The Pittsburgh Penguins will head into the 2019 All-Star break with a 26-16-6 record, good for 58 points and fourth place in a tight Metropolitan Division. The team is holding on to the second wild-card spot for dear life despite having the fourth-best goal differential in the Eastern Conference.
There’s still plenty of reason to be optimistic about the Penguins though, especially for a team that was tied for the fewest points in the East on Nov. 20. Pittsburgh is home to multiple all-time greats, a young goalie that’s catching fire at the right time and a deep group of skaters with potential. What will be the biggest challenges this team will face down the home stretch?
Can Matt Murray Stay Hot?
Matt Murray is without a doubt the biggest reason for the Penguins’ success from mid-December until now. He missed 13 games in November and December due to a lower-body injury that may have been hindering him during his dreadful start to the season. Here’s what Murray’s splits look like before and after that trip to injured reserve:
Before: 4-5-1, 4.08 goals-against average (GAA), .877 save percentage (SV%)
After: 10-1-0, 1.81 GAA, .944 SV%
It’s hard to have a more drastic improvement than that. If anything, the IR stint allowed Murray to clear his head and simplify his game a bit after the worst stretch of games in his career. The 24-year-old shouldn’t be expected to produce those same outstanding numbers the rest of the season but he needs to stay consistent. As long as he doesn’t over-complicate his game and lets his offense support him, he should continue his impressive play.
Casey DeSmith played fairly well during Murray’s absence, posting a 7-2-2 record with a 2.62 GAA and .917 SV%. Unfortunately, he’s faltered as of late, coughing up 14 goals in his last three starts and taking a loss in each. While Murray is the clear starter, DeSmith has to be reliable in a backup role
When Will Malkin Return to Form?
There’s been a lot of talk recently about Evgeni Malkin’s struggles this season and that’s a testament to what an elite talent he is. Not many players can be criticized so heavily while scoring over a point-per-game heading into the All-Star Break. However, he’s benefited tremendously from being on the top unit of the Penguins’ power play that scores at a 25.7 percent rate, good for fourth in the league.
The big-bodied Russian has scored just eight even-strength goals this season, tied with players such as the Minnesota Wild’s Pontus Aberg or the Washington Capitals’ Brett Connolly. Malkin is scoring just .17 even-strength goals per game this season. For reference, that number was .36 the two previous seasons and is .29 for his career. His shooting percentage of 11.1 in 2018-19 is a significant drop-off from the 17.2 percent he averaged in three campaigns from 2015-2018.
While conventional wisdom suggests that Malkin will eventually improve his numbers back toward his career bests, he just looks lost on the ice right now. Often times when he falls into a slump, he tries to do too much to break out of it, leading to costly turnovers and failing confidence, as is the case lately. He’s pretty aware of that at this point, telling Jason Mackey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette “the problem is in my head” (from ‘Lacking confidence, Evgeni Malkin critical of season thus far,’ – Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – 1/17/19).
As long as he keeps things simple, he should be fine, but that’s usually easier said than done for most athletes. Still, his resurgence in the second half will be one of the biggest keys to Pittsburgh’s offensive success.
Defensive Pairings Down the Stretch?
A common issue the Penguins have faced over the last several seasons is their defensive depth. Kris Letang is having an incredible season and has put his name in the Norris Trophy race. Brian Dumoulin has been solid alongside Letang, posting a strong plus-5.7 relative Corsi and is on pace to set a new career high in points. These two have established themselves as one of the NHL’s best top defense pairings.
Justin Schultz is expected to return from the IR sometime in early February, which will be a huge step in solidifying this defensive group. Barring a major change, he’ll be paired with Olli Maatta, who has just one goal and 12 points this season. Maatta tied his career best with 29 points during the 2017-18 campaign while spending most of his time at even strength skating with Schultz. Reuniting the two seems to be an obvious move and one that will hopefully wake up the Finnish blueliner.
With that, the Penguins will have their choice of five players to make up the bottom pair: Jamie Oleksiak, Juuso Riikola, Jack Johnson, Marcus Pettersson and Chad Ruhwedel. The pairing of choice has been Pettersson and Johnson, who combined for a plus-eight rating during the Penguins’ eight-game winning streak, but a minus-six rating in the seven following games.
Oleksiak is one of the Penguins’ most-likely trade candidates and it makes plenty of sense to send Riikola to the AHL’s Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins to get the young defenseman some consistent playing time. That leaves Ruhwedel as the seventh defenseman. While Johnson and Pettersson appear to be the best option, it’s been seen over the last month that those two need to be at the top of their games for the Penguins to have much success.
Who’ll Make an Impact on the Bottom-Six?
In two separate trades during the 2018-19 campaign, the Penguins sent Daniel Sprong and Derek Grant to the Anaheim Ducks in exchange for Pettersson and Joseph Blandisi. Sprong and Grant both had roles in Pittsburgh’s bottom-six and it seems that Blandisi will spend most of his time with the AHL Penguins.
The biggest question mark in the bottom-six will be the third-line center, assuming Derick Brassard does indeed get dished. If the team doesn’t acquire another center before the deadline, Riley Sheahan will jump up a line to replace Brassard. However, the bottom-six wingers are going to be the most important pieces to the puzzle.
The return of Zach Aston-Reese will bump Garrett Wilson out of the lineup and possibly back down to the minors. Aston-Reese has been a strong secondary contributor with six goals and 11 points in 30 games this season. He also adds a physical, grinding style of play with over 100 hits and 27 blocked shots.
Then, it will be up to a combination of Tanner Pearson, Patric Hornqvist, Dominik Simon and Phil Kessel to bring life to the third line. Head coach Mike Sullivan likes to alternate this group between the second and third forward lines. Simon and Pearson have combined for 15 goals this season and should be the biggest source of scoring on the bottom-six the rest of the way.
The Penguins are looking for their 13th consecutive postseason appearance, but it won’t be so easy this time around. The surprising New York Islanders have the division on notice while the Montreal Canadiens and Buffalo Sabres look like legitimate threats to make a late push for the wild card spots. Pittsburgh’s roster will likely look much different by the end of February, but this team absolutely has the tools and potential to make a splash during the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
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.