Kevin Gorman: Penguins try to move away from sweep, closer to next Stanley Cup
The Pittsburgh Penguins are two years removed from winning the Stanley Cup title, two weeks shy of six months since being swept in the first round of the playoffs.
By a team that was swept in the second round.
By a team that was swept in the third round.
By a team that lost in the Cup Final.
That’s how far removed the Penguins are from being Cup champions, not to mention minus a superstar sniper after trading winger Phil Kessel to Arizona in late June.
Or the Penguins could look at it like this: They are 82 games away from the playoffs, then 16 wins away from winning the sixth Cup championship in franchise history.
“Just as far,” Sidney Crosby said, “as everybody else.”
No wonder the Penguins’ focus was on looking forward, to their season opener against the Buffalo Sabres on Thursday night at PPG Paints Arena and to the start of what they hope is another run to the postseason.
“Every team’s got to go through that process throughout the year and face different challenges, but, ultimately, it’s about getting into the playoffs,” Crosby said. “That’s where you start. If you have the right habits, you can get yourself there. That’s how you approach it. I don’t think you’re thinking about Stanley Cup finals in Game 1.”
That’s what the Penguins can count on.
They know the chances of extending their NHL-best streak of 13 consecutive playoff appearances are strong, thanks to the championship core of centers Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and defenseman Kris Letang who have won the Cup three times.
They know they have a complementary cast of two-time Cup winners in wingers Patric Hornqvist and Bryan Rust, defensemen Brian Dumoulin and Justin Schultz and goalie Matt Murray, along with a Cup winner and now 40-goal scorer in Jake Guentzel.
And they have a two-time Cup champion coach in Mike Sullivan, whose job status was moved to the back burner when his contract was extended for four seasons in July.
Is that enough?
The Penguins are counting on Crosby to be himself, for Malkin to return to form, for Letang to play more like he did in the regular season than postseason, for Murray to be their stopper and their supporting cast to be improved. They are counting on the leaders to build better chemistry than they had last season.
“There’s a sense that people count us out of the race, but we have a great group of guys, tons of talent and guys who want to compete and who want to win,” Letang said. “We have the same core of guys. There’s a few new faces, obviously, but I think we’re still going to be a fast team that wants to play with pace.
“That’s not much difference.”
The difference is in what the Penguins lost and whether what they added will be a boost or a bust to a team that was swept by the New York Islanders last April. The Penguins no longer have Kessel’s 82 points and power-play wrist shot, the slow but steady defense of Olli Maatta or the leadership of Matt Cullen. The power play and penalty kill could suffer as a result.
In an attempt to get younger and faster — and, most of all, better — they added Alex Galchenyuk and Dominik Kahun through trades and Brandon Tanev in free agency. How quickly they can adapt to playing for and with the Penguins will be a key.
“All of our guys are excited, both our veteran guys and some of the young guys that we brought in,” Sullivan said. “There’s a certain mindset that’s around the team right now that we really like, and we’re going to try to feed off that.
“The challenge is going to be to bring it daily, game-in and game-out, because that’s what it takes to have success in this league. But certainly with some of the new players that we brought in, they sense a great opportunity. With some of our veteran guys, I think they see the same thing.”
What we don’t know is how this team will look by March, after general manager Jim Rutherford swings some deals. What we don’t know is whether the Penguins will get off to another slow start and have to fight to the finish just to make the playoffs.
What we do know is every NHL team starts the season wanting to win the Cup title, but not every team had an extended offseason to think about its shortcomings and made major changes the way the Penguins have.
“We understand that. We have that goal, too,” Sullivan said. “We know ultimately what we want to accomplish, but we’re not going to get ahead of ourselves and dwell on it. We’re just going to focus on the day-to-day task. That’s the approach that I know of that can bring us success in the long term.”
For now, that’s the approach Sullivan has the Penguins focused on taking to move forward, far removed from their first-round sweep and just as close as everyone else to winning the Cup championship.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .