The Pittsburgh Penguins have made a routine of comebacks this season.
When scoring first, they are 5-1. When they concede first, they are just 5-5-2.
Over the first 18 games this season, they conceded first 12 times, including the last five consecutive games. They haven’t scored a goal in the first period since Oct. 29 when they beat the Philadelphia Flyers 7-1.
These slow starts are very concerning – the Penguins have fought back to at least tie the game in each of the last five games but have only been victorious twice. If they do not start games quicker, fighting for a playoff spot will become that much more difficult.
Goaltenders Stepping Up
Perhaps the bright spot of starting slowly is that goaltender Matt Murray is required to make timely saves early to keep the Penguins in the game. In combination with backup goaltender Tristian Jarry, the pair has allowed just 11 goals on 166 shots in the first period. Most recently, Murray made a spectacular save against the New York Rangers:
The goalie tandem has upped their first period save percentage from .924% to .933%. Even though it is a smaller sample size, this improvement has been noticeable. Choosing Jarry over Casey DeSmith as backup has proven to be the correct decision as he has been playing at a high level in his limited starts.
If the Penguins are going to continue their slow starts, Murray and Jarry will have to continue playing at a high level.
First Period Woes Continue Against Rangers
The first period against the New York Rangers on Nov. 12 was not good. It was arguably the worst first period of the season for the Penguins. They were outshot 9-1 early on in the game and fell behind 2-0 very quickly, despite having two power-play opportunities. Even though the first period ended 11-8 in shots in favor of the Rangers, the Pens were still severely outplayed. Head coach Mike Sullivan echoed the same during his post-game press conference:
We weren’t ready to play. They were ready to play. They outplayed us in the first period. Having said that, for most of this year, this team has been ready to play from the drop of the puck and played extremely well.Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan after Tuesday’s loss to the New York Rangers
Sullivan later went on to say how proud he was that the team fought back in the second period before losing in overtime. Center Evgeni Malkin echoed Sullivan’s comments by saying that it is a 60-minute game, not a 40-minute game. The Penguins have scored 20 more goals in the second period than their opponents have, including two against the Rangers. While it is nice to see the team fight back like they have, early scoring along with a strong second period would certainly put them in a better position. Against the Rangers though, Sullivan did something particularly surprising, but was extremely effective.
Fourth Line Starts 2nd and 3rd Period
The Penguins’ “fourth line” has been together since they played the Anaheim Ducks on Oct. 10. Becoming known as the “energy line,” Brandon Tanev, Teddy Blueger and Zach Aston Reese have formed a dynamic trio for the Penguins. Perhaps using them like the New York Islanders did against Pittsburgh in the 2019 playoffs, the fourth line started the last two periods against the Rangers. Specifically, in the second period, they put together a great shift and got the puck in the offensive zone. This allowed the Penguins to change their lines, keep tired Rangers on the ice and Justin Schultz scored less than 75 seconds into the second period.
They again started the third period and while it didn’t result in a goal, it was still a good shift for the fourth line. This is something that could become a normal thing, especially if Sidney Crosby is going to miss a significant amount of time. With the energy line starting the period, they can use their speed and tenacity to create a matchup issue for teams. Sullivan has kept this line together despite injuries across the rest of the team and there are no signs that is going to change. If he can use this line to spark something early in games and get a favorable matchup, the Penguins could turn the corner on their first period woes.
Setting the Tone
In any sport, scoring first is important but it is even more important in a sport like hockey where scoring is limited. The Penguins need to start having better first periods. While comebacks are great and get fans on the edge of their seat, it more often than not leads to defeat.
While it is nice to get to overtime and secure at least one point like the Penguins did against the Oilers, Islanders and Rangers, they only came out victorious against the Islanders. Quick starts have generally propelled this team to success, just like they had against the Flyers, scoring four goals in the first period. Using the fourth line to set the tone could be the catalyst the Penguins need to turn the corner on their underwhelming first periods this season.