After the Pittsburgh Penguins won the 2009 Stanley Cup behind young superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, it seemed almost a given that the team was destined to win several Stanley Cups and become the league’s dominant powerhouse for the coming years.
Instead, it took seven years for the group to get back to the big show, and the Chicago Blackhawks became an NHL dynasty by winning three Stanley Cups in that span.
Well, that narrative went out the window Sunday night, when Pittsburgh finished off the Nashville Predators to become the first back-to-back NHL champion since the 1998 Detroit Red Wings.
So now we’re facing a new question: Can anyone stop the Penguins in the foreseeable future?
This year’s version of the team was an unstoppable scoring-machine. Pittsburgh led the NHL at 3.4 goals per game and also boasted the third-best power-play percentage. I think we can all agree that as long as Crosby, Malkin and Phil Kessel are at or near the top of their games, the Penguins are near impossible to beat, especially in seven-game sets.
It also helps that younger talent continues to complement the mainstay veterans. Matt Murray, at age 22, emerged as the No. 1 option for the team in net, while rookie Jake Guentzel posted 33 points in 40 games during the regular season. And then in the postseason, he put up 21 points in 25 games (fourth on the team behind Malkin, Crosby and Kessel) and led the team in playoff goals.
We know how good the Penguins are, so who can possibly beat them? Well, the top contender could be the Blackhawks. They put together a contending roster every single season and possess enough star power to match that of the Penguins. But they’re coming off a postseason in which they were swept by the Predators in the first round (which is slightly less shocking now than it was when it happened), while some of their core pieces such as Marian Hossa, Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith are showing some signs of aging. So, they may be out of the conversation very soon.
Another obvious contender would be the Washington Capitals, a team that’s finished with the best record in the NHL the past two seasons. But they’re playoff troubles have been well-documented. Could Alex Ovechkin finally solve the Penguins in the postseason? Maybe not.
The team that may be the biggest challenge to the Penguins is, drum-roll please, the Edmonton Oilers. They finished the regular season with 103 points and boast 20-year-old Connor McDavid, a budding megastar who scored 100 points last year.
Besides McDavid, the Oilers also have a strong supporting cast — and their top seven scorers are all under 30-years-old. So while Pittsburgh is peaking in terms of talent, the Oilers are constantly improving. They may not be ready next season to take that next step, but it’s coming. And, boy, will that be an exciting story.
But for the 2017-18 campaign, it’s hard to imagine someone stopping Pittsburgh.
And that’s coming from a Blackhawks fan.
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