After a four-day break following their second game of the season, the Pittsburgh Penguins returned to action with a two-game slate. On Thursday night, the team defeated the Vegas Golden Knights by a score of 4-2; with Phil Kessel recording his first hat trick as a Penguin.
The story was different on Saturday night as the team was victimized by the Montreal Canadiens for the second weekend in a row, falling 4-3 in a shootout. It was more than a loss on the scoreboard for the Penguins, as Justin Schultz suffered a fractured lower-left leg and is expected to miss the next four months. After a down 2017-18 season which saw him record 27 points in 63 games, the 28-year-old had gotten off to a hot start in 2018-19, with four assists in four games.
Our Shane Darrow will be handling the coverage of what impact Schultz’s injury will have, so it’s not in this weeks edition of Penguins Pulpit. What is on tap for this week, though, is Kessel’s hot week, a lack of effort and notable Penguins who are still searching for their first goal of the 2018-19 season.
Kessel’s Impressive Week
In his 249th game as a Penguin, Kessel recorded his first hat-trick with the team — the sixth of his career and first since February 2014 — in the victory over the Golden Knights. It was a natural hat-trick, the first time he’s achieved the feat in his career. Kessel capped off his week with a goal and an assist on Saturday night in Montreal, giving him seven points in four games to begin the 2018-19 schedule.
It’s happened throughout his career. When his team goes through a rough patch or falls short of expectations, Kessel is criticized. He was the subject of trade speculation this summer even though he was coming off a career-high, 92-point (34 goals, 58 assists) season. The rumours made their rounds, despite general manager Jim Rutherford stating he wasn’t interested in moving the all-star forward.
Kessel doesn’t seem to mind the noise as he’s been among the most consistent performers in the league throughout his career. Since arriving in Pittsburgh prior to the 2015-16 season, the 31-year-old has recorded 228 points (87 goals, 141 assists) in 250 games, ranked fourth among right-wingers and 17th among all forwards. He’s been a key piece of the Penguins’ two Stanley Cup championships since his arrival and has 54 points in 61 playoff matches with the team. In his career, he has 748 points (334 goals, 414 assists) in 918 games for an average of .81 points per game (P/G).
Despite having one of the best shots in the league and elite playmaking ability, Kessel has always been an underappreciated star. This continues to be the case in Pittsburgh, as the third option behind Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. It’s not a knock on Kessel’s ability, rather a testament to the Penguins’ depth up front. He thrives with less attention — both on and off the ice — and the team is more than happy to let Kessel do his thing with the results they’ve been getting.
Playing All 60 Minutes Is Still An Issue
Not playing a full 60 minutes was the story of the Penguins’ 2017-18 season and it seems to have carried over into 2018-19; play well for one period, disappear the next. This was the case in both of the Penguins’ games last week, they just happened to get luckier against the Knights than they did against the Canadiens.
Against the Golden Knights, the Penguins were out-attempted at five-on-five all night, but at least they kept it close in the first — 18 CF, 22 CA or 45% CF. In the second period, they were sloppy with the puck, couldn’t escape their own zone and were out-attempted 14 to 23 (37.84% CF), but they capitalized on the few chances they had and scored three goals in the period. The story was the same in the third as the Penguins were under siege, allowing 21 attempts against and with just seven attempts for, but netminder Casey DeSmith stood tall throughout the night and stopped 35 of 37 shots to preserve the victory.
The best possession number from a Penguin on Thursday came from Jamie Oleksiak who was on the ice for 18 attempts for and 20 against (47.37%). The new pairing of Schultz and Jack Johnson had a night to forget as they were on the ice for 6 attempts for and 25 against (19.35%) in 14:37 together.
Justin Schultz and Jack Johnson tonight:
6 shot attempts for
They got buried. That pairing did not work out tonight. Score effects play a role for sure, but it was basically bad from start to finish.
— Jesse Marshall (@jmarshfof) October 12, 2018
Luck wasn’t on their side on Saturday, though. While they played most of the game with five defensemen, the Penguins kept it close in the first period, with 14 attempts for and 17 against (45.16%), but scored two goals and won the high-danger attempt battle 3-to-1. The wheels fell off in the second period as the team couldn’t escape their own zone, having just six attempts for and 26 against (16.13%) while allowing three goals, but they were able to tie it up on the power play. The Penguins won the attempt battle for the first time in the third period — 19 for, 14 against, 57.58% — and had 11 scoring chances for, compared to 4 against. They couldn’t solve Canadiens goaltender, Antti Niemi in the third or overtime and ultimately fell in the shootout.
Olli Maatta made his return after being a healthy scratch against the Knights and had the worst game of his career. He was on the ice for 25 attempts against compared to just 4 attempts for (13.8% CF). After a strong 2017-18 season, the 24-year-old has looked slow, both literally and figuratively, out of the gate in 2018-19. With the injury to Schultz, the Penguins need Maatta to snap out of his funk and step up.
DeSmith, making his second consecutive start, was a major reason why the team was in a position to earn a point as he stopped 37 of 40 shots. For the week, the 27-year-old stopped 72 of 77 shots in two games and has solidified his place as the backup goalie for the foreseeable future, after an up and down preseason cast some doubts.
No team wins the Stanley Cup four games into the season and most would prefer to have their issues in the early going, but the Penguins need to address their lack of a 60-minute effort if they’re going to play deep into the spring.
Players Still Searching for Their First Goal
The Penguins still have 78 games left, so there’s no reason to panic here but no player enjoys getting off to a slow start in the goal-scoring category. Who are some notable Penguins who have yet to get their first of the year?
Crosby has had a number of chances to get his first, but he hasn’t had the bounces. No need to worry, as Crosby has struggled to score goals in the first month of the season throughout his career, with 56 goals in October, the fewest in any month when he’s played more than 105 games.
It’s Crosby’s longest goal-scoring drought to start a season since 2015-16 when he went five games without a goal or a point. While goalless, he does have four assists in four games and it’s only a matter of time before the 31-year-old gets his first of the year. Crosby’s coming off a 2017-18 season when he posted the lowest shooting percentage of his career (11.7%) over a full season, en route to 29 goals, also the lowest goals per game (G/GP) of his career at .35. Bad luck doesn’t tend to stick around as he is a career 14.4% shooter. Crosby is a good bet to rebound and put up 30-plus goals for the ninth time in his career.
Like Crosby, a four-game goalless drought is Hornqvist’s longest since 2015-16 when he went 10 games without a goal. He is coming off a 29-goal season in 2017-18, which helped him earn his new five-year, $26.5 million contract in February. The slow start isn’t ideal, but there’s no cause for concern here.
He only has one assist in four games, but he’s too good to be off the scoresheet for much longer. The 31-year-old is a net-front pest on the Penguins’ top power-play unit and has 40 goals on the man advantage since arriving in Pittsburgh prior to 2014-15, ranked 11th in the league.
Hornqvist has averaged 24 goals a season with the Penguins, and he’ll likely get there again despite his sluggish start. He does have durability issues as he’s missed 42 games in four seasons but when he’s on the ice, he is one of the Penguins’ most important players.
Rust doesn’t have the same goal-scoring ability as Crosby and Hornqvist, but after inking a four-year, $14 million contract over the summer, the Penguins are expecting him to step up his production. The 26-year-old is pointless in four games to begin 2018-19 after recording 38 points — 13 goals, 25 assists — in 69 games last season.
Rust isn’t an offensive star compared to some of his teammates, but he’s still valuable to the team because he does a number of things well. Last season, he was third among forwards in goals above replacement among Penguins forwards, which measures how many goals a player adds to his team over a replacement-level player.
Related – Bryan Rust: A Bargain for the Penguins
Rust’s not going to put up 30 goals but a potential 20-goal season isn’t out of the question if he can stay healthy and snap his goalless streak sooner rather than later.
While the season is young, there’s been a number of takeaways both good and bad. Kessel has been his usual consistent self, but the Penguins have had trouble in the second period and still have some players who want to get the goalless monkey off their backs.
What’s Up Next
Penguins games next week:
Oct. 16 vs. Canucks
Oct. 18 @ Maple Leafs
Leading scorers of the week: Phil Kessel (four goals, one assist), Evgeni Malkin (five assists)
Three Stars of the week:
- Phil Kessel
- Casey DeSmith
- Evgeni Malkin
What were your thoughts on the Penguins week? Let us know in the comment section below.
*Advanced Statistics from Natural Stat Trick
Conner McTague is a recent graduate of the Journalism program at Durham College. He covers the Pittsburgh Penguins for The Hockey Writers. He hopes to make a career out of sports reporting.