The Pittsburgh Penguins are the regular season East Division Champions and that in itself is a surprising development for me. It probably is for you as well. Maybe it should be.
Even though expectations for the Penguins were probably as low as they have been over the past 15 seasons when the season began I never bought the idea that they would miss the playoffs. At least not in the preseason. So you could say I expected them to be in the playoffs. Just did not expect them to be in first place. But here we are.
There are a lot of things and developments that went right over the past few months to help them get here, and over the next week I am going to look at a few individually. For my money there is perhaps none bigger than the way the scoring depth of this team developed. Both before and after the Jeff Carter trade addition.
This was one of my bigger concerns at the start of the season because the common trend with every Stanley Cup Final (and Stanley Cup winning team) in the Sidney Crosby-Evgeni Malkin era has been scoring depth that extended beyond Crosby and Malkin. That, of course, is not limited exclusively to the Penguins. Look at ANY Stanley Cup winning team, especially in the salary cap era, and you will see a very balanced lineup with four lines that can contribute offense and be ahead on the scoreboard at the end of most games.
The superstars are always going to be the foundation and the players that take a good team and make it great. They are going to be the players you build around and that you need to have to win. Even with that, it can not all be just about them. No matter how good those players are they are not going to score goals every night. They are not going to carry the team every night. They are going to have games, and even stretches, where they do not score goals. The 2009, 2016, and 2017 Penguins all had rosters that were good enough to chip in enough offense to win games when one (or both) of the big superstars at the top were going through a cold slump. My concern with the team at the start is that they would not be good enough to do that.
There were just so many variables. Which version of Jared McCann were we going to get? Could Teddy Blueger, Brandon Tanev, and Zach Aston-Reese repeat their success? Would they be able to add somebody else to play as a third-line center? What would Mark Jankowski and Colton Sceviour do? Would anybody unexpected step forward and make an impact?
They have shown they are in fact good enough to do that. Not only are they good enough to do that, they have done it so far at a level that is nearly unmatched in the Crosby-Malkin era.
Jared McCann has been amazing. Blueger, Tanev, and Aston-Reese have at times exceeded expectations. They traded for Jeff Carter who has been incredible. While Jankowski and Sceviour have struggled, Evan Rodrigues and Frederick Gaudreau have been major surprises. The results for all of that have been remarkable so far.
Let us revisit the table below looking at the Penguins’ 5-on-5 play when neither Crosby or Malkin is on the ice going all the way back to the 2007-08 season, We look at their goal differential in those minutes, their goals scored per 60 minutes, and their goals against per 60 minutes.
Pittsburgh Penguins 5-on-5 Performance When Sidney Crosby And Evgeni Malkin Are Not On Ice
|Season||Goal Differential||Goals For/60||Goals Against/60|
|Season||Goal Differential||Goals For/60||Goals Against/60|
It gives you some perspective as to how good this team has been throughout the lineup and how balanced it is.
Just look at the table and look at some of those numbers.
- The plus-18 goal differential this season is by far the highest mark there, 10 goals better than the next closest season.
- Of the seasons where they finished with an even or positive goal differential without Crosby and Malkin on the ice their results have been prior to this season, a Stanley Cup (2015-16), a first-round loss in seven games (2010-11 — the season where Crosby and Malkin both missed the second half of the season and all of the playoffs), a second-round loss in seven games (2009-10 — the Jaroslav Halak Montreal Canadiens series), a Stanley Cup (2008-09), and a trip to the Eastern Conference Final (2012-13 — the Tuukka Rask Boston Bruins series). The four worst seasons on that list (2014-15, 2011-12, 2017-18, 2013-14) resulted in three first-round losses and a second-round loss.
- The 2.74 goals per 60 minutes mark this season is incredible for two reasons. For starters, it is pretty much identical to the rate they scored with Sidney Crosby on the ice (2.75 goals per 60 minutes) and Evgeni Malkin on the ice (2.72 goals per 60 minutes). It is also in an entirely different level from previous seasons. Before this season the highest scoring Penguins team during that stretch scored 2.18 goals per 60 minutes (the 2008-09 team). Of the top-three teams in that category prior to this season, two of them won the Stanley Cup (2008-09 and 2016-17) and the other one lost to the eventual Stanley Cup Champions that season in the Second Round (the 2017-18 Washington Capitals).
- The 1.99 goals against per 60 minutes this season is also an impressive number. The only years during this stretch where it was lower were during the 2014-15, 2010-11, 2007-08, and 2015-16 seasons. There are a couple of Stanley Cup Final teams among that group.
What all of this means is simple. The Pittsburgh Penguins are not a two-line team and are not completely dependent on the Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin duo to carry them. Their ability to score goals (and prevent goals) when those two are not on the ice may have been one of their biggest question marks at the start of the season. It has turned into one of their biggest strengths as the season has progressed. Given the way the team has played during the Crosby-Malkin era and the teams that have gone on extended playoff runs, that is a very encouraging sign. It does not guarantee anything. It is just simply encouraging.