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Pittsburgh could enter the playoffs as the deepest team in the East

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Has the loss of Evgeni Malkin made the Penguins’ forwards uniquely prepared for the 2021 postseason?

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at Washington Capitals
Pittsburgh Penguins right wing Kasperi Kapanen (42) celebrates with Penguins center Jeff Carter (77) after scoring a goal against the Washington Capitals on April 29, 2021.
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Nobody knows better than the Pittsburgh Penguins that the NHL playoffs are a war of attrition.

After all, they entered their last championship season as one of the most injury-ridden teams of the decade, then won the Stanley Cup without Kris Letang when a patchwork defense composed of names like Mark Streit and Ron Hainsey stubbornly backed the team to a championship.

Now, the Penguins find themselves uniquely prepared for that battle. Superstar second-line center Evgeni Malkin has been missing from the lineup ever since an awkward collision against the Boston Bruins on March 16.

In his absence, the Penguins have rallied in spectacular fashion. The team has put up a record of 16-5-2 since March 16 and have tied for second-best in the NHL by scoring 84 goals in 23 games. We’ve talked already about how the Penguins’ defense has contributed to that offensive success, but the loss of Malkin (as well as other key top-six forwards like Kasperi Kapanen) has showcased an advantage that Pittsburgh holds over all seven rival teams in the East Division: they boast an extensive forward depth that has been revealed by series of unlucky injuries.

When ranking production for each East Division team by forwards outside of their top six (defined as the six forwards on each team averaging the most ice time per game), the Penguins soar high above the rest. A division-best 160 of the team’s combined points have been generated by forwards outside of their top six. That accounts for a full third of the team’s offense through April 30.

East Division bottom-six forward production (through April 30, 2021)

Team Number of points provided by forwards outside the top six Number of producing forwards outside of the top six Percentage of team's combined points produced by depth forwards
Team Number of points provided by forwards outside the top six Number of producing forwards outside of the top six Percentage of team's combined points produced by depth forwards
PIT 160 13 0.34
NJD 142 13 0.4
WSH 114 9 0.25
NYR 107 10 0.24
BUF 102 12 0.26
BOS 93 12 0.24
PHI 92 9 0.24
NYI 89 10 0.25

*Note: Washington’s depth-forward points total includes 25 from Jakub Vrana, who is now a member of the Detroit Red Wings.

As a percentage of the team’s total offensive output, only New Jersey tops Pittsburgh, with a full 40% of the Devils’ combined points total coming from outside of their top six forwards. Of course, they don’t have the top-six support enjoyed by the Penguins. After all, Sidney Crosby has been quietly putting up the 16th consecutive point-per-game campaign of his career on the Penguins’ first line.

But to make a deep run in the NHL playoffs, you need more than just a good first line— and that’s where the Penguins shine. They’ve proven that when the inevitable injuries from a playoff run eat away at the number of available forwards, they have a supporting cast to fill those spots— and this supporting cast may just beat out the depth forwards of every other team in the East Division.

What’s more, Evgeni Malkin is nearing his return just in time for the 2021 postseason. Although the oft-injured center has historically seen his production dip following a return from the injured reserve, he will still be a huge boost to the Penguins’ lineup.

That, combined with the host of hard-working players ready to fill in for injured forwards, puts Pittsburgh in an enviable position as they prepare themselves for the first round of their 15th consecutive postseason.

To sum it up— for little reason other than that this is my favorite Malkin highlight of all time— let’s celebrate the impending return of the Penguins’ second-line center with a treasured memory from 2011: