The past 10 years have been very kind to Pittsburgh Penguins fans. The team hasn’t missed the playoffs and have two Stanley Cup victories. This season, already defined by constant injuries, there have been some bright moments. With just under a third of the regular season done, there are plenty of reasons to be thankful.
1. GM Jim Rutherford Made the Right Moves
Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford is either loved or hated by fans. This season, he has done almost everything right; signing Brandon Tanev, acquiring John Marino and Dominik Kahun via trade and trading away defenseman Erik Gudbranson for cap relief have all benefited the Penguins in their own way.
He has also filled the minor leagues with depth, something that is difficult to do when you are competing for the Stanley Cup on a yearly basis. Players like Sam Lafferty, Joseph Blandisi and Adam Johnson have been asked to fill in for injuries and have done so with relative ease. Rutherford has worked his magic on this roster and has set this team up for another Cup run.
2. Goaltenders Playing Well
Matt Murray has played at a high level this season. Even if his stats do not back it up, he has bailed the Penguins out time and time again. In a 5-4 overtime loss to the New York Islanders on Nov. 19, he made 37 saves. He was easily the best player on the ice for the Penguins, who had no right to be in that game with how poorly they played. Murray is the anchor for the team and will continue to be relied upon for timely saves and to keep his team in the game.
In a bit of a controversial move, the Penguins named 24-year-old Tristan Jarry the backup goaltender, who has played lights out in his seven starts. While a .938 save percentage (SV%) is not sustainable, he has some thinking he is the goalie of the future. He should get more starts as we move into the middle portion of the season and he will get his chance to prove he can be a No. 1 goaltender.
After clearing waivers, Casey DeSmith has been on fire in the American Hockey League for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. With a .922 SV%, he continues to play at the level we saw in the NHL last season. It’s a boost that the Penguins have such a reliable goaltender in the AHL in case of an injury.
DeSmith also opens up trade opportunities that most teams do not have. He will be in the NHL at some point. It is just a question of what team it will be with and what circumstances bring him up.
3. Dominant Penalty Kill
The penalty kill has been a struggle for a few years. This season, the Penguins have turned things around and have one of the best PK units in the NHL. Allowing just 10 goals in 64 shorthanded situations, the Penguins are sixth in the NHL with an 84.4 penalty-kill percentage. Their 10 goals allowed also rank second, only behind the San Jose Sharks.
The arrival of Tanev has had a direct impact on the penalty kill. He and Teddy Blueger lead the forwards in PK minutes. He is also one of four Penguins with a shorthanded goal this season, a category which has them tied for third in the league, one behind the Vegas Golden Knights and Anaheim Ducks. These limited power play opportunities for the opposition have allowed for an aggressive PK that is one of the best in the league.
4. Next Man Up Mentality
The Penguins have been one of the most injury-stricken teams this season. As of Thanksgiving Day, 10 players have missed at least two games due to injury. Head coach Mike Sullivan has preached the idea of “next man up mentality” and they have answered that call. Whether it be AHL call-ups, players playing out of their normal position or having the lines changed night after night, the Penguins have responded well to a difficult task.
Jared McCann, who already missed two games to injury, has had a career season so far, playing on the wing and at center. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Nick Bjugstad, the presumed top three centers going into the season, have each missed seven or more games. McCann has filled in seamlessly for them in their absences.
Without McCann, the Penguins would have had to trade for a center by now. While injuries are never a good thing, they have shown that the team has players who can contribute in ways that were not expected before the season.
5. Jake Guentzel
Guentzel signed a five-year, $30 million extension last season and that deal is already looking like a steal. Playing almost exclusively with Crosby since being called up in the 2016-17 season, he is getting a chance to play with Malkin with the Penguins captain sidelined for the next month at least. Currently riding a six-game point streak, Guentzel is proving that he can score with anyone. He has been productive on the power play and is setting up his teammates with relative ease, as he did against the Islanders on Nov. 21.
Over the course of the season, he has been the Penguins’ best player. While players like Crosby and Bryan Rust have had explosive weeks, Guentzel has remained consistent. He has played in all 25 games this season and has been held without a point in seven of those. He leads the team with 14 goals and 25 points. We are all thankful that #59 will be in a Penguins uniform for a long time.