The Pittsburgh Penguins needed a series of events to occur in order to squeak into the 2015 playoffs and they got their wish. With a win over the last-place Buffalo Sabres on the last day of the regular season, the team locked down the final spot in the Eastern Conference, rendering the Boston Bruins’ final result against the Tampa Bay Lightning that very same night a moot point.
Hearing that the Pens need help to qualify for the postseason isn’t something we’re accustomed to in the Sidney Crosby/Evgeni Malkin, and it’s especially surprising in light of the fact goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury put together a solid year between the pipes, tying his career-low 2.32 goals against average, .920 save percentage and a career-high 10 shutouts.
So why is it that the Penguins and Crosby have had such a tough year this season?
Well for one thing the playoff races in general were a lot tighter this season than they have been in the past. Consider that the aforementioned Bruins missed the playoffs with 96 points this year. It used to be that if a team eclipsed 100 points it was considered a spectacular end result, but finish two wins shy of that mark now, and a team finds itself booking spring tee times.
As for Crosby himself, perhaps having Patric Hornqvist on the ice with him instead of the slightly more prolific Nashville Predators’ James Neal played a contributing factor in lowering Crosby’s assist totals. As far as why he notched the second-lowest goal total (28) of his career since the 2007-08 campaign, a year where Sid only appeared in 53 games… that’s a little bit harder to explain.
Nonetheless, it’s not as if Crosby had a bad year. Sure there were no 24-game point streaks and it didn’t seem as though anybody was talking about him winning yet another scoring race, but it’s important to keep in mind that scoring seemed to fall for all the league’s best this season
Jamie Benn of the Dallas Stars will walk away with the Art Ross Trophy as the league’s scoring champion at the NHL’s awards ceremony later this summer and he scored just 87 points. It was a career high for Benn, but far from the best we’ve seen from a league-leading scorer. Then there’s Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos, who for the past three years in which he was consistently healthy managed at least 90 points, yet found himself with just 72 points in 82 games this season.
Perhaps the low scoring totals on the part of Crosby and others is just a by-product of team’s figuring out how to be more defensive minded in the present-day, post-lockout NHL. But that still doesn’t speak to why the Penguins are no longer the league’s elite or whether they can overcome being a decided underdog against the President’s Trophy winning New York Rangers in what should be a fantastic first round playoff matchup.
The truth is it’s going to be prove to be an uphill battle for the Penguins and perhaps the biggest reason for the struggle is the fact the team has been hit by injuries and the fact the club is right up against the league’s salary cap. Those two harsh realities have combined to explain why the Penguins have only been able to dress five defensemen over the last little while.
It also explains at least in part why the Penguins are likely due for another early round exit this spring. The season has been too much of a grind, the Eastern Conference is way to competitive and it just hasn’t been Pittsburgh’s year. The unfortunate part about it is that nobody will be able to blame the Pens’ seemingly certain early departure on shotty goaltending. It’s quite simply a down year for the organization and a byproduct of the league’s parity friendly reality, where a merely consistent Stanley Cup contender, and not necessarily perennial champion, is now considered to be the definition of a dynasty.