The Pittsburgh Penguins head to New York for a two game set against the Rangers this week. The young Rangers are currently four points out of a playoff spot and desperate to make up ground. The Penguins just split their two game set against Boston with mixed results. After a dazzling March propelled the Penguins into division title contention, there are still question marks. So, are they a contender or a pretender? To me it’s simple: they’re a contender to look out for.
The Tale of Two Penguins
A split against the Boston Bruins for the Pittsburgh Penguins is a dizzying, albeit fortunate result. After a sound victory over the Bruins in their first game, the Penguins imploded in the second match-up, giving up five goals in the second period of their loss. On one hand, earning a victory in the first game with their current lineup is a success. They are still missing several key forwards and their number one goalie is still considered “day-to-day”. Despite setback after setback, they keep putting up points. On the other, the final two periods of the second game in Boston were simply awful. A performance like that is a reminder of where this team was at the start of the season and how far they have come. When they play poorly, they are defensively irresponsible and often forced to play in their own zone for extended periods of time. We haven’t seen the Penguins play that poorly in over a month. I believe this was a one-off and not a sign of their overall play declining after a hot streak.
Forward Depth Becoming Strength
First and foremost, Sidney Crosby has been fantastic recently. Obviously, this team follows the lead of their captain, as he goes they go. Still, the forward depth has been a huge issue for the Penguins this season. Between a non-existent fourth line, juggling linemates for Sid and Geno, and injuries, the forward depth of this team has, rightly so, been a wild card. And to many’s surprise, the depth has responded. Bottom six players like Frederick Gaudreau and Anthony Angello have provided a jump to stagnant fourth line. Meanwhile, promising players like Teddy Blueger and Zach Aston-Reese are contributing as impact players, when healthy. The Penguins have deployed more forwards than any other team this season, and miraculously are getting production from all over the lineup on any given night. When and if they are healthy, the forward depth will go from lingering question mark, to bona fide strength.
Milkshake Jake- the Unrecognized Superstar
Over the past month while the Penguins have climbed the standings, I’ve read lots of articles attempting to give credit for this rise. And with all due respect, why isn’t Jake Guentzel getting mentioned as one of the main reasons? The line of Crosby, Rust, and Guentzel is on fire, showing why they are one the league’s best lines. This season, Guentzel’s 38 points are second on the team behind Crosby. It is also good for the fifth best point total by an American in the NHL, trailing superstars like Auston Matthews and Patrick Kane. I wonder, league-wide, how many consider Guentzel to be one of the top American players? It would be a shame to leave him out of that discussion. His play has been so impactful for the Penguins this season, I don’t know where they would be without him. I also don’t know how The Milkshake Factory can continue to operate with how many discounts they give due to Guentzel’s continuous scoring.
Right-Handed Defenseman Leading the Way
After spending the last few seasons constantly mentioned as a team looking to add depth on the defensive side, the Penguins are in uncharted territory: their depth at the position is a strength. And the strongest part of it is the right handed, right side. From Kris Letang’s 28 points to lead the team’s defensemen, to the resurgence of John Marino from his sophomore slump, to the diamond in the rough that Cody Ceci has been, Pittsburgh’s coaching and management have to be more than pleased. Besides the terrible performance the other day in Boston, this defensive corps, specifically these three, have been the anchors. Brian Dumoulin, Marcus Pettersson, and Mike Matheson have all missed time this season. Yet, this defense has been able to improve into a steady transition and fast paced team. And that doesn’t include or recognize their seventh defensemen, the right handed Chad Ruhwedel, who has been great in every game he’s in.
There are surely lots of unanswered questions that the Penguins must address. Coming out of their best month of the season, they have to build upon that and not revert. The most paramount question is health and what their team will look like come playoff time. That being said, even after a terrible game in Boston, there’s still plenty of reason to see this squad has the potential to be a true contender and they’re probably a lot better than you think.