Thinking back to the first few months of the 2017-18, this team looked exhausted and, honestly, dead in the water.
The Penguins, coming off their miraculous back-to-back Stanley Cup-winning feat, dropped their first two games of the new season, the first to the Blues 5-4 in OT, and the second...10-1 to the Blackhawks. They were also getting regularly beat by eventual non-playoff teams like the Canucks and the Flames. They didn't have a back-up goalie they trusted, their legs appeared tired (they were the first team in NHL history to play 49 playoffs games in a two-year stretch), and the team seemed like it wasn’t responding to its head coach.
It was utterly forgettable, as was most of the first half of the season’s campaign, but, as you’ve probably heard a billion times already, things seriously changed when the calendar flipped.
Remembering that this club possesses Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel, Pittsburgh went from having the worst top-six in the league by goal difference before January 1, shooting just 4.6% with them on the ice and getting only a .906 save percentage (league average was .923%) out of their goaltenders, to having the third-best, top-six Corsi percentage in the NHL at 55.3%. The defense, the sorest spot for this club, has tightened up as well, allowing just 29.3 shots against per 60 compared to its previous 33.4.
Our own Mike Darnay penned a piece back in February about how the Penguins have played the “long game” for the past two Cup-winning seasons, and it’s been confirmed by one of the team’s most notable defenseman that Pittsburgh is completely aware of how differently it plays when there’s a lot riding on a victory. It may be doing that exact same thing for a third-straight year.
“This team is at its best when the stakes are highest,” Justin Schultz said. “And we know it.”
Look to the last couple month of games if you want evidence. The Penguins found ways to beat the teams they needed to beat. Critical tilts with the Devils, Blue Jackets, and probably most meaningful of all, the routing of the Senators that captured Pittsburgh’s 12th straight playoff berth, all featured a team starved for a third-straight Cup. Every glaring fault that was picked apart and analyzed excessively throughout the year was executed perfectly in the games that mattered. It’s hard to think that wasn’t done on purpose.
Those recent games are all well and good, but even when you remember ones back from the early parts of the season, like the throttling of the Flyers (ending in a series sweep) and the beating of all the rest of the teams in this year’s playoff like the Lightning, Golden Knights, Kings, Jets, Bruins, Leafs, Capitals, and so on, the Penguins have always found a way to prove they’re still the sole barrier between everyone else and a championship.
I like to think that a three-peat is as highly staked as you can get in the salary cap era, and the names etched in Lord Stanley’s Cup for the past two years prove that the Penguins come with their guns blazing when a massive goal of theirs is in reach.
To put it simply, the Penguins have had so much success and have tasted the ultimate triumph in the game of hockey so often and so recently, that the regular season has become boring to them. At least, that’s how it seems with some of their efforts in the first 82 contests. They coasted all year and still earned second place in the Metro.
With Crosby now completely zoned in and swatting pucks in with his stellar hand-eye, Malkin and Kessel still showcasing storied seasons, the penalty kill finally finding success, and the rest of the role players playing their parts flawlessly, the Penguins might just be the most dangerous team in this year’s playoffs. They have something to play for once again.
If that isn’t enough to frighten the opposition out of their wits, I don’t know what is.