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Morgan Howen

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Pittsburgh Penguins once again contenders


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The NHL season has been invigorated by some surprise teams and new blood announcing themselves as either contenders now or soon to be. The New Jersey Devils sit atop the Metropolitan by open lengths, redefining what the Devils mean as a whole with their obscene amounts of speed and skill. The Dallas Stars have the next new hotness in Jason Robertson — second in goals to Connor McDavid this year — while leading the Central. Yesterday we went over the newest kid on the block, the Seattle Kraken, marauding around the automatic playoff spots in the Pacific, touching every device and asking, “Hey what does this do?” before sending it into a spark-filled death.

And then there are the Pittsburgh Penguins, same as it ever was, same as it will ever be.

The Penguins kneecapped those very Dallas Stars in Pittsburgh last night 2-1 thanks to a last-minute Evgeni Malkin goal. It was their sixth win in a row, leaving them second in the Metro behind the Devils. And at this point we’d love to tell you that the Penguins have unearthed their next generation, the players that will carry the previous generation to the finish line before putting them on an ice float in a couple of years, assured that the team is in fine hands and now they can finally rest.

Ha ha ha of course fucking not, this is just Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin kicking mondo ass again.

Crosby, as always, is in the top 10 in scoring in the league with 38 points in 29 games. Perhaps most impressively, especially at fifty-twelve or however old he is, is that Crosby leads the league in even-strength goals and points, given that the Penguins’ power play is doing that thing it does pretty often where it can’t seem to unfuck itself despite the level of talent and chemistry it should have given how long everyone has played together.

While it’s impossible to ignore Crosby’s shooting percentage of 23 percent at evens or his 20 percent overall, what’s scary for the league is that Crosby is getting better looks than he has in years. His individual expected goals per 60 at even-strength is the highest it’s been since 2013, and his attempts at goal per game are higher than it’s been in five years. So yeah, he probably won’t see as many pucks go in as he has so far, but that number isn’t going to drop by that much considering the chances he’s getting.

Malkin is averaging a point per game, which you get the feeling he could do if he wandered out onto the ice in flip-flops with a smoke dangling from his lips. Malkin has often given the impression that’s exactly how he’d like to play most of the regular season, but that’s not the case this time around. Malkin was a beast last night, on both ends of the ice, inhaling opponents on the backcheck, creating turnovers with ease as he can when he’s interested, which set up a host of chances on the rush going the other way. Which is exactly how he scored the winner last night:

Malkin’s metrics are even more scary than Crosby’s, because he’s been unlucky. Malkin isn’t just averaging more shots, attempts, and expected goals off his stick per game than he has in eight or 10 years, he’s absolutely dusting his numbers from recent years. His 10.4 shots per 60 minutes of even-strength time is three shots (!) more than anything he’s put up since 2013. His 14.6 attempts per 60 is at least two more per 60 than anything he’s put up since 2015. His 1.06 expected goals per 60 is the highest mark since 2011. And yet his 9.7 shooting percentage is way down from his career-mark of 13.7. Even though he’s 29 points in 29 games anyway, it feels like he’s sitting on a volcano of goals and points to come.

Malkin has benefitted from a complete change in linemates this season. After spending most of last season with loiterers Danton Heinen and Kasperi Kapanen, Malkin has gotten to skate this season with Bryan Rust and Jason Zucker. Both are ferocious forecheckers that allow Malkin to concentrate more on getting into open spaces to score, and Zucker doesn’t lack playmaking abilities himself. Clearly, Malkin is enjoying the freedom those two provide.

The bedrock of the Penguins season so far behind their inevitable center-duo is their goaltending. Both Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith (asshole that he is) have been stellar, with Jarry putting up a .920 save-percentage and DeSmith a .916. Jarry has been unconscious so far in December with a .938 during the six-game winning streak. They’ve been excellent on the penalty kill too, which has balanced out the Pens woeful performance with the man-advantage. Though the Pens’ kill overall is pretty smothering, as they ranks fourth in xGA against while a man down.

So is there anything new about the Pens this year? Kind of, but he’s still an old guy. It looked a little strange when Pittsburgh dealt maybe their best d-man of the past couple seasons in John Marino to the Devils, and then replaced him with three-days-older-than-water Jeff Petry from Montreal. Well, Petry, along with usual partner Marcus Pettersson, have been a godsend for the Penguins, given that they start almost every shift in their own zone and yet punt the play up to the offensive zone better than anyone on the team. Whether Petry can hold up over 82 is a question, but the first signs are very encouraging.

If you need anyone new, just to feel like the Penguins haven’t unlocked some sort of weird cryo-therapy that keeps all their players fresh in a way that shouldn’t be allowed by nature, there’s Pierre-Olivier Joseph on the third-pairing, with 11 points, and some glittering metrics of his own. But everyone else is just about the same cast it’s been for a while now.

The rubber might meet the road for the rest of the month for the Pens, as they’ll close out the year with games against the Panthers, Canes (twice), Rangers, Islanders, Devils, and Red Wings. And yet one gets the feeling they’ll negotiate it just fine, because it’s just the thing that they do, the thing that they will do until the Earth’s heat death. 

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