Officially Labeling the Penguins as Stanley Cup Contenders

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I’m putting my stamp on this one. The Pittsburgh Penguins have officially made me a believer.

Heading into this season, it was easy to see where things could go wrong for the Penguins. They were returning a goalie who posted one of the worst statistical performances in the history of the NHL postseason. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were guaranteed to miss significant time to open the season. It also wasn’t yet determined if the Pens were deep enough to withstand the ensuing season ahead with injuries, and now COVID, to navigate through.

Now, here we stand. On January 6, 2022, the Pittsburgh Penguins are 19-8-5 with 43 points to their name riding a nine-game winning streak. The immediate road ahead sends the Penguins into Philadelphia for their first matchup of the season against their bitter cross-state rivals on Thursday night.

Champion-esque Comeback

Pittsburgh’s 5-3 victory over the St. Louis Blues on Wednesday night at PPG Paints Arena was a special one. It marked the first time all season the Penguins mounted a multi-goal comeback and won the game.

Down 3-1 after the Blues’ first 16 shots, Mike Sullivan does what he does best and trusted his instinct. Sullivan pulled Casey DeSmith from the game and placed Tristan Jarry, fresh out of COVID protocols, into the crease.

Coming in cold, in the middle of a game as a goalie, is one of the hardest things to do in hockey. Couple that with it being Jarry's first game action since December 19 and it seems that much more daunting. All Jarry did was deliver 13 saves on as many shots en route to a huge victory over the Blues.  

The Vezina-worthy goaltender provided a steadying presence after a rocky start to the game with DeSmith in the net.  Sullivan isn't wrong much, and he instinctively guessed right again on a decision in this one that preserved the Penguins lengthy winning streak.

Another thing that typically doesn’t bode well for the opposition is making Sidney Crosby mad. That’s exactly what Blues defenseman Niko Mikkola did when he landed a glancing blow to Crosby’s face cutting him open.   Crosby responded promptly upon his return from being stitched up by scoring on Blues goaltender Jordan Binnington and then letting out one of those massive Crosby-like screams that he really only pulls out when he feels vindicated.

Evan Rodrigues buried his 14th goal of the season. Also, Bryan Rust potted two more goals as he looks to start heating up now that he’s back from injury.

Required Depth

Pittsburgh has taken the “next man up” mentality that Sullivan drills into these players and taken it to another level this season. They’ve won a ton of games already, and Evgeni Malkin has yet to play in a single contest yet this year. 

It took me a while to finally buy into this version of the Pittsburgh Penguins. They’ve got the aging core, sure. But that aging core has shown no signs of slowing down. If Malkin’s return can only further boost what is currently being provided by the team, the rest of the NHL had better look out.

The depth that they’ve had this season has come from totally unexpected outlets. Rodrigues has been phenomenal. Brock McGinn has scored nine goals already. Brian Boyle looked about as impactful Wednesday as he has all year.

The Penguins will never be fully-healthy. That just isn’t meant to happen, especially in the COVID-era of hockey. It’s just too hard to have everyone available for any length of time. They’re going to field a different lineup on almost a nightly basis. But they now have the depth that they haven’t quite had since their Cup runs.

It’s certainly a lot to ask Tristan Jarry to continue to play like he has over an entire season. However, if he can, the Penguins are in a good spot. As long as Sullivan resides behind the bench, the Penguins will be a good team. He makes a world of difference that those outside of Pittsburgh truly don’t understand.

Closing Window

All of the analysts will pick the Tampa Bay’s and the Florida’s and the Colorado’s of the world to win the Stanley Cup this season. While I’m not anointing the Penguins as the favorite to win it all, I don’t think for a second you can count out the squad the Penguins have assembled. This is the best chance for another Cup as the Penguins will have for the remainder of Crosby, Malkin, and Letang’s careers.

Watching the Penguins thoroughly dominate play the last period and a half of last night's game made something click for me that this team can be something more than a building block for another team’s Stanley Cup resumé. Instead, they can continue to make examples out of other teams to build their own.