Even when the Pittsburgh Penguins were sitting with a 3-6 record there were still some encouraging signs within their game.
Their 5-on-5 numbers were still very strong, their top-two lines and core superstars were still producing, and you could kind of sign the formation of a third line that might be able to offer some stability and give them some much-needed scoring depth.
They just needed everything to come together and start to click.
During their current four-game winning streak, it has all started to click. So let us take a look at three key factors that have come together to help spark this early season turnaround.
1. They have three productive forward lines
I can not emphasize this enough, and I truly do believe it is one of the biggest developments currently happening with the team. But the simple decision to swap out Jansen Harkins for Radim Zohorna on the third line has been a significant game-changer for the Penguins.
I have long believed that the third line is one of the most important lines a contending team can have, and it has consistently been a staple of the Sidney Crosby era Penguins and always makes or breaks their success.
When they have had a strong third line, they have typically done extremely well and seriously contended for the Stanley Cup. All three of the Cup-winning teams in the Crosby era have had a dominant third line.
When they have not had that, that is when they have struggled the most.
No matter how good your superstars are, no matter how good your top-six is, those players are not going to score every game. They simply are not. And that especially becomes true in the playoffs when team’s top lines can tend to cancel each other out. A lot of times it comes down to which team is simply deeper. With the formation of the Lars Eller, Drew O’Connor, and Zohorna line the Penguins have, for the time being, found a capable third line.
In nine games together that line has outscored its opponents by a 5-2 margin and held a commanding 62.4 expected goals share despite having started just 27 percent of their shifts in the offensive zone. They are tilting the ice in a significant way. With that line doing what it is doing the Penguins now have three of the most productive lines in the NHL.
There have been 61 line combinations in the NHL to have played at least 60 minutes together this season, and the Penguins top-three lines all rank in the top-20 in expected goal share out of that group (via Moneypuck).
Sidney Crosby’s line is playing great.
Evgeni Malkin is as dominant as we have seen him be in years.
They have a very capable third line for the time being, with the hope that it can continue to play at that level.
That is a winning formula.
2. Erik Karlsson has been unleashed
The addition of Karlsson this offseason was the most significant acquisition the Penguins have made since the Phil Kessel trade. After a somewhat slow start through his first eight games, Karlsson has started to play like the Karlsson we all expected to see over the past five games.
He has been dominant and a joy to watch.
Over the past five games he has nine total points, including four multi-point games, and has been a completely dominant player during both 5-on-5 play and the power play.
The Penguins have outscored teams by a 9-1 margin with him on the ice during 5-on-5 play during that stretch, while also owning a better than 70 percent expected goal share. It is brilliant stuff, and has turned the Penguins’ top-four on defense into the outstanding group it looked like it could be on paper.
Karlsson is a future Hall of Famer and one of the best players of his era, and we are starting to see that version of him right now.
3. The goaltending has been on point
Credit where it is due, but the goaltending has been nothing short of sensational over the past few games.
This will always be the make-or-break position, especially for this team, and right now the Penguins are getting everything they need from the position and more.
Tristan Jarry has allowed just two goals over his past three starts and has improved his save percentage for the season all the way up to a very strong .920 mark.
When he was sidelined for a game they received unexpectedly strong play from Magnus Hellberg as he helped them steal an overtime win in Los Angeles when they played what was arguably their worst game of the winning streak, while he also came on in relief and finished a shutout in Anaheim.
Nobody should expect them to keep playing quite this well, but it is a glimpse of what Jarry in particular can be capable of when he is at his best. Just need to find some consistency.