Thoughts: Game 62 – Pens powerplay lights up Columbus in 5-3 win

Published on March 2nd, 2015

By: Meesh Shanmugam

Here’s a link to the Postgame Thoughts archive, in case you want to catch up on what you may have missed.

Pens 5  Blue Jackets 3

Record: 36-17-9

Goals
Malkin (25) from Kunitz, Martin
Perron (15) (PP) from Malkin, Letang
Malkin (26) (PP) from Letang, Crosby
Pouliot (2) (PP) from Hornqvist, Crosby
Downie (11) from Winnik, Sutter

Click here to read the goal assessments

Gm 62 - Goals

Penalties
Despres (boarding) – Inconsequential (hits Johansen from behind into the boards, but then draws Foligno into a roughing minor to even up the penalties)
Martin (hooking) – Careless (gets his stick in between Atkinson’s legs and pulls his legs open, dropping him to the ice for a hooking penalty)
Despres (holding) – Unnecessary (tries to shove Clarkson on the crease in front of Fleury, but ends up grabbing him with both hands and take him down to the ice for a penalty)
Kunitz (high-sticking) – Careless (gets his stick up into the chin of Wennberg in a battle in front of the Blue Jackets net)

Notable Players

Forwards

Gm 62 - Forwards

Evgeni Malkin – Malkin continued his rise towards the top of the scoring race with more help from Derrick Pouliot’s stick apparently. He had his third consecutive three-point night, this time recording two goals and an assist. His first goal came on a backhander after he evaded Atkinson at the left point and Foligno at the right point on a skate around the zone that ended with a backhander from the right dot that beat McElhinney’s glove. His second goal was a one-timer that was set up by Letang at the edge of the slot on the powerplay. His assist also came on the powerplay when he fed the puck to Perron before Perron scored by banking the puck off of Johnson’s glove into the net. Malkin tied for the team-lead with six shots on net and was steady with the puck with two takeaways and two giveaways. As the win streak reaches four, no one has elevated their game quite like Malkin.

Malkin seems quite ready to carry this team down the stretch. (Gregory Shamus-Getty Images)

Malkin seems quite ready to carry this team down the stretch. (Gregory Shamus-Getty Images)

Patric Hornqvist – Hornqvist didn’t have the productive night on the stat sheet that many other forwards did, but he’s playing his game and it’s helping the entire team. He tied for the team-lead with six shots and also recorded a powerplay assist when he redirected Crosby’s pass into McElhinney, producing a rebound that went to Pouliot for a powerplay goal. Shots and assist aside, Hornqvist continues to do two things beautifully to help this team: 1) go to the net and 2) terrorize opponents in the neutral zone. Hornqvist didn’t factor into the other powerplay goals, but he was noticeable in front of McElhinney at all times to create screens and improve shooting opportunities. He was also great in the neutral zone with a pass interception, forced turnover, and a broken-up play as he continued to backcheck hard on every puck. Despite playing a net-front game, Hornqvist’s ability to get back to the neutral zone quickly continues to create more chances for the offense when he’s on the ice.

Daniel Winnik – Winnik’s debut was solid overall and the 3rd line looked better than it has in months. He had a neutral zone takeaway and a defensive zone pass interception to go against two giveaways (offensive and neutral zones). His work to get the puck out of the defensive zone with Sutter and Downie was noticeable and his penalty kill work was solid as well. He even recorded an assist when the puck was poked to him in the Blue Jackets zone and he promptly set up Downie for a wrist shot from the inside of the right circle. It was a solid start to Winnik’s term as a Penguin and it will likely get better as he gets more comfortable with the team (Winnik acquisition thoughts were in the last post if you missed it).

Defensemen/Goalies

Gm 62 - Defense

Kris Letang – Much like Malkin, Letang also looked like he had an extra burst in his legs throughout the night. Unlike Malkin though, Letang may have gone a little far with it a few times. His overall output was outstanding with two shots on net, three shot blocks, and two assists. He recorded a secondary assist on Perron’s goal as he got the puck to Malkin at the left point. He then recorded the primary assist on Malkin’s powerplay goal with a perfect backhand pass from near the goal line to Malkin at the edge of the slot for a one-timer goal. In terms of puck management, he had a takeaway, a pass interception, and a forced turnover in the defensive zone. My biggest issue with him was a defensive zone lost puck and three giveaways (one in each zone), including an offensive zone giveaway that led to Johansen’s shorthanded goal. I have noticed that Letang’s giveaways have slowly crept up over this winning streak. Aside from that though, he has looked great overall.

Derrick Pouliot – Though the Penguins had to get through this game without Ehrhoff, Pouliot made it much more manageable with his well-rounded efforts. He tied Malkin and Hornqvist with a team-leading six shots and recorded a powerplay goal off of a rebound from a Hornqvist redirection. He was also generally assertive and aggressive, especially in the neutral zone, which benefitted his team several times. I marked him down for a defensive zone pass interception, an offensive zone forced turnover, and four broken-up plays, which included three in the neutral zone. He was stepping up on passes brilliantly in the neutral zone all night. On the minus side, he did have a couple of offensive zone giveaways and also was partially at fault for Johansen’s shorthanded goal. On that play, I would have liked to have seen him either use his body in front of Johansen to subtly interfere with him or just back up into the neutral zone when the giveaway was apparent. Seeing how that’s a play that even the best defensemen still hesitate on, it’s not something to be concerned about. Despite concerns about his inexperience heading into the playoffs, it’s certainly getting hard to argue that he might not belong in the lineup for the postseason. Watching him skate with his head up inspires a lot of confidence in the rookie.

Head up, confident with the puck, Pouliot looks more like an NHLer every day. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Head up, confident with the puck, Pouliot looks more like an NHLer every day. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Simon Despres – After a very dismal game against Washington, Despres upped his game to average against Columbus. He recorded a takeaway in the defensive zone and an offensive zone forced turnover, but he had a terrible lost coverage that led to a 2-on-1 against and also had a defensive zone giveaway. Penalty-wise, he took what should have been a bad boarding penalty, but it was evened up by Foligno’s urge to fight him. He took an unnecessary holding penalty as well. That was more than evened out by later drawing a five-minute major for boarding though. Unfortunately, that hit ended the game for Despres and he didn’t play the final 8:21 of the game after leaving the ice with a cut on his nose. His slow starts have been very noticeable over the past few weeks and it might be safe to say he was just playing over his head in the first half of the season. There was no word on his injury after the game, but that combined with Ehrhoff’s absence will certainly have the Penguins looking for another depth defenseman if possible (which they were already doing anyways).

Misc. Thoughts

Powerplay Trends – The powerplay scored for the fourth game in a row and they have gone 6-for-18 over this four-game win streak. Mike Johnston mentioned he wanted the team to shoot 3-4 times per powerplay and it finally looks like they’re starting to listen. Pouliot received plenty of powerplay time and was more than willing to shoot, which helped the cause. If Hornqvist and Kunitz keep going to the net and the powerplay keeps shooting, there’s no reason it shouldn’t maintain top-of-the-league form.

Scoring in the NHL – As Malkin and Crosby race back towards the top of the scoring race, I just wanted to bring up a quick argument against the Art Ross race being a marker of scoring going down. Though the top of the league isn’t scoring at its normal pace (no one will hit 100 points, the race to 90 will be close), depth scoring has also improved around the league. Scoring may be down overall and there certainly appears to be more interference/clutching/grabbing, but don’t let the top of the scoring race influence you too much on overall production. Thanks to @Ev0luTioN31 for grabbing these numbers going into Friday night’s games when I was tweeting about this idea:

Now I realize we all want to see the stars do special things, but it should certainly be noted that players are still scoring points – just possibly more spread out through the lineup than usual. Perhaps that’s a result of the analytics revolution and the push to create deeper teams. Regardless, players are still scoring points, just not the ones you’re used to seeing or that you want to pay attention to.

Roster Breakdown – Going into all big roster movement days (free agency, start of the season, trade deadline), I like to look at the roster positionally instead of by name. The Penguins enter trade deadline day like this (injuries notwithstanding):

Perron-Crosby-Hornqvist
Kunitz-Malkin-Comeau
Winnik-Sutter-Downie
Spaling-Lapierre-Bennett
Adams

Letang-Martin
Ehrhoff-Pouliot
Scuderi-Despres
Bortuzzo

Fleury
Greiss

In my head, that equates to:

1st W – 1st C – 1st W
2nd W – 1st C – 3rd W
3rd W – 4th C – 3rd W
3rd W – 4th C – 3rd W
Extra F

1st D – 1st D
2nd D – 3rd D
3rd D – 3rd D
Extra D

Starting G
Backup G

Of course, many of these can be argued a line one way or another. Comeau is probably a 3rd winger who is playing at a 2nd line winger level next to Malkin. Pouliot is ideally a 3rd pairing defenseman as he still learns the NHL, but he’s capable of more. Overall though, as I look at the roster, I note three things: 1) the winger depth has improved drastically and is not a major concern when the team is healthy, 2) the drop-off at center is steep, and 3) it would be nice to have another 2nd pairing defenseman to strengthen that spot.

Based on the prices in this year’s trade market (as I type this, Coburn was just traded for Gudas, a 1st, and a 3rd), I think it will be extremely difficult for the Penguins to fill their potential needs. It’s possible that playing with Winnik and Downie improves Sutter back into 3rd C form, which would help immensely. It’s also possible that Pouliot stays steady for the rest of the season and finds himself in a comfortable 2nd D position, but that is rather unlikely given how rookie defensemen develop. Between the two, I would definitely say 2nd D would be my focus, even with the defense and Fleury playing lights-out over the past month+.

If this is the team that the Pens are left with after the deadline, it is still a solid team, and one that is MUCH better off than last year’s version (I had five 4th liners listed in the bottom six when I did this last year). We’ll see what Rutherford still has left up his sleeve (I hope it’s Marek Zidlicky, but I’m not holding my breath.)

Next Game: 3/4 @ Colorado, 10pm

Thanks for reading!