In a two-part series, I am going to take a look at what the Penguins have in their favor going towards April and the playoffs as well as what could be a potential road block. Mike Sullivan and his Penguins are en route to the big stage of the NHL playoffs again, but what are the strengths and weaknesses of the back-to-back champs?
Elite Forward Depth
Pittsburgh has won two championships on an idea of building a strong, depth team. They’ve rolled four lines against teams and never feared whether it was Sidney Crosby or Matt Cullen leading the charge. The team lost two centers to free agency (Nick Bonino signed a multi-year deal in Nashville, Cullen signed a 1-year deal in Minnesota) and the pool of remaining free agents was not ideal. General Manager Jim Rutherford settled for adding Greg McKegg to fill in and see what he had in-house.
After a few games of McKegg, the Penguins moved on acquiring Riley Sheahan from Detroit. Sheahan’s cap hit hindered the effort of Detroit to retain RFA Andreas Athanasiou and the Pens got the center for a fourth line winger and a pick exchange. Sheahan largely spent the year as the third line center and slowly built himself up as a consistent depth scorer as well as a strong defensive presence.
On the verge of the trade deadline, Rutherford moved in on Ottawa center Derick Brassard – a top 6 center who produces strongly and has very good underlying numbers. Brassard came at a cost – including current roster players Ryan Reaves and Ian Cole. In terms of forward depth, the addition of Brassard heavily (and I mean heavily) offsets the loss of Ryan Reaves.
The Penguins have a better offensive core than they did in 2015-16 and 2016-17. Brassard is an upgrade on Bonino – who despite being clutch was not always as visible on the ice. Sheahan is similar to Papa Cullen, but a vast improvement on the current Cullen. If the Penguins want to win a fabled third championship in a row, they’ll need a lot from every forward line.
It’s certainly not set in stone, but strong performances from these lines will definitely be a key to winning it all.
Matt Murray Strikes! (Again!)
Matt Murray doesn’t know how to lose. Sure, he has not had a Vezina-worthy season. He hasn’t blown his youthful competition out of the water. But he is 2 for 2 when it comes to being a Stanley Cup winning goalie. He has a 22-9 record in the NHL playoffs and boasts a .928 SV% as well as a 1.98 GAA. When the stakes raise, Murray knows how to rise above.
One of the keys to a championship team is a goalie. Even more specifically, a goalie who gets hot at the right moment. Jonathan Quick, Corey Crawford, Tim Thomas – they all are good, but most importantly is they play at a peak level when the Cup is on the line.
Despite his mediocre looking season stats, Murray has turned it on in 2018. Since the start of a new calendar year he has posted a 9-2-1 record and a .923 save percentage. He’s also managed to develop consistency with a 4-game winning streak followed by a 5-game winning streak with only one loss in between. The key for Murray will be his health.
The Championship Experience
The Penguins have something that many teams lack and that is championship experience. For two straight seasons, it has been the Penguins on top of the mountain. The stars have experience. The role players have experience. We all know about the roster turnover from this summer, but 14 skaters and Matt Murray are all back for yet another run. Only seven players — Brassard, Zach Aston-Reese, Sheahan, Dominik Simon, Jamie Oleksiak, Matt Hunwick and Tristan Jarry – are experiencing their first real run with the Penguins on the current roster.
But there is some playoff experience – most notably Brassard, who has seen championship runs with both the Rangers and the Senators. He has 55 points in 78 playoff games. Jarry briefly backed up Marc-Andre Fleury during the Pens run last year. He, Aston-Reese and Simon have seen AHL playoffs with WBS. Sheahan and Hunwick have been in the playoffs before as well.
The strengths are definitely there for Pittsburgh to win. In the next part of this series, we”ll take a look at potential issues facing the Penguins (and ways to prepare for them).