Who exactly are the Pittsburgh Penguins?
Pittsburgh’s NHL team was revitalized when Sidney Crosby was acquired in the draft, and since then their front office has been committed to building around a core of Sid the Kid and Evgeni Malkin.
That strategy netted them two cup finals appearances and one Stanley Cup Championship, but in years other than those great ones, there have been plenty of questions. Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury has matched stellar regular seasons with complete postseason meltdowns.
The defense has been an issue on and off (but mostly on). And now the Penguins are seeing something particularly disturbing: Sidney Crosby has had his slowest start to the season since his very first year in the league.
How Can the Penguins Win While Sidney Crosby Slumps?
So Crosby is slumping, and the Penguins are – well, pretty good, actually. They’re 9-5-0, which is good for third in the Metropolitan behind only the New York Rangers and the Washington Capitals. Only one other Eastern Conference team besides those just mentioned (the Canadiens) has 9 or more wins.
The Penguins recently rattled off a six-game winning streak, with five of the six wins coming on the road. Johnny Gaudreau’s Flames ended that streak, but the Penguins seem ready for Wednesday night’s showdown with the elite Montreal Canadiens. How did we get here?
A Penguins Defense That Doesn’t Stink
Don’t look now, but the Penguins can play defense. In fact, the Penguins defense has been more effective since the day that that head coach Mike Johnston was put in charge. It’s a smart move.
Defensive prowess is more reliable than offensive production, and NHL refs are (increasingly, one might argue) prone to swallowing the whistle on borderline calls – especially in the playoffs. When things get physical in the postseason, a tough defense can be a lot more valuable than a finesse offense.
Offense-first Pittsburgh has often seen their season come to an end when poor defending fails to help (and perhaps actively sparks) a Fleury meltdown, or when physical defense from the opposition bests Crosby and Malkin.
It’s different this year. That’s the reason why the Penguins are winning during this Crosby slump: the Penguins defense is really, really good this year. They’ve allowed an average of 2.00 goals per game, which is good for third in the 30-team league. Only the Montreal Canadiens and New York Rangers have fared better. That’s pretty elite company.
No, we’re not going to ignore the Penguins’ big offseason move. Bringing in Phil Kessel was huge for the Pens, in part because they finally got a decent deal in trade. The new front office appears to have a more sustainable plan for the Pens, and it doesn’t involve overpaying for rentals mid-season.
The Penguins were also smart enough to move Kessel to Malkin’s line, valuing the way those two play together over the outdated idea of loading as much talent as possible into the first line. Crosby’s slump continues, but Kessel and Malkin have made each other better, helping to compensate for the loss of Crosby’s production.
With new offensive threats, the Penguins are more poised than ever to survive a Crosby slump. Sure, it doesn’t help that Sid is starting slow, but the Penguins are proving something very, very important right now. In the past, scoring issues from one or two players (Crosby and Malkin) could easily torpedo the Penguins in the playoffs. Now the Penguins rely on something a little less streaky. Rare as Crosby slumps are, they do happen, and this year the Penguins are prepared with a diverse offense and a very solid defense.