Mark Madden: Penguins’ current play features encouraging signs

5 minutes ago

It’s easy to overreact to the Penguins’ good play. Every team’s season has ups and downs. The Penguins have looked excellent winning six of their last seven. They were horrific losing nine of 10 from Oct. 30-Nov. 19.

But the current uptick definitely features encouraging signs.

Goaltending is key, as usual. Allow 12 goals in seven games, and you’ve got a good chance to win six. Matt Murray has played six of those games, stopping 199 out of 210 shots (.947 save percentage). Murray is consistent and (touch wood) looks durable and unfazed by his workload.

The Penguins have simplified in the defensive and neutral zones. Entries and exits aren’t as intricate. When mistakes occur, they’re less egregious. Given their abundance of skill, the Penguins are entitled to complicate a bit in the offensive end. But keep it basic everywhere else.

Sidney Crosby has five goals and eight assists in the last seven games. Jake Guentzel has seven goals and five assists. Batman finally found a Robin.

That duo dominates most games. It’s ignited a return of the Penguins’ explosiveness — like in Thursday’s 5-3 win over visiting Washington, when they netted thrice in 108 seconds.

Jared McCann has four goals and four assists in those seven games, and he often has skated with Crosby and Guentzel.

But McCann’s biggest value might be energy. McCann and Teddy Blueger are providing what players like Guentzel, Bryan Rust and Conor Sheary did during the Stanley Cup seasons of 2015-16 and 2016-17: hunger and adrenaline.

When Rust returns from injury — which might happen this weekend — Blueger should stay in the lineup. (He won’t.)

Trades made by GM Jim Rutherford have made the roster younger. McCann and Marcus Pettersson are 22. Blueger, a call-up from the minors, is 24. Nick Bjugstad is 26. Before Rutherford tinkered, the Penguins were experienced and accomplished — but a bit stale.

At 27, Eric Gudbranson is marginally part of the youth movement. But Gudbranson’s primary values are size and rep. His 6-foot-5, 217-pound frame manufactures respect. That was clear Thursday, when Gudbranson got two points for a takedown on Washington thug Tom Wilson. His defensive play has been more than adequate.

Same goes for Jack Johnson. He has gone from minus-13 on Dec. 1 to minus-1 now.

The defensive corps has stabilized, and coach Mike Sullivan will face a good problem if/when Kris Letang and Olli Maatta return from injury, giving Sullivan seven very legit top-six defensemen and some depth beyond that. (Letang might play this weekend. Maatta is skating.)

Special teams are booming: The power play went 9 for 26 over the last seven games, the penalty-kill 18 for 21.

Sullivan experimented with putting Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel on the No. 2 power play. But that was short-lived, and Kessel responded with man-advantage goals in three of the last five games. Sometimes a carrot needs to be dangled.

Sullivan has been on song lately.

Eyebrows got raised a bit when Sullivan started backup goalie Casey DeSmith on Thursday at Buffalo. Murray had gotten the call nine straight times. But it seemed logical to use Murray at Buffalo, followed by Murray and DeSmith splitting back-to-back home games Saturday and Sunday.

But Buffalo had lost five straight and was further crippled by the suspension of leading scorer Jack Eichel. DeSmith got the shutout in a 5-0 win, but it wasn’t too demanding. With Saturday’s game in the afternoon and Sunday’s at night, Murray might play both.

Good decision by Sullivan.

Time will decide if the Penguins legitimately have turned a corner or merely provided a false dawn.

But Sunday is a day to celebrate not worry. The Philadelphia Flyers visit PPG Paints Arena, and it will be exactly 16,000 days since the Flyers last won the Stanley Cup.

That’s a lot of days. Many more will follow.

Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM 105.9.