We need to discuss a few points in Pittsburgh Penguins land, and there are a few things no one really wants to be on record as saying. From the Penguins Stanley Cup chances to an odd statement from President of Hockey Operations Brian Burke, a few things are percolating.
The Stanley Cup.
The red flags are obvious. No team in decades has won Stanley Cup with a core in their mid-30s. It’s further impossible to win with a group that has won a few Stanley Cups and a team that has since laid down for quick dirt naps in the three consecutive postseasons.
Also: We’ve seen this before. The Penguins play well when injured but suck rocks when everyone gets healthy. The window is closed.
Well, maybe not…
1. I’ll say it. The Pittsburgh Penguins Stanley Cup chance is wide open this season. Absolutely WIDE OPEN.
And I should say I was wrong that the window is closed.
The Penguins are winning with good hockey. They are scoring goals with honest hockey and shutting down opponents. Now, they may lose a couple of games this week because that generally happens after a blistering stretch of wins, including a five-game winning streak, but don’t lose yourself in the trees.
Their good hockey is replicable; speed through the neutral zone born of crisp breakout passes, aggressive forechecks and dogged backchecks, and simple offensive plays which create puck possession. Evgeni Malkin and Kasperi Kapanen played great hockey on both ends of the ice before they were injured. Just imagine dropping that Mentos into the Coke that has been the Penguins’ extra-carbonated play.
Last season, Teddy Blueger, Brandon Tanev, and Zach Aston-Reese formed one of the best defensive lines in hockey. This season, they decided to push offense, too. The result was career-high scoring paces for all three.
And, the Penguins are getting stellar goaltending.
But, let’s not view the Penguins in a provincial vacuum, either.
The Penguins have issues with the front of their net and getting to the opponent’s net. They’re solving the offensive side with hard play in the corners and lightning-quick transition goals on the rush.
On the defensive side, it remains a concern but not an insurmountable obstacle. The Penguins fleet-footed defensemen have done a proper job defending the puck and transitioning to offense. If a team can pin the Penguins in the defensive zone, the Penguins’ defense will be in trouble because of their lack of power. But their team speed and mobility of the defensemen have made pinning them deep more difficult.
The Pittsburgh Penguins have a winning record against the New York Islanders (6-2-0), and the Washington Capitals (4-2-0). Those are two teams the Penguins would have to beat to escape the East Division on their way to the Stanley Cup Final Four and the Penguins have made both opponents look slow.
We’re going to table the Boston Bruins for now. That may be the Penguins’ worst matchup.
Beyond the East Division, the Toronto Maple Leafs, Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers, Vegas Golden Knights, and Colorado Avalanche are probably contenders.
Roll the dice with those teams. It would seem Vegas, Colorado and Tampa Bay are a cut above everyone, but who knows? The isolated divisions have given us an air of mystery and suspense. Toronto has goaltending issues and a lack of forward depth. Florida is playing out of its mind, but as a team, they have little playoff experience. However, Florida does have a crazy Viking named Patric Hornqvist, who has a pair of Stanley Cup rings, and an all-time coach, Joel Quenneville who has a few rings in the last decade, too.
Put Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on the big stage one more time with the knowledge this could be their last chance? I surely wouldn’t bet against them.
2. I’ll say it: The difference between Brian Burke’s and Mike Sullivan’s philosophy is an interesting subplot in the next chapter of the Pittsburgh Penguins that could have a bad ending.
President of Hockey Operations Brian Burke wants a team with heft. He wants truculence and a team that can hit with impact. Beyond sandpaper, he wants jam.
Burke has told every interviewer he wants to add some physicality to the lineup at the NHL trade deadline. Last week, he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, that he would have to “hash it out” with Sullivan.
Even former GM Jim Rutherford put a few players on the roster who were obviously not Sullivan’s cup of tea. Ryan Reaves springs to mind.
In word and deed, Sullivan seems to prefer speed and tenacity to the Reaves-type “physicality.”
Who will win this “discussion” in the short term and long term? What if Burke and GM Ron Hextall snag a player who can punish the opposition, but Sullivan doesn’t feel that player fits? What if Burke doesn’t acquire that player or two, and the Penguins are run over in the postseason by Boston or Washington?
The likely outcome is a compromise, but those are two pretty big personalities. They are two dominant Type A guys.
It’s something to watch. Sullivan has been on his game this season and the Penguins are clicking with his system. The team has adhered to it well, and the recent results have been nothing short of spectacular. However, it’s also been five-plus years since Sullivan was named the Pittsburgh Penguins coach and most coaches have a much shorter shelf life.
Again, compromise is the likely outcome. But that’s not the only possible outcome.