3 ways the Pittsburgh Penguins transformed into Stanley Cup finalists
It would have been hard to believe in December that the Pittsburgh Penguins would be going to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Back then, the Penguins were not even in playoff position. On December 12, Pittsburgh was 15-10-3, sat in fifth place in the division and ranked 28th in the league in scoring. That final number was especially problematic considering the Penguins had an offense that boasted three of the league's top scorers in Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel. The Penguins were preseason favorites in the Metropolitan Division, but three months in they were one of the biggest disappointments of the year.
By December 12, General manager Jim Rutherford had enough. He fired coach Mike Johnston and named AHL coach Mike Sullivan as the new head coach. That move marked the start of the turnaround that reshaped the Penguins from underperformers to Cup contenders.
But simply replacing the coach was not enough to pull off the total transformation. Over the past six months, three keys helped the Penguins shed that underperforming nature and become legitimate Cup contenders.
Pittsburgh's top line of Crosby, Conor Sheary and Patric Hornqvist is plenty potent, but it is the second line of center Nick Bonino and wingers Phil Kessel and Carl Hagelin that really paces the team. Bonino and Kessel joined the Penguins by trade last summer, and Hagelin arrived in January. The line did not start to come together until March, when Malkin went down with an injury and Bonino replaced him as the center of the second line.
The combination took off from there, as did the Penguins. Pittsburgh won 13 of its final 15 games in the regular season after Malkin went down and the HBK line was formed, and together the trio combined for 43 points in those 15 games.
The line continued to play an important role in the playoffs, and when Malkin finally returned from injury, he was shifted to the third line in order to keep the HBK group intact. Now, when the Penguins look for players to fill valuable minutes, they turn to the HBK line.
Bonino, especially, has become a go-to player. He plays in key moments at even-strength, on the power play and on the penalty kill. In the waning minutes of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals, it was Bonino who was manning the face-off circle for the Penguins. He went 11-of-18 at the dot Thursday and won two hugely important face-offs in his own zone in the final minute of play of Game 7.
Because Bonino was able to take over as the second-line center, the Penguins offense became a four-line beast capable of scoring at any moment. The idea that Malkin is playing on a third line is outrageous, but the Penguins have the depth to justify that roster choice. It is the ability to roll out four lines with star scorers that has helped an offense that was once ranked 28th in the NHL become a unit responsible for the second-most goals in the postseason.
Pittsburgh's rookies are playing some of the team's best hockey this postseason. Perhaps that's due to the fact Pittsburgh's new coach was the former head coach of the team's AHL affiliate, or perhaps it is simply good timing. Either way, the young players are providing outstanding depth and key plays.
The most obvious name in the bunch is Matt Murray, the goaltender who celebrated his 22nd birthday May 25. Murray originally played in the absence of an injured Marc-Andre Fleury, but his dominance in net made him irreplaceable. Murray played in 13 regular-season games and compiled a 9-2-1 record, but he now has more experience in the playoffs, where he is 11-4-1 in 15 games. His play in net has been a huge reassurance to fans who have watched Fleury wilt over the years. Murray has made key saves and responded to difficult situations with the grace of a seasoned veteran.
On offense, Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust and Tom Kuhnhackl have all provided fantastic minutes for the Penguins, and Sheary even earned a spot on the top line. Rust has been a standout among the rookies in the postseason. He posted four goals in 41 games of regular-season action. Compare that to his five goals in 17 playoff games, including two goals in Pittsburgh's 2-1 Game 7 win over the Lightning on Thursday.
Pittsburgh has phenomenal veterans, but the fact that the team does not have to rely solely on those veterans has been huge. The young players give Pittsburgh energy and depth, both necessities for a long playoff run.
The biggest change for the Penguins since Sullivan stepped in has been the pace of play. The Penguins now play an aggressive, fast game that leaves opponents struggling to simply get a stick on the puck. Their speed has quickly become their best asset, and it's leaving opponents in the dust.
Lightning coach Jon Cooper admitted in his postgame press conference Thursday night that it was Pittsburgh's pace that prevented Tampa Bay from being able to execute its game plan.
These Penguins constantly force turnovers and throw the puck on net incessantly. Hardly five minutes of action go by without a Penguisn player racing up the wing or breaking through the neutral zone. They rush opponents into making mistakes and capitalize when they do. It's that style of play that helped paralyze the Rangers in the first round, that befuddled the Presidents' Trophy-winning Capitals in the second round and that threw the Lightning off their game plan in the Conference finals.
Speed will be key for the Penguins in the Cup Finals against the Sharks as well, and if Pittsburgh can keep this pace of play up, it's hard to imagine anyone will stop them.