The National Hockey League All-Star Weekend has wrapped up. Thus, the traditional halfway point of the season has arrived. The Pittsburgh Penguins are sitting pretty, holding on to the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference with 62 points. The team is firing on all cylinders and is finally getting back to full strength as more and more injured players return. On the heels of a remarkable winning streak, they’ve hit a small snag recently, losing the last four games, all on home ice.
Despite the small hitch in what has otherwise been a successful season, the Penguins nevertheless remain one of the league’s best and most consistent teams. This can perhaps best be reflected not only in how they perform when they win, but also when they lose.
Penguins Losses Do Not Reflect Quality of Play
The first loss of this current skid came on Jan. 27, a 2-1 overtime defeat to the Seattle Kraken. Despite being outshot 29-24 that night, the Penguins responded in all other relevant categories. They utterly dominated the dot, winning 63% of draws. Sidney Crosby, Jeff Carter, Evgeni Malkin, and Brian Boyle split duties in the circle, with Carter and Crosby both over 60% on face-offs individually. The Penguins were the more physical team and more successful on special teams.
The Penguins were able to hold the Kraken off the scoreboard until late in the third period and ultimately conceded the winner shortly after the start of the extra frame. The loss to the Kraken was, at that point, the first loss for the Penguins on home ice since Nov. 27 against the Montréal Canadiens.
The next few games played out in remarkably similar fashion. The Penguins largely outplayed their next two opponents, yet still lost by razor-thin margins; in a shootout to the Detroit Red Wings on Jan. 28, and on a late third-period goal to the Los Angeles Kings on Jan. 30. Each of those games played out in eerie similarity to the game versus the Kraken, as the Penguins were defeated in the shots column but outplayed their opponents in nearly every other aspect.
Penguins’ Best Players Remain Consistent During Skid
Even though the Penguins haven’t been winning as of late, you wouldn’t know it based on the play of the team’s best. The goal scorers in each of the last four games comprise the best players of the season. Leading scorer Jake Guentzel potted two against the Red Wings, and Bryan Rust did the same versus the Washington Capitals on Feb. 1, further cementing his status as one of the most important players to the Penguins’ success. Rust also had the most shots of any individual player with nine across just over 21 minutes of ice time.
The Penguins coaching staff must also be feeling quite a bit of relief right now, as even in the midst of a losing streak, the players who recently returned from long injuries or COVID-19 layoffs are back to producing at a high level. The two goals Rust scored against the Capitals were his 13th and 14th goals of the season, and Malkin recently promised big things when the league returns from the All-Star break.
Malkin’s meeting with reporters after the game against the Capitals was surprisingly critical, as the Pens’ star discussed his unhappiness with his own play. Coach Mike Sullivan quickly recognized Malkin’s struggles, putting him on a line with Kasperi Kapanen and Brock McGinn in the hopes that it would re-ignite Malkin’s offence:
“Kappy and I had this conversation [Monday]. He’s an important player for us. He’s a very good player. And it’s my job to try to get the best out of him. That’s what we’re trying to do. He has the ability to play with Geno. … Our hope is that those guys can generate some offence for us moving forward.”Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan on how he could help Malkin get back to his best. (From “Evgeni Malkin, knee feeling stronger and confidence surging, expects big things after All-Star break” Matt Vensel. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. 02/02/2022).
Even though the victories haven’t come in the past few games, the Penguins can keep optimism up knowing that they still remain successful in the team categories that ultimately contribute to success. The victories will come again, but it’s nice to know that the Penguins don’t have to change much to achieve that success again.
Covering the Pittsburgh Penguins and other topics for The Hockey Writers. Also a big fan of the Chicago Cubs and progressive rock music.