One month ago, the Pittsburgh Penguins were licking the wounds of a 6-2 beating at the hands of the lowly Toronto Maple Leafs and wondering what had gone terribly wrong with their season. Less than a year after coming within 2 wins of hoisting the Stanley Cup, the Penguins found themselves on the outside looking in with the very real prospect that they wouldn’t even make it into the post-season. Now, just a month later, the reality is much different.
A lot of things have changed in a month.
First, the Penguins got a new “interim” head coach as Michel Therrien was put out to pasture in favor of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton head coach Dan Bylsma. The coaching situation was complicated in Pittsburgh, as Therrien had done an outstanding job with the Penguins youth by instilling discipline and a defense-minded system. It was a coaching methodology that appeared to work very well last season when the entire team bought into it. This season, however, Therrien’s system and coaching methods seemed to get lost on the team and the result was some pretty uninspiring play. Whether it was the loss of so many of last season’s players or the inability of the coaching staff to adapt to a maturing young team, Therrien’s style was no longer proving effective for the Penguins. Bylsma stepped in and unshackled the Penguins offense and insisted that the team find fun in the game again, even if it meant more risk taking defensively. So far, it has worked quite well. Sidney Crosby looks like…..well, Sidney Crosby again. The passion appears to have returned to his game in the last month. The results have been there as well, as the team has gone 10-1-3 since the shake-up, garnering 23 of 27 possible points and making a playoff berth look more likely than not.
Second, Ray Shero pulled the trigger to bring in some extra talent and experience up front in Left Wing Chris Kunitz and veteran Right Wing Bill Guerin. The Penguins gave up Defenseman Ryan Whitney for Chris Kunitz and a minor league prospect player. With tremendous potential, Whitney provided the bargaining power the Penguins needed to draw a much needed top-6 winger to the team. Moreover, with the return of Sergei Gonchar, the Penguins had significant depth at defense and really had to make a play to shore up some holes on wing. The Penguins then picked up Bill Guerin for a conditional 5th round pick, which would become a 3rd round pick depending on how far the Penguins make it in the post-season (assuming they get into the post season). Again, both of these moves have paid off quite handsomely so far and have brought new life to the top line of the Penguins, giving Sidney Crosby the grit and speed he has lacked on his wings. In just 9 games, Kunitz has put up 11-points (5G, 6A). Guerin has notched 8-points (2G, 6A) in just 6-games with the team. Just as important, in the past 9-games, Sidney Crosby has accumulated 17-points (6G, 11A). The chemistry of the new top line has been almost instantaneous, and exciting.
Third, Marc-Andre Fleury has found more consistency in his game and has looked more like the goaltender who powered his team through the playoffs last season. While far from perfect, his positional play has been much better in recent weeks and his play was instrumental in a few overtime shootout wins. His record has improved to 28-16-6.
Although the playoffs are still not a lock, the Penguins are surging in the standings at the right time and they even have an outside chance of stealing a home-ice berth. With today’s win over the Bruins, the Penguins are sitting in 5th place in the East and are just 2-points behind the 4th place Philadelphia Flyers. With 3 games in hand for Philadelphia, it seems unlikely that the Penguins will be able to unseat the Flyers, but if they keep rolling like they have in the last month, anything is possible. They Penguins have just 11-games left in the regular season, with the next 6 at Mellon Arena for the home ice advantage. Of the 11-games, 6 will be played against teams that are currently not in a playoff position.
If the Penguins can make the playoffs, they have certainly put momentum on their side by being the hottest team in the league at the moment. They have the best record over their last 10-games of any team in the league right now. If they can carry that kind of momentum into the post season, they will be a dangerous foe come April.