In a world where the Patriots didn’t exist (and what a world that would be), perhaps the gold (and black) standard for bucking against the tides, refusing to be victims of a salary cap and system specifically designed to prevent sustained success, and just general obstinance would be the Pittsburgh Penguins. We’re going on 13 years where the Penguins have been near the top of the standings. And it’s happening again.
The Pens looked awful last night in the first period against the Vegas Golden Knights, leading to all sorts of “Vegas flu” jokes. They were down 3-0, and it looked like a night you just want to get out of without anyone getting hurt or more hungover than they already were. And then they stormed back in the last 40 minutes, scored five straight goals for a 5-3 win over one of the West’s best teams in their own house. The win puts the Penguins in the last automatic playoff spot in the Metro, three points behind the Rangers with a game in hand.
Should I mention that Evgeni Malkin has played only four games?
So what are they doing here, when all logic suggests that salary cap concerns and age should have shoved them off to the Sparkling Hills Rest Home For Formerly Great Hockey Teams long ago? They attack it from all angles, which is the only way.
One, they get surprising performances from nowhere. We present Evan Rodrigues, your honor. Rodrigues was the definition of a grunt for his entire NHL career, and proved my personal rule that if you captained your college hockey team, you suck. Now he’s sitting there with 15 goals on the season, getting more power play time than he ever has thanks to the Pens’ injury problems, and also the catbird seat known as “Sidney Crosby’s winger.” And this was a guy that the Penguins traded to Toronto before last season as pure ballast that they simply re-signed when the Leafs didn’t want him.
They also get goaltending, and cheaply. This time around, it’s Tristan Jarry, carrying a .928 save percentage on the season and ranking sixth in goals saved above expected, making $3.5 million on his second contract. This after they wrung two Cups out of Matt Murray, who replaced Marc-Andre Fleury, and then moved on from both when they became expensive. This is the same ploy as trying to win with your QB on his rookie contract, because of the space it provides to pay other spots. It also means being able to develop a goalie regularly, which only the Penguins seem capable of (the Preds have done it too, but a decade apart). If they were paying their goalie the going-rate, there may be no room for Jeff Carter or Kasperi Kapanen or the like.
There’s the usual story of the bedrock of their defense, as Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin on the top pairing continue to drive play for the 87th straight year. Or John Marino and Marcus Pettersson behind them. Or Mike Matheson and Chad Ruhwedel behind that. They go one through six.
Matheson is yet another example of what the Penguins do well, and that is cashing in on an important piece that’s gotten old and expensive to reload. Matheson was acquired for Patric Hörnqvist. Hörnqvist was acquired for James Neal. They eventually turned Phil Kessel into Jason Zucker.
Or you can just rob people blind in trades, while scouting yourself better than other teams do. Like getting Marino for a 6th round pick from the Oilers, Kapanen out of the Leafs’ cap problems. Or Pettersson out of Anaheim for Daniel Sprong, perhaps one of this decade’s greatest teases.
Also helps that they might have the best coach in the league at making chicken salad out of whatever variety of chicken shit he’s handed in Mike Sullivan. Need to put Rodrigues on the top line? Sure, we’ll find a way. Sullivan has also authored a huge change in the Pens’ penalty kill, which might be the biggest reason they are where they are. They’re second in the league in PK rate at 89.5 percent, behind only Carolina. The kill is more indicative of future success, and the Penguins never giving up a goal while shorthanded means you have to beat them at evens, which they’re also excellent in (6th in Corsi percentage and 3rd in expected goals percentage). The Pens kill those penalties by pressuring higher up the ice than most, trying to keep teams out of the offensive zone altogether, which they can do because just about everyone can skate well.
It is amazing that the Penguins are still here after all their contemporaries fell by the wayside. They came to prominence in back-to-back Finals against the Red Wings in 2008 and 2009. The Wings haven’t been relevant since. The Hawks supposedly usurped the Pens window with three Cups in six years. They’re currently working on their fifth-straight playoff-less season. The Kings have missed the playoffs four of the last five seasons and five out of the last seven. Even the Bruins, who are a bounce and a couple inches from being in the Multiple Cup Club, had two playoff-less seasons. The current royalty, the Tampa Bay Lightning, missed the playoffs not all that long ago and then crashed out in the first round as one of the best regular season teams ever.
The thing about the Penguins is that they’re rarely, clearly the best team in the league. They just kind of hang around. Both their recent Cup wins saw them finish second in their division. They’ve only won their division four times in the Crosby-Malkin era. But in the NHL, with their goofus overtime rules and shootouts and three-point games and interminable slog that is the season, generally there’s just a group of five or six at the top that you can’t really split, no matter how they finished the 82. The Penguins are always there, and waiting around for things to break their way like they did in 2016 and 2017. It’s all you can do.
Now Malkin’s healthy. So is Zucker. Crosby is still a point-per-game. They’re getting goaltending. Maybe their age will leave them gasping for air come the playoffs and they’ll get popped in the first round. But maybe they won’t. That’s always been enough for the Pens, and that’s why they’re always around.