All season I’ve been trying to figure out what this Pittsburgh Penguins team is,and every single time I think I’ve figured it out I see something else that makes me change my mind.
Once I’ve changed my mind, I go back to seeing the positive things I saw before and change my mind again.
And once I’ve changed my mind again, I hit myself over the head with a frying pan and give up trying to figure it out because I’m probably going to be wrong anyway.
Let’s look at it like this. On one hand, I kind of like the way they are playing over the past two months and think, depending on which divisional bracket they start the playoffs in, they are totally capable of making some noise and going on a deep run because they have — when they are healthy — impact talent all over the lineup and a goalie that is playing truly great hockey.
On the other hand, I kind of don’t like the way they are playing at times because the inconsistency is maddening and I’m not really sure they are ever going to be fully healthy, and because of that I could see them getting bounced in the first round.
Then it finally hit me: This team has the best and worst qualities of every recent Penguins team we have seen.
You want injuries? They have injuries!
The whole Kris Letang situation is starting to get a little frightening, and the longer “day-to-day” goes on without him returning to full-contact practice (or the lineup) is going to make me wonder when, or if, we will see him playing again this season.
We saw the Penguins go through the entire 2017 postseason without him and, shockingly (to me, anyway) actually win the Stanley Cup without him. They did it on the strength of forwards that could shoot the lights out and goaltending that masked all of their flaws defensively. The critics of that team (as many critics as can exist for a team that won a championship) say it was an unsustainable run that probably can’t be duplicated. And to that I say ... probably. But so what? Pretty much every team that wins a championship has an unsustainable run of play at the right time where everything clicks for them. I would also argue (and did argue at the time) that the Penguins are the type of team that can get through that sort of stretch because of the makeup of their roster.
When you have Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, Jake Guentzel, and the collection of forwards they have you don’t need sustained offensive zone pressure to generate consistent offense because those guys don’t need that. They can capitalize on one chance.
Add in a goalie that is capable of getting white-hot and carrying the team, and you have a shot. I think the Washington Capitals are the same type of roster. The Toronto Maple Leafs might be, too. Sometimes high-end talent wins out and overcomes other flaws.
It may not always result in a championship, but it can result in competitive hockey and a deep playoff run.
I can see that version of the 2017 Penguins happening here.
When they are healthy with Letang, Malkin, Brian Dumoulin, and everybody else on the roster at their disposal I can also see them being capable of overwhelming teams the way the 2015-16 team did, especially after the trade for Jared McCann and Nick Bjugstad, as well as the call-up of Teddy Blueger, to balance out the depth. They may not be as fast as that 2016 team, but when healthy I saw signs of this team being able to dominate the puck and wear teams down by sheer volume. That element is still there. They just need the horses in the lineup that can run it.
BUT! There is more!
Tuesday’s game, and even several other games over the past couple of weeks, have been reminiscent of that miserable 2014-15 playoff appearance when the Penguins barely had enough defenders to put an NHL lineup on the ice and were ultimately done it by that in the first-round. Erik Gudbranson and Jack Johnson may be playing better lately, but having them, Olli Maatta, and Zach Trotman making up two-thirds of your blue-line severely limits the mobility of your team. If you cant get the puck out of the zone and start the offense from your back end, you are going to be in some trouble. If Letang and Dumoulin don’t return soon, or for the start of the playoffs, I could see this being a big problem.
Heck, go back to the first half of the season and you have a little sprinkle of the 2017-18 team in terms of goaltending due to the slow starts from Matt Murray and Casey DeSmith (since better!), and the 2013-14 team where nobody after the first two lines could score (also better ... now they just need to get the top two lines going again).
Put it all together and you just have a great big giant mystery.
I still think their potential ceiling is significantly higher than it looked to be a month or two ago, and it would not shock me if they did something really big over the next couple of months.
It also would not surprise me if they were starting preparations for next season in a couple of weeks.
Look closely and all of the recent teams are in there. It is just a matter of which one we get on a given night or a given stretch of games that will determine how this season goes. The possibilities are endless.