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Friday thoughts: Can the Penguins turn it around?

A bit on Marcus Pettersson, correcting mistakes and why it could look darkest just before dawn

Pittsburgh Penguins v New York Rangers Photo by Jared Silber/NHLI via Getty Images

A few random thoughts and observations about the Penguins on this Friday for your consideration...

Let’s get in the way back machine and take a trip to five years ago. On March 29th, 2017 — just two weeks before the playoffs started, the Penguins were in a bad way. They were about to lose their fourth straight game, even though they had a playoff position squared away. Evgeni Malkin, Jake Guentzel and Kris Letang were out of the lineup that night and Pittsburgh lost 5-1 to Chicago, looking like they had nothing much to stand in the way of other teams. Just days earlier the Pens had lost 6-2 to a non-playoff bound Flyers team.

No one really remembers this stretch or the futility felt from those losses now, or how directionless and hopeless that Pittsburgh looked in that moment. It’s just another sign that the regular season is irrelevant and quickly forgotten when postseason events can and will completely change the importance of what is seen in the moment.

It remains to be seen if the current team will be able to erase a late-season slide or find themselves unable to turn things around, but last night sure felt like the 2021-22 Penguin team’s March 29th, 2017 moment. They were without Sidney Crosby, John Marino and Jason Zucker last night against the Rangers and similarly out-classed. It’s a reactionary society and world where everyone is going to be a prisoner of the moment and reach over-arching conclusions, but take a step back and realize that next month will be the only thing that matters and everyone starts with a fresh slate.

Enjoyed seeing this observation from Danny:

Marcus Pettersson is in a weird spot, on any given day he could be a healthy scratch, or he could be playing on the second pair. His play has tailed off as the season has gone along, and he is another player where the negatives (getting walked by Alex Newhook as Danny mentioned) stand out a lot more than when Pettersson helped generate a goal that game with a big shot that ended up as intended as a rebound for Bryan Rust to finish.

Anyways, prior to Marino’s illness absence, it looked like the Pens were tracking to reunite Pettersson and Marino as a defense pairing. Seems like a good idea, since the team experienced a prolonged excellent stretch of play from early December - February where these two were mainly playing together.

The Pettersson-Marino splits (from Natural Stat Trick) show an interesting story too:

The shot-based stat categories (CF%, FF%, SF%, xGF%, SCF%) are all very similar, with small differences in percentages, whether together or apart. But sort this by rate and there is a glaring difference in goals allowed/60, highlighted for emphasis.

There could be some goalie inputs that help the cause (Marino-Pettersson have seen a .929% save% this season), but it stands out that the stingiest both have been is together. This includes the Corsi events against (CA/60) and shots (SA/60) which is also quite a bit lower for each when playing together compared to playing apart, which in theory is a great way to limit goals against with a strong starting point of allowing fewer pucks flung towards the net.

Now the question is, how long of a leash will coach Mike Sullivan give to a reunion of this pair? Or even, will he go back in that direction at all?

Finding stable personnel behind the Brian Dumoulin - Kris Letang pair has been an issue in recent weeks for the Pens, going back to Pettersson-Marino could be the ticket to re-gaining more stability while still working Mike Matheson in Pettersson’s place situationally for offensive-zone draws.

Despite the regular season doldrums, the players and coaches don’t seem that fatalistic or discouraged about most of their play in the last few weeks, besides the obvious dis-satisfaction with results and some mistakes along the way. Take these quotes from the post-game.

Kris Letang:

“We’ve played a lot of good teams, bigger teams, more physical teams, and I thought we played well in all of those games. Every one of those games could have gone either way. (The Rangers game) was tight. We could have come back with the chances. Guys are fighting. They’re working hard. A lot of character. They went to work tonight to try to get those points. There’s little things that we have to improve, learn. I think they’re all correctable.”

Mike Sullivan:

“We played hard. I thought it was an even game. It was a low-event game, especially the first two periods. The scoring chances on both sides were in the single digits... We’ve got to continue to stay with it. That’s the message we gave to the guys after the game.”

Nothing looks great after being shutout by the likely playoff opponent, but the quotes above aren’t wrong. If Teddy Blueger can finish a chance from in front in the first period, or Jake Guentzel can convert an Evgeni Malkin feed in the second, a close game unfolds in a different way. The execution wasn’t there, however, with the Pens putting up 14 total high danger scoring chances, yet coming away with zero goals. The lack of finishing chances continues to be a major and costly issue for Pittsburgh, though the guy in net stopping them had something to do with that too.

It remains to be seen if the team can correct the mistakes that need to be corrected while also improving on their offensive output, but often times it can also seem the darkest right before dawn. It was that way in late March of 2017 and after the last week or so, it looks that way now for the Penguins.