We have reached the midway point of the 2017-18 NHL season, and there is no question who has been the league’s most disappointing team.
After winning the last two Stanley Cups, the Pittsburgh Penguins are just 20-18-3 with 43 points this season. With 41 more games to play, the Pens are outside the playoff picture — one point behind the New York Islanders and Carolina Hurricanes for the final wild-card spot — and second to last in the Metropolitan Division.
The Penguins have struggled all season at even strength and in their own zone. Of the core players that fueled the Pens Stanley Cup runs, only Phil Kessel has filled the scoring sheet consistently.
As the result, the Penguins have simply not been the same. Even with all of its elite talent, Pittsburgh has scored the second-fewest 5-on-5 goals in the NHL this season (56), one ahead of the San Jose Sharks.
Reasons for a Pittsburgh Penguins Second Half Surge
Pittsburgh has the top power play in the league at 26 percent, but only the Arizona Coyotes (97) have given up more even-strength goals than the Penguins 92.
In summary, if the Penguins do not draw two or three penalties during a game, they probably will have a hard time winning.
Add the losses of winger Chris Kunitz, center Nick Bonino, center Matt Cullen, and defenseman Trevor Daley to free agency to their on-ice struggles, it is remarkable the Penguins are not further behind in the standings.
Here is the good news for Pens fans; there are plenty of reasons to believe a second-half surge is coming.
Health of Letang and Schultz
The return of Letang and Schultz should give the Penguins a New Years boost.
Schultz (19:51 TOI, 28 shifts) logged less time than Letang (27:01 30 shifts) but both players make Pittsburgh better. Letang has not been the same player this year, but he has been a critical part of the Penguins Stanley Cup teams, especially the 2016 edition.
Both players should improve the Penguins struggles in their own zone at even strength. Both can block shots, cut off lanes and help defensive coverage. Murray has allowed plenty of bad goals, but he needs more help in front of him.
But where Letang and Schultz were missed the most was on the power play. The Penguins power play has remained effective without them, but it is at its best when Letang and Schultz are the point men.
Riley Sheahan, who has been on the third line a lot this season, took over for Rowney and he, left-winger Tom Kuhnhackl and right-winger Ryan Reaves produced two of the Penguins five goals and plenty of scoring chances against the Flyers top line and defensive pairing.
The third and fourth lines have not been the same without Bonino and Cullen this year, but last night could be the first step to making everything better.
It remains to be seen what Sullivan does, but maybe Rowney can transition to the third line so Sheahan can continue what he started on the fourth line.
Regardless, the third line also needs to be more consistent.
Stars Step Up
Kessel could use more help.
By the midpoint of last season, both Malkin and Crosby had 45 points each. At the same point this season, Malkin has 41 points and Crosby only has 36. After leading the NHL with 26 first-half goals last year, Crosby only has 14 this year.
Crosby’s inability to produce is one reason for the Penguins struggles at even strength. After scoring 26 goals at even strength last season, he only has three so far this season. In addition, Crosby is averaging a career-low 0.88 points per game.
Expect both Crosby and Malkin to pick up their production, which should coincide with improved team 5-on-5 scoring.
Real Matt Murray Returns
I will go out on a limb and say that Murray will return to the form that made him a great goaltender the last two seasons.
Everybody hits a rough patch, and the 23-year-old Murray has done so this season. But with Letang and Schultz healthy, his play and confidence should improve.
His .903 save percentage and 2.94 goals against average are not the player he is. In particular, his .905 even strength save percentage is troublesome. Letang and Shultz should help improve that number.
With the Penguins still pushing towards the playoffs, expect Murray to start playing his best hockey when it matters most. That is what the great ones do, and Murray is still a very good netminder. He just needs to find his form again.
Plenty of Opportunities
The Penguins have already played Western Conference teams 19 times this season. This means plenty more divisional games and inter-conference showdowns are coming.
And, when the Penguins have played against division rivals, they have had success. Pittsburgh has posted a 7-3 record against Metropolitan Division teams this season.
The Pens will have plenty of chances to beat teams in front of them in the division and wild-card standings over the final three months.
In fact, 18 of the Penguins 41 remaining games will be against Metro teams, including five of their final eight contests. Plus, Pittsburgh will have an immediate chance to gain ground in the wild-card race. The Carolina Hurricanes come to town on Thursday, and the New York Islanders will host the Pens on Friday.
The Penguins may not look like Stanley Cup contenders, but expect them to grab one of the wild-card spots when the season concludes. Then, anything can happen once the playoffs begin.
Main Photo: EDMONTON, AB – MARCH 10: Phil Kessel #81 of the Pittsburgh Penguins takes a shot against the Edmonton Oilers on March 10, 2017 at Rogers Place in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images)