Mike Johnston’s Pittsburgh Penguins Are Ready To Grind

Ever since the Pittsburgh Penguins were able to acquire Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby in consecutive drafts, the word “dynasty” has been attached to the franchise’s current era. It appeared that things were on track when the Penguins reached consecutive Stanley Cup Finals - they won the championship in 2009. However, Pittsburgh hasn’t quite managed to live up to those dynastic expectations since that breakthrough Cup triumph. A new head coach, healthy superstars and a more balanced mindset might just have Pittsburgh primed for another serious Cup run.

There’s always a slightly awkward feeling when it comes to critiquing a franchise that has enjoyed the success Pittsburgh has over the last five years. They’ve reached the playoffs all five times, topped the 100-point mark three times and won the Atlantic Division twice.

However, it’s impossible to deny that – considering the talent of their core – Pittsburgh hasn’t quite met expectations since 2009. The Montreal Canadiens ground them out in 2010 and suffocated by the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2011. Goaltending and defense were exposed in a high-scoring first round series against Pennsylvania rivals, the Philadelphia Flyers. After finally “breaking through” and reaching the conference finals in confident fashion in 2013, they were totally outplayed while being swept by the Boston Bruins. Another grinding, tough loss to the New York Rangers in 2014 was the final straw for the head coach, Dan Bylsma.

It was clear that a change of philosophy was required for the Penguins. Bylsma was (slight unfortunately) fired and Mike Johnston was hired to be the team’s new head coach.

Johnston changed the team’s defensive structure to play with a greater zone focus and to require greater participation from the forward group. This has helped Pittsburgh tighten up their defense ranking fifth in the league while conceding just 2.40 goals against per game.

The personnel on the blue-line has also helped. Paul Martin, Kris Letang, Ian Cole, Rob Scuderi, Ben Lovejoy and Christian Ehrhoff form a pretty solid six-man unit and Johnston leans on each pairing, rather than focusing too heavily on any single unit.

It’s worth noting that the Penguins have hardly slipped offensively averaging 2.73 goals per game ranking 14th in the NHL. Johnston also has both special teams units ranking in the top 10.

The rookie head coach has benefitted from some fortune on the health front (assuming Malkin’s ailment is only minor). His two superstar players have each missed only a handful of games. Consequently, both are in contention for the scoring title - Crosby has 74 points and Malkin has 68. While they have two scoring titles apiece, only once before have the two generational talents been in contention for the Art Ross Trophy in the same season (2008-09 being the other).

There’s no question that it is Crosby and Malkin who make this offense click. They are capable of single-handedly driving a line each and there are only a few players in the league more dangerous on the man advantage.

Crucially, there is a real feeling that a combination of some shrewd moves made by General Manager Ray Shero and a change in philosophy and emphasis from Johnston has this Penguins’ team ready for the grind and ready to grind in this season’s playoffs.

The core of this team is still highly-skilled players in Crosby, Malkin and Kris Letang, but they have added some players who drive to and hang around the front of the net in forwards David Perron and Patric Hornqvist. Nick Spaling, Danniel Winnik, Steve Downie and Maxim Lapierre provide a nice balance of speed, physicality and a willingness to mix it up to the bottom six, while a similar grittiness can be found in the defensive pairing of Cole and Scuderi.

The Penguins are heavily reliant upon Crosby and Malkin. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury will also once again come under the microscope after some shaky playoff performances in recent years. However, there are reasons for fans to feel optimistic about the prospects of this team to final add a second Stanley Cup to the Crosby-Malkin era.

It’s difficult to judge the way this team will play when the hockey gets serious in roughly one month’s time, but it’s hard to see them being them “out-grinded” by the Rangers, Islanders, Capitals, Canadiens or Lightning. The path through the Eastern conference in the playoffs is far from clear, but the 2015 playoffs might just be Pittsburgh’s best chance since their memorable run in 2009.

Malkin’s injury – picked up in the game against Boston on Saturday – is a reminder of how fragile Stanley Cup aspirations can be. Still, as long as they continue to grind, the Penguins will be a team to avoid when the playoffs start late next month.