After Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang dominated the 2019 NHL All-Star Game, the Pittsburgh Penguins will look to carry that momentum into the second half of the season. Through 48 games, the Penguins have a 26-16-6 record, good enough for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. While they’re barely in the picture, the good news is that only five points separates them and the Metropolitan Division-leading New York Islanders.
After a fast start to the season, the Penguins went 4-7-3 in November and found themselves on the outside looking in; however, they entered the All-Star break winning 13 of their last 18 games in order to put themselves right back in the mix. Crosby has led the way with a team-high 57 points, and is second on the team in plus/minus (plus-19) and goals (21). If the first half of the season told us anything, it’s that the Eastern conference is deep. The Tampa Bay Lightning will enter the second half as the favorites to reach the Stanley Cup Final, but here are three bold predictions for the Penguins.
1. Garrett Wilson Will Score Five Goals
Through 19 games this season, Wilson has three assists and has yet to score his first NHL goal, but his opportunities are going to expand as the second half of the season kicks into gear. On Jan. 17, the Penguins traded center Derek Grant to the Anaheim Ducks for Joseph Blandisi, and while the trade seemed to have minimal impact at first, it leads to Wilson getting more opportunity with the Penguins.
Blandisi played one game for the Penguins and was immediately sent down to their AHL affiliate, where he is likely to remain for the rest of the season. With the Penguins, Grant was on a one-way contract, whereas Blandisi is on a two-way contract, so the ability to send him down to the minors opens up the door for Wilson to be a mainstay on the NHL roster.
After the trade, general manager Jim Rutherford spoke about how he likes what Wilson brings to the roster.
“Probably Wilson is the key guy we talk about,” Rutherford said. “He brings special elements to our team, the leadership, the physical play and whatnot that we really like.” (from ‘Penguins GM Jim Rutherford: Don’t link Joseph Blandisi trade to Derick Brassard’ – Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – 1/17/19)
Wilson has been averaging about eight minutes of ice time per game, but with Rutherford’s blessing, head coach Mike Sullivan will likely increase it to 10 to 12 minutes to see if they can gain some more offensive support. Look for Wilson to finally get the monkey off his back and end the season with at least five tallies.
2. Evgeni Malkin Will End the Season at a Plus Rating
If you looked solely at Malkin’s offensive production this season, it would appear that he is having another solid season. Through 48 games, Malkin is third on the team with 52 points, but he has struggled mightily this season at five-on-five. 18 of his 52 points this season are on the power play, and Malkin admitted to sportswriter Josh Yohe that “the problem is in my head.” (from ‘Evgeni Malkin on his struggles: ‘The problem is in my head’” – The Athletic – 1/17/19)
Malkin has never been known as a great defensive player, but this season his issues in the defensive zone have been exploited to a level we’ve never seen before. He currently boasts a minus-19 rating, which is by far the worst plus/minus on the team. His defensive lapses are one of the few concerns that Penguins fans should have after they entered All-Star weekend on such a hot streak. In the end, it all comes down to effort. I expect Malkin to come out of the break rested and with a chip on his shoulder to prove himself in his own end.
3. Sidney Crosby Will Win the Hart Trophy
With the influx of young talent taking over the NHL, many people tend to forget that Crosby is still arguably the best player in the world. For the Penguins to continue to be successful, he is going to need to continue to dominate night in and night out. This team is only going to go as far as he is able to take them. He may be surrounded by outstanding talent such as Malkin, Letang and Phil Kessel, but this is still Crosby’s team.
The Hart Trophy is awarded every season to “the player judged most valuable to his team” and Crosby is without a doubt the player most valuable to the Penguins. He will need to continue to climb up the NHL’s points rankings in order to make a run at the award, but if he finishes with at least 100 points and the Penguins secure a playoff spot, there is a chance he will secure his third career Hart Trophy. Crosby is currently 21 points behind Nikita Kucherov for the league-lead.
Related: Three PHWA Mid-Season Award Snubs
The first half of the season was a whirlwind for the Penguins, and don’t be surprised to see them active around the trade deadline. Olli Maatta and Derrick Brassard are two players who may be moved in order to acquire either a right-handed defenseman or a goal-scoring center, but the Penguins will need to be more consistent if they want to make a run at winning a third Stanley Cup in the last four years.