The Pittsburgh Penguins won back to back games this weekend and they were very significant for a couple of reasons.
Not only did they need to get some points to bounce back from a tough three-game losing streak, including what was perhaps their worst overall game of the season against the New Jersey Devils on Thursday night, but also because they have a really tough stretch of games ahead over the next week or so. Getting points when you can is important, and they went four-for-four this weekend against the New York Rangers and Columbus Blue Jackets. It is not just the fact that they won those games, either. They won playing the way you want to see them playing right now.
After a tough start in the first period against the New York Rangers, the Penguins pretty much took control over the second and third periods and completely shut things down in the third period. Important win against a very good divisional opponent. They followed that on Sunday in the second half of a back-to-back by rallying for a win against a Columbus Blue Jackets team that has been playing some excellent hockey over the past couple of weeks and had its starting goalie back in the lineup.
Those two wins have the Penguins back in second place in the Metropolitan Division with a three-point cushion over the Rangers (though the Rangers do have two games in hand at the moment).
The thing that really stands out though is that there are some really encouraging signs with the Penguins lately that may have been overshadowed a bit by some of the recent results.
There has been some concern about the Penguins lately because of the recent four-game losing streak (and how ugly a couple of those games were) and because they have looked a little sloppier than they did earlier in the year. Sometimes, though, we tend to overreact to small samples in the middle of a long 82-game season and lose sight of the big picture. We also tend to look at games only through the lens of our own team. Only the team I am watching struggles. Only they gave up odd-man breaks and turn the puck over. We see what we want to see. The reality is all of that stuff happens to every team in the league in every game. The only 60-minute game is one where there is only one team on the ice.
Over the past 10 games the Penguins have largely dominated the 5-on-5 game when it comes to shot attempts, scoring chances, and expected goals, consistently winning those areas in pretty much every game.
That 10-game stretch covers the entire month of February and saw them post the following ranks during 5-on-5 play....
- Total shot attempt share: 4th best in the NHL (55.3 percent)
- Expected goal share: 8th best in the NHL (54.9 percent)
- Scoring chance share: 9th best in the NHL (52.4 percent)
- High danger scoring chance share: 12th best in the NHL (53.7 percent)
While they were also in the top-seven across the board in terms of shot attempts against, expected goals against, scoring chances against, and high-danger scoring chances against per 60 minutes.
What hurt them over that stretch is the fact they have struggled to finish on a lot of their chances, owning only a 4.5 percent shooting percentage during 5-on-5 play (worst mark in the NHL during that stretch), the fact the goalies had a couple of off games, and their penalty kill has slumped. The chances have been there and the defensive play has been better than it is being given credit for, but the puck is just not going in the net. Say what you want about the players they have on the roster and in the lineup, a 4.5 percent shooting percentage is an unsustainably low number. That will change. It is not just the depth scoring that is struggling to score goals right now, either. The top line has also had some issues scoring goals during 5-on-5 play. That is not going to continue, either.
There is also another important thing to keep in mind about this stretch: The Penguins are also 6-3-1 in those games, which would be a 106-point pace over an 82-game season. So it is not like they are compiling underlying numbers without also producing results. They played two bad games against Toronto and New Jersey and lost a tough game to Carolina. All of that dominated the talking points around the team for a week. Otherwise, they have been very good.
Perhaps the most encouraging development recently, and especially this weekend, has been the play of Evgeni Malkin. He played what were probably his two best games of the season so far this weekend and was a difference-maker in both games, scoring the only goal on Saturday on the power play, assisting on the Penguins’ first goal on Sunday, and then tying the game in the third period on a beautiful passing play on the power play. His offensive numbers have been excellent so far this season and the overall play is starting to match that lately. With that development happening, and the top line still playing strong, the Penguins are very close to having their two-headed monster back at its best. Still need to see the third and fourth lines rediscover their scoring touch again (at least the third line) but there are definitely some encouraging signs here with this team right now.