As the calendar changed from February to March, the Penguins were clinging onto the last wild card spot in the playoff race. To top it off, they had a 16 game month ahead of them, 12 games being against division opponents. It looked like it was going to be a tough hill to climb for the Penguins.
In February, the Penguins played some tremendous hockey games, and some not so tremendous hockey games. They failed to produce more than 2 wins in a row. They were not a bad hockey team by any means, but they were absolutely inconsistent.
Going into the month of March with an inconsistent team was a scary thought, also considering the standings. The Islanders, Rangers, and even Flyers could have all jumped on the Penguins and buried them in the standings, potentially even right out of the playoffs.
But the Penguins have turned the tables.
The Penguins are 8 games into a 9 game streak all against the Metropolitan Division. They are 7-1 in those 8 games, and have also won 6 games straight, the longest such win streak under Mike Sullivan. Oh, and 5 of these games are without Evgeni Malkin, but the Pens are 5-0 in those games.
During this stretch the Penguins have been defying the odds.
They beat the mighty New York Rangers in New York, against the same goalie that has been giving them fits in the regular season and playoffs the past few years: Henrik Lundqvist. Not only that, but the Penguins scored 4 on Lundqvist and added an empty net goal.
They beat the Flyers this Saturday in absolute dominant fashion. The Flyers did strike first, but the Penguins dominated the game and won 4-1, while only allowing 17 shots on goal, which is the Flyers’ season low. This is a team the Penguins have not beat, regardless of venue, in the past 2 years. This year, the Penguins are 2-0 against them.
They beat the best team in the NHL yesterday. Not only did the Penguins beat the Capitals, they controlled the game and won in dominant fashion, 6-2, allowing the Capitals only 18 shots. The Capitals had not allowed 6 goals this season until last night.
Heck, the Metropolitan Division as a whole has given the Penguins fits in recent years. Just last year, the Penguins had a 9-17-4 record. This year, since Sullivan took over behind the bench, the Penguins are an incredible 14-5-1 (Johnston’s Penguins were 1-2-1 against division foes)
Maybe, just maybe, this team is for real.
So, what can the Penguins attribute to this sudden resurgence?
Mike Sullivan has turned this team around. He has given them an identity, and the players are embracing it. Since Sullivan took over the Penguins are 3rd in the NHL in goals for (135), 4th in goal differential (+25), 2nd in high danger scoring chances for percentage, (56.0%), 1st in shots for/60 minutes (33.9), 8th in shots against/60 minutes (28.5), and they lead the NHL in Corsi for percentage at 54.7%, which essentially indicates possession. That being said, even coming from a stats guy, the stats alone do not tell the tale of Sullivan.
To start off, he has made the players more disciplined. The story that stands out to me is the one of Kris Letang. The Penguins just lost a game at home against the Lightning on February 20th, 4-2, in which Letang took 3 penalties, 2 of them in the 3rd period, and most of them were just bad penalties to take.
After the plane arrived in Buffalo, where the Penguins would play the day after, Sullivan kept Letang on the plane and had a chat with him. They both agreed that Letang is at his best when he plays with passion, but is able to keep disciplined. He responded by turning his penalties into points, literally. He turned 3 penalties into 3 points (3A), which helped the Penguins defeat the Sabres 4-3. Since then, Letang has been noticeably more disciplined on the ice, and his play has been the best it has been all year.
Look back at the Penguins vs. Flyers game this past Saturday. The Penguins did not stoop down to the level that Philadelphia likes to play at. I believe this is the main reason they have struggled against the Flyers in the past years, because the Penguins were undisciplined, played into the Flyers game, took bad penalties, and the Flyers made them pay. However, in this 4-1 dominant win by the Pens, they maintained their cool and did not let the Flyers so much as budge them, and made it hurt where it hurts the most: the scoreboard.
Another huge reason for the Penguins recent success is scoring depth. The Penguins entered the season looking like it would be one of the best teams in the NHL given its apparent forward depth, but this was entirely untrue. These “depth guys” were not scoring, and neither was the whole team.
Now, the team does not have to rely on Crosby, Kessel, Malkin, and Letang to win hockey games, even though Sid is on a roll with an 11 game point streak. Last night, the line of Rust, Kuhnhackl, and Cullen had 7 points for crying out loud! If the Penguins want to make a legitimate run in the playoffs, they need the depth guys to continue producing. It has something they have been lacking since the 2009 Stanley Cup year.
Also, something that many of us did not see coming, is that the defensive corps is playing some kind of hockey. 2 of the Penguins 6 goals yesterday came from defensemen, including one from Schultz who has been tremendous since he has arrived in Pittsburgh, which was his first as a Penguin.
But it isn’t just about offense. The Penguins allowed just 35 shots in the last 2 games combined, and seem to finally be clicking on all cylinders. Dumoulin and Daley has been working as a tremendous 2nd pair, and Cole and Schultz have found some tremendous chemistry as a 3rd defensive pair…AND the Penguins still have Pouliot and Lovejoy scratched!
I’ve said it before: all of these division games could make or break the Penguins season. Well, the Penguins currently find themselves in 2nd place in the Metropolitan Division, and they do not seem to be slowing down any time soon. This is a hockey team that shouldn’t be messed with.
Dare I say this team is reminding me more and more of 2009?