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Doubt the Penguins at Your Own Peril

The Pittsburgh Penguins have had a rough few weeks. But come playoff time, expect this team to put up a fight, writes Adam Proteau.

In the past three weeks, it has not been a good time to be a Pittsburgh Penguins fan.

Since March 23, the Pens have gone 3-6-1, which included a four-game losing skid where they were outscored 18-9. Particularly disheartening was a pair of losses to their Metropolitan Division rivals in Manhattan and Washington – in the case of the Rangers, a team they very well could be squaring off against in the first round of the upcoming playoffs. Pittsburgh was outscored 9-3 in those two games, sending waves of anxiety rippling through their fan base.

But that’s a relatively small sample size. In the macro picture, the Penguins wouldn’t be in third place in the Metro if they hadn’t shown great resilience, especially in the early part of this season, when they were without many key team members. They now have little chance to have home-ice advantage in the post-season, and the rebounding Capitals are four points behind them (with two games in hand on Pittsburgh). If they falter any further, it’s possible they wind up in the second wild-card spot, and will have to take on the dynamic Florida Panthers in Round One.

But with all that in mind, would you still bet against a team that has Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on it? A team that has experienced veterans in Bryan Rust, Jeff Carter and Jake Guentzel? A team that has proven talent on the blueline in Kris Letang and Mike Matheson?

Well, you might bet against them, but I’m not ready to just yet.

Now, I grant you that I’m the same guy who said in the pre-season that I wasn’t totally comfortable with Pittsburgh’s goaltending. Starter Tristan Jarry has done well this year (.920 save percentage, 2.38 goals-against average in 56 games) to put last spring’s epic playoff meltdown behind him, but I’ve never felt great that Pens GM Ron Hextall didn’t go out and get someone other than Casey DeSmith (.905 SP, 2.95 G.A.A.) as insurance in case Jarry gets the yips again. Still, I can’t help but believe the Penguins’ core has another deep playoff run still in them. And it’s well within possibility Jarry grows and plays well for them this time around.

There’s pressure on Pittsburgh to do that, but you don’t think there’s pressure on the Rangers, too? They’ve had their year saved repeatedly this season by Vezina Trophy frontrunner Igor Shesterkin. There’s no question they could be in trouble if they don’t get similarly excellent netminding from him this post-season.

And do you not see the Panthers as having pressure on them also? Sure, they’ve played like the class of the league this year, but this also is a franchise that hasn’t won a playoff round since 1995-96. How quick and how hard will they start squeezing their sticks if the Pens pull off a couple of quick wins at the start of a first-round series? I’m not saying it’s going to happen. I am saying it’s possible it can happen. If all the best regular-season teams won in the post-season, it would be an extremely boring sport to watch and write about.

The Penguins are far from a perfect group. They’re in a place in their competitive cycle where the end of their potency is within sight. But they still have difference-makers who can ratchet up their games once more before they truly fade from Stanley Cup contention. It’s not all about who they play in the opening round. It’s about demonstrating that they continue to have surefire threats. That’s something they’ve often found a way to do with this lineup.

You can doubt the Penguins if you want. Just don’t be surprised if your doubts turn out to be rather unfounded.


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