The Penguins finished their unofficial first half of the season on a low note, going 2-3 on their West Coast trip. The Penguins had a real chance to go into the break on a hot streak, and to really make themselves stand out as a top tier team in the NHL.
Yes, they beat the Ducks in a dramatic comeback fashion and were able to squeak by the Coyotes in overtime, but they lost to the Kings (last place in the Western Conference) as well as the two current teams of the five that hold a playoff spot (Vegas and San Jose.)
Four of these five games were in back-to-back scenarios, and playing games out West is never an easy task, but simply put: if the Penguins are to be considered a legitimate Stanley Cup contender, they need to show it and they certainly didn’t on their most recent road trip.
There is no question this team has it in them. A team with Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, Letang, Murray, etc. should never be swept under the rug. When the Penguins were sitting at the bottom of the Eastern Conference, they woke up in December and now find themselves fourth in the Metro: only four points out of first and one point out of second. Despite the run, one can’t help but feel this team hasn’t quite found “it” yet. There have been flashes, but “it” hasn’t been consistent.
So how do the Penguins take that next step from “good/great team” to “legitimate Stanley Cup contender” in the unofficial second half of the season? Let’s take a look:
Ride Matt Murray
DeSmith’s early season heroics might finally be fading, as many expected it would. In his last three games, DeSmith has allowed a total of 14 goals with an 0.841 save percentage.
On the other hand, since returning from injury, Murray has allowed only 20 goals in 11 games while posting a 0.944 save percentage in that span. Murray is the guy. He always will be. There should be no more “even split” between him and DeSmith. Murray needs to see the net almost every night with back-to-backs being the exception.
Wake the Russian Bear
Evgeni Malkin started the season scorching hot. He was by far the best Penguins’ forward through the first couple of games but then, Malkin got cold. If the Penguins are going to contend legitimately, Malkin needs to get back to, well, being Malkin.
He does have 15 points in his last 12 games, but only 3 of those 15 points are goals. How do you get Malkin going? First, put Kessel back on his wing. They have a legitimate chemistry and are so dynamic when they are on the same line. It takes away from the “three scoring lines” idea, but it worked in 2017, right? Second, try out a speedster on the left wing. Maybe Simon? Rust? There are a few options. Malkin needs a “Hagelin” on that line, and replacing a hard forechecker with speed will help.
A Simple Powerplay Is the Best Powerplay
The Penguins have struggled defensively this season, but the mistakes they make on the powerplay specifically are even more noticeable. Every time the Penguins get a powerplay, it feels like there’s a good chance that someone makes a risky play at the blue line that turns into a breakaway and a shorthanded goal for the opposing team.
The Penguins need to stop gifting teams goals especially when on the powerplay. Shorthanded goals can often serve as a goal that puts the game away or a goal that totally alters it.
How can the Penguins fix the problem? Just play it simple. Get shots on net with traffic in front. Don’t make the play that might make the highlight reel if you pull it off, just put the puck in the net.
The Brassard Factor
Brassard either needs to show the Penguins that he can be a deadly third line center that creates offense, or GMJR will find a replacement. Soon.
The Penguins will need to have a third line that can score. It may not be “HBK,” but it certainly needs to be one that is feared by opposing teams. Right now, Brassard has not provided the necessary elements and offense to create that kind of third line.
The answer is simple: Brassard starts to produce and is the key piece of a deadly third line going into the playoffs, or GMJR trades Brassard for a player that he feels can provide that presence to the third line.
Return of Schultz
Many people forget that the Penguins are awaiting the return of Justin Schultz, who is a staple to the Penguins’ top four defensemen. Assuming Schultz plays like he has for the Penguins since they acquired him, they will be more than equipped on the back end, with nine playable NHL defensemen.
Could this give GMJR some flexibility in trading one of these defensemen for a missing piece in the puzzle? Absolutely. In fact, there is a strong chance he moves one of his top nine guys. Could he move on from a guy like Oleksiak or Riikola, or could he make a larger trade and include a name like Olli Maatta? Time will tell, but certainly Schultz’ return bolsters the Penguins’ back end and provides GMJR with some flexibility.
This is a word/concept that Mike Sullivan will reference constantly, but I think it is one that has such a high importance.
The Penguins must have a clear identity that everyone buys into. But, before everyone buys in, the Penguins have to figure out what their identity is, because they don’t have it quite yet.
In 2016, it was clear their identity was speed: outwork and outskate the other team. It worked.
In 2017, they kept the same identity. Even being without Letang, teams were not able to adjust or keep up with the Penguins’ speed. They were not nearly as dominant, but rode both of their goaltenders to a second Stanley Cup in as many years.
Now, teams have caught up to the Penguins. It is a copycat league after all. The Penguins certainly are not the fastest team anymore, so they can’t win solely off of speed and outworking their opponent. They need something else. They need “it.”
Once they find “it,” they will be talked about as a legitimate contender and will have a chance to win their third Stanley Cup in four years.