The Pittsburgh Penguins have had an up-and-down first half of this season. They were hardly picking up points in October and November before they went 11-3-1 in December. That run, along with their current eight-game winning streak that they’re on, has them tied with the Washington Capitals for first place in the Metro. It’s usually taken a couple months for the Penguins to find their game in prior seasons and it didn’t change this year either. Here’s a look at how the Penguins goaltending has been superb through the halfway point of the season and other reasons why the team is surging.
Pittsburgh Penguins Goaltending Major Key at Midway Point
The Penguins goaltending started off the season with sub .900 from Matt Murray. He had to be placed on IR for a bit but Casey DeSmith held the fort before he came back. He’s rocking a .926 save percentage and was one of the biggest reasons the Penguins stayed afloat. Murray did eventually come back and he’s been absolutely outstanding. He’s 7-0 with a 1.27 goals-against average and a .962 save percentage in his seven starts since his injury. He’s now up to .912 on the year. His even-strength save percentage is over .920 which shows just how good this comeback has been. Murray’s run is very unsustainable but even if he plays at around a .930 pace, Pittsburgh is going to be very hard to beat.
Let’s not forget about DeSmith. This is DeSmith’s first full season as the backup to Murray. He’s had some rough patches but overall, he’s played very well and has even stolen quite a few starts away from Murray when he was hurt/struggling. In six of the nine starts, he’s been .930 or higher. Also, according to Corsica, his high-danger save percentage is just over 84% this season which is very good. He’s still pushing to get more playing time, even with Murray being fully healthy. This is a great thing for Pittsburgh as both goaltenders are going to push each other while they’re playing exceptionally well. The run won’t last, but it’s catapulted them up to having tied for the third most points in the league.
Excellent Special Teams
The Penguins have had another excellent power play through the first half of the season as they always do. They’re nine for their last 13 on the power play and they have the fifth best power play in the league through 41 games. Only the Lightning, Panthers, Jets, and Bruins have a better power play percentage than the Penguins. Last year, they had the best power play overall converting 26.2% of the time. This year, it’s already up to 27.2%. Phil Kessel leads the team with 20 power play points, followed by Kris Letang with 16 and Sidney Crosby with 15. The Penguin power play has bailed them out time and time again and it’s a big reason why Pittsburgh is surging right now.
There doesn’t seem to be a lot of talk about the Penguins penalty kill though which is a problem. They traded one of their best penalty killers in Carl Hagelin and it hasn’t skipped a beat. It’s actually improved since he was traded for Tanner Pearson. Pittsburgh has the number one penalty kill on the road this season and the number four penalty kill overall. Only Arizona, New Jersey, and Minnesota are ranked higher than the Penguins.
To counter Hagelin leaving, Pittsburgh has trotted out Crosby and Jake Guentzel quite a bit on the PK. It’s not something both players are used to doing, but it’s worked out very well so far. Teams are now more cautious on the power play since both Crosby and Guentzel can be such a threat shorthanded. Pittsburgh was on the PK against the Winnipeg Jets on Friday night and nearly got a shorthanded goal as Crosby passed it to Olli Maatta who just missed the net. Pittsburgh has allowed just one power play goal in their last eight games. A lot of the credit has to go to Jacques Martin who’s coached the penalty kill unit the entire time he’s been in Pittsburgh. It’ll be interesting to see how this unit keeps going in the second half.
At the beginning of the season, almost all of the Penguins scoring was coming from their star players. There was no depth scoring at all, but that changed as the end of November came. One of the players that started scoring was Zach Aston-Reese, who was recalled from Wilkes-Barre. He has six goals and 11 points in 28 games this season. He’s played all over the lineup at times, but he’s mostly been on the fourth line. Bryan Rust also came out of a funk after only having one goal through December 12th. He’s now up to nine goals and 18 points on the season after scoring a hat trick that night against the Chicago Blackhawks.
Dominik Simon is also playing well, especially coming off his injury where he missed a couple of weeks. He has six goals and 16 points this season, including two in his past two games. It seems he’s found a home on Malkin’s left wing as he’s looked very comfortable there. There’s no doubt he can push for 12-13 goals in his first full season in the league in the second half.
Tanner Pearson has five goals since coming over from the LA Kings and even Matt Cullen is starting to contribute. He has four goals and 10 points on the fourth line this season including this awesome pass to Aston-Reese just this past week:
(Skip to about 1:30)
A player that will be interesting to watch in the second half though is Derick Brassard. He only had six goals and 12 points during the first half of the season. If he can start contributing like he was in Ottawa and New York, Pittsburgh’s top three lines will be even harder to stop. Pittsburgh won the cup on rolling four lines and to do it again, they’re going to have to continue getting more depth scoring.
Kris Letang MVP?
Pittsburgh’s best defenseman is playing like it this season after a not-so-good last season. He was coming off a very serious injury and needed a full summer to train and get right. It’s paid off as he has ten goals and 36 points in 39 games. That ranks fourth among all NHL defenseman in the league. He’s also at 54% for CF% this season which is outstanding. He’s driving play in all facets of the game and he’s not missing his assignments like he would at times last year. There’s also this:
insane letang stat: hes played over 180 minutes of hockey during this win streak. Hes been on the ice for 1 even strength goal against….while leading the pens dmen in points plus minus, goals, corsi, and fenwick. Truly elite two way hockey. Most underappreciated player in Pgh
— Dad Chad (@madchad412) January 5, 2019
Being on the ice for only one goal against over eight while averaging over 25 minutes a game is extraordinary. He’s shutting down the teams best players at will nightly. Against Winnipeg on Friday night, for example, none of the Jets stars got many good chances when Letang was on the ice. Whether it was Patrik Laine, Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele, etc, all of their chances were mostly kept to the outside.
Letang’s simply just been the Penguins MVP this season. They wouldn’t be where they are without him. His primary points per 60 of 1.54 illustrate that. It’s already way up from 0.72, which is where it was last season when he was struggling. There’s a very real chance that Letang will be a Norris finalist this season with the way he’s playing. Pittsburgh will certainly need his wonderful play to continue as they chase the top spot in the division.