© Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

Grove: Penguins Are On A Hot Streak But One Area Still Needs Improvement

March 15, 2019 - 12:58 pm

PITTSBURGH (93.7 The Fan) - Prior to their methodical victory in Buffalo Thursday night, the Penguins had scored 29 goals in their previous eight games. There was nothing remarkable about that total, but there was something impressive – and concerning at the same time – about the source of those goals.

Twenty of them, nearly 69 percent, had come from Sidney Crosby (7), Jake Guentzel (7) and Jared McCann (6), who were linemates for five of those eight games and have now played the last three games together as Pittsburgh prepares to host St. Louis and Philadelphia this weekend. That’s fantastic production from all of them, a continuation of special seasons from both Crosby and Guentzel and more confirmation that GM Jim Rutherford’s trade with Florida for McCann and Nick Bjugstad seems at the moment to have been a perfect plan.

Related: Kessel, Crosby help surging Penguins blank Sabres 5-0

But with the playoffs just over three weeks away, that kind of concentrated production should also be a worry for coach Mike Sullivan. His team cannot survive in the post-season with any trio of players carrying that much of the offensive burden. Playoff opponents can structure their defensive game to limit those three, gambling that, especially at even strength, the Penguins’ other lines won’t burn them.

As great as those three have been, this goal distribution is a recipe for failure for the Penguins unless their other forwards begin to contribute at even strength. Phil Kessel seems to have emerged from the longest goal slump of his career with three in the past five games, and Patric Hornqvist delivered his first goal in seven games in the 5-0 victory in Buffalo. Thursday marked the first time since Dec. 27 that Kessel and Hornqvist both scored in the same game, although both goals came on the power play. The pair has now combined for zero even-strength goals in the past 21 games.

Zero.

They’re not alone. Teddy Blueger, pressed into second line duty with Zach Aston-Reese injured, has one goal in 14 games; Dominik Simon, now playing on the third line, has one goal in 27 games; Matt Cullen, who has anchored the fourth line all season, has one goal in 30 games; and Garrett Wilson has one goal in 39 games this season.

None of those players are expected to be 20-goal guys. Some are not even expected to be 15-goal guys. But add those numbers to the even-strength slumps for Kessel and Hornqvist and you have a potential problem that might not be evident when the Penguins have gone 11-3-2 over their past 16 games. Since Feb. 11, only Tampa has earned more points in the standings than Pittsburgh.

A possible solution is on the horizon with the imminent return of winger Bryan Rust to the lineup. Injured Feb. 26 at Columbus, Rust could return this weekend and he seems a likely candidate to replace Blueger on the second line as he resumes what has been the best offensive season of his career.

Rust’s speed and experience may be the right fit for Malkin and Kessel, who produced much more at even strength when the speedy Carl Hagelin was playing the left side with them earlier this season. Rust, of course, is a better finisher than Hagelin, so the potential for that line to complement the Crosby line would be a huge development for Sullivan, who did try them together for two games in late January before Malkin was injured.

Even then, the third and fourth lines must find a way to chip in some goals outside of what Bjugstad is already providing at even strength. Together, Bjugstad and Hornqvist on the third line and Blueger and Cullen on the fourth line provide at least the promise of some goals. And the return of Kris Letang, of course, will add some production from the blue line.

The Penguins have been busy checking a lot of boxes here down the stretch, improving their game in the places that demanded it, but this is one area that remains a work-in-progress with just 11 games left in the regular season.

 

 

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