If the Pittsburgh Penguins end up making the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs (and I still think they ultimately will) you might be able to circle Wednesday’s 5-2 win against the Colorado Avalanche as a big reason why.
Sidney Crosby coming through with a vintage Sidney Crosby performance helped drive the bus in that win, putting the team on his back and carrying it to what was almost certainly its best and biggest win of the season.
But for as dominant as he was, and for as dominant as he still is, he can not do it alone. On Wednesday night he did not have to.
They were due for a game like that. They probably deserved a game like that. Because if they end up missing the playoffs there are going to be about seven games you can circle as to why.
They needed something to flip things back in their favor. That might have been the game.
If there was ever a game they were going to lose, and lose handily, that looked to be the game. Going on the road, against the defending Stanley Cup champions, and a team that has been starting to get on a roll over the past few weeks, while playing without four of their top-seven defensemen and still having a roster that has a handful of weak links that are holding everything back.
All while being on a four-game losing streak. It looked like it was going to be a mess.
The Penguins have been on the opposite side of too many of those games this season, losing the matchup that should have been a win. They finally got one that looked like a loss. There were a lot of reasons why they won.
For starters, the trio of Tristan Jarry, Jeff Carter, and Brian Dumoulin, all of whom have been under fire for weeks now for their play, all made significant contributions. Jarry played his best game since returning from injury. Carter scored not one, but TWO goals, while Dumoulin set up the second on a play that seemingly made time stand still throughout the Pittsburgh hockey universe.
There was also nothing flukey or lucky about that win. They earned it by being the better team all night, once again owning a significant share of the expected goals and carrying the play at 5-on-5 as they have done consistently since the All-Star break. They finally got the goaltending and special teams play (at least as far as the power play is concerned) to turn it into a result.
Then there was Crosby.
If there is anything that gives this Penguins team a chance to do something this season it remains the core of Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang. They are all still outstanding, and Crosby especially is playing at an insane level this season. He set the tone on Wednesday night with a vintage Crosby goal, turning Avalanche defenseman Sam Girard inside out and then unleashing an absurd backhand shot that went bardown over Alexandar Georgiev’s shoulder.
You are not supposed to be able to score on a backhand shot from that far out, but you are not supposed to be able to do a lot of things that Crosby does.
Crosby did not finish with the best statline on the team in the win, but along with that goal he also spent the majority of his night going up against Colorado’s best players and helped keep them in check. It was a complete game from the game’s most complete player at the exact moment his team needed it.
Now they all have to do it again on Thursday night in another brutally tough matchup against the Dallas Stars. That was always going to be a tough matchup. Now you have to do it on the road on the second half of a back-to-back. Nobody expected them to win on Wednesday. Maybe they can do it again.
Wednesday’s win coming on the heels of that four-game losing streak just perfectly illustrates the frustrating nature of this team in the second half because it is another reminder of what they can be capable of and how they SHOULD be better than this. Not only from a management and roster construction standpoint, but even with this roster.
Since the All-Star break the Penguins expected goals share during 5-on-5 play is the fifth best in the entire NHL at 56.3 percent.
They are one of only seven teams in the league with an expected goal share of greater than 54 percent during that time.
Of those six teams they are the only one with a negative 5-on-5 goal differential, while they also have the second-worst record during that stretch at only 11-10-1.
A quick comparison of those seven teams during that time.
They have the worst power play of those teams, the worst penalty kill, the second-worst 5-on-5 save percentage (only Calgary is worse, also the only team in that group with a slightly worse record), and one of the worst all-situations save percentages.
In other words: Mostly special teams and goaltending holding them back.
At this point I feel the special teams units are what they are. The power play will run hot and cold and go through stretches where it clicks and stretches where it looks awful. That tiger is not changing its stripes at this point.
The biggest hope is that Jarry gets himself right and starts to play like he did in the first half before the injuries returned and his play fell off. That should not only improve the team’s 5-on-5 goal differential, but would also (in theory) improve a penalty kill unit that has struggled. You can hide Jeff Carter and Brian Dumoulin to the best of your abilities and limit their impacts. Their 5-on-5 play in terms of out-chancing and outplaying their opponents has been fine for most of the season, and downright dominant in the second half thanks to the play of their top-six. But if somebody does not emerge in goal to give them some consistency nothing else is going to matter.
Not even Sidney Crosby playing like Sidney Crosby.