The Penguins are almost starting to look like the Penguins again.
Pittsburgh has gotten off to a 6-3 start on the new year. And, as you might expect with their high-powered lineup, they’re filling the net while doing it.
Their 31 goals are tied for second since Jan. 1, with 27 of those coming in the six wins. Captain Sidney Crosby is leading the offensive charge with 16 points (3G, 13A), followed by Evgeni Malkin with 13 (7G, 6A) and Phil Kessel with 12 (5G, 7A). Both Malkin and Kessel have two game-winners in that span.
Also coming on? Carl Hagelin, whose six points in January (1G, 5A) equal his offensive output for the entire first half of the season, and Patric Hornqvist, who has five (3G, 2A). The Penguins also look to have made an accurate assessment on the offensive upside of big defenseman Jamie Oleksiak, who has four points this month (2G, 2A), while Dominik Simon (1G, 3A) has played well on Crosby’s wing.
Compare the team’s goals-for pace with the first half, when they were 19th in the league with 108, and the defending champions might be finding their stride at just the right time.
“I think everyone’s just playing better hockey; it’s that simple,” Hagelin said. “Why that is, I’m not sure. Guys seems to feel better about the game and have more swagger on the ice.”
It’s not that surprising that Hagelin is finding his swagger, as he traditionally elevates his game down the stretch and during the postseason. But he’s also found a fit on a line with Malkin and Hornqvist that takes advantage of each player’s best attributes.
“I think we have all the components you need to be a good line,” Hagelin said. “You get the net-front presence from [Hornqvist]. I try to get on pucks on the forecheck and use my speed, and then Geno’s really good with the puck and reads the game so well.”
“They’re a real good, two-way line,” Sullivan said. “Haggy and Horny are very conscientious two-way players. Haggy brings a lot of speed; if they get caught in the offensive zone he tends to catch the rush, so he does a lot for that line just by chasing pucks down.
“And Geno’s just a dangerous threat every time he’s on the ice. He’s such a prolific goal scorer. I think it encourages him to shoot the puck more; when he’s not playing with a guy like Phil [Kessel], Geno becomes the scoring threat. Then it allows us to spread our star power a bit with Phil on another line. That just adds one more threat to our balanced attack.”
Regarding that balanced attack, however, the Penguins’ third-line center problem is not going away.
Since Nick Bonino departed via free agency last summer, Pittsburgh has struggled to fill his role. Riley Sheahan, acquired a few weeks into the season, has been solid at both ends of the ice, but his offensive contributions (4G, 10A in 40 games) are more what the Penguins would like to see from a fourth-line center. And some of Sheahan’s best work has come in that role, alongside Tom Kuhnhackl and Ryan Reaves.
The Penguins tried second-year forward Jake Guentzel at the 3C position alongside Phil Kessel and Conor Sheary, but prefer him at wing. When they moved Guentzel back to that role in Los Angeles Thursday, top prospect Daniel Sprong saw himself fall all the way from the top line with Crosby to a healthy scratch.
After Sprong’s big Jan. 5 game against the New York Islanders, where he notched two goals and an assist, the 20-year-old winger didn’t score a point in his next four games. Sprong didn’t play a shift in the third period of a 5-3 loss at Anaheim on Wednesday, then was scratched in favor of natural center Jean-Sebastien Dea for the next two contests.
“The main reason for it is that we wanted to put another center in,” Sullivan said. “It’s obvious that our preference is to have Jake on the wing. So, logistically, that’s what forced that decision.”
But the decision put more pressure on the Penguins’ top lines to deliver – not just in points, but in minutes played. Dea played just 3:29 on six shifts at L.A. Thursday. Saturday at San Jose, he played 4:29 on eight shifts, with fellow fourth-liner Reaves getting just a few seconds more with 4:43.
For a Penguins team that managed just one goal on 32 shots in a 2-1 loss to the Sharks, Sprong’s offensive ability and creativity might have been welcome.
“You’ve just got to bury the puck,” Crosby said. “At the end of the day, it’s execution. I had some really good looks; put a couple of those in and it’s a different game.”
Help restoring a more balanced attack could be on the way soon, as GM Jim Rutherford continues to work the phones in advance of the Feb. 26 trade deadline. For now, the Penguins will just try to keep the offensive momentum going.
“I think our sport is such a game of momentum. When you don’t have it, you’ve got to find a way to get it back and try not to get hurt. And when you have it, you’ve got to ride it,” Sullivan said. “When we score goals, our guys get excited. Our team likes to score as much as any team in the league and, when we score, we seem to build off of it.
“Our ability to control momentum is an important attribute to have as a team if we’re going to get to where we need to go.”