Breaking down Penguins’ red-hot streak

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Pittsburgh Penguins’ blazing finish to 2018 would be staggering if this sort of thing hadn’t already happened several times in the Sidney Crosby/Evgeni Malkin era.

(Seriously, it almost feels like old hat to see Pittsburgh struggle to start a season – to the point that there were concerns about missing the playoffs – only to see them rattle off a ton of wins.)

It’s easy to forget that the Penguins began December with a troubling 10-10-5 record after falling 4-2 to the Flyers. Since then, they’ve been one of the hottest teams in the NHL, surging to 21-12-6, including an active six-game winning streak.

With the Penguins hoping to extend this run into 2019 by beating the Rangers on Wednesday, this seems like as good a time as any to analyze their winning ways.

[Penguins – Rangers preview]

Getting the stops

During a 11-2-1 run over 14 games, the Penguins enjoyed a robust +18 goal differential (49 for, 31 against) despite being outshot 486-458. Even if you chalk up some of that difference to “score effects,” it’s clear that Pittsburgh hasn’t exactly channeled the Dead Puck Era with its defense. A look at possession stats during that span backs up the larger picture of them being middling during this streak, too.

Unsustainably brilliant goaltending has been the biggest difference during the past 14 contests.

To some extent, Casey DeSmith has only been a bit hotter during his past nine games (.932 save percentage) than he has been overall (.926 over 25 GP). Instead, it’s Matt Murray who’s flipped the script, winning all five of his starts with a gorgeous .959 save percentage after abysmal work in October and November.

Goaltending ranks as just one of the areas where Pittsburgh’s results have been erratic, but it’s overall a strength, as Natural Stat Trick ranks the Penguins’ 92.47 even-strength save percentage as the 10th-best in the NHL.

It’s unrealistic to expect Pittsburgh’s goaltending to be anywhere near as strong as it’s been lately, yet if Murray’s rebound is for real, the Penguins must be taken as seriously as ever. Especially since DeSmith’s recent stats at the NHL and AHL levels indicate that he might be able to hold down the forth even if Murray struggles again.

Mostly the usual suspects

Six Penguins generated at least 10 points over the last 14 games:

Kessel (18.4 shooting percentage) and especially Rust (25.8) should see their puck luck cool off a bit, but as much as anything else, this is a reminder of how much of a difference Letang can make when he’s in the lineup.

Also, a prolonged hot streak for Rust could really cement him as Crosby’s other regular winger alongside Guentzel, and such stability is likely to be a boon for a player as cerebral as Crosby.

Special, indeed

The Penguins’ power play has been connecting at a league-best 30.8-percent rate since Dec. 4. The good news for the rest of the NHL is that Penguins are unlikely to maintain that pace. The bad news is that, as you’d expect, the Penguins were still really strong in that area before the hot streak.

Interestingly, the Penguins’ penalty kill was fantastic before this stretch, and was comparably effective during it.

It’s plausible that Pittsburgh’s PK might slip from elite to middle-of-the-pack, yet special teams seems likely to be a net positive for the Penguins thanks to all of that talent on the man advantage.

Conclusions

Despite this hot streak, the Penguins aren’t an absolute lock for a berth in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Islanders could feasibly knock them out of third place in the Metro, which would create a dogfight between Pittsburgh and strong Atlantic teams (Buffalo, Montreal, or Boston?) for one of the two wild-card spots. They can’t exactly kick back and relax just yet.

That said, it’s easy to picture the Penguins looming as a real threat in the coming postseason, even if their headline-grabbing star power will keep them from truly “sneaking up” on contenders like the Lightning, Maple Leafs, or Capitals.

Are the Penguins as good as this recent streak indicates? That’s unlikely, because their goaltending is virtually certain to cool off.

There are enough factors for the Penguins to remain scary, however, and the reasons even go beyond the reliable talking point of “they employ Crosby and Malkin.”

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.