For a brief few hours, the Penguins sat atop the East division for the first time this season following a third straight win against New Jersey. After a slow start and mounting injuries, the Penguins are knocking on the door of a division title. They have eight games remaining, four against the Capitals and Bruins. It will be a tough test for this team, and here’s a few specific things I’ll be watching over the final two weeks of the regular season.
Jarry finding his groove
That 7-6 victory over New Jersey on April 20th (blaze it) was the worst of Tristan Jarry. All of the questions and criticisms surrounding his nonchalant attitude were vindicated in that game. Jarry’s mistakes led to several goals, and although he won the game, it certainly didn’t feel like a win. He responded beautifully, as he has all season, in his next game. He stopped 30 of 31 shots, was technically sound, and never looked worried or phased from his last performance. His demeanor is a double edged sword. When it leads to performances like the April 20th game, it’s infuriating. When his resiliency and calm approach leads to a victory, it’s laudable. What I want to see is, simply, consistency. I think he has improved as the season’s progressed, and continuing that will benefit this team greatly in their postseason run.
Tinker, Tailor, Sullivan Spy
The Penguins are finally getting some players back. Kasperi Kapanen’s speed and scoring touch returned immediately with him from injury. Evgeni Malkin is skating and the plan is to get him back into the lineup for a game or two before the postseason begins. Brandon Tanev is skating, still in a non-contact capacity as of today, but his return is nearing as well. With the forward corps taking shape, Coach Sullivan has some serious decisions to make. The line of Jared McCann-Jeff Carter-Jason Zucker has been a productive scoring group the last few games. Will this line stay intact for the playoffs? It is clear that Jeff Carter is staying at center and Jared McCann is his running mate. Malkin and Kapanen showed great chemistry together and I feel they’ll be a lock together for the postseason. That leaves some questions about the left wing position on Geno’s line. Will Brandon Tanev get a shot there? Or will a player like Evan Rodrigues get the first shot? Depending on when Geno and Tanev return, Coach Sullivan will likely have a few games to tinker before their first round matchup.
Teddy Blueger’s Thriving
The most interesting approaching off-season storyline for the Penguins will be what players they choose to protect in the impending expansion draft. Teams can either protect 7 forwards, 3 defenseman, and one goalie or 8 skaters and one goalie. Management will have plenty of hard decisions to make, but there’s one easy one: protect Teddy Blueger. He has taken his game to a new level this season. He’s the Penguin’s best defensive forward and penalty killer, and his three shorthanded goals this season are 2nd best in the league. In addition, he has added a scoring touch to match, registering 7 goals and 21 points this season. For Penguin’s Management, presuming they elect the 7-3-1 model, they’ll only have two spots to protect Jason Zucker, Teddy Blueger, and Jared McCann. A tough decision to make, no doubt, but protecting Blueger isn’t one. He’s an important part of this team that they can’t afford to lose. I’m intrigued by Blueger’s potential in the playoffs. Can he elevate his play again in the most important time of the year? If he does, the Penguins will undoubtedly have the best four centers in the East division, and possibly the league.
Two weeks separate the Penguins from the 2021 postseason and a potential division title. With the exception of a few bad losses, and one scary victory, they have been playing markedly improved hockey. Four games against the Bruins and Capitals will test this team physically and defensively. The Penguins can take a lead in the division by winning these games. And while winning a different title is the priority of the Penguins, snatching up the East Division title wouldn’t be a bad start, right?