There seems to be some concern around the Pittsburgh Penguins as the playoffs start to get closer. Their penalty kill has stunk for about a month now, they give up too many odd-man rushes and scoring chances, and sometimes because of that they give up more goals than you would like to see from a Stanley Cup contender.
All of that would seem to be concerning at this time of year. Then you look at the fact they are still 7-2-2 in their past 11 games and you start to remember, hey, these guys are pretty good and they gave up a lot of chances a year ago, too.
There is something else that needs to be kept in mind: They are still playing better right now than they were a year ago heading into the playoffs, where they ended up winning the Stanley Cup for the second year in a row.
The fact they actually won the Cup a year ago seems to overshadow the fact they didn’t exactly go into the playoffs last season like a dominant powerhouse. They lost eight of their final 15 games (including six of their final 10), finished the season 22nd overall on the penalty kill, and allowed the fourth most shots on goal per game. They didn’t exactly play great in the first two rounds, either, getting through Columbus and Washington thanks largely to great goaltending carrying them.
[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]
So let’s take a look at their recent performance this season where they are actually playing really well down the stretch, even if it can look a little sloppy at times.
Even with their recent slump on the PK they are still better than they were at the end of last season (17th this season vs. 21st this year) and are giving up the sixth fewest shots per game.
But let’s take a look at a more isolated stretch of games, specifically the past 11, and what they were doing at the same time a year ago.
Offensively they are averaging a full goal per game more, recording more shots, giving up fewer shots, and are one of the best possession teams in the league as opposed to being one of the worst.
The two drops are a slight increase in goals against and a worse penalty kill. It’s easy to blame the penalty kill slump on losing Ian Cole as part of the Derick Brassard trade, but that would also be kind of lazy. The Penguins played without Cole for 15 games earlier this season when he was on the team and never saw that sort of a drop in their play (while using mostly the same players).
The big change is in net where Matt Murray has been up and down at times when he has been healthy, while backups Casey DeSmith and Tristan Jarry have simply not played well. It is probably not a coincidence that the PK started to fall apart recently when Murray went down with an injury and missed nearly a month and the Penguins had to turn to a career minor leaguer and a pretty good prospect that probably is not quite ready for full-time NHL action.
If Murray is healthy and playing the way he was before his most recent injury (he was 8-0-1 with a .926 save percentage in nine starts before missing a month) they are going to be a force to deal with in the playoffs.
It should not be a total shock that they are potentially better team this season when you consider the fact they did not have Kris Letang — their No. 1 defenseman — at this time a year ago, and that they were able to add Derick Brassard and Riley Sheahan to fill the third-and fourth-line center spots and fix the depth problems they entered this season with.
The question is whether or not all of this is going to be enough to get them another chance at the Stanley Cup.
A year ago it was pretty obvious going into the playoffs that the Penguins and Washington Capitals were probably going to be the favorites to come out of the Eastern Conference.
That is not the case this season.
This season there are probably six teams that all have a legitimate shot to come out of the Eastern Conference, whether it be Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, Boston, Toronto, the suddenly surging Blue Jackets and, yes, still the Capitals, too.
The East is absolutely loaded and significantly better than it was a season ago. The Penguins might be better. But so is their competition. Not by a little bit, either.
On to the rankings for this week…
1. Boston Bruins — Patrice Bergeron and Torey Krug are back in the lineup. The scary thing is they were still winning without them. Just wait until they get Charlie McAvoy and Zdeno Chara back.
2. Tampa Bay Lightning — It almost feels like we’ve forgotten about them a little bit. They are 12-3-1 in their past 16, still have the most points in the NHL, two of the best offensive players in the league, and made two huge additions at the trade deadline.
3. Nashville Predators — They’ve dropped three in a row since their 10-game winning streak came to an end. Nothing to worry about. Still the favorites in the west and one of the best teams in the NHL.
4. Winnipeg Jets — Starting to peak at the right time? A potential second-round matchup between them and Nashville might be the best series of the playoffs. If it happens.
The rest of the contenders
5. Columbus Blue Jackets — For the second year in a row they won at least 10 games in a row. Even better than the results is the fact they are also playing at an extremely high level. Their reward for all of this will probably be another first-round matchup with Pittsburgh.
6. Toronto Maple Leafs — They really didn’t do anything to drop a spot this week, but there’s just so many good teams at the top right now that it almost just kind of happened by default. A scary good offense that has Auston Matthews back.
7. Washington Capitals — Feeling some pressure from the rest of the Metropolitan Division the Capitals have gone on a 7-1-0 run to strengthen their grip on the division.
8. San Jose Sharks — The best team right now that no one is talking about? Firm grasp on second place in the Pacific Division, 10-2-0 in their past 12 games, entering the week on a seven-game winning streak. And they still might get Joe Thornton back at some point.
9. Pittsburgh Penguins — It is all going to come down to goaltending.
10. Vegas Golden Knights — With wins in just six of their past 14 games they are still sliding a bit. That potential first-round matchup with Colorado seems dangerous for them.
The middle ground
11. Colorado Avalanche — Nathan MacKinnon has kind of overshadowed the fact that Mikko Rantanen is also one of the top scorers in the league this season. Of course, MacKinnon probably deserves a lot of credit for that but having two elite scorers on a line is never a bad thing.
12. Minnesota Wild — They are a pretty good team and should be capable of winning a round in the playoffs, but do they have the firepower to keep up with Winnipeg or the defense and goaltending to shut them down?
13. St. Louis Blues — These guys looked done one month ago, now here they are making a serious run at that eighth playoff spot in the West. Jake Allen is getting hot in net at the right time for them.
14. Anaheim Ducks — One of the great “what ifs” of this season will be what the Ducks would have been capable of with a reasonably healthy roster for most of the year.
15. Philadelphia Flyers — Sean Couturier has officially become a force down the middle. That defense with 30-goal, 70-point offense is one hell of a player.
16. New Jersey Devils — With nine points in his past six games Taylor Hall is still trying to drag this team to the playoffs.
17. Florida Panthers — The games in hand are still their biggest asset in the race for a playoff spot. Still have to win them.
18. Los Angeles Kings — They have not won or lost consecutive games in nearly a month. This perfectly illustrates what this team is at the moment: Mediocre and dull. Neither great, nor bad.
Better luck in the lottery
19. Edmonton Oilers — It took them most of the season and until they were all but eliminated from the playoffs, but they finally started to play at least a little bit like the team a lot of people thought they could be this season.
20. New York Rangers — Jesper Fast has an eight-game point streak heading into Monday’s game. There is not much else going on here.
21. Carolina Hurricanes — Let’s just say it now: Nobody gets to pick them as their sleeper team next season.
22. Calgary Flames — To make matters worse, their first-round draft pick is going to the New York Islanders as a result of the Travis Hamonic trade.
23. Dallas Stars — How do you bring back Ken Hitchcock and Jim Nill after this? Too much money to spend on an average team that has tanked down the stretch.
24. Chicago Blackhawks — Just about the only positive from this season is that young players like Alex DeBrincat and Nick Schmaltz have had really nice seasons. Given the long-term salary cap situation they need young talent to come through.
25. Arizona Coyotes — Derek Stepan has been outstanding lately with 11 points in his past eight games. This young team is still showing a ton of improvement as the season goes on.
26. Ottawa Senators — Everywhere Guy Boucher has gone, whether it is in the NHL or in Europe, his system has worked wonderfully for one season. Then it stops working. Every. Single. Time.
27. Vancouver Canucks — Brock Boeser, a rookie, is going to miss 20 games and still has a very good chance to finish as the team’s leading scorer. The only reason we moved them up this week is because they have won two out of three and the four teams below them … well…
28. New York Islanders — They have two wins in their past 15 games. During those 15 games they have given up at least six goals four times. Twice they have given up seven goals. Woof.
29. Montreal Canadiens — Their only wins in the month of March have come against the New York Islanders (who have gone in the tank), the Dallas Stars (who have gone in the tank) and the Buffalo Sabres (who have never gotten out of the tank).
30. Buffalo Sabres — During their four-game losing streak entering Monday they have the following goal totals: 0, 1, 0, 1.
31. Detroit Red Wings — They did snap that 10-game losing streak with a shootout win over the Philadelphia Flyers. Then they lost two more in a row. They have not won a game in regulation since February 24. In their past 18 games they have one regulation win, one overtime win, one shootout win. That is it. Two of those wins were against the Carolina and the rebuilding New York Rangers.
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.