It was worth contemplating if it was all over for this iteration of the Pittsburgh Penguins, and the end of the line for one of the league’s most successful franchises and a pillar of the current era of hockey.
With Evgeni Malkin shelved for months and Sidney Crosby unfit to start the season as well, Pittsburgh was relying mostly on a middle class which was significantly weakened through the expansion process to keep the team’s prospects — and potential final stand with a glut of high-profile free agents — alive inside the division with the deepest waters.
In those months since, Crosby has returned, and now regained his form, while Malkin finally was able to do the same on Tuesday versus the Anaheim Ducks. Malkin scored twice and totalled three points in his first appearance back, doing his part in a 4-1 victory which marked Pittsburgh’s 11th win in its last 12 games.
The Penguins, as one might say, are very much still here.
At 21-9-5 on the season, the Penguins have the NHL’s eighth-best record based on points percentage and sixth-best goal differential overall, but still sit fourth in the Metropolitan Division after impressive starts by the Hurricanes, Rangers, and Capitals. Despite not having control of one of the guaranteed postseason slots in the division at the time of this writing, the Penguins are just two points back of Washington with two games in hand while seeded comfortably in postseason position anyway, cruising 10 points clear on the wild-card contender closest from the periphery, the Detroit Red Wings.
Though his offensive numbers aren’t prolific or comparable to previous standards, Crosby has played an enormous role in the early-season success, helping see Pittsburgh to a 16-6-1 record since coming, and staying, back.
However, the story of this season for Pittsburgh has been the depth of contribution and the performances we didn’t necessarily see coming, which could see to it that Crosby and Malkin, an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, embark on one last Stanley Cup run together.
The Penguins’ internal MVP has to be netminder Tristan Jarry. He’s performed at a Vezina Trophy level from the start of the season, maintaining a goals-against average under two with a .932 save percentage and the league’s second-best Goals Saved Above Average.
A close(-ish) second would be Jake Guentzel, who has provided the top-end forward contributions Pittsburgh has often been forced to compete without. Guentzel leads the team in goals and points, notching 18 and 35 in just 29 games. It’s been a resurgent season as well for Kris Letang, who’s averaging nearly an assist per game while playing his best hockey in years. The No. 1 defender’s underlying data is brilliant across the board, and the Penguins are nearly outscoring the competition 2-1 in his minutes.
The biggest shocker is Evan Rodrigues, who was twisting in the wind as a fringe NHL player before picking residence back up in Pittsburgh when the club was desperate for bodies. He’s seized the opportunity to say it lightly, ranking second in team scoring with a perfectly symmetrical offensive stat line of 15 goals and 15 assists.
But the biggest contribution might be Mike Sullivan’s. With no shortage of noise, adversity and uncertainty entering the year, the Penguins coach has done a marvellous job behind the bench. Pittsburgh is one of the top-performing teams at five-on-five based on most metrics, despite the sort of changeover few teams have had to deal with.
It seems the end of days in Pittsburgh won’t arrive as early as the trade deadline, which was a distinct possibility entering the season would have marked an unsavoury end to one of the greatest partnerships many NHL fans have seen.
For Crosby and Malkin, it almost seems fitting that they have been repaid this way, given all that they’ve given to the franchise.
Down: Competitive balance
One thing I noticed while typing up the lead was the sheer lack of postseason intrigue when it comes to the Eastern Conference. Yeah, the matchups are a long way from behind decided (and do carry serious intrigue), but don’t we know right now who the eight playoff teams are?
With 14 points separating them, Carolina, New York, Washington and Pittsburgh are operating totally independent from Columbus, Philadelphia, New Jersey and the Islanders in the Metropolitan Division. The same sort of scenario is playing out in the Atlantic Division with Florida, Tampa Bay and Toronto fighting for the division crown and Boston beginning to pull away in the wild card, three points up with five games in hand (and 39 points in terms of goal differential) over the Red Wings.
It’s clear, around 40 percent of the way through the season, who the eight postseason teams are in the Eastern Conference, which is not how it was drawn up.
It should be noted that the same problem does not exist out west, where only three teams can be comfortably struck off the list of playoff contenders.
Up: Hockey tonks
The biggest surprise of the season are the Nashville Predators, who are one of five teams to hit the 50-point threshold so far this season. Though without a Crosby or a returning Malkin, Nashville is being powered by the same things as Pittsburgh: brilliant goaltending and coaching, and surprise contributions.
Tanner Jeannot is a name only hockey hardcores would have on their radars before the season — beyond the fact that David Poile included him on his protected list. That turned out to be a good decision (though I’m not sure we could trust Ron Francis to mine that talent), because Jeannot, 24, is making a case for the Calder Trophy with a rookie-best 12 goals to go along with 23 points.
Juuse Saros is also flirting with league-best accolades for his Herculean effort in the Predators’ crease. Saros is undefeated this month with a 5-0 record and .948 save percentage. He’s made the most saves, won the most games, and accrued the most Goals Saved Above Average by a considerable margin since Dec. 1, powering this in-season surge.
And in addition to Roman Josi, Matt Duchene, and Mikael Granlund hitting the high ends of their performance ranges as far as standout individual performances, John Hynes should be in the Jack Adams discussion as one of the NHL’s top coaches this season.
There’s good to go around in Nashville.
Up: Kodak Black
Shame on the NHL for not breaking down the film in its entirety before scrubbing Kodak Black from all its socials! Nothing wrong with a little harmless fun.
Also, what a wagon— err — juggernaut this team is on home ice. Florida is now 19-3 with 98 goals for and 62 against at FLA Live Arena, which might be more live than we ever could have imagined.
More from Yahoo Sports