That was a heckuva win, wasn’t it? The Pittsburgh Penguins jumped all over the New York Islanders early in their 6-3 rout on Saturday, scoring five goals by the 8:21 mark of the second period, and it was excellent to see the first two goals come from guys that are further down the depth chart. For Freddy Gaudreau, it was his first
career NHL goal as a Penguin, the second straight game with such a milestone (Radim Zohorna got his first against the Buffalo Sabres on Thursday), while it was Evan Rodrigues’ fourth goal of the season. From there, it was the top line that took care of the rest of the offense, including three goals from Bryan Rust, his fourth career hat-trick, and two power-play goals. It was a great sight to see the team firing on all cylinders against serious competition in the East Division. Now the Penguins sit two points behind the Islanders and the Washington Capitals to create a three-team tie for first place in the division.
All this, again, with the Penguins lacking several key forwards, including, Brandon Tanev, Teddy Blueger, Evgeni Malkin (none of whole are anticipated back tonight), and not for long, Jason Zucker. Zucker, purportedly the team’s #2 left wing, has heretofore produced fewer points in more games than he appeared in for the Penguins last season: seven points in 17 games this season versus twelve in 15 games last season. Much of that may have had to do with the concurrent slump by Malkin to start the season, but maybe it’s just the mere notion that Malkin and Zucker don’t jive together. The problem being that the trio of Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel, and Bryan Rust is as set in stone as anything could be. However, Zucker needs to prove he can be productive regardless of having a very productive centerman to work with and off of, something he displayed just fine in Minnesota. He will be forced to demonstrate that when he does come back to the lineup, as his line mates are expected to be Jared McCann and Evan Rodrigues.
After allowing three-plus goals in seven games out of eleven in February, the Penguins have cut that to just four in fifteen games in March. Coincidentally, Pittsburgh has one fewer loss this entire month than they did in February. The defense and goaltending have been splendid for the Penguins and have definitely turned things around, which makes sense since the one and only injured defenseman to speak of is Mark Friedman, who has played a total of 14.5 minutes this season but still managed to record a goal and an assist. The defensive depth is kind of a surprise given how determined head coach Mike Sullivan was to insist on using Jack Johnson while the former #3 overall pick was employed by Pittsburgh, but the acquisitions of Mike Matheson and Cody Ceci have not been the train wrecks many expected them to be. Altogether I’d say there’s a healthy balance of offensive and defensive production from the entire corps.
The Penguins tonight are looking for their first two wins in a row against the Islanders since December 2018. In terms of actually winning back-to-back games against New York, you have to go back to the 2013 playoffs, when the Penguins won Games 5 and 6 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. As indicated by their record and their play, the Islanders have been a much tougher team for everyone to handle since hiring Barry Trotz prior to the 2018-19 season. By points percentage these Islanders have the fifth-best record in franchise history, a mark exceeded by the middle two of their four Stanley Cup teams from 1979 to 1983.
The problem for the current Islanders is that those championship teams had two prolific offensive producers in Mike Bossy and Bryan Trottier, whereas the current team’s top scorer, Mat Barzal, is only tied for 50th in the League in points along with Kris Letang, who is fifth on the Penguins in scoring. Then again, having a balanced offense in this day and age in the NHL is typically more successful than the top-heavy nature of teams in the 1980s and current teams like the Penguins.
In a normal season, the playoffs would be starting in two weeks. This year though, we’re not even two-thirds of the way through the season, nor are we past the trade deadline yet. It’s nice not having to worry that the guys who are injured right now might not be at 100% for the first round of the playoffs, but at the same time there’s still plenty of time left for more players to get banged up and miss time. Personally, I think the Penguins have met their quota for the season on the man games lost front. Wouldn’t you agree?