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Gajtka: Who Can Beat the Penguins Come Springtime?

The heart of the champion remains viable. The Penguins can still ramp it up with the best of them.



Sidney Crosby Pittsburgh Penguins 2016
Joey Gannon | CC BY-SA 2.0

I found Saturday night’s Penguins loss to the Devils quite disappointing, but maybe not for the same reasons it disappointed some of you.

Yes, the 3-1 defeat dropped the Penguins back into third place in the Metropolitan Division, one point behind the second-place Devils and four back of the Capitals. And with every team in the Metro holding at least one and as many as three games in hand, the champs’ standing isn’t as plum as it appears. With 61 points in 54 games, they’re in much better shape than the were at the end of December, but a weeklong slump could knock them right back out of the Eastern Conference postseason field.

In a season like this in the Metro, a five-point cushion above the playoff line feels like 15:

Still, with New Jersey looking rebuilt and frisky in Year 3 of the Ray Shero era, I was hoping to see a real toe-to-toe battle at the Prudential Center, if only to gauge how the two sides matched up in their first meeting of the season.

But instead of a true showdown, we saw a disengaged and dispassionate Penguins team that looked like it was still savoring Friday’s dismissal of the Capitals. The result was the kind of thorough butt-kicking we haven’t seen in several weeks, back when the Penguins were still struggling to rev it up for games on a regular basis.

The margin was just two goals, but Saturday was undoubtedly a comedown from the Penguins’ new-year revival. By even-strength shot attempts, the loss to New Jersey was the worst of the season. Pittsburgh was outgunned 58-36 during five-on-five play, a 38 percent rate that was worse than even the 10-1 smackdown issued by the Blackhawks in the opening week of the season.

But hey, there will be other chances. Specifically with the Devils, the Penguins have three more games to go against the Metro’s new contenders.

Bottom line is this: With 28 games to go in the regular season, the Penguins have solidified their position as championship contenders, to the point that reports around the NHL are coming out about other teams being wary about helping Jim Rutherford fortify his team ahead of the Feb. 26 trade deadline. Rutherford himself told KDKA-TV last week that he’s had several deals for a center agreed upon in principle, only to have other general managers back out at the last minute.

Fear the Penguins?

After what we’ve seen from the Penguins since the start of January, that renewed fear of the Penguins is legitimate.

Since the ball dropped over Times Square, the Penguins’ game has gone in the opposite direction. They’re 10-3-0 over that span, but the so-called underlying numbers are similarly strong. Over the past six weeks at even strength, the Penguins are eighth in the NHL in Goals For percentage, sixth in the NHL in shot-attempt percentage (Corsi For) and seventh in Expected Goals For, a metric that attempts to account for quality of scoring chances in addition to quantity.

No matter what’s triggered their surge up the standings, they’ve earned it. Mike Sullivan has been coy about the reasons for the delayed surge, but many of his players have talked about finding an increased commitment level, something Sidney Crosby has said is tightly tied to their ability to play the full-throttle speed game this roster is designed to execute.

Our Dan Kingerski wrote recently about Sullivan riding Crosby hard this season, double-shifting him and generally giving him more of an opportunity to impact the game. Perhaps some of that urgency has filtered down to the team, but overall I see a defending champion that is worthy of the label. That wasn’t the case through Christmas.

Valid Concerns

But before I go ahead and declare the Penguins’ triumphant return to title-favorite status, there are some concerns to address:

Riley Sheahan is looking better between Jake Guentzel and Art Ross contender Phil Kessel, but the fourth line has too often been the equivalent of a punt when Sheahan isn’t centering it. While Carter Rowney‘s return will get Crosby off the penalty kill, he’s not going to lift Tom Kühnhackl and Ryan Reaves. Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kessel can’t do it all.

• Matt Hunwick is approaching bust territory in Year 1 of a three-year contract, but with Ian Cole as the most likely Penguin to be dealt away this month, the Penguins are going to have to find a spot for Hunwick. Or else, they’ll be sitting their biggest offseason investment for the biggest games in favor of Chad Ruhwedel. Not that it couldn’t work, but that wasn’t the plan.

• Matt Murray deserves a grace period due to his family’s tragic loss — and he’ll get it — but the Penguins’ goaltending overall hasn’t been where it needs to be. With Murray, Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith doing most of the work, the team’s overall save percentage of .903 ranks 22nd. Their five-on-five save rate is a dead-last .907. That’s not all on the masked men, but they can be better. Let’s see how Murray gets back to speed in the coming weeks.

Who Can Beat ‘Em?

Despite these flaws, I keep coming back to the same question. Who’s going to beat the Penguins in a best-of-seven series?

The way I see it, there are just a couple of teams in the East that would be considered at least even odds to end the city’s three-peat fantasies. As the 1993 Islanders reminded us, there’s always the chance of an upset in this most random of our major team sports, but serious threats to the crown are few.

The first is the most obvious: The Lightning. Tampa Bay built up such a cushion in the Atlantic Division that it still maintains a five-point edge over Boston, which recently went on an 18-game unbeaten streak. The Lightning defense looked a little thin when Victor Hedman missed a few weeks, but they still have the best goalie in Andrei Vasilevskiy and the firepower to match the Penguins.

Don’t minimize the Bruins, either. They’re a little ahead of the presumed schedule, but the melding of old guard (Patrice BergeronBrad MarchandZdeno Chára) and newbie talent (Charlie McAvoyJake DeBrusk) has produced the NHL’s top possession team (53.7 percent Corsi For). Tuukka Rask is having a late-prime renaissance, too.

Metro, Western Challengers

In the Metro, the Capitals and Devils are bottom-third possession teams even though they’ve done well so far to defy their territorial deficiencies. In the Atlantic, the Maple Leafs are looking less potent than they should be; growing pains might be doing them in this year.

Out West, it’s impossible to ignore what Vegas is doing. The Golden Knights were shooting the lights out at a crazy pace early, but now their success appears more legit with the backing of solid shot and scoring chance ratios. You have to respect the Jets, Blues and Stars, too, especially if they have home ice in a hypothetical Stanley Cup Final.

As far as getting out of the East, though, the top of the Atlantic seems more threatening to the Penguins than the jammed-up Metro. Artemi Panarin adds dynamism to the Blue Jackets’ attack and I still think the Hurricanes would be scary if they got in the playoffs, but with the way the Penguins are coming on, I wouldn’t bet against them emerging from the divisional portion of the playoffs.

Certainly, adding another play-driving center would help with those all-important matchups, but if there’s anything the past few weeks have taught me, it’s that Rutherford doesn’t need to pursue a major change as much as an incremental tweak or two.

In other words, the heart of the champion remains viable. The Penguins can still ramp it up with the best of them. There’s urgency to add, sure, but there shouldn’t be desperation.

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A lifelong hockey addict, Matt has been fortunate enough to make his career in his sport of choice, working in high school, juniors, college and the pros in various multimedia roles. Previous to joining PHN, Matt was a credentialed Penguins/NHL beat reporter from 2016-18, including coverage of the 2017 Stanley Cup Final. He contributes commentary and analysis here in various forms.

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