In late February the Pittsburgh Penguins started a brutal stretch of games on their schedule that featured matchup after matchup against some of the league’s best teams.
The schedule at the time included the New York Rangers, a sneaky good Columbus Blue Jackets team, the Tampa Bay Lightning, Carolina Hurricanes, Florida Panthers, Vegas Golden Knights, Hurricanes again, the Nashville Predators, and St. Louis Blues.
Outside of Columbus, every one of those teams is a playoff team.
That is also five games against top-10 teams, including four games against top-four teams.
Sunday’s game against the Hurricanes was their seventh game in that stretch, and their 4-2 win over improved their record to 5-1-1 in those games, giving them 11 out of a possible 14 points heading into Tuesday’s game in Nashville. When this stretch began I assumed the Penguins might lose half of those games, not only because of the quality of opponents and what happens when good teams play each other (sometimes the other the team wins) but also because they had two sets of back-to-backs in there, both of which involved travel.
That is about as well as you could possibly expect any team to do with that schedule. Sunday’s win against Carolina also improved them to 9-5-3 on the season against the league’s top-10 teams (by points percentage). Also about as well as you can expect team to play against top competition.
Maybe this is not a surprise to you because the Penguins have consistently been among the best teams in the league this season. But I still get the sense there has been some skepticism about this group because preseason expectations were so low, and their first half schedule did not feature many games against some of the league’s better teams.
Their continued success as the schedule has gotten tougher, combined with their actual play in those games, has been very encouraging.
So let us talk about that actual play, because that, more than anything, might be what stands out about the past seven games on this run.
They have won in a variety of different ways.
They have had a couple of games (New York and Sunday’s game against Carolina) where they needed to rely on Tristan Jarry to win games. Sometimes you need that. No matter how good your team is you are going to need your goalie to steal a game on occasion in the playoffs. With Jarry being the biggest question mark for this team at the start of the season, it is encouraging to see him steal some big games when they need him.
But it has not all been about goaltending.
They absolutely dominated a great Tampa Bay team (that has been playing incredible hockey lately) on the road. Overall, their 5-on-5 numbers have been above par. The past two games against Vegas and Carolina they did lose the shot attempt battle pretty decidedly, but the scoring chances against Vegas were mostly 50-50, which was also the case against Carolina through two periods, The Hurricanes, trailing by two goals at the start of the third period, really came on strong over the final 20 minutes but through 40 minutes that was a mostly even game.
Overall, the Penguins are above a 50-percent share in scoring chances and high-danger scoring chances over stretch, and 50-50 when it comes to expected goals during 5-on-5 play. Given the level of competition they have played, you take that. Every single time.
On a more individual level, Evgeni Malkin has really taken his game to another level here lately. He is not only producing, he is playing under control and looking like the Evgeni Malkin everybody wanted to see this season. Just get him another winger.
They also started to get some secondary scoring over the past two games with Jeff Carter, Brian Boyle, Mark Friedman, Mike Matheson, Zach Aston-Reese and Evan Rodrigues scoring goals. Yes the latter two goals were empty net goals, but when you have been fighting it like they have over the past two months you take the offense where you can get it. I still think it was only a matter of time for players like Carter and Rodrigues given their shot numbers and appallingly low shooting percentages lately, and it was good to see them get on the scoreboard. Carter was especially good against Vegas with a goal and two more shots off the post.
It is not uncommon for bottom-six players to go 20 or more games with little offense. That is why they are third-and fourth-line players. You just do not often see all of them go through it at the same time. When the goal slumps are staggered, you kind of miss them or overlook them or just flat out ignore them. When they all happen at the same time, you have a problem. If this is the start of that secondary scoring returning to the level it was at earlier in the season, that is also another big development.
No matter what this stretch was always going to be a measuring stick of sorts for this Penguins team for people to see how they stand against the rest of the best in the NHL. No matter the results in these next two games against Nashville and St. Louis the Penguins are going to have a winning record in this nine-game stretch and further position themselves as one of the better teams in the league. It is very encouraging to see.