Pulse of the Penguins: Power Play Struggles, Malkin’s Return, and More

The Pittsburgh Penguins closed out a streaky October with a couple of big wins. Despite a tough loss on Saturday, the team has plenty of momentum rolling into an important stretch of the schedule. Despite another big injury, the Penguins have enough depth to keep things moving.

Penguins Quiet but Dominant Week

The Penguins picked up three of four possible points in their two-game slate last week. They earned two points in an outstanding 7-1 victory over the rival Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday before forcing overtime late against the Edmonton Oilers on Saturday. If it wasn’t for the brick wall in goal, Pittsburgh would’ve easily won both games.

Oilers netminder Mike Smith was tremendous in the 2-1 overtime win, turning away 51 of 52 shots, including a perfect 11 saves during the Penguins’ five unsuccessful power plays. He was staring at a shutout before Brian Dumoulin’s game-tying, short-handed goal with under seven minutes left in the contest. On almost any other day, the Penguins would walk away with a blowout win.

Brian Dumoulin Penguins
Brian Dumoulin continues to be one of the Penguins’ most consistent and reliable blueliners (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Wins tend to be easy when you pocket seven goals, but Matt Murray’s recent play can’t be overlooked. He’s allowed fewer than three goals in three straight starts and fewer than four in six straight outings. During that span, he’s 4-1-1 with a terrific 1.64 goals-against average (GAA) and .936 save percentage.

Murray is notorious for getting beaten on the glove side but he seems to have corrected that a bit. Not only is he making some outstanding saves, the 25-year-old netminder has protected his weakness more than ever lately. Instead, he has let a few trickle in through the five-hole or by putting himself in an unforgiving position.

Jordan Staal, Matt Murray
Matt Murray’s dominance has helped keep the Penguins afloat despite so many injuries. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Back to the high-scoring offense which deserves plenty of credit here as well. With their fourth seven-goal game of the season against the Flyers, the Penguins have already matched their 2018-19 total in that category. They’re the only team this season with more than two such games. The Penguins are also among the top-10 in both goals for and goals allowed per game.

Penguins Briefly Have Full Lineup

With Malkin’s return Saturday, the Penguins had a completely healthy lineup for the first time in over a calendar year. The Russian All-Star was a bit rusty in his first game since Oct. 5, but it was promising to see the full squad on the ice. In true Penguins fashion, that was short-lived as Patric Hornqvist suffered a “long-term” lower-body injury and was placed on injured reserve Sunday.

Because the Penguins can’t have nice things when it comes to their players’ health, the lineup will again look a little different over the next handful of games or so. The main beneficiary of Hornqvist’s absence will be Dominik Kahun. After finally getting into a groove, he was the odd man out of the lineup when the team was at full strength. After notching just two assists in his first 11 games, the 24-year-old winger tallied two goals and four points in his last two games.

Hornqvist spent most of his time Saturday skating alongside Malkin and Alex Galchenyuk on the second line. Bryan Rust, who slid down to the third line in the game against the Oilers, should get bumped up to replace the gritty winger. Rust could be a key factor in helping Malkin get back to his regular self; the Michigan native has scored a point in each of his three games since returning from injured reserve.

Mixed Results in Special Teams Department

Normally, when the Penguins’ special teams are struggling it’s because the penalty kill is hanging Murray out to dry. When the special teams are rolling, it’s because the top power-play unit, packed with All-Stars and premiere goal scorers, is burying every chance. For now, the opposite is true.

Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby
Sidney Crosby has just three power-play points this season. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Pittsburgh is stuck in a brutal 0 for 19 stretch with the man advantage. The team last scored a power-play goal on Oct. 13 against the Winnipeg Jets and have just one game with multiple power-play scores this season. Their eight-game power play drought is the longest of the last several seasons. In fact, since the start of the 2016-17 season, the Penguins haven’t gone longer than five games without a power-play goal.

On the other side, the Penguins are tied for the fewest power-play goals allowed with just five and they’re a perfect 8 for 8 on the penalty kill over the last three games. They are also tied for third with three short-handed goals. Here’s how the Penguins are flipping their recent special teams trends:

  • 2016-17: 23.1 PP percent (3rd in NHL); 79.8 PK percent (20th)
  • 2017-18: 26.2 PP percent (1st); 80 PK percent (17th)
  • 2018-19: 24.6 PP percent (5th); 79.9 PK percent (19th)
  • 2019-20: 14.2 PP percent (24th); 85.3 PK percent (9th)

While the penalty kill has been great, the Penguins need to score on the power play and, in an ideal world, continue to excel on both sides. They peppered Smith with 11 shots during their five power-play opportunities Saturday but, again, it was one of those days when the opposing goalie was standing on his head from start to finish. However the Penguins were moving the puck well and the chances were there; perhaps it’s a sign that the dam is about to burst for the Penguins’ top unit.

Pittsburgh Penguins Brandon Tanev
Brandon Tanev has been a spark plug on the penalty kill and in bottom-six scoring. (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

Now would be a good time for that because the schedule is going to be interesting. The Penguins face arguably the most dangerous team in the league, the Boston Bruins, on Monday. Then it’s off to New York to face an Islanders squad that’s riding a nine-game winning streak. Finally, they’ll host the Chicago Blackhawks on Saturday. They aren’t much of a threat this season but the Penguins have dropped 10 straight to the Western Conference staple, including seven regulation losses in a row.

Top Performers of the Week

  • Sidney Crosby: 1 goal, 3 points, 8 shots on goal
  • Matt Murray: 1-0-1, .948 save percentage, 1.47 GAA
  • Dominik Simon: 1 goal, 3 points, 5 shots on goal
  • Dominik Kahun: 1 goal, 3 points in one game

The top performer of the week is Kris Letang. He and Dumoulin did a terrific job locking down Edmonton’s top line of Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, and Zack Kassian. With Letang on the ice against McDavid during 5-on-5 play, the Penguins registered an 86.4 Corsi percentage. He also broke up multiple rushes involving McDavid and played a ridiculous 28:55 in the overtime loss.

This Week’s Schedule

Monday, Nov. 4 – @ Boston Bruins

Thursday, Nov. 7 – @ New York Islanders

Saturday, Nov. 9 – vs. Chicago Blackhawks

Note: The next “Pulse of the Penguins” will be released on Monday, November 18