The 2020-21 Pittsburgh Penguins are the champions of the MassMutual East Division. How good does that sound?
It seems like yesterday we were talking about their bad goaltending, lack of structure, and poor overall play. But you have to hand it to ’em, the Penguins turned it around mid-season and continued to improve. A lot changed after general manager Jim Rutherford resigned on Jan. 27. When Ron Hextall and Brian Burke took over, the players started playing for each other more, and it seemed as if everyone was fighting for their job.
Yes, the Penguins had a rocky start, sporting a record of 5-5-1when Hextall was hired, but then, they have a 32-11-2 record. Improvement was the team’s best quality all season.
How Did the Penguins Improve?
Defense. It’s that simple.
The 2020-21 Penguins bought into the defensive game and created offense from there. You know what they say, ‘the best defense is a good offense,’ right? And a lot of the talk about the team has centered around the ‘last line of defense,’ their goaltending.
At the end of January, the Penguins’ cumulative save percentage was .857 — the worst in the NHL. Tristan Jarry’s save percentage checked in at .859, which was tied for fourth-worst in the league. Incredibly, Jarry raised his save percentage to .909 to go along with a 25-9-3 record when their regular-season ended on Saturday against the Buffalo Sabres.
Since Hextall took over on Feb. 9, Jarry had a 23-5-2 record; and only Andrei Vasilevskiy (24) of the Tampa Bay Lightning had more wins during that time span.
Crosby Leads Key Offensive Contributors
The Penguins were not only propelled by their goaltending, but by a handful of key players on offense, starting with captain Sidney Crosby.
Crosby ended the season with the team lead in points (62), goals (24), assists (38), power-play points (22), overtime goals (2), shots (159), even-strength goals (18), takeaways (51) and scored the first goal of the game a team-best four times. Accordingly, the captain was named team MVP for the ninth time in his career. He trails only Mario Lemieux (12) for most in team history. It was also the 11th time Crosby has led the team in scoring, which ties Lemieux for the franchise record.
The stats just go on and on; Crosby averaged a point-per-game for the 16th straight season, which trails only Wayne Gretzky and Gordie Howe for the most in NHL history. He also notched 20 or more goals for the 13th time to pass Lemieux for the most in team history and became the only Penguin to play 1,000 games with the team.
The Penguins’ stars also showed up. Kris Letang, who had a so-so start to the season, finished third on the squad in points with 45 and tied with Tampa Bay’s Victor Hedman for third in the league in points by a defenseman.
The team’s top line of Crosby, Jake Guentzel, and Bryan Rust accounted for three of the top four spots on the team in scoring.
Pittsburgh also had a few pleasant surprises, including Jared McCann (14 goals, 18 assists) and Kasperi Kapanen (11 goals, 19 assists), while getting a complete 200-foot game from players like Teddy Blueger, who led the team in shorthanded goals with three. Cody Ceci, who notched a career-high plus-18, made his case to receive a new contract in the offseason and stabilized the defensive corps when injuries hit early in the season.
The Penguins are waiting to see if they will play the Boston Bruins or the New York Islanders in the first round of the playoffs. Either way, they will have home-ice advantage in at least the first two rounds. A full playoff schedule has yet to be announced as many teams still have games to play.
Jake Deemer covers the Pittsburgh Penguins while previously writing for The Derrick & The News-Herald newspaper in Oil City, Pa. Born in Western Pennsylvania, Deemer graduated from Clarion University in 2018 with a degree in Digital Media Communications and Sports Journalism.