This Would Be Penguins Most Impressive 'Switch Flip' Yet

They've done it under Sullivan before, but this feels different

Matt Koll
February 28, 2019 - 1:38 pm
Sid celebrates goal with teammates

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Win one.

Lose four.

Win a couple more.

Lose another one.

Win another two

Lose another two.

Win one to finish it out.

That’s how the Penguins’ month of February played out and it’s indicative of how the season has gone to this point. Up and down. Feeling good and feeling bad. But ultimately wondering…is this just not their year?

The ups and downs throughout the regular season are not an atypical sight. It seems like it happens every year. Especially for a team filled with top end talent that’s won it all before.

NHL Network analyst Brian Lawton said it himself when he was on The Fan Morning Show Wednesday morning.

“When you have guys that have won the Cup as many times as they have and have tasted success, sometimes it can be a challenge to keep them motivated.”

The Penguins have been able to flip a switch in the past and really turn it on when games matter most. It’s won them two Stanley Cups. As Lawton put it, “whenever they've had an opportunity to have to rise to an occasion where there's been just a little more spotlight shown on them I feel like they've delivered as a team.”

“Flipping the switch.” Turning it on when you need it most.

But this year feels different.

There’s a multitude of things to overcome, the very first of which is where they sit in the standings.

Going into Thursday night, the Penguins are just a point ahead of Columbus for the second Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference with 19 regular games to go. They’re already fighting for their playoff lives.

Missing the postseason just doesn’t happen in the Crosby/Malkin era. In fact, the Pens haven’t missed the opportunity to play hockey deep into April for 12 consecutive seasons.

In what is already a long postseason, the Penguins are forced to play their best hockey before it even starts, just to get in.

It’s also been a busy year for GM Jim Rutherford and it started early. GMJR pulled the trigger on the first of seven significant trades this year just 16 games into the regular season, shipping Carl Hagelin out to LA for Tanner Pearson.

With six other trades, new names and bodies have been brought in and it seems like the Penguins never have the same line combinations game to game (Mike Sullivan’s penchant for line-shuffling has also been a factor in that). Continuity and consistency has been an issue all year. This is a team that has had losing streaks of 4 games twice and a 5 gamer yet had a stretch in which it won 8 games consecutively.

Nick Bjugstad, Jared McCann and Erik Gudbranson are all players that have been acquired over the last month and will be forced to assimilate into this lineup quickly and effectively or this team may find themselves on the outside looking in.

And we haven’t even gotten to the players that were already here. Their stars need to be stars.

Phil Kessel has disappeared. Since coming out of the gates hot, the pure goal-scorer has netted just 4 over the last two months and hasn’t lit the lamp since January 30th. That’s now a 13-game stretch without a goal.

Evgeni Malkin’s numbers are down just slightly through 57 games played from last season but has had games in which he’s been invincible.

Patric Hornqvist, the Penguins agitator and net-front presence, suffered two concussions this season and hasn’t been the same since the second he suffered in early January. He has just 28 points on the campaign and went 14 games without tallying a single point after that second concussion.

Perhaps most importantly, Matt Murray has been the epitome of this team’s roller coaster season. Murray’s had multiple injuries causing him to miss games yet again this year. He’s been great at times and has been very below average at others (see 3rd period in Stadium Series game in Philly). It’s all shaken out to a .912 save percentage of Murray, ranking 20th in the NHL and just three points above the league average.

They’ve shuffled bodies top-end talent has been disappointing outside of Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang and to top it all off, they’ve been snake-bitten with injuries recently.

Their top defensive pairing in Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin both went down in the Stadium Series game against the Flyers last Saturday. The Fan’s Penguins insider Jason Mackey told us that he hasn’t been told directly it’s not a neck injury for Letang when’s asked around about it and Dumoulin’s concussion is, well, a concussion. They’re different from player to player and adverse symptoms can drag out for a long time, just ask Sidney Crosby.

Of course, just this past Tuesday Bryan Rust and Chad Ruhwedel suffered “longer term” injuries. Don’t look past the Rust loss, as he scored some big goals in the playoffs for the Pens in Stanley Cup seasons past.

Heck, don’t look past Ruhwedel’s either. Despite the additions of Gudbranson and Chris Wideman at the trade deadline, the blue line is just decimated. The Pens have to the scrap and claw to get six defensemen in the lineup.

It’s hard to win a Stanley Cup. That’s an understatement.

There are many things to overcome during an 82-game slog, but the Mike Sullivan-era Penguins have never had the odds stacked against them like this.

I’m not going to say it can’t be done, not with this core group and not with this coach. They’ve proved multiple times that they can elevate when the games are the biggest and all of the sudden play like an elite team.

But this would be their most impressive switch flip yet.     

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