A month ago if you cheered for the Pittsburgh Penguins you thought the sky was falling. Rightfully so, because they sucked. However over the past month The Penguins have done what they do every single year. The weather gets cold, snow begins to fall, and the Penguins rattle off a series of wins that catapult them right into the middle of the playoff picture.

So what changed? What caused this miraculous turn around?

Since the 51 shot barrage from Boston the Penguins have kept pace with every team they have played. Never allowing there opponent to out shoot them by more than six shots. This is huge. Early in the season other teams were firing more than forty shots on net with regularity. While barely managing twenty five shot of their own.

So that tells us a couple of things. First they have a lot more of the puck. Which helps, because believe it or not you can’t win the game without the puck. Also by keeping pace with their opponents they are demanding their goaltenders match play all night. When your only firing twenty shots on net a night any NHL goalie worth his salt will only give up a goal. Fire closer to forty they are probably more willing to let a few threw.

Next is the stingy defense. The penguins have been blocking shots at a clip just above 16 a night. This is big, if this team wants to win they have to play a team defense. The team leader in this category? Funny you ask Jack Johnson. He is also first on the team in hits. Over the past five games he has delivered 21 hits and blocked 17 shots. For a guy averaging twenty minutes a night this is a nice up tick in performance. Also he has had six shots on net. If the former first pairing defenseman can keep this steady defense going it can only help sure up that bottom pairing.

With that being said Marcus Pettersson has helped resurrect the veteran defenseman. Since he was acquired in early December he has launched 14 shots on net, laid 16 hits and blocked 12 shots. The kid has stepped right into this lineup and helped steady the bottom pairing and when you can play a game rolling three lines of defense life is much easier on everyone.

Another huge addition to the team has be the awakening of the “Secret Weapon”, Bryan Rust. Over the past five games Rusty has scored five goals and three assists. Not to mention the Hat Trick performance against Chicago where he could have easily had six goals on his own. In the 2016 and 17 Cups Brian Rust was a staple of the lineup. A guy the Pens looked to as an energy generator. A guy who would get in on the forecheck win the puck and create a scoring opportunity. For the first twenty games of the season Rusty was working hard and doing the right things, but nothing was happening for him. Since Chicago all that has changed. I feel like every time the Penguins score I find myself saying, “RUST AGAIN!” This is a good thing. Someone other than Sid putting the puck in the net is always a good thing. Now if we could wake up Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel this team could start blowing teams out.

The new look third line. Since Patric Hornqvist returned to the lineup he has been flaking Derick Brassard with Tanner Pearson filling out that line. I love this line, this line is a playoff line. It’s physical, and can be deadly. Most importantly it allows Sully to move guys like Sheahan and Cullen down the line up creating a deep four line rotation that all have the ability to score. The bonus point of this line is keeping Hornqvist minutes down and by doing so hopefully keeping the “Work Horse” healthy.

Finally I hate to say it, but man has Casey DeSmith been good. The not so affectionately named  “Fantasy Camp” has been a stud in December. Since the Colorado game on December 4th he has turned a new leaf. He has had some spots of looking like a shooter tutor but for the most part has been lights out. The Boston game alone was truly one of the most impressive goaltending performances I have seen in a while. He stole that game for the Penguins. He then went on to play well against Minnesota turning away 41 shots. Let’s hope it last because if the Penguins can rotate goalies and continue to win it can only be a good thing.

Finally the team is starting to win those tough games. The 2 to 1 or 3 to 2 playoff type games. Getting stingy on defense and getting timely goals up and down the roster. This team won’t blow teams out like the 2016 and 17 versions did, but what they can do is squeak out tough wins on the road, and force teams to come to the Paint Bucket and win. Looks like everything is starting to balance out. Fingers crossed this trend continues as they make a run to the playoffs.

 

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Written by Johnny Violence

The lead NHL/Hockey writer for Thoughts From The Bench.

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