We check in on the Penguins quest to three-peat
Throughout the first half of this season, we have analyzed how the Pittsburgh Penguins look in pursuit of a third Stanley Cup Title in three years. At times, glimmers of optimism have shown despite the Penguins performing below expectations. Fans pointed to the exhaustion of back-to-back Cup runs and a difficult schedule to start the season. Pundits talked about some of the new faces adjusting to the system in Pittsburgh. Right here, we looked at the issues facing the team with relatively simple solutions. However, at the start of 2018, this team clearly needs something drastic to change in order to make a playoff push, let alone a run at the Cup.
As of the morning of January 3rd, the Penguins sit outside of playoff position, trailing Carolina by 1 point for the second Wild Card spot, despite having played 2 more games than the Hurricanes. Pittsburgh ranks 23rd in goal differential at negative 13. They lost 7 of their last 10 games in 2017. They are 8-12-2 on the road. This team has not looked like one touting high-end talents like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang. In fact, none of those 3 players has lived up to their own hype so far this season. The Penguins’ saving grace has been Phil Kessel, who leads the team in goals, assists, and if you understand how math works, that also means he leads the team in overall points.
While people have loved pointing to the team’s lack of depth, it is the stars’ combined underachievement that has most hurt the Penguins. Riley Sheahan is performing at a rate comparable to that of Nick Bonino from the last two seasons. The fourth line may not be what it was with Matt Cullen, but having a weaker fourth line is no reason to miss the playoffs. Some point to the load of responsibility this adds to the first line, but when did Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin ever not carry tremendous expectations on their shoulders? The fact of the matter is that their performance this season is costing the team big time, whether the cause is fatigue from short off-seasons, too many taxing minutes, or everyone’s worst fear: age catching up to them.
The good news about this is that if the stars can somehow find a way to perform like they could in the past, then this team could make a push to at least make the playoffs, where anything can happen. The start to 2018 looked bright the other night as they defeated their cross-state rivals in Philadelphia by a score of 5-1. More than just the lopsided victory, the Penguins got Justin Schultz and Kris Letang back from injury, Malkin and Kessel each put in multiple-point performances, and fourth-liners Ryan Reaves and Tom Kuhnhackl looked like legitimate NHLers while centered by Riley Sheahan since Carter Rowney got hurt. The Penguins looked like the team that won the Cup the last two years, but their problem has been consistency. They might turn in big wins against division rivals (Philadelphia, Columbus, the Islanders, etc.) but then they fall flat against weaker competition (Carolina, Detroit, Colorado, etc.). If they hope to make the playoffs, the team must find the commitment in these rivalry games and bring it to every game, regardless of the opponent.
One positive thing right now is that they have a good amount of division rivalry remaining on their schedule. The Penguins play 5 of their 12 games this month against division rivals. They play 19 of their 42 games in 2018 against division rivals. If they keep up their positive performances against division rivals, they might stand a chance at making another deep run into the playoffs, but they certainly have to look like a new team in 2018 to pull it off.
Looking like a new team might come in a few different forms too. The simplest one is just for the players to play differently. If Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin look like their old selves – or even if Jake Guentzel and Patric Hornqvist start looking like their old selves – then this entire team looks drastically different than it has so far. A more difficult situation is if Mike Sullivan switches up the system at all. He has continued tweaking his offensive lines every game, but does the strategy itself need adjustments? Do the Penguins have time to learn and implement it properly? And then the last option is maybe the most appealing for some who have lost their patience with this team: Trades. Does GM Jim Rutherford need to look at swapping for a true third line center? Have Ian Cole, Conor Sheary, Patric Hornqvist, and Olli Maatta earned their spots on this team? Can the Penguins improve themselves through a trade while staying salary cap compliant?
These questions will likely be answered soon depending upon the Penguins performance in an important upcoming stretch. They play division rivals in the Hurricanes and Islanders on back-to-back days before the Bruins come to Pittsburgh on Sunday. After the Bruins game, the Penguins have a 5-day break between games. This break might be a time of roster moves if no consistent improvement is evident, or it might be time for good feelings if they put together some wins. We’ll see how 2018 plays out for these Penguins, but after one game against the Flyers, things look bright.