For the Penguins to have a chance at winning the Stanley Cup once the playoffs begin next month, several guys will have to step up and make an impact. Everyone expects the key players like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang to make their presence known, but the Penguins will also need contributions from up and down the lineup to succeed.
These x-factor players the Penguins will be counting on range from whoever is in the crease to guys who may not even be playing when the puck drops for the first time against the Canadiens in a few weeks. Regardless of how much ice time some may see, they will all be counted to produce when the time comes.
Matt Murray/Tristan Jarry
Based on what everyone seems to think at this very moment, Matt Murray will be in the crease when the Penguins begin their playoff journey on August 1st. That may seem like a head scratcher to some given the year Jarry has put together, but this seems like the route the Penguins are going to take at least to start the playoffs.
We won’t know how long of a leash Murray will have from head coach Mike Sullivan, but should he struggle out of the gate, goaltending duties could be turned over to Jarry in an instant. All we know for certain is the play of whoever in net will be a major factor in how far the Penguins can advance.
Murray has the pedigree with his two Stanley Cup rings and has shown flashes this season of being the goalie everyone thinks he can be. While Jarry doesn’t have the rings, his early season play cannot be ignored even with the regression that proceeded it. Both are also in the market for a new contract this offseason and maybe that can be an additional motivating factor to perform their best.
It feels like an eternity ago now that Jim Rutherford pieced together a blockbuster deal to bring Zucker into the fold. It was an open secret that Rutherford long sought after the winger and his patience paid off back in February.
Since coming to Pittsburgh, Zucker has posted 12 points in 15 games spending most of his time on the top line alongside Sidney Crosby. With Jake Guentzel now healthy, it appears Zucker will slide to the second line with Evgeni Malkin based on early line combinations from training camp.
Whoever Zucker is playing with, the Penguins will be relying on him to continue playing the way he was before the shutdown occurred. He meshed well with Crosby, so hopefully him and Malkin can build some chemistry before the games start counting once again.
While Malkin will be on a learning curve with Zucker on his left wing, he will have a familiar face skating on his right. Bryan Rust has been a permanent fixture alongside Malkin this season and it makes sense for Sullivan to continue that trend in the playoffs as it clearly worked for Rust.
It’s a real shame for Rust that the regular season was unable to be completed, sitting only three goals shy of hitting 30 goals for the first time in his career. Even so, Rust set career bests in every offensive category and showed no signs of slowing down. What is even more impressive is Rust did all of that while missing 14 games during the regular season.
Regression is due to hit Rust at some point, we just have to hope it holds off for a little while longer. He was shooting at almost an 18% percent clip this season, well over his career high and unsustainable for even the best goal scorers. Luckily for the Penguins, Rust has a knack of showing up in the playoffs and they will need more of that once again this summer.
The fourth line combination of Zach Aston-Reese, Teddy Blueger, and Brandon Tanev has been a nightmare for opposing teams this season. Defensively they are a juggernaut and offensively they are no slouch either. They might not be as lethal with the puck as the ‘HBK’ line was in 2016, but they can generate matchup problems against anyone with their speed and tenacity.
Being able to deploy a line like this gives Mike Sullivan some extra flexibility to spread ice time around and give his big guns a little more time to rest. Since winning the Cup in 2017, the Penguins have been sorely missing a depth line like this that features speed rather than grit and this combination will play a major factor if the Penguins are to be crowned champions again.
Justin Schultz/Jack Johnson
When the Penguins return to game action next month, it will be the first time they have played with a fully healthy defensive core since Brian Dumoulin went down in November. There was a short stint before the season hiatus back in March, but for the most part, the Penguins have been shorthanded on the blue line almost no season.
This new found health means the top two defensive pairings of Kris Letang/Brian Dumoulin and Marcus Pettersson/John Marino will do most of the heavy lifting. Filling the cracks will be left up to the much maligned third pairing of Justin Schultz and Jack Johnson.
Simply having this pairing to eat up some ice time so the other can rest should provide some sense of relief to Penguins fans rather than having either of them eating up big chunks of playing time like they were earlier in the season.
As long as Mike Sullivan can shelter them, all this pairing has to do is keep its head above water and they will be doing their part in helping the Penguins.
Although the Penguins will be entering the playoffs at almost full health, we must remember this is still the 2019-20 Penguins team that lost 291 mans games to injury. At every turn it seemed like another player was going down to injury and missing large chunks of time to boot.
With everything that has been going on, the NHL and NHLPA agreed to expanded rosters for the return to play, giving teams more flexibility should they incur injuries. Given the nature of hockey, its expected those injuries will come and teams will rely on reserves to step up and fill roles. The Penguins will be no exception to that and given how this season is gone you might just assume the replacements will be needed sooner rather than later.
The Penguins selection of reserves features a handful of recognizable names that could very well see playing time. Reserve players with NHL experience include Juuso Riikola, Sam Lafferty, Anthony Angello, Casey DeSmith, Adam Johnson, and Chad Ruhwedel. When these players are called upon, and they will be, the Penguins will be looking for them to not only fill a role but succeed while doing so.
Who is the Penguins biggest playoff X-Factor?
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Matt Murray/Tristan Jarry
Justin Schultz/Jack Johnson
Other (Put it in the comments)