Jacob Hebda | Staff Writer
Feb. 25, 2021
The opening stage of the Penguins’ 2021 season could best be categorized as concerning.
Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin got off to slow starts. For his first nine games, Tristan Jarry was a 6-foot-2 sieve in goalie pads. Former General Manager Jim Rutherford abruptly resigned in late January, raising questions about the state of the organization.
Fortunately for Pittsburgh, better days are afoot in PPG Paints Arena.
The Penguins have won three games in a row. Crosby reached a tremendous milestone Feb. 20 — 1,000 NHL games. And while Head Coach Mike Sullivan’s team would never admit to scoreboard watching, fans will appreciate that the intrastate rival Flyers dropped four of five games prior to their triumph over the New York Rangers on Wednesday evening.
Most importantly, after a rocky start to the season, the Penguins are 10-6-1. In a difficult East Division, they now sit in third place.
An overtime victory in Washington Feb. 23 gave Pittsburgh its third consecutive win. Kasperi Kapanen’s game-winning goal ultimately decided what was yet another tight affair between the two rivals.
The victory featured legitimate reasons for optimism, specifically regarding Jarry and Malkin. Both players are critical to any hopes of a Pittsburgh Stanley Cup run, but neither has performed up to expectations thus far.
Tuesday night, however, was Jarry’s third-straight game allowing two goals or less. Malkin netted a power-play goal, and now has four points in his last three contests.
As each player continues to work out of his respective slump, the remaining roster is also showing signs of promise.
Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust are providing vital offensive support. Teddy Blueger, Zach Aston-Reese and Brandon Tanev offer a much-needed spark from the bottom six forward group.
The defense suffered an early spate of injuries, but the unit is steadily regaining health.
Also significant is Pittsburgh’s initial success against the Capitals and New York Islanders.
Pittsburgh currently holds a 7-2 record against the pair of likely postseason contenders. If that trend continues, it could have major implications for the playoff race.
There are four spots available for the division. At the moment, Boston is the clear leader. After the Bruins, there is a four-team pile-up between the Capitals, Flyers, Islanders and Penguins. A winning record against these opponents could loom large.
Of course, there is still cause for apprehension in Pittsburgh.
Winger Jason Zucker left in the third period against Washington on Tuesday night after a collision near the boards. While his status remains uncertain, it appeared to be a painful lower-body injury.
The Penguins’ forward depth is already questionable, so an extended absence from Zucker could spell trouble.
Malkin’s goal was a refreshing sight, but it will not quell the ongoing worries surrounding him. There is growing concern that the 34-year-old’s days as an elite player are behind him. He has struggled to fill the scoresheet and his occasional defensive lapses have proven costly at times.
Now, it is imperative to remember that a mere third of the season has been completed. Thirty-nine games remain.
Recent history contains examples of how much can change before the playoffs.
At this approximate point in the 2019-20 season, Pittsburgh was firmly in playoff position, only to stumble down the stretch. The team lost eight of 11 before the pandemic-induced pause. It eventually fell to underdog Montreal in the Qualifying Round.
On the other hand, around this time during the 2015-16 season, coach Mike Johnston was fired. Despite a lackluster start, that campaign concluded with a Stanley Cup.
One-third of a season can be equal parts insightful and misleading.
So, how this year unfolds remains to be seen, but this much is true: The Penguins appear to be on the upswing. That could change, but it is undeniably an improvement from how the season began.