Now, breathe. The first week of the NHL season is in the books, and the Pittsburgh Penguins kicked off their 2021-22 campaign by winning two of their three games this week. Their early success is punctuated by a 6-2 dismantling of the Tampa Bay Lightning on opening night. The scoreboard speaks for itself, but what do the underlying numbers say? In what is to be a recurring series through the end of the regular season, analytical trends which emerge from each week’s slate of games will be explored with an eye on next week’s schedule. The inaugural edition of this series explores Pittsburgh’s keeping their opponents to the perimeter, the Penguins controlling play against the Lightning and Florida Panthers, and Evan Rodrigues’ early hot streak. Let’s dive in.
Pucks to the Perimeter – Jarry Says Thanks
If there’s anything that makes a goaltender smile, it’s their teammates ensuring that they do not face difficult chances with regularity. Through two games, Penguins net-minder Tristan Jarry faced a total of 35 shots against at five-on-five, saving all but one of those attempts. What contributed to his success was the location from which Pittsburgh’s opponents were taking those shots, with an average shot distance of just over 42 feet (third-furthest so far this season) presenting a relatively easy workload for Jarry at even-strength.
Of 46 goalies featured in a game during the first week of the season, Jarry faced the 19th-lowest total of expected goals against (xGA) despite playing the fourth-most minutes at five-on-five. The Penguins have done well to insulate their young goaltender, exemplified by the low cumulative chance quality recorded by xGA. It is admirable that they did so against the Lightning and Chicago Blackhawks (Casey DeSmith faced the Panthers), who both boast a plethora of offensive weapons. It also suggests that the team may enjoy similar success as the season goes on, a tiny sample notwithstanding.
Despite boasting an impressive record of 25-9-3 for the Penguins last season, Jarry also posted a below-average save percentage (SV%) of .909, meaning Pittsburgh’s offensive talent was a greater factor in the team’s conquest of the Metropolitan Division title in 2020-21. His subpar regular season was further compounded by a playoff implosion, conceding 21 goals over six games against the backdrop of a porous .888 SV%. He surely hopes that his teammates can continue to keep opponents to the outside, aiding his attempts at a much-needed season of redemption.
Lightning and Blackhawks Caught Sleeping
As suggested by the team’s minuscule xGA total through three games, the Penguins have surprisingly dominated the run of play against their opposition. In their match-ups with the Lightning (66.8% xGF%) and Blackhawks (63.9%), Pittsburgh controlled around two-thirds of the cumulative chances created at five-on-five, leading to resounding 6-2 and 5-2 wins, respectively.
While having an easy time creating scoring opportunities against Chicago is not very notable (they were second-last in total xGA in 2020-21), their success against Tampa Bay was more unexpected due to their status as the defending Stanley Cup champions and their defensive sturdiness (sixth in xGA per-60 minutes last season). However, it’s a bit premature to declare the Lightning cooked as it’s more likely that they suffered from a particularly vicious case of the dreaded Stanley Cup hangover.
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Now, creating special teams success is separate from prowess at five-on-five, but the Penguins’ grasp on their opponents when on a level playing field is an encouraging sign for their fate once currently-sidelined players return from their stay on the injured list. If there’s anything the hockey community knows all too well, it’s to never preemptively dismiss a Sidney Crosby-led team when the chips are down.
With Rodrigues, Who Needs Crosby?
Speaking of Crosby, the Penguins were left with a barebones lineup with the superstar center and his partner-in-crime Evgeni Malkin still recovering from offseason surgery. In their stead, several players have made promising starts to the season, making it difficult to credit just one individual, with Pittsburgh grabbing five of six available points thus far. Jeff Carter has turned back the clock, with his four points in three games reminiscent of his Cup-winning form in the early 2010s with the Los Angeles Kings; Kris Letang rumbles on into his 16th NHL season with four assists to pace the Penguins, and new addition Danton Heinen has tallied three goals to leading Pittsburgh in the early going. However, the play of Evan Rodrigues – thrust into an increased role – has been the biggest surprise.
Not only has the 26-year-old center taken the reins as the temporary second-line center, but he has been gifted with a spot on the primary power-play unit. Through three games, Rodrigues has scored three points while generating scoring chances at an elite rate. Among forwards in all situations, he is currently ninth in individual expected goals (ixG) created, which gauges chance quality, tied for eighth in shots taken, and 16th in individual scoring chances generated. For someone who has never eclipsed 30 points in a season, these early returns on offense are a welcome surprise for head coach Mike Sullivan and the short-handed Penguins.
Rodrigues has complemented his offensive outbursts with responsible defensive play. His line – which also features Kasperi Kapanen and Jason Zucker – currently ranks second (87.5%) in expected goals for percentage (xGF%) and eighth in shot-share (67.4%) among forward lines with at least 10 minutes played at five-on-five. Again, it’s in a minimal sample, so don’t read too much into it, but the second line has powered much of Pittsburgh’s early success.
No, Rodrigues isn’t maintaining an 18.2 shooting percentage (SH%) for the entire year, nor does he remotely approach Crosby’s two-way impact, but let’s enjoy ridiculous early-season variance. In any case, increased scoring responsibilities should see him shatter his previous career-high of nine goals for the Buffalo Sabres in 2018-19. How’s an over-under of 20 goals? No? Too ambitious? Probably, but remember that Willliam Karlsson recently scored 43 goals in a single season on a 23.4 SH% bender – crazier things have happened.
Penguins Week 2 Preview
The second week of the season sees the Penguins face the Dallas Stars for the first time since October 2019 and battle a Toronto Maple Leafs team that anticipates the return of the 2020-21 Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy winner, Auston Matthews. Can Pittsburgh maintain their early wave of momentum to start the year and accelerate into high gear once Crosby returns? Tune in next week to find out.
Marko is an aspiring sportswriter with a passion for crafting stories while using a combination of the eye-test and (shudder) analytics, which is complemented by an academic background in criminology and political science.
When not covering the Colorado Avalanche and Pittsburgh Penguins for The Hockey Writers, he can also be found pouring countless hours into various sports video games franchises, indulging in science fiction novels, and taking long runs around his neighbourhood.