When the 2022-23 season began, the Pittsburgh Penguins had brought back their prized free agents and were poised to once again have stability in goal as both starter Tristan Jarry and backup Casey DeSmith returned after injuries in the postseason. They started off the season with a winning mentality, which in turn was reflected by their early performances. They started with a record of 4-0-1, and their core players – captain Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang – carried much of the play through those first five games. As a result, the Penguins shot up the early Metropolitan Division standings and seemed poised for yet another season of success.
Just as they were celebrating yet another successful start, the metaphorical dark clouds rolled in. The Penguins lost the next seven games before recovering slightly. As of Nov. 26, their record stands at 11-7-3 and they hold the last playoff spot in the Metro Division. Heading into their next game versus the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Penguins must recognize that their recent success constitutes a turning point in a previously back-and-forth season.
Penguins Woes Begin On Defence
Perhaps the most obvious of the Penguins’ struggles concern the play of their defence corps. The top pair of Letang and Brian Dumoulin has been among the worst in the league, with Dumoulin once tied for the most goals allowed by a defenceman. Letang has struggled offensively, having only registered one goal in 18 games played. What’s worse is that he stands among the team’s worst plus/minus players at minus-7. He started the season with a great deal of optimism, returning to the Penguins at the age of 34 after putting up one of the best seasons of his career. As a result of the first pair’s struggles, Dumoulin has recently been demoted to the third pair and replaced by Marcus Pettersson.
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They recently suffered another scare, as both Jan Rutta and Pierre-Olivier Joseph narrowly avoided injuries in the last two weeks. Both of them were evaluated for an injury in the Nov. 9 game against the Washington Capitals, but luckily both were able to return to practice the next day. Still, with the struggles of the top pair, any near-miss means narrowly avoiding catastrophe.
Injury Bug Complicating Uncertain Goaltending
Over the past few seasons since the departure of Stanley Cup champion Matt Murray, the Penguins goaltending duo of Jarry and DeSmith have both struggled to find their footing at times. Out of the gate this year, Jarry posted respectable numbers, with a 4-0 record, a 2.02 goals against average (GAA) and a .941 save percentage (SV%). Over his next five starts, he posted a dismal 0-3-2 record with a 4.77 GAA and an .840 SV%.
Although Jarry has since improved, DeSmith was recently evaluated for an undisclosed injury and missed practice last week with what head coach Mike Sullivan deemed “precautionary”. DeSmith seemingly suffered the injury in the Nov. 20 game against the Chicago Blackhawks, while backstopping the Pens to a 5-3 victory and making 29 saves on 32 shots (From “Penguins goaltender Casey DeSmith misses practice due to injury”, Seth Rorabaugh, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, 22/11/2022).
Penguins Already Seizing Opportunity
When the Penguins met the Maple Leafs on Nov. 15, they had already started to recover. They had won two of three and lost the third in overtime. It was considered a stretch of solid play coming off the seven-game losing streak. Although they ultimately lost that game by a 5-2 scoreline and gave up Leafs’ captain John Tavares’ 400th career goal, they responded quickly in the next three games, a short road trip against a duo of Western Conference teams embroiled in their own struggles. The Minnesota Wild and Chicago Blackhawks were outside the playoff picture, and Crosby and Malkin – the latter scoring in his 1,000th career game – shined in each as the Penguins won both high-scoring affairs.
In between the games against the Wild and Blackhawks, the Pens travelled to Winnipeg to face the second-best in the West, the Winnipeg Jets. Going into that matchup on Nov. 19, the Jets had won five of six and seemed primed to continue that trend. However, Jarry seemed to take this personally, posting a dominant 32-save shutout, his first of the season and 12th of his career. Jarry out-dueled Jets’ netminder Connor Hellebuyck, the consensus front-runner for the Vezina Trophy. Forward Bryan Rust commented on the Penguins’ overall team play in the shutout victory, saying:
We were really good defensively, we were good through the neutral zone, good through our D-zone, good playing as a unit all over the ice. I think we defended when we needed to, and we made plays when we needed to.Penguins’ forward Bryan Rust on how the team managed to turn in an all-around effort against the Jets
The success that first started on that road trip has since continued, with the Penguins posting a narrow 2-1 shootout victory over the Calgary Flames before going on to dominate their Pennsylvania rivals the Philadelphia Flyers 4-1 on Friday night (Nov. 25). The streak has reached five games and many questions raised about the team early in the season have begun to be answered. They’ve started to turn the corner and certainly look capable of continuing their recent success.
Covering the Pittsburgh Penguins and other topics for The Hockey Writers. Also a big fan of the Chicago Cubs and progressive rock music.