When the week began I looked at the current home stand as a bit of a challenge because they were going to be tested against — theoretically — some upper level NHL teams.
Carolina and Vegas? Legitimate contenders.
St. Louis? Should be at least a playoff team, even if they are wildly inconsistent and flawed.
Given the Penguins’ recent turnaround I looked at three out of a possible six points as a bare minimum requirement with the hope that they could maybe get four points out of those games.
They ended up getting five and continued to climb the Eastern Conference standings thanks to their recent surge.
The most encouraging part of the week is not just the fact that they won games and collected five out of a possible six points.
It is the way they won those games and collected those points, especially over the past two games against Vegas and St. Louis. Those were probably two of the Penguins’ best, most complete games of the season as they completely took it both teams. The Vegas game was especially impressive because the Golden Knights have been one of the league’s best teams this season, and outside of some special teams flaws the Penguins absolutely took it to them during 5-on-5 play and seriously outclassed them when all sides were even.
Those two games have continued a season-long trend that has seen the Penguins be one of the best 5-on-5 teams in the NHL.
After Saturday’s 6-2 win over the Blues, the Penguins now own a plus-11 goal differential during 5-on-5 play (61 goals for; 50 goals against) and are a top-10 team in 5-on-5 expected goal share, scoring chance share, and high-danger scoring chance share. They are top-five when it comes to the expected goal share and high-danger scoring chance share.
That is the basic structure of a good team, and an extremely encouraging sign for the team’s long-term outlook this season. If you are a good 5-on-5 team, you have a chance to be a good team.
Add in the special teams and then you start to have something special.
Which brings us to some of the positive developments from this week.
Even though they gave up two goals against Vegas on Thursday, the Penguins penalty kill remains on a roll and has the best success rate in the league since the start of November, successfully killing off 88 percent of their penalties during that stretch. It is a massive turnaround from early in the year and it is no coincidence that turnaround coincided with the overall turnaround of the team.
We also had (*gasp*) a couple of power play goals, ending what had been an ugly and lengthy drought with the man advantage.
Jake Guentzel’s 4-on-3 goal against Vegas broke that drought and tied Thursday’s game, setting the stage for Kasperi Kapanen’s game-winning goal. On Saturday, the Penguins finally made the switch to put Rickard Rakell on the top unit and while THAT unit still struggled to score, the second unit did capitalize with a pair of goals in the win over St. Louis and was just a matter of seconds away from having a third power play goal.
The subplot to that power play success, though, is the apparent redemption tour for Kapanen.
Since being re-inserted back into the lineup he has four goals, five total points, and 10 shots on goal in the three games and had a hat trick against the Blues. He has been one of the most disappointing players on the roster so far this season, especially given the contract he received this offseason, but thanks to that little burst of offense his season numbers now jump to five goals, five assists, 10 total points in 16 games. That is a 25-goal, 51-point pace over 82 games. Wild how small sample sizes can dramatically change things.
The Penguins need Kapanen to play well because they have so much invested in him, and he does still have more pure talent than anybody else currently playing in their bottom-six lineup. He could be a real difference-maker if he puts everything together. Hopefully this is the start of something and not just a random flash in the pan.
Speaking of much-needed big games, welcome to the 2022-23 NHL season Bryan Rust. He has been fighting it so far this season, and seemed to hit rock bottom in the overtime loss to Carolina when he turned the puck over in the neutral zone on an awkward play (and I think a bad decision) and then just gave up on the play when he did not get the penalty call (which he should have gotten). But he bounced back in a big way on Saturday with his best game of the season, scoring a goal and adding three more assists in the win.
We have seen him be streaky before and go through rough cold stretches to open a season before going crazy the rest of the way. We looked at his performance so far this season about a week and despite the poor results there were some encouraging signs that he might be able to break out of it. Maybe this is the start.
The Penguins have seemingly found something with their current lineup with Rakell on the top line next to Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel, while Jason Zucker and Rust flank Evgeni Malkin. There is really no need to change any of that right now. They all work well together. They are all producing. The team is winning. Stick with it all until they give you a reason to not stick with it all. This is still a very good hockey team.