On March 22nd, the defending Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins clinched a playoff berth with a 3-1 win against the Buffalo Sabres. In the process, Sidney Crosby lost two of his front teeth and scared Penguins fans who have seen virtually their entire starting lineup lost to injuries. Now, Crosby is showing how great he really is by dragging an AHL lineup to the NHL playoffs.
Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Chris Kunitz, Chis Hagelin, Olli Maatta, Trevor Daley, and now Matt Cullen have all had serious injuries this season, forcing the Penguins to play unready rookies and call up players from their AHL affiliate, the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins. The team, however, has remained one of the top teams in the NHL, sitting in second place in the stacked Metropolitan Division behind the Washington Capitals. This is largely thanks to Sidney Crosby’s amazing play this season, and the quality of rookies the Pens have picked up to replace their starters.
First, Crosby is delivering another great year for the Penguins, and has stepped up since fellow star Evgeni Malkin injured his shoulder in mid march. Crosby leads the league with 42 goals, and has already exceeded last year’s Stanley Cup-winning points total with 3 games left in the season. Critically, Crosby’s 17% shooting percentage (how many shots actually goals) is the best he’s had since 2010, meaning he’s been a more efficient scorer and is allowing other players to take more shots on goal.
Crosby has had 6 goals and 14 points in the 11 games since Malkin’s injury, allowing the Pens to go 7-2-2 in his absence. He’s been scoring crazy, high-IQ goals like the one above against the New York Rangers and playing much tougher hockey throughout. Crosby has 80 hits on the season, approaching the career-high of 90 that he had last year, and has 24 blocked shots so far this season. His production has remained on the All-Star level through the entire season, and has been a staple of Pens offensive production again this season.
Another critical element to the Penguin’s success despite their injury-riddled lineup has been the strength of their goaltending, particularly Matt Murray. The 22 year old is only in his sophomore year in the NHL, but started many of the Pens playoff games after Marc-Andre Fleury got injured. He’s kept up with his amazing rookie year production this year, with a crazy .923 save percentage, 2.41 goals against average, and 32 wins out of 47 games started. His consistency between the posts hase been a blessing for the Pens, and he’s saved them in many close games.
Of course, it’d be a crime to not mention the contributions that have come from the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins, as the rookies have been able to deliver some surprisingly good hockey when the Pens desperately needed it. First and foremost on that list is Center Jake Guentzel, who has 15 goals and 16 assists in 39 games. Guentzel has had injury problems of his own, getting diagnosed with a concussion in the same game Crosby lost his teeth, but has come back and scored in each of the last Pens four games.
Conor Sheary is only in his second year with the Pens, and he’s made a massive improvement since his rookie year. Sheary has 23 goals and 30 assists this year, up from 7 and 3 last year. After only playing 17 games in the 2015-2016 season, Justin Schultz has stepped up in Kris Letang’s absence and has 38 assists on the season. Bryan Rust has also made great improvements since last year, with 15 goals and 13 assists when compared to 4 goals and 7 assists last year. Tom Kuhnhackl has also made great defensive improvements since last year, netting 54 more hits and 9 more blocks.
This Penguins squad should be healthier in their first round matchup with the Columbus Blue Jackets, as Malkin is projected to return for at least a couple regular season games. But even if they aren’t, Crosby’s greatness and their quality rookies can still get the team far in their attempt to win another Stanley Cup.
The Fourth String team