With captain Sidney Crosby
back in the lineup, the Penguins are widely considered to be a favorite to win the Stanley Cup.
But they deserve that label no matter what, and here’s why.
With their 8-4 win over Winnipeg Tuesday, the Penguins now lead the NHL in goals scored with 239 (that includes nine goals which were awarded in shootout wins) and that’s with Crosby playing just 12 games.
When Crosby played 41 games in 2010-11, the Penguins finished the season ranked 13th in that category. They’ve already surpassed last year’s total (228) with 10 regular-season games left to play.
In addition to Evgeni Malkin
's Hart-worthy season, credit must be given to many Penguins who are having big seasons offensively. There is James Neal
, who’s evolved into an elite sniper at the NHL level with 35 tallies this year. There is Jordan Staal
, who has 22 goals in just 52 games played. There are veterans like Pascal Dupuis
and Matt Cooke
, who have made a living by excelling in defensive roles but are also having career years offensively – Dupuis has a personal-best 21 goals; Cooke has a career-high 16.
The best way to summarize it is that the Penguins have been getting timely goals from all over their forward lineup.
“We’re doing the right things,” Crosby said. “We have a lot of depth and a lot of things that can make us successful up front.”
But what’s especially scary about this Penguins squad is that not only are they the league’s highest-scoring team, but they’ve worked hard to become one of the NHL’s best defensive clubs.
Led by goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury
, Pittsburgh has allowed just 181 goals against, which ranks seventh in the league and third in the Eastern Conference. That makes for an impressive plus-55 goal differential, second in the NHL behind only defending Cup champs Boston (plus-58).
In addition, Pittsburgh ranks among the NHL’s top five in special teams. Their power play ranks fifth (19.5-percent success rate) while the penalty kill is third (89.3-percent success rate).
The Penguins’ success in all of those categories – offense, defense, power play and penalty kill – is the result of head coach Dan Bylsma’s system being executed perfectly by the players.
“That’s Pittsburgh Penguins ice hockey,” assistant coach Todd Reirden explained. “We want to spend as little time in the defensive zone as possible. We want to tilt the ice where we’re spending the majority of the game on the offensive zone. We feel that gives us the best chance to have success. I think that everyone understands that’s our team identity. That’s how we’re built. For us to have success and continue to play for a while at the end of the season here and reach our ultimate goal, that’s going to have to continue to be something we rely on.”
Playing defense the way the Penguins draw it up has resulted in the offense they’re currently producing. But at the end of the day, the team still isn’t satisfied with their execution in their own end. It’s an area they want to tighten up heading into the postseason.
“It starts with defense,” Crosby said. “Obviously you don’t want to play in your own end. The quicker we can get out of there, the more we can work offensively and wear teams down. I think playing in your own zone is always a work in progress, but we have the defensemen to break the puck out quick and hopefully put pressure on teams.”
And Zbynek Michalek
and the rest of the Penguins blueliners know their role spans the entire length of the ice.
“Defense is not only about defensemen and goalies,” he said. “It’s about the forwards, too – all five guys playing as a unit. Same thing goes for offense. We, as the defensemen, want to help the forwards jump in the play and jump in the rush, too. That’s how our system is and how our coaches want us to play. They want us to play as a five-man unit. Everybody has a job out there. Just play together as a team.”
That constant striving for perfection has gotten the Penguins to where they are now. And they know that must continue if they want to achieve their ultimate goal.
“We aren’t perfect and we know that,” Michalek said. “We are happy where we are right now, I guess, but we still feel we can get better. We know it’s going to get even tougher going forward. We’ve got to make sure we are better and that’s a good thing that we are never satisfied.”