Gameday 32: In Line For Nine

There must be something about the holiday season that gets the Pittsburgh Penguins rolling. Sunday’s 8-5 win over the San Jose Sharks was the Penguins’ eighth-straight victory. It is now the longest winning streak for Pittsburgh since the 2018-19 season, which started with a 2-1 victory against the Washington Capitals on December 19, 2018 and ended on January 6, 2019 with a 5-3 loss against the Chicago Blackhawks. Thanks to the influence of the COVID-19 pause, the Penguins’ current streak began a full month ago with a 4-1 win against the Vancouver Canucks on December 4.

Things are quite curious in the top half of the Metropolitan Division standings. The Penguins, in fourth, are the one of the hottest teams in the League, with an 8-1-1 record in their last ten games which is tied with Nashville and Vancouver and just ahead of division rivals the Carolina Hurricanes for the best in the League. But (as of this writing) Pittsburgh still sits six points back of the Hurricanes who themselves are a point behind both the New York Rangers and the Capitals for first in the division and the League. However, looking at goal differential, the Penguins (+18) are actually quite similar to the Rangers (+16), and both teams are a decent bit behind the League leaders, including Carolina in first (+40) and Washington in third (+30). In any event, the top four teams in the Metro Division are in the top nine of the League and, without much back-pressure from the bottom four in the division, they are all fortifying their positions as we head towards the second half of the schedule and the race for the playoffs.

Tonight is the first of two meetings on the schedule between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the St. Louis Blues. St. Louis is also in good shape at the moment, 7-1-2 in their last ten games and one point ahead of Nashville for the Central Division lead. They’ve won two games in a row, including Friday’s 6-4 win against the Minnesota Wild under the lights of Target Field for the Winter Classic. The Central Division is kind of weird at the moment as well. The Colorado Avalanche were expected to be well out in front of the pack, but currently sit in fourth place and only three points ahead of the Winnipeg Jets. Nashville and St. Louis were thought to be battling for wild card spots, but right now they are battling for the division lead.

As well as the Penguins have been playing, it’s scary and perhaps a little greedy to think they could be even better. With Evgeni Malkin due to return any day now, they’ll be one player closer to full health, pending COVID-19 protocols lapsing or starting. (The only exception to that being Jason Zucker, who is likely out for at least another month while recovering from a knee injury. Not to crap on Zucker, but Kapanen is having a better season than Zucker.) Maybe having some stability will help those who are underperforming (Kapanen, Zucker, Carter, Blueger, Marino) perform better? I guess that’s always the hope, and besides the fact that he’s getting older, there’s no good reason to expect Malkin to not produce at least three points every four games. Even if everyone continues playing the same as they have been, adding Geno is a big deal.

OK, look – dailyfaceoff has Malkin penciled in there so in he goes!

(Not trying to get anyone excited though: indications are that Malkin will probably not make his debut until tomorrow at Philadelphia at the earliest. For some reason, Malkin’s numbers against Central Division teams are actually the worst; specifically against St. Louis he has six goals and nine assists in 18 career games, and is also a -2 with a 7.9% shooting percentage, which is the second-worst for Malkin amongst teams he’s played. For comparison’s sake, Malkin is a -4 against the Flyers – in the regular season (important to note) – but with 29 goals on a 13.8% shooting percentage and 80 total points in 65 games against Philadelphia.)

As for St. Louis, they feature three point-per-game players, Vladimir Tarasenko, Jordan Kyrou, and Pavel Buchnevich, and a few who are just outside of that rate, Ivan Barbashev, Robert Thomas, and old pal David Perron. St. Louis also has a bunch of older guys, like Ryan O’Reilly, Torey Krug, Brandon Saad, Brayden Schenn, who appear to be waning in terms of their offensive skill, but are also young enough that that skill could rear its head for a few games and help lift the Blues along. Such as it is, St. Louis has scored the fifth-most goals in the League with the fifth-best shooting percentage (helps to have the third-best power-play). That, combined with a sixth-best save percentage, and it is understandable why the Blues have been performing so well in the standings. They are not so weak as many of the projections made them seem.