The Pens are hot (Photo by Gregory Shamus/NHLI via Getty Images)
The Penguins have won six in a row and most of that damage has been done without Evgeni Malkin in the lineup. With Sidney Crosby hot, possession numbers pointing in the right direction and a coach they believe in, do you doubt the Birds?
Perhaps it was just a fluke, perhaps it was an off night for the Washington Capitals, but there’s no denying that Pittsburgh just curb-stomped the best team in the NHL and prolonged what is now a six-game win streak.
What tickles me the most about last night’s 6-2 thrashing is that technically, the Pens could have won the game purely off the strength of their bottom six forwards: three of their scores were orchestrated by Tom Kuhnhackl, Bryan Rust and Matt Cullen. Considering how bizarre the team’s third and fourth lines have appeared on paper lately – I dare you to name them all – this was a coup for the squad.
But it’s also how Pittsburgh has to operate in the short-term, with Evgeni Malkin on the shelf. Not that it has bothered the team in terms of productivity. The Pens have won all five games that ‘Geno’ has missed with an upper body injury and since he’s not expected back for the start of the playoffs, they need to learn to win without him.
Under new coach Mike Sullivan, Pittsburgh has been improving as the season has gone on anyway and the unfettered speed system has definitely jived better with captain Sidney Crosby, who is looking like ‘Classic Sid,’ instead of the discombobulated star we saw at the beginning of the campaign under Mike Johnston.
Crosby was also golden against Washington, not only chipping in offensively, but serving as an emotional catalyst, mixing it up with T.J. Oshie and going to the dirty areas. As has often been the case when Malkin has been out of the lineup, Crosby elevates his game. Sid now has nine points in the past five games that Malkin has missed – and he wasn’t exactly cold in the first place; he’s just magma now.
So what does this mean come playoff time? This is why Pittsburgh is so fascinating. Marc-Andre Fleury could steal them games, or he could get the yips. The defense corps could push the puck up the ice with deadly quickness, or get hammered by big bodies in its own zone and turn it over. Someone could figure out how to lock down Sid and let Phil Kessel try to beat them over seven games. It’s all on the table, really.
Luckily for Washington, their arch-nemesis is almost a mathematical impossibility as a first-round match. No one is catching the Caps for the top seed, giving Washington the right to play the bottom wild card squad. Pittsburgh currently sits tied for second in the Metropolitan Division and the Islanders (who are fourth and at the same time the top wild card team) aren’t chugging up the standings as we speak, losing their past three outings.
But here's a scary thought for the rest of the East: Pittsburgh is now the best possession team in the conference (based on Corsi) and playoff success has largely been dictated by these stats in recent years. It's been years since the Pens have raised the Stanley Cup, but things are lining up in a most peculiar way for them right now.
And to think – it wasn't that long ago we weren't even sure if the Penguins would make it in.