Penguins better equipped now than past seasons to withstand loss of Letang
The stage is set.
The Washington Capitals have clinched the President Trophy for the second consecutive season, setting up a Penguins – Blue Jackets first round series.
With Kris Letang out for the season, the talk out there is the Pittsburgh Penguins have no chance to repeat as Stanley Champions.
That talk is understandable.
The last six to seven years have showed that having a No. 1 franchise defenseman is one of the most if not the most important ingredient to winning a Cup.
Drew Doughty, Duncan Keith, Zdeno Chara among the classic examples in recent years and Kris Letang even so last post-season where for the first time in his career, Letang brought that consistent No. 1 caliber level play throughout the playoffs that had been missing in past years from him.
Any doom and gloom out there surrounding the Penguins isn’t surprising.
But, the Letang season ending injury still isn’t a game changer in the Eastern Conference.
The only team in Pittsburgh’s way is Washington, which would still be the case if Letang was healthy.
Even without Letang, the Penguins will and would be favored against any other team in the Eastern conference except Washington.
Losing a defenseman like Letang is a major loss but what still gets overlooked with the Penguins is how they are built by committee from the way they play.
It’s the little things that get you over the top.
The Penguins block shots at an elite level, under Sullivan they hunt pucks better then any Penguins team in the Crosby era ever had before Sullivan came on board last December.
Talent trumps everything and the Penguins have a lot of it, but the Penguins do have a special thing going where skaters 1-18 just bring such a high compete level on a nightly basis that makes them a tough out nearly every night and what will make them a tough out once again this post-season.
Devils coach John Hynes gave the Penguins the ultimate compliment when speaking about the club today.
“I personally think their competitiveness is their best asset,” said Hynes via the Tribune-Review. “When you look at guys like Kuhnhackl, Sheary, the way Crosby plays. Lots of people talk about their D corps, all those guys go back, they touch pucks first. They can make plays under pressure. They’re strong at the net front. You look at their forwards, they play a fast game and they’re tenacious, but they’re relentless on the puck. I think that’s something, to beat Pittsburgh, you have to play with pace and speed, but you have to be able to get to the puck and win the puck and not let them have it all night.”
The Penguins chances in a series with Washington has certainly taken a hit, and this might just finally be Washington’s year anyways, but the Penguins are better equipped now then they ever were to withstand the loss of Letang.
This group is certainly still capable to win the East, especially if there’s no drop off from Matt Murray who has a career save percentage of .925. The improved goaltending from previous playoff runs doesn’t get talked about enough as another factor not to bet against the Penguins.
Which Malkin will show up for playoffs?
— A game changer for the rest of the East will be what Evgeni Malkin shows up. Malkin who will be back for the playoffs and may return in one of the final two regular season games, was playing at an MVP level before his injury which was a tough blow for Malkin as it’s been a yearly trend where his body starts to break down late in seasons with injuries and he’s not at full strength in the playoffs.
The Crosby line is just too skilled and fast to slow down from driving play and if Malkin is firing on all cylinders in the playoffs like he was prior to his injury, Columbus is going to have their hands full in round 1.
As the Penguins close out the regular season this week, we know Chris Kunitz will be out multiple weeks and Kris Letang is done for the season. The only question marks for now on whether they’ll be options to play for the start of the playoffs are Carl Hagelin and Olli Maatta. Maatta not a lock to be put back into the lineup when healthy anyways.
On Hagelin, the talk in team circles is he should return at somepoint in the first round series but as of right now is a long-shot to be ready for Game 1.
Streit getting a rest game or tonight a sign he may be odd man out in playoffs?
The Penguins lose so much offensively with Letang out but can a more defensive minded No. 1 pairing be capable enough and the offense comes from the second, third pairings?
The Brian Dumoulin – Ron Hainsey has shown some promise in recent games in being able to limit high danger chances. A key for the Penguins in the playoffs is being able to let Justin Schultz avoid the tougher line matchups. If the Dumoulin – Hainsey pairing can handle it like the Penguins expect, it will have a positive trickledown effect.
When it started to became clear in recent days that Letang wasn’t returning anytime soon, the Mark Streit acquisition started to look bigger. Not from the standpoint of being able to replace what Letang does as Streit’s a third pairing defenseman, but he gives that needed skill dimension from the backend to get pucks out cleanly and fuel the transition game, while also man the second power play unit.