At the beginning of the year, the Penguins dropped their first game to Dallas, then their second to Arizona, then..well I’m sure you remember.
They lost their first three games of the season. By Christmas they had a new coach and Rob Scuderi was gone. By Valentine’s Day, Carl Hagelin was lacing up on a line with Phil Kessel. And now the speed of the Penguins has throttled teams from the red hot Flyers to the Presidents Trophy-winning Capitals.
The Penguins are scary and will meet the New York Rangers in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. If you’ll recall, this will be the third year in a row these two teams will meet in the postseason and the last two meetings have not gone well for the flightless birds.
But, this year something just feels different. Is it the coach? The roster? The mentality? Well, it’s probably a little bit of everything. So let’s break down how this year is very different from last and how that’s good news for Pittsburgh.
The new Penguins’ coach breathed life back into a dying roster and putrid offense. He’s got Sidney Crosby laughing and Phil Kessel flying. But the most remarkable thing about him is how he can help turn things around. Since his promotion from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Sullivan has led his Penguins to seven comeback victories where his team was down by 2-0 at some point. Twice in the last week of the season has his team fallen behind 3-0 and come back to win.
They’ve stomped the Capitals, they’ve exorcized their Rangers and Flyers demons. They’ve built a backbone. And that is going to be key in a best of seven series. He’s got this group buying in and when they get down or behind, he’s proven he’s got the skills to lead them out of the dark and through the comeback tunnel safely.
Think about it this way, Sidney Crosby is the fuel of this Penguins fire. He lights the torch and when they struggle will put the team on his back. So what then does it say about Sullivan that even when Crosby isn’t playing, his team right now is registering a 53.7 shots on goal for percentage. This number is second in the NHL only behind the LA Kings, even without the team’s MVP. In addition, their score adjusted Corsi at even strength since Sullivan’s takeover is 55.7 or second in the league behind, once again, only the LA Kings.
If Sullivan brought the backbone, Rutherford brought the speed. Swapping David Perron and Rob Scuderi for Carl Hagelin and Trevor Daley would have illustrated this enough. But he also made a commitment to youth and their young legs, taking lessons from how that served the Tampa Bay Lightning last spring. He began bringing in dozens of young guys Sullivan already trusted in waves.
Ever since Sullivan sat down in the head coach’s office, the door has been open rotating guys in from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Conor Sheary and Oskar Sundqvist should be able to drive the trip with their eyes closed by now. And it’s not just helping the young guys, it has kept veterans on their toes with youngsters breathing down their necks to take their roster spots.
The last two playoff series between these clubs have featured plenty of Carl Hagelin. His foot speed and ability to aggressively kill penalties made him a nightmare for the Penguins when he was a New York Ranger. He was one of those players you knew was going to drive your team to the brink in a seven game series.
This year, he’s back but he’s switched sides. His speed and skill coupled with Phil Kessel’s is enough to give opposing goalies nightmares. Last season, he’s the one who sent the Penguins home early scoring one of his two playoff goals in overtime to end the Penguins season. This year, he’s going to be a massive part of any sort of run they can hope to make. Especially since they’ll likely have to play all of round one without Evgeni Malkin. He has proved he plays well with Kessel and despite a sluggish start with the Anaheim Ducks has still put up 14 goals on the season, including 10 with the Penguins.
4. Rangers defense
For better or worse, the Alain Vigneault-led Rangers are known for stifling defense. They block a ton of shots and force teams to make themselves vulnerable. This year the story is the same but the facts don’t seem to back it up. According to Corsica.hockey the New York Rangers have the sixth worst Corsi against numbers at 5 on 5. The only teams behind them are Buffalo, Vancouver, New Jersey, Arizona, and Colorado, none of which are playoff teams. In shots against per 60 the Rangers give up 29.91 while the Penguins give up one whole shot less at 28.98 shots against per 60. Meanwhile, in shots for per 60 the Rangers take an average of 27.65. On the other side the Penguins take an average of 33.11 shots per game. So while the “Rangers don’t give up shots” storyline is still around, its validity against a Penguins team that takes tons of shots and give up few is shaky at best.
They call Henrik Lundqvist the King. The members of the Rangers are the Broadway Blueshirts. Meanwhile the Penguins are, seemingly, Sidney Crosby and a bunch of kids until Evgeni Malkin returns from injury. But appearances can be deceiving. These “kids” and the new additions from the trade deadline have committed and they’ve proved they can rattle the King and turn his Blueshirted men into statues with their speed. So buckle up Pittsburgh, this is shaping up to be a very different series than the last two and it’s way past time to believe again.