Carl Hagelin curled around the goal mouth, his skates pointed outward to create a wide base and waited for something to shoot at.
Finally, Hagelin roofed a puck over Chad Johnson for his first goal since Oct. 17 and second this season in 27 games.
“I looked like a goal-scorer right there,” Hagelin quipped after Saturday’s 5-1 win over the Buffalo Sabres at PPG Paints Arena, the Penguins’ fourth victory in a row.
While Hagelin certainly looked like a goal-scorer, his pretty (and overdue) finish serves as of the many reasons the Penguins have looked like a different hockey team over the past four games.
Hagelin’s goal came during five-on-five play, and it involved a player skating on the third line. That checks two boxes of stuff that has troubled the Penguins at times this season.
But whether it was a visit to the Hockey Hall of Fame last week or a schedule that has relaxed a bit, the Penguins have found some consistency and gotten the results to match.
What exactly has been happening? Well, here are nine more factors to consider:
• Let’s stick with depth scoring to start.
Over the past four games, the Penguins have gotten four goals from bottom-six skaters. In addition to Hagelin, Bryan Rust scored once shorthanded, produced another at even-strength, and Tom Kuhnhackl picked up his first in 46 games dating back to last season via penalty shot Friday in Buffalo.
“It just gives us a huge boost,” Sidney Crosby said of getting goals from the Penguins’ third and fourth lines. “You know how hard those guys work. … The way that they play, what they do, for them to chip in with a goal, I think we want to follow it up. That’s kind of our mentality going out there.”
• They have been.Another contributing factor here has been the Penguins’ best players being their best players.
Phil Kessel has three goals and six points over his past four. Jake Guentzel has goals in two of the four, three total, and is on a goal-scoring run that’s at six in six and nine in 13.
That’s a mishmash of numbers, but it boils down to this: The guys who are counted upon and paid to score are doing exactly that. Funny how that works.
And nobody, of course, has been hotter than the captain.
• Crosby maintained in the games leading up to this current breakthrough that he was pleased with the chances he was getting. He had faith that sooner or later the goals would follow.
Boy, was Crosby right.
The avalanche Crosby has enjoyed – points in six straight, goals and multi-point efforts in each of his past five – stacks up with some of the best stretches he’s had throughout his career.
If Crosby scores and produces multiple points Tuesday against the Rangers, the goal and multiple-point marks will become career-longs. His total – six goals, 12 points – over the past five also matches the most Crosby has produced during a run of five straight multi-point games.
“We’ve seen Sid’s game coming here for three or four weeks now,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said Friday in Buffalo. “Now the puck’s starting to go in the net for him.”
• At the opposite end of the rink, 22-year-old rookie Tristan Jarry’s been keeping it out.
The past four games have seen Jarry pick up four wins while stopping 107 of 112 shots (.955 percentage). Much like Matt Murray, who’s out with a lower-body injury, Jarry has been rattled by nothing.
Jarry has earned teammates’ respect in a big way, too. Patric Hornqvist called him “a hot goaltender” after Saturday’s win, while Evgeni Malkin referred to him as a “great kid.”
Lately, Jarry has been something else: a rock.
• Starts plagued the Penguins early on. You had a 10-1 loss in Chicago, then 7-1 at Winnipeg and Tampa. Those scores might make the losses appear closer than they really were.
Complete opposite lately.
The Penguins have outscored their past four opponents, 8-0, in the first period. Mistakes have been minimized. They’ve immediately set the tone for how they want to play.
It should be seen as no coincidence the Penguins are 13-2-2 when they score first and 9-0-1 when they lead after one.
• Special teams have been huge during this recent run. Remember the stretch the penalty kill allowed two goals-against in five of six?
Distant memory now.
That unit has gone 16 for 18 over the past four games, a success rate of 88.9 percent. The power play has continued to hum along, too, going 5 for 17 during this current winning streak.
“When you play well, you get a lot of confidence,” Hornqvist said. “I think you can see that out there. We have a step on their guys. We make those plays under pressure. It helps when the power play and penalty kill have been really good, too.”
• The Penguins’ five-on-five play has been drastically improved.
They’re still at the bottom league-wide – only two teams had fewer than their 41 five-on-five goals entering Sunday’s games – but the Penguins have scored nine five-on-five goals during the past four games.
“It’s very important that we start to score five-on-five,” Malkin said.
Asked what has changed in their five-on-five approach, Crosby answered, “Our mindset has been to get more pucks and more people to the net. We’ve done that. Sometimes it goes in, sometimes it doesn’t. For us lately, it has been. We have to continue to do that.”
• To respectfully disagree with Crosby, however, the improvement five-on-five has been more than finding a few bounces here or there. Their overall defensive play has improved.
While the quantifiable part hasn’t dropped much – they’re allowing an average of 21 five-on-five scoring chances per game over the past four compared to 22.7 per game over the first 24 – players feel that they’re playing a much more responsible brand of hockey.
“We’re not giving up a ton of easy chances,” Hagelin said. “There are no goals when we turn the puck over in bad areas. I think that’s what we need to continue doing. Everyone has to do their job, so we can trust each other. That’s when we’re a successful team.”
• There’s also the schedule. Before the Buffalo home-and-home, the Penguins went Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday without games.
Prior to that, they had a day off before the Flyers game. They’re currently in a stretch where they’re playing seven of eight at home, and they don’t play back-to-back again until next year.
So, yeah. It’s good now and could get a lot better.