There’s a scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail in which King Arthur comes across the Black Knight and, after he refuses to let the King pass, the two engage in a battle that results in the Black Knight losing every single one of his limbs. First, it’s his left arm – “’Tis but a scratch,” he says – and then his right. Then, refusing to give up the fight, the Black Knight proceeds to kick at King Arthur. As such, the Black Knight loses his right leg, followed by his left. By the time the scene ends, he has been pared down to a head and torso, but is steadfast in his unwillingness to throw in the towel.
And aside from, you know, the imagery of comically fake blood spouting from shorn off body parts, the Black Knight is starting to seem like a pretty good analog for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Almost from jump this season, the Penguins have battled injury woes so unending that it’s gone past upsetting to the point of almost humorous, and it’s probably true that a few Pittsburgh faithful have found themselves forcing a laugh of incredulity in order to keep themselves from crying. What started early in the campaign with the losses of Evgeni Malkin and Nick Bjugstad has since continued on with injuries to Sidney Crosby, Patric Hornqvist, Bryan Rust, Brian Dumoulin, Kris Letang and Justin Schultz. And just when it looked like maybe, possibly, the Penguins were going to get through the worst of it, the last limb was seemingly severed.
On New Year’s Eve, Jake Guentzel, who has stepped into a starring role in the absence of, well, everyone, slammed hard into the boards after slipping home his 20th goal of the season, and the resulting shoulder injury has put him on the shelf for the remainder of the season. In the face of the perpetual stream of bodies to the infirmary this season, Guentzel had been the shining light of consistency and good health that had guided Pittsburgh. His 20 goals and 43 points are both team-best totals, his 20:38 per game was the highest average among all forwards. And that’s what made all the more difficult to watch him exit the ice on Dec. 31 clutching his arm in what we now know will very likely be his final game of the 2019-20 regular season.
Yet, despite Guentzel’s injury and whatever injury the Penguins might suffer next – let’s be honest, it’s only a matter of time the way this season is going – it has become awfully difficult to write off the Penguins. And that is entirely the result of the never-say-die and next-man-up attitudes Pittsburgh has adopted in the face of all that has befallen the roster. Consider that despite being without arguably the game’s greatest player for the majority of the campaign, despite missing two of their top-three centers, despite losing a top-four defender and despite the laundry list of other bumps and bruises the Penguins have suffered, Pittsburgh enters the 2020 portion of the current campaign with the NHL’s second-highest goal differential, a two-point lead on the final divisional post-season spot and a fairly firm grasp on playoff contention.
Of course, there’s more to the Penguins’ success than attitude. There’s actual, honest-to-goodness on-ice measures that can illustrate how Pittsburgh has been able to stay afloat. And top of that list with a bullet has been the play of netminder Tristan Jarry.
After starting the season as a clear-cut second-stringer, Jarry’s play has seen him usurp Matt Murray for the starting gig in Pittsburgh, and the emerging No. 1 has pieced together a career-making campaign in the Penguins’ crease. The base numbers alone tell the story. In 18 games, Jarry has completely out-duelled Murray, the former’s .938 save percentage, 1.88 goals-against average and three shutouts so remarkably better than the latter’s .894 SP, 2.96 GAA and one shutout in 23 appearances. But it’s the underlying numbers, too, that speak volumes about the work that Jarry has done for the Penguins. There are 38 netminders who have played at least 800 minutes at five-a-side this season, and among those, Jarry leads in SP (.949), GAA (1.51) and, most impressively, goals saved above average (.92) per 60 minutes. That suggests that per hour of 5-on-5 play, Jarry is stopping roughly one goal more than a netminder playing at a league-average level, and his .92 mark is nearly one-third of a goal greater than the second-best netminder in that category, the Winnipeg Jets’ Connor Hellebuyck (.61).
It should be said, however, that Jarry’s play isn’t occurring in a vacuum. In fact, what makes it seem all the more certain that the Penguins can survive this season-long spate of injuries is that there are few teams who have been as defensively sound as Pittsburgh, and for that coach Mike Sullivan should be lauded. With a group of defensemen few would have considered among the league’s elite – not to mention without his most important pivot – Sullivan’s Penguins have been exceptionally limiting defensively. Per 60 minutes at five-a-side, the Penguins allow the fourth-fewest shots against (28.3), second-fewest shot attempts against (50.2), second-fewest scoring chances against (22.6) and third-fewest high-danger chances against (8.9). The result? The second-lowest expected goals against rate (1.95) and an actual goals against rate (2.21) better than all but six teams.
The Penguins’ success in limiting the opposition attack has carried over beyond 5-on-5 play, as Pittsburgh has been tremendous at all strengths, as well. The Penguins rank fifth in shots against (29.1), second in attempts against (50.7), second in scoring chances against (23.2) and third in high-danger attempts against (9.11). That has resulted in the third-lowest expected goals against at all strengths (2.33) and sixth-best actual goals against (2.63). Possibly no team has been greater than the sum of its defensive parts quite like the Penguins.
Admittedly, the defensive play won’t by itself win games. The offense, now sans leading scorer, will need to produce. But if Malkin, who has been back for all but two of the Penguins’ past 26 games, can put the attack on his back and Rust, who has been something of a revelation himself, can continue to produce like a top-six forward, there are enough secondary pieces in place for Pittsburgh to stay afloat. Add to it the potential for Alex Galchenyuk to settle into a top-six role, which he hasn’t yet shown he can do, and Crosby’s pending return and the Penguins’ attack could have every bit of firepower it needs in order for Pittsburgh to keep both hands wrapped tightly around a playoff spot.
(All advanced statistics via NaturalStatTrick)
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