All of a sudden the Pittsburgh Penguins are on a little bit of a roll. Their 2-1 shootout win over the Carolina Hurricanes on Thursday night not only gave them a huge win over a long-time nemesis, and not only gave them a huge two points against a Metropolitan Division opponent, it also gave them their fourth win in five games and made it a pretty successful week. That is a huge accomplishment given that there was a 7-0 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs mixed in there. Even with that the Penguins still go into the weekend having won four out of their past five games and starting to gain some important ground in the Stanley Cup Playoff race.
Let us take a look at some of the players that are helping them get back on track in the weekly Pittsburgh Penguins stock report.
Alex Nedeljkovic. He continues to be one of the biggest pleasant surprises on the team, and lately he is starting to steal some playing time. He has started three of the Penguins’ past four games and has won all three of them, winning two games in a shootout and playing an extremely strong game against Minnesota on Monday night where he almost scored a goal. He was a bad luck bounce away from getting a shutout against Carolina on Thursday and since the start of December is 3-0-1 with a .918 save percentage in four starts. He is the hot hand at the moment and deserves the extra playing time.
Sidney Crosby. The captain is still at it, and other than Nedeljkovic was the biggest difference-maker against Carolina on Thursday night. He opened the scoring with a slick goal in the first period and then scored the lone goal in the shootout. He nearly won the game in overtime with a shot off the post on a late power play. He has nine points (five goals, four assists) in nine games this month and is playing a complete two-way game all over the ice. Still one of the best overall players in the entire NHL even at age 36. He is playing at an MVP level.
Valtteri Puustinen. He has yet to score a goal since his arrival in Pittsburgh, but there is a lot to like about what Puustinen has brought to the table. He has four assists in six games and has brought a much-needed spark to both the second line and the power play. This is the type of pleasant surprise they needed from their farm system this season. Let’s see if he can keep it going.
Rickard Rakell. He was such a great player in his first year-and-a-half with the Penguins and the only positive development to come from Ron Hextall’s reign of error. But he is 19 games into the 2023-24 season and has still yet to score a single goal. Not only that, he has just five assists despite playing almost all of his time with either Evgeni Malkin or Crosby. He nearly scored a goal on Thursday, and did have a slick assist on Crosby’s first period goal, but he also made a couple of really baffling decisions with the puck. They need more from him. He has to be one of their best offensive players.
Ryan Graves. This is simply a move that has yet to work out. The long-term deal for him in free agency came with its share of critics when it was signed, but I really tried to remain hopeful for it given how well he has played with top-pairing defenders in the past (both with Cale Makar in Colorado and Dougie Hamilton in New Jersey). So far, though, he has been the big-time weak link in the top-four of the defense and has not played the way Kyle Dubas and the front office was hoping he would when they signed him. They have reached the point where they are shuffling defensive pairs to try and get people going. If they had more good options on defense it would be easy to suggest that Graves not only get a new defense pairing, but also get a new perspective on the game. Like from the press box as a healthy scratch.
Radim Zohorna. Zohorna scored three goals (and four total points) in his first seven games and seemed to be the difference maker on the third line next to Lars Eller and Drew O’Connor. He has scored zero goals in the 19 games since that and has just two assists during that stretch. This is not the first time he has started a season off strong and then fizzled out significantly with more playing time. Not a great sign for his long-term future in the NHL. The same can also be said for O’Connor at this point, but Zohorna’s struggles are really standing out right now. Especially with the number of penalties he has taken over the past handful of games.