Mark Madden: Play of Penguins' big 3 will determine postseason success
In 2016, the Penguins won the Stanley Cup because they had the best team. The result was occasionally in doubt, but not often.
In 2017, the Penguins were the last team standing. They used their depth and experience to squeak out a few critical victories against the run of play.
This season, as they search for the NHL's first three-peat since 1982, the Penguins' depth and experience have dissipated. Riley Sheahan, Matt Hunwick and Dominik Simon aren't Nick Bonino, Trevor Daley and Chris Kunitz.
So if the Penguins are going to do it again, the likeliest method is the way they're winning right now: with their stars ripping foes to shreds.
Evgeni Malkin has 16 goals and 11 assists in the 16 games played since the New Year. Sidney Crosby has three goals and 22 assists. Phil Kessel has eight goals and 15 assists. The Penguins are 11-4-1 in 2018.
Kessel, Malkin and Crosby rank second, fifth and 11th among NHL scorers. Kessel is just three points off the lead. Rarely have all three of the Penguins' offensive stars been on the boil simultaneously.
It has to continue. Simon, Zach Aston-Reese and their ilk won't pick up the slack, and the Penguins won't let Daniel Sprong.
The power play is No. 1 in the league, converting 26.6 percent of its chances. That also has to continue. That could be difficult presently with Patric Hornqvist injured. His net-front presence looms as large as anyone's skill.
Fewer penalties are usually called in the playoffs. That lessens the power play's impact.
Malkin, Crosby and Kessel were extremely effective in last year's playoffs, finishing 1-2-3 in points. It is unfair to ask for more?
Sure it is. But that's what's going to be required. Jake Guentzel probably won't score 13 postseason goals again.
Since the Penguins will be relying on their superstar circus to burn brightly come springtime, two more need to join the high-wire act.
Defenseman Kris Letang has lacked consistency and shown a penchant for the odd horrific mistake. He's minus-14. second-worst on the team. That stat can be misleading, but it's not meaningless.
Letang had major neck surgery in the offseason and probably rushed his return. He's playing better, but not yet at his accustomed level. Letang needs to understand less can be more. He can try too hard.
For the Penguins to make a playoff run, Letang has to come good. He is a rare combination of skating, skill, fitness and physicality. The Penguins won the Stanley Cup without Letang last year. That was the flukiest thing about it.
Goaltender Matt Murray has been beset by injury and troubled by the death of his father. His goals-against average is up, his save percentage down.
But the Penguins push forward with numbers so much, they can be a difficult team to play behind. Murray is about wins and big saves, and both have been coming with more frequency.
Murray is 3-0-1 since returning from bereavement leave. That's all that matters.
The NHL trade deadline is Feb. 26. The defense corps has stabilized nicely thanks to Ian Cole's reinsertion and fine play. Hunwick is a good spare on the left side. Chad Ruhwedel provides the same on the right.
Third-line center remains a talking point. But GM Jim Rutherford shouldn't sacrifice Sprong, Tristan Jarry or Conor Sheary if the result is a minimal upgrade like Ottawa's Jean-Gabriel Pageau or Edmonton's Mark Letestu. The new Nick Bonino isn't available, although the old Matt Cullen is.
But any additions, however needed, will be small potatoes. The Penguins' hopes for a three-peat rely on the stars running roughshod and not much else.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on 105.9 FM.