While the Chicago Blackhawks capturing the 2013 Stanley Cup, their second in four years, is no surprise to anyone, the Pittsburgh Penguins were the odds on favorite. The Pens fell short in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Bruins. On paper the Pens were, at the very least, supposed to participate in the Stanley Cup Finals. As close as the Pens may have seemed, they were actually much further from a Stanley Cup caliber team than most of us thought. With that being said, the Penguins’ organization can learn many valuable lessons from the Blackhawks’ Stanley Cup victory. Here are five key points the Pens need to learn from the Blackhawks.
Corey Crawford was rock solid between the pipes for the Blackhawks. The complaints about Crawford’s glove-hand were the media searching for a controversial story. He arguably deserved the Conn Smythe Trophy more than Patrick Kane. Crawford was the backbone of the Blackhawks while outplaying Tuukka Rask and Jonathan Quick.
The Pens had their back-up goaltender attempting to carry them through their playoff journey. Tomas Vokoun was magnificent and no one can question his performance. However, Marc-Andre Fleury needs to be the goaltender to carry the Pens to the Stanley Cup. Any team that has won a Cup in the last handful of years has seen their goaltender steal a game or two along the way. Since the 2009 Cup run, there isn’t a game that comes to mind that Fleury has stolen.
Fleury needs to step up big in the upcoming season and be a leader between the pipes for the Penguins if they want to return to the Cup Finals. There’s nothing else to say, he needs to shine.
Grit and Sacrifice Beats Talent
When we reference Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, we can come to a reasonable understanding that these two gentlemen are two of the best hockey talents in the world. Malkin is a reigning MVP and Crosby should’ve won a Hart Trophy this season had he not been injured. No matter how great these players may be in the regular season, they have failed to step up during crunch time over the past two post-seasons.
If we take a look a Jonathan Toews or Patrick Kane, I’m not convinced that these players would enter into every discussion involving the five most talented forwards in the league. Some folks may be opposed to this point, but I can guarantee Crosby or Malkin will pop up on everyone’s list if someone rattled off their five best forwards in the league. The same cannot be said about Toews or Kane.
Toews and Kane would make a different list. This would be the list of prime-time playoff performers. Toews is made up of grit and sacrifice. No matter how many times he got hit in the head or the face in the playoffs, he kept coming back for more with no hesitation. In the most meaningful moments, especially in Game 6 of the Cup Finals, Toews had his finger prints all over the outcome.
Patrick Kane, one of the smallest players in the league, was found scoring many of his goals right inside of Tuuka Rask’s goal crease. This means he was sticking his nose in traffic areas and willing to get beat up to score a goal. Every Blackhawks’ forward carried this mentality in the playoffs.
The Pens’ superstars have to know when their pretty passing plays aren’t working and when to simplify their offensive strategy. There came a time against the Bruins when Malkin and Crosby needed to put their heads down and drive the puck to the net. The time for pretty plays ended in the regular season. Teams will try to do what the Bruins and Montreal Canadiens have done to minimize the Pens’ potent offense. If the Pens’ stars don’t sacrifice to earn ugly goals, they will never prevail past this playoff trap.
When we examine the Pens roster as a whole, they possess one of the most talented rosters in the NHL. The team is loaded with scoring talent and potential. But for the second straight season with a fully healthy team, this talented roster has failed to accomplish the job.
When we watched the Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Finals, we saw them play a simplified game in the offensive and defensive zone when the time called. At times the ice was choppy and pucks were bouncing everywhere. Despite their talented roster, the Blackhawks bought into getting pucks and bodies to the net at every opportunity. They were content with clearing the puck out of their defensive zone and didn’t try to complete a pass every time.
This is so simple, but when you have a team as talented as the Pens, they feel their talented roster can overcome any obstacle. Not only a few players, but every player must buy into a simplified game next season in the playoffs. Every player needs to throw pucks at the net and want to score a tip-in or rebound goal. The defense of the Pens cannot force a stretch pass or a pass that is not available. The Pens need to find satisfaction in clearing the puck outside of their defensive zone to relieve opponents’ offensive pressure. They have to buy into playoff hockey and simplify.
The Blackhawks were down 3-1 to the Detroit Red Wings, and a game away from making tee times. Instead of folding, the Blackhawks prevailed to win three straight games and win an overtime Game 7 against the Red Wings. This outcome of events brought the team together and made them all believe that they could accomplish any feat together.
When the Pens lost the first two games against the Philadelphia Flyers in the 2012 playoffs, they needed to rebound with a win. They needed to rebound with a win after losing their first two home games against the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference Finals. They didn’t adjust or play with enough urgency to overcome adversity. In both cases, the Pens lost Game 3 to fall into a hole that was impossible to overcome.
There aren’t many Stanley Cup-winning teams that do not experience something as the Blackhawks did against the Red Wings. The Pens are going to find themselves in similar situations until they can prove as a team that they can overcome adversity and win a series that looks to be over. If the Pens overcome unfavorable odds as the Blackhawks did against the Red Wings, then the Pens will have a Stanley Cup caliber club full of belief.
The Blackhawks best defenseman, Duncan Keith, was the team’s best defenseman at both ends of the ice throughout the post-season. The Blackhawks also employ shutdown defensemen like Johnny Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson. These two players had huge impacts on the Blackhawks’ success. Plus/Minus may be a misleading stat, but Hjalmarsson, Oduya, and Keith had the three highest ratings of among defensemen in the playoffs. There is no arguing the fact that they weren’t on the ice for many goals against this post-season. Shutdown defensemen are imperative to winning a Stanley Cup as the Blackhawks proved.
I’ve stressed the shutdown defensemen issue over and over again. The Pens haven’t come close to contending for a Cup since they paid for the services of Hal Gill and Rob Scuderi. The Pens must learn that no matter how many goals or assists Kris Letang scores in the playoffs, his type of game is not going to win them a Cup. The shutdown guys like Gill and Scuderi or Oduya and Hjalmarsson have a much bigger impact. The Pens must take this blueprint from the Blackhawks when it comes to filling their roster with defensemen.
The Blackhawks had a lot of talent, but sacrifice and hard-work as a unified team won them a Stanley Cup ring. They had talented defensemen who specialized in shutting down their opponents’ top scoring lines. They also possessed a goaltender who stole them a game or two by making timely saves. The Penguins need to learn how to mix all of these ingredients together to formulate a Stanley Cup contending team. If the Pens find a way to make this happen in the upcoming season, there is no reason why they can’t contend for a Cup. The organization must humble themselves and take a page from the Blackhawks to accomplish their team goals for the 2013-2014 season.