Great teams don’t always win the Stanley Cup – as the 92-93 Penguins, 95-96 Red Wings or any Sharks team from the past decade will tell you – but they are always the most likely teams to win a championship.
The Penguins just might be great.
They were one of hockey’s best teams before the news broke on Tuesday that Sidney Crosby is coming back.
Here are 10 reasons to start thinking about that parade route in June. Winning the Stanley Cup is excruciatingly difficult, but the Penguins are starting to emerge as the favorite.
We’ll go in reverse order, just for drama.
10. The East isn’t very good
Before we even get to the Penguins, let’s analyze the rest of the league. The Rangers are running away with the conference and deserve credit for their terrific season. They’re really, really good.
But take a look at that lineup. Can the Rangers really score with the Penguins in a seven-game series? I don’t think so. It would be a wonderful series, but eventually, Crosby and Evgeni Malkin will produce their points. They always do.
The Penguins match up well against the Rags.
Philadelphia? Talented, yes. But the Penguins are way better in net, better on the blue and at least comparable at forward. Crosby will never let the Penguins lose to that team in a series, anyway. Honest. He loathes them that much.
Boston? The Bruins made their run, and had a wonderful stretch at the season’s midway point, but they can be had. They suddenly feel stale.
New Jersey? Scary for Pens because they struggle with the Devils, but cream rises to the top. The Pens are just a better team.
Ottawa? Great story, but not built for playoff success.
No team should scare the Penguins when the postseason begins.
9. Special, special teams
It’s not a sexy topic, but it’s worth noting. The Penguins have the best combination of special teams in hockey. Their power play has been around the 20 percent mark all season, which is the sign of a good unit. Even strength goals are hard to come by in the playoffs, which means you better have a good power play. Remember last season against Tampa Bay?
And really, the Penguins’ penalty killing unit is outrageously good. Jordan Staal, Matt Cooke, Pascal Dupuis, Craig Adams, Zbynek Michalek, Brooks Orpik and Kris Letang and seven of hockey’s best penalty killers. And they all play on the same team.
Impressive. The Penguins are totally committed to killing penalties and do it better than anyone.
8. Marc-Andre Fleury
He’s the most underrated athlete in Pittsburgh, perhaps the NHL’s most underrated player and the best big game goalie in hockey.
Fleury is 27, just entering his prime and already has a Stanley Cup ring that’s getting dusty. He is playing the best hockey of his career, finally using his unprecedented athleticism in perfect harmony with a newfound mastery of positioning and poise.
For whatever reason, Fleury doesn’t receive the hype of goalies like Henrik Lundqvist and Tim Thomas. But I’d take him against anyone.
As long as Fleury is healthy, he always gives the Penguins a chance.
7. The three-center model
When you get a chance, research the centers on the Eastern Conference’s top teams.
Then, think about Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal.
No one can match those three. No one comes close.
And those three haven’t lost in a playoff series when they all played each game since 2008 against Detroit. And they were children then.
Now they’re men and they will be very difficult for anyone to stop.
6. Perfect mix of age
The Penguins are still one of the NHL’s younger teams, but they are extremely experienced. Most of their players have Stanley Cup rings, and there is something to be said for this.
Now, look at a few of their players who don’t have a ring.
Arron Asham. Richard Park. Steve Sullivan. Zbynek Michalek. Paul Martin. James Neal. Matt Niskanen. These guys are real pros, guys who would do anything to win a championship. You want this kind of hunger on a team. It’s nice having some players who have never won a Cup.
It’s also nice having guys who can show the way.
The Penguins have both, a perfect mix.
5. Fresh legs
It’s unfortunate that Crosby and defenseman Kris Letang have missed so much time this season. But they should be plenty fresh come playoff time, which is a good thing.
Also, consider that the Penguins haven’t advanced past the second round of the playoffs since 2009.
If the Penguins fell to Montreal in 2010 partially because two consecutive trips to the Stanley Cup Final has sapped much of their energy, then aren’t we to believe that two early postseason exits should leave them fresh? I think so.
4. The Blue Line
Teams often lose playoff series because of deficiencies on the blue line. Subpar defensemen are always the easiest targets for teams to expose.
Where is the Penguins’ weakness? Sure, Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek have struggled most of the season, but they’ve been terrific during the past few weeks. Maybe they aren’t out of the woods, but they’ve been legitimate top-four defensemen recently, and are showing signs of confidence that I haven’t seen from them.
Kris Letang? He’s one of the top five defenseman in the NHL.
Brooks Orpik has been great during the past two months.
Matt Niskanen is really solid
Deryk Engelland is the team’s most underrated player.
Ben Lovejoy is better than you realize.
Simon Despres as insurance?
No weaknesses here.
3. Evgeni Malkin
With all due respect to Crosby, the best player in the world right now is Evgeni Malkin. (It’s gotten weird…I find myself calling Crosby the best player in the world, and I find myself calling Malkin the best player in the world. So, which one is?)
Malkin will likely win the scoring title this season, and it will be a gigantic upset if he doesn’t win the Hart Trophy as league MVP. He is an artist in full bloom, currently the game’s dominant player.
And he has a wonderful track record of postseason success. This is his time to shine, and he knows it.
2. Dan Bylsma
His accomplishments are often lost, and this is unfortunate.
What an exceptional coach. From the day Bylsma arrived, the Penguins have been a great hockey team. He has dealt with adversity brilliantly, has proven himself a fine tactician and has fixed the power play.
Bylsma and his staff – Tony Granato, Todd Reirden and Gilles Meloche are as good as it gets – will have the Penguins prepared this spring, no matter the opponent.
1. Sidney Crosby
Yeah, that guy.
We know Crosby is hockey’s greatest player, and we also realize that he’s potentially one massive hit away from having his career altered permanently.
And we also know that this is Sidney Crosby, and that he’s one of the rarest of athletes, whose legacy was seemingly written by the hockey gods a long time ago.
Miss 14 months with a concussion, career in jeopardy, then return to win a Stanley Cup?
Yeah, he’s that guy.
– Josh Yohe