Under head coach Mike Sullivan, the Pittsburgh Penguins seem to be at their best when dealing with adversity, and they’ve certainly dealt with a lot of it over the last week. After losing Brian Dumoulin and Kris Letang to a concussion and neck injury, respectively, in addition to already missing Olli Maatta, the Penguins were down three of their top-four defensemen for their most crucial week of the season.
It didn’t get any easier when they lost forward Bryan Rust and defenseman Chad Ruhwedel for an undetermined amount of time on Tuesday against the Columbus Blue Jackets, but they managed to survive by finishing the week with a 2-0-1 record.
In Tuesday’s game against the Blue Jackets, the Penguins limited them to just 23 shots and got some help with the appearance of playoff Sergei Bobrovsky in the opposing net en route to a 5-2 victory to give the team an upper hand in the playoff race.
They were off until Friday night when they took on the Buffalo Sabres. The Penguins took a 3-2 lead late into the third period, but a deflection off a stick tied the game up at three with under three minutes left. They then lost in overtime off a goal from former Penguin Conor Sheary following a controversial zone entry from Rasmus Dahlin.
The Penguins were back at it less than 24 hours later on Saturday night against the Montreal Canadiens in a game with significant playoff implications for both teams. Lose, and you fall behind in the playoff race. Win, and you’re in the driver’s seat in what’s become a three-team race for the last two playoff spots. The Penguins got the memo and were flying out of the gate, putting up four goals in the first 26 minutes of the game. The game finished 5-1 in the Penguins’ favor thanks to four-point nights from Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel.
Nobody would’ve been surprised had the Penguins gone 0-3-0 last week. Instead, they played some of their most inspired hockey of the season and came away with five of a possible six points to get back into a playoff position with 17 games remaining.
This week’s Penguins Pulpit looks at Justin Schultz standing out on defense, Crosby’s motivated play in the march for the postseason and how Matt Murray will be the key to an extended spring run.
2018-19 Record: 34-22-9 (4th in Metropolitan Division, 7th in Eastern Conference, 12th in League Standings)
Schultz Standing Out on Battered Blue Line
The Penguins’ defensive pairs this week have looked like something out of a preseason game, not something you’d expect to see in game number 64 of the regular season for a playoff hopeful. Despite the rough conditions they’re dealing with, the blue line banded together and played better than anybody could’ve expected.
For most teams, losing your top two defensemen would be the end of your season. Even more so when it’s three of your best four blueliners, it probably should’ve been the end for the Penguins, but they’ve found a way to make it work with just one top-four blueliner, Schultz, in the lineup right now.
Schultz returned on Feb. 16 following a 53-game absence due to a broken lower left leg he suffered against the Canadiens on Oct. 13. If the Penguins had it their way, he would’ve been eased into action to build him back up. However, the injuries to their top-two defenders forced Schultz to become the number one guy in just his fifth game back from an injury of his own.
The lack of game action hasn’t stopped him from filling in admirably. Perhaps it helps that he has previous experience as the Penguins’ top guy. When Letang missed almost the entire second half of the 2016-17 season, Schultz took on his role and responded by recording a career-high 51 points and finishing 10th in Norris Trophy voting.
In his first four games back, he posted two assists while skating an average of 18:40 per night. Since Letang and Dumoulin went down in the first period of the Stadium Series game, Schultz has recorded one goal and four points while seeing his ice-time increase by over eight minutes to 26:45 a night. That’s about 50 seconds more per game than Letang’s averaged this season. He’s been a workhorse.
He’s the lone active defenseman who can create offense and get the puck to his forwards, which is valuable for any team, especially a high-flying offense like the Penguins have. It also helps that Schultz is a power-play specialist, so he’s slotted in on the top unit and kept it chugging the way it was while Letang was healthy.
As much as his play inspires, Schultz’s Corsi for percentage (CF%) of 41.43, Fenwick for percentage (FF%) of 40.6, shots for (SF%) of 40.1, scoring chances for (SCF%) of 42, and high-danger chances for (HDCF%) of 43.8 are all career lows. But context matters.
First, for as good as he is, he’s not a top-pairing defender, he’s just been forced into the role because of injuries. Second, the Penguins have won, or been winning for, a majority of the eight games he’s been back, and when opponents are trailing, they tend to start dominating the offensive play because they’re desperate to get back into the game. Lastly, he’s feeling the effects of the Jack Johnson anchor. For as well as Johnson has played over the last week, he gets caved in possession-wise, and with Schultz spending a majority of his time with him, his numbers have felt the hit.
His analytics will continue to suffer as long as all three factors are in play, but it’s doubtful anybody will care if he keeps playing well on a personal level and helps the team get into the postseason. Overall, he’s done everything asked of him, and it’s helped ease the loss of two of the better defensemen in the league.
The following news may be bad for Schultz’s ice-time, but it’s good news for the Penguins: Letang and Dumoulin have started skating in recent days, and both may be back before the end of the week. Dumoulin is likely closer because he took part in Monday’s practice while Letang skated beforehand, but it’s good news for them.
If Schultz can continue his current level of play when the team has a fully healthy blue line at their disposal, a long-running weakness could become a sudden strength.
Crosby Leading the Playoff Charge
The question “Where would the Penguins be without Crosby?” has been asked virtually every season since he made his debut in 2005. But it may be at its most relevant right now.
It seems to be said all the time, but Crosby has elevated his game to another level since returning from an upper-body injury in mid-November. He’s the biggest reason the Penguins have been able to hang on in the playoff race despite being undeserving of it at times.
If it weren’t for Nikita Kucherov’s ridiculous season helping the Tampa Bay Lightning march toward the Presidents’ Trophy, Crosby would likely be the front-runner for the Hart Trophy as league MVP. In the Penguins’ last 10 games, where they’ve gone 6-2-2, Crosby’s picked up 21 points. Overall, in 62 games this season, he has 29 goals and 83 points and is on-pace to crack the 100-point plateau for the first time since the 2013-14 season.
While he’s had a revolving door of right-wingers on his line including Rust, Dominik Simon, Patric Hornqvist and Phil Kessel, it hasn’t stopped Crosby and his sidekick on left-wing, Guentzel, from being one of the best duos in the league. Of the 50 goals they’ve scored this season, they’ve combined for points on 29 of them (58 percent), which includes 21 primary points (42 percent), goal plus a first assist. It’s not the first time they’ve been dominant together; in the 2018 Playoffs, the two of them combined for 42 points in 12 games before the Washington Capitals eliminated the Penguins in the second round.
Enough about his offense, though. Everybody knows how good Crosby is on that side of the puck and it wouldn’t make sense to spend an entire section on it. What’s been the most impressive thing about his game so far this season is his two-way play.
He’s always been an underrated player in his end of the ice because of his offensive reputation, but he’s taken his defensive performance to the highest level of his career. The most impressive thing about it? He’s doing all of this at 31 years old.
As the Penguins’ top center, Crosby faces the team’s top players on a nightly basis and has shut them down with ease. He’s rarely lost his assignments, wins crucial faceoffs, uses his stick to deflect would-be passes and is on-pace for a career-high in takeaways. There’s a laundry list when it comes to Crosby’s success defensively, but we’d be here all day.
So if he passes the eye-test with flying colors, does he pass the analytics test?
Here’s how Crosby ranks among his team’s forwards in all analytical categories:
- CF%: 55.3 (first)
- FF%: 55.8 (first)
- SF%: 56.6 (first)
- Goals For %: 68.6 (first)
- SCF%: 57.6 (second)
- HDCF%: 59.2 (second)
- High-Danger Goals For%: 64.2 (second)
Pretty good numbers for him. Jason Mackey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette took a look into how his numbers stack up to annual Selke Trophy front-runner, Patrice Bergeron. The results were favorable for Crosby and indicative of why he deserves more consideration for one of the few awards he’s yet to win in his career.
I looked at 13 stats upon which we could/should think about the Selke Trophy. Sidney Crosby is faring better than four-time winner (and @ThePHWA midseason frontrunner) Patrice Bergeron in eight of them: pic.twitter.com/ZDCRiniuvy
— Jason Mackey (@JMackeyPG) March 4, 2019
Speaking about his case for the Hart Trophy, he also fares well in goals above replacement (GAR) models which measure how many goals a player adds to his team with their play at even-strength, on the power play, on the penalty kill and their ability to draw penalties or not take them at all. Crosby ranks as the second most valuable player in the league behind Mark Stone of the Vegas Golden Knights and is about seven GAR ahead of his closest teammate, Guentzel.
His chances at MVP are always going to be hurt by internal factors like playing on a team with Kessel, Letang and Evgeni Malkin, but it’s going to be hard for voters to ignore what he’s doing if the Penguins get into the playoffs and Crosby continues to dominate the competition.
Matt Murray Will be Key in Securing Playoff Spot
Murray has his flaws, every goalie in the league does, but a lot of hate directed his way is because he isn’t the netminder that came before him, Marc Andre-Fleury. The debate has been alive since the Golden Knights selected Fleury in the 2017 Expansion Draft, but keeping Murray has always been the right decision. His play this season has only proved it further.
After beginning the season with a horrid 4-5-1 record, an .877 save percentage (SV%) and a 4.08 goals-against average (GAA) over his first 11 games, he’s looked like a completely different goalie since returning from a lower-body injury in mid-December.
In 23 games since his return, Murray has a 16-5-2 record with a .928 SV%, a 2.41 GAA and two shutouts to bring his season totals to 20-10-3, a .913 SV%, 2.90 GAA and three shutouts in 34 games. It’s safe to say that while the Penguins have many problems, Murray isn’t close to being number one on the list.
He’s had his blowups and his bad games, most notably the Stadium Series meltdown on Feb. 23, but find a goalie who hasn’t had games like that. Spoiler alert: you can’t. If you’re going to acknowledge his sub-par performances, which have been rare since his return, you also have to recognize the fact he’s had a SV% over .900 in 17 of his 23 starts (74 percent) in that same breath. He hasn’t been perfect, but he’s as close to it as can be.
Even with his success, it seemed Sullivan didn’t have much confidence in Murray over the last few weeks as he’s given Casey DeSmith some questionable starts against good teams. Those doubts were quickly denied when he turned to Murray on Saturday for the second game of a back-to-back just 21 hours after he played against the Sabres.
He responded to his coach’s trust by stopping 37-of-38 shots in what was the Penguins’ biggest game of the season to this point. Yes, his team won 5-1, but Murray made many 10-bell saves and was the reason why the game wasn’t closer or ended in the Canadiens’ favor. It makes sense; it was a playoff atmosphere, and Murray’s always been at his best when the spotlight and pressure are squarely on him.
He’s at the height of his game right now, and it couldn’t come at a better time for the Penguins. In years past, you’ve been able to rely on the skaters rolling over opponents and only needing league average goaltending to win games. But right now, they aren’t at that level, and they’ll need Murray’s top-notch play to continue if they want to grab a 13th consecutive postseason berth.
When he’s healthy, he’s going to start as many games as he can down the stretch. So with just two back-to-back sets remaining, he could realistically start at least 14 of the Penguins’ final 17 games of the season if it comes down to the wire.
It’s been said for the last two weeks and will continue to be said until the playoff picture has been decided: this is the biggest week of the Penguins’ season. With four games this week, including two against the Blue Jackets, the team has an opportunity to create, at a minimum, six points of separation between they and their closest competitor. Depending on how the entire week shapes up, the Penguins could potentially be 10 points up on a playoff spot by the end of the week. Every game is a playoff game right now.
What’s Up Next:
3/5/19: vs. Florida Panthers
3/7/19: vs. Columbus Blue Jackets
3/9/19: @ Columbus Blue Jackets
3/10/19: vs. Boston Bruins
Advanced analytics via 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.