The Pittsburgh Penguins go into the postseason in an unfamiliar position – as heavy underdogs.
This was a tale of two seasons for the Penguins. At the All-Star break, they were the NHL’s sixth-best team with 62 points, two points off the Metro lead, with a 27-11-8 record and .674 winning percentage. They were finding ways to win despite extended absences by their best players; by the end of the season, Man-Games Lost NHL would rank them No. 5 in terms of points lost (27.4) due to injuries and Covid protocols.
As the season wore on, though, the challenges seemed to catch up with the club. By the 82-game mark, they had fallen to No. 12 overall, clinging to third place in the Metro as they barely avoided falling into a Wild Card spot. Their 46-25-11 record dropped them to a .628 winning percentage. In perhaps the most concerning trend, Pittsburgh managed just one regulation win against a playoff team since March 13.
Now, as they look to win a playoff round for the first time in four years, the Penguins find themselves matched against the upstart New York Rangers, a team whose quick rebuild has them not just back in the playoffs but a darkhorse contender sooner than expected.
The Penguins have seen how dangerous the Rangers have become firsthand four times this year, and lost the last three of those contests, all in March and April, by a combined score of 11-3.
“I don’t think we [can] put that much focus on it,” said defenseman Kris Letang. “I think we focus on the fact that we didn’t bring our A game, and we have to erase everything we did against them all year. Start with a clean slate and just show our true self.”
The Rangers’ success starts between the pipes as 26-year-old Igor Shesterkin has emerged as the NHL’s best goalie. He’ll win the Vezina Trophy for that, and deserves serious consideration for the Hart as league MVP, too.
“We’ve got to try to make it a hard game for him,” said head coach Mike Sullivan. “Regardless of what goalie we’re playing against, in order to score in this league, you’ve got to make the sightlines difficult. The goalies in today’s game are too good; if they see it, they’re going to stop it.
“We’ve got to try to create some net traffic and give ourselves an opportunity for a deflection or a rebound, or at least make the sightlines difficult so they can’t control rebounds. I just think that’s a big part of today’s game, if you look at how goals are scored around the league.”
It doesn’t help the Penguins’ cause that their own No. 1 goalie, Tristan Jarry, who was having an All-Star season a few months ago but started to show signs of wear down the stretch, will now miss at least part of this series with a broken foot he suffered April 14. The reins belong to backup Casey DeSmith, who turned a rough start to the season around in recent months, but is likely overmatched here.
“It doesn’t matter who the other goalie is; you just have to approach it like any other game,” DeSmith said. “Obviously he’s a great goaltender, he’s had a lot of success this year, so it’s going to make our job difficult to score on him, but hopefully we’re up to the task.”
The Rangers have the kind of team speed the Penguins had in their Stanley Cup years, and lots of skill. Chris Kreider, their de facto captain, has had a breakout season with 52 goals, half of those on the Rangers’ fourth-ranked power play.
He’s one of four Rangers – the others are forwards Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad and defending Norris Trophy winner Adam Fox – to rack up more than 70 points on the season. They’re also getting significant contributions from their youth, like 22-year-old K’Andre Miller on the blueline and 2020 first overall draft pick Alexis Lafrenière.
Simply put, the Penguins have their work cut out for them. Now the NHL’s third-oldest team, with an average age of 29.16, they’ll look to turn the Stanley Cup experience in their locker room into an edge against the eighth-youngest club (average age 26.48).
“When you look at the makeup of our group, we feel like we have a competitive hockey team. I really like the group of guys that we have,” Sullivan said. “They’re terrific people, first and foremost. We have a wealth of experience. There’s a lot of Stanley Cup rings in that locker room, and I believe these guys can draw on those experiences to help us. And that’s something that, from our standpoint, could be a competitive advantage.”
Having said that, Sullivan said, the Penguins know they’re up against a quality opponent.
“We’ve got a big challenge ahead of us. And the most important thing is that we’ve got to go out and earn it. We’re going to start with Game 1; we’re not looking beyond that. We’re going to try to put our best game on the ice, we’ll see what we learn from that and then we’ll go from there. I know our players are well aware of that, our veteran guys have been through it a lot, and they’re excited for it.”
Looming over this playoff run is the very real possibility that this is the end of the line for the Penguins’ core. This season, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Letang became the first trio of teammates in NHL history to spend 16 seasons together. Now, barring deals before July 13, Malkin and Letang will reach unrestricted free agency. Forward Bryan Rust has blossomed into a valuable, complete player and had a career year on the cusp of becoming a UFA.
“People have been talking about it for the last three years,” Letang said. “We know what it is, and we just look at is as an opportunity to solidify what we did throughout our career in Pittsburgh and keep it going. So that’s our focus and what we talk about – just winning another one.”
There may not be many experts picking them to do that, or to come out of the first round for that matter. But the Penguins remain confident in their ability to control games when the playoff intensity rises.
“They’re a really good team, and I think we are, too,” Letang said. “We want to prove that we still belong in the dance, and it’s a great challenge for us to actually prove that.
“I’ve been around for a long time. And when I have a guy like Sid, Geno, Jeff Carter, [Jake] Guentzel, that core group, you have confidence in what you can bring. If we’re underdogs, fine; that’s all right. I trust the guys I have around me, and that’s all I care.”