Still marred by injuries throughout the lineup, the Pittsburgh Penguins may have just turned in two of the team’s worst performances so far this season. The team is narrowly clinging to the Eastern Conference’s second wild card spot, but that seems to be slipping away by the day.
Yes, Even More Injuries
Last week, I mentioned that it’s almost becoming annoying to talk about how many injuries the Penguins are dealing with, but, here we are again. Along with long-term injuries to Sidney Crosby, Justin Schultz, and Nick Bjugstad, Brian Dumoulin will now be out at least two months after undergoing ankle surgery.
After Crosby and Kris Letang, Dumoulin could make a case for the team’s most important piece. He eats minutes every night, plays a 200-foot game, and can lead the blue line when he needs to. Not only will the Penguins be worse without him, but Letang will likely falter a bit as well.
In Dumoulin’s place, either Jack Johnson or John Marino will be Letang’s partner over the next two months. Marino is clearly the better option, but head coach Mike Sullivan has a tendency to keep each defensive pairing with one right-handed and one left-handed shot. If he sticks to that, the lefty Johnson will likely slide up with Letang.
Marino and Letang registered a 62.7 Corsi percentage and a 56.7 expected goals-for percentage together when Dumoulin missed four games in October. Sullivan should ignore his usual left-right matchups and give Marino the top pair minutes again.
Oh, and Bryan Rust is hurt again. The 27-year-old winger has been on fire all season with 9 goals and 17 points in 14 games this season. He tied a career high with four points during the Penguins’ Nov. 27 win over the Vancouver Canucks. Rust took a tumble into the boards during a morning skate and was diagnosed with a lower-body injury. There’s no update on when he may return, but this is another huge blow to the team’s depth.
Despite all the injuries, Alex Galchenyuk is seemingly falling out of favor amongst the Penguins forwards. After scoring his first goal as a Penguin on Nov. 25, the 25-year-old has averaged just 10:22 of ice time over the last three games. He’s found himself stashed in the bottom-six alongside American Hockey League players and a defenseman (Juuso Riikola).
While he hasn’t been what the Penguins hoped for after he was acquired as the main piece in the Phil Kessel trade, tucking Galchenyuk in the bottom-six won’t help him or the team. He’s currently shooting 2.6 percent but he’s finished under 11 percent just once in his career. The goals will come, but the Penguins need to be patient.
Jarry Finally Sees More Playing Time
After weeks of calls from fans and media (including myself), the Penguins finally gave Tristan Jarry some extra starts this week. Prior to his Nov. 25 win over the Calgary Flames, Jarry’s only starts came on the second night of back-to-back games. The 24-year-old impressed in that contest, stopping 32-of-34 shots in the overtime victory.
Unfortunately, things got ugly for the Penguins’ goaltending tandem the rest of the week. In the three games after that win, Pittsburgh went 1-2-0 and allowed 16 goals (two of which were scored on an empty Penguins’ net).
While the Penguins’ offense erupted in the 8-6 win over the Canucks on Nov. 27., neither netminder looked very impressive. Matt Murray got yanked with under a minute to play in the second period after allowing his fourth goal on just 14 shots. While Jarry earned the win thanks to a five-goal third period from his offense, he still yielded another two goals on eight shots.
After that, the Penguins dropped both legs of a back-to-back against the Columbus Blue Jackets and St. Louis Blues. Neither goalie was impressive, but the whole team fell flat in both contests.
Penguins Weeks Flip from Great to Dreadful
The back-to-back losses to the Blue Jackets and Blues were probably the two worst performances the Penguins have had all season. Against Columbus, the team came out completely flat and was incredibly lucky to leave the first period in a 1-1 tie. They were outshot 13-3 in the period and the Blue Jackets had a ridiculous 21-4 Corsi advantage. Then, a Nick Foligno goal off a brutal Evgeni Malkin turnover just 26 seconds into the second period set the tone for the rest of the night.
In Saturday’s loss against the Blues, the Penguins didn’t look as groggy or fatigued, but opposing netminder Jordan Binnington was terrific all night. Pittsburgh entered the final period with a manageable 2-1 deficit but fell behind 4-1 just seven minutes later. The advanced numbers looked fine; the Penguins produced a 58.9 Corsi percentage and an expected goals-for percentage of 63.3 percent.
On the bright side, the team’s eight-goal onslaught against Vancouver was their fifth game with at least seven goals scored this season. Only one other team has more than two such games: the Tampa Bay Lightning with three. That number also surpasses last season’s total of four games with seven-plus goals for the Penguins.
The Penguins still have the fourth-best goal differential in the NHL at plus-15. They also rank among the league’s best with a stellar 10-3-2 home record. Their ugly 4-6-2 road record is what’s costing them right now.
This coming week, the only road game is against the NHL’s worst team, the Detroit Red Wings. It may be too early to call any game a “must-win” but the Penguins simply cannot lose that one. With another back-to-back on the schedule, we’ll see both Murray and Jarry at least once; it remains to be seen who starts on Wednesday against the Blues with rest before and after.
Top Performers of the Week
- Jake Guentzel: 4 goals, 7 points, plus-1 rating, 18 shots
- Kris Letang: 3 goals, 4 points, plus-1 rating, 20 shots
- Bryan Rust: 4 points and 12 shots in 2 games
For the second week in a row, Malkin takes home the team’s top performer award. He recorded two goals and eight points in four games, including a massive five-point performance against the Canucks. The All-Star center said he needed to “be fire” in Crosby’s absence and he’s done just that.
This Week’s Schedule
Wednesday, Dec. 4 – vs. St. Louis Blues
Friday, Dec. 6 – vs. Arizona Coyotes
Saturday, Dec. 7 – @ Detroit Red Wings