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As the Pittsburgh Penguins rolled into Edmonton on October 22 for the second game of a five-game western road trip, they seemed reminiscent of the juggernauts of old. Not only had they secured nine out of a possible 10 points, but they had scored six goals in each of their four victories. The single blemish? A surprising overtime defeat at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens on October 17.
Yet, the coming weeks would invite people to think that loss to the Canadiens was an early warning of trouble ahead. A comprehensive defeat that night marked the start of a seven-game losing streak, and the narrative surrounding the team quickly pivoted to the impending death of a dynasty. Two wins against the Washington Capitals and Toronto Maple Leafs offered a quick salve, but the Penguins still sit in an unfamiliar position as they return to Montreal: the lower half of the Metropolitan Division standings.
Tale of the Tape
|44.3% (26th)||Scoring-chances-for %||50.6% (15th)|
|2.93 (20th)||Goals per game||3.57 (9th)|
|3.14 (16th)||Goals against per game||3.36 (21st)|
|15.8% (28th)||PP%||18.4% (24th)|
|81.6% (11th)||PK%||75.0% (24th)|
What has been the problem with the Penguins? To quote Josh Yohe, Penguins beat writer for The Athletic: “They’re the NHL’s oldest team. They’re a turnover machine. They aren’t listening to their head coach. Simply put, they are a disaster.”
That said, the usual suspects are still producing. As has often been the case for the last 15 years, Sidney Crosby leads the team in scoring, with Evgeni Malkin right behind. Jake Guentzel and Kris Letang are also putting up points, and the team is getting secondary scoring from the likes of Jason Zucker, Rickard Rakell, and Jeff Carter.
One major thing is that the scoring has been much more inconsistent than in years past. After scoring 26 goals in their first five games, the Penguins only mustered 16 in their next seven. The goaltending has also been an issue, with Tristan Jarry putting up the worst numbers of his career. Casey DeSmith’s performance has been more in line with his prior track record, but the Penguins have nonetheless alternated between their two goaltenders for the last eight games prior to Friday night versus the Maple Leafs. DeSmith receiving two consecutive starts may indicate that the team is ready to hand the net over to him, but it also almost certainly means that the Canadiens will face Jarry in the tail-end of the back-to-back.
The ups and downs of a roller-coaster season have also extended to their special teams. Through their first eight games, Pittsburgh scored eight power-play goals (24% proficiency) ... but gave up nine while short-handed (69%). Since then, while they’ve largely solved their penalty-killing woes (84%), their power play has also picked an unfortunate time to dry up (6%).
The Canadiens, meanwhile, are also in an unfamiliar place: above .500. While the team has seen important contributions from all three major facets — offence, defence, and goaltending — it’s hard to think that the Habs could be here without Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield. It’s difficult to articulate just how important the duo has been to the Canadiens’ offence, and the addition of Kirby Dach has only made it better. Secondary scoring remains an issue, but the Habs may have an answer in the unlikely form of Mike Hoffman, who’s regained his scoring touch whilst alongside Christian Dvorak and Brendan Gallagher after an exasperating start to the season.
With Rem Pitlick in Laval and Juraj Slafkovsky serving the second game of his two-game suspension, it’s likely that the forward corps will be unchanged. (Edit: Josh Anderson, having finished serving his suspension for boarding Alex Pietrangelo, will slot into the lineup for Michael Pezzetta). Defensively, Chris Wideman has been the odd-man out for the last three games, and will likely watch from the sidelines once again after being the extra defender at practice on Friday. Jake Allen should return to the net after Samuel Montembeault played against the Vancouver Canucks on Wednesday.
The Penguins may not be what they used to be, but they’re not a team that’s willing to admit that quite yet. Yet they’re still the team with everything to lose, facing a young, brash Canadiens team with no particular expectations. The Canadiens will have to harness that energy positively from the get-go, making sure to not let a savvy veteran opponent gain a foothold.