Repeating as Stanley Cup champions is very difficult. The Pittsburgh Penguins are back-to-back defending Stanley Cup Champions. That in and of itself is quite the accomplishment. But, as the season progresses, these questions are suddenly legitimate: “Is a third in a row possible?” “Is it even realistic to ponder a three-peat?”
The answer is a resounding, “Yes.” Despite the challenges of injury and the grind that is the National Hockey League’s regular season, the Penguins are once again hanging around, very likely to earn in a playoff spot. Once in the playoffs, anything can happen, including the Pens winning a third Stanley Cup championship in a row.
With 25 games left to play, the Penguins are holding second place in the Metropolitan Division. The Metro has been crazy, tight and clumped together all season. At times a team could be in last place, and at the same time, also be only one or two points out of a wild card position.
It would not be a stretch to say that anything could happen between now and the end of the season, including the Penguins getting hot and in a major groove to take another run at Lord Stanley’s Cup. Not since the 1976-79 Montreal Canadiens, who actually won four in a row, and the 1980-83 New York Islanders who also won four in a row, has there been a three-peat for the Cup. It could happen in 2018.
The Current Penguins Landscape
With 70 points, the Penguins are only three points behind the Washington Capitals for first place in the division. This sounds so familiar, as the Caps and the Pens have been going at it for several years. In the Atlantic Division, familiarity continues with the Tampa Bay Lightning leading the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs. One could cue last year’s playoff participants and be pretty close to duplicating the brackets. With 20-25 games left, barring anything bizarre, the Penguins should find themselves once again playing in May and possibly June.
Las Vegas likes the Penguins’ chances, along with those of three other teams with current odds of 8-1 at vegasinsider.com. The three other teams are the Boston Bruins, Nashville Predators, and Vegas Golden Knights. The Lightning are favored to win it all at 13/2 currently. What that logjam for second place on the odds list means is that the Penguins are not to be counted out. They have played their way to legitimacy again and have as good a shot as three other teams at winning the Stanley Cup, as far as oddsmakers are concerned.
On Feb. 15, nbcsports.com featured a post from another sports-odds website called OddShark. They had the Lightning and Golden Knights as favorites to win the Stanley Cup. But, like virtually every other site, had the Penguins right in the mix with the Bruins and Predators. This statement is compelling from that piece:
The Penguins and captain extraordinaire Sidney Crosby are coming on strongly in the Metropolitan Division and, of course, seem to have the Capitals’ number in the playoffs.
That sentence compels taking a Penguins three-peat very seriously. A team with Sidney Crosby has an advantage right from the start, an advantage that is very strong.
The Crosby Factor
Crosby is often glossed as the greatest player in the world. There are few currently playing who could challenge that assertion. Alexander Ovechkin is a fantastic player and goal-scorer but hasn’t been able to win the Cup. Saying the Penguins have the Capitals’ number could easily be translated, Crosby has Ovechkin’s number. Ovechkin currently has 34 goals and 31 assists for 65 points, a normal season for him. While Crosby only has 19 goals so far, but his 47 assists actually puts him one point ahead of Ovechkin at 66.
Crosby’s resume is impressive; per NHL.com: “In addition to now being a three-time Stanley Cup champion and a two-time Conn Smythe Trophy winner, Crosby is a two-time Hart Trophy winner as the regular-season MVP, a two-time Art Ross Trophy winner as the regular-season scoring leader, and a two-time Rocket Richard Trophy winner as the regular-season leader in goals. The 29-year-old, having just completed his 12th NHL season, has won the Olympic gold medal twice and helped Team Canada win the World Cup of Hockey 2016, where he was voted the best player in the tournament. He also has won the IIHF World Junior Tournament and the World Championship. He may be the most decorated hockey player of all time.”
Having all of that as captain of the tea, without question gives the Penguins a distinct advantage when the playoffs begin. Players who may be skating in their first playoff appearance can’t help but be a little intimidated going in when they see Crosby on the other side of the ice. Michael Traikos made it very clear in his piece Friday at nationalpost.com wherein he wrote:
Since Jan. 1, no one in the NHL has been better than Crosby, who has picked up 31 points in 19 games.
Traikos was making the point that anyone who might be thinking that two Cup runs have depleted the tank of Crosby or the Penguins might want to think again. There is no doubt that repeating or three-peating as world champions in any sport carries with it an added measure of fatigue, both physically and emotionally. Teams that go deep into the playoffs expend a ton more energy on both fronts. But, Crosby didn’t get to be considered the best in the world by being gassed. He appears to be finding his groove and ready for another run.
Traikos also points out that Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel are catching fire, also, noting, “Evgeni Malkin, who along with Crosby and teammate Phil Kessel sat tied for fourth in league scoring with 66 points heading into Friday’s slate of games, has 30 points in his last 19 games. Kessel has 19 in 19.” The Penguins have legitimate firepower that has garnered them the last two Stanley Cups. The forward trio is formidable and could make it three Stanley Cups in a row.
There is another reason that the Penguins are not to be taken lightly when the notion of a three-peat is proposed. The same deep playoff runs experience that might be thought of as leaving them fatigued, is actually a positive.
Penguins Have Been There
Experience is invaluable. It is also a key in understanding that the Penguins have a better-than-average chance at a three-peat. Take the goaltender position, for example. Matt Murray is in his third year. He took the team to victory in the Stanley Cup finals as a rookie. His sophomore season he did it again. In year three, he’s showing that the first two years were not flukes, especially lately.
Jerry Dipaola wrote a few days ago at triblive.com that Murray has weathered the storm of personal tragedy in the death of his father, and is standing tall for the Penguins. Dipaola quoted Murray as saying,
This time of year, I think it’s important to learn how to win games like that, close right to the end.
Murray has learned how to do that in the rigors of two regular seasons and two Stanley Cup championships. This is a huge advantage when facing a team that may be in the playoffs for the first time, or who may have a feeling of being snake bit in the playoffs like the Capitals. Murray has had a challenging year on and off the ice. But, he’s not just that whiz-kid goalie who wowed the world in 2016. He’s a legitimate elite goalie and he knows how to win in the playoffs.
The game is mostly mental, especially for goaltenders. Murray recognizes that and has the emotional ups and downs in his bag of experience to call on to know how to best respond if he makes a bad play or even a good play. The toll of winning and then repeating is real, but so is the experience which cannot be quantified. It gives the Penguins an edge, one that might just be enough for them three-peat as Stanley Cup champions in June.
Mark lives in the Raleigh, NC area and covers the Carolina Hurricanes.