The Pittsburgh Penguins have one game left on the schedule before the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs as they prepare to play one of the New York Islanders, Boston Bruins or Washington Capitals in the first round. While a championship requires a full team effort, there are five players who will be the most crucial to the Penguins’ success and a deep playoff run.
As always, Sidney Crosby has to be the best player on the Penguins this postseason if they want to win. He has been their leader all season in a strong bounce-back year after a poor campaign in 2019-20 when he was healing from a sports hernia.
Crosby, 33, has 24 goals and 62 points through 54 games this season, leading the team in points by five. His dynamic offensive play has given the team a boost, and he still has the talent to take over games. His offensive play has not been the only good part of his season. He has a 1.10 even-strength defensive goals above replacement (EVD_GAR) and 2.29 expected goals against per 60 (xGA/60). He may not be playing at the same Selke-level of defensive play he was earlier in the season but has been much improved in his own zone compared to last season and one of the best on the team.
Crosby’s overall value to the team is immense; he ranks second on the Penguins in wins above replacement (WAR), with 1.60 (meaning he has earned the team that many wins above what a replacement-level player or an American Hockey League player could provide). This is mainly due to his elite production at both even-strength and on the power play.
Evgeni Malkin needs to be better. His production may imply otherwise, but he has not had a good season. After an explosive 2019-20 campaign, fans expected him to keep pace, but that has not been the case.
Malkin, 34, has eight goals and 28 points in 32 games this season, but he has looked unmotivated and lazy, especially in the few games since he returned from injury on May 10, after missing 23 games. He has made sloppy passes, bad turnovers, and seems to be gliding around the ice.
Malkin ranks third from the bottom of the team in WAR with a -0.20, above Jason Zucker and Sam Lafferty. This is mainly due to his abysmal defensive play, with his -2.70 EVD_GAR, which ranks dead last on the team. However, he hasn’t provided much value in the offensive zone either, with just a 0.80 even strength offensive goals above replacement (EVO_GAR) that ranks at 14th on the team.
I predict that the explosive Malkin that we are used to will return for the postseason. But the team needs him to prove it first.
This one is a no-brainer. Jared McCann has been the most valuable player on the team after Crosby. Since he was acquired, he has proven he could be a consistent top-six forward on the Penguins if he can figure out how to finish his chances.
McCann, 24, has 14 goals and 32 points through 42 games this season. He has been elite in every aspect of the game, despite being underrated by many. His skating is his main asset and will be very crucial in the playoffs, as speed is a main piece that won the team back to back championships.
The only player ahead of Crosby in WAR is McCann, who has a whopping 2.80. He has produced offensively, defensively, and on the power play, and has took his game to another level on a line with Jeff Carter, and now, Frederick Gaudreau.
He will be critical to the team’s success in the postseason, and they need to rely on him for as long as they possibly can. and if that means moving Malkin to the second power-play unit in favor of McCann, so be it.
You can’t win a Stanley Cup without elite goaltending in the playoffs. Matt Murray, Braden Holtby, Jordan Binnington, Andrei Vasilevski may not be Vezina-caliber players during the regular season, they all performed at an outstanding level during their teams’ championship runs, and that is what the Penguins will need from Tristan Jarry.
Jarry has a great 25-9-3 record, but his stats have been very underwhelming, with a .909 save percentage to go with -9.06 goals saved above expected (GSAx). However, those numbers don’t fully do him justice. Apart from the first month of the season, and a couple of bad games since, he has been playing at an above average level for an NHL goaltender.
Between February 1 and May 1, Jarry ranks 22nd in the NHL in GSAx, with a 1.63. This might not be outstanding by any menas, it is a significant upgrade compared to what that number would be if you include his horrific start to the season, an indiciation that a couple of bad games have really stunted his stats.
Jarry has never played in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, apart from Game 4 against the Montreal Canadiens in the round-robin last season, so it will be interesting to see how he handles the pressure.
Carter is coming off a four-goal game against the Buffalo Sabres, so it only seems right to include him here. He came over on the eve of the trade deadline from the Los Angeles Kings and has been stellar since.
Carter, 36, has eight goals and 10 points in 13 games with Pittsburgh and has made for an elite third line centre, which the Penguins have been longing for since Nick Bonino departed after the 2017 championship run. He has a WAR of 0.70. He has been strong at both ends of the ice, but more so in the offensive zone.
Playing on a line with McCann and Gaudreau reminds me a lot of the “HBK” line of Bonino, Carl Hagelin, and Phil Kessel. They give the Penguins the depth to use their bottom-six, which they have not been able to do for a long time.
The Journey Is About to Begin
After Saturday’s game, the Penguins’ 2020-21 regular season will be over, and they will then begin their road to the Stanley Cup. Everyone will need to contribute if they want to win, but watch out for these five players to make a difference.
PIT Penguins Writer THW. Twitter & Instagram: puckempire. Formerly a Florida Panthers writer.
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