After an embarrassing 1-6-1 start in November, the Pittsburgh Penguins have turned things around slightly by finishing the month 3-1-2 and currently sit two points out of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. After a huge comeback victory against the highly touted Winnipeg Jets, the Penguins fell 6-3 the next night to the Colorado Avalanche despite a Herculean effort from Sidney Crosby.
With the Penguins down 3-0, Crosby notched a natural hat trick and put the Penguins in a position to steal at least one point. A third-period goal by Avalanche captain Nathan McKinnon killed the comeback, and the Penguins finished the month with their first regulation loss in six games.
So, yeah, we lost last night… but Sidney Crosby was sensational (as usual).
Here's another look at his natural hat trick ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/HsWhj39T2y
— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) November 29, 2018
While it was nice to see the Penguins make it a game after being down 3-0, the eventual loss to the Avalanche highlighted the problem that has plagued the Penguins all season – their lack of secondary scoring. If the bottom two lines don’t start producing consistently, they are in deep trouble and will likely find themselves on the outside looking in.
Stars Have Been Stars
The only reason the Penguins are even sniffing the playoffs right now is because their superstars have been stellar. Since returning from injury, Crosby has been unstoppable. With five goals and four assists in his last five games, he has been the main reason that the Penguins have been able to capture some points and has almost singlehandedly launched them back into the playoff race.
Next to Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel have been two of the most consistent scorers in the NHL all year, combining for 58 points in 24 games. The Penguins have struggled to find a third forward to complete the line, but newly-acquired Tanner Pearson has done an adequate job at filling the role since being traded from the Los Angeles Kings. As long as Pearson keeps his game simple by minimizing turnovers and feeding the puck to Malkin and Kessel whenever possible, he should continue to produce.
Once you get by the top two lines, the scoring pretty much stops. Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, Jake Guentzel, Patric Hornqvist and Dominic Simon have combined for a total of 56 goals and 134 points. Every other forward that has played at least one game for the Penguins this year has a combined total of 13 goals and 32 points. Of those 13 goals, three of them are from Pearson, which he scored playing on the team’s second line.
So in reality, through 24 games, the Penguins have 10 goals from their bottom-six forwards. That is atrocious. So who needs to pick their game up?
Brassard has missed nine games this year due to injury, which left a huge void down the middle of the Penguins’ lineup, but Brassard is going to need to start scoring if the Penguins want to continue to climb the standings. Since returning from injury, Brassard has one point in seven games and a minus-3 rating. If he can’t be effective in the offensive zone, he needs to at least be able to hold up in the defensive end.
Since being acquired in a three-team trade in Feb. 2017, Brassard has yet to impress the Penguins faithful. When the trade hit the presses, it appeared that the looming problem of a third-line center was finally solved, but Brassard has struggled immensely since donning the Penguins’ crest. After averaging nearly 20 goals per year in the four seasons prior to being traded to Pittsburgh, Brassard only has six goals in 41 games with the Penguins.
Despite winning two Stanley Cups since his departure, the Penguins have failed to find a consistently productive third-line center since trading Jordan Staal to the Carolina Hurricanes back in 2012.
There has been hype surrounding Daniel Sprong for years. He has the most offensive upside of any of the bottom-six forwards for the Penguins, and hopefully when his first goal comes, the levee breaks, but Sprong needs to find a way to get on the scoresheet. He has proven in the past that he can be effective at the NHL level, just watch this highlight reel goal against the New York Islanders from last year:
I personally believe that he should have been a consistent presence in the lineup last year, but since signing a one-way contract last offseason, he is still struggling to crack the lineup (eight healthy scratches). When he has played, he hasn’t been effective. 16 games played this season and Sprong is still staring a goose egg in the goals column.
A hard-nosed, gritty forward, Bryan Rust can play in all situations, and after a career-high 38 points last year, expectations were high entering this year. At just 26 years old, notions around training camp were that Rust was only going to get better and continue to build toward becoming a consistent 40-point getter. A quarter of the way through the season, those expectations have diminished.
Rust has dressed in all 24 games this season but has only managed one goal and five points. His minus-5 rating is also the fifth-worst on the team. One of the positives for Rust is that he has remained healthy, but that means nothing if he can’t find ways to produce offensively.
He has ricocheted around the lineup, and the lack of consistent linemates could be a primary reason for his lack of production, but it appears that head coach Mike Sullivan is going to have him be a mainstay on the third line with Brassard and Zach Aston-Reese. If those three can build some chemistry, hopefully the Penguins can start to give their superstars some scoring support.