The Pittsburgh Penguins aren’t promised a playoff spot yet, but if they keep having more weeks like their most recent one, the letter “X” should appear by their name before the calendar turns to April.
In a four-game week that featured two matchups against a team that’s chasing them, the Columbus Blue Jackets, and meetings with the Florida Panthers and Boston Bruins, the Penguins had a chance to inch closer to a playoff berth, and they did their part, collecting six of a possible eight points.
Their week started on Tuesday night at home against the Panthers in a tight game that required overtime. In the extra frame, Jake Guentzel fought off Mike Matheson to retrieve Sidney Crosby’s flip pass and put it by the sprawling Roberto Luongo to lift the Penguins over the Panthers by a 3-2 score.
Thursday night was when the stakes got higher, though. It was the first of a home-and-home against the Blue Jackets, and the team showed up. Led by goals from Phil Kessel, Nick Bjugstad and Crosby, along with a 25-save shutout from Matt Murray, the Penguins put a little breathing room between them and the Jackets.
Saturday night in Columbus was arguably the Penguins’ worst effort in a few weeks. They were only able to solve Sergei Bobrovsky once and wasted one of the best starts of Murray’s career en route to a 4-1 loss.
Just 24 hours later, led by two goals from Jared McCann and a 39-save performance from Murray, they came away with a 4-2 statement victory over the Bruins, who had collected points in 19 consecutive outings. It was a strong week for a team who had to survive yet again without their top blueliner, Kris Letang, who remains sidelined with a neck injury.
Penguins Pulpit this week looks at Murray’s strong play lifting his team, examining if Dominik Simon is a problem and McCann’s emergence in his first month with the club.
2018-19 Record: 37-23-9, 83 points (4th in Metropolitan Division, 7th in Eastern Conference, 10th in League Standings)
Murray’s Dominance Carrying the Penguins
As I wrote last week, Murray’s going to be the biggest factor in the Penguins getting to the postseason. He knows it, the Penguins know it and he’s responded by playing the best stretch of regular-season hockey in his career.
The 24-year-old has been among the best goalies in the league since returning from a lower-body injury back in mid-December, but he’s taken his game to another level since his Stadium Series meltdown back on Feb. 23 against the Philadelphia Flyers.
Murray has patrolled the crease in the Penguins’ last seven games since the Stadium Series, which has included two back-to-backs and he’s gotten better with each start. They haven’t been easy games, either. Missing defenseman Brian Dumoulin for the first three and Olli Maatta and Letang for the entirety, the Penguins’ blue line has been anything but stable in that timeframe. But Murray hasn’t been phased by the added pressure.
In those seven games, he’s gone 5-1-1 with a .937 save percentage (SV%), 1.98 goals-against average (GAA) and one shutout while facing nearly 32 shots a night. He’s also posted a SV% over .900 in six of those starts, giving him 21 of 27 starts with a .900 SV% since returning from injury.
He was somehow even better in his team’s four games last week as he posted a 3-1-0 record with a .953 SV% and one shutout as the Penguins climbed to four points clear of a playoff spot. Murray also made a season’s worth of highlight-reel saves this week, including three against the Blue Jackets on Saturday night.
YOU SHALL NOT PASS. pic.twitter.com/f0z0FbYnET
— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) March 10, 2019
The difference between what we saw from Murray over the first two months of the season and what we’ve seen over the last four months has been day and night. He looks much more sound positionally, and his angles, rebound control and puck handling are much better. He looks like the goaltender who led the Penguins to back-to-back Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017. It’s a welcoming sign for the team right now and for the future.
Some may question his heavy workload recently, citing his struggles to stay healthy for extended periods so far or running him into the ground before the postseason, but head coach Mike Sullivan doesn’t believe it’s going to be an issue for his number one netminder.
It’s not like he’s going to end up with close to 70 games played when it’s all said and done, Sullivan said. We think he’s playing extremely well right now. He feels good. He feels strong. He’s confident. And right now we think he gives us the best chance to win. (From Heavy Workload no big thing for ‘dialed in’ Matt Murray — Pittsburgh Post-Gazette — 3/10/19)
Sullivan’s right. Even if he played the remaining 13 games of the season and a 24-game postseason run, the average of the last five Stanley Cup champions, Murray would finish with 75 total starts, less than a full season of games. While it would be the most he’s played in his NHL career, it would be on-par with the workloads of the three other championship goalies since 2014 not named Murray.
- 2014: Jonathan Quick, Los Angeles Kings: 75 games (49 regular season, 26 playoff)
- 2015: Corey Crawford, Chicago Blackhawks: 77 games (57 regular season, 20 playoff)
- 2016: Murray, Penguins: 65 games (31 AHL, 13 NHL, 21 playoff)
- 2017: Murray, Penguins: 60 games (49 regular season, 11 playoff)
- 2018: Braden Holtby, Washington Capitals: 77 games (54 regular season, 23 playoff)
As long as he can stay healthy, the Penguins aren’t running a significant risk by playing him heavily down the stretch. After all, there’s no choice but to play him until they clinch a playoff berth.
In Defense of Simon
The hate directed toward Simon doesn’t make any sense. He’s not an elite player by any means, but he’s a good one. He was a fifth-round pick as a 20-year-old and has already managed to play nearly 100 games in the NHL before his 25th birthday, and do it effectively. That in itself is a success story.
In 58 games this season, Simon has seven goals and 25 points while averaging just over 13 minutes a game. He has occasionally spent time alongside Crosby and Guentzel, but he’s mainly played in a bottom-six role for most of the season, so his numbers are fine for his part.
He’s been a tremendous five-on-five player for a team that has struggled at times in that area and is a positive possession player. Simon is tied for sixth among Penguins forwards with 22 points at five-on-five and is eighth in points per 60 minutes (P/60) with a rate of 1.88. Those numbers are comparable to Patric Hornqvist who also has 22 points at five-on-five and a P/60 of 1.94 while making almost $5 million more than Simon.
Here’s how Simon’s other per 60-minute numbers rank among Penguins’ forwards with 200 minutes played.
- Shots per 60: 8.1, sixth
- Individual Corsi For Per 60: 13.1, sixth
- Individual Fenwick For Per 60: 10.4, eighth
- Individual Scoring Chances For Per 60: 7.5, eighth
- Individual High-Danger Chances For Per 60: 3.7, tenth
Simon’s also earned a point on 66.7 percent of the goals he’s been on the ice for at five-on-five, giving him the eighth best Individual Points Percentage (IPP) on the team.
He’s also been one of the Penguins’ best possession forwards. Here’s how he ranks among those on the team with 200 minutes played:
- Corsi For: 54.6, second
- Fenwick For: 53.4, third
- Shots For: 53.2, third
- Scoring Chances For: 59.2, first
- High-Danger Chances For: 62.9, first
- Goals For: 55.9, fifth
- High-Danger Goals For: 66.7, first
Simon is a valuable piece of the Penguins’ forward core. He looks overmatched when on the top line because he’s not a top-line player; but when Crosby likes playing with you, you’re going to get your chances with the group. But as a member of the bottom-six, Simon looks and plays the part. The only real criticism for him is the fact he struggles to finish, but when that’s all he struggles with, it’s not a big deal.
It’s not like he’s detrimental to the Penguins’ cap situation either. He’s under contract through next season at a team-friendly $750,000 cap hit. That number doesn’t buy you 50-point players; it gets you effective, under the radar guys like Simon has been.
Maybe it’s because the Penguins fanbase has become accustomed to churning out elite players regardless of draft position. Maybe it’s because he plays with Crosby sometimes. Maybe people don’t like him. Regardless, it’s misplaced hate for a guy who does his job well.
McCann Shining With the Penguins
Now onto a player who’s been raved about in recent days in McCann. When general manager Jim Rutherford made the deal sending Derick Brassard, Riley Sheahan and three draft picks to the Panthers for McCann and Bjugstad on Feb. 1, nobody expected McCann to be the best player involved in the deal, at least right away, but he’s been everything the team could’ve hoped for and more.
He started on the third line, but the 22-year-old has already worked himself up to a potential mainstay on the Penguins’ top line alongside Crosby and Guentzel after a month with the team. His eight goals and 11 points in 19 games with the club have him up to a career-high 16 goals and 29 points in 65 games overall this season.
It’s not just his numbers that have impressed, it’s his overall play. His speed has been on full display most nights, he has a fantastic shot coming down the wing and he’s been a good penalty killer. He likely best profiles as a second or third-line player, but he’s thriving on the Penguins’ top line right now. In parts of seven games with Guentzel and Crosby, McCann has five goals and eight points while averaging just under 16 minutes a game.
He isn’t out of place. He also checks almost all the boxes required to play alongside Crosby. He’s fast and sees the game fast, has a good hockey IQ and doesn’t need to have the puck on his stick all the time to be an effective player.
What he does so well was on display during Sunday night’s game against the Bruins. It started when Teddy Blueger and Erik Gudbranson broke up Brad Marchand’s entry into the zone while killing Justin Schultz’s delay of game penalty. David Krejci tried to pick up the puck, but McCann knocked it off his stick, causing a loose puck which Blueger picked up. He passed it up to McCann who had a step on his man and he pulled off a forehand to backhand move to put the puck by the glove of Jaroslav Halak, putting the Penguins up by two.
Wait for the slowdown 🔥
— NHL on NBC Sports (@NHLonNBCSports) March 11, 2019
It was the typical McCann goal. If you give him time and space, he’s not going to make a mistake while on a breakaway. It’s an aspect the Penguins have missed over the last season and a half. He’s quickly becoming another Swiss-army knife player for them, following in the footsteps of Bryan Rust and Zach Aston-Reese.
A player needs about 150 games with a single team to determine their future value so McCann’s sample size of 19 games isn’t large and he likely won’t continue to be this productive, but he’s shown a lot of positive signs during his first month with the Penguins. Although, at 22 and with time to grow, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him put up a few 45 or 50-point seasons as a member of the organization.
The Penguins are in tough with another four-game week coming up against the Capitals, Buffalo Sabres, St. Louis Blues and Flyers, but they’re firmly in control of their destiny as they enter their final 13 games of the season. It’s another situation where less than five of eight points will hurt them, but anything more puts them within reach of making the playoffs for the 13th consecutive season.
What’s Up Next:
3/12/19 vs. Washington Capitals
3/14/19 @ Buffalo Sabres
3/16/19 vs. St. Louis Blues
3/17/19 vs. Philadelphia Flyers
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.