The Penguins come back from the Olympic break sitting at 40-15-4 after their shootout loss to Montreal on Thursday. They are the No. 1 seed in the East and about 70 percent of the way through the regular season.
At the 70 percent mark of last year’s shortened season the Penguins were, much like this year, in first place in the East and in prime position to run through the playoffs with an almost fully-healthy roster.
Fans need not be reminded that even though things were set up for the Penguins to make their fifth Stanley Cup Final appearance, they failed to do so, losing in embarrassing fashion to the Boston Bruins.
And while credit needs to be given to the Bruins for sweeping the series (especially Tuukka Rask who stopped a ludicrous 134 of 136 shots in the series), last year’s Penguins team isn’t free of blame for the failure.
With this year’s team in a similar spot as last years, are they doomed to repeat the same mistakes? A look at the minor differences between the two teams might reveal the answer:
One on offense and one on defense. Both Olli Maatta and Jussi Jokinen have been fantastic this year essentially every time they are on the ice. The offensive player of the two, Jokinen, is currently on a streak of 17 points in as many games and has 42 total points on the season.
What can only be seen after close observation is the great creativity he has on the ice. Jokinen has had at least 10 “how did he know to do that?” passes this year and his stick work around the net may only be second to Crosby on the team (seen here).
His is a presence that is needed on every championship team: an offensive player who is just fine being a facilitator and opening up the ice for his teammates. He doesn’t want to be or try to be Malkin or Crosby, but they couldn’t win as often as they do without him. Jokinen flies around the ice and absolutely dominates the attention of the defense when he is at his best.
This season he has been without question the most overlooked Penguins’ player. For those of you saying Jokinen’s presence isn’t a change because he was here last year: you’re right, but what’s changed is his role on the team. Jokinen only played eight of the 15 playoff games last year and averaged 11 minutes per game in the ones he did play for a team that simply had too many players to use and not enough places to put them.
This year, he has played in all 58 regular season games and averages about 15 minutes of ice time. Perhaps if he were to have played all of those playoff games last year and gotten those four extra minutes a game, it could have made all the difference. This year we will likely get to see if it does.
On defense is Maatta. Much has been made about Maatta’s age this year and rightfully so. At just 19, he consistently looks like one of the most poised players on the ice.
It took Maatta only eight games to score his first NHL goal (not bad for a defenseman) and he has added five more since then. But, like his Finnish counterpart, Maatta’s true value is in his passing. While he only has 24 assists on the season, he has shown the ability to control an offensive shift from the blue line.
His composure and quick learning has impressed those who call the shots in the Penguins organization enough to give him significant time on the power play throughout the year: he has been on the ice 17.2 percent of the time the Penguins power play has been deployed. That’s the third highest percentage for any defenseman trailing only Kris Letang and Matt Niskanen.
Might I remind you he is 19 years old. The concern that comes with that though is the possibility that Maatta may crack under pressure, but he seemed to handle the pressure just fine at the Olympics, collecting a bronze medal and five points in six games.
You know, the Olympics. The biggest tournament in the world that is watched globally. Maybe the pressure of the playoffs shouldn’t be a worry for Maatta because of his age; there is a lot of evidence to suggest he isn’t your ordinary 19-year-old.