Except, that's not how it happened. Mike Johnston and his squad stormed out of the gate, racking up 22 wins and 48 points in the club's first 32 contests. At one point, fans and pundits alike wondered if the Pens' power play could flirt with an all-time record as the team seemed poised to capture another division title.
The freight train, however, threatened to run off the tracks starting around Christmas. Suddenly, the once potent Pittsburgh offense sputtered while the ultra-talented power play inexplicably went as cold as the winter weather outside. The team struggled to find consistency while its stars faced mounting criticism.
The result? Pittsburgh plummeted from their perch atop the Metropolitan, briefly sinking into wild card positioning.
Their current four-game winning streak (at the time of this writing), though, seems to have the club trending in the right direction, allowing the Pens to climb back into the Metro's top three, and within four points of the division lead. They may have taken a different route than many foresaw, but the Penguins currently sit approximately where most would have likely picked them to ultimately finish.
So, with the dust settled on a trade deadline now squarely in the rearview mirror, where does Pittsburgh sit as we prepare for the stretch run? With Jim Rutherford serving as the architect and Johnston running the show behind the bench, are the Penguins primed for success this spring?
Only time will tell but, heading into the playoffs, these Penguins certainly represent a more complete team than the 2013-'14 squad. Have there been some questionable signings and curious trades? Perhaps. But the fingerprints of a new G.M. and the voice of a new coach have also provided Pittsburgh with new opportunity.
Consider the following:
- The actual trade deadline day may have raised some eyebrows in Pittsburgh but don't forget that Rutherford still pulled the trigger on one of the season's biggest deals when he snatched David Perron from the Oilers. The move provided the top-line winger the Penguins craved while rejuvenating a skilled player who had been exiled in Edmonton. Sure, it cost the Penguins a valuable first round draft pick but, unlike several of his colleagues who ultimately surrendered coveted draft position for rental players, Rutherford invested his pick in an individual who will still call Pittsburgh home for at least another year.
- Last year's bottom six was, at best, laughable; at worst, it was a train wreck. The group combined for all of 37 goals during the 2013-'14 campaign. And 11 of those technically came courtesy of Marcel Goc...while in Florida (he, by the way, failed to find the back of the net for the balance of the season upon joining the Penguins). What's more, the third and fourth lines often found themselves hemmed in their own end, struggling to even escape the Pittsburgh zone. This year, with one quarter of the season still remaining, the bottom-six has already chipped in 45 markers (nine of which admittedly came courtesy of Daniel Winnik and Maxim Lapierre before joining the Pens). Just as importantly, this represents a much more competent group, one that shouldn't find itself pinned in the Pittsburgh end for long stretches at a time.
- Say what you want about the return yielded in the James Neal trade and Nick Spaling's subsequent contract but, when Rutherford shipped out a somewhat one-dimensional player, he gained a legitimate top-six forward and a versatile depth piece. And, before you scoff at that notion, consider the simple fact that, through 62 games, Spaling and Patric Hornqvist's combined 28 goals and 33 helpers have already virtually matched Neal's production (27 markers and 34 assists) from all of last year. Sure, it's taken the work of two people but that has effectively spread the numbers Neal would have put up throughout the lineup. And, for a team that was incredibly top-heavy last year, that's not necessarily a bad thing.
- A new system that has the Penguins playing a more responsible game has led to the most stingy squad Pittsburgh has iced this decade. The Pens currently boast both the circuit's fifth best goals against average and penalty killing unit. Of course, it doesn't hurt that Marc-Andre Fleury is enjoying arguably his finest season, playing at a level that hasn't gone unnoticed amongst his teammates. Not only do his eight shutouts (a career high) currently pace the league, but his .924 save percentage and 2.19 GAA would both represent career bests.
- That same system that has the Penguins breaking out of their end with more of a pack mentality has served to cut down on the maddening turnovers that previously plagued this team. There's no greater example of that than the game of Kris Letang, the individual who's probably benefitted more than anyone from a coaching change. Not only does he currently lead all defensemen in scoring, but he's playing with the confidence and authority that, at minimum, should garner him consideration for the Norris Trophy. And, with the loss of Olli Maatta combined with the questions surrounding Christian Ehrhoff's health, the presence and abilty to handle the heavy lifting along the blue line (along with Paul Martin) could go a long way for this Pittsburgh team.
With all that said, are the Penguins the favorite to come out of the Eastern Conference? Probably not. They still possess question marks along the blue line and need to prove they can overcome their struggles within the Metropolitan Division. But, in a largely wide open Eastern bracket, anything can happen. For now, just know this team is more equipped to find success than it was last spring.