(TORONTO, ON) — “That’s a good question, I’m not sure I have an answer for you,” Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan said after the Penguins dominated the Toronto Maple Leafs on Feb. 19, 2020.
Why were the Penguins so good without either Crosby or Malkin but not able to maintain the successful, simple game with them?
On that February night, the Penguins were again without one of their stars. Evgeni Malkin missed the game with his second injury, but the Penguins overwhelmed Toronto, 5-2.
For large parts of the regular season, the Penguins ground their opposition like raw pepper at a fancy restaurant. Injuries decimated the team, and minor leaguers such as Joseph Blandisi wore out their odometers with trips back and forth to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. Yes, somehow goalie Tristan Jarry led the league with a .941 save percentage and a goals-against-average near 1.80.
2 Factors Which Will Determine the Pittsburgh Penguins Success
1. Simple Hockey with Stars
Without Evgeni Malkin for a month, who was injured just a few games into the season, then without Sidney Crosby who left the lineup for core muscle surgery a couple of weeks after Malkin returned, the Penguins played without their best players for most of the first four months of the season.
And they stacked wins like pancakes at a truck stop diner.
The Sullivan cliches rained, but they were also accurate. The Penguins “played the right way,” they had, “a high compete level,” “they took what the game gives you,” and the Penguins “didn’t feel sorry for ourselves.”
By January, the Pittsburgh Penguins were a top-four team in the NHL despite missing Crosby for 28 games, and Malkin for 15 games. And Kris Letang for nine games, Brian Dumoulin for 42 games, and… you get the picture.
However, things changed when Crosby and Malkin were in the lineup together. The gritty, simple Penguins who adhered to their structure were again the inconsistent, loose Penguins.
The Penguins still surged to first place in the Metro after their win over Toronto, but their style of play was noticeably different and not always to Sullivan’s liking.
“Sometimes I wish I could convince us when we have a full lineup to play with the same level of simplicity. Because I do think that’s when our team is at its best,” Sullivan said. “We can utilize our speed. We can play behind (the other) team’s defenseman, and we can put pressure on our opponents to have to make plays under duress. And usually we can create offense off of it.”
Simple play with Crosby and Malkin. It will be even more vital in Toronto because of the ice conditions; the ice won’t be scraped be smiling ice crews during TV timeouts, and the Penguins will be the third game of the day on the same ice surface.
Teams should not expect a smooth track, so the Penguins simplicity will be essential.
“That (style) brings us success. And we’ve got a lot of evidence to suggest that when we play the game a certain way, we’re a pretty competitive team,” Sullivan concluded.
The Penguins defense is reliable. For better and worse, you know what you’ll get with Dumoulin-Letang, Marcus Pettersson-John Marino, and Jack Johnson-Justin Schultz. The defense is solid. It could provide a bit more offensive support, but it could also be a lot worse.
The Penguins forwards crew is also mostly a known quantity.
The Penguins’ task will be keeping the puck out of their own net. Average goaltending produces average results, but the playoffs don’t reward average.
Most Stanley Cup winners had a goalie who made the unbelievable save at a crucial moment. Will Matt Murray make that save? If Murray doesn’t, can Jarry make the big saves under pressure?
We know Murray is a winner, but his regression last season and his inconsistency this season raise questions. We don’t yet know about Jarry. Is he a big-game goalie capable of withstanding a furious third period rally from a desperate team?
Simplicity and goaltending. If the Penguins get those two things, success will follow just as it did in the regular season. However, if the Penguins try to open the game or if they don’t get the excellent goaltending, my stay in Canada will be very short.