Just tuning in? Fans switching to Penguins will like what they see
With the season coming to an inglorious end at Heinz Field on Sunday and the Gerrit Cole trade seemingly signaling the start of another sell-off of top stars at PNC Park, it's safe to assume the sporting public in Western Pennsylvania will soon be turning its attention to PPG Paints Arena.
If fans had fixed their gaze on the Penguins three weeks ago, they wouldn't have liked what they saw.
The two-time defending Stanley Cup champs looked beaten down coming off a pair of long postseason runs. Superstar scorers were struggling through slumps. The team was barely hanging around on the fringes of the Eastern Conference playoff picture and the general manager was talking about making a trade or two just to shake things up.
If fans take a look at the Penguins now, however, the picture is much, much prettier.
The team has won its last four games, using an up-tempo, high-pace style to pressure opponents into submission. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel are piling up points at a breakneck pace. A run toward the top of the Metropolitan Division seems much more probable than a free fall to the bottom.
General Manager Jim Rutherford is still likely to make a deal or two before the Feb. 26 trade deadline, especially to add a third-line center, but the moves won't be meant to shock the system of a struggling team. They'll be meant to bolster a group ready for a run at a three-peat.
Here are four reasons why the Penguins have won their last four games.
1. Star burst
Crosby and Malkin were perfectly OK in the first half of the season, but the last four games have shown why they're not just good, they're generationally great. Crosby has 10 points during the span. Malkin has five goals.
Add in the performance of Kessel, who has been scoring consistently throughout the team's struggles, and the stars are leading the way.
"It's leading by example," goalie Tristan Jarry said. "With all us younger guys, it really helps. It makes us push ourselves even more."
2. Special order
The Penguins didn't fall off a cliff during a subpar first half of the season largely because their special teams were still pretty good. Lately, they've been great.
The penalty kill has allowed a grand total of one power-play goal on 25 tries over the last nine games.
The power play leads the league with a 26.5 success rate, better than the franchise record of 25.9 percent set in 1995-96.
"All year it's been like that," Kris Letang said. "We've been confident our power play could get big goals for us and keep us in games."
3. New-look defense
Rutherford's December trade for 6-foot-7 Jamie Oleksiak from Dallas has been a nice pick-up, but a return to form for Letang has been an even more welcome development for the Penguins.
Ranking last in the league in plus-minus rating at times in the first half of the season, Letang struggled coming off April neck surgery. In the last eight games, the Penguins have held a 186-108 advantage in even-strength shot attempts while Letang has been on the ice. That's an indication he's back to driving play in a big way.
"We have all the pieces here," Oleksiak said. "Top to bottom in the lineup, everyone's kind of contributing. We're playing confidently right now."
4. Showing some style
The most striking change in the Penguins over the last four games has been their style of play.
Rather than looking for every opportunity to retreat to the net and block shots, their defensemen are aggressively playing on their toes. Rather than collapsing around the cage to aid the defense, wingers are flying into the neutral zone with speed.
Breakaways and odd-man rushes have come in bunches.
"When you play the game the right way and you defend hard and you defend as a group, usually you create a turnover or a loose puck that gives you an opportunity to jump the other way in transition," coach Mike Sullivan said. "That's always been one of the strengths of our team."
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.