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Penguins Analysis

Big Picture, Penguins Emerge as Legitimate Contenders

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Pittsburgh Penguins Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin
Pittsburgh Penguins Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby: Photo by Michael Miller

The lifeless clunker in Philadelphia on Tuesday night aside, the Pittsburgh Penguins wrapped the figurative first half of their season with the fourth-best record in the NHL and perhaps the most impressive path to get there. No other teams have fought with one hand behind their back like the Penguins, and indeed no team thrived under that adversity as well as the Penguins.

The Penguins have more starting goalies (2) than they have healthy defense pairings or forward lines.

From impressive fill-ins like Joseph Blandisi, who is nicknamed “the blender and whose car will soon be known as the “the beater” after eight trips (and counting) up and down from the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins to players such as Jared McCann and Brandon Tanev who are already approaching career highs, the Penguins are a rising tide.

Rookie John Marino has not only kept the defense afloat in the absence of Justin Schultz, but Marino has shown he is capable of legitimate top-four responsibilities.

And yes, the Penguins stunk out loud on Tuesday night. Heaven forbid fans not instinctively grasp the negative in our Pittsburgh steel mill hardened, Scotch-Irish tradition. But singular games rarely define a season or team.

“We should use the rest. We’ve battled through a lot of different things,” said Sidney Crosby. “The most challenging part of the season is ahead of us, so we’ll use the rest and make sure we’re focused when we come back.”

If you look too closely, you’ll miss the big picture. The Penguins won 31 games. They have the fourth-best record in the NHL. They’ve consistently been among the leaders in goal differential. And, get this, they have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

Malkin has 50 points (15g, 25a) in just 37 games. Crosby has 25 points (8g, 17a) in 22 games, and many of those games were played with a sports hernia. And the Penguins already have eight players with 10 or more goals, which is the most of any Penguins team since the early 1990s offensive juggernauts with Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr.

Penguins GM Jim Rutherford has some work to do. The Pittsburgh Penguins defense is hobbled, and the team hasn’t been as stable since top-line winger and leading scorer Jake Guentzel was lost for the season.

Isn’t it a much better position to tinker with the roster from atop the league rather than desperately grasping straws from the bottom?

But in a season where the Penguins were forecasted by some pundits and fans to miss the playoffs, including one stubborn social media commenter on PHN who for weeks commented on every story that the Penguins would miss the playoffs. Nope. The Penguins will do no such thing. Instead, they are more likely to have home-ice advantage for Round One, and possibly later in the playoffs outside the Metro Division.

Penguins goalie Tristan Jarry has played a large part in the Penguins surge. As Matt Murray stumbled, Jarry didn’t skip a beat. Jarry’s All-Star nod was earned by leading the league in save percentage and goals against average, until recently as the Penguins play has receded in deference to lineup losses and an oppressive schedule.

Jarry has slipped to a 2.16 GAA and .929 SV%. There are a lot of goalies who would like to “slip” to those levels.

One thing many don’t realize is the additional energy the Penguins have been forced to expend to overcome the lineup holes. It takes mental energy to raise the intensity to overcome Crosby’s 28-game absence or Malkin’s month-long staycation on IR.

“We’ve played a lot of games this year, and it’s been a pretty tough schedule as of late,” Jarry said. “It will be good for the team to recharge for a couple of days and get back at it.”

And yet, the Penguins reformed philosophy of speed and tenacity with a team-first concept and system adherence has them ahead of the New York Islanders and nipping at the Washington Capitals heels.

While they and we focused on the latest injury or the next game, the Penguins have quietly built themselves into a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. The Penguins speed and structure have earned wins over the best teams in the NHL. They’ve smoked the Western Conference and beaten Eastern Conference foes, the egg laid on Tuesday night in Philadelphia notwithstanding.

The Penguins have wins against every NHL team currently in a playoff seed, except the Florida Panthers (0-2-0) and Tampa Bay Lightning (0-1-0). They haven’t yet played the Carolina Hurricanes or Washington Capitals.

The Penguins will have an adjustment period coming out of their bye week. They’ll have players back in the lineup, such as Justin Schultz and sooner than later Nick Bjugstad.

With Crosby and Malkin playing significant roles, a banged-up blue line, and the Penguins again having a goalie battle between a stoic, big goalie and a gregarious, athletic goalie, you’ve seen this script before.

Last time, the story had a happy ending. And it is beginning to appear, this story could, too. The Penguins have come through the worst of the adversity and are stronger for it. Now, they get to apply those lessons.

The Pittsburgh Penguins will emerge on the other side as legitimate contenders. Try to enjoy it.

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now owner, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

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