Since Mike Sullivan took the reins as Penguins head coach, nothing has been able to stop this team. Not injuries, not the Capitals – and maybe not the Lightning either.
Expressions like “team of destiny” or “peaking at the right time” get thrown around every Stanley Cup playoffs but exist for a reason. The franchise that blooms when it counts sometimes goes go all the way and wins a championship. The 2012 Los Angeles Kings crusaded to a Cup as a No. 8 seed. The 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins looked lost in February and hoisted the chalice four months later. The 2000 New Jersey Devils slumped badly enough to fire their coach while in first place, then put it all together in time for post-season glory.
And the 2016 Pittsburgh Penguins have that same positive juju going. It doesn’t seem to matter what obstacle pops up in front of them. They bowl right through it at breakneck speed.
The Pens sat 15-10-3 Dec. 12, the day they fired coach Mike Johnston. They ranked 28th in scoring. They were 20th in 5-on-5 score-adjusted Corsi. Captain Sidney Crosby had a disastrous six goals and 19 points in 28 games. Hyped off-season acquisition Phil Kessel had nine goals and 17 points in 28 games. He somehow couldn’t seem to make magic with Crosby or Malkin, the best two scoring centers of this generation. Pittsburgh had no first-round pick in the upcoming draft for the third time in four years. It had mortgaged the future for a Stanley Cup push as Crosby and Malkin approached the end of their primes, and it appeared the championship window was closing.
But something changed when coach Mike Sullivan took over. The Pens went 33-16-5. They posted the second-best 5-on-5 score-adjusted Corsi in the NHL from that point onward. Particularly after GM Jim Rutherford traded Rob Scuderi for Trevor Daley and David Perron for Carl Hagelin, they had one of the NHL’s fastest teams on paper, and Sullivan tapped into that. He turned the Pens into a relentless attacking unit, and that included the D-corps and checking forwards. Crosby went bananas, with 66 points in 52 games under Sullivan. Something seemed to click. And since that moment, the Pens have had a strange air of invincibility no matter the roadblock.
Malkin out with an upper-body injury that cost him the final 15 games of the regular season? It could’ve been a death knell with the Pens still fighting for a playoff spot. I predicted it would sink them. For shame. Instead, Pittsburgh finished 13-2-0. A happy accident forced Kessel onto his own line with Hagelin and Nick Bonino, and Kessel found his groove, notching 14 points in his final 15 games. That line’s dominance has carried over into the playoffs.
No Marc-Andre Fleury or Matt Murray in goal? No problem. The Penguins opened their first-round series starting third-stringer Jeff Zatkoff opposite future Hall of Famer Henrik Lundqvist…and won. They plunged Murray into the fray for his first career post-season work in Game 3, on the road, at Madison Square Garden…and Murray won. Got a shutout after that, too. He didn’t lose to the Rangers at all in the series, actually. He’s 7-2 with a 2.05 goals-against average and .935 save percentage in the post-season, and he turns 22 in two weeks. He’s doing what Cam Ward did for the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006 when he was 22. They went on to win the Cup, Ward the Conn Smythe, and Rutherford was GM of that team as well.
Pittsburgh drew the Washington Capitals, the reigning Presidents’ Trophy champs, the favorites to come out of the East, in Round 2 and opened the series on the road. The Penguins emerged with a 1-1 split.
Top defensemen Olli Maatta and Kris Letang combined to miss 26 regular season games, but the Pens survived. An illegal Brooks Orpik hit forced Maatta out of games 3, 4 and 5 against Washington…and the Penguins won two of them. A one-game suspension to Letang meant the Pens would play Game 4 without both their top blueliners…and they still won.
The Pens blew a 3-0 lead at home to Washington in Game 6, taking three straight delay-of-game penalties for shooting the puck over the glass. Washington forced overtime. Caps center Jay Beagle miraculously blocked a puck on the goal line.
And still…the Penguins won. Crosby and Malkin combined for one goal and three assists in Round 2 against the Caps, and it didn’t matter. The team’s collective speed and cohesiveness trumped all.
Now Pittsburgh faces a Tampa Bay Lightning squad that swept aside the Detroit Red Wings and New York Islanders in 10 games, going 8-2. No team has looked as impregnable as the Bolts in these playoffs. And yet, it would feel foolish to bet against the Pittsburgh Penguins at this point. They’re doing what they did in 2009, when they replaced coach Michel Therrien with Dan Bylsma mid-winter. They’ve recaptured whatever they’d lost in recent seasons. And it suddenly feels like they’re the favorites to win the Stanley Cup.
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin