The Pittsburgh Penguins’ Stanley Cup hangover ran especially long last season — perhaps because they had just won back-to-back titles. By the time the playoffs arrived, they ousted Philadelphia on sheer talent alone before petering out against the Washington Capitals in the second round.
Two grueling championship campaigns will take a toll on any squad, and Mike Sullivan’s was no exception. The lull even bled well into 2018-19, with the Pens sitting on a 10-10-5 record on Dec. 1.
Despite shaky goaltending from starter Matt Murray, a top-heavy defense and a couple of streaky stars, Pittsburgh has since rediscovered the art of winning games. It’s riding a 9-2-1 streak and occupies third place in the Metropolitan Division.
Fittingly, this resurgence has been spearheaded by captain Sidney Crosby.
The 31-year-old ranks 19th in the league with 43 points in 34 games, and he’s produced well even with a revolving door on right wing — Sullivan has afforded Bryan Rust, Dominik Simon, Derick Brassard, Patric Hornqvist and Phil Kessel looks in that spot. While Crosby hasn’t hit 90 points since 2013-14, he’s still an exceptional player who processes the game efficiently and can thrive on the rush as well as in tight quarters.
Crosby’s season is all the more impressive when you consider how disinterested he appeared in 2017-18. He put up 89 points, but his three-zone impact diminished so considerably that the Penguins owned a smaller goal share (46.6 GF%) than their opponents with Crosby on the ice. Prior to 2017-18, that had never occurred over his entire career, which is proof positive that Pittsburgh simply had nothing left in the tank. His bounce-back year has offered a calming influence to a team that seemed as though it was hanging by a thread early on.
Among forwards with at least 500 minutes at 5-on-5, he ranks second in CF% (56.8), sixth in SCF% (56.5) and second in GF% (68.8).
Defenseman Kris Letang has also regained his form after a couple of forgettable years. Finally healthy following a slew of injuries, the 31-year-old has performed admirably (55.9 CF%, 56.0 SCF%) as a mobile puck-moving blueliner who can match up against the opposition’s best.
He looks noticeably crisper in his movement and more confident in his decision-making. That ability to trust his instincts without a second thought had been missing in recent seasons, leading to hesitation and subsequent confusion from his teammates. All it takes is a fraction of a second to alter the complexion of a game. Shifts can go from quiet to disastrous in a real hurry. Letang is playing with a self-assuredness we haven’t seen from him in ages, boosting his GF% from a pitiful 41.7 last year to 64.1 in 2018-19.
That’s as significant a jump as you’ll ever see from a top-tier defenseman.
Granted, Brian Dumoulin is a great on-ice partner for him. The 6’4”, 207-pound rearguard takes great angles and displays sound game sense to keep opposing stars at bay, which allows Letang to rove and scan the situation for a moment to capitalize on. The 27-year-old is rarely discussed in the media, but he’s become one of the better stay-at-home defensemen in the world.
It isn’t all rosy in Pittsburgh, though. Between the pipes, Murray is suffering through a second consecutive rough season (3.30 GAA, 90.2 SV%). The unflappable confidence is no longer there. He looks jittery in his crease and regularly alternates between spectacular saves and back-breaking soft goals.
Thankfully, his numbers in December (1.48 GAA, 95.7 SV%) have dovetailed with the team’s turnaround. Obviously, four games is not much of a sample size, but he’s won each outing and demonstrated much more composure lately.
If he can’t hold down the fort, Casey DeSmith is waiting for his opportunity. He’s followed up a solid 2017-18 (2.40 GAA, 92.1 SV%) with another strong season (2.42 GAA, 92.6 SV%) and appears eager to steal the incumbent’s job. With that said, he has 38 games of NHL experience, so there’s no indication of his long-term viability as a starter.
Elsewhere, forwards Matt Cullen (41.4 CF%, 44.4 SCF%, 47.6 GF%) and Riley Sheahan (44.4 CF%, 46.1 SCF%, 35.7 GF%) have struggled. The former is understandably slowing down at 42 years old, whereas the latter seemingly has no identity. Detroit’s 2010 first-round pick isn’t particularly skilled or capable of assuming shutdown duties, and he doesn’t show the type of motor required to excel as a grinder. These two players have weighed down a bottom six that currently represents a thorn in Pittsburgh’s side.
Meanwhile, defensemen Olli Maatta (45.9 CF%, 45.9 SCF%) and Jack Johnson (46.5 CF%, 48.8 SCF%) have floundered in their roles, as they regularly lose the battle for shot attempts and scoring chances. Maatta has been ravaged by health troubles, whereas Johnson has never possessed the hockey IQ to thrive in a top-four setting.
These issues are magnified by the loss of Justin Schultz (broken leg). The 28-year-old provided valuable minutes as a smooth-skating offensive defenseman, and his poise with the puck is sorely lacking at the moment.
On the bright side, Brassard was placed on a line with Kessel and Tanner Pearson on Thursday…and he finally displayed signs of life. Since coming over in a trade from Ottawa in 2017-18, the 31-year-old center has looked out of sorts (11 points in 28 games this season, 46.7 CF%, 45.2 SCF%, 48.0 GF%). Perhaps he wasn’t comfortable with the responsibility of carrying the third line on his own. Maybe he missed the luxury of having top-six talent on his wings.
Sullivan killed those two birds with one stone.
Though Kessel will never be a coach’s dream, the man can generate offense like few wingers in the league. He’s posted 40 points in 37 games, and his blistering wrist shot presents a real threat on the rush and the man advantage. Moreover, he appears more engaged in the action when he’s away from Evgeni Malkin. Contrary to Brassard, Kessel appears to relish the task of propping up a forward unit by himself. He did just that with Nick Bonino and Carl Hagelin in 2015-16 on the road to his first Stanley Cup.
Speaking of Malkin, the 32-year-old seems about as lethargic as Crosby did last season. Nevertheless, his skill level remains world-class. That much is evidenced by his 39 points in 37 games despite an ugly 47.1 GF%. He isn’t controlling games from start to finish — or even putting in a decent effort on defense — but he can turn the tide with a single moment of brilliance.
That’s the real differentiation for the Pens: They can get outworked and outplayed and still come out on top if one of their superstars decides to take over. Even though they shouldn’t rely on it, their version of cruise control can overcome the best efforts of many clubs. And when they get riled up, they can pour on the pressure at will. Their offense ranks seventh, their power play ranks ninth and they boast the seventh-best record in the NHL when trailing first in a game. They’re never truly out of any contest.
Crosby and Malkin are rare talents. Letang is a high-end blueliner. Kessel is arguably the finest complementary scorer in the game. Jake Guentzel and Hornqvist are terrific finishers around the net. Now imagine if the rest of the team wakes from its slumber.
Pittsburgh isn’t playing pretty hockey by any means, but pretty doesn’t win you games. Pure firepower at key positions does.