The Pittsburgh Penguins have been on a tear lately and have reestablished themselves as one of the favorites to come out of the Eastern Conference. However, despite their recent greatness, there are a few grey areas that make Penguins fans toss and turn at night. When the team was struggling, no one was worried that they wouldn’t turn things around, but this is not a team trying to sneak into the playoffs, the Penguins are trying to win the Stanley Cup for the third time in four years. The goal is to be great, not just good.
There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic. Jake Guentzel has been lights out and was recently named the NHL’s Third Star of the Week for the week ending Jan. 13. Just one month after signing a monstrous contract extension, one that Penguins fans should be excited about, Guentzel has five goals and one assist in three games.
Another shining star has been Matt Murray. After an incredibly shaky start to the season, Murray has been lights out since returning from an upper-body injury. He is 9-0-0 in nine starts since returning to the lineup with a .948 save percentage and 1.56 goals-against average. After giving up three or more goals in eight of his first 11 starts this season, Murray has only given up three or more goals in two of his last nine games.
With players like Guentzel and Murray firing on all cylinders, it’s easy to see why people believe the Penguins could make another run at the Cup, but here are three reasons why they shouldn’t be too optimistic.
Casey DeSmith Has Fallen Apart
Murray has been lights out but his counterpart has been atrocious. Sure, DeSmith is only a backup goalie, but the Penguins are going to need both players to be sharp if they even want to contend. Murray is as injury prone as a goalie can be, and the odds of him making it through the rest of the regular season and the entirety of the postseason unscathed are slim.
Let’s not forget, the Penguins needed both goalies (and in one case three) in their recent Stanley Cup victories. While Murray was the one who eventually earned most of the glory for the two titles, if it wasn’t for Marc-Andre Fleury (and Mr. Game 1 Jeff Zatkoff), the Penguins might still be ringless since 2009.
After keeping the Penguins’ playoff hopes alive while Murray was out with injury, DeSmith has struggled since Murray’s return as the starter. It could be the lack of consistent action, but in his last two games, DeSmith is 0-2-0 with a .852 SV% and 4.00 GAA and this was not against quality opponents, either. The two losses came against the Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings, who are the two worst teams in the Western Conference and have a combined record of 34-47-12. Recently signed to a three-year, $3.75 million contract extension, DeSmith has to get it together if the Penguins are going to make another run at a championship.
Evgeni Malkin’s 5-on-5 Struggles
If you look at Evgeni Malkin’s stat line without much thought, it’s hard to see a problem. He has 50 points in 43 games this season, which almost puts him on pace for the fourth 100-point season of his career. It’s hard to criticize a player with 50 points before the All-Star break, and Malkin has been instrumental on the Penguins’ power play, which ranks fifth in the league at 25.8 percent. Moreover, his 17 power-play points rank second on the Penguins and put him in the top 25 of the league.
The problem with Malkin is that he has been terrible at 5-on-5 both offensively and defensively. When I say terrible, I don’t mean terrible for an average NHL forward, I mean terrible by Malkin’s standards. Looking first at the offensive side of his game, Malkin has only eight even-strength goals this season, and only two in the last 19 games, which puts him near a pace for a career low. He has been racking up assists, but the team needs him to score, and score often. In the Penguins’ 14 regulation losses this season, Malkin has one even strength goal.
Looking at his defensive game, Malkin is last on the team with a minus-13 rating. Over the course of his career, he has had spurts of being lazy in the defensive zone, but he has taken it to another level this season. He has refused to be physical in his own zone and is often caught exiting the zone early. As a center, good defense comes down to effort and when Malkin wants to be good defensively, he can be and it leads to wins. In the Penguins’ 25 wins this season, he has a plus-11 rating. In their 14 regulation losses, he has a minus-20 rating (and 30 penalty minutes).
Metropolitan Division Is Deep
Perhaps the scariest part of the Penguins’ situation is that if they fall out of the top three in the Metropolitan Division, it is going to be nearly impossible to climb back in. If they are able to squeeze into the postseason as a wild card team, they will likely land a date with the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round, who are the odds on favorite to win the Stanley Cup.
The Penguins are in third place in the division – three points behind the Washington Capitals and one point behind the Columbus Blue Jackets – with the New York Islanders only two points out and right on their tails.
Over the last ten games, here are the records of the top five teams in the Metro:
- Washington Capitals: 6-2-2
- Columbus Blue Jackets: 7-3-0
- Pittsburgh Penguins: 8-2-0
- New York Islanders: 8-2-0
- Carolina Hurricanes: 7-3-0
The fact that the Penguins can win eight of their last 10 and still find themselves barely hanging on to the third spot is frightening. It shows that they will need to keep up this kind of pace in the second half to keep one of those spots, and that’s a big ask.
As a whole, the Penguins have turned things around since their atrocious start. They have a 15-5-1 record since the start of December and have positioned themselves back in the playoff race. They’ve proven they can compete with the best teams in the league, but there are still some glaring holes in the lineup. One of the things I didn’t mention, was that the Penguins have lost Zach Aston-Reese to injury, and he had been playing the best hockey of his career.
With DeSmith’s and Malkin’s struggles combined with the overall power of the Metropolitan Division, it’s hard to predict how the rest of the season is going to pan out, but the Penguins are going to need to continue to improve if they want to make a legitimate run. Of the three reasons listed here for Penguins fans to panic, Malkin is the most important. This team is only going to go as far as he allows them to.