A quarter of the way through the season and it’s clear that the Pittsburgh Penguins may never show their true identity. They have struggled to come together as a team; some days the goaltending is elite and other days it’s the offense, but rarely at the same time.
Patric Hornqvist returned from injured reserve on Nov. 21 as Justin Schultz’s injury turned out to be “longer-term.” There was also bad news on the Nick Bjugstad front: he’s expected to miss about two months with a core injury. On the bright side, Kris Letang could be ready to go for Monday’s game.
New-Look Top Line Gaining Momentum
One of the few constants has been the top line of Evgeni Malkin, Jake Guentzel, and Bryan Rust. The trio combined for five goals and 12 points during the Penguins’ three games this week. With Sidney Crosby on the shelf, Malkin has done a terrific job of filling in as the top-line center and seems to be enjoying the uptick in playing time.
Over the last three games, Malkin has averaged 20:30 of ice time per game, a sizable increase on his 17:55 average for the season. He’s also riding a four-game point streak that included three straight multi-point efforts.
On his wing, Rust is on pace for over 46 goals, even when factoring in the 11 games he missed due to a wrist injury to start the season. He set a career high with 18 during the 2018-19 campaign, so 40-plus may be a bit of a pipe dream, but the 5-foot-11 winger has been one of the team’s most consistent sources of offense.
Rust has scored a point in 10 of 12 games and has a sky-high 21.6 shooting percentage. Naturally, that’s going to balance out a bit. For now, though, every time the puck touches his stick in the offensive zone it feels like a goal waiting to happen.
Finally, of course, there’s Guentzel. He notched his first 40-goal campaign last season and is operating at a very similar pace with 11 goals in 23 games. The 25-year-old is shooting three percent worse than last season, from 17.6 percent to 14.5 percent, yet his goal-scoring abilities are no fluke; he’s among the league’s elite when it comes to finding the back of the net, with or without Crosby by his side.
Over the last three games, this top line has posted a 53.6 Corsi percentage and has scored three 5-on-5 goals while allowing none. They’re dominating with quality looks together; their high-danger Corsi for is 14-5, or 73.7 percent, and they have a 63.2 expected goals-for percentage.
Penguins-Islanders Rivalry Stays Tight
The Penguins have already faced the Islanders three times this season, going 1-0-2 and all ending in overtime. The Penguins won the first matchup on Nov. 7 but the Islanders won both matchups last week on Tuesday and Thursday. However, Pittsburgh lost the games in very different fashion.
In Tuesday’s game, the Penguins blew a 2-0 lead, a 4-2 lead, and ultimately fell short in overtime, 5-4. The second blown lead fell apart in the final five minutes of regulation. In Thursday’s game, the teams exchanged goals, including Hornqvist’s game-tying score with 30 seconds left in regulation.
The second game featured some questionable calls from the officials which led seven power-play opportunities for the Islanders; they collected on two which broke the Penguins’ streak of 26 consecutive penalties killed.
The Penguins have already dropped four overtime games this season, all this month. In total, they’ve gone to overtime seven times, including a shootout win over the Chicago Blackhawks on Nov. 9.
Last season, Pittsburgh lost 12 overtime games (tied for fourth-most in the league) and they are on pace to surpass that number this season. They also played 19 overtimes last season. If half of those 12 losses were wins, the Penguins would have finished with 106 points and won the Metropolitan Division. It’s nice to earn a point instead of losing in regulation, but the Penguins have to figure out overtime before it costs them a playoff spot in a tight Eastern Conference.
Jarry’s Dominant Streak Closes Gap with Murray
Like the Penguins’ nagging injury bug, it feels repetitive to keep talking about how great Tristan Jarry has been, but he just keeps rolling. The 24-year-old stopped 36 of 37 shots in Friday’s 4-1 victory over the New Jersey Devils. In his last two starts (both wins), he’s turned away 68 of 70 shots.
His latest shutdown performance came on the heels of another pair of questionable Matt Murray starts. In those two overtime losses to the Islanders, Murray coughed up nine goals on 66 shots. Over his last seven starts, the 25-year-old is 2-1-3 with a 4.29 goals-against average and .864 save percentage. He’d be 2-2-3 but Jarry was tagged with a loss to the Boston Bruins on Nov. 4 after Murray was yanked in the second period.
The Penguins have another back-to-back scheduled this Friday and Saturday on the road against the Columbus Blue Jackets and St. Louis Blues. Jarry will start one of those two. However, he should also get the nod for one of the early-week games on Monday or Wednesday.
At this point, there’s no excuse for not playing Jarry more. He has a 1.80 goals-against average and .945 save percentage. Those numbers aren’t sustainable but even if this is a hot streak, he’s earned more time than being used exclusively in back-to-back sets. There’s no other way to put it: Jarry is better than Murray right now.
Top Performers of the Week
- Jake Guentzel: 2 goals, 4 points, plus-3 rating, 9 shots
- John Marino: 1 goal, 3 points, plus-2 rating, 5 shots
- Bryan Rust: 2 goals, 3 points, 11 shots
The best performer this week is Malkin. As mentioned, the 6-foot-3 Russian is starting to find his legs and perform like the Malkin that was missing all last season. This week, he tallied a goal and five points with a plus-3 rating and 13 shots. Without Crosby, his impact is even more important and he’s stepping up to the task.
This Week’s Schedule
Monday, Nov. 25 – vs. Calgary Flames
Wednesday, Nov. 27 – vs. Vancouver Canucks
Friday, Nov. 29 – @ Columbus Blue Jackets
Saturday, Nov. 30 – @ St. Louis Blues
Tyler Bowen is a University of South Florida graduate and lifelong hockey fan. Tyler covers the Pittsburgh Penguins for thehockeywriters.com. You can usually find him obsessing over his fantasy teams and looking for his next gambling tip.