With the 2022 NHL All-Star Break in the rear view mirror it is now time for the unofficial start of the second half of the 2021-22 NHL season.
With that in mind, a few things to keep an eye for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Washington game a turning point?
Thing back to mid-November. The Penguins had just lost their third game in a row (to Buffalo, of all teams) and were off to a 5-6-4 start that was probably a little uninspiring. But while the result of that game against Buffalo was not what they wanted, it was obvious by the way they played that they had finally found their game a little bit. If we are being honest, they absolutely dominated that game without getting the reward for it. It was still something to build off of. That is exactly what they did, immediately starting a five-game winning streak with the next game that was also the jumping off point for their 22-5-4 record since then.
Fast forward to just before the All-Star break.
The Penguins hit their first slump since that mid-November stretch, lost three games in a row to Seattle, Detroit, and Los Angeles (two of them in overtime) heading into the Washington game. While the Washington game was another overtime loss, it was easily their best performance of the four games and was probably a game where they deserved a better result. Just like that early season Buffalo game, they dominated it and controlled the play at even-strength from start to finish. It was the best they looked in nearly two weeks (even through some of their recent wins) and could be used as a turning point for another strong stretch. At least that is the hope.
The schedule is going to get tough and important
Ignoring games played and games in hand, the four teams are separated by just five total points, with the Hurricanes, Rangers, and Penguins separated by just two points.
The Penguins have eight head-to-head games against those three teams in the second half, including all seven games against Carolina (three) and the Rangers (four) for the season. Not a stretch to say those games are going to decide the division winner seeding in the Metropolitan Division playoff bracket.
Those are not the only tough games still ahead. They also have all three scheduled games against Boston, both scheduled games against Nashville, both scheduled games against Colorado, and one more game against Minnesota, St. Louis, Florida, and Tampa Bay. That is a lot tough games in the second half.
Tristan Jarry’s workload
He has been a huge part of the Penguins’ success so far this season, and he has also played a lot of games. The schedule is also going to get really condensed here over the next few weeks. I still have not see anything to suggest that Penguins coaching staff is overly filled with confidence in Casey DeSmith, and that is going to be something to watch. Does the staff give DeSmith more playing time? Does DeSmith give them a reason to play him more? Does the front office find a different backup goalie?
Rediscovering that secondary scoring
There are a lot of things that have made the Penguins a success so far this season and secondary scoring has been a significant development, especially early in the season when the team spent so much time dealing with injuries to key players including Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. That secondary scoring has dropped a bit over the past 15 games or so. Evan Rodrigues has gone 13 games without a goal and has just two points total during that stretch (both assists coming in the same game). He is without a point in 12 of the past 13 games. Kasperi Kapanen has one goal in the past 12 games (a puck that deflected in off of his skate) and keeps getting benched or demoted. He has no points in five games. Danton Heinen has one goal in his past 14 games and zero goals in his past 10 games. He has just four assists over the past 10 games. Going back over the past 15 games, the Penguins are averaging 2.34 goals per 60 minutes when neither Crosby or Malkin are on the ice during 5-on-5 play. Prior to that stretch they were averaging more than 2.54 goals per 60 minutes in those situations. They really need Rodrigues, Kapanen, and Heinen to produce more offense. I already know my suggestion for getting two of those three going again.
The special teams
The penalty kill has been great all season, and even with a little bit of a slump here lately is still second best in the league right now. The real story though is the improvement of the power play that has been white hot over the past few weeks and is just outside of the top-10 in the league. It was not that long ago that this unit was near the bottom in the league. That sort of special teams play, combined with the goaltending they have received from Jarry, to the 5-on-5 play we have seen this season, is a very good combination for a team’s chances in terms of winning the Stanley Cup.