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Ivey: Pittsburgh set up to three-peat as champions

| Friday, April 13, 2018

The Stanley Cup Playoffs began Wednesday night, and there is certainly no shortage of storylines for the 16 teams competing for Lord Stanley’s chalice.

First, you have one of the most surprising stories — not just in hockey, but perhaps in all of sports within the last decade — in the Vegas Golden Knights, who shocked everyone with a 51-24-7 record, winning the Pacific Division and making the playoffs in their first year of existence. The Golden Knights won their first-ever playoff game Wednesday night 1-0 against the Los Angeles Kings, giving America its newest bandwagon team.

Then, there’s the Nashville Predators, who won the Presidents’ Trophy for having the best regular-season record in the league for the first time in franchise history. The Predators made it to their first Stanley Cup Finals last season, and they’re hungry to get back to win their first-ever Cup. They certainly look good enough to do so.

The Tampa Bay Lightning and Boston Bruins just finished an epic race for the Atlantic Division championship, with Tampa just narrowly edging out Boston. Both teams are on a collision course to face each other in the second round if they both win their first-round series. They are both Cup-caliber teams, and whoever makes it out will certainly be the favorite to come out of the Eastern Conference.

Or will they?

Because as I was watching Wednesday night’s Game 1 between the Philadelphia Flyers and the Pittsburgh Penguins, I couldn’t help but ask myself something.

“The Penguins are going to three-peat, aren’t they?”

The Penguins dismantled the Flyers, 7-0, with relative ease. Their performance was an absolute clinic on how to play the perfect hockey game, basically controlling the flow of the game from puck drop. They had contributions from all four lines and even from their defensemen, who recorded four points. Their goaltending was superb.

I know, I know. It was just one game. Their performance could drastically change the next game or the one after that.

But the Penguins’ performance last night was no doubt a message to the rest of the league. They’re here, and they don’t intend to go anywhere anytime soon. They look hungry for their third-straight championship and fourth in the salary-cap era, which would no doubt put them among the best dynasties in hockey history.

The scary thing is, looking up and down their roster, this team doesn’t seem to have any weaknesses.

They have the best hockey player on the planet in Sidney Crosby, who scored a natural hat trick last night that included one goal where he batted the puck out of midair with his stick like a baseball player swinging, just to show that he could — as he has done several times of late.

The Penguins also feature Evgeni Malkin, one of the best centermen in all of hockey, who often gets overshadowed by Crosby. Malkin also scored a highlight-reel goal last night, as he skated through the entire Flyers defense like they were construction cones and roofed a backhand shot past Flyers goaltender Brian Elliot.

In addition to Crosby and Malkin, the Penguins’ third-line center is Derick Brassard, who they acquired from the Ottawa Senators at the trade deadline. Brassard is also considered one of the best centers in the game, and his presence on the Penguins makes them the toughest team to beat down the middle.

The Penguins also have one of the best wingers in the NHL in Phil Kessel. Since the Penguins traded for him in the summer of 2015, Kessel has helped Pittsburgh win two-straight Cups while registering 45 points in 49 playoff games with the Penguins.

In addition to all the star power they have on offense, they also feature the young and effective role players needed to have a balanced lineup. Players like Jake Guentzel (who scored four points against the Flyers in Game 1), Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust, Carl Hagelin and Patric Hornqvist give the Penguins secondary scoring that teams have trouble containing.

Their defensive unit is no joke, either. They won the Cup last year without their top defenseman, Kris Letang. They have him back this year, and he assisted on Pittsburgh’s opening goal in their rout of the Flyers. Experienced defensemen like Olli Maatta and Brian Dumoulin also help execute Pittsburgh’s increasingly impressive defensive efforts.

Goaltender Matt Murray has recorded shutouts in his last three postseason games dating back to last season. He was the Penguins’ primary goaltender during their last two Cup runs and has a playoff record of 23-9.

Add all of these things up and you’ve got one scary team. Given they’ve won the last two Stanley Cup championships, it’s not crazy to think they will again this season.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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