Penguins Flying High After an Ugly, Yet Positive, Western Road Trip

Photo obtained from Penguins Official Twitter Account

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Pittsburgh partook in their longest road trip of the season over the past two weeks and came out of it with a 4-2 record earning eight out of a possible 12 points. That’s a sign of a good team especially considering it was the ugliest stretch of hockey they’ve played since they started the season 5-7-3.

This trip saw Evgeni Malkin return to the Penguins’ lineup where he posted four points in four games.

With the team very close to full health, the Penguins got to roll out their deepest lineup of the year on Monday in Vegas that included Sidney Crosby, Malkin, Jeff Carter, and Teddy Blueger down the middle. That foursome at center may represent the best center depth in the league. We’ve even seen guys like Brian Boyle and Evan Rodrigues thrive playing center at times this season with all the man games the Penguins have missed.

Jake Guentzel scored his 20th goal of the season against Vegas on Monday and has now hit that benchmark for the fifth straight season. His career-best 18-game point streak came to a halt against the Los Angeles Kings over the weekend but his goal against the Golden Knights can hopefully spring a new streak. He now has 38 points in 32 games this season.

Tristan Jarry has been phenomenal all season long. He played maybe his worst game of the season against Vegas and the Penguins still were able to come out victorious. Jarry was very bad in the first period allowing three goals. He didn’t allow any more over the final two periods but never faced any high-danger chances as the team in front of him locked it down.

So what does all of this mean?

Home Sweet Home

Well, the Penguins now come home for seven of their next eight contests leading up to what was supposed to be their Olympic Break in February. The Penguins had a plethora of games rescheduled on Wednesday and slotted into the 21-day break. You can see all the changes on the Penguins’ website.

Regardless, with seven home games on the docket, the Penguins are getting into a juicy part of the schedule. Their lone road game in that span is a short trip to Columbus. Realistically, the Penguins will spend nearly every day in Pittsburgh over the next two weeks.

With the team riding high despite not playing their best hockey, head coach Mike Sullivan has his team in a prime position to strike but what else is new? That’s his M.O. That’s what he does.

Sidney Crosby is struggling to find the net this year. He has just six goals on the season. While he’s still playing overall at an elite level, scoring has been hard to come by for him at this point. If he breaks out in the goal scoring column, I don’t know if the Pens will ever lose again. They’re doing all of this without one of the league’s best players capitalizing on scoring chances. Maybe he’s saving his best for the playoffs where it matters most.  Fingers crossed.

We’ve also gone this whole time without mentioning the Penguins’ forgotten franchise cornerstone Kris Letang. Like a fine wine, Letang seems to be getting better with age. His skating hasn’t fallen off in the slightest and his play is some of the best he’s had in his career. He has 33 points in 34 games, a ridiculous pace for a defensemen.

The Penguins are still a team with some flaws, which makes their 23-10-5 record all the more impressive.  They do have a decision to make regarding how to go forward with their backup goaltending. Casey DeSmith hasn’t been good, and Louis Domingue was very good over the weekend but he’s only played three NHL games since 2019.

The schedule is going to be very condensed over the rest of the season. Having a backup goalie will be a huge help to Jarry. He’s already played a ton of hockey this season with the third most goalie starts in the NHL. That is a busy workload.

Reliability is going to be key in the playoffs. Overworked goalies have a history of falling off in the playoffs. Jarry’s playoff struggles last year will still be fresh in the mind of many until he proves them otherwise. The Penguins need someone else to help out just in case.

Other than backup goaltending, the Penguins don’t need to make any other trades. They have a deep team with enough help in the minors. Could they add to the depth? Sure, but it shouldn’t be at a premium cost.

Forwards like Drew O’Connor, Radim Zohorna, and Kasper Bjokrqvist have been more than adequate in plug-and-play roles. Defenseman Mark Friedman is deserving of more playing time and Pierre-Olivier Joseph is in the minors pining for a chance at NHL playing time as well.  General Manager Ron Hextall isn’t as trigger happy as Jim Rutherford was when it came to making trades so I don’t foresee the Penguins being too busy around the deadline.

Heading into a nice home stand of games, the Penguins are in good shape. All they can do is continue to play their best hockey in hopes of getting some more points as they head into the month of February.