How the Pittsburgh Penguins Can Win a Third Straight Stanley Cup
From 1956-1960, the Montreal Canadiens won five straight Stanley Cup championships. The Toronto Maple Leafs won three straight from 1962-64. The Canadiens won four straight from ’76-79 and were immediately followed up by four straight from the 1980-84 New York Islanders. Since then, no team has hoisted Lord Stanley’s Cup more than two years in a row. Most recently, that honor belongs to the Pittsburgh Penguins, who have a realistic chance of winning a third this season.
However, as captain and future Hall of Famer Sidney Crosby has stated, it gets harder for his team to win the Cup each year. This year may prove to be too much for the Metropolitan Division squad, but it’s certainly in the realm of possibilities. Let’s take a look at how Crosby and the gang get it done.
It’s All About the Second 41
A quick glance at the Pittsburgh Penguins’ current record (16-13-3 as of this writing) certainly doesn’t instill a lot of confidence in their ability to win the Cup for a third year in a row. However, as any casual hockey fan knows, almost no team knocks itself out of the playoff race during the first 41 games of the season. Winning streaks happen (see: Columbus and Minnesota last year) and top squads falter down the stretch, giving teams opportunity to boost their playoff seeding (see: Columbus and Minnesota last year).
Right now, the Penguins look like a team suffering from a Stanley Cup hangover – something that didn’t really happen a year ago. And yet, you can never count out a team featuring Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, and Kris Letang. There are factors affecting this team, which we’ll get into, but it’s still a Pittsburgh team filled with leaders and future HOFers. The experience these guys have in must-win situations and playoff series is inarguable.
Forget about the first half of the season which, need I remind you, isn’t even over yet. As long as they win during the second 41 of the year, opponents should be worried come playoff time.
Pittsburgh Penguins Tickets
Preseason: Pittsburgh Penguins at Buffalo SabresKeyBank Center · Buffalo, NY
Preseason: Pittsburgh Penguins at Detroit Red WingsLittle Caesars Arena · Detroit, MI
Preseason: Columbus Blue Jackets at Pittsburgh PenguinsPPG Paints Arena · Pittsburgh, PA
Preseason: Buffalo Sabres at Pittsburgh PenguinsPPG Paints Arena · Pittsburgh, PA
Preseason: Pittsburgh Penguins at Columbus Blue JacketsNationwide Arena · Columbus, OH
Finding Some Depth
There’s no denying that this is a different Pittsburgh team. The Pens went through some roster turnover in the offseason, as every Stanley Cup winner does. As a result, the team’s bottom-six forwards aren’t producing at the level they need to. Without guys like Nick Bonino (37 points in ’16-17) and Matt Cullen (31 points), the third and fourth lines simply haven’t adequately contributed. This leaves all the burden of offensive production on the Crosby line and Malkin line, both of which are playing great. However, they have to find combinations on those back two lines that can generate some goals (For context, the Penguins led the league in goals last year and are 11th this year).
As long as they can find a way to create more chances with those third and fourth lines, the Penguins will start scoring and, as a result, start winning more games. Goals always help take the pressure off of the defense and goaltenders.
Speaking of defense and goaltending…
Limiting Opponent Scoring
Don’t roll your eyes. Of course, keeping opposing teams out of the net is crucial to any team’s success. It’s worth noting, though, that the defense and goaltending has taken a step back this season and has hurt this team through the first 30-plus games. And it’s not like the team was stellar in that regard last year. Despite having a top-quality goaltender in Matt Murray (plus a veteran backup in Marc-Andre Fleury), the Penguins finished the year 17th in goals against. This season, the team is 28th in that statistic and have a minus-nine goal differential.
While many are quick to judge the play of defensemen Kris Letang and Olli Maatta, there’s a clear issue with goaltending. Forget about the .797 save percentage during the short, three-game tenure of Antti Niemi (we ignore outlier data, here). Regardless of his abhorrent play, the goaltending, overall, hasn’t been where it needs to be. Starter Matt Murray is 11-7-1 but has just a .906 save percentage and a 2.95 goals against average. A year ago, his season GAA was 2.41 and SV% was .923.
With Murray currently on injured reserve, it’s been 22-year-old Tristan Jarry tending goal for Pittsburgh. He’s looked inspired during his first real NHL action, posting a 5-2-2 record along with a .914 SV% and a 2.67 GAA. If Jarry can continue his level of play when Murray returns, the Pens can realistically have a dynamic netminding duo just as they did a year ago. That, along with cutting down on giveaways in the offensive zone, will certainly decrease the goals against and help Pittsburgh win more games.
As of December 13, the Pittsburgh Penguins sit in 6th place in the Metropolitan Division. Not what you’d expect based on the team you saw in June, right? Despite that, only four points separate the Pens from 1st place Columbus (the Jackets do have two games in hand, though). The point is: this season is far from over. Remember, it’s all about that second 41. Being a betting man, I’d certainly put a few dollars on the Penguins figuring things out after the first of the year and making another run at Lord Stanley’s Cup.