Pittsburgh Penguins emerge from funk as legit three-peat threat
PITTSBURGH — Evgeni Malkin made the proclamation more than two months ago, minutes after the Pittsburgh Penguins put together three borderline spectacular periods against San Jose on Jan. 30 to pick up their ninth win in 12 games.
“It’s like we’re back to playoffs for sure,” Malkin said.
It was vintage Malkin, who for over a decade has played the blunt dressing room yin to Sidney Crosby’s ever polite yang.
While predicting a playoff spot for the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions isn’t exactly risky, Malkin’s promise came as the Penguins were coming out of a three-month funk in which they flip-flopped between brilliant and blah.
Reminded of his guarantee on Tuesday — with a 12th straight postseason berth secured — Malkin just smiled. Yeah, maybe he was sending a message to the rest of the guys in the room that day that the malaise needed to go.
“Like we talk a lot about this year, like everyone’s ‘Wait, like what’s going on?'” Malkin said. “We lost couple good players but we’re still great.”
They just didn’t always play like it during the first half of the season. While doing his best to avoid using the word “hangover,” Crosby admitted the Penguins may have suffered from a bit of selective amnesia last fall when they opened the season trying to become the first franchise in 35 years to win three straight titles.
“When you play a couple seasons of important games like that, you come back and you might not have that urgency or you only remember May and June when everything is great and your team is firing on all cylinders but you don’t necessarily remember all the little things that happen,” Crosby said.
The two-time MVP has been around long enough to understand that each year has its own set of unique challenges. The group that basically ran in place from October through December sort of forgot how to deal with it.
“You have to go through that stuff over the course of the year and sometimes it’s not as fresh in your mind as winning is,” he said. “So I think it took us awhile to go through that.”
Things like trying to find a new identity after the departures of Chris Kunitz, Marc-Andre Fleury , Nick Bonino, Trevor Daley and Matt Cullen, all vital pieces of Pittsburgh’s 2016 and 2017 titles. Things like defenseman Justin Schultz and forwards Patric Hornqvist and Bryan Rust all missing significant time with injuries, reminders that — as coach Mike Sullivan likes to put it — the Penguins play a “belligerent sport.”
Sullivan knew adversity was coming when the season started. And while he didn’t panic he kept reminding his players that nothing is inevitable, not even a playoff berth for a team with the longest active streak in the NHL. There was no fiery speech telling them to get it together because none was required.
“There weren’t really any words said,” Rust said. “Everybody knew. It’s one of those things. You take a look at the standings. You take a look at how we lost a few of those games early in the year and you just, everybody kind of looked in the mirror a little bit and everybody picked up their own game.”
Though the Penguins insist there was no one moment in which they snapped to, Hornqvist pointed to a 4-0 road win against the New York Islanders on Jan. 5 as game when the light started to come on.
The visit to Brooklyn came just 24 hours after a humbling 4-0 home loss to Carolina. Weather issues forced the team to scramble just to get to the arena. They left with two points and a little bit of swagger.
“Since then I think we’ve been playing good hockey and been improving every game and that’s the key to the season,” Hornqvist said.
Having Malkin and Crosby doing Malkin and Crosby things certainly helps.
Malkin is in the running for his second Hart Trophy as league MVP, his 95 points the most on the team, most of them coming during Pittsburgh’s post-New Year’s Day surge, one in which the Penguins became just the fourth defending champion since 1944 to reach the postseason after being on the outside looking in at the season’s midway point.
When Malkin cooled, Crosby put together a five-game goal scoring streak, including a remarkable double-tap score against Montreal’s Carey Price and an overtime winner against New Jersey last Thursday in which he smacked his own rebound out of midair and by Devils goaltender Keith Kinkaid in overtime.
A win over the Canadiens last Saturday night turned Malkin’s January guarantee into a reality. Though a loss to Washington on Sunday allowed the Capitals to wrap up a third consecutive Metropolitan Division title, the Penguins aren’t particularly concerned. All three Cup parades during the Malkin-Crosby era have followed regular seasons in which the Penguins finished second in their division.
All that matters to Malkin is that Pittsburgh is in the conversation. Just as the Penguins have always been since he arrived in 2007.
“I will always believe my team,” Malkin said. “I always believe this group. I see these guys every day and we’re still hungry.”