It’s been 23 months since the Pittsburgh Penguins made their way across the contiguous United States to play games in California. Not only has the world changed a lot since late February 2020, but the Penguins have seen some change, as well.
The last time the Penguins made the California road trip, the roster featured players like Matt Murray, Justin Schultz, and Patrick Marleau. That 2020 trek across the nation was in the midst of a horrendous run for the Pens, and the California teams only added to the misery by defeating the Penguins in all three games.
A three-game losing streak doubled to six games when just under two weeks later, the 2019-20 NHL Season was cut short. A season after playing only teams within their division, the Penguins have hit the Pacific time zone to play some hockey. They entered California on a much better run than two years ago, but still gave plenty for fans to think about.
Jan. 11, 2022 @ Anaheim Ducks: Malkin’s Return
The Penguins have had to find creative ways to win while missing multiple key players to start the season. While names like Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel came back to the lineup, Evgeni Malkin remained out. That was until Jan. 11, 2021, when Malkin finally made his return in Anaheim.
Not only did Malkin play in his first game since late May of 2020, but he made his presence known right away. He scored two goals and tallied an assist as the Penguins defeated the Ducks 4-1. Not bad for a first game back from a knee surgery that required extensive recovery. For some reason, though, his return was a touchy subject for Pens fans.
Critics made claims that Malkin was going to mess with the team chemistry and winning formula the Penguins had created to start the year. There is no legitimate backing to this claim, however, since Geno boosts the morale of the team, helps them win more games, and helps improve the play of those around him.
Malkin’s key linemate, Kasperi Kapanen, could surely use the improvement. Kapanen has played far below expectations during the 2021-22 season and maybe Malkin is the exact jolt he needed. Prior to the game in Anaheim, Kapanen had 18 points in 33 games and has been streaky when it comes to goal scoring. In Malkin’s first game back, though, Kapanen drew up two assists, hopefully beginning to right the ship. Both assists were secondary, but some things need baby steps.
Jan. 13, 2022 @ Los Angeles Kings: Not Playing All 60 Minutes
It’s a concept that has plagued the Penguins all season but was given another spotlight in Los Angeles. The team as a whole has a habit of taking their foot off the gas and coasting their way through games. The LA Kings were able to take full advantage of the Pens shortcomings and win decisively, 6-2.
Head coach Mike Sullivan has had to address the team’s inability to play a full 60 a few times earlier this season. He has called it “human nature” for a group to play with a little more ease when they get a lead.
It was obvious when the Penguins played host to the San Jose Sharks on Jan. 2, 2022. The Penguins scored four goals in the first seven minutes of the game and finished the first period up 6-1. With a lead like that, maybe the “human nature” kicks in and the team slows down the attack. Well, they slowed down enough to let the Sharks get within a goal of tying it. From 6-1 to 6-5, it was obvious the Penguins took their foot off the gas.
The Penguins were lucky to pull out a win after almost blowing a 6-1 lead, but in LA, it was a different story. An issue with the game against the Kings, though, was how the Penguins never led by more than one goal. They watched their 1-0 lead disappear and again fell victim to not playing a full 60 minutes.
It may be “human nature” to ease up, but that’s an issue that needs to be resolved before the postseason rolls around.
Jan. 15, 2022 @ San Jose Sharks: Letang’s Quiet Production
How many of you knew Kris Letang was second on the team in points? It’s hard to notice because of his 32 points, only three of them are goals. In a contract year, the veteran defenseman is making a tremendous case for a new contract. In the midst of his 16th season, his ice-time hasn’t decreased, and neither has his production.
Much like Malkin over the years, critics have grown harsh with Letang. The desperate calls to trade or cut Letang loose are nonsense and usually based on no in-depth research. Does Letang on occasion blow a defensive coverage or pinch too much in the offensive zone? Sure, but that’s how he’s always played and his offensive output allows him to get away with such play.
Letang scored his third goal of the season against the San Jose Sharks, extending a point streak to seven games. Three goals and an astonishing 29 assists for 32 points place him tied for sixth among the league’s defenders in points. His 29 assists are also top-10 in the league regardless of position. An assist on the overtime winner in San Jose pushed him into sixth all-time in Penguins scoring.
The game against the Sharks may have gone to overtime and been won with a great play between Crosby and Jake Guentzel, but Letang stands as the biggest takeaway. If this trend continues, there should be a legitimate reason to put Letang in the conversation for the Norris Trophy. Then, that will eventually lead to what his new contract will look like. All signs are pointing to him staying in Pittsburgh and that’s for the best.
All three California teams have greatly improved since 2020; Last time the Pens were in the sunshine state, all of the Sharks, Kings, and Ducks were soon to be missing the 24-team playoff structure following the shutdown. Now, all three teams play a younger, faster style of hockey that will make each of them postseason hopefuls.
The Penguins entered the 2022 California trip one loss removed from a 10-game winning streak. They left after taking two more wins to continue climbing the Metropolitan Division ranks. A 22-10-9 record for 49 points places them in perfect striking distance to reach the top in the coming weeks.
Nick Horwat is a graduate of Point Park University and was born and raised in Pittsburgh. A lifelong Penguins fan that has been watching and going to games for as long as he can remember.