The NHL playoffs will have the Pittsburgh Penguins as participants for the 13th consecutive season. Last night’s commanding 4-1 victory over the Detroit Red Wings has guaranteed a place at the table. Where the Penguins will be sitting is yet to be determined. A regulation win against the Rangers on Saturday solidifies a matchup against the New York Islanders. Pittsburgh still has the potential to finish as high as second place in the division. They are not safe with the Islanders matchup yet. A loss against the Rangers and the Hurricanes could pass them up leaving the Penguins with a first round matchup against the Washington Capitals.
There were some great developments in last night’s Detroit Red wings game. They involved the return of two excellent hockey players. Not only did Evgeni Malkin return to action, but Kris Letang did as well. Needless to say that helped out a lot. Their presence brings an obvious boost to even-strength action as well as the power play, which scored twice. Awesome players make teams better. Weird!
I’ve been hoping to see Olli Maatta paired up with Kris Letang and last night we were able to see both players on the same pairing. It was successful. The two players had a 54.35 CF% in last night’s game. In the 918 minutes they’ve played together the previous three seasons their CF% was… 54.35.
When you play with Kris Letang that means you are also going to get a healthy serving of Sidney Crosby’s line and that was the case last night. Olli Maatta took advantage of that when he set up the first goal of the game with a great feed to Jake Guentzel for his 39th goal of the year.
Guentzel is excellent at finding soft spots. I always try to tell my players to hang out between the faceoff dot and the inner hash marks. It’s a weird spot for defenders and the shooting angle is good enough to make things happen. Maatta is only as good as his quality of teammate. If you can “hide” him with Letang there is a lot of potential for the defense on the Penguins.
Erik Gudbranson was on a three game slide getting caved in his own zone. He is no longer on that slide. He finished the game CF 21 CA 8 for 66.67% share of shot-attempts. A Pettersson-Gudbranson bottom pairing can be functional.
The Penguins have a lot going for them heading into the playoffs. I would say things haven’t looked as good the entire year. Matt Murray is on fire. The third line consistently plays in the other team’s zone. Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang are back in the lineup. Things are looking good. It’s now on the coach to do the right thing and maximize this roster and to do that the defense pairings need to look like the following
There’s no excuse to not have those six players as the defense group when Brian Dumoulin returns from his minor injury. There is nothing complicated about the player analysis needed to come to this conclusion. It’s very basic stuff. The only thing that could get in the way is hubris and ego.
“He was a healthy scratch at the end of the season [in Columbus],” Rutherford said. “I know the reason why. It wasn’t because of how he was playing.”
Whatever that mysterious reason was doesn’t matter right now because the on-ice play of Johnson is not a mystery. He sucks. Last night was another disaster for the Johnson-Schultz pair only owning 41.67% of the shot attempts. Round and round we go.
In a somewhat related topic Sidney Crosby registered three points and the 100 point watch is officially back on. Crosby finished the night with a goal and two assists. His most common defense linemate was once again Kris Letang. Look for Sidney Crosby to generate tangible offense at a more consistent rate now that he is away from his high school buddy.
Phil Kessel has the same amount of points as his jersey number. It is the first time in his NHL career in which he has broken the 80 point barrier in consecutive seasons. Before coming to Pittsburgh he had never broken 70 in back to back years. This will be the third consecutive year he has hit those marks (70 , 92, 82). The Phil Kessel criticism you see among fans and media is disingenuous. What player do they think the Penguins were getting when they traded for Kessel? What crazy expectations do you have? He is currently on the best three year regular season run of his career and that doesn’t even include the Conn Smythe he got jobbed out of. He’s an offense only player who goes through the same streakiness every player in the league suffers from. Play to his strengths and things will turn out just fine.
Having a third line humming along at the rate they are going allows the team to place Phil Kessel on the Evgeni Malkin line and feel comfortable with the forward depth and how they can allocate players. The Simon-Bjugstad-Hornqvist trio has an xGF% of 68.02 in their 138 minutes together. It’s a great luxury and a necessity for the Penguins to compete against some of the heavy hitters in the Eastern Conference.
Since Matt Murray's return no goaltender who has a similar sample of ice time (>1500 min) has a better 5v5 save percentage than his .944. He also leads all goaltenders with a 5v5 HDSV% of .881. He's playing great.
Fun fact for Friday
Did you know that Rob Scuderi had a 5v5 points per 60 of 0.38 in his final full year with the Penguins. Did you also know that Jack Johnson has a 5v5 points per 60 of 0.28 this year? When you’re as bad as Jack Johnson the ways to point it out are almost endless. Just ask Brandon Sutter.
Thanks for reading!