Pulse of the Penguins: Winning Streak, Depth Scoring & Milestones

The Pittsburgh Penguins had a busy week with a four-game slate against Western Conference opponents. After a sloppy loss to the Winnipeg Jets, they caught fire and finished the week 3-1-0 with a plus-6 goal differential. Injuries slowed the offense down but they bounced back big time with 14 goals in their two weekend games. With a small homestand coming up, it’s the perfect time for the Penguins to get rolling.

Depth Forward Lines Leading the Charge

With Evgeni Malkin, Nick Bjugstad, and Alex Galchenyuk missing from the lineup, the Penguins needed some depth forwards to step up and they absolutely answered the call. They posted seven goals in back-to-back games against the Jets and Minnesota Wild over the weekend after scoring just 11 in the first four games. Those 14 goals had bottom-six names scattered all over the place.

Recent call-ups Sam Lafferty, Adam Johnson, and Joseph Blandisi have ganged up as the team’s youngest and hottest trio on the fourth line. Over the last two games, those three have combined for five goals and nine points, with Lafferty accounting for three goals and five points himself. Zach Aston-Reese had a two-goal, three-point performance in the win over the Jets, while blueliner Marcus Pettersson also collected two assists. The entire fourth line may be gone once the Penguins are fully healthy, but at least Lafferty is making a strong case to stick around for a while.

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Sidney Crosby will still deservingly get plenty of recognition for Pittsburgh’s recent offensive outburst. He’s found the scoresheet in all six games to start the season, accumulating 3 goals and 10 points with a plus-3 rating. The top-line trio of him, Jake Guentzel, and Dominik Simon has been terrific all season with a 61.1 Corsi percentage. Crosby and Guentzel also combined for 7 goals and 12 points this week, enough to earn Crosby the NHL third star award. To top things off, blue-chip defenseman Kris Letang recorded a 60 Corsi percentage and six points this week, extending his scoring streak to six games to start the season.

The Offense Still Isn’t Perfect

While the scoring onslaught has been fun to watch and a welcome sight with some early-season struggles, the Penguins haven’t fixed everything yet. With all the injuries, the new and not-so-improved second line of Jared McCann, Patric Hornqvist, and Dominik Kahun was supposed to pick up some slack and take the pressure off of Crosby’s top line. McCann and Kahun were both held scoreless this week, combining for just seven shots on goal.

Buffalo Sabres Carter Hutton Pittsburgh Penguins Patric Hornqvist
Patric Hornqvist has been his usual pesky self (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)

As expected, head coach Mike Sullivan has shaken up lines but none of those three have seen much success when they’ve been needed the most. They each registered Corsi percentages under 40 percent over the last four games, including Hornqvist’s team-worst 29 percent. There’s no other way to put it: these three need to be better with Malkin out of the lineup.

The Lafferty/Blandisi/Johnson line has been very effective over the last two games and really overachieved in the offensive end. However, everyone knows it’s not sustainable for a fourth line to score at a second-line pace. To no surprise, these fourth-liners have all posted Corsi percentages under 50 percent. Still, they’ve seen more scoring chances than opponents in the short sample size.

Goaltending Questions Haven’t Been Answered

Thursday’s 2-1 victory over the Anaheim Ducks was a fun goaltending battle between Matt Murray and John Gibson, arguably the league’s top goalie. In this showdown, Murray turned in his best start of the season and stole the spotlight, saving 31 of 32 shots and stifling all three of the Ducks’ power-play opportunities.

Unfortunately, that terrific outing was sandwiched between a pair of starts where Murray allowed four goals in each. Tuesday’s loss to the Jets was especially painful; Crosby opened the game’s scoring just 30 seconds after puck drop but the Jets would score four unanswered goals before the second period ended. In the other net, Connor Hellebuyck dominated with 37 saves.

Matt Murray, Bret Howden
As usual, Matt Murray is struggling to find consistency this season. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Murray earned another win Saturday over the Wild but he still wasn’t very impressive. The Penguins had a 6-2 lead with just five minutes left before the 25-year-old netminder coughed up a pair of goals just 21 seconds apart, turning a blowout into a high-scoring affair. This season, he ranks 25th among goalies with at least 100 minutes on the ice with a minus-0.47 goals saved above-average rate. As has been the case, the defense needs to fix things, as well; Murray has faced 41 high-danger shots, 10 more than any other netminder in the NHL.

In a somewhat surprising decision, the Penguins stuck with Tristan Jarry instead of Casey DeSmith as Murray’s backup after the preseason came to a close. That looked to be the right move after Jarry turned in a great performance in Saturday’s win against the Jets. He allowed a goal just two minutes into the game, but after Mark Schiefele’s power play tally at the midway point of the second period, the 6-foot-2 goalie shut the Jets down.

Letang’s Franchise Record Caps Off Week of Milestones

Along with an overall successful and busy week, several Penguins set new career milestones. John Marino made his NHL debut and has now suited up for four straight games. It’s clear that Sullivan wants him in the lineup as much as possible; he has a terrific hockey IQ and hounds the puck the entire time he’s on the ice, he just won’t show up much on the scoresheet.

Lafferty also made his NHL debut and buried three goals over the weekend. The Western Pennsylvania native has quickly become a fan favorite while he battles for a full-time roster spot with the big club. His linemate Adam Johnson also tallied his first career goal in Saturday’s big win over the Wild. On the bright side, those two should continue giving opponents plenty of trouble when they return to AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

Pittsburgh Penguins Sam Lafferty
Sam Lafferty’s hot streak may be enough to keep him in the lineup for longer than expected (James Carey Lauder-USA TODAY Sports)

Despite Murray’s inconsistent play this year, he won his 99th and 100th career games this week. With his 105th victory, he’ll pass Ken Wregget for third-most wins as a Penguins goalie and his 112th win surpass Marc-Andre Fleury for the franchise’s most wins in their first five seasons. Speaking of franchise records, Kris Letang was already Pittsburgh’s all-time leader in points scored by a defenseman, but with two assists Sunday, he became the first Penguins blueliner to reach the 500-point mark.

Three Stars of the Week

Third Star – Jake Guentzel: 4 goals, 5 points, 15 shots, plus-2 rating

Second Star – Kris Letang: 5 assists, 6 points, 14 shots, plus-5 rating

First Star – Sidney Crosby: 3 goals, 7 points, plus-3 rating, 62.4 Corsi %

This Week’s Schedule

Wednesday, Oct. 16 – vs. Colorado Avalanche

Friday, Oct. 18 – vs. Dallas Stars

Saturday, Oct. 19 – vs. Vegas Golden Knights