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Friday Musings: Carter thriving, penalties are down defensive woes forming?

Some random and various thoughts around the Penguins: is there a level of concern about defense? How to protect the PK, all things Jeff Carer and more!

NHL: Buffalo Sabres at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

A Friday drop of various and random thoughts and ideas, that put together can be a fully-formed idea...

Are you worried about the Penguins defense? Pittsburgh has allowed 14 goals in the last three games. At times last night against Buffalo they were not very focused or locked in at all times about the defensive details against an over-matched team.

They’re saying the perfunctory right things in the aftermath.

“We have one more [game left] and we have to put our focus on doing things right,” Kris Letang said last night after the win.

“You obviously want to tighten things up,” four goal guy Jeff Carter said. “These games are hard to play sometimes, especially when you’re playing a team that’s out of the playoffs. They play pretty free. That said, we have one game left. After that game on Saturday, we need to be firing on all cylinders. It’s definitely something that’s been talked about. Hopefully, we can come out Saturday and really lock things down and create offense off our defense.”

We’ll see if they buckle down in Game #56 vs the Sabres, but really should that be expected? Pittsburgh has shutout the Bruins (1-0 on April 25) and Capitals (3-0 on May 1) within the last two weeks, they’ve shown very recently that they can flip the switch into “playoff mode” when they need to. Against, less face it, an inferior opponent like Buffalo it’s only natural and human that some attention to the defensive end is going to slack when there are so many opportunities to think offensively and put the puck in the net.

Plus the Pens only allowed 23 shots to Buffalo last night. Certain puck management decisions can always be chased and cleaned up, but overall it’s not like there are major issues at play.

And, of course, the only way to make giving up a bucket full of goals against lately can look good is to score an even bigger bucket full of goals for. The Pens have done that with 17 goals for in the last three games, including a whopping 15 in the last two games. And the offense is coming from everywhere.

It feels like maybe Sidney Crosby hasn’t been playing tremendous lately (at least by his own lofty standards) but he has scored 4 goals and added in 2 assists in the last five games.

Crosby is just one of nine players — which, remember, that’s half a lineup! — who have a point per game or more in the last five games. (This counts Evgeni Malkin who has four points in three games back).

Last five games:

Ahh yes, a veritable list of great players and names you would expect...And also Frederick Gaudreau. The Penguins are never 100% healthy all at the same time, so it may be a fool’s errand to play the “who comes out of the lineup when they’re 100% healthy” game. But for the life of me, I don’t think you can take Gaudreau out of the lineup right now. Even if that means keeping Evan Rodrigues out. Gaudreau can add more dimensions with PK play and lineup at center or, as we’ve seen this week, right wing and perform well.

Also: trivia question to be answered at the bottom: which player leads the Penguins in shots on goal in the last five games? (No cheating..)

Seeing Malkin’s stat-line above brought me back to something written last week about “What does history tell us to expect Evgeni Malkin to do upon his return” where we looked at the first five games back for Malkin following long injury layoffs.

The first takeaway was “don’t expect many goals”, and that has held so far with Geno not scoring in the three games back (though he does have 8 SOG and some nice looks at the net). It’s still been a pretty productive return, thanks largely to the winger play of Jason Zucker and especially Kasperi Kapanen. Kapanen is looking like “the straw the stirs the drink” on that line right now.

One interesting tidbit mentioned on the TV broadcast last night by Steve Mears was how the refs are calling Penguin games lately. Pittsburgh has only been sent to the PK just 11 times in the last 7 games, (compared to 17 opportunities for a power play).

Some of that can be controlled, and the Pens are playing a very clean style of hockey right now. That will be interesting to track how the refs call the games in the playoffs, where traditionally penalties and power play chances go down anyways.

Probably a good sign for Pittsburgh, the best way to protect the 25th ranked penalty kill in the league is to simply avoid going to the penalty box in the first place..

The PK is one big difference between the Pens and their East division playoff rivals. Boston currently has the NHL’s best PK at a sterling 86.3% rate. The Islanders (83.7%, 5th) and Washington (83.4%, 7th) aren’t far behind.

Ron Hextall’s management of the Pens this year looks pretty sterling right now. He was patient and mainly held firm through the trials and tribulations of all the mid-season injuries — refraining from making any panic moves to address temporary holes created. That would be a big departure from previous managing styles.

Pittsburgh has performed really well too since Hextall was hired (31-11-2 since he got the job), so there wasn’t a lot of reason for him to make sweeping changes.

Does Jeff Carter even want to allow a trade to Pittsburgh without Hextall being in place? That’s very possible. Carter was a player not on many trade radars, because of his comfortability in Los Angeles. But he appears to be the perfect fit for what the Pens need as a steady player to add to the middle of the lineup, finally cementing the ever-elusive third line center role, with the hands and hockey IQ to add quite a bit of an extra dimension to the team as well.

Pittsburgh didn’t make a splashy move to give up a first round pick and get a player like Anthony Mantha or Kyle Palmieri and they didn’t seek a big piece like Taylor Hall, but it sure does look like Hextall added the right piece for what his team needed.

Trivia question answer: Who leads the Pens in SOG in the last five games? It’s not Sidney Crosby (second with 14), it’s not Jeff Carter or Kasperi Kapanen or Jake Guentzel (all tied for third with 12 a piece)....It’s Kris Letang (16). Letang has not scored a goal but is jumping up on the play in rushes and also letting it fly from the point. The old coaching cliche about good things happening when the puck gets sent to the net for deflections (like Crosby’s goal off a Letang shot attempt which doesn’t even count as a SOG for Letang) or rebounds or net-front scrambles. That’s a real good sign for Pittsburgh when Letang is shooting and shooting on target.