Why Not the Pittsburgh Penguins?

Marc-Andre Fleury must continue to be the backbone for the Pittsburgh Penguins to even have a chance. (Elsa/Getty Images)

Marc-Andre Fleury has given this team a chance night after night and hopefully will continue to do so. (Elsa/Getty Images)

By: Joe Guzy

It took 82 games, but the Pittsburgh Penguins punched their ticket to the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs. It took a win against the “nothing left to lose” Buffalo Sabres. It took wrap-around after wrap-around against the 6-foot-6-inch Anders Lindback, but Brandon Sutter found a way. It took a new set of stitches to bring Sutter off the ice only to come out of the locker room and put another one behind Lindback. It took a perfect game from Marc-Andre Fleury to keep the team in front of him confident while he earned is league-leading 10th shutout. It took the Penguins finally holding on to a lead for 11 minutes and 34 seconds.

It took all of that to earn two measly points to squeak into the playoffs at the last possible minute. Now what?

The Penguins are without their hopeful Norris Trophy candidate in Kris Letang for any hockey they have left to play. According to Meesh’s Goal Assessments, Letang contributed to 64 of the Penguins’ 221 goals this season. That’s a modest 29-percent to lead the Penguins’ defense. Next in line? Christian Ehrhoff at 9-percent. Two players down and the Penguins already have quite a bit working against them.

For good measure, remember that this team is without an extra 20-goal scorer in Pascal Dupuis. Remember that this team is without a budding defenseman in Olli Maatta. Remember that this team is well in the lead for NHL man-games lost quality since the 2009-2010 season.

Why even believe in a team that doesn’t have a 30-goal scorer? Why even believe in a team that can’t solve their depth issues? Why even believe in a team that didn’t once come back to win a game in the third period this season? Why even believe they can accomplish anything in the post-season? Let alone against the President’s Trophy winning New York Rangers. Seriously, nearly everything is very much against these Penguins.

Heck, why even tune in?

History will be… repeated?

Advanced statistics have been heavily in favor of the Penguins this year. Continuously getting pucks to the net earned Rob Scuderi a goal against the New York Islanders for crying out loud. If the Penguins can get the slightest resemblance of a decent puck-moving defenseman in their lineup to push their current system as far as it can go, there is a chance they keep these numbers moving forward. If they put the shots on net like they did during the home stretch, there is a chance. A chance might be all these struggling Penguins need.

Goaltending

Here are the adjusted save-percentages of Marc-Andre Fleury and Henrik Lundqvist:
(Note: Seven-game moving average was used to account for Lundqvist’s seven starts to finish the 2014-2015 season)

  • 2013-2014
    Fleury/Lundqvist - 2013/2014
  • 2014-2015
    Fleury/Lunqvist - 2014/2015The steady line of inactivity is due to an injury that has only allowed Lundqvist to play seven games since February 2nd.  

While Marc-Andre Fleury is certainly not to blame for the Penguins blowing a 3-1 series lead against the Rangers last season, Henrik Lundqvist certainly did play a big part in the Rangers pulling off the upset. Lundqvist’s injury this season did not prevent him from finishing strong, posting a .932 save-percentage over his last five games. In regards to Lundqvist’s lack of starts down the stretch, an argument could be made either way for if it will help or hurt the net minder.

In the case of Marc-Andre Fleury, Meesh’s Goal Assessments tell us that he was at fault for just under 14-percent of the 146 goals he allowed this season. While it may just be hearsay, it certainly seems like an improvement over the “really Fleury?” of the past. Not to mention Fleury’s .920 save-percentage this season accompanied by 10 shoutouts earned Fleury one heck of a season.

Will it come down to a goaltending duel? It’s possible. The Rangers have quite the arsenal of defenseman in front of Lundqvist right now. The Penguins will start the post-season with three of theirs being call-ups from the American Hockey League. To even have a chance in this series, Fleury will have to elevate his game even more. Based on his play this season, I wouldn’t rule it out.

Roster Composition

Nothing has hurt this Penguins team more than their overall roster composition this season. Below replacement-level players have found themselves in lineup more often than not. Those players have played exactly how you would expect them to. The only reason the Penguins still found themselves in a position to win the last game of the regular to advance to the playoffs is because of the heavy lifting done by Crosby, Malkin, Letang and Fleury.

However two gems have stood out from this less than desirable roster.

Patric Hornqvist is everything that a “normal” Pittsburgh Penguin was not last season. He lives in the crease. He annoys goalies to no end. He plays a full game. He’s the change of pace the Penguins needed. He’s also the nuisance the Penguins will need to get in Lundqvist’s head. Hornqvist can take a beating from the opposition’s defense without taking a penalty. With a group of studs in front of Lundqvist, it sure would be nice to agitate one of them enough to take a penalty. Take one of them away and now you have a battle of the “qvist’s”. We’ve seen goalies retaliate against Hornqvist already this season. Why not drive Lundqvist to break his stick over the crossbar night after night?

While Lundqvist is going for Hornqvist’s ankles, hopefully Steve Downie can save Sidney Crosby from another round Marc Staal neck-checks. Even better if he can draw a penalty in the process. Downie did a great job earlier in the season of walking a very fine line and agitating the opposition enough to take a run at him. If he can follow Hornqvist’s lead of just taking the beating, the Penguins will get even more chances on the man-advantage. Whether they can actually make it an advantage is another story.

A little youth added to the mix with the return of Derrick Pouliot and the calling up of Scott Harrington and Brian Dumoulin certainly won’t hurt either. It’s already very obvious what Derrick Pouliot can do. Hopefully some fresh legs will be able to provide some relief from the Penguins’ five overworked defensemen. Besides, what is a cinderella story without some unlikely heroes?

Why not?

The Penguins are not even close to being favorites this year. Just winning one game against the New York Rangers would be a big moral (and literal) victory for this team. But if one win leads to a two, who knows?

We’ve seen the pesky Columbus Blue Jackets drive the Pittsburgh Penguins’ star-studded roster absolutely insane. We’ve seen the Boston Bruins sweep the Penguins in the Eastern Conference Final while making goals seem like a dream. We’ve seen leads blown on the scoreboard. We’ve seen a series lead disappear in an instant. We’ve seen the Los Angeles Kings need 21 games just to get to the final dance.

Crazier things have happened. These are the Stanley Cup Playoffs after all.