On Sunday, the Pittsburgh Penguins faced the Boston Bruins in their last opportunity for points before their bye week. The Bruins were a formidably hot team — 8-0-2 over their last 10 games, with seven goals against the Hurricanes the night before — but the Penguins fought their way to an overtime win, two precious points and a temporary wildcard playoff spot. This was largely because of the efforts of the team’s two superstars, Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby.
Crosby’s three-point performance is significant for the Penguins in more ways than just this single win. The captain’s production has been low in the first half of this season, significant enough for Crosby to comment that he didn’t feel worthy of being named to the upcoming All-Star game. His lack of productions has been particularly visible on a team that’s been straining to produce lately and a surge in Crosby’s performance could lead to a boost in team performance.
Crosby’s Recent Surge
On Jan. 1, Crosby was 32nd in the league in scoring, totalling 35 points in 40 games, a .875 point per game pace; were he to maintain that rate, it would be by far the lowest of his career. Exactly one week and four Penguins games later, he has jumped to fifteenth in the scoring race with 43 points in 44 games, very nearly hitting the point-per-game mark.
For the struggling Penguins, eight points in four games (actually three games with the 4-0 shutout loss to the Carolina Hurricanes) has been welcome. In four games, Crosby’s matched his point total from the previous 13. He hasn’t been shooting more: two shots per game in three of the last four games match his season average. But he has been assisting more. His three assists in each of the Penguins’ last two games could indicate that the Penguins are starting to break out of the scoring slump that has plagued them in this first half of the season.
Breaking Out of the Penguins’ Slump
Part of the reason the Penguins have been plagued by a horrific goal differential — after the 4-0 loss to the Hurricanes it was minus-17 — is because of their flagging shot percentage. Despite being one of the league-leaders in shots per game, the Penguins were scoring on less than eight percent of these shots, which resulted in dismal production totals. This past week could be a sign that their woeful shooting percentage is starting to adjust slightly, something that the Penguins need as they cling to the second wildcard spot in the Metropolitan Division.
Everything about the first half of the Penguins’ 2017-18 season feels reminiscent of the start to their 2015-16 season. In December of 2016, Crosby had been quiet on the score sheet for the most of the season, putting up only 19 points in his first 30 games. The Penguins were out of the playoffs and looking for any kind of spark.
This season is, of course, a bit different from the beginning of 2016. The Penguins are not about to fire two-time Cup winner Mike Sullivan just to give the team a kick. But a few aspects of this season feel like a déjà vu.
Crosby is starting to heat up, just as he did to start the new year in 2016: in early January he went on a tear, with points in 11 straight games and went from All-Star pariah to leader of the scoring race in the span of a month. And just as in 2016, promising Wilkes-Barre/Scranton players are making an impact on a tired roster. Two years ago, it was Conor Sheary and Bryan Rust; this year, it’s Daniel Sprong and Dominik Simon as the sparky young players getting their shot on Crosby’s wing.
Hope for the Penguins
Crosby putting up points is not the complete solution to the Penguins’ problems but it’s part of it. His sudden surge of production is indicative of a few things, all of them good: energetic new wingers, a working power play, a climbing shooting percentage. If the Penguins continue with this momentum after their bye week, they could begin to claw their way up the insanely packed Metropolitan Division, which even halfway through the season has the last place team sitting less than 10 points away from the first.
Julia Stumbaugh is a student at the College of William & Mary.