Top 5 Reasons for the Pittsburgh Penguins' Postseason Turnaround
During any NHL regular season, teams will have both high points and low points, and that is even more true in the two-month long NHL postseason.
Having started off slow against the upstart Columbus Blue Jackets who turned a best-of-seven series into a best-of-three series with gritty play and a never-say-die attitude, the Pittsburgh Penguins weathered the storm and are now just one win away from advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals.
As the Pens look to close out the New York Rangers, let's take a look at the five biggest reasons why they've been able to, at least momentarily, continue their march to the Stanley Cup.
5. The Emergence of Brandon Sutter
Ever since he arrived in Pittsburgh via trade with the Carolina Hurricanes, Brandon Sutter seems to have been regarded as an afterthought and expendable.
Having endured unfair comparisons to Jordan Staal and trade rumors that had him going to the Vancouver Canucks in exchange for Ryan Kessler, Sutter has played inspired hockey of late and has proved to be more than just a checking-line center.
Scoring the game-winning goal in the first game of the postseason, Sutter has been both responsible and opportunistic as evident by his tie-breaking shorthanded goal in Game 4 against the New York Rangers and his team-leading plus-10 rating.
With Joe Vitale and Marcel Goc centering the third and fourth lines, Sutter has starting seeing a lot of ice time with James Neal and Jussi Jokinen, and the Pens have won five out of the six games since his promotion.
4. Secondary Scoring
Although it would have seemed between improbable and impossible before the playoffs began, the Penguins have won seven of their 10 playoff games despite the fact that Sidney Crosby has just one goal thus far.
Having already claimed the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL's scoring leader and as the odds-on favorite to win the Hart Trophy as the league MVP, Crosby has become something of a barometer for his team's performance, and the prevailing view has been that, as he goes, so go the Pens.
Fortunately, even as Crosby has struggled to find the back of the net, others have stepped up such as Jussi Jokinen, who leads the team with six goals; three of which were game-winners.
Whereas previous Pens teams were so dependent on the Crosby that a protracted scoring slump would have doomed them to an early exit from the postseason, this team has gotten goal scoring from up and down the lineup as 13 different players have accounted for goals.
While the Pens clearly need Crosby to start scoring more, they will also need the supporting cast to continue to generate offense, which has been a big part of their recent turnaround.
3. Creation of the Superline
While the conventional wisdom is that teams need to spread their wealth when it comes to setting their lines, Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma opted for a different approach, and the results have been impressive.
Facing a tied series at two games apiece against the Columbus Blue Jackets and the specter of another early exit from the postseason, Bylsma decided to go for broke and moved Evgeni Malkin up to the first line with Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz.
While some viewed the move as panic, it has proved to be the prudent move as, in the six games since the switch, the Pens' top three scorers from the regular season have combined for eight goals and 11 assists.
In addition to the scoring they've provided, the trio has, at times, overwhelmed their opponents with their ability to carry the puck through center ice and tilt the ice by maintaining possession in the offensive zone.
With the return of Marcel Goc and the strong play of Joe Vitale and Brandon Sutter, the Pens' lineup flexibility has created matchup problems for their opponents and is a big reason why they have won five of six games since the "superline" was first used.
2. Reshuffling of the Defensive Pairings
After Brooks Orpik was sidelined with an injury in Game 4, the Penguins were forced to change the defensive pairings, and that has proved to be the silver lining to what could have been a crippling loss.
Kris Letang, who had struggled playing alongside Rob Scuderi (no points, eight penalty minutes and a minus-three rating), was paired with Paul Martin and has tallied five points and is a plus-seven in the six games since the switch.
Scuderi was paired with Robert Bortuzzo and formed a true shutdown defensive pairing, which is something the Pens haven't had since Scuderi played alongside Hal Gill and won the Stanley Cup in 2009.
With Olli Maatta and Matt Niskanen playing well and adding 10 points in as many games, the Pens' blue-line corps has responded since the late-game collapse in Game 4 against the Blue Jackets.
While many believed that the Pens' defensemen would be their undoing this postseason, over the last six games, their strong play as a group is a big reason why the team has been able to bounce back after a tough start.
1. Marc-Andre Fleury's Return to Form
Before the 2013-14 season began, the biggest question surrounding the Pens was, given his postseason struggles since 2009, whether or not it would be Marc-Andre Fleury's last hurrah in Pittsburgh.
Given how he's played so far through 10 postseason games, the question now seems to be how many years will be on the contract extension the Pens will likely offer him this summer.
Aside from his epic puck-mishandling in the last 30 seconds of Game 4 against the Blue Jackets, which resulted in a game-tying goal, Fleury has been outstanding this postseason.
After four straight postseasons of save percentages below .900, his .922 mark is his highest since the 2008 postseason when he first led the Pens to the Stanley Cup Finals, and he tallied back-to-back shutouts for the first time in his career.
Rather than simply relying on his athleticism to make big saves, Fleury, under the tutelage of new goaltending coach Mike Bailes, has been much better in his positioning and rebound control.
While the Pens have played much better team defense in front of him than in previous postseasons, Fleury has come up with big saves when he's had to, and his return to his 2009 form is the biggest reason that the Pens have the look of a true Stanley Cup contender.