The Pittsburgh Penguins completed their season series with the New York Islanders with a 2-1 win Monday night to finish 6-2 against the Isles
Fresh off a 12-3-1 month of March, which was completed with half of the top-nine forwards on the injured reserve, the Penguins have moved into second in the East division — just two points back of the Washington Capitals.
Through the month of March, Evgeni Malkin, Jason Zucker, Kasperi Kapanen, Teddy Blueger and Brandon Tanev combined to miss 38 games. Aside from Sidney Crosby centering his usual line, the Penguins were forced to roster lines that would look more typical for an AHL team. And yet the Penguins kept on winning.
With some key pieces out of the lineup for an extended period of time, some young names stepped up.
Jared McCann has been on a tear of late, scoring six points (three goals and three assists) over his last four games. Aside from producing highlight reel goals, Frederick Gaudreau has provided valuable minutes on the fourth line, and Anthony Angello has found a scoring touch.
While the Penguins will still likely make a move or two before the NHL’s trade deadline on April 12, the most valuable “acquisitions” will be the returns of some rather important forwards.
The Penguins are in good shape, and that’s only going to get better in the weeks to come.
John Marino is elite
The expectations for Marino’s sophomore season were sky high, especially after signing a six year, $26.4 million contract in the season, and it’s been less than ideal for him so far.
However, in playing 22 minutes per game this season, Marino has been a vital part of the Penguins’ blue line. He hasn’t scored as he did in his rookie season (just two goals and five assists), but he’s showcased a notable improvement in his overall offensive game.
Marino isn’t the fastest skater in the world, but he’s got such a smooth stride. He wastes no effort in his movement, gliding around the ice to create or take away chances.
Monday’s game was a clinic in exactly what Marino is capable of producing for the Penguins.
Marino picked up the puck from Mike Matheson at the goal line, skated through all three zones with ease and slotted a pass in front of the Isles’ net. Angello was in place, smacking a backhand shot past Isles goaltender Semyon Varlamov.
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On the second goal, Matheson picked up a puck in the neutral zone, played it up to Marino and he skated it into the offensive zone. McCann was speeding in on net, making it clear he wanted the puck with some hard stick taps, and Marino fed a perfect pass onto McCann’s stick, which was redirected for a goal.
Two displays of exceptional skating and playmaking for Marino — two primary assists.
Marino’s defense has been suspect at times, even as of late, but he’s 23 years old and in his second season. This season especially is one unlike any other, and Marino will learn and grow from it.
He’s the future of the Penguins’ blue line, and the Pens’ fans should be excited beyond belief.
He may not be a Quinn Hughes or Cale Makar — few are — but he’s an absolute stud.
Casey DeSmith might be a No. 1 goaltender
When Tristan Jarry was unable to return to the ice after suffering an upper-body injury in the first period Monday night, DeSmith took the net against the Isles.
Spending the first period sitting on the bench, DeSmith was thrown into the fire and forced to make some crucial saves to keep the Penguins in the game — despite being up 2-0 at that point.
In the second period alone, DeSmith stopped Isles forward Jean-Gabriel Pageau right in front of the net on a cross-crease feed, denied Isles forward Ross Johnston with a miraculous toe-save on a wraparound chance and stoned Isles forward Anthony Beauvillier as he was streaking in on net.
DeSmith has a ridiculous .929 save percentage (ranking only behind Tampa’s Vezina winner Andrei Vasilevskiy among goalies with 13 games played) and a 1.91 goals against average (ranking only behind Colorado’s Philipp Gruabauer among goalies with 13 games played).
It’s been a marvelous year for the undrafted goaltender. He’s currently riding a streak of just one goal allowed in his last 152:14 minutes of game play.
With Jarry suffering an injury against the Isles, DeSmith may need to shoulder an even heavier load in the games ahead. If he’s shown anything over the month of March, it’s that he’s a capable No. 1 goaltender in the NHL.
All aboard the Casey DeSmith hype train.
What to do with Jason Zucker?
Zucker even being back in the lineup Monday night was a remarkable feat, and it’s understandable that he was a little rusty after missing 18 games, but where is he going to play now?
The Penguins top six, once everyone is healthy, should be:
Jake Guentzel – Sidney Crosby – Bryan Rust
Jared McCann – Evgeni Malkin – Kasperi Kapanen
That’s one helluva top-six, and the third line is not full of slouches either. The top-nine should be an area of strength for the Penguins down the stretch this season.
However, for a forward brought in to play on the Crosby or Malkin line — at such a high cost — the fourth line is not ideal. Especially for someone making $5.5 million this season.
Zucker is a talented forward, someone capable of scoring 30 goals a season while providing solid play across all three zones. However, he has not been good this season. And he did not mesh well with Malkin either.
Playing Zucker on the fourth line probably won’t cut it. The most likely solution, not one that I necessarily would endorse, would be to split up the third line and give Zucker those minutes.
In that ideal world, the fourth line would be something to the effect of ZAR – Gaudreau – Angello.
But even with Zucker on the third line, that’s not going to cut it. The Pens may have a Zucker problem on their hands.
Never ones for an easy time, the Penguins will be back in action next against the Boston Bruins. Puck drop is scheduled for 7:00 p.m. on Thursday, April 1. And I can assure you this is no April Fools joke.
AT&T Sports will provide the local coverage, and ESPN+ will provide the national coverage.
What did you think of the Penguins’ two game sweep of the Islanders? Let me know below in the comments!