Evaluating The Pittsburgh Penguins Season Roughly Halfway Through

The+Penguins+players+celebrate+captain+Sidney+Crosby%27s+1%2C000th+NHL+game++by+all+wearing+%2387+jerseys+and+mimicking+his+skate+tying+routine.

mayorsmanor.com

The Penguins players celebrate captain Sidney Crosby’s 1,000th NHL game by all wearing #87 jerseys and mimicking his skate tying routine.

With a shortened 2021 season that only has 56 games, the midway point of the season has certainly crept in on us a lot faster than normal. 

At approximately the halfway point of this season, the Penguins stand with a record of 18-10-1 (37 points), which puts them in 3rd place in the NHL’s East Division. Here’s a general outlook of the rest of the division’s records in Win-Loss-OT/Shootout Loss form:

  1. Washington Capitals: 19-6-4 (42 points)
  2. New York Islanders: 19-7-4 (42 points)
  3. Pittsburgh Penguins: 18-10-1 (37 points)
  4. Boston Bruins: 15-8-4 (34 points)
  5. Philadelphia Flyers: 14-10-3 (31 points)
  6. New York Rangers: 12-12-4 (28 points)
  7. New Jersey Devils: 9-13-4 (22 points)
  8. Buffalo Sabres: 6-18-4 (16 points)

With the temporary new divisions for the 2020-21 season due to the NHL’s attempt to limit travel, and therefore limit potential player exposure to Covid-19, there are a lot of new things to remember when looking at a team’s season so far, such as the fact that teams will only be playing games inside their division for the entire season and first two rounds of playoffs, and the fact that wild card spots are gone, meaning only the top four teams in each division qualify for the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs. 

As with any team in any season in any sport, there will be ups and downs, struggles and triumphs, goods and bads, and a lot to evaluate and think on. Let’s take a look at some things that have been great, alright, and looking like they need help during the Penguins season so far: 

What’s Been Great: 

Kasperi Kapanen: The recently re-acquired Kapanen, a 2014 first round pick by the Pens who was soon dealt to Toronto as part of a package to bring Phil Kessel to Pittsburgh, has exploded in production since arriving in Pittsburgh. The 24 year old Finnish forward, who was brought back to the Penguins in a trade that saw the 15th overall pick in the 2020 NHL Draft head up north to the Maple Leafs, currently has 7 goals and 13 assists for 20 points in 26 games played.  Kapanen has also found a real chemistry with

Kasperi Kapanen skates past the Penguins bench to celebrate a goal scored. (Justin K. Aller / NHLI via Getty Images)

Evgeni Malkin, who has started to rebound after an excruciatingly slow start to the season for him. Kapanen has fit in very nicely with the Penguins top-six, which is exactly where he was envisioned to slot in after the trade. 

The Third Line: The third line, consisting of Zach Aston-Reese, Teddy Blueger, and Brandon Tanev, has rekindled their chemistry from the 2019-20 season since Aston-Reese’s return from offseason surgery. The trio currently accounts for 16 of the team’s goals, as well as 19 combined assists. The line has also shown a great defensive game, carrying over their role from last season as Pittsburgh’s shutdown line. However, the third line could look different going forward, after Blueger was announced to have a “long term” injury, according to head coach Mike Sullivan. 

Sidney Crosby And Whomever He Plays With: As if it would be any different, Sidney Crosby is having yet another amazing season. The 33 year old captain has tallied 11 goals and 18 assists for 29 points in 28 games. Crosby leads the Penguins in both assists and points, and is tied for first on the team in goals with linemate Jake Guentzel. Crosby’s play has been stellar no matter his linemates, and it seems that head coach Mike Sullivan has liked what he has seen with Bryan Rust fulfilling the right wing spot alongside Crosby and Guentel. 

Cody Ceci: The emergence of Cody Ceci as a mostly quality defenseman was something that extremely surprised myself and I think a lot of other Penguins fans. Coming off of a couple of rough years in Ottawa and Toronto where, among other things, his play had been labeled “worse than a traffic cone,” Ceci has definitely seemed to find his game again with the Penguins. Ceci kind of reminds me of guys like Trevor Daley, Ron Hainsey, and Justin Schultz, all defensemen who were struggling but really improved in the Penguins system. While younger than Hainsey and Daley were when they arrived in Pittsburgh, Ceci has had a similar revival of his career with the Penguins so far.

Casey DeSmith: Casey DeSmith is not taking his second go around in the NHL for granted. After being beat out for the backup spot behind Matt Murray by Tristan Jarry last season, DeSmith is an NHL regular again for the first time since the 2018-19 season. The 29 year old Rochester, NH native has appeared in 9 games (started 8 of them), posting a 6-3-0 record along with a 2.22 goals against average and a .915% save percentage. DeSmith has proven he can be an NHL goaltender and that he wants to stick in this league. 

What’s Been Alright: 

Evgeni Malkin: In Malkin’s defense, he has turned his play around as of late, but let’s not forget Malkin’s first 10 to 15 games of the season. Being a turnover machine, looking slow out on the ice, and not having his usual flare you get when Geno is out there. Since then however, his play has greatly improved, and with his newfound chemistry with the aforementioned Kasperi Kapanen, Malkin now has 8 goals and 16 assists on the season in 28 contests. The 34 year old Russian has also started to shore up his defensive miscues a bit, but there are definitely still lapses. Overall, not exactly well enough to be put in the “great” category but not bad enough to be in the “needs help” category, either. Malkin also recently tallied his 1,100th NHL point, the third Russian-born player in the NHL’s history to hit that milestone. 

Penguins captain Sidney Crosby attempts to shoot the puck from his knees. (Peter Diana / Post-Gazette)

Tristan Jarry: Jarry, much like Malkin, has made improvements to his play over the course of the season, but still isn’t exactly where you’d want him to be. Jarry is currently posting an 12-7-1 record, but with a 2.89 goals against average and a .906% save percentage. Ideally, your starter would have numbers that mirror DeSmith’s, a goals against average in the low 2s and a save percentage a few ticks above what it is now. Overall though, the 2020 NHL All Star has been gradually improving and to his credit, looks a lot better than he did at the start of the year. 

Kris Letang’s Defense: There’s a reason I put “Kris Letang’s defense” and not just “Kris Letang.” Letang’s offense is great, there’s not a problem there. He’s the fifth leading point scorer on the team (the top defenseman on that list) with 5 goals and 15 assists in 28 games. However, Letang is not a forward. He’s a defenseman, and like we’ve seen more and more over the last few years, Letang is wild on the defensive side of the game. Too often he is stumbling around the ice, he commits a lot of turnovers, and looks out of place. Letang’s defense needs work, but he has been able to mask most of that with some solid offensive plays. 

What Needs Help:

The Power Play: The Penguins currently rank 23rd in the league on the power play at only 18.8%. The power play for this team has struggled. It’s looked a little better as of late, but it still has struggled. Too many passes, not enough shots, the typical Penguins power play tactics. Let’s be honest, a team with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jake Guentzel and Kris Letang should not be struggling to score on the man advantage. 

The Penalty Kill: Speaking of low ranked special teams, the Penguins penalty kill is also ranked 23rd in the league, at only 75%. The league average is closer to around 80%. Now, the Penguins penalty kill hasn’t been awful, but, if you’re planning on being a contender, that PK has to be better than 23rd in the league. Ideally you’d at least be in the top half of the league. 

The Fourth Line: The fourth line has consisted of a revolving door of players like Mark Jankowski, Sam Lafferty, Anthony Angello, Drew O’Connor, Colton Sceviour, and Evan Rodrigues. But, no matter who was playing on that fourth line, the results haven’t really been there. Obviously you’re not looking for a goal from everyone on that line all the time, but if you’re going to make a deep run in the playoffs, you need some more scoring out of those players. Jankowski has 2 goals all year, and his most recent one was an empty net, meaning he hasn’t scored on an actual goaltender since the first game of the season on January 13th. Sceviour, who was actually placed on waivers (he went unclaimed) by the Penguins, but since injuries to Jason Zucker and Jared McCann, is back with the big club, only has 3 points in 20 contests. The rest of the aforementioned cast, has a combined 3 goals all season. The bottom line (no pun intended), you need more production from the 4th line. 

Penguins defenseman Marcus Pattersson looks up the ice during a game against the Flyers. (AP)

Marcus Pettersson: Seriously, what happened to Marcus Pettersson? The 24 year old Swedish native has taken a massive step back in his play this season. He looks bad defensively and has started taking a lot more penalties. Just a few weeks ago Pettersson put his team on the shorthanded disadvantage three times in the same game. Pettersson’s defense has also really lost its footing, showing an inconsistent ability to play actual defense, and quite honestly he has looked lost in recent weeks. And if and when the D-core is fully healthy, with Letang, Marino, Dumoulin, Matheson, Ceci, Riikola, Friedman, and Ruhwedel all on the roster, does Marcus Pettersson find himself on the outs in Pittsburgh?

Like many individual players on this team, the Penguins are performing well after a slow start to the season that saw the team lose their first 2 games and win only 4 out of their first 8. Out of those results, many were skeptical about the Penguins playoff chances. But the Penguins now look legit. They’ve won 6 games out of their last 7. They are currently sporting a 12-3-0 home record, one of the best in the league. 

Pittsburgh is also starting to drive a wedge between themselves and other teams inside the East Division battling for a playoff spot. The Flyers, Pittsburgh’s cross-state rivals, are in a rut, currently sitting 6 points back (albeit with a couple games in hand) in the standings. The Rangers have also fallen off in a year where Rangers fans expected a lot, trailing the Penguins by 9 points. So for the moment, the Boston Bruins are the only team within striking distance for Pittsburgh’s 3rd place spot. The Capitals, who recently took over first place, have 42 points as well as the Islanders, are unlikely to fall out of the playoffs. The Islanders, however, could have a rough second half to the season, with news breaking that captain Anders Lee has a season-ending torn ACL. 

Pittsburgh has 3 upcoming games in a row against the New Jersey Devils, who are 7th in the division with an 9-13-4 record, followed by 2 games at home against the Buffalo Sabres, who, fun fact, have been shutout the same amount of times that they have won a game this season, 6 times each. The Sabres are also currently on a 12 game losing streak and have fired their head coach Ralph Krueger.  If the Penguins can claim all 5 games, or even 4 out of 5, the Penguins could gain 8-10 points in the standings.  

And rocketing up 8 to 10 points could not only potentially bring you even with Washington (depending on what they do), it could further widen the wedge between the Penguins and the Bruins and Flyers. Boston, in particular, seeing as how after going 10-2-1 in their first 13 games of the year, have only won 5 games since. 

Obviously, there is still just about half a season to be played, and if the NHL is known for one thing, it’s the amount of parity in the league, and how much the standings can change. The Penguins look like they have shaken off the rust, but will they maintain their run and keep pace with the very tight and highly competitive East Division? That’s obviously a question no one has a confirmed answer to yet, but if the first half of the season is anything to go off of, the results look promising. 

Till then, Let’s Go Pens!