As the calendar nears Thanksgiving, things look bleak around the City of Pittsburgh. The sun is completely set by 5:00 p.m., the temperature is beginning to drop, and the two active professional sports teams can’t beat inferior opponents. The Pittsburgh Steelers tied the winless Detroit Lions, and the Pittsburgh Penguins are getting healthy, but playing poorly.
For the Penguins, its an issue that needs to be resolved soon, but that doesn’t mean it’s time to throw in the towel already. Despite their dull record in the month of November (3-3-2), the Penguins are a team that are due for a massive turnaround.
As the Pens come off of a possible momentum swing of a victory across the border in Montreal, let’s look at why it’s too early to push the panic button on the Penguins’ season.
2021-22 Season is Still Young
One can only say “it’s still early” for so long, but at this moment, it is still early. Each team has the benefit of playing a full 82-game schedule for the first time since 2018-19. At 16 games, there is still a lot of hockey to play and a lot of runway to utilize before the Penguins can really take off.
The sentiment of “early” can’t last forever, and as December approaches, it’s just about time to put “early” in the rearview mirror.
To be fair to the Penguins, being near the basement in December isn’t always a death sentence. The league has seen multiple teams, including the Penguins, turn their success around mid-season to win a Stanley Cup. The Penguins themselves did it in 2009 and 2016, although both times they fired their head coach in the midst of the season.
The St. Louis Blues were in 30th place well into December in 2018-19 when they also fired their coach and went on a run that led them to a Stanley Cup victory. To be fair, Mike Sullivan shouldn’t be going anywhere anytime soon. He’s going to be an Olympic coach and can be the one to steer the Penguins in the right direction.
Key Injuries, COVID Cases, and Unlikely Leaders
It’s been the talk of the Penguins for a few seasons now, they can never seem to be fully healthy. Heading into this season, they were going to miss the talents of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, but no one could have predicted what was to come.
A fully vaccinated Penguins roster was struck with multiple breakthrough cases of COVID-19, starting just prior to the start of the season with Jake Guentzel and Zach Aston-Reese. As the season moved on, Jeff Carter, Marcus Pettersson, Kris Letang, Brian Dumoulin, Chad Ruhwedel, and head coach Sullivan all came down with positive tests. Most of them were experiencing symptoms of the virus, as well. Crosby himself tested positive after returning to the lineup for a single game.
Between the positive tests and a majority of the team leaders hitting the NHL’s protocol list, Bryan Rust suffered an injury that took him out of commission for a portion of the first month of the season.
Add all this together and it creates a revolving door of players in the roster. While the Penguins were finding ways to win early in the season, they were being led in points by Evan Rodrigues, Drew O’Connor, and Danton Heinen. The team was winning, but those aren’t ideal players to lead.
It took some time and patience, but the Penguins are as close to a fully healthy roster that they’re going to get for a while. Aside from Malkin everyone has returned from COVID protocol and healed from their injuries. A stacked lineup didn’t lead to immediate success, but things seem to be turning the corner.
Penalty Kill and Jarry Early Positives
For what it’s worth, there has been a few bright spots to look at for the Penguins early on in the season. It’s not many, but if these positives can sustain and help sprout into other portions of the game improving, then the Penguins can still be a playoff team.
The first glimmer of hope lay within the team’s penalty kill, which at one point was the top in the league. As of right now, the Penguins 88.1 penalty kill percentage is third in the league. Through 16 games, the Penguins have only given up five power-play goals in 42 situations.
The other key in the Penguins’ early success has been the play of their best penalty killer, goalie Tristan Jarry. After a lousy 2021 postseason, Jarry has bounced back to have an outstanding start of the 2021-22 season.
Not every game for goalies will be perfect, but Jarry has been one of the only Penguins that has given a full effort for 60 to sometimes 65 minutes a night. In 13 games, he has reached a .922 save percentage (sv%), a 2.33 goals against average (GAA), and a 6-4-3 record. He’s needed to be at the top of his game because his peer in the locker room, Casey DeSmith, is yet to find the win column.
DeSmith has only played in three games and hasn’t looked good in any of them, slowly becoming a non-option for the Penguins. His record stands at 0-2-1 in three games with a .856 SV% and 4.74 GAA. On the surface, it seems like there are no plans to move on from the backup goalie, but the Penguins do have options if the situation gets worse. Louis Domingue once held a 21-5 record, and the Penguins have a knack for getting the best out of their players.
Thanks to DeSmith’s poor abilities this year, it’s all Jarry all the time until a reliable backup rolls around. That being said, Jarry has been a good option this year. It’s not tremendous, but it’s hard to collect wins when you look at what has been playing in front of him.
The Penguins’ Turnaround
When it was announced that Crosby and Malkin would be missing time, eyes turned to a certain young star to fill the hole being left by those two. After recovering from a brief stint on the COVID protocol list, Guentzel was given elevated expectations. He turned out to be slow off the blocks.
Guentzel went six of his first seven games without a goal. Since then, he has scored five times in eight games. That includes goals in three straight and tying the team lead in goals with Rodrigues.
More than just improvements on the ice, the team has needed a boost in morale. A big win against the lowly Montreal Canadiens is a great start to boost the emotions in the locker room. Sure, the Habs are bad and missing a few of their best players, and one win doesn’t mean all is well, but it’s a step in the right direction.
Prior to the game in Montreal, the Penguins were riding a three-game losing streak and said themselves they needed to play with more urgency and hunger. Specifically, they have to play with that drive for the full 60 minutes rather than when the game is winding down. That’s exactly what the Pens did through the first two periods in Montreal.
Fans across the league have seen teams flip the switch and turn their season around. The Penguins have done it multiple times before, and 2021-22 will be no different. The team is regaining its health and confidence, and is starting to play with hunger. Fans just need to sit back, relax, and enjoy what is going to be a fun Penguins season.
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.