Tuesday, April 05, 2016

East opens wide for Implausible Penguins

April 4, 2016

Penguins coaches Mike Sullivan and Rick Tocchet observe the action during a game against the Islanders on March 15, 2016, at Consol Energy Center.
Penguins coaches Mike Sullivan and Rick Tocchet observe the action during a game against the Islanders on March 15, 2016, at Consol Energy Center.

All was quiet on the Eastern Front on Monday. The Implausible Penguins finally rested.
That left us but a few short hours to stagger in the dust of their monthlong rampage and try to comprehend what just happened.
What just happened?
How did we get from the Penguins crawling toward the playoffs to Jay Caufield calling them the NHL's best team Monday (on KDKA-AM) and sounding quite reasonable in doing so?
Quantify it any way you like. I'll go with this: In back-to-back games over the past three weekends, the Penguins have trampled the Flyers, Capitals, Rangers, Red Wings, Islanders and Flyers again by a combined score of 31-9. They outshot those teams 211-139.
The Penguins might finish with the most goals in the East. They have the second-best goal differential in the NHL.
Once slow, old and done, they now are young, fast and fun. And look at what's happening around them.
The Rangers no longer are an impenetrable shell but rather a shell of their former selves. They can't get out of their zone anymore. The Tampa Bay Lightning suddenly are without their best forward (Steven Stamkos) and second-best defenseman (Anton Stralman).
The New York Islanders gave the Penguins fits for years because of their speed, but guess what? The Penguins now are the faster team.
The Washington Capitals remain the favorite in the East, but their major issue remains unchanged: They're the Washington Capitals.
As for the Penguins, I ask: Have you ever seen a Pittsburgh sports team so radically change its personality and fortunes in-season? Several teams I've witnessed belong in the conversation …
• The 2000-01 Penguins were sputtering along at 13-10-3 when the ghost of Mario Lemieux returned. That changed a few things. The buzz didn't wear off until the Eastern Conference finals.
• The 2007-08 Pitt basketball team fell to 9-8 in the Big East after a blowout loss at West Virginia. Twelve days later they were cutting down the nets at Madison Square Garden after a four-games-in-four-nights tour de force.
• The 2002 Steelers were 1-2 after a lucky overtime win against the Cleveland Browns. That prompted a switch in quarterbacks — Kordell Stewart to Tommy Maddox — and a total personality transplant. A franchise long known for running the ball launched an aerial show. It would eventually prove untenable, but nobody was complaining that year. Not after Tommy Gun took his team to within an overtime loss of the AFC title game.
A few of Walt Harris' Pitt football teams spring to mind, as do the 1976 Steelers, who surrendered 106 points in their first five games, dropped four of them and eventually lost star quarterback Terry Bradshaw. They gave up 28 points in their final nine games and won them all, despite backup Mike Kruczek throwing precisely zero touchdown passes.
The best example might be the 2008-09 Penguins, who were five points out of a playoff spot when Dan Bylsma replaced Michel Therrien. They went 18-3-4 down the stretch. Bylsma's arrival coincided with the additions of veterans Chris Kunitz and Bill Guerin, and Sergei Gonchar's return from a season-long injury.
Suddenly, the Penguins weren't the same anymore. Not even close.
Kind of like this team.
“This reminds me a lot of '09,” Pierre McGuire was telling me Monday. “Mike Therrien had them playing passive-resistance hockey. Dan Bylsma turned them into an aggressive, super-charged hockey team. He played to the strengths of Malkin and Crosby. They played fast. I remember they had a nine-second rule in their own zone (had to get the puck out nine seconds or less).
“Because of the way they changed, it surprised a lot of people. And if you look at what Mike Sullivan has done, it's a lot of the same. He's turned 'em loose. They're much more aggressive on the forecheck. They engage the defense in the rush a lot more.
“They're not sitting back and letting teams attack them anymore.”
Whereas Bylsma's Penguins were jolted by an infusion of veterans, Sully's were electrified by an infusion of youth.
And you know, I'd be remiss if I didn't include the 1999-2000 Penguins in this conversation. That team was 8-14-3 when Craig Patrick tapped Herb Brooks to replace Kevin Constantine.
Brooks' first news conference was memorable.
“We're going to play an up-tempo, dynamic game,” he said. “It's ice out there. It's not blacktop, wood or dirt. The first thing is to get back to even and play a type of game that fits the abilities of the players we have.”
History repeats itself. Particularly with the Penguins, whose personality always leans toward offense. There are so many great stories — but if this team can navigate a suddenly vulnerable East, it might be the most implausible one of all.
Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him atjraystarkey@gmail.com.

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