The Pittsburgh Penguins are going to the playoffs.
After a season that has seen a coaching change, significant injuries, and a sizeable roster makeover, the Penguins are hitting their stride at exactly the right time.
If they are wise, the rest of the Eastern Conference should be watching the situation unfold in Pittsburgh, and hoping that they don’t have to face the hottest team in the league.
Today we are going to look at the top-5 reasons that the NHL should be shaking in their skates at the thought of playing the Penguins.
#5. Mike Sullivan
The Penguins are a team that in recent years has dominated the regular season, only to flounder during the playoffs. Sullivan has completely changed the mindset of his team, and such breakdowns aren’t likely to happen.
The former Wilkes-Barre coach will keep his players focused and disciplined. He has established expectations but allows the players to play their game.
In addition to the culture change, Sullivan is an excellent game manager. He matches up lines well and adjusts his game plan to counter what his opponent is doing. He does this better than Dan Bylsma ever did. Nobody could have asked for a better fit behind the bench than Sullivan, and he may be exactly what the team was missing during all of those playoff failures.
#4. Phil Kessel
What can we say about Kessel’s recent play? Amazing? Driven? Prolific? All would apply.
The way that he is playing, when you see him streak down the wing and take a hard wrist shot, it’s almost a given that it is going to go in the net. Yes, Kessel has been known to be streaky, but this feels different. He is playing with a roster loaded with talent. Not to mention that he is on the way to the playoffs, a place where he hasn’t been too many times in recent years.
— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) April 2, 2016
When Evgeni Malkin went down with a long-term injury, most people pointed to Kessel as the player that needed to step up the most. Boy has he ever. Carl Hagelin and Nick Bonino are playing well alongside the former Bruin and Maple Leaf, and he is benefitting from them as well.
Kessel is in a good place right now with no indication that he is slowing down.
#3. The Netminders
So let’s assume that Marc-Andre Fleury will return from his concussion before the playoffs begin. Fleury and Matt Murray have become the best goalie tandem in many years. Fans should be more than comfortable with either in net.
Fleury could have easily won the team MVP award, and has consistently been one of the best goalies in the league.
Fleury save pic.twitter.com/95m074EJ6l
— Stephanie (@myregularface) January 27, 2016
The 21-year-old Murray has played like a veteran. He is coming off of his first career shutout against the Islanders on Saturday, putting to rest concerns about filling in for Fleury.
The two goalies really feel like a #1 and a #1A situation. Both are extremely talented and capable of leading the Penguins in a deep playoff run.
#2. Kris Letang
Letang is the Penguins best defenseman since Paul Coffey.
He is the unquestioned leader of the Penguins blue line, and their most talented defender offensively and defensively. Letang can change the course of the game seemingly at will.
The only thing that could hold him back is fatigue from the sheer volume of minutes that he plays. But his outstanding conditioning seems to remove that concern.
Letang shootout goal pic.twitter.com/EqTzm4Qxzb
— Stephanie (@myregularface) March 30, 2016
I have frequently said that Letang is the best blueliner in the NHL, and I stand by that. There are few players in the league that can single-handedly drive a team to victory like him.
In many ways, he is like the Troy Polamalu of hockey. A breed of player all his own. Someone who needs to be accounted for every time he steps on the playing surface. But how do you account for such a unique talent?
#1. Sidney Crosby
What more can I say about Crosby that hasn’t already been said?
Crosby has won nearly every award and championship that exists. Every situation is “been there done that” with “Sid the Kid”.
Crosby’s 2nd goal pic.twitter.com/TTeaXpcUox
— Stephanie (@myregularface) March 18, 2016
But this year is different. Never before have I seen Crosby so motivated. So completely determined that, like Letang, he can completely take over a game himself. Crosby may have benefitted the most from Sullivan’s promotion, as the new system seems to fit Crosby’s game perfectly.
The man is on a mission. Too many playoff failures. Too many opportunities squandered. Don’t think that he doesn’t take each misstep personally.
He wasn’t chosen for the All-Star game. Connor McDavid was the NHL’s shiny new toy. Maybe the worst was Crosby’s own fans turning against him.
The Crosby that has disappeared during the playoffs is gone, replaced with the best version of him that you will see.
Look out hockey world, number 87 is just getting started.
The eventual return of Evgeni Malkin.
A high-flying Penguins team + a fresh Malkin = scary for the rest of the league.
Did I miss anything?
Until next time…Doobie-Doobie-Doo…