A little over a week ago, when the Penguins stormed out to a 3-0 lead in four minutes against the Philadelphia Flyers but ended up losing a 4-3 game, head coach Mike Sullivan was asked about his team’s inability to be more consistent – from game to game and inside of a 60-minute contest.
“If I had an answer for you, I could probably fix it,” Sullivan said. “It’s frustrating from the coach’s standpoint because I know we’re capable of more consistent play, but we haven’t found it yet. Some nights when we play the game hard, we play committed, we play the right way and we work together, we’re a competitive hockey team. And some nights, for whatever reason, we get away from it.”
For the past five games, at least, the Penguins have found it.
Two nights after that disheartening loss, Pittsburgh twice rallied from being down a goal to beat the Flyers, 4-3, and win their three-game miniseries at PPG Paints Arena, two games to one. Evgeni Malkin had a goal and an assist in a performance Sullivan said “had an impact on both sides of the puck,” while a resurgent Jared McCann scored the go-ahead goal.
Over the next week, the Penguins simply did what they needed to do in sets against the rebuilding New York Rangers (5-1, 4-2) and struggling Buffalo Sabres (5-2, 3-0). And, just like that, they’ve gone from a 12-9-1 team on the outside of the playoff picture to a 17-9-1 one, good for third place in the East Division and six points ahead of the Flyers, who are now on the outside looking in.
A lot of things are going right for the Penguins so far this month. They’ve been healthier, leading to some healthy competition for defense and depth forward spots. Goalie Tristan Jarry has rounded back into the form that convinced the team to make him their No. 1 over the offseason. The power play is clicking at 31.3% – tied for fifth in the league this month – after going an abysmal 15% (26th overall) prior to that. The penalty kill, too, has improved from 72.1% (29th overall) through the end of February to 84.2% in March.
But what stands out most is their second line, where Malkin is looking like Malkin again.
For the first couple of months of the season, the superstar center looked at worst like he could be headed into a steep decline, at best like a player who couldn’t train the way he wanted over the offseason and had yet to get his skating legs going. Over the past couple of weeks, he’s found them – and has returned to dominating contests in a way few others players can.
In the first 20 games, Malkin had 12 points (4G, 8A) and was a minus-8. In just seven games in March, he’s close to matching that total with 10 (3G, 7A) and is a plus-five.
“I think more confidence right now,” Malkin said about himself and his team. “When you win a couple straight games, you have more confidence. We’re feeling more like we work together, our goalie [Tristan Jarry] plays unbelievable, and the power play’s working right now, too. It’s everything that’s come back.”
Malkin is also finding chemistry with new linemate Kasperi Kapanen. After being benched late in a Feb. 20 contest against the New York Islanders, Kapanen and Sullivan talked about what the team needed to see from the 24-year-old offseason acquisition. He’s responded by being the team’s second highest-scoring player since then, just behind Malkin, with 11 points (5G, 6A) in 11 games.
“I think a lot of the credit goes to the guys that I’m out there with,” Kapanen said. “They’re giving me a chance to make plays and score goals. But it was a nice little sit-down with Mike to talk about certain areas I need to be better in and help the team. It’s not always about offense but it’s taking care of business down low and in our own zone, and that translates to the rest of my game.
“So I think our line’s been doing a good job of that lately, and everybody’s confident. I feel confident; Geno looks great out there. He’s making a lot of plays and he looks like the Geno that’s dangerous every night.”
They’ve looked dangerous together, too, with Malkin’s presence commanding opponents’ attention and Kapanen’s speed opening up the ice for them both. But the line’s success – and Kapanen’s improvement in particular – has started with a commitment on both sides of the puck.
“It’s about details and the process,” Sullivan said. “That’s what we’ve really liked about Kappy’s game over the last stretch. He’s a real good kid; he’s a terrific player. We’re really excited about what he can bring to our team, and that’s what I told him when we had a discussion a few weeks ago.
“I give Kappy a lot of credit, because I think he’s responded the right way. He’s really making a concerted effort to play the game a certain way, and when he does, in our estimation, he can be an impact player for us. He’s established some chemistry with Geno which I think is both good for him and good for Geno, but most importantly, we’re really encouraged by the response. It’s not an easy game and every player goes through ups and downs. We’re really excited about the progress he’s made.”
The chemistry is all on-ice for now; the new teammates haven’t had much of a chance to get to know one another in this COVID-impacted season. “We all stay in hotel but we’re not going out; we’re not going to dinner together,” Malkin said. “I don’t know, maybe I’m too old to him, but I try to be able to see him and play cards and video games. He’s a good guy; he’s really funny.”
Next up for the Penguins is an opponent that’s been no laughing matter over the years, with a two-game set against the Boston Bruins that will provide a solid test. Then it’s back to some competition that’s lower in the standings with the New Jersey Devils and Sabres, and not taking those games lightly has been a talking point for the coaching staff.
“These are all competitive games,” Sullivan said. “Regardless of where teams sit in the standings, they’re all good teams and, on any given night, anybody can beat anybody. There’s a lot of parity in this league.
“We’ve put some wins together here which is great for the players; it’s great for us. I’m thrilled for the players. I think it starts with their consistent compete, their consistent intensity, and we’re getting contributions throughout our lineup from our goaltender on out. I think that’s what it takes to win in this league.”