Are The Penguins a Legit Contender?
After 18 games played, the Penguins hold an 12-6-0 record that accurately portrays the Penguins wins but may not tell the whole story. In the Month of February, the Pens are 8-3 and have held all opponents to 3 goals or less in every game but 1. Without a doubt the record shows that this team is capable of making the Playoffs. But can they, legitimately, win the Stanley Cup?
Winning a championship in the NHL truly starts with the goalie, and the Penguins have one of the most underrated goaltenders in the league with Marc-Andre Fleury. Year in and year out he continues to be a huge reason why the Penguins have success, and this season is no exception. So far he is 9-3-0 on the season with a .917 Save % and 2.22 GAA. He has given the Penguins chances to win in just about every game he has played in. Fleury’s backup Tomas Vokoun has had a tougher start to the season, starting off 2-1 in his first 3 games played. He now sits at 3-3.
Vokoun is still a very solid goaltender and has given the Penguins many opportunities to win, but the team has let him down on multiple occasions, be it in the defensive or offensive zone. Vokoun’s numbers, though not impressive at a .899 Save % and a GAA of 2.87, show he has struggled. But, keep in mind he was the man in net during the Pens only shutout this season.
The Penguins defense was the biggest question mark coming into the season, and rightfully so. Besides Brooks Orpik and Kris Letang, the the remaining defense consisted of unproven rookies, overrated veterans or young talent. Paul Martin, who had struggled the previous two seasons, has made his mark and showed that with hard work and determination he has the ability to be an asset on this team.
Simon Despres, a player everyone believed to either be a long shot for the team or trade bait, has proven that he is NHL-ready while playing a majority of time with Kris Letang or Deryk Engelland.
Despite Injury, Matt Niskanen has proven his worth while playing a very defensively sound game. He has even scored goals in two consecutive games for the first time in his career, taking his total to 3 goals for the season. Finally, Deryk Engelland has been everything a number 6 defender needs to be as well as having the ability to drop the gloves when the time is needed.
Lets not forget that on the way to winning championships you need to score some goals, and despite the tough season Evgeni Malkin has had, the Penguins are ranked 2nd in the league with 59 goals so far. that works out to 3.28 goals per game. Crosby is currently tied with the league lead in points (25) and James Neal continues his pace from last season and holds the league lead in Powerplay goals (8) and is tied with league leader for goals scored (12).
It’s no surprise the Penguins powerplay is one of the top units in the league. It trails only St. Louis and converts 27.4% of the time. Malkin, Crosby, Neal, Kunitz and Letang round out the top unit while Sutter, Dupuis, Kennedy, Bennett and Martin round out the second.
As we sit here today the biggest question is no longer the defense, it’s “Who is capable of playing along Malkin and Neal”? So far this season we have seen former-Penguin Eric Tangradi, Dustin Jeffery, Zach Boychuk, Tyler Kennedy, Matt Cooke, and on occasion Beau Bennett join the top line. For obvious reasons, most of those players have been unsuccessful so it has been rumored that Ray Shero and his scouting staff have been on the look out for the man to take the position full time.
Names such as Devin Setoguchi, Cal Clutterbuck, and Matt Cullen all from Minnesota have been rumored, as well as Nikolai Kulemin from Toronto. Any of these players are a possibility, but the question remains as to whether any of them can be the type of player needed for that line.
I won’t sit here and go into detail on what type of player the Penguins need, but I can confidently say that those players are not it.
The only flaw that I see holding the club back from a chance of hoisting the Cup is the lack of grit and composure the Pens show from time to time. When it comes to grit, I am not talking about fighting or hitting, I am talking about actually digging in, winning puck battles and grinding out those tough games where teams like to utilize the trap. When it comes to composure, the Penguins need to learn to stick to their gameplan when teams start playing dirty. This is especially important when playing Philadelphia. These two points take a team effort to achieve and is very possible with the players currently on the roster. Not to mention, in a shortened season, winning in regulation becomes of increased importance because you can effectively bury a team like the Flyers.
Penguins management understands that this season is as good as any to make a strong push for Lord Stanley’s Cup and it’s because of this that I am sure Shero will pull off another magic trick and bring in one or multiple players to help guide this team to a Championship.
Is this team built for that type of run? Yes, I believe it is. Obviously there are a few pieces that need to be added, but there is not a single team in the NHL that can say with certainty that they have all the pieces needed to win a Cup.
UPDATE: Malkin has been sidelined indefinitely with a concussion, increasing the importance of Shero to add to the Penguins top-6.