They are matchups that never happened and never will. The collisions are hypothetical in the most speculative sense. But we must ask the question because the Pittsburgh Penguins organization is asking itself the same question in their offseason preparations for 2021-22.
How would the Penguins fare against the remaining NHL teams?
I guess we can cross the New York Saints, er, Islanders off the list of teams. The Penguins well outplayed them. The loss should sting for quite a while but also provide hope for next season.
We can also skip ahead past the Boston Bruins. The Bruins bedevil the Penguins because Boston’s top line is better than the Penguins’ top line, despite Sidney Crosby’s presence.
“With Crosby, there’s a great player and two very good players,” Islanders head coach Barry Trotz said. “(Boston’s top line) there’s probably three great players.”
Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pasternak are the best line in hockey.
And so we’re left to wonder how the Penguins would have matched up against the rest. We will have to factor into our analysis that Evgeni Malkin’s knee was in bad shape, but Jeff Carter was in rare form.
We will also have to factor in a steady and solid Tristan Jarry (otherwise, there’s no fun to be had). Jarry’s performance was undeniable in Round One, but in this hypothetical, let’s assume the better Jarry that we watched all season is the Jarry in net.
Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Las Vegas Golden Knights:
As many of you know, I spent the last 10 days covering the Colorado Avalanche and Vegas series. What a job! I was one of five American journalists to cover the bubble playoffs in person and one of the few to get to travel this year, too.
I must confess, I greatly underestimated the defensive skills of Chandler Stephenson and Mark Stone. GREATLY. They have been a wet blanket upon one of the best players in the game, Nathan MacKinnon.
Vegas’s ability to stay with MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, and Mikko Rantanen for 200 feet has been the overriding difference in the series. Without Nazem Kadri, Colorado doesn’t have enough secondary scoring, and Vegas is set to win four straight on Thursday night in Vegas.
Stephenson would have won the battle against Crosby, Bryan Rust, and Jake Guentzel, too. Barry Trotz understood that fact, which is why he slipped Brock Nelson and Anthony Beauvillier on the ice against Crosby. The Islanders second line won the battle–but what about the rest of the lineup?
I like the Penguins’ chances to compete against Vegas. The active defensemen would have been a major plus for the Penguins; Vegas defensemen stand back and bomb away, but they’re not active like the Penguins crew.
That’s one spot where the Penguins would hang their hat.
Vegas’s top nine is better than the Penguins, too, especially factoring Malkin’s bad knee. Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson, and Reilly Smith are a dynamic second line. Nicolas Roy with Mattias Janmark and Alex Tuch is a stout third line.
I think Jeff Carter’s third line would have won their battle, but overall, the Penguins are short in the top-nine matchup.
The Penguins’ fourth line with Zach Aston-Reese, Teddy Blueger, and Brandon Tanev is one of the best in the biz.
I can’t say I’ve been crazy about Marc-Andre Fleury’s goaltending in the Round Two series against Colorado, but three straight wins with a dozen big saves stand on its own.
The Penguins without Crosby’s line is a snake without a head, as New York showed. The Penguins can outplay teams, but without Guentzel filling the net beside Crosby, those big goals are elusive. Vegas’s top line would not only have won a matchup of top-line vs. top line but scored plenty of goals, too (unlike Mathew Barzal’s line).
This could have gone six, but no more. Vegas wins.
Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Tampa Bay Lightning
With a full lineup, Tampa Bay is scary good. Do we need much time to dissect this one? Tampa Bay is as good as its gets with speed, top-end scoring, lineup depth, depth scoring, defense, and goaltending.
The Carolina Hurricanes are a very good team, and they lasted five games. There isn’t a weakness the Penguins could have exploited. However, Tampa Bay also exploited the salary cap this season. They’re playing with a $98 million team, not an $83 million team. That makes a huge difference to air-drop former Hart Trophy winner Nikita Kucherov into the lineup.
It still counts.
This, too, would have been over quickly—Tampa Bay in five.
Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Montreal Canadiens
We saw this matchup last season, didn’t we? No, we didn’t. We saw a disinterested Penguins team in desperate need of a cleanup and several players not very interested in being in the bubble for the Qualifying Round.
We saw Sidney Crosby play very well and get far more chances than the Penguins top line yielded (we also saw Shea Weber keep Jake Guentzel from the front of the net–that theme reappeared against New York).
The Penguins are a better team than the Montreal Canadiens…except for Carey Price and the Canadiens defensive posture.
Given the Penguins’ ability to post significant scoring chances on New York and assuming a proper Tristan Jarry, we like the Penguins’ chances here. Montreal’s second line is easily their most dangerous with Cole Caufield and Tyler Toffoli on the wings–Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan would have needed his fourth line against that crew.
Montreal’s fourth line with Eric Staal and Corey Perry has been a time machine to their youth, but it could be contained.
This series would have come down to Carey Price (just as the last one ultimately did, too).
We think the rejuvenated Penguins would have broken through, this time, and won in six.
Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Colorado Avalanche:
I don’t think the Avalanche will survive Game 6 in the fortress–I think Tuesday night in Game 5 was their last stand. However, they’re a very good team and very similar to the Penguins.
I like the Penguins matchup here. The Penguins fourth line could defend Colorado’s top line with MacKinnon, and it would be the Penguins who had more depth in the middle of the lineup.
The Penguins defensemen would have made a huge difference in this series. Colorado hasn’t played well on the walls or the in battle zones. While the Penguins are not as tough as Vegas, they are born of the Metro/East Division.
This would have been a series that left hockey fans begging for more. It would have been played at 100mph, with jaw-dropping plays, offensive rushes, and everything else that comes with playoff hockey.
I think the Penguins would have won a series against the President’s Trophy winners.
The Penguins could be a top-10 team but are at the back of that pack. They have a chance, but to win the Stanley Cup one more time, they need a little bit of luck, a few changes, and, above all, health.
We’ll analyze what the Penguins need to do to BEAT the four best teams remaining in the coming days. General manager Ron Hextall can say they want to add size, but what does that really mean and where?
We’ll stack up the Penguins against the best and begin to analyze as a front office team would. We’ll be able to come to real conclusions about the state of the Penguins and step past the angst and negativity into some sort of clear picture.
Good and bad. Stay tuned.