Did the Pens get their season on track in the last three weeks?
By Hooks Orpik , Pensburgh.com
December 3rd was just over three weeks ago, but feels like a lifetime away when you’re thinking about the course of the Pittsburgh Penguins 2018-19 season.
The Pens were coming off blowing a lead and dropping a home game to the lowly Flyers, one of just a few teams beneath them in the standings. Pittsburgh’s 10-10-5 record at the time was only 25th in the NHL, 12th in the East and 6th in the division. Things were looking, if not dire, than certainly uncertain and less than promising.
As we’ve mentioned a lot in the game previews, December 4th - 22nd was a crucial and trying stretch of the schedule. The Pens had to play 11 games in the course of those 19 days, including two sets of back-to-back games. They dealt with injuries before and during the portion of the schedule, as most NHL teams do during most mid-season chunks of time.
It was a stretch that really could have sunk the season. And, to be fair, time was already wasting - since Sportsnet figured that in the last five seasons that 77.5% of teams in playoff spots at Thanksgiving end up making the playoffs. Here Pittsburgh was almost two weeks past Turkey day and still well behind the 8-ball and figuring to get lost in the shuffle as a tight clump of teams all struggled to try and climb past one another and into the playoff hunt.
Instead, the December busy stretch might just be looked on next spring as what ended up being - if not the turning point of the season, then certainly a majorly important positive step forward for the team to set them up for the future.
The Pens went 8-2-1 since losing that game to Philly:
Ironically the games they lost fall in the “shoulda woulda” category - in OT to Ottawa, to a Blackhawks team that lost eight-straight coming into that game, and to an Anaheim team they held a 2-0 lead against. All of those games were winnable, and probably should have been won by a good team. Alas, the Pens made up for it with impressive road wins in Washington and Carolina last week, as well as finding a way to bounce back from their Chicago disaster by playing well at home.
And, if you’re still looking at the glass half full of egg nog, it’s definitely encouraging to see 4-0 this month on the back-to-backs, especially after there was so much difficulty in that category last season.
The first line players are showing their stuff, and unsurprisingly Bryan Rust has been on an unreal hot streak. Since 12/4 only Steven Stamkos (11), Alex Ovechkin (10) and Jack Eichel (9) have more goals in the entire league than Rust. Spoiler alert - Rust isn’t going to shoot 27.6% indefinitely so his production will fall back to earth here soon, but it was great while it lasted for him to get some positive regression after such a tough start.
Sidney Crosby has had his passing gloves on with the 10 assists in this stretch. His vision and ability to make plays is obviously the gift that just keeps on giving.
Phil Kessel and Evgeni Malkin feel a bit out of sorts but their boxcars aren’t terrible. The key for them in a big way is shots on goal. Last year Malkin scored 42 goals, taking 239 shots on goal. That’s north of three per game. In this stretch 27 SOG in 11 games is 2.45 shots per game. That’s actually an improvement too since Malkin is at just 85 SOG in 36 games, or 2.3 shots per game.
Coaches always harp on simplifying one’s game and shooting the puck to get out of slumps and that definitely should be a focus here. It’s obvious, easy and really intuitive - the Pens want and need Malkin to score more than the two goals he has in the last 11 games, and he just needs to make concerted efforts to get more rubber flying at the goalie in order to get back on track. Obviously his resume speaks for itself and he’s going to get going sooner or later with that.
A stretch like this and you can see why the Pens are growing impatient with Derick Brassard. At just 14:38 played in this stretch though, the answer could be showing a bit more faith and giving the player more shifts to try and accomplish more. It’s always a difficult proposition for a coach to play a quiet player out of a slump, but it’s tough to imagine Brassard (or anyone) doing much more with less time to do so.
Casey DeSmith having to start eight of the 11 most critical games of the season probably wasn’t something anticipated by the organization in the pre-season. But DeSmith passed the test by far, proving .932 save% overall and an impressive 5-2-1 record that you’ll take any day of the week.
The potential difference maker though is Matt Murray. 3-0, a shutout, a .964% save percentage (including an even strength save % of an absolute monstrous .969%) this is the 2016 and 2017 playoff version of Matt Murray. This is what Pittsburgh is looking for.
Of course, the usual caveats apply - small sample, Murray was injured for most of this stretch, the best ability is availability, yadda yadda. And, naturally, Murray isn’t going to cary a .950%+ and win every game, there’s going to be more bumps in the road ahead for him, just like any goalie.
Other than the 8-2-1 record though, getting Murray back on track and healthy and playing well looms very large for the Pens as we move into 2019. I shudder to say they’ve “turned a corner” or any other buzzwords to indicate that it’s only onwards and upwards from here, but all we can say for sure is what has happened. And that was the Pens clearing an important and tough challenge after a sluggish 2018-19 season start and getting right back into a solid position for the second half of the regular season.
To read the entire article, visit https://www.pensburgh.com/2018/12/26/18156166/did-the-pens-get-their-season-on-track-in-the-last-three-weeks
Penguins 2018-19 primer: The 10 most important questions as camp looms Darrell Sapp/Post-Gazette
By Jason Mackey, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Friday morning inside the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex, the 2018-19 Penguins will take the ice for the first time as a team. When that happens, they’ll officially turn the page on last season.
Pretty much everyone associated with the organization can’t wait. It’s been way too long, they’ll tell you, the result of an uncustomary, early exit from the Stanley Cup playoffs.
That loss, though, and the regular season that preceded it created plenty of questions.
Nothing catastrophic, mind you. Much of this stuff is the result of winning and the fact that, when you’re good, people are going to pick and parse everything about you.
But they’re questions nonetheless. Here, then, are 10 key issues that the Penguins face:
1. Ever since general manager Jim Rutherford signed defenseman Jack Johnson on July 1, people wanted to know who Johnson’s defense partner will be.
2.Another key move this offseason was the proclamation that Daniel Sprong is ready for, and will see, regular NHL minutes.
3. Speaking of Brassard, there’s a huge question here concerning him specifically: Is he the right third-line center for this team?
4. We’re talking about the Penguins here, so there’s also going to be injury questions.
5. Looking at individual players, the injury question is going to keep coming up with Matt Murray, until he proves he can stay healthy for an extended period of time.
6. Can Phil Kessel replicate his success from a season ago? When the Penguins struggled early, Kessel was unquestionably their best player, their only consistent source of offense.
7. The Penguins’ bottom-six features a multitude of questions.
8. The Penguins aren’t going to configure their bottom-six based on their penalty kill, but they do need to be cognizant of who exactly will kill penalties.
9. A year ago, the Penguins set a franchise record for power-play success, converting at a 26.2-percent clip.
10. Nobody should doubt what Jake Guentzel can do in the playoffs. It’s only two years, but he’s been one of the best playoff producers in NHL history.
To read Mackey's entire column go to:
2018-19 Metropolitan Division preview: Pittsburgh Penguins
By J.J. Regan, NBCSports.com
Today's team: Pittsburgh Penguins
Notable acquisitions: F Matt Cullen, F Derek Grant, D Jack Johnson
Notable departures: F Tom Kuhnhackl, F Carter Rowney, F Conor Sheary, D Matt Hunwick
When they will play the Caps: Oct. 4 in Pittsburgh, Nov. 7 in Washington, Dec. 19 in Washington, March 12 in Pittsburgh.
Offseason recap: The NHL is becoming more and more of a young man's game. While most teams have focused on getting younger, the Penguins seem to be taking a different approach with the signings of the 41-year-old Cullen and the 31-year-old Johnson. Cullen was a key piece for Pittsburgh in both of their 2016 and 2017 Cup runs, but as someone who is set to turn 42 in November, you have to wonder how much he's got left in the tank.
Johnson comes to the Penguins in need of a fresh start after becoming a healthy scratch for the Columbus Blue Jackets late last season. He could prove to be a strong depth add to Pittsburgh's blue line, but his five-year contract is a bit of a head scratcher (who else was offering him five years? Was anyone even offering him four?) To afford Johnson's new contract, the Penguins traded Sheary and Hunwick to the Buffalo Sabres for a conditional fourth-round pick in what can only be described as a salary dump.
Biggest strength: Star power
Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin may be the best one, two punch at center in the entire NHL. With those two, plus other star players like Phil Kessel and Kris Letang, Pittsburgh always has a shot to make noise in the postseason.
Biggest weakness: Depth
There's no denying Pittsburgh's star talent, but behind those stars, this team looks very thin. In the series against the Caps, Crosby, Jake Guentzel and Patric Hornqvist combined for 21 points. The rest of the Penguins roster combined for 20 points. Cullen is not going to be enough to turn that around. The depth problem is not limited to offense either as the Penguins look pretty thin on the blue line as well behind Letang.
And let's also not forget there's no Marc-Andre Fleury behind Matt Murray anymore. Murray's save percentage in the playoffs was a pedestrian .908 and there were times when it looked like the Caps had figured him out. Having that goalie tandem was an ace in the hole for the Penguins on their Cup runs that they don't have anymore.
2018-19 season outlook: As noted above, when you have Crosby and Malkin on your team, you still have to be in the conversation as a contender. To make drastic changes to a team that fell short of winning a third straight Stanley Cup would be an overreaction, but their depth was exposed in the playoffs and they fell short of fixing it. In fact, the offense may have taken a step back with the trading away of Sheary. Sheary's production has been inconsistent, sure, but I'm not sure this offense is better with Sheary out and Cullen in.
Pittsburgh needs more from Phil Kessel and Derick Brassard or the offense is going to be too top heavy again. They also need Johnson to prove to be as much of a steal as they hope and Murray to stay healthy and consistent in net.
2018-19 season prediction: The Penguins will finish in the top three of the division and their stars could carry them as far as the conference final. More likely, however, will be a first or second-round exit.