In their opening game of 2022 and the first since Dec. 19, the Pittsburgh Penguins held off a furious rally from the San Jose Sharks, emerging victorious after a wild 8-5 affair. With the win, the Penguins move to 18-8-5 on the season, and maintain their sturdy grip on the Eastern Conference’s primary wildcard spot. Here are three takeaways from the Penguins’ impressive eighth-straight victory.
Rodrigues’ Hat-Trick Continues Breakout Season
If anyone had Evan Rodrigues almost matching his previous career-high in points this early in the season, speak up now — I need to know tonight’s lottery numbers. With his first career hat trick, Rodrigues sits second on the team in scoring (26 points), and further extends his personal best goal total to 13 markers on the year. Further, he led the team in every offensive department against the Sharks, pacing the Penguins in shots, scoring chances, individual expected goals for, and high-danger opportunities in all situations.
It’s not as though he’s relying on an unsustainable streak of finishing to boost his counting numbers either, as his individual (SH%) and on-ice shooting percentages (OiSH%) are generally hovering around his career norms. Rodrigues is converting on over 10 percent of his shots, a tad higher than his career conversion rate of almost eight percent. The true indicator is his five-on-five OiSH%, which factors in the shooting success of all of his teammates with whom he shares the ice, not just his own results. His 7.64 percent isn’t even the highest of his career, and it’s less than half a percentage point greater than last season’s mark.
Notably, Rodrigues is generating the highest individual shot- and scoring-chance rate of his career at five-on-five, meaning there’s a tangible process underlying his elevated production. Although the eventual return of Evgeni Malkin could relegate Rodrigues to a lower role in the lineup, there’s no doubt that the 28-year-old has earned the unexpected jump in raw counting stats.
Dominant Win Demonstrates Penguins’ Full Potential
It’s easy enough to point at the Penguins’ eye-popping number of goals on the day and call it a day, but they continued to dominate the run of play in line with this season’s earlier results.
At five-on-five, the Penguins controlled 59.6 percent of shot attempts (CF%) and over 70 percent of scoring chances and high-danger opportunities, a resounding tour-de-force over their adversary in the 2017 Stanley Cup Final. Even as the Sharks initiated a four-goal rally which brought them to within a single goal, Pittsburgh never dipped below 50 percent in shot- or chance-share over the course of an entire period. Considering the often overpowering wave of score effects in hockey, that’s an admirable feat in and of itself.
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On the season, the Penguins rank among the NHL’s most dominant possession teams at five-on-five, regularly maintaining a comprehensive territorial advantage over their opponents. Their glittering shot- (fifth), scoring chance- (sixth), and expected goals share (third) give them a significant buffer against the common swings in puck luck over the course of an entire season, and it showed on Sunday afternoon.
Now, they did beat up on the middling Sharks, who sit in the bottom half of the Pacific Division. But a convincing win is better than one eked out by the skin of their teeth. Onwards and upwards, as always.
Rust Shakes off the Rust With Hat-Trick Performance
After an injury-plagued start to the 2021-22 season, Bryan Rust had only amassed nine points in 12 games prior to Sunday’s tilt against the Sharks. In response, the 29-year-old winger tallied five points on the back of a hat trick to match the one produced by Rodrigues, ringing in the new year with a vengeance. He fired five shots on goal and finished second on the team in individual expected goals for, highlighting his vast influence over the day’s result.
His scoring rate before the five-point explosion had been a click below his previous two seasons (0.88 points per game to 0.75), but improved health and lineup consistency should see Rust return to peak production.
Underlining his offensive outburst is the fact that Rust enters 2022 without a contract beyond this season, and the debate around keeping the winger in tow is sure to heat up closer to the trade deadline. Rumours abound surrounding management’s willingness to part with several forwards amidst the breakout seasons experienced by the team’s depth pieces. Does the surprise campaign from someone like Rodrigues entice President of Hockey Operations Brian Burke and general manager Ron Hextall to test the trade waters for Rust? If Sunday’s performance is anything to go by, management could have no choice but to walk the contractual tightrope to ensure the best odds at capturing another Stanley Cup.
Next Game: Jan. 5 vs. St. Louis Blues (19-9-5)
The Penguins now turn their eyes to the next game on the schedule, an inter-conference affair with the St. Louis Blues. The Blues have won seven of their last 10 games and lead the NHL’s Central Division with 43 points on the season.
The Blues are not a strong possession team, only controlling 48.4 percent of all shot attempts at five-on-five. The Penguins could find success against a St. Louis squad that concedes 2.7 expected goals against per 60 minutes (xGA/60) at five-on-five, the third-worst rate in the NHL. Accordingly, the Penguins generate a steady flow of quality opportunities, which translates to the 2.62 xGF/60 they have posted so far this season (seventh in the league). If the officials put the whistles away, the Penguins should have an easy time creating offense during even-strength play.
However, the game could be defined by special teams, with the Blues’ power play and Pittsburgh’s penalty kill ranking among the best in the league. The Penguins’ disciplined approach has resulted in the team being called for the lowest rate of penalty minutes this season, which could choke off a reliable source of offense for St. Louis. In any case, it promises to be a tightly-contested affair.
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Marko is an aspiring sportswriter with a passion for crafting stories while using a combination of the eye-test and (shudder) analytics, which is complemented by an academic background in criminology and political science.
When not covering the Colorado Avalanche and Pittsburgh Penguins for The Hockey Writers, he can also be found pouring countless hours into various sports video games franchises, indulging in science fiction novels, and taking long runs around his neighbourhood.