When talking about the first half of the 2018/19 season for the Pittsburgh Penguins, it can definitely be told as a tale of two parts.
Pittsburgh stumbled out of the gate, with scoring depth concerns, and goalie issues sinking the Penguins early on in the season. Starter Matt Murray struggled to find his footing between injuries and inconsistent play and eventually lost his job to undrafted backup Casey DeSmith, who shined in his opportunity to be the ‘go-to’ guy.
With Murray out with an injury for about a month, DeSmith carried the Penguins, who have struggled to find other scoring options outside of the top two lines. When Murray finally returned in the middle of December he brought back some of that magic that he had when he backstopped Pittsburgh to back-to-back Stanley Cup championships.
Pittsburgh closed out the first half of the season with a Western Conference swing that ended in a 7-3 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights. They were able to combine their bye week along with the All-Star break, getting them some extra rest, as they have been out of action since last Saturday, Jan. 19th.
Now with All-Star weekend done, the Penguins will look to shift gears towards the last stretch of games, opening up the second half against the New Jersey Devils. Sidney Crosby rejoins the team after capturing the MVP honors during the ASG, registering four goals and four assists overall.
With many ups and downs so far this season, a look back at the good and the bad of the first half, as well as what we can look forward to as the Penguins start their season back up.
Kris Letang was named to the All-Star game this season and is having one of the best years of his career. He is rightly in the Norris Trophy conversation, his most often-partner - Brian Dumoulin - is continuing to come into his own as a shutdown defenseman.
He has been so good that they are pairing him with others to try and find some stability behind Dumoulin and Letang.
Dumoulin, 27, has been a puck possession machine despite not being known for his offensive abilities. The product of Boston College, Dumoulin has posted the 13th best Corsi-For% among all defensemen with at least 800 minutes of 5v5 play.
What’s better, he has started the least amount of his shifts in the offensive zone compared to the other players in the top-15 of the same category.
He has also done an amazing job in limiting opponents' opportunities, ranking 14th in the league in scoring chances against per 60 minutes played and while plus/minus isn’t the most ideal stat to rely upon, he ranks fourth in the league in it.
It was a trade that was used to wake up a Penguins' team that was struggling to find offense outside of Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the other elite players on the roster. By the time it is all said and done, it could end up being one of Jim Rutherford’s most underrated moves during his tenure with Pittsburgh.
Carl Hagelin was a big part of the Penguins' Stanley Cup-winning teams but his beginning and end with the organization can be seen as an ironic twist. He was traded to help spark the team, and in turn, was traded for a player who has done the same.
Tanner Pearson had yet to score a goal 17 games into the season with the Los Angeles Kings, so it seemed like a head-scratcher as to why he was brought in to add scoring depth.
Now 32 games into his Penguins' career, Pearson has already passed several regulars on the team in goals. Had he been able to play an entire 82-game schedule with the Penguins at this pace, he’d be on pace to reach 20-goals for just the second time in his career.
Bringing a great blend of physicality and a scoring touch, Pearson leads all Penguins’ forwards in hits-per 60 minutes, while sitting fifth in goals per 60 minutes. Additionally, he is second on the team in shots per 60 minutes.
Maybe no one has been a better example of the Penguins' season than Matt Murray. While the beginning of the season brought out the questions whether or not Murray is the answer anymore in Pittsburgh, he has completely flipped the script and is back to his old dominant self.
Through November 17th, when Murray went down with an injury, only four other goalies had posted a worst save percentage (SV%) at 5v5 than Murray had. He was facing a lot of shots in prime areas, as his 10.52 high-danger shots against per 60 was the third highest in that span, so the fact he only stopped 75% of those attempts was a killer for him and the Penguins.
|Record||5v5 SV%||GAA||5v5 HDSV%|
|1st 11 Gms||4-5-1||.895%||4.08||.750%|
|2nd 11 Gms||10-1-0||.946 SV%||1.80||.859%|
Since returning on December 15th, however, Murray is among the best goalies in the game, as his 5v5 SV% is fourth best in the league. His SV% in high-danger areas is also up over 10 points, keeping the scoring down and the Penguins into games.
It wasn’t a secret heading into free agency that Jack Johnson was going to be at the top of their target list. They landed him with a five-year contract and despite struggling the year before, the Penguins thought they had the recipe to get Johnson back on track.
Whatever it was hasn’t worked, as not only has Johnson been one of the worst defensemen on the Penguins’ roster, but also the entire league.
Johnson has posted the worst goals-against per 60 minutes on the Penguins' roster, among their regulars, and that same mark is good for sixth highest in the league. The former Michigan Wolverine, and longtime friend of Crosby, Johnson has been on the ice for 43 of the Penguins 99 goals allowed at 5v5.
At the same time, Letang and Dumoulin have allowed 11 and nine goals less each, respectively, than Johnson has while playing over 100 more minutes.
Olli Maatta has been on the ice for 14 fewer goals than Johnson while playing just 23 minutes less.
Derick Brassard has been a part of a lot of trade rumors and will continue to be so until the trade deadline as the 30-year-old center has struggled since coming to Pittsburgh late last season.
He has registered just 14 points in 39 games and is a part of an ongoing issue in Pittsburgh in their inability to find a sustainable source of scoring depth. Riley Sheahan has just eight points in 47 games, being outscored by Matt Cullen, who sees little to no time in the offensive zone.
The Derek Grant experiment didn’t work, and he was traded to the Anaheim Ducks in exchange for Joseph Blandisi, who was sent to Wilkes-Barre. The one player who looked like was going to provide some scoring depth, Zach Aston-Reese, injured himself in a fight and will be out for some time. Aston-Reese has shown the ability to move up and down the lineup and has flirted with a 20-goal scoring pace this season.
What to look out for
Keeping Murray healthy, and playing the way he has been is going to be the key. The best way to do that is DeSmith bouncing back and continuing to give the Penguins a formidable 1-2 punch. DeSmith has looked great at points this season, earning himself a three-year contract extension, but down the stretch, before the All-Star break, he has struggled.
In his last three starts heading into the All-Star break, DeSmith has gone 0-3 allowing 14 goals and posting a .841 SV% in that span. If the Penguins are going to compete come playoff time, they are going to need Murray healthy and fresh, and DeSmith is going to play a big part in that.
If the playoffs were to begin tomorrow, Pittsburgh would get the worst opening round matchup possible, the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Penguins find themselves two points out of second in the Metropolitan Division, and five out of the lead. The good news is that they have two games in hand on the Washington Capitals, who currently hold down the second spot.
The Capitals have seen their fair share of struggles this year, and are currently on a seven-game losing streak, but are still a force to be reckoned with. When it comes down to it though, the Penguins are going to want to do whatever they need to do to not find themselves in a wild-card spot by the end of the season.
Before too long the Penguins are going to have some decisions to make about their blue line. Justin Schultz is skating again and is in line to make his return in February and when he does that will give the Penguins eight NHL defensemen (Chad Ruhwedel will eventually make nine).
A trade would be the most likely solution, as only Marcus Pettersson is eligible to get sent to the AHL without going through waivers but he is making a solid case to stay in Pittsburgh. What the Penguins do with this will be one of the biggest things to watch all the way to the trade deadline.
While Crosby isn’t likely to compete for a scoring title again, that doesn’t mean his game has dropped off. In fact, Crosby is on the best points-per-game pace (1.27) since the 2013/14 season (1.30), which is also the last time he topped 100 points. Having Jake Guentzel on his wing has helped Sid post the third best primary assists per 60 minutes (A1/60) of his career.
At his current pace, Crosby could hit the century mark for the sixth time in his career but he has little room for error. His line that currently has him flanked by Guentzel and Bryan Rust has been one of the best in the league once the latter has come along scoring wise, so the opportunity will be there for Crosby to hit 100 points.
A bad start put the Penguins in a position where they are having to play catch up, recent weeks have them playing just as good as any other team in the league. The window to win with Crosby and Malkin at the helm is closing fast, and while they won’t be an obvious favorite come playoff time, they still have the pieces to be every bit of a contender.
What are things you are watching for from the Pittsburgh Penguins during the second half? What has been the best moments from the first half of the season? The worst? Let us know what you think in the comment section below!