Prior to the All-Star break, the Pittsburgh Penguins were winners of their last three games for the first time since October. Pittsburgh also won four of its last five and earned points in 13 of its last 16 contests.
During that span, captain Sidney Crosby has really found his game. He has 11 goals since Christmas, and in January, he recorded eight goals and 14 points in 11 games. Defenseman Kris Letang tied his captain for most points in January with 14, and center Evgeni Malkin has continued his great season with five goals and 13 points in the month.
Right wingers Phil Kessel and Patric Hornqvist joined the party too. Kessel has at least a point in nine of the last 12 games, and Hornqvist is averaging a point per game in the last 16 games. During that stretch, the Penguins power play is scoring at an incredible 30.9 percent clip.
Needless to say, the Penguins were a hot team coming into the All-Star break. If coach Mike Sullivan had his choice, he probably would have preferred to keep playing to ride the team’s hot streak up the Eastern Conference standings rather than give his players a week off. Even so, there are at least three reasons the All-Star break won’t slow down the surging Penguins.
1. Pittsburgh Needed the Rest
As great as the Penguins’ stars were playing in January, there is no denying the team was in need of a break as injuries were began to mount. Pittsburgh played its final two games before the break without forwards Chris Kunitz, Nick Bonino, and Beau Bennett.
Kunitz suffered a back injury against the Vancouver Canucks on January 23. The break will probably allow him to miss only one game. The 36-year-old has just 18 points this season, but six of them, including four goals, have come in the last 11 games.
Versatile forwards Eric Fehr and Carl Hagelin have helped make up for the loss of Bonino, who has been sidelined since January 12, but Bonino plays a very important role on the Pittsburgh penalty kill. He is second on the team in face-off win percentage, having won 53.3 percent of them, and prior to his injury, he had taken a majority of the Penguins’ short-handed face-offs. Without Bonino in the last five games, Pittsburgh has killed just 77.2 percent of their penalties.
Bennett is another guy the Penguins really miss. He was beginning to build some chemistry with Crosby before his injury in December. Bennett came back on January 23 but only played just over eight minutes and missed the next game.
The All-Star break allowed their important penalty killer and potential first-line winger some extra time to heal without missing more games.
2. Mike Sullivan Will Still Be the Coach
There is no denying that Pittsburgh was a hot team before the break, but there was a reason for that. The coaching change has done wonders for the Penguins, who are 9-3-4 since Sullivan’s had a chance to establish his system.
So the Penguins weren’t as much of a hot team as they were a team turning the corner under a new coach. Sullivan’s new scheme and his talented players are what have Pittsburgh averaging 3.1 goals per game and the power-play scoring above 30 percent in the last 16 games. They will still be there once the Penguins begin the second half.
Theoretically, it shouldn’t be hard for a team with Crosby, Malkin, Letang, Kessel and Hornqvist to find its groove again. And it’s not like Pittsburgh is the only team that is going to deal with rust after the break. Every team had nearly a week off, so it’s an even playing field.
Wouldn’t you rather go into the break playing well and feeling good about yourself because the team just won the last three games? Since when is winning at any point a disadvantage?
Going into the break hot and then having to knock off the rust is much better than heading into a week off cold.
3. The Team’s Resiliency
It may be premature to say this, but over the last two weeks, this team feels different than Penguins teams of years past. It feels a little like the Pittsburgh club that won the Stanley Cup in 2009.
That team underwent a coaching change midseason too and had to fight its way to the postseason. When it got there, it wasn’t the best constructed team, but it was the most resilient, coming back from two 2-0 series deficits, and winning two Game 7’s on the road on its way to the title.
Obviously, this team has a long way to go even to make the playoffs, but the 2015-16 Penguins are turning into a resilient bunch.
Pittsburgh has fallen behind 2-0 in the first period three times in the last 12 contests and won all three games. Over the same span, the Penguins trailed heading into the third period and at least forced overtime on three other occasions. That should give Pittsburgh plenty of confidence heading into the second half of the schedule. A silly little week off isn’t going to slow them down.
Besides, Sullivan could have used the week off to figure out a way not to fall behind in games, so the Penguins don’t have to come back all the time. But if they do, Pittsburgh has proven capable.