was one of the most inexperienced goalie duos in the entire NHL and the most inexperienced duo the Penguins have opened a season with in almost two decades.
They struggled at first, but they have been fantastic since the start of February.
For the season the Penguins are a top-10 team in save percentage at both 5-on-5 and in all situations.
The defense has improved from what we saw in the first month of the season and has been very good lately, and when you combine that with great goaltending you are going to have an outstanding defensive team with a chance to win a lot of hockey games.
Cody Ceci again
Very few people were on board with this signing, especially after the Jack Johnson contract ended up getting bought out. It has actually proven to be an outstanding pickup for the defense as Ceci has been very strong defensively and even chipped in a little bit of offense here and there.
He has been everything Jim Rutherford wanted Jack Johnson to be for the contract he should have signed Jack Johnson for in free agency.
Solid addition. Useful player. He and Mike Matheson have also been a surprisingly productive duo even though both players have very obvious flaws and limitations as defenders and players.
You should be a fan.
(Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick)