Evgeni Malkin (Gregory Shamus/NHLI via Getty Images)
You can make a good case a number of Eastern Conference teams will win three playoff series and make it to the Stanley Cup Final this year – but for the first time in a long time, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the Pittsburgh Penguins don't appear to be a team that can be considered a favorite to do so.
The Hockey News this week revealed its collective pre-playoff pick to win the 2014-15 Stanley Cup (hint: team name rhymes with Grandpa Jay Whitening), but as an individual who was part of that process, I can tell you I wasn’t leading the charge for the team we selected (hint: my pick rhymes with...uh, to hell with it – I picked the Blackhawks). That said, I think this season’s playoffs will be like those that have preceded it in the salary cap era in that you can make excellent arguments for about two handfuls of teams, assuming each benefits from good health and solid chemistry at the right time of the year.
And that said, I think this post-season is particularly fascinating, because it’s the first playoffs in a long time in which the Pittsburgh Penguins are coming in as underdogs – or at least, as much of an underdog that any team with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on it can be.
(This is the part where Pens fans may decide to stop reading any further and skip straight to the comments to call into question my mother’s marital status at the time of my birth and provide me with complimentary and detailed instructions on self-procreation. It’s essentially a Choose Your Own Adventure Moment for the intellectually infirm. If this is where your reading visit ends, enjoy your day.)
The Penguins won 10 of 14 games in November and jumped out to a 16-5-2 record, but since then, they’re a decidedly mediocre 26-18-9 and just 4-5-1 in their past 10. They’re not even the favorites to make it out of their own division – that would be the New York Rangers, the pick of many to repeat as Eastern Conference champions – and could be looking at a first-round matchup against a New York Islanders team that is greatly improved from the upstart Isles squad that gave Pittsburgh a scare in the 2013 playoffs.
But the troubling stats for the Penguins aren’t just limited to wins and losses. Pittsburgh has the NHL’s 15th-best offense, and that’s part of the reason why, when the Pens are trailing after the first period, they’ve won just four games (4-15-5) this year. The only other (potential) playoff teams who’ve struggled as much in that category are the Capitals (4-13-4), Wild (4-12-3) and the Bruins (2-10-6).
Out of those four teams, there’s one I’d feel comfortable picking for a long playoff run at this stage and it’s not Boston, Washington or Pittsburgh.
Another factor in the doubt surrounding the Pens this season is their health. Key blueliners Kris Letang and Christian Ehrhoff are sidelined with concussions, and as we know, those types of injuries don’t always clear up simply because the playoffs have arrived. Missing one or both of Ehrhoff and Letang for the start of the post-season would be devastating blows to a defense corps that needs all hands on deck to function well.
Then there’s the matter of goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. The Pens goalie has for the most part performed admirably this season (including posting a 2.26 goals-against average and .921 save percentage in 59 games), but like the team in front of him, many of his better showings came early in the season. More recently, he’s had wild fluctuations in effectiveness, best illustrated by this stat: in 25 games beginning Jan. 16, Fleury has allowed three or more goals 11 times, and four or more goals seven times. The 30-year-old was signed to a lucrative four-year contract extension in November and will face all sorts of pressure to live up to it. As we’ve seen with Fleury in the past, sometimes he responds well to pressure, and sometimes, well...
If you’re a Penguins fan who read this far, congratulations, because here’s the good news: nobody, myself included, is completely counting out Pittsburgh. They’ve been an effective defensive team this year and their special team play is stellar. Management could have Lady Luck smile on them with the return of Letang and Ehrhoff, and the decision to hold Crosby out of the lineup is likely to pay dividends once the regular-season ends. Perhaps knowing that not everyone is expecting them to win will give the organization a chip on their shoulder that pushes them to the Eastern Final and beyond.
However, let's be honest here – when you think of the favorites to become Eastern champs this season, which teams leap to mind right away? The Rangers, for sure; the Bolts have all the tools necessary to dominate; the Canadiens could wind up with the best regular-season record in the East this year, and any team with Carey Price tending net for it has to be in the mix.
Most of their fans undoubtedly will agree to disagree – and some won’t even be able to do that as they sputter and choke on blind rage – but it just doesn’t feel like the Pens should be in that group right now.