With the win over the Buffalo Sabres, the Pittsburgh Penguins put six points between themselves and being out of the playoffs. For most organizations and most cities, that would be the headline. This isn’t most teams or most cities.
To answer the most burning and pressing question with blunt force: Yes, the Pittsburgh Penguins are again legitimate Stanley Cup contenders. There are distinct and real comparisons to 2016, as well. Call this the March of the Penguins II.
The original March of the Penguins began on March 1, 2016. The Penguins lost in Washington after blowing a third period lead. The anger was palpable. In the tiny Washington visitors locker room which is made of concrete block and feels smaller than most living rooms, Patric Hornqvist spoke with outright disgust. He wanted to play again, on the spot. Sidney Crosby spoke through gritted teeth with fire in his eyes.
From that moment, the 2016 Penguins cut a path through the NHL like bulldozers en route to the Stanley Cup. It was an exciting time to cover the team because the conclusion was evident and the hunger itself a spectacle.
The 2019 team will point to the Stadium Series game on Feb. 23. After losing Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin on the same play, they rallied around their remaining defensemen and in effect rallied around their true identity which includes honest, physical hockey.
These Penguins are not infinitely faster, shooting from the rafters or an avalanche of destiny like their predecessor. But the process of coming together and exerting their will over opponents sure seems the same.
Pittsburgh Hockey Now has known this truth for several weeks. If you’ve joined the live chats on our YouTube channel, we’ve discussed it. My columns have been strongly hinting at this conclusion. (See also, Unanswered Prayers Make Penguins Younger, Faster, Better)
The Penguins are winning games, but they’ve done that before. What makes this emerging team and their run special is the “How.” The team is not winning because they’re more talented and they are certainly not beating a string of tomato can opponents ready to hit the links. The Penguins are winning by playing to their strengths and opponents cannot match what the Penguins can do well.
In essence, the Penguins have adopted the game of their leader, Sidney Crosby.
The Penguins can again play with speed, they’ve become very hard to play against, they’re able to dominate the walls, control the low zones offensively and defensively, their defenseman can clear the crease in addition to being able to move the puck forward, and goaltender Matt Murray is again a 6-foot-4 wall removing most daylight.
And Erik Gudbranson, reprising the reclamation defenseman role of Justin Schultz, even neutralized Washington Capitals hammer, Tom Wilson.
The eye-popping stats of Crosby who has 92 points (33g, 59a) and Jake Guentzel who is pushing towards 40 goals are nice but it is the “How” which is critical.
This has been a stealth and quiet rebuild by General Manager Jim Rutherford. Jared McCann is just 22-years-old and cannot believe his good fortune. His enthusiasm and desire to contribute is too similar to Bryan Rust and Conor Sheary in ’16. McCann is playing at full throttle.
Nick Bjugstad is the recast Nick Bonino, except Bjugstad is bigger, deceptively quick and goes straight to the net. Bjugstad’s hockey IQ is on full display in the defensive zone, too. He’s been impressive and even better than the Penguins hoped. The Penguins third line with Bjugstad and Patric Hornqvist has become a wall in the defensive zone and disruptive forecheckers.
The Penguins are again able to pressure the puck for 200 feet and consistently win puck battles; things which have been sorely lacking since the Penguins last hoisted the silver chalice.
It also doesn’t hurt that Sidney Patrick Crosby looks as determined to recapture the Stanley Cup as he was to reclaim it in 2016. The specter of failure and regret which marred the Penguins for years after their 2009 triumph was erased in 2016. This year is another opportunity, and Crosby is aggressively pushing his team towards it.
There are no guarantees and the 2019 Penguins will have a much tougher road than they did in 2016. The Western Conference is exponentially tougher, too. But the March of the Penguins II is underway.