So what’s their secret? Why are the Penguins here, and not a team like Washington, despite their lack of defensive depth and having missed their top goaltender for most of the postseason?
Their playoff road wasn’t easy, but they fought their toughest battle early
The Capitals were, quite honestly, the Penguins toughest out considering the talent Washington stacked against them. Columbus was fading coming into the postseason, and while Ottawa frustrated the Penguins with its system, Erik Karlsson could only play so much.
The Penguins were considerably weaker against an opponent designed to match up well against them. Pittsburgh did not have goalie Matt Murray back, and Sidney Crosby suffered a concussion. All the while, Kris Letang remained sidelined as the Pens defense continued to get worn away.
The Penguins ultimately dispatched the Capitals in seven games despite not playing their best series. What doesn’t eliminate you makes you stronger.
Fleury stepped up before Murray stepped in
Had the Penguins traded Marc-Andre Fleury before the postseason, who knows how the first two rounds would have shaken out. Fleury arguably won the Penguins their second-round series against the Capitals. Likely, 22-year-old backup Tristan Jarry would not have had the same fate the veteran netminder had.
Fleury played well above his playoff career average, with a .924 save percentage in 15 games. We touched on it earlier, but the Penguins having the patience to keep Fleury is the best non-move they could have made. And since they held onto him, Fleury’s trade value has likely skyrocketed thanks to the postseason he had.
When Fleury started to fail in the Eastern Conference Final, Murray was back from injury and able to retake his role. Last season, the Penguins run was defined by a backup admirably stepping in for their starter after an injury. Quite eerie how that came back around during this year’s Stanley Cup Final run.
Their young players came to play
Last year, the Penguins had Conor Sheary with 10 points in 23 games, matching his regular season offensive production in 21 less games.
This season, it’s been Jake Guentzel who has stepped up and made his presence known with an offensive outburst. The rookie has 16 points in 19 games so far this postseason as he leads the playoffs in goals with nine.
The two under 25-year-olds have been key cogs for Pittsburgh success — so much so that the pair are now the top-line wingers flanking Crosby in extremely complementary positions. Add in Bryan Rust, who has played on the second line with Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel, and you’ve got a solid mix of core players and young talent.
And don’t forget the veteran players
Chris Kunitz had his first two goals of the postseason — including the game-winner — in Pittsburgh’s Game 7 double-overtime thriller. Matt Cullen has continued to play at a high level despite being 40 years old. Ron Hainsey has kept the Penguins defense together with nothing but duct tape and prayers.
The Penguins have this incredible ability to pull the best from players young and old, and it shows in their depth scoring these last two postseasons. While the HBK Line (consisting of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Kessel) isn’t together this year tearing it up, the Penguins’ individual pieces have stepped up in big moments so far this postseason.
The Crosby/Malkin factor
Despite being injured and maybe not 100 percent, Crosby’s influence is felt throughout the Penguins lineup. The captain looked absolutely dialed in for their Game 7 win against Ottawa, and his presence provides a spark that no other player really gives. Crosby has shown he can be extremely effective in making plays even when he hasn’t been in top shape, as evidenced by his 20 points in 18 games.
Add a top center in Malkin behind him, and you’ve got the best one-two combo in this postseason. Malkin has been quietly dominating these playoffs, with 24 points in 19 games. The 30-year-old has always had a higher gear for the postseason, and his play-driving ability this season has helped carry the load for the Penguins as they’ve made this run.
And really, it’s hard to count out any team that has Crosby and Malkin as its top-six playmakers. The duo will go down as one of the best in NHL history, and completing the repeat this postseason will only solidify that statement even more.