After a rocky start to this season, the Pittsburgh Penguins left 2018 with a bang by winning six straight games and eight of their last nine. They kept the winning streak alive in 2019 after a 7-2 dismantling of the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Jan 2.
After being on the outside of the playoff picture for the majority of the season, the Penguins have moved into second place in the Metropolitan Division and are only one point behind the Washington Capitals for the top spot. There have been a lot of highs and lows, but the Penguins seem to finally be clicking on all cylinders.
SEVEN CONSECUTIVE WINS! pic.twitter.com/nPau1iE0hl
— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) January 3, 2019
For their first 20 games or so, the Penguins continuously found ways to lose. Whether it was bad bounces, poor officiating, goaltending issues, or failed power plays late in the game, they could not find a way to stack wins together. These problems seem to be a thing of the past, as the Penguins have outscored their opponents 28-9 during their seven-game win streak. As they should, the team has lofty goals, and here are three resolutions for the Penguins to strive for as they enter 2019.
Sidney Crosby Will Win the Hart Trophy
For whatever reason, no one is talking about the incredible year that Sidney Crosby is having. He missed a handful of games in November with what was disclosed as an upper-body injury and when he was not in the lineup, the team was a mess. Evgeni Malkin hasn’t been his usual self this season and is still trying to find his game. Without the firepower that Crosby is bringing to the lineup every night, the team would still be far from a playoff spot.
Through 37 games, Crosby has 19 goals, 31 assists, and a plus-18 rating. He leads the team in goals, assists, points, overtime goals, shooting percentage, and is second in plus-minus behind only Brian Dumoulin (plus-25). If that doesn’t scream most valuable player, I don’t know what does. The argument against Crosby for the Hart Trophy, which is awarded annually to the player deemed most valuable to his team, is that he has so much help around him that he alone doesn’t make that much of a difference, but this couldn’t be more false.
Crosby has put his team on his back. In the last six games of 2018, the Penguins scored 21 goals during the six-game winning streak and of those 21 goals, Crosby was on the ice for 18 of them, and on the scoresheet for 12 of them (three goals, nine assists). He has carried his team into the playoff picture and if he continues to play this way, he should get the nod for the Hart Trophy.
Penguins Will Have Consistent Goaltending
The argument as to whether or not the Penguins made the right move by deciding to keep Matt Murray over Marc-Andre Fleury is a debate that will never subside. On paper, it made sense. Murray is far younger and coming off back-to-back Stanley Cups. However, since letting Fleury go he has been lights out for the Vegas Golden Knights and Murray has been inconsistent. An incredibly rocky start to this season, Murray missed two weeks in October with a concussion and then was out nearly a month with what was diagnosed as a lower-body injury in mid-November.
In Murray’s absence, backup goaltender Casey DeSmith played great and helped right the ship in the meantime. Even since Murray has returned, Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan has leaned on DeSmith to ease Murray back into action. Already with 21 starts this season as we approach the NHL All-Star Game, DeSmith totes a 12-6-4 record with an impressive 2.40 goals-against average and .926 save percentage. The thought in Pittsburgh was if Murray struggled upon returning that DeSmith would be the guy from here on out.
Since Murray’s return from the lower-body injury, he has been a wall. He made his return on Dec. 15 against the Los Angeles Kings and since then, he has a 6-0-0 record with a 1.50 GAA and a .955 SV%. What was once a goalie controversy is no more. Murray has reclaimed his spot as the starter in Pittsburgh and the best news is that if he goes down with another injury, DeSmith is more than capable of replacing him. If they are going to make a run at a Metropolitan Division title, their goaltending is going to need to continue to be stellar.
Penguins Will Acquire a Top-Four Defenseman
The trade rumors regarding the Penguins for the past few years have been about adding depth up front. At the beginning of the season, they were really struggling to get secondary scoring and the top two lines were carrying the team. If Crosby and Malkin didn’t produce, they were doomed, but that hasn’t been the case recently. Derick Brassard, Zach Aston-Reese and Bryan Rust have all added the necessary offensive spark.
While the Penguins roster looks good on paper, there is still a glaring weakness on the backend. They will eventually get Justin Schultz back, and newly-acquired defenseman Marcus Pettersson has been solid since coming to Pittsburgh but he doesn’t add anything offensively as a one-way defenseman.
If the Penguins are going to make their way through an explosive Eastern Conference in the playoffs, they need to trade for a top-four defenseman, preferably a right-handed top-four defenseman. With Chad Ruhwedel sent down to the AHL affiliate, Kris Letang is the only healthy right-handed defenseman on the roster.
Penguins’ GM Jim Rutherford has never been shy about trades, and with a fair amount of time until the trade deadline on Feb. 25, look for him to bring in a new face in order to take some of the pressure off Letang. Olli Maatta is a piece who I believe will be used as trade bait in order to bring in someone like Colton Parayko from the St. Louis Blues. While they were able to win the Stanley Cup two seasons ago with a lackluster defensive core, the Penguins will need to improve if they want to make a run at a third championship in four years.