Shortly after the Pittsburgh Penguins clinched their 13th consecutive Stanley Cup Playoff appearance, defenseman Kris Letang sat at his locker and was asked more than once about the significance of what is now — by far — the NHL’s longest active postseason streak.
Every single time he downplayed it as the minimum expectation for the team.
“I don’t expect anything less than that,” said Letang. “With the roster we put on the ice every year, with the quality of players we have, with [Sidney Crosby], [Evgeni Malkin], Phil [Kessel] and these guys, I think we should make it. The expectation is high in this dressing room and this year isn’t going to be any different. It’s the minimum expectation.”
Thanks to a season full of inconsistencies, significant injuries to key players, and at times just downright bad play, it took them until Game 81 to achieve that minimum expectation. But they eventually did it. Now that they are back in the playoffs, beginning their Round 1 series against the New York Islanders on Wednesday night (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN), the focus changes to the team’s ultimate goal and what is an almost unreachable bar given the expectations they have set for themselves over the past decade — trying to win yet another Stanley Cup.
“I think once you get in the dance, it’s up for grabs for everybody,” said Letang. “Everybody has the same chances. I don’t think there’s a team that goes in there and goes, ah we’re just going to do a round and be happy with that. The ultimate goal is to go all the way.”
“For sure it is,” said coach Mike Sullivan was asked if it’s fair for the maximum expectation to still be a Stanley Cup.
“I think when we play the game the right way, I think we can compete with any team in the league. We have difference makers throughout the lineup. We have depth at all of our positions. We can get outstanding goaltending. I believe this group is capable of great things, but have to earn it every day.”
Trying to get a read on the this Penguins team has been a year-long challenge because they have looked capable of any possible outcome at any given time. Sometimes it depends on the game, sometimes it depends on the week. That holds true entering the playoffs where anything from a five-game loss in Round 1, to a Stanley Cup seems like a realistic outcome that wouldn’t — or shouldn’t — shock anyone that has watched this team with any regularity this season.
Most recently, the Penguins have finally started to look like the the team they are expected to be, and one that is perfectly capable of doing something special.
With Letang and Evgeni Malkin back in the lineup, and Brian Dumoulin rejoining the team at practice and looking like he could return as early as Game 1 of their Round 1 series against the New York Islanders, they are as healthy as they have been all season.
Matt Murray has been one of the most productive goalies in the league since mid-December and been playing some of the best hockey of his career.
They are not only getting the results in the standings with a 12-4-4 record since the trade deadline (third best in the league since then), but the process behind the results is as good as it can possibly be, and that might be even more important than the points in the standings. According to the analytics database at Natural Stat Trick, the Penguins are a top-five team in expected goals and high-danger scoring chances (they are actually first in this metric) since the deadline. While the approach from general manager Jim Rutherford has looked completely haphazard and at times directionless with the way the team makes trades and then quickly undoes them, you can not argue with the results that the Nick Bjugstad–Jared McCann and Erik Gudbranson trades have produced.
Bjugstad and McCann have solidified the team’s forward depth and fit in their roles in a way their predecessors, Derick Brassard and Riley Sheahan, never did.
While the Gudbranson trade was immediately panned by a lot of people (including, uh, me) he has been an almost astonishingly good addition and has more than earned a roster spot once everyone on the blue line is healthy (which it seems they finally are).
When combined with the stars at the top of the lineup, including Crosby, Malkin, Letang, Kessel, and now 40-goal scorer Jake Guentzel, every possible ingredient is there for a lengthy Stanley Cup Playoff run, and perhaps even a championship if everything goes right.
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But if there is one thing this Penguins team has shown us this season it’s that their biggest opponent may not be any one team in any one round, but their own inconsistency. It is something that has been a year-long battle for them on both a team and individual level.
For as good as the overall record turned out to be (only six teams in the entire league finished with more points), they still had too many stretches where they looked like a team that was deservedly on the playoff bubble. At one point this season they lost nine out of 10 games, a stretch that resulted in Rutherford publicly — and angrily — calling out most of the roster. Even during this late-season surge where they have upped their game to a championship level, there have been some issues that keep showing themselves, from a power play unit that bleeds chances and goals against, to a tendency to lose games late, losing three different games where they had leads in the final three minutes of games. That has left three extra points on the table. Three extra points — points that were right there for the taking — would have had them opening Round 1 on home ice and playing a potential Game 7 at home.
They were only 6-6-3 against the five-worst teams in the league standings. Just two extra wins against those bottom-feeding teams could have meant a division title.
The only consistent thing about them this season has been their inconsistency.
Even their style of play seems to have changed at times depending on the latest roster or lineup move.
When the Penguins won their two most recent championships in 2016 and 2017 their identity was as clear as any other team in the league: Speed. Speed. And more speed. While that element still very much remains, there have been some deviations from that in terms of the overall roster construction. Carl Hagelin and Conor Sheary, two of the players that defined that identity, are gone. Trades for players like Ryan Reaves (since traded again), Jack Johnson, and Gudbranson in recent years seemed to fly in the face of the way they used to build the team, especially their defense.
“It’s a style of play. It’s a mindset, It’s an attitude. It’s all of those things,” said Sullivan after a recent game, when asked what exactly his team’s identity is, or what what he wants it to be.
“Everybody needs to understand what their contribution is and what their role is to that identity to help this team win. We try to define that for our players as clearly as we can. We try to put them in positions to be successful and play to their strengths. This team is built a certain way and we’re trying to play to their strengths, and that is part of the identity as well. It has to start with the attitude and the mindset that we’re hard to play against and we have a certain resilience and resolve and mental toughness about us that we are going to respond to any sort of adversity that comes our way. That is either within a 60-minute hockey game, or from game to game, or week to week, or whatever it may be. That is every bit of important as the style of play.”
With the way they have played through injuries and rebounded from difficult losses, they have definitely showed that resiliency.
They also finally seem to have the right players in the right spots to play to their strengths.
Now they just need to find that consistent level of play that has avoided them all season, because one bad week in April can be the difference between a long playoff run and a long summer.