It’s 2016. The style of hockey played today is different than the style played a short seven years ago, the Penguins last Stanley Cup in 2009. But this years Penguins team isn’t the only team getting help from more than just their stars. A shutdown pair in that season would’ve included Hal Gill and Rob Scuderi, physical defenseman who couldn’t move the puck one iota. A shutdown pair in 2016 consists of Ian Cole and Justin Schultz, two defenseman who can skate well and move the puck with the best of them while making the necessary solid blue line play. What else makes these teams similar? Let’s dive in.
Going back to 2009, the Penguins third line that consisted of Matt Cooke, Jordan Staal, and Tyler Kennedy was considered “The Best Line in Hockey” at the time. Each component of that line played all 24 games the Penguins needed to win that elusive Cup. That line totaled 25 points. That’s a pretty solid number. The line wasn’t known entirely for its offensive contributions though. They managed to be a +20 rating overall, never lapsing and focusing on only one part of their game. It was one of the best two way line combinations in the Stanley Cup Playoffs history.
Fast forward to the Stanely Cup Finals of 2015, Chicago Blackhawks (eventual winner) and the Tampa Bay Lightning. The loser Lightning threw out a line that was called “The Triplets”: Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, and Nikita Kucherov. That line totaled 61 points and was the reason that the Lightning made it as far as they did.
Move ahead one more season and your Pittsburgh Penguins roll a line called the “HBK” line: Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino, and Phil Kessel. Through their 19 playoff games so far, the combination has 47 points combined and has been a vital part of a potential Stanley Cup Champion in the making.
As you can see, the game has changed drastically over the seven years since Pittsburgh’s last Cup. A point per game performance with stellar defense was all it took to earn the title “Best Line In Hockey”. These last two seasons, it’s been secondary lines and their ability to score often that have stepped up for teams to carry them to the Finals, relieving the star players on their teams of hurting their backs from carrying the entire load.
A great example of what a lack of depth can do for your team was front and center in past year’s flop against the New York Rangers. Marc-Andre Fleury and Sidney Crosby, the Penguins expected playoff performers, were on the top level of their respective games.
Evgeni Malkin? Not so much.
Did the Penguins have enough contribution from everyone below the second line? Haha, nope.
With guys like Daniel Winnik, Maxim Lapierre, Nick Spaling, and Steve Downie are the main cogs in your bottom six, that’s not enough sustainable depth to win you a blow-for-blow battle with King Henrik Lundqvist in net. With the re-tooling of the Penguins roster, it shows that an improved bottom six does wonders for your playoff aspirations.
Did you think it stopped with the offensive side of the game? Hell no.
Depth at goaltending comes at a premium and only the best teams can find a goalie tandem that includes a capable backup incase the heralded, high priced starter faulters or is injured late in the season.
Last season’s hoister of Lord Stanley in Chicago saw Scott Darling take over for Corey Crawford in the Western Conference Finals against the Nashville Predators after Crawford had an abysmal 6-2 loss early on in the series. Crawford eventually regained the crease and helped power the Blackhawks to their third Stanley Cup in six seasons. But the ability to have confidence in both goaltenders was evident as Darling won a few games that he was the netminder for.
The Lightning’s goalie situation was also a bit tricky. Andrei Vasilevskiy, who was phenomenal against the Penguins this postseason, had to come in on occasions during the Stanley Cup Finals because his goalie partner Ben Bishop had torn his groin in game two. Not the most ideal situation for Tampa Bay, but ‘Vazy’ held his own in net. What a surprise, huh?
The Penguins have a similar path to the Cup Finals in the goaltender region. After Marc-Andre Fleury went down with a second concussion in three months, Jeff Zatkoff was tasked with winning a game one in front of the home crowd against the New York Rangers and did just that. He was then replaced with Matt Murray in game three of that series and he has since dominated teams going 12-4 in these playoffs. Fleury was reinstated in game five of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Lightning but was tagged for four goals and a loss, giving way to Matt Murray who’s won his next three starts.
Times change, people change, but the Stanley Cup grind forever remains the same. There are many similarities between this Penguins team, recent Stanley Cup contenders and champions. One thing is for certain, Phil Kessel being considered a third line player and Matt Murray going from AHL record setter to NHL playoff starting goaltender in under a season is more than just depth. It’s more than just impressive. It’s a formula for success that teams have been trying to piece together. Unfortunately for the rest of the NHL, I believe Jim Rutherford just wrote the damn recipe.