NHL Playoffs Preview: Penguins aim for a three-peat

This spring, the weather is inconsistent, but one thing about Pittsburgh holds true — the return of playoff hockey.

For the 12th year in a row, the Pittsburgh Penguins will be returning to the NHL Stanley Cup playoffs. Decided late on Saturday, the Penguins will be facing their rivals to the east, the Philadelphia Flyers, in the playoffs for the first time since 2012. Now as they look to win the Stanley Cup for the third straight year, their future looks promising.

The Penguins’ offensive production this season has maintained the same punishing pace started last year, with 270 goals in 81 games thus far, only eight behind their previous mark.

Although they are now allowing the fewest number of shots against per game in the past two seasons, the Penguins have also suffered from goalie issues throughout the season, plagued with injuries and call-ups throughout the season. Thus, their defense has struggled, landing them in second place in the Metropolitan division behind the Washington Capitals. However, they held that spot both in 2016 and 2017, and were able to beat the Capitals in Round 2 of the playoffs on their way to a Cup victory.

What are the chances for a three-peat? Only a few teams have ever won the Cup more than twice in a row — notably the New York Islanders and the Montreal Canadiens — but, the Penguins have continued to impress throughout the season with their high level of play.

Expectations were extremely high entering this season, and while some stretches of the year left much to be desired, the Penguins have returned to their rightful place as a threat to any team. Forward Evgeni Malkin is having a career year, only two points away from reaching 100 on the season. This would be his fourth time accomplishing the feat. He leads the team with 42 goals, while team captain Sidney Crosby has recorded 60 assists on the year.

Looking into the postseason, these are promising numbers for a team facing astronomical expectations. Starting goaltender Matt Murray, who was the star of the 2016 playoffs and held down the back end last year as well, has been putting up high numbers rounding into the postseason, and backup Casey DeSmith currently leads the team in save percentage and goals allowed.

The problem comes at the Eastern Conference finals, where, if the Penguins are able to win both their first two series, they will likely be staring down either the Tampa Bay Lightning or the Boston Bruins, two teams who are having incredible years after missing last year’s playoffs. Not to mention, in the West, the Nashville Predators have clinched the President’s Trophy for the first time in team history and have a solid chance of making the finals for the second year in a row, an opportunity to get revenge on the Pens this time around.

However, they first must defeat the Flyers, a task that sounds simple on paper, but draws plenty of complications. After clinching third place in the Metropolitan Division by handily defeating the New York Rangers, the Flyers finished only two points back from the Penguins, despite struggling earlier in the season.

Flyers captain Claude Giroux scored three goals in the victory on Saturday, bringing his total to 34 goals on the season and 102 points on the season, beating out Pittsburgh’s top scorers. While no one else on the team has met his offensive production, rookie Nolan Patrick and second-year Travis Konecny have both had breakout seasons, scoring 13 and 24 goals respectively.

The Pens have won all four games against the Flyers this season, although two of them were decided in overtime. Right now, the Penguins are favored to win the playoff series, but the Flyers are unlikely to go down without a fight, and have a strong chance of becoming this year’s underdog story.

The NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin this week. Since the Penguins came in second, they will have home ice advantage. Game dates and times have not yet been announced.