Pulse of the Penguins: Strong Goaltending, New Injuries, Mixed Results

As the first week of NHL action wraps up, the Pittsburgh Penguins won’t be too thrilled with the results of their first two contests. An ugly 3-1 loss to the Buffalo Sabres was quickly forgotten about after a 7-2 thrashing of the Columbus Blue Jackets. With a full four-game slate due up this week, the Penguins need to make a statement early.

Matt Murray Is Dialed in Early

It would be tough to argue that any player has a bigger impact on the Penguins’ success than Matt Murray. Fortunately, he’s been one of the team’s biggest bright spots through the first two games. He’s turned aside 66-of-71 shots (.930 save percentage), including 52-of-56 shots during 5-on-5 play.

Pittsburgh Penguins Matt Murray
Matt Murray’s strong start is encouraging for the Penguins’ playoff chances this season (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Making these early-season performances a bit more impressive is the quality and quantity of shots that Murray as had to face. Opponents have racked up 18 high-danger chances against him during 5-on-5 play, thethird-most that any goaltender has seen so far. The 6-foot-4 netminder saved 16 of those, good for an .889 high-danger save percentage. For reference, Murray stopped 266-of-315 (.844 save percentage) in his 50 games last season.

While it’s good news that Murray is playing some of his best hockey right now, the defense cannot allow him to face that many high-danger looks, let alone the fact that he’s seen 71 shots in just two starts. However, the Penguins have always played a fast, high-tempo game that will naturally leave their goaltender out to dry on occasion.

Injury Bug Spreads Through Forward Group

Pittsburgh began the season by placing Bryan Rust on long-term injured reserve after blocking a shot off his hand in the team’s final preseason contest. Sidney Crosby and Alex Galchenyuk were both questionable heading into the regular season but didn’t miss a game. Unfortunately, two more key forwards were hurt in Saturday’s win over Columbus.

Losing either Evgeni Malkin or Nick Bjugstad for any amount of time would be tough for the Penguins’ offense; losing both would be a disastrous blow. Losing the second and third-line centers would likely shift Jared McCann and Dominik Simon to the middle while the winger depth shrinks. This could also force head coach Mike Sullivan to break up players such as Crosby and Jake Guentzel to better balance the lineup.

Barring a roster move, the team could also elect to use Juuso Riikola, Chad Ruhwedel, or John Marino as a seventh defenseman. However, the more likely scenario is that Marino heads to AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and the team promotes a minor-league forward. The shortlist of potential call-ups includes Adam Johnson, Sam Lafferty, or Sam Miletic.

Penguins Bouncing Back After Disappointing Opening Night

By nearly every measure, the loss to the Sabres was a disaster. The Penguins were outshot 41-29, scored on just one of the team’s five power-play opportunities, and gave the puck away 17 times. They couldn’t handle Buffalo’s forecheck and were simply outmatched across the board. If not for Murray’s strong play in goal, the 3-1 final score would’ve looked much worse.

The opposite was true in the 7-2 win over Columbus. The win was spearheaded by a five-goal second period, including a pair of scores by McCann and two from defensemen. They outshot the Blue Jackets 40-30 and gave the puck away just twice. The Penguins just looked like a completely different, faster, and hungrier team.

Penguins center Jared McCann
Jared McCann’s two-goal performance was the driving force in Saturday’s win over Columbus (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

These two game results were polar opposites and both should be taken with a grain of salt. It’s easy to get overly excited over any seven-goal performance but the already-underwhelming Blue Jackets were on the second night of a back-to-back set. Rookie netminder Elvis Merzlikins made his NHL debut and doesn’t appear ready to get much more playing time.

The Penguins will play four games against Western Conference teams this week with two at home and two on the road. With multiple forwards potentially missing time, the team may need to rely on its blueliners to drive some offense. Fortunately, the top pairing of Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin has been highly efficient so far; the two lead all Penguins skaters with a 61.1 and 60.8 Corsi percentage, respectively.

Penguins Defenseman Kris Letang
Kris Letang has long been the Penguins’ blue-chip defenseman and he’s played like it so far this season (Photo by Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Two of Pittsburgh’s games this week will be against the Winnipeg Jets, a team that’s coughed up 14 goals through three contests. This would be the perfect time for the offense to gather some steam and confidence while they can. Look for Crosby, Letang, and Malkin (if healthy) to lead the way and take advantage of those juicy matchups.

Three Stars of the Week

Third Star – Sidney Crosby: 3 assists, 5 penalty minutes

Second Star – Patric Hornqvist: 2 goals, plus-1, 9 shots

First Star – Jared McCann: 2 goals, 1 assist, plus-2

This Week’s Schedule

Tuesday, Oct. 8 vs. Winnipeg Jets

Thursday, Oct. 10 vs. Anaheim Ducks

Saturday, Oct. 12 @ Minnesota Wild

Sunday, Oct. 13 @ Jets