The Pittsburgh Penguins have been a “response” team for most of this season, often having to dig deep and find their game after a slow start.
That was the story in last night’s game against Columbus. It was the Blue Jackets who scored first and carried the play in the first period. It would also be the only goal they would score, after Pittsburgh responded and took the game over in the second period by scoring three goals and never looking back.
“We just knew we had to be better,” forward Teddy Blueger said after the game. “We came out a little bit flat, and they came out with a lot of energy. We know we’re a way better team than that. So we just kind of had to respond, and just upped the ante a little bit.”
The last month has certainly reflected the Pens finding their bearings and playing up to their capability. On November 9th, Pittsburgh ended their seven-game losing streak in Washington. Starting that night, the Pens are 10-2-2 - good for the second most points in the NHL since that point. (Both regulation losses have come to Toronto, who are on a hot streak themselves, and puts the Pens in an even better context to go 9-0-2 in the last month against non-Maple Leaf opponents, once also factoring out a Penguin victory as well).
Since Nov. 9, getting better as the game goes along has been the Penguins’ calling card. Take a look at the splits by period:
Overall the trend has been for a relatively quiet start in general, but don’t miss the second period of Penguin games this year - that’s been where a lot of the action has been and where games have been decided. Pittsburgh has done a great job pulling away, and then settling in for the third period (where the goals also take into account a bevy of empty netters to put games away).
It’s been a successful formula so far. In the last month Pittsburgh is 5-0-1 when leading after the first period, and a telling 3-0-0 when tied after 20 minutes. Their 2-2-1 record (including last night’s win) when losing after the first is respectable enough.
Extend that lead/trail trends through the second period and it’s more of the same. The Pens are 6-0-1 when winning after two periods, and just 0-2-1 when losing after two. It’s difficult to play from behind in the NHL when running out of time. In games when going in tied to the final intermission over the last month, the Pens are a perfect 4-0-0, which has been a key to the last month’s turnaround for the team.
As the game goes along, and as this season has gone along, the Penguins have found a way to keep digging away and eventually have gotten stronger and played better as time has gone on.
A big reason that the Pens have hung around in games, gotten stronger and eventually pulled out wins is the play and production of Sidney Crosby. At age 35, Crosby is putting together a special season and now 26 games into it, he’s on pace for a 47-goal season.
It hasn’t been lost on his head coach, especially with the variety of ways to score. Last night Crosby was at the front of the net, hurdled a shot, and lifted the rebound while falling on his first goal. Then on his second goal, he took a swing at a puck in mid-air to use that as a pass to Evgeni Malkin on a the sequence that eventually saw him score again from the front of the net.
Crosby at his most dangerous has always been the sheer variety of ways he can beat the opposition, which coach Mike Sullivan highlighted last night as well.
“He can score in so many different ways. That’s the thing. He’s great on his backhand. The goal he got on the power play tonight on the back post there, when he when he drags his leg and he gets down and he makes himself big - I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen him score that goal over the years. Not a lot of guys can score that type of goal. So, he can score so many different ways. He can shoot the puck. He’s got a great one-timer. He’s really good at his backhand. He’s creative the way he thinks. He scores from below the goal line sometimes. He banks it off the backs of goalies. He scores in so many different ways. Sometimes we just shake our head with his creativity and how he thinks the game. But I do think that it probably gets overlooked because he’s such a good passer, and every other aspect of his game is so good, sometimes the actual pure goal scoring part of it gets overlooked.”
Crosby enters today fifth overall in NHL scoring, and his 15 goals in 26 games is really standing out. The Pens’ captain only has two 40+ goal seasons, and none since 2016-17. At the rate he is going, he’s threatening to add another, on a current 47-goal full season pace.
His current rate of point scoring is a 110 point track, which should that hold up would be the second highest output in his entire 18-season career. There’s a long way to go to get there, but Crosby’s putting on quite the show in the 2022-23 season. In large part it’s been his creativity and goal scoring ability that has stood out.
While nothing should be surprising about Crosby’s greatness and ability to record points to observers by now, throwing out a 1.35 points/game effort (with a barely functioning power play at this point) in his age-35 season is just another time to shake your head and marvel at the performance he continues to orchestrate this deep into his career.