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Mark Madden: Penguins’ season full of crazy sidebars | TribLIVE.com
Mark Madden, Columnist

Mark Madden: Penguins’ season full of crazy sidebars

Mark Madden
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Pittsburgh Penguins' Phil Kessel prepares for a face-off during an NHL hockey game against the Carolina Hurricanes in Pittsburgh, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

The Penguins’ power play is one for its last 21 and has surrendered two short-handed goals in that time. It’s not often a power play is minus-1 over a 10-game span.

But the Penguins’ penalty-kill has scored nine short-handed goals since Dec. 14, an incredible number.

The answer seems obvious: The Penguins need to commit more penalties.

It’s been that kind of year for the Penguins, who skate on a razor’s edge in the Eastern Conference playoff race despite talent that dictates traveling an easier path.

The Penguins have won two straight and got carried by Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang and Matt Murray in those victories. Crosby and Letang are excelling over all of the rink’s 200 feet. Murray made a personal-best 50 saves at Philadelphia Monday. Stopping a penalty shot by Edmonton mega-star Connor McDavid Wednesday was epic.

But once you get past the headlines, the Penguins have some crazy sidebars.

Malkin did himself no favors when he identified the specific nature of his recent (neck) injury in the same breath as saying Philadelphia’s Michael Raffl dove when Malkin high-sticked him to earn ejection and a one-game suspension. That makes for an even friskier outdoor game Feb. 23 at Lincoln Financial Field. Then again, when do the Flyers need extra motivation to run somebody? They do it whenever they trail, as Malkin said.

Phil Kessel hasn’t scored this month. He has zero goals in seven games. He had more than one shot in only one of those games. Kessel got yanked off the top power play for a night. He often seems listless. It’s easy to imagine this being Kessel’s last season in Pittsburgh. He’s 31 and just one point shy of 800 but already has been traded twice. Kessel comes with an expiration date. His style is too atypical.

Patric Hornqvist has no points in 10 games since returning from a concussion. He needs to play in the top six, but that’s hard to justify given his lack of production.

Bryan Rust has 15 goals in 27 games. That’s after starting the season with one goal in 29 games. Skating with Crosby recently has helped. But Rust always has been streaky. Right now, he’s playing the rush like never before.

Teddy Blueger is the wild card. He might yet be sent back to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton because he can be. But his energy is reminiscent of that provided by kids like Rust, Conor Sheary and Jake Guentzel in the 2016 and ’17 Stanley Cup seasons. Coach Mike Sullivan should trust youth now like he did then and try Blueger in a significant role.

Zach Aston-Reese is right where he belongs: on the fourth line. And he should stay there. Aston-Reese was productive beyond that role during his college career at Northeastern and should aspire to better. But he’s averaging 3.4 hits per game, by far the most on the Penguins. Aston-Reese, the physicality of fellow winger Garrett Wilson and the savvy of center Matt Cullen make for a useful and credible fourth line.

Nick Bjugstad has been vanilla since arriving in Pittsburgh from Florida, perhaps because he’s been asked to play all three forward positions and on at least as many lines. But Jared McCann adds edge and could settle in as a solid third-line center (as long as it’s a more traditional-style third line, i.e. one that doesn’t include Kessel).

Losing Olli Maatta to injury (presumed to be a separated shoulder) will be offset, to some degree, by the impending return of Justin Schultz. But that still leaves Chad Ruhwedel a heartbeat away from a regular shift, and leaves Sullivan little flexibility when it comes to aligning the defense. Does GM Jim Rutherford need to trade for another defenseman in case Maatta isn’t back for the start of the playoffs?

Before last night’s NHL action, the Penguins were safe by three points in the Eastern Conference’s final wild-card spot, but finishing higher up the standings (or even winning the Metropolitan Division) remains well within reach.

But the playoffs are about matchups. If the Penguins played the Metro-leading New York Islanders in the first round, Pittsburgh wins in five. The Islanders are better than last season but not ready for prime time. If the Penguins got the No. 2 wild card and floated over to the Atlantic Division bracket, they’d be 50-50 to eliminate Tampa Bay. The Lightning are similar in style, and it’s hard to beat the Penguins at their own game.

Washington would be difficult, like last year (and every year). If that series again comes to pass, here’s betting its survivor wins the Stanley Cup for a fourth straight time.

Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on 105.9 FM.