The NHL is now on full alert that the Pittsburgh Penguins are back in playoff form.
It appears that the loud celebrations of New Year’s have awoken the sleeping giant. The once-sputtering Pittsburgh Penguins are beginning to fire on all cylinders, winning games and looking like the buzzsaw they were over the past two Stanley Cup Championship runs.
The Penguins are not playing perfect hockey by any stretch. Kris Letang continues to infuriate some fans (well, me mostly) with lackluster play and poor decisions. However, his mistakes are way down from this time a month ago – and that’s a good thing. The defense continue to make small but definite improvements. More shots from the points, fewer odd man breaks – all trending in the right direction. The oft-maligned bottom six are starting to contribute, and Jake Guentzel and Ryan Reaves are showing signs of life.
In short, the Pens look like favorites again. I’m not gonna lie, it feels like months since I saw the Pens swarming in the attacking zone, possessing the puck like demons, and shredding the opposition like…a buzzsaw. Oh wait – it HAS been months. Man, it’s nice to see again.
So what happened? Only the men behind the bench truly know, but I think it’s a simple combination of
- The games are starting to matter.
- The players have started to really focus.
- The coaches have simplified the game.
On the first front, you know it has to be hard to go 100% in November, with every team gunning for you. Spring is where champions blossom – it isn’t ideal, but I’d rather have the Stanley Cup champs than the best regular season record. To the second point, you can see the stars shining now. To be fair, Phil Kessel has had a great season, but when Crosby, Malkin, and the supporting cast begin to click, jaws begin dropping.
Simplification of the game has come in the form of settling down the line shuffling (a little – Coach Sullivan loves to mix and match to keep things interesting), but more so by starting to coach down the style and structure of play. High-end creative talent can sometimes get too fancy – Pens fans know this all too well. It’s not a bad thing, but tends to disrupt the continuity of play – especially the bottom six guys. The flow is back and the stars are playing within the system.
So do we start the Three-peat celebration? Not quite yet. True, the Pittsburgh Penguins are back in the mix, and some may say the favorite (ok, I say it), but the rest of the league isn’t ready to forfeit just yet. There are still lots of games to be played. While there is virtually no chance (anymore) that the Penguins will miss the playoffs (did anyone REALLY think that?). Here are a few loose ends they might need to address:
That Third Line
It’s been a favorite topic, especially in the sports media, about the Pittsburgh Penguins need to find a third-line center. I would put it another way – I think the third line needs an identity. More than any single player, a hockey line excels when they know what they are good at and put in a position to do it. I am not sure what Sullivan wants from his third line specifically, but I know he would like to see scoring punch on all four lines. I just want to see a good fore-check and superb back-check. That third line should play a low-risk, some-reward style. And I think they are almost there.
Murray is Murray
More than the numbers, you can see that Matt Murray is rounding into form. He needs the Pens to play a bit better defensively, and that is coming too. The main way to gauge the play of the big net-minder is by the size of his rebounds. They are getting smaller, and so his is GAA. And that’s a very good thing.
Stars Having Fun
It’s overlooked sometimes, but star players are people too. Most people are at their best when they are doing what they love. Although Malkin and Letang rarely smile, I am liking the grins I see from Kessel and Crosby, along with Guentzel, Dominick Simon, and even Zach Aston-Reese. A little fun goes a long way, and what is more fun than winning?
Penguins Prognostication – Winning
It’s been a while since my last post, so as an extra bonus, here are my thoughts on what to expect from the Pens for the rest of February. I think you will see slow, slight improvement in all areas. Lots of points scored. I don’t think you will see a big trade. At least one young player will really start to shine (pick ’em – Guentzel, Simon, Aston-Reese?). The welcome return of Patric Hornqvist.
Finally, the prediction I have been waiting months to proclaim – The Return of the Buzzsaw.
Enjoy the games.