In the moments following the final regular season game, the Saturday night result was quickly forgotten as the Pittsburgh Penguins were already focused on Round One and the New York Islanders. General scouting reports and respect quickly flowed from the Penguins locker room towards their new opponent. Some teams celebrated their regular season accomplishment but the Penguins were not one of them.
Such is the benefit of knowing the context of the regular season as not a means to an end but a means to a beginning.
“They’re a solid team. They’re really deep, and they’re a very good team,” said Penguins leader Matt Cullen. “We had a real tight series with them this season. It’s going to be a battle.”
An unofficial count of the Penguins roster which has been significantly turned over since last season still shows 27 Stanley Cup rings earned by 13 players, plus one for depth defenseman Chad Ruhwedel who played six playoff games for the 2017 Penguins Cup drinking team.
New York doesn’t quite have the same broad experience. There are five diamond-encrusted pieces of bling in the New York room spread amongst four players; A pair belongs to former Penguins grinder Tom Kuhnhackl and one to New York third line center Valtteri Filppula who skated with the Cup on Pittsburgh ice in 2008 with the Detroit Red Wings.
The top Islanders defenders Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk each have a ring, too. Andrew Ladd has a pair of rings but is out until next season with a torn ACL.
Does experience matter in the playoffs?
“Oh, I don’t know. That’s a tough question,” Matt Cullen responded to Pittsburgh Hockey Now on Saturday. “We’ll try to rely on whatever experience we have and they will, too. There’s another level of excitement as we get closer and closer to kicking it off.”
“We’re all excited and that’s where it’s at.”
Cullen has three rings including two with the Penguins and one with the Carolina Hurricanes. Defenseman Olli Maatta is just 24-years-old but also has a pair of rings. Perhaps a younger player would see the value of superior playoff experience?
“I…I don’t know. It’s tough to say how much that really matters,” Maatta said. “I think when you go into a series, the better team wins. If you play better, you’re going to win.”
Perhaps Maatta doesn’t remember a couple of the 2017 playoff series in which the Penguins opponents outplayed them for significant stretches but it was the Penguins which won each.
Filppula was a member of the inexperienced 2015 Tampa Bay Lightning which outplayed the two-time champion Chicago Blackhawks, but Chicago became a three-time champion.
“I think the confidence we have in this group is pretty high,” said Maatta. “If we play the right way and stay on the same page, we’re a good enough team to win over anybody.”
After the Washington Capitals victory last season, New York head coach Barry Trotz finally earned a ring, too. His hardware is one short of Penguins boss Mike Sullivan’s jewelry box but Trotz’ win was transformative nonetheless.
The Penguins also had a lot of experience before their 2016 Stanley Cup win, but most of it was bad experience. Frustration, injury, and underachievement marred the franchise from 2010-2015.
Maatta and Cullen are likely correct in their initial unsureness. Experience can be a positive tool if it creates confidence to weather adversity and grounds emotions during dramatic swings of playoff hockey. Ignorance can only go so far in such situations.
The series will be decided by whichever teams plays better. Confidence allows a team to play better and successful experience breeds confidence. There are more reasons why the Penguins will win the series than there are in favor of New York.
And the Penguins Stanley Cup experience certainly can’t hurt, even if Matt Cullen doesn’t know how much it helps.