Grove: It Might Not Be Pretty But Penguins Are Getting It Done

Pens are on a 10-4-2 roll since beating Dallas on Thanksgiving Eve

Bob Grove
December 21, 2018 - 12:28 pm

© Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

PITTSBURGH (93.7 The Fan) - It hasn’t always been pretty, but lately it’s been gritty. That’s a good thing for the Penguins.

After their most impressive back-to-back victories of the season at Washington and at home against Minnesota, on consecutive nights no less, the Penguins find themselves three points out of first place in the Metropolitan Division as they approach their final pre-holiday game Saturday at Carolina. They’re on a 10-4-2 roll since beating Dallas on Thanksgiving Eve, they’re 7-2-1 in their last 10 home games and they’ve won four of their last five.

Most importantly, they haven’t done it simply by overwhelming opponents with their skill, by piling up goals, by winning games with their power play, by riding the play of their top two lines. During this 16-game stretch, their average goals per game is down to 3.1; their power play has been converting at an underwhelming 19.5 percent; and both Evgeni Malkin (4-6-10) and Phil Kessel (4-8-12) are well under the scoring pace they were on when it began.

Instead, during these 16 games they’ve gotten significantly better production from their bottom six forwards; Bryan Rust has caught fire and graduated back to the top line; they’ve cut their goals-against per game significantly to just 2.75; their penalty killing has functioned at 87.1 percent; and Casey DeSmith was solid while Matt Murray was out for nine of those games.

Every season is a new experience for every team, regardless of how much or how little roster change took place the previous summer. Every returning player is at a different stage of their development, and every new player has to figure out how he fits into the puzzle. For their victory over the rested Wild Thursday, eight of the 20 players dressed for coach Mike Sullivan have never played an entire NHL season with the Penguins.

This group is learning how to win. Sometimes fans might have to look away, as there are still plenty of issues to solve – their defensive mobility, their puck management, their risk management, etc. – but these last two games were a master class in just finding a way. Sure, the Sidney Crosby line with Rust and Jake Guentzel is carrying a bit too much of the scoring load, and the team has needed every bit of brilliance from Kris Letang to get it done.

But there was an unmistakable sense of drive from the Penguins over these last two games in particular, an intangible push from within, that should be heeded by everyone in that room. Maybe it was lit by Tom Wilson. Maybe it was lit by Crosby’s verbal joust with Alexander Ovechkin and subsequent role in the team’s come-from-behind win that night. Regardless, winning under difficult conditions is contagious.

Related: Rust Helps Penguins Top Wild 2-1

It’s Zach Aston-Reese blocking shots on the overtime penalty kill against the Islanders. It’s Rust staying in front of an Ovechkin shot late in the win at Washington. It’s Marcus Pettersson diving to knock a puck from the goal line in the that game. It’s Derick Brassard doing a 180 to start becoming a force in the faceoff circle; it’s Tanner Pearson with a backcheck that may have saved a goal against Minnesota; it’s Jack Johnson continuing to lead Pittsburgh defensemen in hits and blocked shots per game; it’s Garrett Wilson stepping into a penalty killing role for a night and getting the job done.

It’s a lot of little things and some very big things. Together they’ve added up to a very good stretch and two impressive 60-minute efforts, one with five defensemen on the road against the defending Cup champs. Now the challenge is to use these lessons going forward. The Penguins have gotten too comfortable with themselves at times this season. Will that change?

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