Mark Madden: The good and bad with the Penguins
Brr! It’s cold in here! There must be refreshing Pittsburgh Penguins notes in the atmosphere! They warm you up as the temperatures drop!
• The Penguins have had a totally healthy roster for two periods this season. Staying afloat at 8-6-1 speaks to the team’s resilience and the organization’s depth.
• The Penguins have played well in most of their losses. It would help if that evened up via performing poorly while winning. Get some loser points, at least.
• Analytics tell us Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel produce more and get increased chances when Dominik Simon skates on their line. Well, Crosby and Guentzel have just three goals between them in the last eight games. What does that tell us?
• The Penguins’ commitment to defense has been noticeable and beneficial. But in Monday’s loss at Boston, a turnover by Kris Letang conceded a goal. Evgeni Malkin did a drive-by and left the zone without the puck on Boston’s goal that made it 4-4. Those old habits might die hard, but they need to die permanently.
• Letang has critics. They blow every mistake he makes out of proportion. That ignores the idea of risk vs. reward, not to mention that Letang placed sixth in the voting for last year’s Norris Trophy (top defenseman) and would finish higher this season. Here’s what Letang’s haters can’t answer: If the Penguins don’t have Letang, who plays his minutes and replaces his speed, physicality and offensive acumen? I’ll hang up and listen. (Remember, it’s not 2017. Jusso Riikola isn’t Trevor Daley.)
• Edmonton and Boston got winning goals in each of the Penguins’ last two losses when a Penguin shot wide and the carom got the foe’s attack going the other way. That’s not a mandate against trying to pick a corner. But when the game is close late, maybe the shooter could err on the side of caution (especially in three-on-three overtime).
• The Penguins’ goaltending mostly has been good. But it wasn’t at Boston. Matt Murray gets a pass because he has been solid so far. But Tristan Jarry played terrible in relief Monday, allowing two bad-angle goals that wasted the Penguins’ rally after trailing 3-0. Jarry’s performance casts doubt on his mental preparation, at least that night. Backups must approach each game as if they’re going to play. It’s cliched but true.
• Malkin has one assist and is minus-2 in two games since returning from injury. Alex Galchenyuk has one assist and is minus-3 in three games since coming back. The Penguins need much more from those two, and immediately. Bryan Rust has two goals, two assists and a plus-3 mark in four games since he got healthy. They’re professionals. If they’re healthy, they need to produce. There isn’t a grace period.
• Rust should stay at right wing with Malkin and Galchenyuk. His speed complements their skill, and vice versa.
• The Penguins power play gets decent looks, but is 0 for its last 21. Is that the absence of Phil Kessel? Yes, to some degree. The team’s improvement on defense is also partly because Kessel is gone. The man-advantage unit needs rhythm and a set five. It’s moot because Patric Hornqvist is hurt, but he should go back on the top group. Guentzel is a superior player. Hornqvist is a better pure net-front presence.
• It’s a shame Hornqvist is injured, but it’s good Dominik Kahun got back in the lineup. Kahun had two goals and two assists in the previous two games before being scratched Saturday when the rash of injuries cleared up. He returned Monday at Boston, netting the Penguins’ first goal. Coach Mike Sullivan wasn’t wrong to scratch Kahun. It was a tough call. But good play should be rewarded. Kahun might be a nice fit.
• Nick Bjugstad played well at Boston, scoring a goal. It’s about time. Bjugstad had been totally invisible to that point in the season. Perhaps more than any Penguin, Bjugstad must do better. Entire games come and go with Bjugstad being inconsequential.
• The Penguins have regained the speed they had in the Stanley Cup seasons of 2016 and ’17. Brandon Tanev is more responsible for that than anyone. Jared McCann and Teddy Blueger aren’t far behind. The Penguins have a bottom six that is mostly effective. But Tanev shouldn’t be shackled to the fourth line. Not at six years, $21 million.