PITTSBURGH — It was about two weeks ago that the Pittsburgh Penguins looked like a team that was in deep, deep, deep trouble.
They had just been blown out at home by the Carolina Hurricanes — their second loss to the Hurricanes in less than a week — and were looking like they were going to have one heck of a fight ahead of them in the second half just to make the playoffs.
To be fair, they are still going to need a big second half to secure a playoff spot in their quest for a third consecutive Stanley Cup, but thanks to their three straight wins since that ugly loss to Carolina, including Saturday’s 4-1 thumping of the Detroit Red Wings, things are suddenly looking a lot better for the defending champs.
They are back into a playoff position (as of publication on Saturday afternoon) and have another huge game against a team they are competing with in the Wild Card race on Sunday night when the New York Rangers pay them a visit.
The big change over the past few games?
Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have turned into a two-headed monster that seems determined to get the team’s season headed back in the right direction.
Just take a look at what they have done during the Penguins’ current three-game winning streak.
With his two goals and two assists on Saturday, Malkin now has eight total points (five goals, three assists) during the streak, while Crosby with a goal and an assist against the Red Wings has nine points (two goals, seven assists).
During the streak the Penguins have scored a total of 14 goals.
Here is the breakdown of who has scored them and who has assisted them. The goals highlighted in black are the goals where Crosby and Malkin have had a hand in scoring. The goals highlighted in yellow are the goals where one of them has had a hand in scoring. The ones in white are where neither of them scored or assisted.
That is a lot of the same names.
That is also why those names get paid the big dollars because they are capable of stretches like this where at any one time either one of them can get hot and put the team on their back and carry it. When they both get rolling at the same time they can look unstoppable.
Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said on Saturday that he likes the way Malkin in particular is shooting the puck and not looking for “the next play.”
“First thing that jumps out to me is his willingness to shoot the puck and not look for the next play,” said Sullivan. “I told him when we put him with [Carl] Hagelin and [Patric] Hornqvist, you have to shoot more. You’re the most dangerous scoring threat on that line.'”
Over the past three games Malkin has 11 shots on goal and 18 total attempts.
“I just played my game,” said Malkin after Saturday’s game. “The power play worked, I have more confidence. Coach gave me more time, playing with two lines, getting faceoffs in the defensize zone, everywhere. When you score you feel so much better.”
The big key for the Penguins though is going to be finding ways to keep getting offense and keep getting wins when Crosby and Malkin are not doing this to other teams. And for as great as they are, there is going to come a time when that happens because nobody puts up points like this on a consistent basis. And that is going to be what defines this Penguins season because right now they are only going as far as Crosby and Malkin can take them as the team continues to find way to replace the scoring depth that left over the summer.
Over the past 10 games Crosby and Malkin have had a hand in 19 of the Penguins’ 27 goals. Of the eight goals they did not record a point on, they were still on the ice for three of them. That means in the past 10 games the Penguins have only scored five goals when neither Crosby or Malkin is on the ice.
Overall on the season when the Penguins get at least one goal from Crosby or Malkin, they are 17-6-1. When they get a goal from none of them, they are only 6-13-1. As I pointed out a couple of weeks ago, that is a significant drop in the team’s ability to win from a season ago when neither Crosby or Malkin scored (a half goal per game drop, and a points percentage of only .333 versus .466 a year ago).
“Those guys drive the ship,” said Sullivan after Saturday’s win. “We’re going to go when they go. Those guys make the players around them better, but we have to give other guys credit as well.”
Those guys do drive the ship, but the danger in being so dependent on two lines is that when those lines get shut down (and eventually they will) everything falls apart. That is what happened to the Penguins pretty much every year between 2010 and 2015. That is what changed in 2016 and 2017.
They will get Bryan Rust back at some point this season, and perhaps the callups of Daniel Sprong and Dominik Simon can help provide a bit of a spark to extend the lineup a little bit until they can make another trade or two find that much-needd depth.
In the meantime, Crosby and Malkin seem determined to make sure the team is able to hang around in the playoff race long enough for more reinforcements to arrive.
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.