No team was better than the Pittsburgh Penguins over the final two months of the season. If that hadn’t been clear through the first four games of their first-round series against the New York Rangers, it definitely was after the 6-3 drubbing they handed down to take Game 5 and advance to the second round of the post-season.
Over the final two months of the season, the Penguins dominated opponents with the league’s best offense, second-stingiest defense and a counter-punching attack that could turn even the slightest odd-man break into a goal. Pittsburgh also maintained the second-best possession rate in the league over that span, and it doesn’t hurt that they have arguably the world’s greatest player on the roster in Sidney Crosby, with a supporting cast that includes Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and Patric Hornqvist.
Before the series began, the Penguins were considered contenders. After wiping out the Rangers with relative ease in five games, Pittsburgh looks like they’re among the class of the East.
Even considering everything the Penguins have going for them, some were skeptical about Pittsburgh’s chances of utterly dominating their first-round matchup against the Rangers given goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury was on the shelf with a concussion. And though Pittsburgh’s No. 1 goaltender didn’t suit up for a single game in the first round, the Penguins still looked no worse for wear. Matt Murray, the rookie netminder who started Games 3, 4 and 5, played well in his three appearances in the first round after taking over from third-stringer Jeff Zatkoff, who also turned in two wins of his own.
Even with the play of Murray and Zatkoff, there’s no doubt Fleury is the go-to guy if he can get healthy heading into Round Two. The extra rest days — and the Penguins should get at least half a week off — could help Fleury recover from the head injury that’s ailing him. And after watching the way the Penguins thoroughly dominated the Rangers Saturday afternoon, the thought of a Pittsburgh team with Fleury, too, is downright frightening. It’s hard to imagine the Penguins could improve in Round Two, but that’s the case if Fleury is back.
The only hole the Penguins might have is on the backend where their bottom-pairing defensemen have shown some weaknesses. There’s a reason Ian Cole and Ben Lovejoy have averaged less than 15 minutes of ice time per game, but the play of Kris Letang, Trevor Daley and Olli Maatta has more than made up for any defensive shortcomings further down the lineup. The same can be said offensively, where the depth players, not just the stars, are helping drive the bus for the Penguins.
Before this series, Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust and Tom Kuhnhackl weren’t exactly a who’s who of the Pittsburgh roster. Combined, they came into the series with zero combined games of NHL post-season experience. But after Round One, the three rookies — aged 23, 23 and 24, respectively — combined for nine points in five games. In Saturday's elimination game, Sheary, Rust and Matt Cullen all scored. If the depth keeps firing and the top-liners continue to fuel the offense, it’s going to take a heroic effort to slow down the Penguins. Coach Mike Sullivan has this team heading int he right direction at the right time.
The Penguins now await the winner of the series between the Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers, and no matter who emerges, they’re going to have their hands full with a Pittsburgh team that looks primed for a seriously deep run.