A couple of playoff flops are more recent than a Stanley Cup victory. Letdown and disappointment are fresher in everyone’s memory bank than watching the remarkable and unbreakable will of the 2017 Pittsburgh Penguins Stanley Cup winner. We’ve been fooled before by cohesive play in the face of massive injuries, but not this time. I’ll go ahead and say it: The Penguins can win the Stanley Cup.
Not only can they win it, but they’re also one of a handful of teams who SHOULD win it.
Their game was perfect on Sunday when they shut down the Boston Bruins, 1-0. The Penguins speed put Boston on its heels for an entire 60 minutes. The scoring chances were lopsided, even if the score wasn’t. Boston couldn’t pound the Penguins because Boston couldn’t catch them.
Speed. Tenacity. Discipline. Goaltending. Goal scoring ability. (Eventually) four stacked lines. That’s why the Cup is possible.
The Penguins have won 14 of their last 19 games and have points in 16 of those 19 games (14-3-2).
They’ve won WITH Evgeni Malkin and Kasperi Kapanen. The Penguins have won WITHOUT Evgeni Malkin and Kasperi Kapanen, and they’ve won with just one.
Brandon Tanev is making progress towards a return and skated with the taxi squad on Sunday.
Does anyone think Tanev will disrupt the team chemistry? For that matter, don’t worry about Malkin busting up the gang, either. Malkin and Kapanen’s chemistry instigated the Penguins’ February turnaround.
“It brings another level of enthusiasm. Everybody is well aware of how important ‘Geno’ is to our team and the impact that he can have on a game,” Sullivan said. “So the fact that he’s practicing with the group is suggestive that he’s that much closer to returning to the lineup, and I think the guys are excited about that.”
Before he suffered a lower-body injury on March 16, Malkin had 17 points (7-10-17) in his previous 14 games.
Continuing to put the logic puzzle together or deconstruct fears, does anyone think Jeff Carter or Teddy Blueger will slack off when Malkin comes back?
Nope, me neither.
“I really like the mix of players that we have,” coach Mike Sullivan said on Friday. “These guys sincerely enjoy coming to the rink every day and working together. I think they play hard for one another. I think there’s good chemistry inside the room with our veteran guys and the younger players that are bringing some energy to our locker room.”
This offseason, former GM Jim Rutherford gambled, and against the odds, it appears he hit 21 on a five-card draw. Kapanen, Mike Matheson, Cody Ceci, Colton Sceviour, and Mark Jankowski were the offseason additions.
Jankowski and Sceviour were meant to be fillers, not pillars. They’ve done their job much more effectively in the last 10 games, but the Penguins depth means neither is required when the team returns to health. So, if they’re playing well, there will be space. They can only make the team better now.
And Sceviour was a forechecking and backchecking animal on Sunday.
The other pickups have worked out better than Rutherford, Mike Sullivan, or anyone else could have imagined. Remember the criticism of the Cody Ceci signing? He’s playing the best hockey of his life. Mike Matheson? Same.
Matheson has 11 points (3-8-11) in his last 13 games. Ceci, Matheson’s defense partner, has 11 points in his last 14 games (2-9-11).
“Especially with COVID, we have a chance to be more altogether,” Kris Letang said. “It’s not like you can go anywhere on the road. You have to stay in the hotel (including conference rooms set aside for them). Guys are all together. The chemistry off the ice is getting a lot better.”
The Pittsburgh Penguins blue line has become one of the most productive blue lines in the NHL. The team is third in points by defensemen.
Kapanen had just 13 goals in 69 games last season. This season he has 23 points (8-15-23) in just 33 games.
There is clearly something different about this team. GM Ron Hextall sidestepped our question if the resurgent play in the weeks before the April 12 NHL trade deadline affected his decision-making. Perhaps Hextall was unmoved by a couple of weeks of W stacking, but the team was consistent after overcoming the ugly January start.
“… it’s more been a two-month process here since (Brian) Burke and I have been here. And you watch this team for two months,” said Hextall. “The word chemistry is a big part of all this. And the chemistry that this group has right now and has had the entire year is special.”
Hextall added Carter, who looks 10 years younger than he did with the LA Kings. As Carter has acclimated to the Penguins complex systems, he may have been the best Penguins forward on Saturday and Sunday. Add him to the mix, and eventually Malkin, and the team is suddenly a predator lying in the weeds.
Pittsburgh Penguins vs. the World
Escaping the East Division will require the Penguins best. Much like Sunday. Unlike 2016 and 2017, the Penguins won’t get an inferior Round One matchup. The three possible opponents are the reigning President’s Trophy winner, the reigning Eastern Conference runner-up, and the 2018 Stanley Cup champions.
However, the Pittsburgh Penguins speed tortured the New York Islanders in the regular season. They won six of the eight games against New York and also won four of the six games against the Washington Capitals. The Penguins’ speed out of their own zone created real system issues for Washington.
The Penguins split with Boston, 3-3-1 this season and the decider is Tuesday night. Boston’s toughness has been the storyline. On Sunday, the Penguins raced past Boston but brought their workboots, too.
“Being able to win games a lot of different ways is a good indication that we’re a good team,” Letang said on Friday, and it rang true on Sunday.
The Penguins are better than Washington and New York. The Islanders have been struggling since the trade deadline and are 5-4-1 in their last 10 because they’re not getting offense from their top line. Mathew Barzal has gone cold with a mix of Travis Zajac and Leo Komarov on his left wing. The Islanders don’t really have scoring depth to compensate for Barzal not filling the score sheet.
It’s hard to predict how the Penguins would fare against the reigning Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning in the East. However, Tampa Bay certainly would not outskate the Penguins, nor would Tampa have superior goaltending. Or scoring depth.
Notice that we’ve reached the end of the argument and we didn’t even mention Sidney Crosby? The Penguins have one of the best top lines in hockey. Jake Guentzel has 21 goals. Sidney Crosby and Bryan Rust have 20. They’re so good, they’re the given in the equation.
I’ll say it, the Pittsburgh Penguins can win the Stanley Cup…and hopefully, with the vaccine, we achieve some sort of herd immunity that a parade would be possible in late July.