Whether it’s hesitance due to injuries, fear of disciplinary repercussions, or some other subconscious motive, the Pittsburgh Penguins are not the same team that physically dominated their rivals on their way to consecutive Stanley Cup Final appearances and a Cup victory just three seasons ago.

On March 20, 2011 Matt Cooke elbowed the New York Rangers’ Ryan McDonagh in the head, garnering a 17-game suspension less than six weeks after the Penguins were ambushed by the New York Islanders and a subsequent Mario Lemieux statement questioned the integrity of the NHL.

The cherry on top of the crap sundae for the Pens last spring was the extended absence of Sidney Crosby due to a concussion. Although Crosby’s condition wasn’t caused by a typical big hit or dirty play, the effect of the storm of events on the Penguins’ style of play has started to become noticeable.

The Pens look like they’ve had the meanness scared out of them.

It became apparent while watching HBO’s 24/7 series on the Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers. Both teams’ head coaches, John Tortorella and Peter Laviolette, reinforced the importance of physical play and taking the body to their various opponents, but especially each other, throughout. It’s no coincidence those two teams passed the Penguins in the Atlantic Division standings during the month of December, and the Flyers in particular used their plan to take the body to Pittsburgh to near perfection last week.

Don’t be mistaken. This is not an indictment of the Penguins’ style, or Dan Bylsma’s coaching, or anything they may even be conscious of. It may be more of a substantiation of the fact that while the Pens are the fastest and most talented team in the division, they no longer look like the most difficult team to play against in the division.

This is one of those factors that can’t be measured statistically. But if you want to put a number on it, go down each team’s roster – the Pens, Flyers, and Rangers – and ask yourself how many guys on each team you wouldn’t want to go into a corner with.

Does your heart skip a beat as you consider going in after a puck against Paul Martin? Or Zbynek Michalek? Or Steve Sullivan? Does the new and improved Cooke inspire as much fear as the guy who would check Mother Theresa from behind into the boards if it meant retrieving a loose puck?

Over the past season and a half – most of which has been comprised of 2011: The Injury Year From Hell – the Penguins have struggled against the Rangers and Flyers, and in no small part because both teams are simply playing more physically against them. The Penguins are now the 3rd most physically intimidating team in the best division in hockey. That’s not a bad quality for a team. As long as that’s the case though, it won’t be good enough, healthy or not.