On the surface the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 3-2-2 record heading into Saturday’s game against the New Jersey Devils is completely fine. Maybe it is where you expected them to be at this point in the season and what you expected them to be as a team. But it does get a little more interesting when you consider the context around it, and what their lineup has looked like to get there.
Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have played in zero games after recovering from offseason surgeries. Bryan Rust has played in two games after being injured in the second game of the season. Kris Letang and Jeff Carter have both missed the past three games while being in NHL COVID protocols, forcing Evan Rodrigues and Drew O'Connor to take over duties as the first-and second-line centers.
That should finally start to change on Saturday night when Crosby and Carter make their return.
After calling them game-time decisions on Friday, coach Mike Sullivan confirmed after the morning skate they are both in on Saturday.
It should probably go without saying that getting Sidney Crosby and Jeff Carter back in the lineup will be a big deal. They are, after all, kinda good at what they do.
So far this season the Penguins’ process — the way they have played — has been really, really good despite the absences throughout the lineup. Even in their two most recent games — their only two regulation losses — they did a lot of things well but were just unable to capitalize on their chances.
Statistically speaking, the Penguins have been one of the better 5-on-5 teams in the league this season despite missing some of their best players for almost the entire season.
They have controlled more than 52 percent of the total shot attempts. That is 10th in the league. They have controlled more than 56 percent of the expected goals (via Natural Stat Trick). That is second best in the league. They have generated more than 52 percent of the overall scoring chances. That is 12th best in the league. They have generated more than 57 percent of the high-danger scoring chances. That is fourth best in the league.
Given the lineup they have used on most nights, those are pretty stunning numbers. Until the past two games when Carter and Letang were out they were also turning all of that into goals.
Crosby and Carter are not going to hurt their ability to generate chances, while they should add a lot of the finishing ability they have been lacking the past two games.
It should also make a huge difference when it comes to the actual construction of the lineup and player usage as everybody can now settle into the roles they are meant to play. Evan Rodrigues no longer has to be the No. 1 center (or a center at all). The power play, which has struggled so far this season, gets back two impact players. The lineup overall gets a lot of its balance back.
“We’re just a much better hockey team when they’re in our lineup,” Sullivan said of Crosby and Carter on Saturday. “We’re excited to have them back. It gives us more depth. It makes our PP more dangerous. It makes matchups more difficult for our opponents. It has a ripple effect on our whole team.”
The Penguins have built a fairly deep team the past two years that has gotten closer to the four-line depth they had during the 2016 and 2017 Stanley Cup seasons. Since the start of last season the Penguins have outscored teams by an 82-62 margin when neither Crosby or Malkin is on the ice during 5-on-5 play. That is very impressive, and a level of production the team has not seen since those Stanley Cup seasons (and even then it was not always that productive).
The depth is there. Now they are starting to get some of their best and most impactful players back with more on the way.