It’s playoff time once again, and for the Pittsburgh Penguins that means another division title and another shot at claiming Lord Stanley’s Cup.
The Penguins finished with 109 points this season to claim the Metropolitan Division title and earn a #1 seed in the division. Despite losing nearly 500 man games to injury, the Pens were able to keep rolling, amassing the second-most points in a single season in franchise history.
Why was Pittsburgh able to have so much success? Let’s take a look at the three biggest key factors.
#1 – Sidney Crosby:
This one is pretty obvious. Crosby was a force to be reckoned with all year for the Pens, amassing an incredible 104 points in 80 games, earning his second Art Ross, and, most likely, his second Hart Trophy of his career.
His play turned Chris Kunitz from a complementary player to an Olympian and 30-goal scorer, and his dominance in the offensive zone was a huge factor in driving Pittsburgh’s league-leading power-play.
Not to mention the fact that he only failed to record a point in 20 games.
His play set the pace for the entire team, and his consistency was one of only a few bright spots for a core of players that was ravaged by injury.
True, Pittsburgh also has a second superstar in Evgeni Malkin, but when you get right down to it, no one carried the team more than Sid the Kid.
#2 – Matt Niskanen and Olli Maatta:
Okay, technically this is two people, but I’ll lump them both together for the sake of keeping the list in order.
Niskanen was perhaps the biggest surprise of the season for the Pens. The center of about a half-dozen different trade rumors at the beginning of the season, Niskanen stepped up when Pittsburgh’s blue-line was on it’s last legs due to a rash of injuries.
Not only did Nisky suffice, he excelled. The 27-year old Niskanen set new career highs in goals (10), assists (36) and points (46), while his +33 rating was 6th overall in the NHL and first for all defenseman.
Niskanen was a stalwart on the blue line all year, and served as mentor for Pittsburgh’s extremely deep yet inexperienced pool of young defenseman who were forced into emergency service due to a rash of injuries.
Which brings me to Maatta. When the 19-year old rookie first made the team out of camp, myself and many other Pens fans expected Maatta to get a five or six game taste of the show before being sent back to London of the OHL for seasoning.
Instead, Maatta stuck with the big club the entire season, impressing just about everyone he played with. He was a selection for Team Finland at the Olympics, and though he is just 19, he has already seen himself compared to Nicklas Lidstrom on numerous occasions.
His nine goals, 20 assists, and +8 rating also put him in discussion for the Calder Trophy for Rookie of the Year.
Not to mention the fact that he stepped up when both Paul Martin and Kris Letang went down with injuries. The 19 year-old Finn emerged as a pre-emient puck-moving defenseman that could both drive offense as well as kill penalties.
I don’t think anyone expected Maatta to progress so quickly, and his impressive first year has Pittsburgh fans clamoring to see just how high his ceiling is.
#3 – Jacques Martin:
I think this is the biggest surprise of the entire list, but Martin’s impact on the Penguins penalty kill and entire defense for that matter cannot be understated.
In 2013, Pittsburgh ranked 25th overall in team penalty kill.
In 2014 under Martin’s tutelage, the Pens PK is all the way up to number five.
Martin is known as somewhat of a defensive wizard, and his presence has complete changed Pittsburgh defensive scheme at even straight as well as on the penalty kill. In turn, the Pens are playing a much tighter game around goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, which has allowed the Flower to have one of the best statistical seasons of his career.
This tighter system has been a huge reason why the Pittsburgh penalty kill was able to remain so effective despite having four of it’s top-six defenseman out for extend periods of time all at once.