If their 11-3-1 December is any indication, the NHL should consider itself put on notice – here come the second-half Pittsburgh Penguins.
The once-flightless birds enter 2019 on a six-game win streak, capping a month that put them back into contention with a 3-2 New Year’s Eve win over the Minnesota Wild.
Over the last six games, the Penguins have scored 21 goals while allowing only seven. That improved their goal differential to +18, fourth-best in the East. They gained 23 points in December to rise to No. 3 in the Metro Division with 48 points, just three behind the division-leading Washington Capitals, and put themselves back in playoff position.
The Penguins are starting to turn around a season that started with an average, 6-2-2 October and slipped into a concerning, 4-7-3 November by flipping their early-season weaknesses into strengths.
Their top line, featuring captain Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel, owner of a shiny new five-year, $30M contract extension, and Bryan Rust, who caught fire with eight goals in nine games before getting injured Saturday in St. Louis, is still making big contributions to Pittsburgh’s offense. But they’ve started getting contributions from the rest of the lineup, too – most promisingly, from a third line that pairs struggling center Derick Brassard with sniper Phil Kessel, along with November acquisition Tanner Pearson. Kessel and Brassard each scored two to lead the Penguins to a 5-2 win over the Detroit Red Wings.
“I thought it was their best game since we’ve put them together, that they could potentially be such a dangerous line,” said head coach Mike Sullivan. “They’re both really good players in their own right, and they help us create a certain amount of balance that I think makes it really difficult for our opponents. You look at a game like tonight when they contribute the way they did; it just makes our team that much harder to play against.”
If that combination clicks, it could help extend Brassard’s time with the Penguins, which hasn’t worked out as hoped since they acquired him at last year’s trade deadline.
“Him and I have had a lot of conversations about [his role]. He’s well aware of the situation here, playing behind two generational talents in Sid and Geno [Malkin], and it’s been an adjustment for him,” Sullivan said. “But we do think he’s very capable. I think he’s a unique player in the sense that, as a third-line center, on most teams he’d be a top-two center. If he can just play his game and bring the same level of urgency and the compete level and just embrace the challenge, we think he can really help this team win. I know he’s had his ups and downs, but I believe in him.”
Then there’s been the goaltending. In his first 11 starts this season, starter Matt Murray went 4-5-1 with a .877 save percentage and 4.08 goals-against average. Not only were those far from the stats you’d expect from a two-time Stanley Cup winner; they were the worst of his minor and pro career by far. Finally, Murray had to admit that a nagging, undisclosed injury he’d been trying to play through was a problem, and went on the sidelines for a month.
Since returning on Dec. 15 against the L.A. Kings, Murray has looked – well, like Murray again. He’s 5-0 in five starts with a .959 save percentage and 1.38 goals-against average.
“I’m just trying to get better as I go. It’s not easy coming off an injury like that, but I just try to dive in headfirst and improve every day,” Murray said. “Myself and as a team, we’re trending in the right direction. We seem to be getting better as we go.”
Murray’s confidence seems to be building by the game, with his trademark calm, cool demeanor on display in the way he’s playing his position.
“Over the years, watching Matt when he’s at his best, he tracks the puck really well; he anticipates,” Sullivan said. “One of his biggest strengths is his ability to read plays, his intellect. He sees the plays extremely well and he tends to square up to the puck and make difficult saves look routine sometimes. He’s just a smart goalie that anticipates and gets to his spots; it’s economy of motion, and I think that’s when Matt is at his best. Since he’s come off his injury, that’s what I’ve witnessed.”
Finally, there’s Sullivan himself. A coach that many fans thought had lost his edge at best, his team at worst in November has made small but important adjustments to their game. For one, there’s changing up the personnel on the penalty kill, which has successfully shut down opponents’ power plays 85.4 percent of the time, sixth-best in the NHL.
“Before, we had set guys that you knew they were going over the boards; now our [PK] is built on different components, like you see Sid and Guentzel,” said defenseman Kris Letang. “Sometimes it kind of scares the other team; they’re not so ready to make a cross-ice pass because they know, if we pick it up, [they] have to defend against Sid.
“We’re changing things but the structure is the same, we’re a team that wants to pressure and make the other team make some mistakes.”
They’ve also become a bigger power-play threat themselves, rising from a 24.6 conversion rate through October and November to 30 percent in December.
“We’ve just executed well and we’ve moved the puck,” Crosby said. “I think we’ve done a good job of not forcing it, too, and I think that’s a confidence thing. When you’re patient and when the play’s coming to you, you’re less inclined to force plays, and the last couple games have been a good indication of that.”
“I know our guys are so capable; they have the ability to be lethal when they’re on the same page and they execute and they do the little things – they hunt loose pucks, they’re willing to shoot the puck,” Sullivan said. “I think [Letang] in particular has been more willing to shoot the puck from up top, and I think it opens up a lot. We can establish plays off of the rebound, but certainly it forces our opponents to have to respect that shot from the top. And those guys are so talented, they see the plays that are there.”
For a team with this much talent and Stanley Cup experience, perhaps it was only a matter of time before things started to click.
“They’re a mature group and they’ve been through a lot, especially this core that’s been together for a long time,” Sullivan said. “It’s never perfect; it’s part of human nature [to] have ups and downs. Your ability to respond the right way to those situations is what’s most important, and I think our guys know how to do that.”