When the Pittsburgh Penguins play the Winnipeg Jets on Friday night it will officially mark the halfway point of the 2022-23 NHL season for them, which seems absolutely baffling. But here we are, Game 41 out of 82.
That should be enough time to accurately assess what sort of team you have, because at this point there are not going to be any surprises the rest of the way.
But I am not entirely sure that is the case with this Penguins team because we have seen two dramatically different versions for extended periods of time at completely different times,
Peaks and valleys over the course of a season are normal and common, but the Penguins have taken it to the extreme.
They started 4-0-1 and looked outstanding.
Then they lost seven games in a row, largely due to bad special teams and goaltending.
Then they went on a roll for nearly two months and looked unbeatable, with special teams and goaltending largely carrying them.
Then they lost six games in a row where they could not hold third period leads and just looked .... off.
Now they enter Friday’s game coming off of back-to-back wins and a chance to start building some momentum again.
It really just depends on the week.
Here is where that puts the Penguins in the landscape of the NHL.
The Standings And Playoff Race
By raw points the Penguins are in fifth place in a very tightly contested Metropolitan Division and narrowly hold the second Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference, just one point ahead of the New York Islanders heading into Friday.
They are in a slightly better position by points percentage, where their .600 mark moves them ahead of the Washington Capitals (.591) and gives them an even bigger cushion over the Islanders. The Penguins .600 pace is 98 points over an 82-game season, while the Islanders .547 mark puts them on only an 89-point pace. So there is a larger gap there than it seems based on games in hand.
They also have a pretty big cushion over the non-Metro teams in the Wild Card race, including Detroit (88 point pace) and Buffalo (86 point pace).
So they are in a solid position for a playoff spot, but it could be better.
Clearly the top-six. The Penguins’ decision to bring back Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Rickard Rakell, and Bryan Rust was not only the smart decision based on value and availability, but it is also the biggest thing keeping the Penguins competitive.
They have found winning combinations with those two groups, and as the top-six goes, the team goes.
When they score, the Penguins win. When they don’t score, the Penguins lose.
After looking like a major question mark early in the season, the Penguins’ special teams has also been a huge advantage. The power play, while still inconsistent, has dramatically improved from where it was in the beginning of the year while the penalty kill has climbed to the top-three in the league.
It it is the bottom six, particularly the third line. Jeff Carter has the ability to score the occasional goal, but he does not provide much else beyond that and it really holds back that line.
The bottom line is this: When neither Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin is on the ice during 5-on-5 play the Penguins simply get outplayed at a shockingly concerning rate. They have been outscored by 10 goals in that situation, and are below 45 percent in terms of total shot attempts and expected goals.
That is a big problem, and a big reason why the team is so ineffective when the top-two lines do not carry them. It is an extremely top heavy team.
Jason Zucker is healthy and not only playing like a legit top-six forward, he has become one of the most important driving forces behind the team. That is not to say that he is the best player or one of the best players, but he has become one of the engines on this roster with his style of play, forechecking, consistent effort, and yes, his production. I liked his chances to be productive this season if he were able to stay healthy, but I think he has exceeded even those expectations,
I have two the stand out right away. The first is the defense, even if some of it is out of everybody’s control. The recent absences to Kris Letang and Jeff Petry have been major problems, and I think they have driven some of the recent struggles for the team and helped us think there are problems that maybe do not exist. If the team still struggles when they are back, then we might have something to really be worried about.
Beyond them, Brian Dumoulin’s continued decline is also disappointing.
The other is Kasperi Kapanen. He has shown flashes of production here and there, but beyond that is more of what we have seen from him the past few years. All of the individual talents that should make a good player, a very strong effort, but for some reason it just never all comes together for him. For that salary cap hit and contract it is absolutely disappointing.
Biggest Concern The Rest Of The Way
Part of me wants to say the third line, but I think that is something that can be remedied in a trade.
So I am going to say goaltending, my biggest concern from the start of the season because it has undone each of the past two seasons in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
It is not that Tristan Jarry has been bad.
Quite the opposite, actually. He is honestly done a lot to show he is worthy of a new contract extension beyond this season.
He has been excellent for most of the season when he has been healthy. But that is the problem. Until he is actually healthy and in the lineup and plays well for a playoff run I think that question has to remain. It is also a position that the Penguins are probably not going to address at the trade deadline so what they have is what they get.