There's talk each season of flipping the so-called switch. It's a phrase generally reserved for the league’s star players and its best teams, especially those with a tendency to be at their best when the stakes are highest. And while there's no physical evidence of such a switch existing, neither in the human anatomy or in the 31 dressing rooms around the league, sports scientists who have a desire to discover how said switch gets flipped might want to start the research with the Pittsburgh Penguins’ performance since mid-December.
Up until that point in the season, the Penguins’ season had been, shall we say, underwhelming. Only months removed from winning the second of back-to-back Stanley Cups, Pittsburgh had been no better than a wild-card contender in the Eastern Conference. They sat sixth in the Metropolitan, a mere two points ahead of the division-worst Carolina Hurricanes and Philadelphia Flyers, and had lost four of their past five games while winning only nine games during a 21-game stretch. Things were ugly in Pittsburgh, and there were far more questions than answers.
But then came a Dec. 16 meeting with the Arizona Coyotes, a 4-2 victory that, in the grand scheme of things, didn't seem to matter much. However, the Penguins proceeded to build on that contest by rattling off eight wins in their next 12 outings and have carried that momentum on through to Friday's meeting with the Stars, having won five of their past six games and suddenly looking like one of the top contenders in the East once again. In fact, after only narrowly avoiding the division basement less than two months ago, Pittsburgh skates into Dallas with the opportunity to move within three points of the Metropolitan lead.
That the Penguins have played so well over the past two months, or that they’re in the second-best team in the entire league since Jan. 1, isn't the headline here. Rather, it's the way in which Pittsburgh — and their trio of superstar forwards — have picked apart nearly every opponent they've come across en route to becoming a true-blue threat to win the Stanley Cup for a third straight season. And the discussion of the Penguins’ dominance has to begin with Evgeni Malkin.
To say Malkin has been good over the better part of the past two months is to say that the Grand Canyon is a pretty big ditch. It's that grand an understatement. Since Dec. 15, Malkin has been otherworldly. In 22 games, he has racked up 21 goals and 34 points. Over that same span, there is no player within four goals of his total, nor is there a single skater who is within five points of Malkin. Of course, there are some statistical anomalies that have helped him achieve such heights over his past two months of play. For instance, he has an astronomical 27.6 shooting percentage and has been a monster on the power play, registering eight of his goals and 16 of his points since Dec. 15 with the man advantage.
That doesn't make what he has done any less impressive, mind you, nor does it make it any less mind-blowing that even if Malkin hadn't started his season until mid-December, he'd still rank 22nd in goals and have more points than all but 92 players. Including his first two-plus months of play, though, he's much higher on both list: he ranks second in goals with 30 on the season and his 62 points are tied for fourth-most in the league.
But what’s remarkable is that it can't actually be said that Malkin is the lone driving force behind Pittsburgh's rapid rise up the standings. You know that statistic about no player being within five points of Malkin? Well, there are two players within six: Sidney Crosby and Phil Kessel. Yes, the three highest scorers in the NHL since mid-December are all Penguins.
For Kessel, his play over the past two months is the continuation of what was a hot start to the season. He began the year as one of the only Pittsburgh stars playing like a game-changing talent, and his nine goals and 28 points over the past 22 games has simply seen him add to what was already looking like a career year. All told, Kessel has 24 goals and 65 points in 55 games, which should see him hit the 30-goal plateau for the sixth time in his career and finish the campaign with more than 90 points for the first time. Realistically, he could even flirt with 100 points, which would be 18 more then his previous career high.
And while Malkin has been the goal-scoring threat and Kessel has delivered balanced scoring, Crosby has been a playmaker extraordinaire. In the past 22 games, the Penguins’ captain has 24 assists, more than any other player over the same span, and has turned what was, by his standards, a fairly pedestrian season into yet another campaign in which he's in the conversation for the league scoring title. Sure, the goals aren't coming as often as Crosby might like, but he still has 17 tallies this season and is staring down a 10th season with at least 25 goals.
The big question now is how long the Penguins’ trio can continue to perform at this level. With two months remaining until the post-season begins, Pittsburgh would love nothing more than for Malkin, Kessel and Crosby to continue to decimate every defense they come across. The reality is, though, the key to unlocking the Penguins’ full three-peat potential isn't just in having their three-headed scoring at an all-world rate. Instead, Pittsburgh needs two things to tip the championship scales further in their favor.
First, the Penguins will need to find some of the same depth that they discovered over the past two seasons, because it can often be the secondary players who make the greatest difference in the playoffs. But second – and most importantly – Pittsburgh needs goaltender Matt Murray to rediscover the form that has already made him two-time Stanley Cup champion this early in his career and the same level of play that made longtime starter and fan-favorite Marc-Andre Fleury expendable in the off-season. And if both of those happen while the Penguins’ top trio continues to terrorize the opposition, there may not be a single team league that can stop Pittsburgh.
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