By Greg Price
I have no idea how far my favourite NHL team in the Pittsburgh Penguins will go in the 2017 playoffs, but after seeing the first three playoff games of their Stanley Cup defence, I think their chances are as good anybody’s.
I freely admit, I haven’t paid as much attention to my Penguins this year as I have in years past, simply from a lot of my attention from the fall on was caught up in seeing the resurgence of my favourite NFL team in the Dallas Cowboys, where a young core sprinkled in with veterans proved for at least one glorious season, the franchise looks like it has some resemblance of direction after being rudderless for two decades plus.
When the Cowboys have been known more for a meddlesome owner, visits with law enforcement officials, failed defensive drafts or league suspensions for that long stretch of time with mediocre records, one tends to focus more when a team emerges from the darkness, losing only three games by a combined seven points and benefits from a draft that looks like it has netted as least five starters.
But now firmly focused on the Penguins, I have discovered exactly how hard their season has been. I watched the odd game mixed in with highlight shows and one thing I kept noticing was the injury updates for the Penguins. They easily have had the most man games lost to injury among any NHL club for the 2016-2017 season involving top-six forwards and top-four defencemen. It has actually been a common refrain for the Penguins for many years now, having lost the second-most man-games to injury since 2009 and have still managed to win two Stanley Cups in that time frame.
Look at recent Stanley Cup winners and their man games lost to injury are ranked in the mid-20s or lower overall in the league.
And these are not your fringe players we are talking about with Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang, Evgeni Malkin, Trevor Daley and Olli Maata regularly showing up on the injury report to the point the Penguins lost 20 points in the standings from their Stanley-Cup winning season the year before.
And yet once again as it looks like with last season, different players are stepping up at different times to help the Penguins to the second-best record overall in the NHL with 111 points and a stranglehold of a 3-0 first-round playoff series with a very impressive Columbus Blue Jackets squad as of when this newspaper went to press.
The much maligned Maata was a playoff-leading plus-4 on the ice as of Monday, having to carry more of the burden losing power play quarterback and regular Norris-trophy contender Kris Letang with a devastating neck injury that will see him sidelined for a half year.
Also helping shoulder the load is Edmonton Oilers castoff Justin Schultz who finished tied for seventh in league scoring among defencemen despite being a third-pairing defenceman, all while leading the way with a plus-276 rating.
Then you have your sophomore Bryan Rust who spent a portion of the regular season in the press box as a healthy scratch who has two playoff goals in three games, including one that helped spark a comeback from a 3-1 deficit in Game 3 against the Blue Jackets.
Centre/winger Jake Guentzel, all sopping-wet 167 pounds of him has been a Godsend since being called up permanently in January. Guentzel scored his first goal on his first shot on his very first shift in the NHL. Guentzel who goes on to record 33 points in 40 games, eventually cementing himself alongside some player named Sidney Crosby. That synergy made for a hat trick in Game 3 of the Penguins 5-4 overtime victory over the Blue Jackets.
The famous and dominating HBK third line from last year’s Stanley Cup playoff run (Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino, Phil Kessel) has had to be reshuffled due to injuries to Hagelin and Chris Kunitz and yet chemistry seems to remain no matter the lines head coach Mike Sullivan churns out.
Sidney Crosby continues to be Sidney Crosby as one of the most dominant players in the game, elevating the play of those around him (currently a rookie and sophomore in Guentzel and Conor Sheary) who may very well be second to fourth-line wingers on other teams as he continues to have monster puck possession numbers, and has shown a strong two-way game given his offensive proclivity to go along with being solid in the face-off circle.
But perhaps the biggest sign of all that the Penguins can still make a long playoff run given all the injuries is the one to none other than Matt Murray, last year’s Cinderella story who led the Penguins to the Stanley Cup after filling in for a concussed Marc-Andre Fleury.
This time the roles are reversed, as Murray suffered a groin injury in a pre-game warm-up for Game 1 of the opening round of the playoffs.
Fleury has raced out to a 3-0 record and .947 save percentage in the opening round of the playoffs, including making a save in overtime in Game 3 that very few who have Fleury’s athleticism could have made.
Loud chatter was made throughout the year to trade Fleury given the upcoming expansion draft with the Las Vegas Golden Knights where only one of the goalies could be protected.
Given Murray’s injury that looks to be keeping him out of Round 1 at least, general manager Jim Rutherford is certainly getting praised for not pulling the trigger—yet.
It has all made for a year that so far has the Penguins overcoming plenty of adversity that would have crippled other teams — definitely a recipe that bodes well for the mental toughness that is needed for the grind that is the NHL playoffs, arguably the hardest trophy to win of any major sport.
The main knock of the Penguins during Crosby’s earliest years with the organization was a squad that lacked the mental toughness to win it all.
Powerhouses like the Chicago Blackhawks (Nashville Predators) and Washington Capitals (Toronto Maple Leafs) are currently having their hands full in the first round of the playoffs with their upstart opponents, showing just how hard it is to win.
It looks like the Penguins have not given up their thirst for back checking and blocked shots that was a staple of last year’s Stanley Cup run to go along with the team speed.
It all makes for an NHL playoffs where I may be wearing my vintage sunflower yellow Lemieux jersey a lot along with a couple of Crosbys.
If nothing else, the Penguins have made for an interesting subplot to the NHL playoffs alongside the reemergence of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Edmonton Oilers giving their long-suffering fans something to cheer about with a season that can already be deemed a success in their rebuild.
It’s NHL playoff season in Canada, where there is an electricity in the air and favourite team’s flags waving with pride on cars or at homes.
There’s nothing quite like it —unless my beloved Penguins win it all again, which means it would be just like 2016 as well.
Something this hockey fan would quite enjoy over many a pint and wings watching the NHL playoffs with friends.