The Penguins beat the Devils 7-4 in Newark to clinch the second spot in the Metropolitan, and, crucially, home-ice advantage for their first-round matchup against the Blue Jackets. Pittsburgh got goals from seven different skaters, but the highlight of the night was, without question, an assist.
The player to keep an eye on when this video starts is Sidney Crosby, who carries the puck in on the right. Specifically, the little glance back over his shoulder he casts (best visible on the replay at 0:41) before dropping the puck between his legs to Conor Sheary for a wide-open goal.
Even setting aside Crosby’s helper, this is a textbook 3-on-2 by the Penguins—the sort of highlight a coach would show kids to illustrate how to run an odd-man rush. The core of the 3-on-2 is the someone is going to be open, and the way to keep it that way is to keep moving the puck and avoid bunching up to prevent the defenders from being able to settle in and clog the passing lanes. Andy Greene and Ben Lovejoy do a fine job of swarming toward the puck, but the Pens—Crosby to Sheary to Jake Guentzel to Crosby to Sheary—quickly get rid of it, each time drawing the blueliners further out of position and forcing them to commit.
So by the time Crosby finds himself in front, surrounded on all sides by red, he knows that Sheary, alone and coming in behind him, would have the best shot of anyone. That little glance—and Crosby’s greatest skill is his awareness of everything happening around him—is enough to put his head back down and make his drop pass a no-look, fooling Cory Schneider and giving Sheary an open net.
If the Penguins are going to go far this spring, it’ll probably look a lot like last year, with goalscoring coming from up and down the lineup. That Cup-winning team’s depth came in large part from some excellent trades and affordable veteran free-agent signings, but this year’s crop is home-grown. Guentzel, a rookie who has played himself onto the top line, has now scored in four straight games and has 31 points in 39 games. The fourth line of Scott Wilson, Carter Rowney, and Josh Archibald, all played together in Wilkes-Barre. And while it’s easy to forget, given how big a part of the offense they’ve become, Sheary and Bryan Rust are both just 24 years old.
There are a lot of reasons to be optimistic about Pittsburgh’s chances, even with Kris Letang done for the season. But they all have to be tempered by the path the Penguins will have to take to the Cup. Because of the Metropolitan division’s strength, and the divisional playoff seeding, the Pens get the 106-point Blue Jackets to start off. Though Columbus is slumping, this is, in the 37-year history of the 16-team playoff format, only the second time two of the NHL’s top four teams will face each other in the first round, as Matt Gajtka points out.
This is no picnic for anyone, including the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Capitals, who if they win their first-round matchup will get the winners of Penguins-Blue Jackets. As a commenter noted here yesterday, the Eastern Conference’s 1-seed is playing the 8-seed, with the winner being “rewarded” with the winner of the 2-3 matchup. Much, much better to be the Canadiens or Rangers, the winner of whose first-round matchup will get the Atlantic’s runners-up and the smoothest path to the conference finals.