The Pittsburgh Penguins will watch Monday night as three of the eight first-round Stanley Cup playoff series get started. For a team that has struggled with injuries, an extra day of preparation should be welcomed.
However, aside from the uncertain status of Sidney Crosby’s mending jaw and Brooks Orpik’s lower-body injury, perhaps the Penguins would be better served to start this series right away. While there is little doubt this year’s Pittsburgh team will be fully locked and loaded come 7:35 p.m. Wednesday, there’s no need to think too much about the Pens’ pending matchup with the New York Islanders.
The Penguins are better. Period, amen, end of quotation.
This may not sound like much of a revelation considering Pittsburgh finished 17 points ahead of New York in the Eastern Conference standings, a difference that projects closer to 30 points in a typical 82-game season. While the raw Islanders might have benefited from the smaller sample size of 48 regular-season games, the Penguins would be favorites against almost any team no matter if they were playing a 100-game series or a single winner-take-all contest.
Yes, the NHL isn’t the NBA, where earning the No. 1 seed in a given conference virtually guarantees a long playoff run. We only need to look back to last spring for proof of that, when a talented but underachieving Los Angeles Kings team jump-started their Cup chase by upsetting top-seeded Vancouver in the first round.
At the same time, the 2013 Penguins defy the cautious approach that normally accompanies this time of year. With a record of 36-12-0, they earned the highest percentage of available points (.750) in franchise history, even better than the fabled 1992-93 President’s Trophy-winning club. The Pens of 20 years ago played 36 more games and didn’t have the safety net of guaranteed overtime points or shootouts, but this year’s team is undoubtedly near the top in terms of elite hockey in Pittsburgh.
But it’s about more than results. Rather, it’s the Penguins’ process that puts them a step above, say, last year’s team that similarly lit up the regular season but crashed dramatically in a bizarre first-round series against Philadelphia. Pittsburgh’s systematic consistency, which congealed in March and led to a stretch of 22 wins in 24 games, reminded more of the 2010-11 team that was forced to deal with long-term injuries to Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
Not only has this year’s bunch displayed businesslike execution, it has also featured the dynamism of Crosby, Malkin and James Neal (most of the time), plus another Norris-worthy year from defenseman Kris Letang, one of goalie Marc-Andre Fleury’s better seasons and the trade-deadline augmentation of Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow, Douglas Murray and the unexpectedly valuable Jussi Jokinen.
Oh yeah, and Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis had the most productive seasons of their NHL careers and Brandon Sutter slotted perfectly into a checking-line center role. With the exception of penalty killing, this is the best Penguins team of the Ray Shero era, possibly the best since 1992-93.
We remember how the spring of 1993 went, with the Islanders ousting the Mario Lemieux-led Penguins in Game 7 of a second-round series. It might be even more shocking if New York pulled off a victory this time around. The Isles have some promising talent, but they are inferior to the Penguins at every position and in every aspect, with penalty killing possibly being the lone outlier.
Pittsburgh went 4-1 against New York this season, and I see that trend repeating over the next two weeks. Prediction: Penguins in five.