It’s the most wonderful time of the year, at least for hockey fans. And the fans of the Penguins have every reason to be confident in their team. The Penguins just capped off a great run to end the 2015/2016 season, winning 14 of their last 16 games. In the process, they set themselves up in great playoff position. They finished with 104 points, good enough for 2nd in the division, only behind the Washington Capitals, this year’s President’s Trophy winner. It’s also good enough for the 2nd most points in the conference, giving the Penguins home ice against any Eastern opponent other than Washington.
And to think, in early December, the team was out of the playoff picture. They looked lost, unmotivated, and stoic. The team made a coaching change, and new coach Mike Sullivan has turned this team from the most boring team in hockey into a serious contender for the Stanley Cup. For more details on the coaching change, check out my column.
On Wednesday night, the Penguins begin round one of this year’s playoff against the familiar New York Rangers. Yes, the same Rangers that fought back after being down 3-1 to beat the Penguins in the second round two years ago. And yes, the same Rangers that turned the Penguins away in just five games in last year’s first round. There’s a lot of cliches that can be used here, and one would think maybe “third time’s a charm” for the Penguins. However, it goes way deeper than that. This Penguins team is different. They’re special. And unlike early December, they’re focused, motivated, and alive.
The Penguins have had success under Sullivan because they have done something that they had a hard time doing under Dan Bylsma (at times), and couldn’t come close to doing under Mike Johnston: they have established an identity. And that identity is that they play their game. That game is an aggressive forecheck, aggressive penalty kill, creativity in the offensive zone and the breakout of the defensive zone, and most importantly, speed. That’s what this team has defined “Penguins hockey” to be this year. And they play it no matter what. Whether they’re up 3-0, down 3-0, or tied late in the 3rd period or overtime. They don’t stray away from their game. And the most impressive part is that they’ve done it against the teams that would get inside their heads and rattle them. No more of trying to match numbers in the “hit” column against Flyers by throwing bodies all over the ice or trying to match Boston’s tough defensive game. No more letting Henrik Lundqvist getting in their heads. They aren’t intimidated by him anymore, and his cage can be rattled a little too. I mean, how can we forget this:
This Penguins team is not phased by anyone, And if anything, they force their game on their opponent. And if they can do that successfully, they won’t just win this round, but they’ll go deep in the playoffs. And I say that because I have a hard time believing any team in the East can keep up with the Penguins speed.
My X-factor for the series is Carl Hagelin. The Rangers used to be faster than the Penguins, but now the tables have turned. The addition of Hagelin is multiplied when playing the Rangers. The Rangers aren’t as fast without him, and the Penguins are faster with him. New York still has speed (Chris Kreider could give the Pens’ defense fits in this series), but the Penguins have more. And Hagelin playing on a line with Kessel had brought the best out of him, making that line arguably the most dangerous in hockey.
And to think that nobody named Crosby or Malkin is centering that line.
Both teams have injuries. The Rangers will be without their captain Ryan McDonagh for at least game one. The Penguins have a lot of question marks with their injuries. Marc-Andre Fleury has practiced both Monday and Tuesday, as has Olli Maata, but both still aren’t guaranteed for game one. Malkin, Murray, Rust, and Bennett are day-to-day, but I’d say we probably won’t see them until game three. The good thing is there’s a two-day gap between each of the first three games. Even with all the injuries, the Penguins have proven that they have depth. As I said before, they’ve won 14 of their last 16, and they’ve done it without Malkin. That’s scary. And I put to rest any fashion of an idea that Malkin would disrupt the chemistry of this team. That’s absurd. He’ll make the team even better. They won’t win the Stanley Cup without him.
For me, the Penguins speed and depth is too much for the Rangers to handle. The Rangers defense, especially for however long McDonagh is out for, isn’t as good as it used to be. Even if Zatkoff has to start the first two games, I still see the Penguins winning in five. They don’t have to rely on goaltending like they did early this year under Johnston. If the Penguins control the puck and the tempo, they’ll dominate the series. Even so, I think Lundqvist stands on his head and steals a game, but other than that, it will be all Penguins. It won’t be easy (as no playoff series is), but this team has what it takes. Like I said before, this team is special. Now, it’s time for them to play like it in the playoffs. Buckle up baby!
Follow me on Twitter @chalicke for more Penguins playoff coverage.
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