For the 3rd time in the last 9 years, the Pittsburgh Penguins are off to the Stanley Cup Finals. Long playoff runs tell you a lot about each individual on the team, and especially winning a Game 7 to get to the finals. Let's take a quick look at what each player has brought to the table recently.
Sidney Crosby - After a quiet series against the Capitals, Crosby was forceful against the Lightning, controlling possession and scoring 3 game-winning goals (even if 2 of them weren't decisive at the time).
Evgeni Malkin - Is playing with a lot of confidence. With 2 assists in Game 7, it could be argued he was the best skater on the ice, tracking and stealing pucks, making plays, shooting on the power play.
Phil Kessel - Playoff performer. With 18 points in 18 games (9g+9a), Phil the Thrill has been the most consistent player on the team and leads them in scoring. He's making good things happen on seemingly every shift.
Nick Bonino- has been more than a 3rd wheel on his line, he played the most minutes of any F in Game 6 against Tampa, is blocking shots and moving the puck to the tune of a team-high 12 assists in these playoffs so far.
Carl Hagelin - huge spark plug for the team. Has been productive (5g+7a) and his skating makes a difference. He kills penalties, moves the puck along and has had a great spring.
Patric Hornqvist - maybe the epitome of playoff hockey. Tough in front of the net, and his 7 goals are 2nd on the team. Even when he's not scoring, he's driving the net, taking the goalie's eyes away and making the plays that need to be made to have team success.
Chris Kunitz - Reports of demise have been exaggerated. Or, at least put on the back-burner for now with 6 points (3g+3a) in the last 5 games after just 4 points (1g+3a) in his first 13 playoff games. Kunitz has seemingly found a groove playing with Malkin+Rust and been able to open up space and also find his way to the net and get pucks to the goal.
Bryan Rust - A Game 7 legend after scoring both the Penguins goals against Tampa. He's settled in on Malkin's line, and has used his speed to be able to create chances. No team makes it all the way without depth, and right now Rust is making a huge difference for Pittsburgh.
Conor Sheary - After being a healthy scratch in Game 5 vs. Tampa, Sheary responded with 2 strong games down the stretch. He's mis-cast on Crosby's line but has some speed and puck-skills to offer a unique wrinkle there. And the 3 day rest between series should be a positive for him moving forward.
Matt Cullen - The ageless wonder. Cullen's the Pens best and most trusted defensive center. And his offensive instincts are still there too. A brilliant spring for a star that's still shining bright at an advanced age.
Tom Kuhnhackl - Is barely registering now with no shots on goal in 4 of the last 5 games, but this is a guy coming to and from the rink in a walking boot on his left foot. He's a space-taker right now and now standing out, but also (unlike Pens 4th liners of the past) not killing the team with a lack of basic skills.
Eric Fehr -
Kris Letang - Biggest rollercoaster of anyone. He's high-sticked a guy in the face. And been boarded badly. And gotten suspended for a bad hit. Letang chews the most minutes, moves the puck effectively and is the Pens #1 defenseman. There's time he can make better decisions, but the team wouldn't be here without his play.
Brian Dumoulin - Does everything well but nothing great. His buzzer-beater goal against Tampa was a standout moment. Dumoulin's become a key figure this playoff and is leaned on to provide great play. He's been up to the task this spring.
Ben Lovejoy -After the injury to Trevor Daley, Lovejoy arguably became the 3rd most important defender on the team. And, surprisingly enough, he has been playing probably his best hockey of the year in the past few games in an expanded role. He's not reinvented himself or discovered any new skills, but he's playing well inside of his abilities.
Olli Maatta - After taking the last 3 weeks of the regular season off, Maatta played poorly in the Rangers series, then got a concussion courtesy of former teaammate Brooks Orpik. He returned, but struggled more, seeming to indicate the loss of a season. But Daley's injury put him back in the lineup and he's recorded 3 assists in the 3 games and has been able to reset a tough season.
Justin Schultz - Played 6 games in the Eastern Conference Finals, with 2 assists (both on the power play). He's being used in a sheltered, low TOI role, but he's rewarded them with some decent play and stood out in the offensive zone when the team's had the puck.
Ian Cole - The only Pens regular without a goal in the playoffs, but he's top on the team in blocked shots (39) and second among defensemen in hits (34), doing some unglamorous work to help the cause.
Marc-Andre Fleury -
Jeff Zatkoff - It seems like so long ago when Zatkoff earned the Pens their first playoff win, stopping 35/37 on the Rangers in a time where Murray and Fleury were sidelined. JZ fell back to Earth in Game 2 vs NYR, but he did an admirable job to hold the fort in the first two games of the playoffs when the team needed him.
Through 3 rounds, we've seen so many stories, injuries, goals and turns. And watched the Pens outlast the Rangers, Capitals and Lightning .Three worthy opponents, with one more standing in the way.
And, since it's mainly just fun, after this recap let's allow ourselves to look ahead and who we would predict our Conn Smythe winner from this team are, 75% way to the mission with of course the most important 25% still to be earned.
Team high 9 goals and 18 points. Kessel has been magnificent and probably the most consistent skater on the team in every game, always making his mark. He's not a solid #1 choice at this point, but it'd be tough to say any Penguin deserves it more right now.
A .924 save % and he's beaten Lundqvist, Holtby and a hot Andrei Vasilevskiy. Murray has 11 postseason wins and has earned his way, and paved his team's way to the Cup finals.
Crosby was dynamic against the Rangers, mostly quiet against the Caps and then scored the 3 GWG's against Tampa, including an OT tally in Game 2 that tied the series at 1 and probably changed the course of the season. Crosby's the captain, the leader and is dominating possession. He deserves to be in the conversation, and if he continues to fill the net in the SCF he could easily end up as the main factor in the conversation.
Dark horse: Malkin
Despite coming back from injury in Round 1, Malkin's only 3 points off of Kessel's pace. Geno picked up 2 assists in Game 7 vs Tampa and was arguably the team's best all-around player the way he tracked the puck in the defensive zone and created offense for himself and Rust in that game. We've seen Malkin find that extra gear that no one else can match, and if he has a monstrous SCF, he could well tip the balance to earn his second career Conn Smythe nod.