Carl Hagelin

NHL players forget outside world during long playoff runs

Leave a comment

Two minutes after wrapping up a conversation with his wife, Lars Eller couldn’t remember anything.

”She would be, like a half-hour later, ‘Remember what we just talked about?”’ Eller recalled. ”I’m like: ‘No, I’m sorry. I completely forgot.”’

A lot of things were forgotten during the Washington Capitals’ 2018 Stanley Cup run that culminated with Eller’s clinching goal. This is the time of year when hockey crowds virtually everything else out for players who go on deep playoff runs. Travel, hotel rooms, practices, sleep, playoff beards and, above all, the next game are front and center. Things like cutting the grass and paying the bills fall by the wayside. They can wait, right?

”The whole world is put on hold,” said Mike Rupp, who won the Cup with New Jersey in 2003. ”When I was playing in the playoffs, I wouldn’t pay bills back before I had automatic bill pays. Playoffs, if you go on a decent run, I have all these late payments because you just forget about everything. Nothing matters. You’re just so entrenched in it.”

Automatic bill payments have become Jordan Staal‘s friend growing up from a 20-year-old on Pittsburgh’s 2009 championship team to a husband and father a decade later with Carolina. As younger teammates like Teuvo Teravainen have no problem going all in on playoff hockey mode, Staal leans on loved ones to get him through the daily needs off the ice.

”There’s that small realm of what you’re focused on, and paying the bills may not be one of them,” Staal said. ”That’s when you’ve got a good family around you and good friends to kind of just take that stuff off your hands and let you focus on what you’ve got to do.”

Hurricanes captain Justin Williams loses track of what day it is: It’s either a game day or not a game day, though doing a daily newspaper crossword puzzle reminds him that it’s actually, say, Saturday. But after winning the Cup in 2006, 2012 and 2014 at different stages of his life and going on several other long runs, the grizzled veteran has it all figured out by now.

”It’s easy to do,” Williams said. ”You just deflect as much as you can and use the excuse of ‘I’ve got to focus on hockey’ for everything. When you’re home, it’s dad time. When you’re at the rink, it’s hockey.”

While Eller said his one-track hockey mind is always thinking about the last game or the next game during the playoffs, some players try to fight that instinct. Carl Hagelin, who won the Cup with the Penguins in 2016 and 2017, tries to forget about hockey when he’s not at the rink.

Easier said than done.

”Obviously you go into your own bubble,” Hagelin said. ”You’ve got to spend time with your family and do all that stuff. I guess stuff that doesn’t concern your family isn’t as important.”

This phenomenon isn’t limited to players, and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman ‘s family knows all about how the playoffs take over. Bettman said his wife, Shelli, knows she can’t make any plans during the postseason unless it’s a place he can watch games on a TV or his iPad.

Bettman said he typically talks to director of hockey operations Colin Campbell multiple times on any given game day, well past midnight. But he loves every bit of it.

”This is the best time of year. This is just awesome,” Bettman said. ”As (Shelli) says, going out to dinner with my iPad and watching a game has become an excuse for our social life. But, yeah, everything’s on hold for two months because I never know where I have to be, what I have to do.”

Players and Bettman agree the thrill of the playoffs makes everything worth it. Rupp, now an NHL Network analyst, said ”you’re eating, sleeping and breathing this.”

Yes, about that: Players do have to remember to eat properly and get enough sleep.

”You’ve got to focus, prepare, eat, sleep and do whatever you can to be the best on the ice,” said Teravainen, who won the Cup in 2015 with Chicago. ”The playoffs, it’s all about hockey and you just prepare yourself for the game.”

Eller said he focuses on what matters most. And much like Staal, he knows his wife will keep his head straight.

”If you live with someone long enough, they know your tendencies and know you’re maybe not always quite there and at the end of the day it’s always things that can wait,” Eller said. ”But it can be a challenge sometimes because you give 100 percent of yourself to it and it means everything, right? You just live a little bit in your own world.”

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Penguins’ playoff exit was two years in the making

34 Comments

The Pittsburgh Penguins loss to the New York Islanders was no fluke.

It was a result they earned and was due to them being outplayed and soundly beaten in pretty much every phase of the game by a Islanders team that looked faster, crisper, and smoother.

It was also not the result of something that simply happened overnight.

On the off day between their losses in Games 3 and 4, defender Justin Schultz nailed a big part of the problem when he said this: “Our identity has changed over the years. We play fast and get the puck up quick. That’s what we do best. We haven’t done that this series.”

But when did it change, and more importantly, why did it change?

It has taken the Penguins two years to reach the point where they needed to wait until Game 81 of the regular season to simply make the playoffs, and then could not even scratch out a single win once they got there.

To find when it all began you can probably go back to May 28, 2017.

At the time, the Penguins were the defending Stanley Cup champions and just 24 hours away from beginning another Cup Final series against the Nashville Predators that they would win in six games, becoming the first team in a generation to successfully repeat as champions. Their recipe and identity was clear. They played fast, they didn’t let anything throw them off their game, and coach Mike Sullivan had driven home a “Just Play” mantra that became the calling card of their 2016 championship run. It applied to just about any situation.

An injury to a significant player? Just play.

Don’t like a call that was or was not made on the ice? Just play.

Facing some adversity and down in a series? Just. Play.

In the years between their 2009 and 2016 championships the Penguins had become a deeply flawed team that was short on depth around its superstars and had rapidly developed a tendency to unravel whenever things didn’t go their way. They were almost like petulant children that would lose their composure when calls went against them and become almost infatuated with responding to even the slightest physical altercation. They reached rock bottom in this regard during the 2012 and 2013 postseason losses to the Philadelphia Flyers and Boston Bruins when they seemed to be playing a game where hits and responses were worth more than goals.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Starting in 2015, general manager Jim Rutherford started to reshape the team into something different.

He found the right depth players to go around the core of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang, and he made a series of trades and call-ups from their AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to make the team faster and more skilled throughout the lineup. Combined with Sullivan’s mid-season takeover in 2015, it was a perfect storm that allowed them overwhelm opponents and catch fire sometime around February.

They never slowed down on their way to a championship.

While the 2016-17 season wasn’t quite as dominant and had to rely on goaltending a little more in the playoffs, the same formula was still in play.

Despite all of the winning, Rutherford was still unsatisfied with something.

He was unsatisfied with the way his star players were being treated physically. In each of those postseasons the Penguins had to go through opponents that were not shy about targeting their stars. Crosby’s postseason run-ins with Dan Girardi and Marc Staal are well documented, and they had two consecutive postseason encounters with Tom Wilson and the Washington Capitals. In the Eastern Conference Final that season there were several incidents against the Ottawa Senators that drew the team’s ire.

The day before the 2017 Stanley Cup Final began, Rutherford offered a look into where the team was going to be headed when he sounded off in an interview with Ken Campbell of The Hockey News. This is the key part:

“I hear year after year how the league and everyone loves how the Penguins play,” said Penguins GM Jim Rutherford. “‘They play pure hockey and they skate.’ Well, now it’s going to have to change and I feel bad about it, but it’s the only way we can do it. We’re going to have to get one or two guys…and some of these games that should be just good hockey games will turn into a sh—show. We’ll go right back to where we were in the ’70s and it’s really a shame.”

Emphasis added.

“We’re going to have to get one or two guys.”

He doubled down on it just days after the team won the Stanley Cup.

“We are going to try to add a player or two that maybe we can have more protection in our lineup. That’s not that easy because [coach Mike Sullivan] likes to roll four lines and you’ve got to plug a guy in that can play on a regular basis, but hopefully that’s what we can do.”

That was the moment they started down the wrong path. Suddenly, a team that had become defined by playing through things and not responding was going to get “one or two guys” to … respond. The Penguins hadn’t even finished their run at the top of the league as champions when they made the decision to start slowly deviating off of the path that got them there, all in the name of retribution and the misguided idea of “deterrence.”

On draft night that year, the Penguins flipped their first-round pick and center Oskar Sundqvist to the St. Louis Blues for Ryan Reaves and a second-round pick, a trade that has turned out to be a significant loss for the Penguins in more ways than one, and it was a bad idea from the start. Not only did they move back 20 spots in the draft, but Sundqvist has turned into a solid third-line center for the Blues (a position the Penguins spent two years and countless assets trying to fill) while Reaves clearly never fit in with the Penguins’ style of play.

Sullivan barely used him, it shortened the team’s bench, and he was ultimately traded halfway through the season in the massive and complicated deal for Derick Brassard.

The problem with that sequence wasn’t necessarily the trade itself, but what it represented.

What it represented was a philosophical shift from the recipe that worked, and there is nothing that has happened since that trade that has put them back on track.

Pretty much every significant roster move the Penguins have made since then (and there have been A LOT of them) has revolved around getting bigger, stronger players, especially on the blue line where Jamie Oleksiak, Jack Johnson, Erik Gudbranson were the significant additions over the past year. It resulted in a defense that lacks mobility, doesn’t move the puck well, and has simply zapped them of a lot of their transition game. Add that to the departures of forwards like Carl Hagelin and Conor Sheary and the team no longer has the speed and skating advantage that it used to have over its opponents.

The most confusing thing about all of it is the roster construction and many of the moves seem — emphasis on seem — to be at odds with the way the coach has wanted the team to play from the day he arrived behind the bench. I know nothing of the working relationship between Rutherford and Sullivan and whether they remain on the same page as to how the team is built, but the optics of it all just seem strange.

They paid a significant price for Reaves, and the coach didn’t play him. The general manager championed the signing of Johnson all season, and despite playing in all 82 regular season games was deemed to be not worth a roster spot in the first game of the playoffs. A team that wants to play fast and beat teams in transition and with puck possession, suddenly has an inconsistent transition and possession game because the players on the back end can’t make the necessary plays to feed it. And that doesn’t even get into general manager’s fascination with trying to even the score with Wilson in Washington after he knocked Zach Astron-Reese out of the playoffs a year ago (something that ended up getting Oleksiak injured).

Make no mistake, there were other factors at play throughout this season and the playoffs that produced this early exit. The forwards, as a whole, don’t help out enough in the defensive zone. The Islanders did a great job shutting down Crosby and Jake Guentzel. Letang and Schultz, the two defenders on the roster that can still play close to the Penguins’ style, each had a bad series.

But a bad series for individual players happens, and sometimes they are even understandable and defensible because even the best players have bad stretches.

What is not understandable and defensible is willingly taking yourself away from something that worked. That is what the Penguins did, and it is a big part of why their season ended up going the way it did.

The moves they make this summer will tell us a lot as to what they learned from it.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

The Wraparound: Capitals begin quest to become rare repeat champions

The Wraparound is your daily look at the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. We’ll break down each day’s matchups with the all-important television and live streaming information included.

Since 1990, only two teams have ever repeated as Stanley Cup champions.

The Pittsburgh Penguins have done it twice, including being the most recent team to do it, and the Detroit Red Wings accomplished the feast in the late 90s with some spectacular teams.

Pittsburgh’s back-to-back triumphs are especially impressive given they’ve done so in a salary cap era, and now the Washington Capitals will begin their journey to try and become one of few teams to hoist Lord Stanley in consecutive years Game 1 against the Carolina Hurricanes (7:30 p.m. ET; USA; live stream)

“I think that taste that we had last year was pretty incredible and hopefully we’re going to do it again,” Alex Ovechkin said. “We basically have the same team. That experience we have is going to help us a lot.”

Another summer with Stanley for Ovechkin and Co. would make for good theatre in the offseason, but not many are giving them that repeat love.

The Capitals come into the series after taking all four games between the two clubs during the regular season. The Hurricanes are making their first foray into the postseason in a decade, snapping the league’s longest playoff drought.

“It’s going to be a great challenge,” Hurricanes head coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “You’re playing the Stanley Cup champs. It’ll be tough, we know that. No matter who we’re playing, it was going to be an uphill battle, we know that. I like the way this group has responded all year to challenges. This is obviously a big one coming up.”

For Carolina, they’re going to need Sebastian Aho and Micheal Ferland to step up. Aho didn’t score in his final 14 games during the run-in to the playoffs, well over a month of action after leading the team with 30 goals and 83 points.

Ferland, too, has struggled with no goals in his previous 17 contests.

“If we don’t have everyone playing at their top, we’re not going to win,” Brind’Amour said. “The best players obviously have to be right up there. You talk to all your guys, whether they’re playing good or bad. I don’t think (Aho and Ferland) are playing poorly. I just think they haven’t been scoring.”

Washington, meanwhile, may have an ace up their sleeve with Carl Hagelin. He won those back-to-back Cups with the Penguins in 2016 and 2017, and Reirdan sat down with Hagelin to pick his brain about that very matter.

“Every team is different, but there’s always a couple pointers I can give them,” Hagelin said. “There’s always hard moments throughout the playoffs, but I think the second time there might just be more harder times and you’ve just got to stick with it. You’ve got to realize what you did the year before to be successful and you’ve got to realize it won’t be easier.”

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

TODAY’S SCHEDULE

Game 1: Maple Leafs at Bruins, 7 p.m. ET (NBCSN; live stream): Can the Maple Leafs live up to the hype? Or more importantly, can the Maple Leafs beat the Boston Bruins? They meet for the second straight year in the exact same round. Toronto held a 4-3 lead after two periods in Game 7 last year and went on to choke, losing the game 7-4. These teams have met twice in the playoffs since 2013, and both series have gone to Game 7, and both series have ended with the Bruins moving on. It’s time for Toronto to reverse the narrative.

Game 1:  Hurricanes at Capitals, 7:30 p.m. ET (USA; live stream): As mentioned above, the Capitals are looking repeat as Cup champions. Having the same, battle-hardened team as they did last year is quite the boon, but it remains to be seen if that same hunger is there. They do get what some might see as an easier test in the first round against a Carolina team they beat in all four meetings during the regular season. Carolina makes its first postseason appearance in a decade.

Game 1:  Avalanche at Flames, 10 p.m. ET (NBCSN; live stream): It’s time to see what the Western Conference champs can do in the playoffs. They’ll face a Colorado team coming in on a high after making the playoffs in the second last game of the season. Philipp Grubauer has been spectacular as of late. What remains to be seen is how Calgary’s tandem of David Rittich and Mike Smith will fare. Calgary has tremendous firepower, it’s the goaltending that has some worried.

FRIDAY’S SCHEDULE
Game 2: Blue Jackets at Lightning, 7 p.m. ET (CNBC)
Game 2: Penguins at Islanders, 7:30 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
Game 2:  Blues at Jets, 9:30 p.m. ET (CNBC)
Game 2:  Golden Knights at Sharks, 10:30 p.m. ET (NBCSN)

PHT’s 2019 Stanley Cup playoff previews
Capitals vs Hurricanes
Islanders vs. Penguins

Bruins vs. Maple Leafs
Lightning vs. Blue Jackets

Predators vs. Stars
Blues vs. Jets
Flames vs. Avalanche
Sharks vs. Golden Knights

Power Rankings: Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup
• 
Roundtable: Goaltending issues, challenging the Lightning
NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: Round 1 schedule, TV info


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Being Tom Wilson: Inside the life of hockey’s most hated man

14 Comments

ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) — Tom Wilson tries not to read everything about him on social media.

You’d think being on the receiving end of endless tweets and messages that are, well, not suitable for work would be reason enough to skip them. But Wilson can’t just ignore it all because sometimes it goes beyond hockey.

”Last year there’s people putting my parents’ address on Twitter and people underneath being like, ‘Oh, good to know,”’ Wilson said. ”I said: ‘Hey, just so you know, this is out there. The mail and stuff, just make sure you’re aware.”’

Such is life for Wilson, one of the most hated players in the NHL – if not the guy at the top of the list. The Washington Capitals winger has been suspended four times over the past 19 months and there were a few other incidents that might have crossed the line. He is the guy opponents and their fans despise and the player no teammate would willingly do without. Inside the Capitals’ locker room, the 25-year-old Wilson is so admired he could succeed Alex Ovechkin as captain.

In an era where enforcers are hard to find, not only does Wilson play on the edge – he lives on it.

”I think a lot of guys maybe have lost some respect for him,” said St. Louis Blues forward Zach Sanford, who broke into the league with Wilson and the Capitals. ”He’s had quite a few cheap hits the past couple years. But that’s just how he plays. He’s on the edge. Sometimes he crosses it.”

Wilson gave Columbus’ Alexander Wennberg a concussion and broke the jaw of Pittsburgh’s Zach Aston-Reese in the playoffs. He gave St. Louis’ Oskar Sundqvist a concussion with a hit to the head – in the preseason – that drew a 20-game suspension that was reduced to 14 by an arbitrator. He has avoided trouble since then and set career highs with 22 goals and 40 points in 63 games, becoming one of Washington’s most important pieces as it tries to repeat as Stanley Cup champion.

”He’s shooting the puck better than he has ever done,” said New Jersey Devils defenseman Connor Carrick, a fellow 2012 Capitals draft pick and junior teammate of Wilson’s in the Ontario Hockey League. ”He’s got a good glide for a big guy, and that’s what you’ve seen, I think, with other guys around the league with that frame that haven’t been able to continue.”

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

When the Capitals selected Wilson 16th overall seven years ago, then-general manager George McPhee hoped they’d be getting a power forward like Milan Lucic. The 6-foot-4, 218-pound Wilson might turn out to be better than Lucic, especially if he can stay on the right side of the suspension line and play 75-plus games in a season.

”He’s fast, he’s got good skill, he plays a physical game, he puts D-men on edge and other forwards on edge when he’s on the ice,” said Vegas forward Ryan Reaves, who gave Wilson a concussion of his own in December and apologized in the aftermath of the hit. ”I think he is a really good player. I think if he played a little smarter, he’d be even better.”

Wilson has worked at that. He spent time with vice president of player safety and former enforcer George Parros going over video clips and what the league deems acceptable. This season he has been thinking more about each hit he delivers because the next one that crosses the line could cost him more than a couple of months.

The Toronto native said his suspension history – two for illegal checks to the head, one for interference and one for boarding – has forced him to change his approach.

”I have to be aware of it,” Wilson said. ”Hockey’s an extremely fast game, and it’s a hard-hitting game. It’s probably faster than it ever has been, so those plays happen quickly and I’ve just got to do the best I can to control the situation and control the outcome, and that’s just something that I’ve kind of tried to focus on.”

Wilson is one of the very few players to have a disciplinary hearing and not get punished, for an incident with Brayden Schenn in 2013 that was so polarizing the NHL put out a video to explain why it didn’t suspend him.

This season, referees gave Wilson a match penalty and ejected him for a hit on New Jersey’s Brett Seney in November, but the league reviewed it, rescinded it and he played on.

”I don’t know if his timing is wrong or what’s happening, but I wouldn’t say he’s dirty all the time. But obviously he got those incidents where he’s come wrong into situations and that is something he needs to work on,” Sundqvist said. ”He’s one of the most important players for Washington and unfortunately he’s been doing some bad stuff and I hope he comes to his senses and stops doing that.”

Pittsburgh’s Jack Johnson said Wilson has a history of being ”reckless and dangerous” and that players have to be aware of where Wilson is on the ice because ”he’s big and runs around.”

For all the outside talk about taming Wilson, the Capitals don’t really want that.

”He has to remember what he is at times,” alternate captain Brooks Orpik said. ”Without that physical side, he’s not going to get the space and the chances that he gets offensively. The reason he gets as many chances and opportunities is because of his physical play and his intimidation. If that leaves his game, then his opportunities are going to be suppressed.”

Teammate Nicklas Backstrom said one of Wilson’s strengths is that he can do it all from 5-on-5 to power play to penalty kill. Washington signed Wilson to a $31 million, six-year contract last summer for all those elements, which he showcased with 15 points in 21 playoff games during the Stanley Cup run.

Wilson turned Carl Hagelin from an enemy into a friend after five hard-fought playoff series against him. Hagelin watched Penguins’ teammate Aston-Reese go down on a hit to the head from Wilson in the second round last spring, but after a trade to the Capitals, he has come to appreciate the human underneath the No. 43 jersey.

”When you play against certain guys, especially in the playoffs, you obviously don’t like him. You dislike him a lot,” Hagelin said. ”And then you come to a new team and you get to know him as a person and all of a sudden he’s a great guy. … It’s one of those things, just like any other person, you have to prove yourself to me as a person.”

Wilson said he wants to be the kind of guy who’s hard to play against but also move on without any hard feelings. Yet he is aware of his reputation.

”The hockey world’s very small,” he said. ”I always wanted to be someone that’s hard to play against but you can go out and have a beer with the guy and have fun in the summer or whatever. I think that’s what hockey is kind of about.”

Wilson, of course, is not just the muscle on a star-laden team featuring Ovechkin, Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov but is also a young leader the organization is building around.

”There are those moments that you don’t like to see when that stuff’s going down, but the rest of it and all the Caps fans and all that make up for the good side of things,” Wilson said. ”You see kind of those scary things happen in the world, but it’s a pretty darn good life and I love what I do and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

AP Sports Writers Will Graves and Pat Graham and freelance reporter W.G. Ramirez contributed.

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Penguins seek consistency as Stanley Cup Playoffs begin

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.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

“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 BjugstadJared 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.

[PHT Power Rankings: Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup]

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.

MORE: Penguins vs. Islanders Round 1 preview

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.