Pulse of the Penguins: Offense Rebounds After Injury Bug Bites Again

In the two weeks since the last edition of Pulse of the Penguins, the Pittsburgh Penguins have continued their up-and-down start to the season. The team had a 3-2-1 record in six contests with a couple of comeback wins and a new slew of injuries to deal with. Can they stay afloat with their captain out until at least Christmas?

New Crop of Forwards Missing Time

The biggest news is Sidney Crosby’s injury. The superstar center underwent surgery to repair a core muscle injury and will miss at least six weeks of action or roughly 20 games; the last time Crosby missed more than 10 games in a full NHL season was the 2011-12 campaign.

In his place, Evgeni Malkin and Jared McCann have handled the first and second-line center duties. In three games since Crosby’s injury, they’ve combined for three goals and five points, including McCann’s game-tying, power-play score against the New York Rangers, which snapped the Penguins’ 11-game goalless drought with the man advantage.

Pittsburgh Penguins Evgeni Malkin Chicago Blackhawks Corey Crawford
Evgeni Malkin has tallied eight points in seven games since his return from injured reserve. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

To give the Penguins even less depth at center, Nick Bjugstad is nursing a lower-body injury as well. He took an awkward tumble into the boards and finished with just 7:18 of ice time against the New Jersey Devils before missing Saturday’s contest against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Head coach Mike Sullivan has been concerningly quiet regarding Bjugstad’s injury and there’s no timetable for his return yet, but he could get back into action sometime this week.

If there’s a bright side for the Penguins’ health status, Patric Hornqvist returned to practice this weekend. The gritty winger missed the last six games with a lower-body injury but still remains on injured reserve. It seems that he has a good chance of coming back sometime this week also.

While Malkin and McCann will be the two forwards leaned on the most during Crosby’s absence, a handful of others have already made big contributions. Since his season debut on Oct. 26, Bryan Rust has six goals and 10 points in nine games. He’s scored a point in all but two of those contests. Dominik Kahun collected his second three-point performance of the season over the weekend and Brandon Tanev posted his first multi-point game as a Penguin.

On top of all the injured forwards, defensive leader Kris Letang missed the last five games with a lower-body injury and he still doesn’t have a concrete timeline for his return. Fortunately, rookie John Marino has done a pretty solid job filling in on the top pairing with Brian Dumoulin.

John Marino Penguins
While the Penguins will gladly welcome Kris Letang back into the lineup, John Marino has been a viable replacement. (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

Over the last five games, Marino is averaging over 18:30 of ice time during 5-on-5 play. He’s recorded a 50.6 Corsi percentage and 61.1 expected goals-for percentage. The 22-year-old Harvard product tallied three assists and a plus-4 rating during that span.

Offense Generating Chances and Slowly Seeing Results

After Edmonton Oilers goalie Mike Smith stopped 52-of-53 shots in a 2-1 overtime win over the Penguins on Nov. 2, Pittsburgh ran into some strong goaltending performances. This run was capped off by Devils goalie Mackenzie Blackwood’s terrific 38-save win over the Penguins on Friday.

Not only was Blackwood nearly perfect in the win, but the Penguins dominated during 5-on-5 play. They registered a 68.2 Corsi percentage (60 Corsi for and 28 Corsi against) and an expected goals-for percentage just under 70 percent. Like Smith’s miraculous performance, the Penguins would’ve left New Jersey with two points on nearly any other night.

Those big-time chances spilled into the following game, a 6-1 thrashing of the Maple Leafs on Nov. 16. This time, it was the Maple Leafs that recorded a Corsi percentage over 60 percent, but the Penguins still managed a 58.8 expected goals-for percentage. Kasimir Kaskisuo was in net for Toronto that night, the second time this season the Penguins faced a goalie making their NHL debut; the first was a 7-2 win over Elvis Merzlikins and the Columbus Blue Jackets on Oct. 5.

Brian Dumoulin Penguins
Brian Dumoulin led the team with a 78.3 expected goals-for percentage during the big win over the Maple Leafs. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Part of generating offense has stemmed from the team’s great defense, especially while killing penalties. The Penguins have been perfect at eliminating opposing power plays over the last nine games, clearing out all 20 chances they’ve allowed. For the season, their 89.1 penalty-kill percentage ranks second in the league behind the San Jose Sharks. The Penguins have allowed just five power-play goals all season, and have scored four shorthanded goals.

Will Jarry Earn More Playing Time?

Part of the Penguins’ up-and-down stretches can be attributed to Matt Murray in goal. For the most part, he’s having a nice season; his .913 save percentage leaves a bit to be desired, his 2.37 goals-against average is a career best. However, the advanced numbers suggest he may be punching above his weight.

Murray’s -2.62 goals-saved above averaged ranks 46th in the league among netminders with at least five games played. Last season, his 18.03 GSAA was ranked second in the NHL. The 25-year-old has allowed nine “low-danger” goals (tied for the most in the league) and has a -4.71 GSAA against those low-danger shots (second-worst). This shows that Murray is struggling to stop low-quality shots during 5-on-5 play.

Meanwhile, backup Tristan Jarry is coming off another terrific performance. He held the Maple Leafs to one goal on 33 shots in the high-paced affair. His .958 save percentage during 5-on-5 play is the best among NHL goaltenders with at least five games played and his 4.90 GSAA also puts him in the top-10.

Tristan Jarry Penguins
Will Tristan Jarry’s strong play earn him more playing time? (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Penguins have another back-to-back on the schedule this week against the New York Islanders on Thursday and the Devils on Friday. Jarry will likely draw the start Friday at home against New Jersey, a matchup that he should take full advantage of. If Murray continues posting average-to-below-average numbers, can Jarry work his way into split duties?

Another option is for Jarry to play his way out of Pittsburgh in a trade. The Penguins have Casey DeSmith, another viable backup option, stashed in AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and he’s under contract for two more seasons after this one. On the other hand, Jarry and Murray are both restricted free agents. With a little cap space to work with and a history of trigger-happy trading, Jim Rutherford is undoubtedly exploring all the options.

Top Performers of the Week

Because there was no Pulse of the Penguins last week, the top performers will encompass the last two weeks (six games) for the Penguins:

  • Evgeni Malkin: 2 goals, 8 points, 23 shots
  • Dominik Kahun: 3 goals, 4 points, plus-3 rating, 11 shots
  • John Marino: 1 goal, 4 points, plus-5 rating
  • Bryan Rust: 5 goals, 7 points, plus-3 rating, 23 shots

The top performer of the last two weeks is Jared McCann. As mentioned, he’s taken on a bigger role in the lineup with Crosby out and stepped up to the challenge. Over the last six games, McCann has racked up three goals, seven points, and a plus-9 rating. He’s also scored a pair of goals since Crosby was injured.

This Week’s Schedule

Tuesday, Nov. 19 – vs. New York Islanders

Thursday, Nov. 21 – @ New York Islanders

Friday, Nov. 22 – vs. New Jersey Devils