Pens Look to Improve Upon Current Winning Streak
By: Wyatt Silverman
This week, the Penguins had a dominating performance against two top-performing teams (LA and NJ) and one squad (BUF) that would struggle in the AHL.
However, the positive energy of that success was diminished by the revelation of defenseman Olli Määttä’s likely-cancerous tumor. The team took the news in stride, and outperformed my prediction — going 3–0 instead of 2–1. Scoring 16 goals, and only allowing three over this stretch, the Pens had one of their better weeks in recent memory. Marc-Andre Fleury had a very strong performance overall. He had his first ever back-to-back shutouts in the NHL, stopping 54 pucks combined.
Evgeni Malkin continued his hot streak on his way to gaining points in every game this season. This past week, Malkin potted 2 goals and totaled 5 points. Though he has not scored at even strength, when a player has 5 PPGs in 10 games, it’s hard to complain.
Captain Sidney Crosby leads the league with 18 points (7 G, 11 A), including a three-assist night against Buffalo in just over 15 minutes played.
The Penguins special teams have been excellent. The power play has continued their ridiculous run, bumping the success rate up to 41.9%. In fact, the gap between Pittsburgh and #2 New Jersey (26.3%) is as large as the gap between the Devils and the #25 Nashville Predators at 10.7%.
On top of their elite performance on the man advantage, the Penguins have really gotten things together on the penalty kill. They’ve successfully defended their last 26 penalties taken, which has brought the season average up to 85.4% and ranks ninth in the league.
With such success on the power play, it can be legitimately confusing why teams continue to take penalties against the Penguins. Despite that apparent logic, Pittsburgh ranks eighth with 43 power play opportunities.
Returning to the Määttä situation, the team announced this week that doctors had found a tumor on the young defenseman’s thyroid. Supposedly, there is an 85% chance of it being cancerous. He has played this entire season so far while knowing about the issue. However, he will now be out 4 weeks after a surgery in the next few days. Thankfully, Määttä is expected to make a full recovery.
The games against New Jersey and Los Angeles were the most relevant this week, considering the quality of competition. Against the Devils, the Penguins came roaring back from a 3–1 deficit, scoring seven unanswered goals to win the game handily. The Devils are a team the Pens have traditionally struggled to come back against due to their trapping defensive style. Mike Johnston’s system seems to work effectively as a means to make it through the neutral zone.
Los Angeles remains an extremely formidable defensive team, despite the absences of Anze Kopitar and Slava Voynov, so it was nice to see the Pens win by 3 goals. Some of that may have been the presence of the backup goalie, but the shutout by the Penguins also says a lot.
This week can only be considered a success on the ice, but the news about Määttä certainly casts a pall over everything. Up next are games in Minnesota, Winnipeg, and Buffalo, as part of a 5-game road trip. Based on the way the Pens have been playing, fans would hope they continue the undefeated streak.
Minnesota is sitting atop the Central Division with a 7–3 record. Zach Parise leads the Wild with 10 points, and new acquisition Thomas Vanek isn’t far behind him with eight of his own. Primary goaltender Darcy Kuemper has been very solid over his eight starts, clocking in a .930 save percentage.
The Winnipeg Jets are down in 6th place, having earned only 11 points. Bryan Little leads them with both five goals and nine points.
Having already covered Buffalo, there’s not much more to go back over.
The big question for this week is how will the defensive lineup change to replace Määttä? Simon Despres is a likely candidate for more playing time, based on his strong performance on the third pairing, but Robert Bortuzzo should be returning soon from injury. Scott Harrington, one of the team’s better defensive prospects, may also pick up some time as the seventh defenseman.
This road trip will be a major cue as to how good this team really can be. I’m interested to see if they continue this hot streak.