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Penguins' rocky road to a second straight Stanley Cup Final is an ode to just how good they are

Injuries have not stopped the Penguins from a chance at repeating as Stanley Cup champions.

Ottawa Senators v Pittsburgh Penguins - Game Seven Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

It’s no secret the Pittsburgh Penguins are a weaker club than what they put forth for their last Stanley Cup Final run just a season ago.

And yet, the Penguins are four wins away from repeating as champions, something neither the Chicago Blackhawks nor the Los Angeles Kings did in their time as the NHL’s top dog.

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

Pittsburgh Penguins v Washington Capitals - Game Seven Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

En route to the Stanley Cup Final, the Penguins took down the Blue Jackets, Capitals, and Senators in that order.

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

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at Carolina Hurricanes James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

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

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at Vancouver Canucks Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

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

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Ottawa Senators at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

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

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at Calgary Flames Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

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.