Panic has set in amongst Pittsburgh Penguins’ fans. Despite having such a strong start of the season, which includes almost 60 games, the Penguins’ final 20 games haven’t gotten off to a great start. Don’t worry, the Pittsburgh Penguins season will be just fine.
Pittsburgh Penguins Season Will Be Fine
Pittsburgh is currently on a six-game losing streak. They got to the pinnacle of the Metropolitan Division for a single day on February 18th. They haven’t won a game since. The Penguins have fallen back into third place, six points behind the Washington Capitals for first. Currently, Pittsburgh is only five points above the playoff cut line.
The Metropolitan Division is the toughest in hockey this season. Despite the six-game skid, the Pittsburgh Penguins season, fortunately, hasn’t been hurt too badly because all of the teams have slowed down a bit. Only the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers have been racking up points at a rapid clip recently.
The Pittsburgh Penguins season has been plagued with injuries. That appears to have caught up to them. However, one thing to consider is that these Penguins are soon going to return two top-four defensemen from injury.
Brian Dumoulin, a staple on the Penguins top defensive pairing next to Kris Letang, has missed the last 37 games after ankle surgery. Dumoulin is the best defensive presence on the Penguins’ blue line. Without him, Letang has been subjected to play extended minutes with Jack Johnson. Neither Letang or Johnson has benefitted from the pairing. Johnson, arguably the worst defenseman on the team, being deployed for nearly 20 minutes a night does no good for him or the team.
John Marino, the stand-out rookie defenseman for Pittsburgh, took a shot in the jaw on February 6. Originally, it seemed he escaped major injury. However, it was confirmed a couple of days later that he had broken his jaw. He has potted five goals and 25 points averaging over 20 minutes a game this season.
Both players have returned to practice with the team. They’re just awaiting clearance to play. That could come as early as Tuesday night. Inserting two top-four defensemen back into the lineup of a team struggling to defend at the moment will be a huge help.
Forward Nick Bjugstad, another injured player, is close to returning. Bjugstad only played in 10 games prior to getting hurt. His offensive output had been lacklustre with one goal as his only point in those ten games.
Bjugstad is 6’6” and isn’t the smoothest skater. The Penguins play a speed game and Bjugstad’s fit isn’t the smoothest. However, playing him in a fourth-line role could benefit the Penguins. Less ice-time could propel his offensive game and also mask his less-than-ideal fit offensively.
Additions Add Depth To Team
Every team in contention looks to make moves to bolster their rosters during the trade deadline period.
The Penguins went out early on and acquired Jason Zucker from the Minnesota Wild on February 10. General Manager Jim Rutherford is adamant about getting ahead of the game and acquiring his targets early. Not only does he want them to have more time to learn the system, but he wants to make sure he acquires them and doesn’t allow for a bidding war.
Zucker has seen success in spurts with Sidney Crosby on the top line. Of course, with the Penguins currently on a skid, the entire team has seemed to hit a wall in their production. But Zucker has 7 points in ten games with Pittsburgh.
On deadline day, Pittsburgh ended up acquiring rentals Patrick Marleau, Conor Sheary, and Evan Rodrigues.
Deadline Day Adds
Marleau figures to be a veteran presence in the room who can still skate. While he hasn’t scored in a Penguins uniform, there’s reason to believe he’s going to succeed because he doesn’t look out of place.
Sheary is in his second go-around with the team. He spent a lot of time on Crosby’s wing in his time with Pittsburgh. Sheary was sent out in a trade prior to last season due to the Penguins’ salary cap crunch. While he also hasn’t scored, his best spot might end up being in a third-line role. Sheary isn’t known for being an electric finisher. Should Crosby get him the puck in a good spot, Sheary is capable of burying it. But expecting him to create enough of his own offence to be a 30-goal scorer is a bit unrealistic.
Rodrigues, a restricted free agent at season’s end, is a nice depth piece for the Penguins. He plays a sound defensive game and skates well, something the Penguins always covet. Assuming the Penguins can fit him in next season, he’s a candidate to stick beyond this upcoming playoff run.
The Penguins Have The Best Coach
Consider this a hot take, but Mike Sullivan is the league’s premier coach. Yes, he’s got Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to plug in every lineup he puts out. However, the way he constructs it around them has been magical.
In the Penguins’ back-to-back Cup runs, Sullivan got the most out of players who had no business being hero’s for the Penguins. Guys like Ron Hainsey, Trevor Daley, Nick Bonino, and Carl Hagelin saw some of their best seasons under Sullivan’s tutelage. They found greener pastures following the Cup runs and it was in large part due to how Sullivan deployed them.
In 2019-20, Sullivan has navigated some of the worst injury luck in the league and given the Penguins a fighting shot at another Cup run.
Only Brandon Tanev, Teddy Blueger, Dominik Simon, and Marcus Pettersson have played the full 64 games for the Penguins. However, Simon is now out week-to-week with an upper-body injury. All of the Penguins’ big names have missed at least a half dozen games.
When injuries occur in a Pittsburgh Penguins season, the Penguins get contributions from AHL guys. In the past, it’s been players like Sheary, Tom Kuhnhackl, Matt Murray, and Bryan Rust. That turned out to be the game-changer for Pittsburgh. The depth was undeniable. While the Penguins’ AHL reinforcements haven’t been as rock-solid as that group was, guys like Sam Lafferty and Chad Ruhwedel have done enough to stay in the lineup.
Sullivan has a mind for how his players need to play. If they’re willing to buy into the system and “play the right way” to borrow a Sullivan mantra, then the head coach is pushing the right buttons.
Goaltending Wins Championships
If there’s been one consistent for the Penguins this season, it’s been their goaltending play.
Tristan Jarry has been a blessing for Pittsburgh. Rutherford expresses interest in trading Jarry during the offseason after re-signing Casey DeSmith to a two-year contract extension. DeSmith was pencilled in as the backup to Matt Murray. However, DeSmith became a cap casualty and was relegated to the AHL. It was presumed he’d come back at the first sign of cap space.
However, Jarry’s play had all but shattered DeSmith’s NHL hopes this season. Jarry made the NHL all-star game with some of the best stats in the league at the break. Even in his “regression period”, Jarry is still in the top five in goals-against average and save percentage amongst goalies with 25 games or more played. Rutherford is wise for keeping his goalie depth intact.
While Murray’s stats don’t reflect that of an all-star season, recently Murray has been much better and has resurrected a season that once looked to relegate him strictly to backup status.
He’s been rock solid over his past 10 appearances for the Penguins. Jarry and Murray have been on a strict timeshare over the last month. Neither goalie has played a consecutive game since early February. They’ve both been fresher and better because of it. Eventually, however, one has to take the reigns into the playoffs. Murray has the playoff experience edge but Jarry has been the overall better goalie.
The organization likely can’t keep both beyond this season so they’ll likely have to trade one. Murray seems the more likely candidate to go as he’ll be more expensive because of his past successes. Jarry is a bit younger and comes at a cheaper price.
For now, the Penguins will continue to rely on having a nice goaltending tandem that could carry them a long way.
Final Outlook For Pittsburgh Penguins Season
March has been a kind month for the Penguins in recent seasons. They usually kick it into high gear to prepare for the games that follow. Only one team can be fortunate enough to lift the Stanley Cup at season’s end. For the Penguins, that path will go through a predominantly tougher Eastern Conference. Every team in the East is worthy of playing for the Stanley Cup.
As far as the Penguins are concerned, they need to handle their business. If they right the ship, they’ll be tough to beat. If they can’t find their footing, they may find themselves outside of the playoffs for the first time in 13 years.
The smart money is on the Penguins to make it to the playoffs. They’re certainly capable of winning a third Cup in five years as well. The Penguins will be just fine.