How the Penguins once again will (or won't) win Stanley Cup
The Penguins won the Stanley Cup five years ago. Nothing they have done since seems to have mattered because they have not won it again.
Their next “race to four” — coach Dan Bylsma's assessment for a best-of-seven playoff series during that Cup run — begins this week when the postseason opens.
Much has changed in five years. Captain Sidney Crosby and fellow scoring-champion center Evgeni Malkin have come up empty when it mattered. Marc-Andre Fleury has gone from a big-game goalie to one pulled from a postseason. General manager Ray Shero has pushed some wrong buttons. Bylsma's system has failed.
Oh, and the Penguins are not the favorite to win the Cup, at least not this year.
A never-ending run of injuries, limited depth and post-Olympics struggles have contributed to lower expectations — if not negativity — from fans who believe it should be Cup-or-bust in Pittsburgh.
There are a lot of reasons people do not believe the Penguins can reclaim the Cup. However, there also are reasons to believe they might surprise the hockey world.
They did five years ago.
Reasons to believe
Three signs this postseason will end with a Cup comeback:
5: Shutouts recorded by goalie Marc-Andre Fleury this season
Marc-Andre Fleury is 14-16 with a 3.18 goals-against average and .880 save percentage over the past four postseasons — and he was yanked after four games in Round 1 last year.
Statistical trends are not on his side.
Well, one is, if only as a possible measure of an improved intangible. Fleury spent the summer working with a sports psychologist. Management believed he required help to find the focus necessary for a goalie to thrive in the heat of a playoff series.
Fleury turned in another sound regular-season campaign but also one with a career-best number of shutouts. Nothing in a regular season tests a goalie's focus more than keeping a shutout.
Fleury blanked five opponents. He had recorded eight shutouts in 232 prior regular-season games.
The last time Fleury had this many shutouts, he followed with a championship postseason.
Sid and Geno
31: Combined even-strength goals by Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin this season
In the past three playoff series the Penguins have lost with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in the lineup, the franchise centers have combined to produce eight goals in 17 games — and just one point in elimination losses. They were blanked in a sweep at the hands of Boston in the 2013 Eastern Conference final.
None of this seems to suggest Crosby and Malkin are poised to do what they did during the 2009 Cup run: become the only two players of the past eight years to top 30 points in a postseason.
However, Crosby and Malkin will finish first and second, respectively, in points-per-game scoring in the regular season. That never happened in a season in which both players appeared in at least 60 games.
They finished first (Malkin) and third (Crosby) in points per game for 2008-09, a season for which they combined to produce only 32.5 percent of their points on the power play.
That number was up to 38.9 percent this season, but it skewed higher because Malkin missed 22 games and played 18 without regular winger James Neal.
When healthy — Malkin is nursing a foot with a hairline fracture — the Penguins' superstars produced that way this season, and it has been a while since that happened going into the playoffs.
Deep on D
18: Minutes averaged by rookie defenseman Olli Maatta
Cup finalist Boston and champion Chicago relied on a combined 16 defensemen last postseason. The Penguins, health pending, are deeper on defense than at any time since the 2009 Cup run.
Robert Bortuzzo and Simon Despres, the likely Nos. 7 and 8 defensemen, had played in a combined 86 games before the weekend. They are to these Penguins what Philippe Boucher and Alex Goligoski were to the 2009 squad.
The last time the Penguins won the Cup, their defense corps consisted of a true “shutdown paring.” Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik are the Hal Gill and Rob Scuderi for these Penguins. Scuderi is back. He will fill the stay-at-home role Mark Eaton had on a paring with Kris Letang five years ago.
Olli Maatta may become the '09 version of Letang, who scored four goals and produced 13 points while averaging 19 minutes on the Penguins' third defense pairing. He was 21.
Maatta, 19, showed at the Winter Olympics — three goals and five points in six games — that he is a potential spotlight player.
Lost in the offensive struggles against Boston last postseason was the Penguins' over-reliance on Letang, Martin and Orpik. Each player averaged more than 25 minutes, with no other defenseman within a minute of 20.
The over-reliance on three defensemen should not happen again. After all, those same coaches believe Matt Niskanen — top 10 in plus/minus — had the best regular season of any Penguins defenseman.
This is a deep, talented defense corps, constructed to swing a seven-game series.
Reasons not to believe
Three signs this postseason will end in disappointment:
Home ice hurts
.450: Penguins' playoff winning percentage at home since 2009
The Penguins have held home-ice advantage for each of their past seven playoff series. They are 9-11 in those home games, including 8-9 in Games 1 and 2.
Basically, the Penguins have done a great job of wasting their previous six months of regular-season work by failing to hold serve at home during the past four playoffs.
That was not the case during the 2008 and '09 Cup Final runs, when the Penguins went 15-1 at home in Games 1 and 2 of a series. They won seven of those eight series.
They have lost four of seven since.
Home playoff hockey is about more than just a coach having the last change. It is about momentum, and the Penguins have made habit of losing it.
1.18: Penguins' regular-season 5-on-5 goals for/against ratio in 2008-09, which ranked sixth
Only two of the past eight Cup champions did not finish as a regular-season top-10 club in 5-on-5 goals for/against ratio. The 2012 Los Angeles Kings and '06 Carolina Hurricanes are the outliers, and their respective goalies (Jonathan Quick and Cam Ward) won the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP.
So goalie Marc-Andre Fleury has his work cut out unless the Penguins can maintain a pace of scoring on about one-fourth of their power-play chances.
The Penguins, at 1.03, were outside the top 10 in 5-on-5 goals for/against ratio entering the weekend. Of their 237 goals, which ranked fifth, a league-best 67 (23.7 percent) came on power plays.
Power-play scoring has not proven a hallmark of recent Cup champions. The 2010 Blackhawks were the last squad to win it all and go over 20 percent — 22.5 percent, actually — with the advantage.
Those Blackhawks also rated fourth during the 2009-10 regular season with a 1.20 5-on-5 goals for/against ratio.
No depth scoring
14: Goals by bottom-six forwards on the Penguins' 2009 Cup run
The third line to open the playoffs will consist of center Brandon Sutter and wingers Lee Stempniak and Tanner Glass. Before the weekend, those players provided 8.4 percent of the Penguins' regular-season goals (20 of 237).
Depth scoring distinguishes Cup champions from challengers, and the Penguins appear to lack it.
Veteran winger Mark Recchi scored five goals for Boston in 2011 and seven for Carolina in 2006. Last postseason, winger Brian Bickell's nine goals matched his 2013 regular-season total for Chicago.
Stay-at-home defensemen Eaton and Scuderi combined for five goals on the Penguins' 2009 Cup run. The third line — center Jordan Staal and wingers Tyler Kennedy and Matt Cooke — contributed 10. Fourth-line forward Craig Adams scored three.
The Penguins scored 79 goals in the 2009 playoffs, and 25.3 percent (20) came from bottom-six forwards or defensive defensemen.