This is a very weird time for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The fans are angry at management and want the general manager fired, and that was before he set a bunch of future salary cap trade on fire with a questionable trade.
Nobody (fans, media, or outsiders) sees any sort of a long-term (or a short-term) plan in place for what that management wants to do.
They recently had a four-game losing streak that saw them lose a couple of games they absolutely should have won against the New York Islanders, and then get completely dominated on home ice by the New Jersey Devils and Edmonton Oilers.
Because of that the Penguins also find themselves on the playoff bubble in a wild Eastern Conference Wild Card race, though they probably have given themselves a bit more cushion than the raw point totals might suggest.
Even with all of that the Penguins have quietly managed to win four games in a row, including two impressive wins over a Stanley Cup contender in Tampa Bay. Even more than that, the Penguins are actually playing some of their best hockey of the season over the past few weeks. It is sneaking under the radar a little bit.
Even with the four-game losing streak that was mixed in there, the Penguins are 7-5-0 since the All-Star break with wins over Colorado and (two) over Tampa Bay. They have also started to show some signs of life with their underlying numbers.
Since the start of February the Penguins rank 10th in the NHL in expected goal share at both 5-on-5 and in all situations.
Over the past eight games, that 5-on-5 number improves to eighth in the NHL at over 55 percent.
They are still too low when it comes to their expected goals against (among the bottom-10 per sixty minutes) but they are still generating WAY more than their opponents. They have also been over 50 percent in six of the past eight games, with the only two exceptions being those losses to New Jersey and Edmonton.
That 55 percent share over the past eight games is the Penguin’s second best eight-game stretch of the entire season, topped only (by .001 percentage points) by a stretch in early December when the Penguins were on a seven-game winning streak which was part of a 12-1-1 run over a 14-game stretch.
It just seems wild that this is happening at a time when everybody has pretty much given up on this team being able to do anything.
So what the heck is happening here?
Well, on one hand, the story of the Penguins this season has always been that they will go as their top-six goes, and those two lines with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are still cooking.
They have also jettisoned some empty roster spots on the bottom of the lineup with three of their least productive forwards (Kasperi Kapanen, Brock McGinn, and Teddy Blueger) being gradually removed from the roster. A case of simple addition by subtraction?
It also helps that they have their starting goalie, Tristan Jarry, back in the lineup. He really does make a significant difference and the Penguins’ record with him versus without him is as dramatic as you will see in the league between starter and backup.
It is still a very small sample size, and the Penguins roster is still badly flawed with a front office that does not seem to have any sort of a coherent plan. They are also still facing a massive uphill battle in a likely First Round playoff matchup against either Boston or Carolina (though I suppose New Jersey could still be in play if it moves ahead of Carolina). But the Penguins are actually showing some signs of improvement as the season progresses. It just seemed to be easy to overlook given how bad a couple of those losses looked. Overall though the Penguins are playing some of their best hockey of the season right now. That is something.