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Encouraging signs as Penguins inch back toward playoff spot

Things are coming together.

Pittsburgh Penguins v Philadelphia Flyers Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images

There were two very encouraging developments about the Pittsburgh Penguins 4-1 win over the Philadelphia Flyers on Monday night.

The first was simply the fact they got two clean points against a divisional team they are trying to chase down in the standings, while also not letting them get any points of their own. No three-point game, no overtime, no loss, nothing that could further the gap between them. It was just a result where the Penguins gained ground in a classic four-point game,

The second was they pretty much flat out dominated the game and continued their recent stretch of strong play that has seen them inch their way back toward a playoff spot. As of Tuesday they are in a four-way tie with New Jersey, Washington and Detroit for the second Wild Card spot (New Jersey and Washington have one game in hand so they have a slight points percentage edge), while they are just two points back of the Flyers (first Wild Card spot) and New York Islanders (third place in the Metropolitan Division).

It is at this point where you look back at some of the points they have given away this season (season opener against Chicago, the home game against Anaheim, losing two overtime games to Philadelphia) and get frustrated. But there is nothing you can do about that at this point except keep trying to win games and make up the ground.

To the Penguins’ credit, they are doing exactly that.

With Monday’s win they are now

Going back to November 25 they 11-5-4 for a points percentage of .650, the seventh best mark in the league during that stretch.

Going back to December 12 they are 9-3-1 for a points percentage of .731, the fifth best mark in in the league during that stretch.

In terms of results, it is a team trending in the right direction.

It is also a team trending in the right direction in terms of its overall process. There was a stretch throughout the month of November, and even into early December, where the Penguins’ once-strong 5-on-5 play was takin a noticeable dip. After their 7-0 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs on December 16 their 5-on-5 expected goal share dropped down to 51.6 percent. It was one of the low points of the season and continued what had been a steady dip in their overall play and ability to control play.

Ever since that game, however, those numbers have started to reverse course and trend back in a steadily positive manner. After Monday’s win their 5-on-5 expected goal share is back up to 53.1 percent, the seventh-best mark in the NHL.

Along with that their 86-71 goal differential during 5-on-5 play is fifth best in the NHL.

There a few big factors at play here.

The first is that Sidney Crosby is still doing Sidney Crosby things and, on most nights, putting the team on his back and carrying it. He is a machine that simply will not slow down and more often than not is willing the team to victory.

They are also still getting mostly solid goaltending, even if both Tristan Jarry and Alex Nedeljkovic have had some recent slip ups. That has still been one of the biggest positive — and unexpected — developments of the first half of the season.

They have also started to get a little bit more out of their power play. It is still inconsistent. It still has maddening shifts. It still gives up too many shorthanded chances. But it is also starting to chip in the occasional goal to help swing a game. That has been missing for most of the season and has played a big role in costing them some of those early points.

Bryan Rust has also returned, which brings back another bonafide top-six scorer, and they are also getting way more production out of Rickard Rakell.

One of the most underrated developments, however, has been the recent improvement of Drew O’Connor. He is starting to look more and more like an NHL player and is not only giving them production, he is also making a noticeable impact all over the ice. It is imperative that they get production out of players like him and Valterri Puustinen. They need to find depth and depth scoring from players like that, and they are getting it.

Along with his recent goals, the play O’Connor made on Monday night to set up Evgeni Malkin’s third period goal was a big league NHL play.

The Penguins still have a long way to go and still need to address some things with the roster. But they are also now on about a solid month of really strong play that is starting to make them look like a potential Stanley Cup Playoff team again.