Over the offseason, Penguins management made the decision to bring back their roster largely intact, with the intent of making another run at the Stanley Cup. Through the first five games, their faith is looking well-founded, because Pittsburgh has the look of a contender.
The Penguins are 4-0-1, good for nine points and the second-best record in the NHL. They’ve scored 26 goals, second most in the league, while allowing the third least with 11. That +15 goal differential tops the NHL.
The stars have gotten off to big starts – particularly captain Sidney Crosby, with 10 points (3G, 7A) in five games, including three three-point nights. Evgeni Malkin (3G, 2A) is skating with authority and looks like the dominant player he was before knee surgery, and has stepped up his faceoff game, winning 63.4% of the 71 draws he’s taken. Jake Guentzel (3G, 2A) and Bryan Rust (2G, 3A) have produced as expected.
But the contributions have come from throughout the lineup, with 14 different skaters finding the net and others being ready to step up however they’re needed.
Danton Heinen, who returned to the Penguins on a bargain, $1 million contract, is behind only Crosby on the stat sheet (3G, 3A), and showed his versatility Saturday in Columbus by moving up from the third to the top line to fill in for the injured Guentzel. Going to the net to put home a Crosby rebound, he looked perfectly at home.
“He’s a guy who knows how to find the back of the net,” Crosby said. “He’s got a great shot, but he goes to the tough areas, too, and tonight he was rewarded a couple times for doing that. He found a way to get those loose pucks and jump on them.”
Ryan Poehling, getting an opportunity with center Teddy Blueger injured to start the season, has brought energy, a fast, direct style of play, and makes life a little tougher for the opposition. New blueliners Jeff Petry (1G, 3A) and Jan Rutta (2G, 1A) have brought the edge and physicality the Penguins acquired them for, and contributed on both sides of the puck.
Perhaps most important to the Penguins’ early success, though, has been goaltender Tristan Jarry. With Pittsburgh turning in a few unimpressive first periods to start the season, Jarry has often been besieged.
“It might just be a mindset thing,” Heinen said of the slow starts. “Once we get pushed a bit we kind of switch the switch. We’ll take care of it.”
The Penguins have found ways to bounce back from those lackluster starts, but Jarry has played the key role of keeping them in games early on to give them the opportunity. He’s faced 136 shots in four starts but allowed just eight goals, good for a .941 save percentage and 2.01 goals-against average. Those stats put him top five and top 10 in the league, respectively.
“We made it pretty tough on him; some really good looks that they had,” Crosby said of a first period where the Penguins were outshot (17-7) and outscored (2-0) in Columbus, but came back to win, 6-3. “He stood on his head and gave us a chance to climb back into it.”
“I think he’s just picked up where he’s left off – real consistent play, he’s got a calm demeanor back there,” head coach Mike Sullivan said. “He plays the puck really well; he helps us on our breakouts when he gets to pucks like he does, and he’s making good decisions there also. His compete level has been really high; he’s seeing the puck well and making timely saves for us that give us an opportunity to win hockey games.”
The Penguins have scored six goals in each of their four wins so far. They’re not likely to maintain that pace but, as they head on a four-game Western Canada/Seattle road swing, they’re looking to find a balance that gives them the identity of a Mike Sullivan team – hard to play against.
“We have a lot of capable guys; I know we’re going to score goals,” the head coach said. “We’ve got a lot of guys who have offensive instincts and are talented in that area of the game. We just have to make sure we play the game the right way; we don’t want to get into track meets every night. I think when we play a calculated game, when we play smart hockey, we can be hard to play against also.
“Competing hard on pucks. Winning wall battles. Taking care of the net-front. Tracking back. Our transition defense when the puck turns over; those first five strides. Your defensive posture. Those are the things that add up to consistent winning.”