by Benjamin Gottschalk | staff writer
Feb. 10, 2022
After a mediocre start to the season, the Pittsburgh Penguins used December and January to find their footing, jumping from middle of the pack to playoff hopeful.
This was on full display during a 19-game stretch from Dec. 4 to Jan. 25 in which the Penguins won 17 of those 19 games. Contained within this stretch was a 10-game winning streak from Dec. 4 to Jan. 6, which is tied for the fifth-longest streak in franchise history.
A stretch of four games prior to the National Hockey League’s All-Star Weekend saw the Penguins start to slip, dropping all four games (with three of the losses coming during overtime). In the final game before the break, Pittsburgh held a 3-2 lead late into the second period, but allowed the Washington Capitals to tie the game and eventually win it in overtime.
But the same Penguins that couldn’t hold a lead against Washington bounced back on Tuesday in Boston, erasing a 2-0 deficit with four unanswered goals to snap their losing streak and best the Boston Bruins.
Despite a number of injuries and Covid-19 cases at this point in the season, the Penguins have a 28-11-8 record (64 points) and currently sit in third place in the Metropolitan Division, tied with the New York Rangers and just a point back of the Carolina Hurricanes.
The Penguins have not yet played either of these two teams, but will get three cracks at the Hurricanes and four games against the Rangers in the back half of the season. These are destined to be games with massive playoff implications in the Eastern Conference.
Left-winger Jake Guentzel has taken the NHL by storm this season, becoming one of the league’s top goal producers. He currently leads the Penguins in both goals (23) and points (48). Guentzel was selected as an NHL All-Star, where he represented both the Penguins and the Metropolitan Division in Las Vegas.
Arguably playing some of the best hockey of his career this season, defenseman Kris Letang has played an enormous role in the Penguins’ success this year. Lately, he has reduced the mistakes made on the ice (such as pinches leading to odd-man breaks), and the few he made did not have drastic consequences.
From a statistical standpoint, Letang leads the team with 36 assists and a plus-minus rating of 16. At the defensive end, Letang has racked up 79 blocked shots and 94 hits.
Sidney Crosby seems to be back near 100% after his wrist surgery in late August. The three-time Stanley Cup champion appears to be turning on the jets as the Stanley Cup Playoffs draw closer and closer.
Despite questions of his health upon his delayed return at the start of the season, Crosby still ranks second on the team in assists (28) and tied for second in points (41). Pittsburgh’s captain also recorded his 499th-career goal in Tuesday’s win and is bound to reach the 500-goal milestone in a matter of games.
This success was mostly achieved in the absence of Evgeni Malkin, who was out of the lineup until Jan. 11 following offseason knee surgery. Malkin recorded 13 points in 12 games following his return, but was placed in the NHL’s Covid protocol on Monday.
In order to fill the gap left by Malkin (both then and now), the Penguins have and will lean on dependable forwards such as Bryan Rust (34 points in 25 games), Evan Rodrigues (33 points in 47 games) and Jeff Carter (26 points in 41 games).
Pittsburgh has also looked to offseason acquisitions like forwards Danton Heinen (20 points in 41 games) and Brock McGinn (16 points in 44 games) to help add scoring skill to the group of bottom-six forwards.
That depth will be challenged by the loss of Teddy Blueger. Blueger, a regular in the bottom six who registered 17 points in 40 games, broke his jaw on Jan. 23 against the Winnipeg Jets and was ruled out for six to eight weeks.
Typically, he’s made his presence known as a two-way player, acting as a pest against opposing players while also winning 54.8% of his faceoffs, good for fourth-best on the team.
None of this success means anything, however, if the Penguins can’t rely on goaltender Tristan Jarry come postseason time. After a less-than-stellar performance last postseason against the New York Islanders, Jarry seems to have become a much more confident and reliable goalie. Jarry has won 24 games this season (with three shutouts). He also represented the Penguins during the NHL All-Star Game.
The back half of the schedule won’t be easy for Pittsburgh. According to Power Rankings Guru, the team has the league’s fifth-hardest remaining schedule. With 35 games left (17 against divisional opponents), the Penguins are currently in prime position to make it back to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Penguins have made the postseason in 15 consecutive seasons, having not missed since the 2005-2006 campaign.
With a plethora of great matchups for Pittsburgh in the second half, the rest of the season should be even more exhilarating, electrifying and explosive than it’s been to this point.