Penguins Ready To Fly?
*The following article was submitted to Faceoff-Factor by Brian Lutz of Broken Cigars*
If you can cut through all the knee-jerk gloom-and-doom regarding the Penguins ugly and mildly alarming 2-game losing streak – No heart! No effort! The defense stinks! Bench Fleury! Bylsma can’t figure out the lines! – you’ll realize that, in about a week, this home-and-home with the Islanders will be long forgotten. Their previous 11-game winning streak will likewise be meaningless. It won’t matter where they are in everyone’s pointless power rankings.
What matters is that the Penguins are playing with (mostly) a full deck for the first time in nearly 2 calendar years. During this time there have been flashes of brilliance, an unfinished portrait leaving us to wonder what might have been. If only Sidney Crosby hadn’t missed a season-and-a-half. If only Marc-Andre Fleury had been more consistent. If only Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Kris Letang and others hadn’t missed huge chunks of games with injuries. If only they could get a winger for Sid. If only everyone could all get healthy at the same time. If only.
With postseason hockey fast approaching, the Penguins have come full circle: healthy, deep, battle-tested, playoff-ready. This has created a wave of new, soaring expectations that can’t be stifled by a couple late-season losses. Even after their rough week, many consider the Penguins to be among the strongest contenders for the Stanley Cup. Some locals are already comparing this year’s team to the vaunted 1992-93 squad that won the President’s Trophy with 119 points and is widely considered to be the Penguins’ best team ever. But this may an unwanted association – the 92-93 Pens flamed out two rounds early on their inevitable run to the Cup.
Perhaps it’s wise for the Penguins to draw on their most recent playoff exit, in 2010, when they flamed out two rounds early on their inevitable run to the Cup. This was the last time they were fully healthy and in sync, and, just like in 1993, they lost a winnable series to an inferior team. Surely this disappointment – the biggest failure of the Sidney Crosby-era Penguins – is fresh in the mind of a team who is once again primed for a long spring.
Of course, no discussion of the Penguins’ spring fever is complete without adding the rather large caveat which is by now almost reflexive: if only they can stay healthy. And by they, we generally mean Pittsburgh’s three stars: Malkin, Fleury, and “that other guy”. The loss of any puts a huge damper on any visions of a second Stanley Cup in four seasons. All three are in the prime of their careers and are playing at a high level. And considering their recent track record, they should create nightmare matchups for any and all playoff opponents.
Malkin is playing some of the best hockey of his career, and has recently opened up a 9-point lead on Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos for the Art Ross Trophy. Coming off major knee surgery and two disappointing seasons, Malkin has re-emerged as the best player in the world. Hardly anyone can matchup with him physically, as he is too fast and quick for bigger defenders, and too powerful for the little guys. He’s scoring at a clip of 1.43 points per game, best in the league by a wide margin. With Crosby out for most of the season, #71 has carried the Penguins. He should easily win the Hart Trophy as league MVP.
Fleury has seemingly solved what was once his only glaring weakness: Consistency. This season, he has been sharp and focused, on track for a career-best GAA. He rarely allows the soft goals that were once so commonplace. He’s become more technically sound with his positioning and puck handling, and, just like always, he has a penchant for making big saves in big moments. He leads the league in wins, and has a decent case for the Vezina Trophy, which will likely go to Henrik Lunquist of the first-place Rangers.
Crosby has played well since his latest comeback, and his health issues are hopefully behind him. His skills haven’t diminished at all after his long absences. He’s taken on more of a distributor-type role, piling up 21 assists in 17 games this season. He’s only scored 4 goals but still get several good scoring opportunities each game. Crosby should find the net more as he shakes off the rust, and he should be the freshest guy on the ice in any playoff series.
The Penguins have much to envy beyond their star power. Kris Letang and Brooks Orpik anchor a defense that is solid and disciplined most of the time (again, disregard the past two games, from which Letang and Matt Niskanen were absent). Forwards Matt Cooke and Pascal Dupius are enjoying career seasons. James Neal – ironically, the winger we always wanted for Sid – has blossomed on Malkin’s wing; he is 5th in the league in scoring and 3rd in goals scored with 37. Neal, Malkin, and Chris Kunitz form the most dangerous line in hockey.
It’s this line that sets the tone for Pittsburgh’s powerful offense, which leads the NHL in goals scored and trails only the San Jose Sharks in shots on goal. Their high volume of shots to the net wears down opponents – 40% of the Penguins’ goals have come in the third period.
It’s not just that the Penguins can score, it’s their offensive versatility takes them to another level. They have 10 shorthanded goals, third-most in the league, and their once-struggling power play now hits at a respectable 19%. They’ve scored 5 or more goals in 15 games. And although much of the scoring is concentrated in their top line, the return of Crosby and the continued strong play of guys like Dupuis (currently on a 12-game point streak) and Staal (23 goals on the season) gives the team more balance.
Of course the Penguins have plenty of flaws (see: last Tuesday and Thursday vs. the Islanders). The defense is inconsistent and lacksadasical at times. Their loose puck management sometimes leads to costly turnovers. Physical teams like Boston and Philadelphia have had success knocking the Penguins off of their freewheeling style. Their recent 2-game losing skid – have we mentioned they lost to the Islanders? Twice? In three days?? – all but guarantees an unfavorable first-round matchup against Philly.
Regardless, the Penguins are well coached and playoff tested. Sidney Crosby is their 3rd best player right now. They’ve lost only 8 times in their past 36 games. Anything less than an appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals will probably be viewed as a disappointment. On top of it all hangs the omnipresent dark cloud of a question: Can they stay healthy? If only.