GAMEDAY 41: Back In the Sky

Tonight marks the last game of the first half of the 2018-19 Pittsburgh Penguins season, and it might be better to reflect fully on the first half once tonight’s game is completed, but there are numerous stories to talk about. Of course, there’s the possibility of an eight-game winning streak, the longest such streak for the Penguins since April 2016. The continued excellence of Sidney Crosby. The Norris-caliber performance of Kris Letang. The return to form of Matt Murray, combined with the very capable support of Casey DeSmith and the underrated defensive corps. Phil Kessel and Jake Guentzel continuing to fill the net.

But the biggest story to me is that the Penguins are within striking distance of the Metropolitan Division lead for the first time since they ended their Western Canada road trip on October 27. It stands to note that the Penguins were in first place for as long as they were in last place (eight days), but because the division was so tight, Pittsburgh was able to claw its way out of the basement fairly quickly, and now the playoff race in the Metro is making a bit more sense: Washington is one point ahead of the Penguins after they played the team with the worst record in the League, the St. Louis Blues, and lost 5-2. Behind the Penguins, but not by much, are the Columbus Blue Jackets (as usual), and the New York Islanders (defensively stout, helping their cause), both 7-2-1 in their last ten. These four teams have separated themselves somewhat from the rest of their Metro Division rivals, and all of them have positive goal differentials, which also makes sense. The Islanders are out of the playoff race right now, but they’re nipping at the heels of their Atlantic Division foes in Buffalo and Montreal for a Wild Card spot.

I will freely admit having lost hope in the Penguins, considering the precedent in franchise history of having never won a Cup from having such a poor start. I think I got caught up in the apparently diminished Murray and the lack of confidence in DeSmith’s ability to carry the Penguins. The Penguins were also hurting for scoring depth, which too has returned for the black-and-gold. Marcus Pettersson has made everyone forget about Daniel Sprong by turning the pumpkin that is Jack Johnson into a serviceable stagecoach. It will be interesting to see what happens when Justin Schultz comes back (we should start seeing him soon), but there’s no apparent rush.

I still won’t entertain the possibility that the Penguins are completely turned around, and neither do the Penguins seem to be accepting that either, which is good news. Even after a 7-2 walloping of the hopeless New York Rangers (King Henrik, turn in your crown), head coach Mike Sullivan insisted that it wasn’t the Penguins’ best performance. It’s a fair assessment too, with the number of soft goals Lundqvist allowed and how the Penguins were outshot by one of the worst shooting teams in the League:

And really, there are a number of teams out there still that are perhaps ahead of the Penguins, including their foes for tonight, the Central Division leaders, the Winnipeg Jets. Winnipeg also started the season on something of the wrong foot, seeing starting goaltender and last year’s Vezina runner-up Connor Hellebuyck underwhelm, but the Jets are still very dangerous and consistent with the eighth-most goals scored and the eighth-fewest goals allowed. I am surprised though that they can rely on a handful of effective specialists (Blake Wheeler: 6-44—50; Patrik Laine: 24-7—31; Dustin Byfuglien: 4-25—29), but Mark Scheifele is legit. Once the Penguins were eliminated from the playoffs last year, I was really rooting for the Jets (sorry Fleury fans), and they clearly haven’t dropped off from last year.

Winnipeg will be a great test for the Penguins as they look to close out the first half.

I feel like a broken record right now but with the exception of getting Oleksiak back into the line-up, there probably won’t be any changes to the Penguins line-up. Though Oleksiak has flourished in Pittsburgh the decision between him and Riikola is nearly a draw when it comes to how both do on the second pairing with shot attempts for and against. With Maatta on the second pairing, Oleksiak turns in a 45.38 CF% in 274 5v5 minutes while Riikola comes in at 43.48 CF% in ~215 5v5 minutes. Some might read these numbers and say Maatta is the problem, but Sean Tierney posted this bombshell yesterday that took care of that narrative:

The Penguins top 3 defenders are all in the top 20 in the League. I will admit I was not expecting to see Olli Maatta on this list, though I am not on the “trade Maatta” wagon, I just didn’t expect to see him here. This was a long-winded way of saying that regardless of who is in Riikola, Oleksiak, Schultz, they will be paired with Maatta. The top pairing isn’t going anywhere and Pettersson has finally made Johnson invisible, making Olli’s partner the rotating door.

On the other side of the ice the Penguins will be facing two Ray Shero mistakes on the blue line. The 2012 draft was a big one in Pittsburgh, it was the beginning of the end for Shero and Bylsma when they abandoned the three center approach that made them contenders by trading Jordan Staal on draft day. In the trade the acquired the 8th overall pick which they used on Derrick Pouliot. The next player taken at number 9 overall was Jacob Trouba by the Jets, damn. Also lining up is Joe Morrow, who Shero sent to Dallas along with picks to acquire Brendan Morrow in an attempt to go all-in once again, but Morrow was hindered by a broken knee-cap during the playoffs and was a non-factor throughout. Such is life.

As mentioned above, tonight will be a great test for this Penguins team. Since relocating from Atlanta to Winnipeg these two teams have combined for 4 or more goals in all but 5 of the 18 matchups, and with the way both are playing right now I would expect the same tonight. If Rutherford was smart he would leave Matt Murray out of the building before he gets a chance to talk to Connor Hellebuyck about his contract. Standard 7:00 PM start tonight with the game on ATTSN and ESPN+, see you then!

Hank Spanked

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