Back in November, while it was way too early to say so, I and a few of the other effectively anonymous Penguins analysts out there suggested that the team should not even bother making a run at the playoffs, as they were playing all sorts of miserable and inconsistent hockey which led them to the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings. However, time, as usual, makes fools of us all and certainly I have to admit that I sold the team short. Over the next several months, general manager Jim Rutherford would make many moves that needed to be made in order to reinforce the team’s depth, and the team starting playing more consistently in a positive fashion. Despite some of the usual health problems (oh you know, Letang, Malkin, Dumoulin, Schultz, Maatta, Rust, Murray, etc. have spent varying amounts of time out of the lineup), the Penguins have managed to win 44 games and 100 points en route to their thirteenth-straight playoff appearance.
Now the Penguins face the challenge of winning their third Stanley Cup in four years despite a massive deficit in the first half of the season and scuffling along in the last couple of weeks. Part of the reason that they were able to recover includes the fact that the Metropolitan Division once again sent five teams to the playoffs, with each team earning 98+ points; in comparison, the Central Division also sent five teams, but the lowest-seeded team, Colorado, accrued only 90 points. The three best teams from last year’s playoffs – Tampa Bay, Boston, and Washington – return in that fashion and in the same order. The road to the Stanley Cup in the East will go through them, but Pittsburgh has been able to beat two of the three of them in the playoffs over the last few years.
There’s a few ifs to sift through for the Penguins if they are to fight their way through their playoff foes, not the least of which is the health of the team. Thankfully, it appears that the team’s major players, including the recently-returning Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang, have come back to full health, meaning maybe the Penguins can start the playoffs on the right foot. A team with the veteran nature it has will likely offset the rust those guys might still be facing. Then there are questions about the cohesion of the lineup, particularly the continued presence of Jack Johnson on defense. Once Brian Dumoulin returns from his injury, will head coach Mike Sullivan insist on using Johnson as he has all season? (Likely yes.) What of the production of Phil Kessel: will he return to scoring form on the big stage? (Also, likely yes.) Will Matt Murray maintain his recent form? (Hopefully yes.)
In fact, there are plenty of reasons to believe in this Penguins team, but not all of it relies on hope. The big trade which brought Nick Bjugstad and Jared McCann from Florida (for the husk of Derick Brassard and Riley Sheahan – who was better than Brassard, which should tell you something about how bad Brassard was), as well as the acquisitions of Marcus Pettersson and Erik Gudbranson and the promotion of Teddy Blueger have done a fair bit to plug many of the holes in the lineup. And, of course, Sidney Crosby playing near-MVP and Selke-calibre hockey alongside the continued emergence of Jake Guentzel has helped buoy the team through the middle of the season. The forward depth seems to be improved, as does the defensive depth (despite Johnson), and Murray’s looking like the show-stealing goaltender we’ve come to enjoy. The Penguins have been here many times over the years, and they know what they need to do to be winners. It’ll be something special to see them pull it off again.
When I considered how to approach this post, I wanted to make it a Leaguewide preview of some sort. What I decided on was a ranking of every team based on how worried a Penguins fan should be about said team. (Well, at least how worried I am. You can suss out for yourself how worried you should be.) Five out of five indicates the most worry; one out of five, the least. So I’ll start with the Eastern Conference, since that’s the most relevant conference, and then I’ll bullshit my way through the West.
5/5: Tampa Bay Lightning (1st in East and Atlantic; vs. Columbus)
This is a great opportunity to remind everyone that, since the President’s Trophy was first awarded in 1986, the best team in the regular season has won the Stanley Cup just eight times in that thirty-three-plus year span. That being said, these Bolts have been the best best team in the League in a non-lockout year since the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings. On the other hand, those Red Wings lost the the eventual Cup champions, the Colorado Avalanche, in the Western Conference Finals, so history is not in favor of the Lightning. Still, they’ve been knocking on the door of a championship for four of the last five seasons, making the Cup Final in 2015 (losing to Chicago) and making two other Conference Finals. Both times…they lost to the eventual Cup winners (2016, against Pittsburgh, and last year against Washington). So, history is likely the toughest opponent for Tampa Bay in these playoffs…and that should make everyone worry.
4/5: Boston Bruins (2nd in East and Atlantic; vs. Toronto)
The other black-and-gold team in the Eastern Conference has had another strong season in the shadow of the Tampa Bay Lightning, and their reward is an identical path to the Eastern Conference Final as last year: hosting a Toronto Maple Leafs team that was lagging by the end of the season, then very likely playing a Tampa Bay team that beat them in five games last postseason and looks even tougher to beat this year. Congratulations? Nevertheless, the Bruins are also a veteran team with a backup goaltender in Jaroslav Halak who has given the Penguins headaches in the past and has had a better season than starting goaltender Tuukka Rask, who has also given the Penguins headaches in the past. If they can find their way past the Lightning, they’re going to be a major challenge for the Metro Division victors.
3/5: Washington Capitals (3rd in East, first in the Metro; vs. Carolina)
After finally getting past the Penguins in last year’s playoffs, the Capitals won their first Cup, and after the summer-long bender the team appeared to have, many though they would suffer the same post-Cup hangover (literally and figuratively) that many of their predecessors have gone through. However, despite the Metro Division being the dogfight that it was, the Capitals led the division and seem ready for their Cup defense. They had a fairly healthy year, with the only major contributor to see any extended time out of the lineup being T.J. Oshie, which usually bodes well for a team’s playoff hopes. Including Alex Ovechkin’s team-leading 51 goals, the Capitals had seven players crack 20+ goals this season, which is pretty good depth. Still, I wouldn’t say they’re favorites to come out of the Metro Division; as long as the Penguins are around, all bets are off.
2/5: Toronto Maple Leafs (T-5th in East, 3rd in Atlantic; at Boston)
After starting the season 26-12-2, the Leafs faded somewhat in the second half, going 19-16-6, compared to their first round foes in Boston who went 26-10-5. It didn’t help that they were always going to be chasing the Lightning in the Atlantic Division, but the second-half swoon didn’t help to change the perception that they may be able to keep up with the Bruins, either. Their hopes lie in Frederik Andersen continuing to put up very good numbers while the young guns on the team try to outlast a veteran Bruins team that beat them in seven games last season.
2/5: Carolina Hurricanes (7th in East, 4th in Metro; at Washington)
This year’s probable Cinderella team is a Hurricanes team that hasn’t been in the playoffs since the Penguins kicked them out in 2009. The environment they built at home was apparent throughout the year, and it was good for eleventh-best in the League. Interestingly, they had the best record against the Western Conference, so if they do make it to the Cup Finals, they’ll be well prepared. First, they have to find their way past last year’s Cup champions, then likely the Cup champions for the prior two years. If they can manage that, maybe there will be Storm Surges in Raleigh in May and June!
1/5: Columbus Blue Jackets (8th in East, 5th in Metro; at Tampa Bay)
The Blue Jackets went all-in at the trade deadline, and their reward was a dubious 23-17-1 second-half record and a first round matchup with the President’s Trophy winners. They fought furiously to hold off the Montreal Canadiens and they put the Habs in their rear-view mirror for good with a 6-2 win on March 28. To their credit, they did go seven for their last eight, which is never a bad thing, but I have a feeling they are going to serve as a mere tune-up for the Lightning. I guess it’s better to make the playoffs and leave early than not make it at all!(?)
1/5: New York Islanders (4th in East, 2nd in Metro; vs. Pittsburgh)
I’ll get into further detail with the Islanders/Penguins matchup with the Game 1 gameday tomorrow, but, to summarize: they’re frauds. I’m expecting them to be a nice warm-up for the Penguins.
You wouldn’t know it from how things have gone the last few years, but, since the lockout, the Western Conference actually holds the edge in Stanley Cups by a narrow 7-6 edge. (Although the reverse could be argued since the Red Wings are an Eastern Conference team now, but they weren’t when the Penguins met them in 2008 and 2009.) Weirdly though, none but the last three Western Conference champions are even in the playoffs this year and all but four of the last thirteen Eastern Conference champions are in. Yes, it’s been a parade of three different bridesmaids since the Blackhawks won the Cup for the West last in 2015, and two of those three, the Sharks and Predators, have been beaten by the Penguins in recent years while the third, the Golden Knights, have as their starting goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who the Penguins traded away because they decided Matt Murray was better.
That being said, there isn’t anyone in the Western Conference this year that I would put in the same “five out of five shits to give” category as the Lightning in the East. Dallas, Colorado, and St. Louis likely won’t make it to even the second round of the playoffs. Vegas had quite the Cinderella run last year but aren’t quite riding the same energy this year. The Sharks are as old as the story of Cinderella itself and neither of their goaltenders worry me in the slightest. I don’t think anyone knows what to make of the Jets, despite them being the runners-up in the West last year. That leaves the Predators and Flames.
Nashville, of course, fell to the Penguins in the Cup Finals two years ago as the Penguins found a way to win a Cup without Kris Letang. They fell in seven games to the Jets in the second round last year, largely because Pekka Rinne was outplayed by Connor Hellebuyck. Would you bet on that happening again? As for the Flames, it’s hard to believe they flew under the radar since they had the best record in the West and tied the Bruins for the second-best record in the League, but that’s how it feels. They had three 30+ goal scorers and a very decent year from goaltender-out-of-nowehre David Rittich. They’ll face Colorado in the first round then face the winner of San Jose and Vegas; not the most daunting of paths but that second round matchup ought to test them sufficiently. The Penguins outscored them 13-6 this season too, so that would be a fun rematch.