It’s been two and a half months, but the Pittsburgh Penguins may finally be turning the page on another rough start to a season.
With wins against the New York Islanders on Monday night, the Boston Bruins on Friday and Los Angeles Kings on Saturday, the Penguins moved up to third place in the Metropolitan Division and sit just one point back of the Columbus Blue Jackets for second place. It’s a significant improvement from where they were a month ago when they sat last in the Eastern Conference.
The Penguins began the week with their second matchup in four days against the Islanders on Monday. They looked to be heading towards a loss before Derick Brassard tied the game at one early in the third period. Jake Guentzel then scored in the fifth round of the shootout to give the team a 2-1 victory.
Then, in typical Pittsburgh fashion, the Penguins played down to their opponent, the 30th-place Chicago Blackhawks, on Wednesday night and were embarrassed by a score of 6-3, despite Bryan Rust’s hat trick. The setback continues the Penguins run of futility at the United Center. The last time they won a game there was Feb. 27, 2009, which was Chris Kunitz’s first game with the Penguins. Kunitz now plays for the Blackhawks, though he wasn’t dressed on Wednesday.
They got back on track on Friday night against the Bruins, as Zach Aston-Reese scored twice and Casey DeSmith made a career-high 48 saves in the 5-3 victory. Saturday’s game against the Kings saw the return of Matt Murray, who stopped 38-of-41 shots after missing nearly a month with a lower-body injury. And Phil Kessel scored the overtime winner to give the Penguins a 4-3 win.
After a 4-7-3 November, the Penguins are now 5-2-1 in December.
In this week’s Penguins Pulpit, Malkin’s struggles, Rust and Aston-Reese’s big weeks and the potential impact of Kris Letang’s injury are all looked at. In case you missed last week’s edition, you can always catch up.
2018-19 Record: 15-11-6, 36 points (3rd in Metropolitan Division, 8th in Eastern Conference, 17th in League Standings)
Malkin’s Struggles Continue
Usually, when a player like Malkin has a few bad games, it’s shrugged off because his body of work points to him turning it around relatively quickly. That hasn’t been the case with his latest slump. Since beginning the season with 19 points — six goals, 13 assists — and a plus-4 rating in the Penguins’ first 10 games, Malkin has hit an extended rough patch with just 16 points — four goals, 12 assists — and a minus-17 over his last 22 contests. Of course, plus-minus is a flawed stat and has more to do with goalie performance than anything, but such a significant change should be noted.
He has looked like a completely different player over the last month and a half, and not in a good way. Malkin has often looked lost and has looked out of sync with his linemate, Kessel, almost every shift. As a result, Malkin’s tried to overcompensate in an effort to get something going. It’s something he commonly does during cold streaks, and it’s not working for him.
The most concerning thing with Malkin, though, is his lack of goals. He started the season with six in 10 games — a 49-goal pace over 82 games. Since then, he has just four in 22 games — including just one at five-on-five — a 15 goal pace over 82 games. Overall, with just 10 goals in 32 games, Malkin’s on pace for 26 goals this season, which would be the lowest total in a season where he played more than 60 games. It’s not like Malkin’s having bad luck — he’s shooting 13.5 percent — he’s just suddenly refused to shoot the puck, averaging just 2.31 shots per game, the lowest total of his career.
He’s also struggling at five-on-five.
Over his first ten games, Malkin was on the ice for 13 goals for at five-on-five and nine against. A goals for percentage (GF%) of 59.1. But since Nov. 1, Malkin has been on the ice for just ten goals for at five-on-five, compared to 16 against; a GF% of 38.5. It’s not all on him, but for five-on-five scoring to dry up out of nowhere is a concern.
Malkin had similar struggles last season before the calendar flipped to 2018. In his first 35 games from Oct. 4, to Dec. 31, 2017, he had 13 goals and 22 assists for 35 points. From Jan. 1, 2018, through the end of the season, Malkin had 62 points — 28 goals, 34 assists — in 42 games. Only Connor McDavid (63) had more points than Malkin after New Year’s day.
Rust, Aston-Reese Have Strong Weeks
If the Penguins can continue to get weeks like this out of their depth players, talks about their lack of depth scoring will quickly vanish. The Penguins scored 13 goals this week, and ten of them came from Rust (four) and Aston-Reese (two), while Matt Cullen, Tanner Pearson, Derek Grant, and Brassard added one each. It’s the best output the team has had from their secondary scoring this season, but the two players in the spotlight this week are Rust and Aston-Reese.
There had been no player with worse puck luck than Rust over the first two months of the season. He was shooting 2.4 percent, on the receiving end of a number of highlight-reel saves and seemingly hitting every post in existence. These facts led to a single goal over his first 28 games, but his luck took a turn last week.
In four games this week, the 26-year-old scored four goals — including his second career hat trick on Wednesday in Chicago — and added one assist for five points. Rust has 12 points — five goals, seven assists — in 32 games this season. He earned 42 percent of his season output last week. It’s not like he was playing bad, because he wasn’t. Rust has been creating chances all season and has played a solid two-way game every night; he just wasn’t getting lucky bounces. But, you can only get unlucky for so long before positive regression comes your way.
His strong play, along with injuries to Patric Hornqvist and Dominik Simon, earned Rust some time on the first line this week. He’s not a long-term fit on the top line, but as long as he’s playing alongside Sidney Crosby, Rust should have an opportunity to continue producing. Even if he isn’t a member of the top-six, Rust still brings value to the Penguins. He does everything well, whether it’s killing penalties, playing a defensive role, or providing a good shift in the opponent’s zone. With the offensive monkey off his back, Rust should begin putting up points on a more consistent basis.
Related: Rust a Bargain for the Penguins
Aston-Reese has taken some time to adjust to the NHL level after being signed out of Northeastern University in March 2017, but he’s started to find his place in recent weeks. Aston-Reese started the season with Wilkes-Barre Scranton of the AHL, so he could regain his confidence after a controversial hit from Tom Wilson broke his jaw in the playoffs. But also because he was the only non-waiver eligible forward on the roster. He quickly earned his way back to the NHL after recording nine points — six goals, three assists — in 11 games with Wilkes-Barre, and has been a welcome addition.
Aston-Reese started slowly but has begun to pick up his level of play. He’s started to get his chances; he’s been more consistent on a nightly basis and it earned him a promotion to the Penguins’ second line alongside Malkin and Kessel on Friday against the Bruins. It paid immediate dividends as Aston-Reese’s presence in front of the net drew attention to him and Kessel was able to get to the net untouched and slide one home to put the Penguins up 2-0 at the time. The 24-year-old scored two goals of his own — including the Penguins’ first shorthanded goal of the season — for his second career two-goal game and first career three-point game.
In 19 games this season, Aston-Reese has seven points — four goals, three assists. It’s not an overly impressive pace over 82 games — just 30 points — but it’s not disappointing for a player with 35 games of NHL experience. It’s a number that will improve as Aston-Reese gets more comfortable and finds his home on either the second or third line. He’s not going to score as much as Hornqvist, James van Riemsdyk or Chris Kreider, but Aston-Reese has the same style of play as those three. He’ll likely be closer to a 15-goal, 35-point player than a 20-goal, 45-point player, but those numbers are valuable and players with Aston-Reese’s net-front ability aren’t easy to come by.
Letang Avoids Serious Injury, Still Day-t0-Day
The Penguins organization held their collective breaths on Friday night when Letang struggled to the bench following a collision with Joakim Nordstrom late in the third period. Letang’s knee looked to hyper-extend when it made contact with Nordstrom’s shoulder, but head coach Mike Sullivan would only term the 31-year-old as “day-t0-day” with a lower-body injury. Though he did add it could’ve been “much worse.”
Letang subsequently missed Saturday’s game against the Kings and as most day-to-day injuries go, there’s no immediate timetable for his return. It’s worth noting, he only missed one game earlier this season after being labeled day-to-day with a knee injury. With four games this week before the Christmas break, it’d make sense for the Penguins to hold him out until Dec. 27, their first game after the break, against the Detroit Red Wings. Although if Letang is healthy before then, he’s going to play.
It’s unfortunate for Letang because he’s returned to his Norris Trophy level of play after struggling last season, and will likely be in contention for the award if he can return quickly. It’s unfortunate for the Penguins because he’s been their MVP this season. So whether Letang misses two games or two weeks, the team is going to struggle without him in the lineup.
Through 30 games this season, Letang has 25 points — seven goals, 18 assists — while averaging 25:55 of ice-time (TOI) per game. He’s also driving the Penguins’ possession game at five-on-five, recording a Corsi For percentage (CF%) of 56.4, Fenwick For percentage (FF%) of 56.9, Shots for percentage (SF%) of 57.7, Scoring Chances for percentage (SCF%) of 56.9, and High Danger Corsi For percentage (HDCF%) of 55.5. All of these numbers are the best of his career in each category. Letang’s relative numbers are the best of his career in every category as well. He has CF% Rel of 9.7, FF% Rel of 9.7, SF% Rel of 12.1, SCF% Rel of 8.6, and HDCF% Rel of 7.3. His CF% Rel, FF% Rel, and SF% Rel are the best among all defensemen with more than 400 minutes at five-on-five, while his SCF% Rel and HDCF% Rel are sixth and ninth, respectively.
He’s also been on the ice for 35 goals for, compared to 21 against, leading to a 62.5% Goals for percentage (GF%), the second-best number of his career. Letang’s GF% Rel of 12.5 is also the second-best of his career. It’s a big turnaround from last seasons career-worst 41.7 GF% and GF% Rel of -12 when he was on the ice for 55 goals for and 77 against.
Outside of the numbers, Letang has looked more comfortable this season and been a force at both ends of the ice while remaining consistent. Something he struggled with last season. Without him, it’s hard to see the Penguins being where they are right now.
The common argument that comes up now whenever Letang gets hurt is if the Penguins were able to win the 2017 Stanley Cup without him, will they really miss him that much? The answer is yes. Yes, the Penguins won the cup, but it wasn’t because of their defense. If anything it was in spite of their blue line. They bled shots on a nightly basis and if they played that same postseason ten times, they’d have been eliminated in the first round nine times. Good goaltending can mask many things and that’s exactly what Marc-Andre Fleury and Murray did in 2017.
With Letang out, it forces the other defensemen on the team into roles which don’t fit them, and it impacts the forwards because their best puck mover from the blue line is gone. It also puts the coaching staff in a bind because there are no right-handed defenseman and no other top pairing option alongside Brian Dumoulin.
The Penguins have pulled themselves back into a playoff spot, but they remain vulnerable and can’t afford to lose Letang for more than a few games.
As the Penguins head into their final four games before the Christmas break, they’ll need Malkin to snap out of his slump, for Rust and Aston-Reese to continue improving and for Letang to miss minimal time.
What’s Up Next:
12/17/18: vs Anaheim
12/19/18: @ Washington
12/20/18: vs Minnesota
12/22/18: @ Carolina
Leading scorer of the week: Bryan Rust, five points (four goals, one assist, hat-trick)
Three Stars of the Week:
- Bryan Rust
- Zach Aston-Reese, four points (two goals, two assists)
- Casey DeSmith, 2-1-0, .923 SV%, 48-saves on Friday night
*Advanced Statistics from NaturalStatTrick.com
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.