Penguins Defense Holding Back Lethal Offense

The Pittsburgh Penguins hosted back-to-back games this weekend against the Calgary Flames and New York Rangers. Despite scoring 10 goals in those contests, they also gave up 10 and split the two games. While the defense is obviously struggling, it’s refreshing to see the offense kicking it into another gear.

Returning Players Ignite Offense

This offensive outburst was sparked by a nearly healthy Penguins lineup. Justin Schultz returned from a 53-game absence and notched a pair of assists over the weekend. He’s been skating on the second pair with Jack Johnson, as Olli Maatta is now out indefinitely with an upper-body injury.

Justin Schultz Penguins
Schultz’s return to the lineup gives Pittsburgh a huge boost down the stretch (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

In the forward department, Evgeni Malkin and Zach Aston-Reece rejoined the lineup as well. Malkin missed five games with an upper-body injury and the Penguins hit a four-game skid during his trip to injured reserve. He picked up an assist in his return but was suspended for the next game after taking a swing at Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Radko Gudas.

After the suspension, Malkin came back with vengeance, scoring three points in Saturday’s loss to Calgary before scoring two more goals to secure Sunday’s win against the Rangers.

Malkin’s two goals Sunday were scored in just a two-and-a-half-minute span after head coach Mike Sullivan tried out a new forward line featuring Malkin, Aston-Reece and Phil Kessel. The trio had obvious chemistry and made an immediate impact. Expect to see this line utilized more in the coming games.

The Penguins Power Play is Gathering Momentum

Even with Sunday’s six-goal explosion, Pittsburgh’s power play went just 1-for-4 and remains very inconsistent. However, on Saturday, they went 3-for-4 and scored a goal just five seconds after their only unsuccessful power play ended.

Prior to going 4-for-8 on the power play this weekend, the Penguins were stuck in a 1-for-19 slump over their previous nine games. For the season, the team is scoring on nearly 25 percent of their power-play opportunities, good enough for fifth-best in the NHL.

On top of the Penguins getting healthy, the offense is being driven by its star players getting red-hot. During Sidney Crosby’s active five-game scoring streak, he has 11 points and a trio of three-point outings. This recent hot streak puts him on pace for his first 100-point season since the 2013-14 campaign.

Phil Kessel, Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby
Pittsburgh’s stars shined bright during a big offensive weekend (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Kris Letang continues making a very strong argument for the Norris Trophy. His two goals on Sunday brought him to 15 for the season, tied with the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Morgan Reilly for most among NHL defensemen. The Penguins top-five scoring leaders this season — Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, Letang and Jake Guentzel — combined for a ridiculous 20 points in their two games this weekend.

Pittsburgh Will Go as Far as the Defense Lets Them

There’s still plenty that the Penguins can improve on, though. In 11 games since the All-Star break, Pittsburgh has been outshot 413-359. There’s no way to sugarcoat it: teams can’t sustain long-term success while giving up over 37 shots on goal per game. Over the last three postseasons, only one team has allowed over 34 shots per game and advanced beyond the first round.

In one recent example, goalie Matt Murray stopped 88-of-90 shots in a two-game span before getting drilled for five goals on just 24 shots against the Flames. In Sunday’s game, DeSmith played well overall and came up with several huge saves despite coughing up five goals.

Penguins goaltender Casey DeSmith
Pittsburgh’s defense is forcing Matt Murray and Casey DeSmith to work much harder  (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

Despite Johnson’s struggles all season, Pittsburgh’s overall defense should improve as he and Schultz continue building some chemistry. Chad Ruhwedel and Marcus Pettersson have anchored the bottom pair with a strong plus-12 Corsi during the last two games as well.

As mentioned, the Penguins star players have been on fire, but where does that leave the rest of the forwards? Patric Hornqvist has fallen into a 12-game scoring drought in what’s been his worst offensive season since joining the team. Meanwhile, once-effective wingers Tanner Pearson and Dominik Simon have combined for just one point in February and have been relegated to healthy scratches with the emergence of Teddy Blueger in the bottom-six.

With a myriad of offensive threats, the Penguins will rarely struggle to score goals – even the best goaltenders in the world can’t slow down the three-headed monster of Crosby, Malkin, and Kessel. Still, Pittsburgh’s postseason fate lies in the hands of an iffy group of defenders and often inconsistent bottom-six scoring. Perhaps the team will wait for Maatta’s return or make one last push at the upcoming trade deadline.