Penguins must get over midseason slump
This has been a bizarre season for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Starting with the mumps outbreak in December that sidelined captain Sidney Crosby, forwards Beau Bennett and Steve Downie, defensemen Olli Maata and backup goalie Thomas Greiss, the Penguins have had an unusual season even for their standards.
Crosby and assistant captain Evgeni Malkin have been relatively healthy compared to their prolonged absences in the previous few seasons, top goalkeeper Marc-Andre Fleury is third in Goals Against Average, and for once the defense is outpacing the offense with Pittsburgh placing fifth in goals against average, versus ninth in goals for average.
All of this statistical success and health should be the indicator of a monstrous season for the Penguins, but yet the results have been decidedly subpar.
At one point falling out of the guaranteed top three divisional playoff spots, Pittsburgh has been scrapping along in a Metropolitan division they were expected to put in their rear view mirror a long time ago.
Thankfully, in a weak Eastern Conference, the Penguins would need a catastrophic collapse to miss the playoffs entirely, although a little stumble may be all that’s needed for the Washington Capitals to jump Pittsburgh in the standings and force the Penguins into a wild card slot.
There are many teams in the NHL who would love to be sitting pretty in the playoff picture 75 percent through the season, but playoffs aren’t good enough for Pittsburgh.
Since the beginning of the current era of Crosby and Malkin, the motto has been Stanley Cup or bust.
And while there was one true success under the plan, that was over a half decade ago.
There is a new coach and general manager after the string of early playoff exits, but the mindset is the same.
At the trade deadline that comes to a close on Monday, the Penguins reprised in their role as aggressive buyers, this year picking up defensive forward Daniel Winnik from the Toronto Maple Leafs, winger David Perron from the Edmonton Oilers and center Max Lapierre from the St. Louis Blues.
These acquisitions were mainly focused on the major glaring flaw that has faced Pittsburgh in playoffs the past few years, a lack of toughness and grit.
Hockey is fundamentally different from the rest of professional sports in its dramatic shift in play between the regular season and the playoffs.
The Penguins have long thrived on the wide open play of the regular season, with the long quick passes, finesse and skill as they railroad their opponents, but come playoff time these passing lanes narrow and finesse and skills are replaced by strength and cross checking.
In this new game paradigm, Pittsburgh has struggled, but its new moves, while done in the same aggressive fashion as previous years, have focused on reinforcing a different weakness.
Ultimately, for Penguins fans, the regular season may as well be the pre-season. Playoffs are the only thing that matters, and as such, much of these regular season stats and results must be taken with a grain of salt.
Recent Pittsburgh history has taught us that regular season success is not a particularly good indicator of post-season victory.
Maybe these additions will help the push the Penguins back over the hump, or maybe this will be another in the long string of early playoff exits.
The more things look different for Pittsburgh, the more they are the same, but only time can tell if these changes are superficial or meaningful.
Either way, it’s time for Pittsburgh to get out of its winter hibernation and warm up for playoff hockey.
Hopefully, it’ll be a nice long run into the warm summer months or fans will continue to be left out in the cold.