The Pittsburgh Penguins season has been plagued by plenty of issues. This includes a never-ending injury-bug, an almost entirely absent Sidney Crosby, and issues with starting goalie Matt Murray. Despite all of this, and more, the Penguins have managed to sustain a tremendous year, ranking fourth in the entire league. After a plague of poor play at the end of last year, general manager Jim Rutherford put his nose to the grindstone and managed a team that’s dominated this year.
The Pittsburgh Penguins Season Has Been Brilliant
The Way They Play
The Penguins year has looked tremendously similar to their Stanley Cup-winning 2016 and 2017 forms, and far from their 2018 and 2019 selves. They control the possession at an impressive 52 percent this season, and their xGF percent comes in at 54.38 percent, which is the third-best mark in the league. They absolutely smother teams on a nightly basis with how fast and tenacious they are to the puck. It wears down each team they play and it leads to more scoring chances for Pittsburgh, and less scoring chances allowed.
Perhaps the most interesting development this season for Pittsburgh is that they’ve become one of the best defensive teams in the league. This comes after a season where the Penguins were atrocious in their own end. They now limit teams to the outside, they make good decisions when pinching, and it all leads to them having the second-best SCA/60 (scoring-chances-against per 60 minutes) at 22.79. They also have the fourth-best shots-against per-60, only allowing 28.5. Even better, their xGA/60 (rate of goals-against per 60) is second-best in the league at 1.97. It has been totally unexpected with all the injuries and a lot of this credit goes to Mike Sullivan, who has every Penguin buying into this system.
What a player Brandon Tanev has turned out to be for the Penguins this season. Many people, laughed at his signing this summer. Pessimists noted that Tanev didn’t fit in the Penguins system. His deal also had a six-year term that drove away many. Yet, he has been everything the Penguins have needed and more.
Tanev has become a sort-of Carl Hagelin, a role Pittsburgh has sought since Hagelin’s departure last year. Tanev draws penalties, kills penalties, is insanely fast, and he can surely score. He has three goals in his last five games and all three have either been a game-winner or have tied the game. On the season, he has 10 goals and 21 points in 45 games.
Tanev has played on a line with Teddy Blueger and Zach Aston-Reese: a line that has become one of the best fourth-lines in hockey. With all the offence that Tanev has brought, he has also been great defensively. He helped the fourth-line this past week as they only allowed 1.04 expected-goals per 60 minutes.
More Unexpected Contributions
The emergence of defenceman John Marino and the rejuvenation of Patric Hornqvist has also provided outstanding storylines to the Pittsburgh Penguins season.
Marino has established himself as a potential Calder Trophy finalist with his performance this year. He is not as good as Cale Makar or Quinn Hughes, but has been an unexpected surprise to not just the Penguins, but around the league. His stats (four goals and 22 points) don’t jump out at fans, but he always seems to be in the right place at the right time. He’s almost a Brian Dumoulin clone in the defensive zone where he clogs everything up and has his stick, shutting down opponents. It’s becoming a borderline crime that the Penguins were able to get Marino from the Edmonton Oilers for just a sixth-round pick. He never seems to have an off-game as everything seems so effortlessly for him. Just look at his first NHL goal from earlier in the season:
He gets better and better in each game that he plays in. There is absolutely no doubt he is going to be in Pittsburgh for a long time.
There’s also Patric Hornqvist who is turning in quite a season since coming back from injury. In just 27 games this season, he has 11 goals and 17 points. Four of those goals have come in the last six games. He is back to being one of the best net-front presences in the league and getting most of his goals there. Hornqvist may not be the top-six winger that he once was but he is a perfectly capable third-line forward. He also got a good chunk of time on the power play with Jake Guentzel out for a while as well. Having him produce at this level is such a massive luxury to the Penguins as not many people expected this out of Hornqvist again.
There’s still reinforcements yet to come for the Penguins. That starts with Sidney Crosby potentially returning to the lineup this week. Nick Bjugstad, Justin Schultz, and Brian Dumoulin may not be far behind. A trade for a top-six winger to replace Guentzel may also have to be factored in. Add all that up and Pittsburgh may be onto something truly special.
All stats were taken from the great work at Natural Stat Trick.