There is no question the Penguins can compete with anyone in terms of pure talent and it shows year in and year out. It was on display again this season as the Penguins finished the season as one of the top teams in the NHL despite suffering a rash of injuries throughout the year.
While playing well in the regular season is always fun, the real goal for the Penguins resides in the playoffs, where they find themselves once again. After a months long shutdown due to the ongoing global pandemic caused by COVID-19, the Penguins are just days away from beginning their journey to hopefully another Stanley Cup.
For the Penguins to reach their ultimate goal, they will need to excel in a variety of different areas to turn their childhood dreams into a reality.
This applies more to the Penguins power play efficiency than the penalty kill, but both units will need to produce results if the Penguins are to leave the bubble as Stanley Cup champions.
On the season, the Penguins power play was successful at a 19.9 percent clip, good for 16th in the league. That number will have to improve if the Penguins hope to have long term success in the playoffs. While not abysmal by any means, that success rate is a far cry from teams of Penguins past that were routinely near the very top of the league in power play efficiency.
Luckily for the Penguins, when they begin their playoff journey on Saturday with the entire top power play unit healthy for the first time since November. Significant injuries to players like Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel meant the top unit was missing pieces throughout almost the entire season, possibly contributing to the lagging numbers.
On the other side, the Penguins penalty kill had another solid season, settling for 10th best in the league with just over an 82 percent kill rate. Those units will need to remain steady throughout the playoffs as their road to the Stanley Cup will be littered with lethal power plays.
Starting their journey off with a qualifying series against the Montreal Canadiens could do wonders for both the power play and penalty kill to get up to speed. The Canadiens finished in the bottom half of the league in both special teams categories this season.
If there was any silver lining to the NHL shutdown, it was the Penguins ability to rest up and get healthy for a Stanley Cup run. After suffering numerous long term injuries to key players this season, the Penguins finished fourth in the league with a total of 291 man games lost to injury.
The injury list for the Penguins this season could have formed a playoff team itself. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Brian Dumoulin. John Marino, Bryan Rust, Jake Guentzel, Justin Schultz, and Patric Hornqvist all missed 10+ games during the regular season. Kris Letang had a considerably healthy season and still missed eight games early on.
Coming off almost a five month layoff, the Penguins are healthy* for the first time in what seems like forever. While there is no guaranteed way to remain fully healthy through a months long slog like the Stanley Cup playoffs, they will have the manage injuries the best they can and replace players as needed. How well they accomplish those tasks will play a determining factor in just hor far this team goes.
*Nick Bjugstad and Dominik Simon aside
Remarkably, the healthiest unit on the Penguins this year is perhaps its biggest question mark heading into the postseason. Between Matt Murray and Tristan Jarry, the Penguins did not lose a single man game to injury from their goaltenders. While it is nice to health in the crease, the Penguins will also need consistency from whoever is in between the pipes.
Matt Murray is the frontrunner to get the starting nod when the Penguins open the playoffs and Wednesday’s exhibition did little to change anyone’s thinking. Backing him up will be All-Star Tristan Jarry who also performed well against the Flyers, giving up only a single goal during the 3-on-3 overtime.
Whatever Mike Sullivan chooses to do come Saturday will be one of, if not the most important, decision he makes this postseason. The Penguins are supremely talented and can compete with anyone, but for them to slay beasts like the Boston Bruins or Tampa Bay Lightning, they will need premier goaltending.
Murray’s pedigree and experience give him an edge and he has earned the chance to prove to the franchise that he can be the long term solution in net. How long of a leash Murray has is unknown, but if Sullivan does decide to make a change, it will Jarry who is called upon to carry the burden.
There is no question Mike Sullivan has firmly cemented himself as one of the best coaches in the NHL. Given the injuries suffered by the Penguins this season, no one could have blamed Mike Sullivan if the team had no reached their annual lofty expectations, but Sullivan never blinked and had the Penguins on course to contend for another Stanley Cup.
Sullivan is not faultless, but performance behind the bench this season, despite circumstances beyond his control, should have netted him at minimum a Jack Adams nomination but sadly he was passed over. All he can do now is prove the voters wrong by going out and doing what he’s done twice before with the Penguins, win the Stanley Cup.
Guiding the Penguins to another championship will mean Sullivan will have to go head-to-head with some of the best coaches in the NHL has to offer, starting with Claude Julien right off the bat in the qualifying round. Should he lead the Penguins past Julien and the Canadiens, the murders row of coaching minds will only continue in the rounds that follow.