Penguins Quarter-Pole Review – Pittsburgh Penguins – PenguinPoop Blog

Penguins Quarter-Pole Review

Twenty games being a nice, round number—not to mention roughly a quarter of the season—I thought I’d review the Penguins’ performance thus far.

It’s been a mixed bag, to say the least. Following two grueling postseasons (and corresponding short summers), it’s safe to say the Pens are suffering the effects of a Stanley Cup hangover. They’ve played in fits and starts, alternating decent stretches with…well…losses of 10-1, 7-1 and 7-1 pretty much tell the story.

No, it hasn’t been pretty. Adjectives like tired, uninspired and lethargic have all-too-often come to mind when describing the team’s uneven play.

The NHL schedule-makers did us no favors. Personally, I think the Pens’ murderous early-season slate, which opened with 13 of 19 games on the road and six back-to-backs, was a thinly veiled attempt to punish the team after GM Jim Rutherford had the temerity to criticize the officiating. A definite no-no in the prevailing “speak-no-evil, hear-no-evil, see-no-evil” culture of the NHL.

Fortunately, the league’s ham-handed attempt at an early burial didn’t quite succeed. The Pens are smack dab in the midst of the competitive Metropolitan Division race with 23 points. Remarkable when you consider the challenges they’ve faced.

Not to beat a long-dead horse, but the departures of battle-hardened vets Nick Bonino, Matt Cullen, Trevor Daley, Marc-Andre Fleury, Ron Hainsey and Chris Kunitz altered the team’s chemistry and opened gaping holes in the lineup—most notably on the third and fourth lines. The summertime trade for heavyweight Ryan Reaves, which helped from a physical standpoint, further altered the bottom-six mix, at times preventing coach Mike Sullivan from rolling four lines in his preferred style.

The result? The Pens have had difficulty generating their old speed, a key to the dual Cup triumphs. They’ve also had to rely on their core players, Sidney Crosby in particular, more than they’d like. Indeed, Sid’s workload (20:39 ATOI)—his highest since the Dan Bylsma era—may have contributed to his pokey production.

Defense has been a sore spot, too. The poster child for the team’s blue-line woes? Kris Letang, who’s struggled (minus-13) to regain his pre-injury form. Guilty at times of trying to do too much, he’s tied for third in the league with 31 giveaways. Put in perspective, the rest of the black-and-gold defense has 43 combined.

I won’t dwell on the failed Antti Niemi experiment. Rutherford’s gamble on the former Cup-winning goalie blew up, big time. Thankfully, prospect Tristan Jarry appears to be a capable replacement.

No, the first quarter of the season wasn’t kind. Still, it wasn’t an unmitigated disaster, either.

On an individual level, Phil Kessel’s been terrific. In arguably the best shape of his career, ‘the Thrill’s’ tied for fourth in the NHL with 24 points, including a team-high eight goals. He’s been remarkably engaged in the defensive zone and feisty to boot. Perhaps his new pal, Reaves, is rubbing off.

Evgeni Malkin, likewise, has shone. Traditionally a slow starter, ‘Geno’s’ tied for 11th in the league in scoring. With points in 14 out of 20 games, he’s been remarkably consistent. Injury free, too, which is huge considering Sid’s struggles and the club’s lack of depth down the middle.

Goalie Matt Murray’s numbers aren’t pretty. However, given his heightened workload and the Pens’ less-than-stellar team defense, he’s been a veritable Rock of Gibraltar. His record (10-4-1) speaks for itself.

There are positives from a team perspective, too. Following hard on the heels of an extended cold snap, the offense busted loose with nine goals over the past two games, including seven at even strength. The Pens even flashed their old resilience, rallying from 3-1 deficits in both contests to earn three out of a possible four points.

Credit Sullivan. After repeatedly juggling his line combinations, he seems to have hit on four winners. In particular, the newly formed unit of Conor Sheary, Riley Sheahan and Patric Hornqvist bonded quickly, tallying three goals and five points against Buffalo.

Although goals have been scarce, Carl Hagelin and Bryan Rust have flashed their old speed and persistence of late, revitalizing the forecheck and cycling game. ‘Sully’ even scrambled the power play—a bright spot through the early going—in an effort to shed some predictable patterns.

All good signs.

We’ll even be reaping backhanded benefits from those darned schedule-makers. Following tonight’s north-of-the-border clash with Ottawa, the Pens enjoy a stretch of nine out of 11 at home. Hopefully, we’ll make some hay while the sun shines.

If not? Look for changes come the New Year.

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  1. the Other Rick's Gravatar the Other Rick
    November 16, 2017 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    Hey Rick,

    Excellent stuff, I am glad you did this article, I was working on a similar post; a first quarter grade of the team but unfortunately I haven’t had the time to tie all of my thoughts down.

    I had taken the high road on my last comments, refraining from complaining, but unfortunately not now. Looking over what the team has done to this point, I would grudgingly have to concede a C as their grade, but would love to give them a far worse mark based on the fact that they have only beaten 3 teams convincingly 3 times over the first 20 games. However, since they do still occupy the last wild card play-off spot, if you project the league standings out to 82 games, I will put my utter disappointment in the team aside and give them their gentlemen’s “C” for doing the bare minimum.

    The problem is they only would have a 2 point cushion on Carolina who would come in a 9th.

    I can’t say that I am surprised at the teams performance so far since I have been vocally opposed to many of the moves and non-moves that the team has made.

    I do agree however, that the Malkin – Kessel show has been a bright-spot in an otherwise depressing display of under-performance all the way up to the GM.

    However, I am not ready to even contemplate the idea that the team has turned it around. Beating Arizona and Buffalo doesn’t constitute anything more than moral victories, especially considering that the team was at home and rested when playing the worst teams in both conferences. Even more depressing is the fact that the bottom feeding Sabres took the Pens into OT before giving up the ghost.

    I can’t decide if I have been watching a Greek Tragedy or Farce.

    In a recent on line article, I read an author suggesting that Sullivan has finally found an answer to the third line scoring in Sheahan-Sheary-Hornqvist, However, again, considering the pathetic performance of the Sabres so far, I would have to ask, “Are you serious?” Maybe Sully has found the answer, but 1 game against the worst team in the Metropolitan division isn’t even close to evidence that a corner has been turned. If the Pens can find a way to at least beat Ottawa tonight, in Regulation or even OT, maybe we could START our wondering if the team has turned it around.

    I really do hope the Pens are about to embark on an upswing but for now I will withhold my judgement.

    • Rick Buker's Gravatar Rick Buker
      November 16, 2017 at 7:16 pm | Permalink

      Hey Other Rick,

      I’m probably looking at things through rose-colored glasses. But I remain weirdly optimistic. Not for a three-peat, mind you. Just that things might be slowly turning in a positive direction.

      I like the look of the new third line. Sheary seems comfortable on the left side, which fills a need and alleviates the log jam on right wing in one stroke.

      I like what I see in Sheahan, too. He skates well for a big guy, wins faceoffs, and seems to possess decent instincts at both ends of the ice. About the only thing he hasn’t done is score.

      Yeah, I know…not such a little deal. But still…

      I also think the fourth line is improving. They actually appear to be developing a little chemistry. And, after an admittedly rough start, Reaves is beginning to look like the player I remember in St. Louis. He’s been skating better and getting in on the forecheck. When he puts the body on people, it definitely has an impact.

      Speaking of the forecheck, Hagelin’s looked a lot more like his old self the past handful of games. He’s been more involved around the net, which is encouraging. Like Sheahan, he’s done everything but score.

      Completely changing the subject, a guy popped into my head this week as a potential low-cost option on left wing. Viktor Stalberg has always impressed me whenever I’ve watched him play. He’s big (6’3″ 209), fast and uses the body (140-plus hits in each of the past two seasons).

      About the only thing he doesn’t have is hands. He scored 11 goals last season, although he did have as many as 22 several years back. Still, I can’t help but think there might be little hidden vigorish with countrymen Hagelin and Hornqvist.

      Stalberg’s presently playing in Switzerland. But if the Pens get into an injury bind down the road, he might be a possibility.


      • the Other Rick's Gravatar the Other Rick
        November 16, 2017 at 8:26 pm | Permalink

        Hey Rick,

        Last season, when everybody was down on the Pens, I never waivered in my belief in the O and Gs. (it has been quite awhile since I believed in the Pens D.) This year I have been critical, very critical most of the season. The off-season decisions caused me to raise my eyebrows and scratch my head (understatement time) quite often but watching the prospects tournament and preseason brought a ton of optimism. But then when the season started and I watched the team back slide into the Bylsma/MJ era I cringed.

        I am very optimistic still that within the organization, their exists the right mix of talent to challenge for the Cup, but pride (fear of acknowledging mistakes) and straight out fear of losing is hampering this team.

        I dearly pray I am wrong, since it appears that the team, like the Captain of the Titanic, is allowing hubris to blind them to the warning signs of serious weaknesses in this team, while they try to navigate through iceberg laden waters.

        As I write this, right now, Murray is once again standing on his head, keeping this team in it, just minutes ago, he lunged back across the crease with his glove, losing his stick in the process, to absolutely rob the Senators.


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