Penguins Pulpit: Late Leads, Murray & Guentzel

The Pittsburgh Penguins have provided plenty of scares along the way but will earn their 13th consecutive playoff berth in the coming days barring a complete collapse over the season’s final two weeks.

In what was their first of an undetermined number of weeks without star center Evgeni Malkin, the Penguins managed to pick up five of a possible six points in their three-game slate despite blowing multiple late leads.

Their week began on Tuesday night against the Carolina Hurricanes in Raleigh. All-Star defenseman Kris Letang made his return to the lineup following an 11-game absence due to a neck injury. He made an immediate impact as he scored his 16th goal of the season, tying a career-high, with under five minutes remaining that put the Penguins up 2-1 at the time. It wasn’t made to stand as a rebound off Matt Murray’s glove allowed Justin Williams to tie the game at two with 1:56 remaining. After a scoreless overtime, Dougie Hamilton scored in the shootout for Carolina as they came away with the extra point and a 3-2 victory.

Petr Mrazek Sidney Crosby
Carolina Hurricanes goaltender Petr Mrazek makes a save on Pittsburgh Penguins’ Sidney Crosby during the shootout. (AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker)

Then came a 2017 Stanley Cup Final rematch against the Nashville Predators on Thursday night. The game lived up to the hype. The Penguins held a 1-0 lead until Ryan Ellis tied it up at one when he beat Murray short-side with 3:01 remaining in the game, the Predators’ first goal on him since June 5, 2017. While overtime again solved nothing, they were able to flip the script in the shootout as Sidney Crosby scored and snapped his team’s three-game losing streak.

Thursday’s win gave the Penguins 40 wins for the 12th time in the last 13 seasons. The only time they missed out on the mark was during the lockout-shortened 2013 season when they won 36 of 48 games.

Their final game of the week came against the Dallas Stars on Saturday night, and for the first time in a week, the Pens didn’t blow a third-period lead. Led by Jared McCann’s goal of the year candidate as part of a two-goal performance, the Penguins came away with a 3-2 victory to close out their week with confidence.

Matt Murray, Alexander Radulov
Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Matt Murray stops Dallas Stars right wing Alexander Radulov. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

It was a much needed positive ending after three consecutive blown leads which hurt their position in the standings. Also on tap for this week’s Penguins Pulpit is Murray continuing his excellent play and giving the Penguins hope of an extended postseason run, along with Jake Guentzel’s quest to secure his first 40-goal season.

2018-19 Record: 41-24-11, 93 points (3rd in Metropolitan Division, 6th in Eastern Conference, 9th in League Standings)

Blowing Late Leads Has Cost the Penguins

There aren’t many things to be unhappy with regarding the Penguins’ play recently, but if there’s been one glaring flaw, it’s been their inability to hold leads late into the game. If games were shortened to 56 minutes over the last month, their record and position in the standings would look different right now.

The Penguins have had trouble holding onto leads since their Stadium Series meltdown against the Philadelphia Flyers on Feb. 23, when they blew a two-goal lead and lost in overtime.

Over their last 15 games, including the Stadium Series, they’ve held a one-goal lead within the final 3:01 six different times. They’ve gone onto allow the tying goal five times and lose four in overtime or the shootout. That includes a string of three straight games within the last week where they blew one-goal leads to the Flyers, Hurricanes, and Predators. It’s not a recipe for success, and it’s cost them valuable points in the standings.

Philadelphia Flyers center Claude Giroux
The Flyers’ Stadium Series comeback against the Penguins was just the start of late-game issues for Pittsburgh. (Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

With only one win over their five blown leads, the team has thrown away four crucial standings points. With just three points separating the third-place Penguins (93) and the Metropolitan Division-leading Washington Capitals (96), those four points are currently keeping the Penguins from holding first place, and home-ice for at least the first two rounds of the postseason. They’re also two points behind the New York Islanders (95) for second place in the division, who will likely be their first-round matchup, although home-ice is yet to be claimed by either team.

Related: Penguins 1st-Round Matchups — How Do They Stack Up?

They’re also in danger of dropping into a wild-card spot as the Hurricanes are just two points behind with a game in hand. But working in the Penguins’ favor in this situation is the fact only two of their remaining six games come against playoff teams, Nashville on March 29 and Carolina on March 31, whereas the Hurricanes have four of their remaining seven games against playoff-bound teams with Washington twice, Pittsburgh and the Toronto Maple Leafs on their schedule. The Penguins have no excuse to not finish in a divisional spot.

Even with all their troubles lately and potential to fall into a Wild Card spot, head coach Mike Sullivan didn’t seem too worried about his team losing their confidence following Tuesday’s game in Carolina.

‘No, no, I think this team is a battle-tested group,’ Sullivan said. ‘They’ve been through a lot. I don’t worry about that.’ (From Mike Sullivan preaches positivity after Penguins’ latest blown lead — Pittsburgh Post-Gazette — 3/19/19

He’s not wrong. The Penguins didn’t win back-to-back Stanley Cup Championships under his guidance by coasting every game. They battled their share of adversity be it injuries, blown leads or being down in a playoff series, and came away a better team for it. It’s nothing different than what they’re dealing with right now.

Mike Sullivan Penguins bench
Mike Sullivan, Pittsburgh Penguins, January 2, 2018 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Perhaps it’s the law of averages kicking in, or maybe it’s Sullivan’s vote of confidence, but the Penguins have had two late-game leads since those comments and won both times. Even though they blew Thursday’s lead against the Predators, they were able to hang on in overtime and win in a shootout. And while they had to kill a penalty for the final 80 seconds of Saturday’s game against the Stars, the Penguins were able to escape with a 3-2 victory without any extra theatrics.

While blown leads will probably stop happening so often, they’d do well to start scoring more than one or two goals in regulation and give themselves room for a meaningless goal against late in games. It’ll go a long way in preventing this from happening in mid-April.

Murray’s Excellent Run Continues

Murray’s certainly made his horrid start to the season a distant memory. Before going down with a lower-body injury in mid-November, he posted a 4-5-1 record with a .877 save percentage (SV%) and 4.08 goals against average (GAA) while looking about as bad as a goalie possibly could in the process. Since returning on Dec. 15, Murray’s looked like a brand new netminder. His play has been a big reason the Penguins were able to turn their season around, and while he won’t win the Vezina Trophy, he’s been playing at that level over the last four months.

Since his return, Murray’s posted a 22-7-4 record with a .930 SV%, 2.34 GAA and three shutouts in 33 games, while posting a SV% over .900 in 26 of those 33 contests. His post-injury numbers have his season totals up to 26-15-5 with a .918 SV%, 2.74 GAA and four shutouts in 44 games.

Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Matt Murray
Matt Murray’s return to form has given the Penguins hope at an extended playoff run. (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

Among the 25 goalies who’ve started at least 25 games since Dec. 15, Murray ranks second in wins and SV%, seventh in GAA, fourth in shots against and saves and tied for fifth in shutouts. In addition to his impressive counting statistics, Murray’s post-injury performance has finally put him into positive territory in terms of goals saved above expectation, which measures a goalies’ performance relative to the shot quality they face, after his difficult start hampered his advanced numbers.

Those numbers have been even better since March 2, the day Sullivan went with Murray against the Montreal Canadiens despite blowing a one-goal lead against the Buffalo Sabres the night before. Since then Murray has started 11 of the Penguins’ last 12 games and has failed to post a SV% over .900 just once while producing ten starts with a mark of .925 or better. Overall, he has a league-leading seven wins and .939 SV% among goalies with ten starts in that span while facing an average of 33 shots a game.

Despite his brilliance, he still catches blame for his team’s collapses in the final minutes of games, which is nonsense.

Yes, a few goals have either been stoppable shots, but the Penguins shouldn’t be consistently putting Murray in a position where he needs to save every puck he faces for the team to win. Maybe if he were allowing tying goals in 5-4 games, it’d be a concern. But he’s allowing them in 1-0 and 2-1 games; there’s only so much you can ask of a goalie before it starts falling on the rest of the team in those situations.

Pittsburgh Penguins Matt Murray
Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Matt Murray (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

The Penguins have flaws, but their goaltending, especially Murray, isn’t one of them. Instead, what sent them to an early summer last postseason may be the reason they hang around for a while this season. Murray looks as confident as he’s ever been, he’s no longer fighting the puck, his angles and positioning hav been stout and while his upper-body rebound control has been suspect at times, his ability to control them off his pads has been outstanding.

If Murray continues his strong play and the offense finds a groove, the Penguins could give the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Tampa Bay Lightning a run for their money in the Eastern Conference.

Guentzel Poised to Join the Penguins’40-Goal Club

Despite having 71 points in 76 games this season, Guentzel hasn’t been recognized as much as he should because Crosby is his linemate. That’ll change if he can pot two more goals in his team’s final six games.

Why two more? Because it’ll give the 24-year-old a 40-goal season, the first of his career. The only Penguin outside of Crosby and Malkin to reach the 40-goal plateau since the 2005-06 season is James Neal, now of the Calgary Flames. Say what you want about Crosby inflating teammates’ stats, but he’s never had a 40-goal winger on his line. In fact, Chris Kunitz’ 35 goals during the 2013-14 season were the only other time a player has scored that many on Crosby’s line. You don’t score 40 because of your teammates. You score 40 because you’re good.

Penguins forward Jake Guentzel
Penguins forward Jake Guentzel has taken another step forward this season. (Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports)

Regardless of whom they play with, 40 goals is an impressive number for any player to reach. For Guentzel, there’s an argument to be made that he should be chasing 50 instead.

Usually, when you talk about a 40-goal player, it’s because they’ve had a varying degree of success on the power play. That isn’t the case for Guentzel. Nearly 82 percent of his goals (81.5) this season have come at even-strength. He’s the only player out of the 18 who’ve scored 35 goals this season to have more than 30 even-strength tallies (31), less than eight on the power-play (six) and a short-handed goal (one). Guentzel also averages just 2:04 per game on the man advantage, fewest among 35-goal scorers by almost 30 seconds a night.

There’s an argument to be made that he should be on the Penguins’ top power-play unit over Patric Hornqvist, and it’s a valid one. He’s probably as good at being a net-front presence as Hornqvist is and he also has more to offer in terms of skill. Although Sullivan is likely hesitant to change up his power play too much considering it was the fourth best of the new millennium last season when it clicked at 26.2 percent. Also, despite its recent struggles, their power play is still fourth-best in the league this season at 25.2 percent.

This season isn’t a fluke for Guentzel. He’s a legitimate scorer. If you give him the puck, he’s going to find space behind the opposing goaltender. He isn’t a one-dimensional scorer, either. He can shoot it from just about anywhere on the ice and is unafraid of sacrificing his body in front of the net to put in a puck.

Jake Guentzel (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

His extension doesn’t begin until next season, but the Penguins have to be glad that he’ll be a 40-goal threat for them until at least the conclusion of the 2023-24 season.

His quest for 40 will continue on Monday night against the New York Rangers as the Penguins conclude their four-game road trip.

The Penguins head into the final two weeks of their season in an odd spot. While they’re going to make the playoffs, it’s hard to guess how far they’ll go. They’re maddeningly inconsistent, but when they’re putting forth a complete effort, they’re as good as anybody. It would be almost as surprising to see them eliminated in the first round as it’d be to see them win the Stanley Cup. There’s no telling until they’re in a playoff series.

What’s Up Next

3/25/19 @ New York Rangers

3/29/19 vs Nashville Predators

3/31/19 vs Carolina Hurricanes