There has been some wailing and gnashing of teeth over the Pittsburgh Penguins’ recent uneven play. They’ve gone 6-2 in their past eight games, although they’ve allowed 3.38 goals per outing during that high-wire stretch.
Did we really expect the Penguins to roll through a six-month regular season with nary a hiccup? Even though they’ve struggled a bit lately by most metrics, they still have a 15-point lead(!) over the Flyers for the Metropolitan Division lead, and a seven-point cushion on the Bruins for the conference’s top spot.
I’m not being a Pollyanna when I say that, all things considered, the Penguins (32-12-1, 65 points) are doing just fine. They’ve played the entire year without backup goalie Tomas Vokoun and have gone long stretches without important figures like James Neal, Kris Letang, Brooks Orpik, Rob Scuderi, Beau Bennett, Evgeni Malkin and Paul Martin, the last of which is still rehabbing from a broken leg.
It’s true, Pittsburgh started the year among the NHL’s best in possession-based stats like Corsi and Fenwick. The Pens have fallen back a bit in those areas, much of which we can attribute to a complete lack of lineup stability. They’ve been on the losing end of the even-strength possession battle in eight straight games, having to lean upon high-end skill to make the difference.
However, Tuesday’s shootout win in Vancouver was encouraging for those concerned about sustainability. Until sagging for much of the third period, the Penguins controlled the game and, if not for a few great saves from Canucks goalie Eddie Lack, would’ve been cruising to victory after 40 minutes.
Instead, a late two-goal rally was needed just to push the game beyond regulation. But even though the win was needlessly dramatic, the underlying shot-attempt numbers tell a more encouraging story – the Pens were essentially even or better in Corsi and Fenwick no matter the game situation. (Thanks to the fantastic Extra Skater for the numbers.)
It’s only one game, but Letang looked himself on the blueline, Neal and Malkin were dominant, and Crosby came through as he usually does. There’s room for improvement, too: Orpik and Scuderi don’t seem to be back to full speed and Brian Gibbons is hit-or-miss on the top forward line.
The Penguins still have 37 games to play. As we’ve heard many times, only the playoffs truly matter to this team, so there’s time to fix things that have gone awry. The three-week Olympic break looms next month, as does the NHL trading deadline in early March. The Pens aren’t clicking completely, but they are playing in a weak division and almost assured of having home-ice advantage in the first round of the postseason.
With struggling Edmonton and Calgary coming up this weekend back-to-back, it’s a perfect opportunity for Pittsburgh to fine-tune all aspects of its game. If the Pens still look ragged after the next couple matches, then we can start talking about a meaningful midseason slump.
Tonight’s game: Penguins (32-12-1, 65 points – 1st Metropolitan) at Oilers (14-27-5, 33 points – 7th Pacific) at Rexall Place in Edmonton, Alberta. Faceoff is set for 10 p.m. Eastern time, with Root Sports Pittsburgh and 105.9 The X handling broadcast duties.
Pittsburgh backup goalie Jeff Zatkoff gets the call in net; the rookie will oppose the Oilers’ Devan Dubnyk. Edmonton native Deryk Engelland will once again play right wing on the fourth line, while the defense pairings are all game-time decisions, according to Pens coach Dan Bylsma.
More from Matt Gajtka: Is Bylsma already the best coach in Pens history?