Mark Madden: A lot to like as Penguins navigate early rash of injuries |
Mark Madden, Columnist

Mark Madden: A lot to like as Penguins navigate early rash of injuries

Mark Madden
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Penguins winger Jake Guentzel has quitely piled up 12 points in the first 12 games of the season.

Rarely does a team build momentum during a three-game losing streak.

But the Penguins did exactly that, then won 3-0 on Saturday at Dallas. Now, with two marquee home games looming — the old enemy from across the state Tuesday, Connor McDavid on Saturday — the Penguins are getting healthier and playing better.

The Penguins’ primary early-season story is their injury list. It remains onerous.

Standing 7-5 despite the absences is admirable, though at least three points might have been had during the losses to Vegas, Florida and Tampa Bay. The Penguins outplayed Vegas, but old what’s-his-name urinated on the campfire from his spot in the blue paint. Breaks, bounces, officiating and replay conspired vs. the Panthers and Lightning.

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But the Penguins were simplified and economical during those games, containing and frustrating foes for significant stretches. They made fewer mistakes and — Tampa Bay’s 48 shots notwithstanding — played tough defense.

Such tenacity was on display at Dallas, where the Penguins got outplayed for stretches — they were outshot 10-5 in the second period and lost a lot of puck battles — but used Matt Murray’s stealth goalkeeping to stare down the Stars until the third period when hard work finally started tumbling into the net.

Will good habits displayed necessarily continue when the Penguins’ lineup is again healthy and star-studded?

Uh, probably not. But it’s nice to have that arrow in your quiver.

At least Sidney Crosby getting hit in the head with a puck at Dallas proved a scare that was only momentary.

My Steelers’ catchphrase is, “No Ben, no chance.” That can be too easily edited to fit the Penguins. Whew.

It’s cliched to write how well Crosby is playing but also impossible not to. Crosby skating back out after eating rubber to help gain victory at Dallas provides a metaphor for the Penguins’ early season.

Crosby has just two assists in his last five games, but his nightly impact is indelible. Some is analytics, some is intangible, and some is absurdity (like winning 58.2% of his draws).

Jake Guentzel deserves a bit more hype.

Guentzel is Sid Lite, not the same player but a perfect fit on Crosby’s line. (Finding those hasn’t been so easy.) Crosby is like a coach on the ice — and on the bench, iPad at the ready. Guentzel is a coach’s kid. Yahtzee.

Meantime, Penguins talk on Twitter revolves around the (mis-)application of analytics.

Maybe 10-15% of analytics geeks use them properly. Many of the rest like to track backward. They conclude a player stinks, then find numbers to support their predetermined supposition.

Exhibit A is defenseman Jack Johnson. (It’s always Johnson.)

Johnson partnered with Kris Letang at Dallas. Immediately the hue and cry sounded: “That was Letang’s worst game! Everybody plays worse when they’re out there with Johnson!” Accompanied by brightly colored graphs.

But the Penguins won 3-0. How bad could Letang or Johnson have possibly been?

Most nights, Johnson will be in the bottom pair. The NHL is a 31-team league. More than 200 defensemen are rostered. How good is a bottom-pair defenseman supposed to be?

Johnson is adequate — except on the penalty-kill, where he’s very good. He isn’t a problem, let alone the problem.

Winger Dominik Simon sits at the other end of the analytics spectrum. The geeks point to Simon’s brightly colored graphs as unyielding evidence he is the obvious choice to play on a line with Crosby and Guentzel in perpetuity.

Perhaps he is. He’s doing OK so far, especially if you think a controlled zone entry is cause for a ticker-tape parade. Crosby likes skating with him. So let it be, especially given the injuries.

But in last Tuesday’s loss at Florida, Simon took a clumsy extra touch and shot into a block on what should have been an easy finish into an open cage. The Penguins lost 4-2. Florida’s fourth goal was an empty-net goal.

It’s easy to think Simon’s miss cost the Penguins at least a point. Just like his flurry of misses hurt the Penguins badly in their 2018 playoff loss to Washington.

Analytics do not erase moments like that, nor restore points that should have been earned.

Analytics are part of the evaluation process. But only a part and not the biggest. That’s how the Penguins think.

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