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Five reasons Penguins clinched playoff berth

by Dan Rosen / NHL.com

The Pittsburgh Penguins are in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the ninth straight season.

They stumbled to the finish line, but the Penguins gave themselves a chance to see the real impact of the organizational overhaul undergone since elimination from the playoffs last season in the Eastern Conference Second Round.

General manager Jim Rutherford and coach Mike Johnston have their fingerprints all over a team that under former GM Ray Shero and ex-coach Dan Bylsma followed a Stanley Cup championship in 2009 by being a perennial playoff disappointment.

The Penguins never made it back to the Stanley Cup Final during the stewardship of Shero and Bylsma; never won a game beyond the second round of the playoffs.

Now Rutherford and Johnston get their first chance to win in the spring with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. At least they hope to have each player. If there is one thing that's for certain this season, it's to never take a healthy player for granted.

The Penguins are in the playoffs despite another injury-ravaged season. A playoff run will potentially be undertaken without three of the top four defensemen in Olli Maatta, Kris Letang and Christian Ehrhoff. Letang has reportedly been ruled out for the season with a concussion.

Regardless of the injuries and the Penguins late-season slump, expectations remain high and anything short of a trip to the Cup Final likely would be seen as a disappointment.

The Penguins took their first step toward reaching the Cup Final by clinching a playoff berth on Saturday.

Here are five reasons the Penguins clinched a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs:

1. Flower power

The one constant throughout the season was goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. He had been constant throughout most of his recent injury plagued seasons, but Fleury was never as good as he was this season.

He had a career-high and League-best 10 shutouts, and finished with a career-high save percentage of .920. He had a 2.32 goals-against average.

Fleury was Pittsburgh's best penalty killer and is the biggest reason why it was among the League's best penalty-killing teams. He had a .912 save percentage on the PK, which was second in the League among goalies with 40 appearances behind Semyon Varlamov of the Colorado Avalanche.

A key to the Penguins' success was their strong start because it gave them breathing room as they began to accumulate injuries. Fleury was a big reason, going 20-6-3 with six shutouts, a .928 save percentage and 2.12 GAA in 30 appearances before Jan. 1.

2. Letang's bid for the Norris Trophy

The odds of winning in the playoffs are considerably worse because Letang reportedly will not play because of a concussion. With due respect to Crosby and Malkin, Letang was arguably the most valuable skater this season. He could be a finalist for the Norris Trophy, and was a huge reason for the playoff berth.

Letang had 54 points and a plus-12 rating while playing 25:29 per game in 69 games. He had a 55.71 shot attempts percentage (SAT%), which was eighth in the League among defensemen who played at least 50 games. That means the Penguins took 55.71 percent of the even-strength shot attempts when Letang was on the ice. That number went to 59.18 SAT% when Letang was on the ice and the Penguins were trailing.

Simply put, Letang was a possession driver for the Penguins because of his ability to limit opportunities in the defensive end and convert them into sustained possession on a consistent basis in the offensive end. He can't be replaced.

3. 87 and 71

This list couldn't go on any further without mentioning the importance of Crosby and Malkin. Obvious as it may be, the Penguins are nowhere without these two superstars, still the best 1-2 punch at center for any team in the NHL.

Crosby had a subpar regular season by his statistical standards, but he stayed at the top relative to the League's scoring pace, which is down this season.

Crosby finished with 84 points and 28 goals in 77 games, third in the League. He won the Art Ross Trophy last season with 104 points in 80 games and won it in 2006-07 with 120 points in 79 games.

Malkin finished with 70 points in 69 games. He missed time with various injuries, but tied for the team lead with 28 goals. He won the Art Ross Trophy in 2011-12 with 109 points.

4. Rutherford's role players

Rutherford identified the need for depth at the forward position when he was hired as Shero's replacement in June. He thought the Penguins' lineup was too top heavy and susceptible to scoring droughts. Last season, the Penguins lost Games 5-7 of the Eastern Conference Second Round series against the New York Rangers scoring three goals.

Rutherford traded James Neal (61 points in 59 games last season) and didn't re-sign Jussi Jokinen (57 points in 81 games last season), but his acquisitions of Blake Comeau, Patric Hornqvist, David Perron, Nick Spaling, Steve Downie, Daniel Winnik and Maxim Lapierre made the Penguins deeper up front despite not having the potential for Neal's 30 goals and Jokinen's 60 points.

The new acquisitions accounted for 170 points (78 goals and 92 assists). Hornqvist, Comeau, Perron and Downie have accounted for 132 points, 14 more than Neal and Jokinen combined for last season, but the Penguins were able to spread that scoring across three lines.

Hornqvist's 25 goals likely would have been higher if he didn't miss 18 games with injuries. Comeau's 16 goals could have been higher if he didn't miss 20 games.

In addition, Perron, who had 12 goals in 43 games, would have been on pace for more than 20 goals if he played in Pittsburgh and with Crosby from the start of the season.

Downie brought an edge to the lineup, as evidenced by his League-high 238 penalty minutes, but also had 14 goals and 28 points mostly playing in a third-line role with Spaling and Brandon Sutter.

Spaling was acquired with Hornqvist in a trade for Neal at the draft last June. He doesn't do anything flashy, but he does a lot of things well. Spaling is a third-line wing who finished with 27 points in 82 games.

5. Penalty kill

The Penguins dealt with discipline issues all season, losing their composure in some games while being the most penalized team in the NHL. It didn't affect their bottom line as much as it could have because they have one of the best penalty kills in the League.

Pittsburgh had the best PK in the Eastern Conference at 84.8 percent despite being shorthanded 277 times. Only the Detroit Red Wings, Columbus Blue Jackets and Winnipeg Jets were shorthanded more than the Penguins, who led the NHL with 18 misconducts and four game misconducts.

Sutter was tied for second in the NHL with four of Pittsburgh's six shorthanded goals. They have spread out the PK duties; 10 current roster players are averaging at least 1:50 of shorthanded ice time per game.

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