The Pittsburgh Penguins have clinched their 10th consecutive playoff berth. They’re easily beating teams within the Metropolitan Division and their +41 goal differential is the second highest in the league, behind the Washington Capitals. The Penguins are 9-1-0 in their last ten games and with their dominant 6-2 win over the Philadelphia Flyers on Sunday can finish no lower than the top wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference.
From speaking with scouts and members of hockey operations staffs, I can say with certainty that no team wants to face Pittsburgh in the first round right now. The team’s speed is lethal and the most impressive part is that they’re missing some of their best players in Evgeni Malkin, Olli Maatta, and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.
Setting the Record Straight on the Penguins
The title implies that these Penguins had many who doubted them, and I was certainly one of them, and I’m glad they’re proving me wrong. Earlier in the season, I doubted their ability to compete in the playoffs, I thought under new head coach Mike Sullivan they would play a more entertaining style of hockey, which they are, but I didn’t imagine they would be playing this well.
The concerns that I had were shared by many. The Pittsburgh Penguins as a team have been under an enormous amount of pressure after the early success of the Malkin and Sidney Crosby era. Many expected the team to win multiple Cups and anything less than that was deemed a failure.
That pressure wore on the Penguins and it showed early in this season. You can’t even count how many people thought that Crosby was “washed up” and yet we’ve seen the best of his play. I never doubted the team’s captain, but there was something wrong with the team early in the season. And the early season struggles actually helped the Penguins.
When the team was on the bubble of missing the playoffs, many wrote the team off like I did and some of the pressure was lifted off of the locker room.
To get a sense of the issues and how badly the pressure affected the team we can look back to what Brooks Orpik said when he left the Penguins:
There was something not right last year, I guess stale is a good word. There was so much pressure from the outside and that was something that wore on guys. Something needed to change. I thought guys were affected by the outside pressure. There is a standard in Pittsburgh that is tough. We’d win games, and people would still be criticizing us. People were saying we were winning games the wrong way. I don’t even know what that means, if there is such a thing.
And this went far beyond just the view of one player. One member of the 2014-15 Pittsburgh Penguins told me this off the record at the end of last season.
When adversity sets in and things aren’t going our way, we fall apart easily.
Some look at the Crosby and Malkin era as a disappointment because they haven’t won more than one Cup, but those people underestimate how difficult it truly is to win a Stanley Cup.
The Mike Sullivan Effect
A lot of people want to give general manager Jim Rutherford a lot of credit for where this team currently stands. However, I believe credit should be given to the man sitting behind the bench every night, Mike Sullivan.
With a different coach behind the bench, I do not believe that the Penguins are in this same position. The effect that Sullivan has had on the Penguins is incredible, he’s done something that others haven’t done since around the 2012-13 season, he got through to the stars.
Crosby, Malkin, Kris Letang and Fleury all bought into the message he’s been preaching and their play on the ice shows it. If you’d like a statistical example, take a look at this graphical representation of the team’s five-on-five Corsi For percentage.
And as you can imagine the red line is December 12th when head coach Mike Johnston was fired and Sullivan was promoted.
gmjr made the pens a better team, but this is all mike sullivan. feel like if he says jump, 23 guys would leap through the ceiling.
— rich (@atrichmiller) April 2, 2016
Before you think that this change in play had anything to do with Rutherford, think again. Under Sullivan, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins were off to an 18-5-0-0 start to the season. And the thing about Sullivan is that he’s bringing the best out of almost every player on the Penguins’ roster.
To give some credit to Rutherford is fair for the moves he made this season. Acquiring Trevor Daley for Rob Scuderi might be the best move of Rutherford’s career. Swapping David Perron and Carl Hagelin has worked out for both teams and the gamble the Penguins made acquiring Justin Schultz has paid off.
However, there’s an element of randomness to all of these moves. Scuderi and Daley both were not playing well with their respective clubs and the same can be said of Perron and Hagelin. And Schultz had a lot of question marks attached to his name. He’s always had the raw talent but was never able to pull it together with the Oilers. The Penguins weren’t in love with everything about Schultz, but they saw the upside he has and took the gamble and traded for him.
Obviously, a big reason the Penguins are playing so well right now is that all of these trades have worked out for them. But I think the biggest reason for their resurgence is without a doubt Sullivan’s presence on the team.
I was wrong about the Penguins earlier this season, but without Sullivan, I doubt they would be where they are now. This season is slowly starting to feel like the 2008-09 season all over again and as long as Pittsburgh has a playoff spot, they have just as good of a chance as any team to win it all.