As the Pittsburgh Penguins completed a sweep of back-to-back games against the Montreal Canadiens and the New York Islanders last night, it looks as if the 5-1 loss to the Florida Panthers Monday night was merely a blip on the radar that is the Penguins machine marching towards another Stanley Cup playoffs. As exciting as their play has been this season, haven’t we seen this song and dance before? The short story reads like this: The Penguins rack up the regular season points only to falter in the playoffs when it counts the most.
The question that remains is simple. Is this team any different from the past four versions that were unable to live up to the standard of expectation that has come with the “Cup or Bust” mantra that now resides within the town of Pittsburgh? In the past the story had always been that the Penguins can score with anyone in the NHL, but can they keep teams off the scoreboard? Whether it was shoddy defensive play or a shaky Marc Andre Fleury, there were always question marks on the back end of the team. Think back to last season when the Boston Bruins stifled that high powered Penguins offense not giving up any points to the “two-headed monster” of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Question marks still abound with this team as it approaches the Olympic break, but is this team different?
The eye test shows that this team is different. Although careless with the puck too much for anyone’s standards, this team seems to have shown an emphasis on defense and a willingness to change their game to defeat opponents. They can win the up and down game as shown against the Islanders and still grit out the 2-1 games against teams like the New Jersey Devils.
Statistics speak to the team being more equipped for postseason play as well. Despite their 36 victories and 74 points that leads the Eastern Conference as well as the Metropolitan Division, the Penguins’ numbers support a team that seems to have transformed themselves from an offensive enigma to a team prepared for the grind of postseason play.
The Penguins’ special teams is by far one of the biggest improvements in this team from last season. They have the No. 1 ranked power play and penalty kill in the NHL. On top of the best special teams in the league, it isn’t as if the Penguins’ offense is slowing down. Ranked fourth in the NHL in goals per game averaging 3.22 per contest, the Penguins still have that ability to fill the net with goals, and that all starts and ends with the play making ability of their Captain who has garnered 72 points already this season.
If there is still a weakness on this team it still lies on the defensive side of the ice. The Penguins are giving up 2.45 goals per game which has them ranked 11th amongst NHL teams. Now some would say that is nit picking considering they are nearly in the top 10 in the NHL defensively, but let’s be honest; if this team needs to improve anything it is on the defensive end.
So is this team more equipped for a postseason run? I think so, but a lot can change between January and May. Only time will tell what has in store for this 2013-14 Pittsburgh Penguins team, but one thing is for sure: they are a pretty darn good hockey team.