The Pittsburgh Penguins have re-assigned forward Daniel Sprong to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League, it was announced today by executive vice president and general manager Jim Rutherford.
Once upon a time, two Stanley Cups ago, it appeared the Pittsburgh Penguins’ chance to win a championship was over. When the team fired head coach Mike Johnston on Dec. 12, 2015, it was in dire straits. Superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin had seen a drop in production, the depth beyond them was weak, the team was up against the salary cap and it had a starting goalie with a poor recent playoff history.
Then a number of things went the Penguins’ way. New coach Mike Sullivan kicked them into high gear, playing aggressive, up-tempo hockey, and GM Jim Rutherford traded for key role players Carl Hagelin and Trevor Daley. Young goalie Matt Murray came out of the AHL to raise two Cups.
Depending on how optimistic you want to be, you could take different morals from the story of the 2015-16 Penguins. Yes, their recent past proves they can rebound quickly so long as Crosby and Malkin are still around. But a lot of things had to break their way — things that are unlikely to be repeated.
After being a popular Stanley Cup pick this preseason, things haven’t gone swimmingly for the Pens in 2017-18, and they’re currently out of a playoff position. Which direction will the remainder of the season go for the Penguins? Let’s have a look.
Is a hot stretch on the way?
It can be challenging to figure out whether a team’s struggles during a stretch is a matter of poor play or simply puck luck. There are certainly reasonable criticisms of the Penguins’ play, but in this case it’s easy to see how luck is impacting their place in the standings.
At even strength, Pittsburgh has the worst goals for percentage in the NHL. Worse than Arizona. Worse than Buffalo. Dead last.
Considering the talent, it seems unfathomable that the Penguins could be dominated so badly. But their play might not be matching up with the results. Pittsburgh has put the second-most shots on goal in the NHL this season, and has outshot opponents by 136 shots. They have a 50-50 split in scoring chances and close shots, according to the analytics website Natural Stat Trick. But Pittsburgh also has both the worst shooting percentage and worst save percentage in the NHL.
Taking more shots on goal and getting the same number of close shots as opponents, and still ending up last in goal differential is quite difficult to do. In fact, Pittsburgh’s numbers in shots and high-danger shots aren’t much different from last season:
Unfortunately for the Pens, the player with the worst luck of anyone has been Crosby. The future Hall of Famer has never posted a 5-on-5 shooting percentage below 10 percent. This season, just 4.2 percent of his even-strength shots have found the back of the net. Last season, he scored 26 goals at 5-on-5, while he has only three this season in that situation. Crosby’s shot rate is down from 2.3 even-strength shots per game to 1.8, but that shouldn’t be expected to sink his 5-on-5 production to the bottom of the league.
Additionally, Crosby has only six assists at 5-on-5 despite his team outshooting opponents 388-321 with him on the ice. Likewise, No. 1 defenseman Kris Letang has been on ice for a 370-323 shot differential — and the team has been outscored 39-15 during that time.
It’s not impossible for superstar players’ numbers to stay this low, it’s just extremely unlikely.
Thoughts, musings and observations from the Pens’ 4-2 win against the Arizona Coyotes at Gila River Arena
* The Pens need this win. Pittsburgh had lost 3 straight games, each by 1 goal. To be so close, but come up empty has been frustrating for the team. But to lose a 2-0 lead to the last-place Coyotes in a game that Pittsburgh completely dominated would have really been a heartbreaker.
Fear not. Pittsburgh rebounded from surrendering a third-period game-tying goal to retake the lead and win the game. Even head coach Mike Sullivan said that the feeling on the bench was that the Pens would score the go-ahead goal and win the game. That’s the kind of resilient swagger that the Pens have lacked lately. Hopefully, this win will help them get their mojo back.
* What a third period for defenseman Olli Maatta. First he was the goat for losing a puck at his own crease that culminated with Arizona tying the game. Then he made a game-saving stop by diving over his own goaltender to clear a loose puck in the crease before Brad Richardson could convert. Then he finished it all off by scoring the game-winning goal with a mere 14.7 seconds left in regulation. From goat to hero in 10 minutes.
* The game was also a little bit of redemption for center Evgeni Malkin. He was the man that threw a hard pass to Maatta that resulted in a turnover and Arizona’s tying goal. But he would go on to setup Maatta for the winner after an incredible shift in the offensive zone. Malkin was a horse on that final series, and we can’t discount his goal late in the second period either. On that tally, Malkin drove to the net and relentlessly wacked at the puck until it went in.
* The Pens finally broke though with some offense early from the least likely of sources: the penalty kill and Carter Rowney. Pittsburgh was disadvantaged late in the second period when Bryan Rust forced a turnover at the blue line. He and Rowney were off on a 2-on-2. Both ‘Yotes defenders jumped on Rust and he made a patient, perfect backhand pass around the outstretched stick of Oliver Ekman-Larsson and to a wide-open Rowney. The Pens’ winger went crossbar, post and in for the tally.
* The penalty kill stepped up with a goal, but its first priority is always to kill the penalty. And the Pens deserve an immense amount of credit for that of late. The PKers haven’t given up a goal in the past 8 straight games, a perfect 23-for-23 in that span.
* We’ll end with a congratulations to Mike Sullivan for recording his 100th win with the Pens, becoming just the fourth coach to hit the century mark for the organization.
Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin will miss at least one game with an upper-body injury.
Coach Mike Sullivan announced the injury on Tuesday. Malkin will sit out on Wednesday night when the Penguins host Vancouver. Sullivan says Malkin will be re-evaluated on Thursday. Pittsburgh visits Boston on Friday and hosts Tampa Bay on Saturday.
Malkin is second on the team in scoring, with seven goals and 14 assists in 22 games for the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions. It’s unclear who will fill his spot on the second line with Phil Kessel and Bryan Rust. Jake Guentzel practiced with them on Tuesday.
The Penguins could have center Carter Rowney return to the lineup against the Canucks. Rowney has missed 13 games with a hand injury.
Thoughts, musings and observations from the Pens’ 7-1 loss against the Winnipeg Jets at Bell MTS Place.
*What is most disconcerting about this loss for the Penguins wasn’t the lack of effort, but lack of execution. Pittsburgh played casually with the puck, and that laziness led to turnovers. Those turnovers fed the Winnipeg transition game, and made life easy on the Jets.
It was careless mistakes that killed the Pens. Whether it was Evgeni Malkin losing the puck at his own blue line. Or Kris Letang getting shaked out of his skates. Or Zach Trotman getting lost in the neutral zone, the Penguins made plenty of mistakes.
*Pittsburgh gave up five goals in the first period, and trailed 5-0 after 20 minutes. That included surrendering three goals in a 34-second span, and a hat trick to Blake Wheeler. Although Pittsburgh played much better in the second and third period, there was no way to overcome a five-goal deficit. The Pens lost this game in the opening 20. The final 40 were a formality.
*The Penguins gave up a goal to the Jets just 80 seconds after puck drop, and it was an omen of things to come. Pittsburgh had three opportunities to clear the puck out of its defensive zone, and failed to do so. Winnipeg took advantage of Pittsburgh’s tired legs and Andrew Copp scored his first goal of the season.
*Goalie Casey DeSmith had a rude introduction to the NHL. After Matt Murray gave up four goals on nine shots in the first period, the Penguins turned to DeSmith. First, he had trouble locating his gear, which was on the bench. Then DeSmith faced a 2-on-1 rush in the opening seconds of his NHL tenure. On the play Wheeler finished off his hat trick. DeSmith gave up a goal on the first shot he faced in his career.
DeSmith did make a couple exceptional saves in the final two frames, but it certainly wasn’t an ideal circumstance to make your NHL debut.
*If there was one bright spot – and there weren’t many – it was Pittsburgh’s power play. The unit once against looked fantastic in its puck movement and generating chances. The Pens’ power play registered the club’s only goal of the game and continues to thrive.
However, Pittsburgh cannot win games solely on its power play. The Pens need to get much better at 5-on-5.
The Pittsburgh Penguins’ Stanley Cup victory did not surprise anyone last season, but it probably should have.
Of course, when a team sports two of the top players of a generation in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the expectations are set at a championship every season, but heading into the playoffs the Penguins didn’t fit the profile of a team that was a lock to raise the Cup.
While every other recent Stanley Cup winner had been dominant on the shot counter, the Penguins ranked 16th in 2016-17. They were also missing their No. 1 goalie and No. 1 defenseman entering the postseason. Traditionally, health has played a large role in playoff success. During a six-year stretch when the Chicago Blackhawks won three Stanley Cups and the Los Angeles Kings brought home two, they ranked No. 1 and 2 in fewest man games lost.
So the Penguins had some hills to climb, but they got goalie Matt Murray back in time for the Eastern Conference finals and Stanley Cup Final, and a gaggle of defensemen patched together the giant hole left by Kris Letang to defeat the Nashville Predators.
Pittsburgh won the Cup in large part because its offensive attack and power play were just too much for opponents to handle. The Penguins produced 3.08 goals per game, easily the best mark of any playoff team. Murray also had an incredible .937 save percentage in the postseason.
So with Crosby and Malkin still dominating, Murray just beginning his prime and Letang returning, the Penguins deserve to enter 2017-18 as the favorites for the Stanley Cup — and sportsbooks have installed them as such.
However, two of the club’s valuable centers, Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen, left in free agency, and Pittsburgh’s depth at wing is highly questionable.
Here are five contenders whose deep forward groups would make a tough matchup for the Pens: