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The Pittsburgh Penguins entered the 2016–17 season as defending Stanley Cup champions and had 12–1 odds to repeat, the fourth best chance in the league according to Bovada. After opening up a 3–1 game lead on the Columbus Blue Jackets, those odds have skyrocketed to 15–4 favorites via VegasInsider. The NHL hasn’t seen a repeat champion since the Detroit Red Wings in 1998. Now that they’ve advanced to the second round, can the Penguins be the first since then and defend their title?
Why They Will
No one has won a Stanley Cup more recently than Pittsburgh, which has resulted in a roster laden with playoff success and experience. Fifteen players who have appeared in the playoffs for them this season had their names engraved on the cup a year ago, and that doesn’t count four injured players who have yet to appear through the first round. Each of them — Carl Hagelin, Chris Kunitz, Matt Murray, and Kris Letang — were critical to the Pens’ success in the playoffs last year, and Pittsburgh is hopeful that some of them will return for the playoffs this year (Letang has already been ruled out). Of those 19 combined players, 10 of them have 50 or more games of playoff experience and 5 have won more than one Stanley Cup previously. This is a team that is very familiar with the playoffs and, more importantly, with playoff success.
Hard to Beat
This offense speaks for itself. The high-octane Pittsburgh offense produced the league’s highest goal total this year (278), and were third in that category a year ago. They have remained consistently one of the highest scoring teams in the NHL. This style of offense has run many teams ragged trying to keep up, and they will surely employ this style throughout the postseason. This high number of goals also afforded them the fourth best goal differential per game league-wide. While they have suffered some injuries on defense and haven’t been all that impressive keeping the puck out of their own net, the Penguins have absolutely dominated the score sheet all year long. Add to that the fact that the Penguins have two goaltenders they feel can rely on, and it makes this team a tough out every night.
Why They Won’t
The NHL Playoffs are nothing if not unpredictable. The Eastern Conference in particular has been competitive this year, with five teams in the playoffs gaining 100+ regular season points. Beating the Blue Jackets has Pittsburgh facing the winner of the Washington/Toronto matchup. Washington would make for a very tough opponent, having already won the President’s Trophy. There is a chance of facing the New York Rangers or Montreal Canadiens in the Conference Finals — two teams with plenty of experience and a lot to fight for — and that’s assuming they get through their respective series with the Ottawa/Boston winner. There aren’t many preferable matchups in this conference at all. And if they get to the Finals? The Western Conference hasn’t been predictable, but plenty of teams are getting hot at the right time and could be poised to steal a Cup this year. No one wants to play the hottest team in the playoffs.
Suffering Through Injuries
The Penguins have handled their business in the first round despite injuries to four key players. Perhaps most notable of the four are the injuries to Kris Letang — the team’s top defenseman — and Matt Murray, who guided the team in net during last season’s cup win. For now, Marc-Andre Fleury has been effective in net. What we know about Fleury, though, is that he is anything but consistent, so the hope is that Murray returns soon enough that the team won’t feel the effect of a dip in Fleury’s production. Either way, platooning goaltenders has not always been the best way to operate a team, so Fleury’s good play raises more questions heading into future rounds.
Letang’s injury may be a tougher one to overcome. There is no shortage of experience or playoff success on this defense, but Letang is by far the best defenseman the team has. Without him, they feel his absence on both ends of the ice. Letang holds down his end of the ice, but has also been a steady contributor on the score sheet throughout his career. The worst part? He’s already been ruled out for the entirety of the playoffs. There’s no replacing a guy of his talent level, so Pittsburgh is hoping they can get enough from the rest of their defensemen to get by.
It’s hard to disagree with the odds on this one. Sure, there are some injury issues. But getting through the first round in just five games allows the Pens to rest up for the games ahead. And yes, platooning goalies is a concern. But having two goalies who can perform is better than none, and right now they can have confidence in what they have. The Eastern Conference is a beast, but despite the fact that the Capitals had the best regular season record, they have struggled against a young run-and-gun team in the Leafs and have had to fight for each win they’ve gotten. The Pens had an easier matchup and as a result will get to rest up and wait for a tired team to meet them in Round 2.
The Penguins have the experience and determination to win, as they proved a year ago. And that part about playing the hottest team? Pittsburgh may not have to worry about that if they are the hottest team. And right now, they’re playing like it.