NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at Toronto Maple Leafs
John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

5 things we know as the Pittsburgh Penguins start their Stanley Cup title defense

The Pens host Columbus on Wednesday. We know Sidney Crosby and Phil Kessel will be there. Who will be with them?

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Closing out the regular season on a high note with some wins is nice and all, but head coach Mike Sullivan and the defending Stanley Cup champions Penguins will take just making it out alive.

With a playoff spot cemented for over a week and home ice clinched along with it, there wasn’t much to play for Sunday night in Game 82. Considering the injury plague that has hampered the team most of the season, Sullivan’s list of scratches included nine healthy regulars, including Sidney Crosby, while giving Tristian Jarry his first-career NHL start in goal.

The result was a 3-2 loss that nobody will remember, because here come the playoffs. Here are the five things we know heading into the NHL postseason.

1. Crosby: Goal hero

NHL: Columbus Blue Jackets at Pittsburgh Penguins
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Crosby didn’t even need to suit up to clinch the Rocket Richard award for most goals this season. His 44 goals were enough to beat Auston Matthews by four — trumping the rookie while playing in seven fewer games (75). It was a good, common sense move to sit Crosby with absolutely nothing on the line, but given everything we know about the Penguins captain, he surely wanted to play and will lose sleep over the loss.

As for the hardware, it’s the second time in Crosby’s career he’ll finish the season leading the league in goals, with 44 being his highest total since netting 51 in 2009-10. Crosby scored the most goals on the power play (14) since his rookie season in 2005-06, and his shooting percentage (17.3-percent) was also the second-highest mark of his career. He still has some work to do before he catches No. 66 — Lemieux led the NHL in goals three times: 1987-88, 1988-89 and 1995-96.

2. Bye-bye, Fleury. Hello, Jarry.

Go ahead and pencil Tristian Jarry in as the Pens inevitable backup next season. He’s only 21 and, sure, it was only one game, but you can’t teach this:

jarry

He’ll have to wait a full off-season for his next shot at his first win in the NHL, but it’s safe to assume that’ll be coming sooner rather than later next season.

3. Healthy players Maatta.

Olli Maatta

Olli Maatta

Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Olli Maatta is back after missing the team’s last 25 games with a hand injury. He looked rusty this weekend — flubbing a couple passes and ended up being walked around more than once — but the Penguins will gladly welcome the depth. He hasn’t had a great season offensively even when healthy, only collecting seven points (one goal, six assists) over 54 contests this season, but Maatta’s defensive ability is what the Penguins will need most with Kris Letang on the shelf.

The problem is Maatta doesn’t have much time to knock the rust off, as the stakes are raised in the days to come. It’ll be interesting to see if the Penguins decide to start the postseason with Maatta in the lineup, or if they give him more time to get up to playoff speed, as call-ups Chad Ruhwedel (10 points in 34 games) and Cameron Guance (plus-12 in 13 games) have played well as fill-ins on the blue line.

4. The well isn’t dry.

NHL: Carolina Hurricanes at Pittsburgh Penguins
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Once upon a time, the Penguins’ prospect pool consisted of a bunch of guys you never knew nothing about because they never got a chance to crack Dan Bylsma’s lineup, and Beau Bennett, who you never saw healthy for more than a week at a time. That’s not the case in Wilkes-Barre anymore. The Penguins were able to rely on the farm team to bail them out through multiple stretches this season, and even the guys who were just making the cut for this weekend’s last two meaningless games were impressive. It probably makes sense that Wilkes-Barre currently holds the AHL’s best record at 50-19-4.

5. The title defense starts Wednesday.

NHL: Florida Panthers at Pittsburgh Penguins
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Game 1 against Columbus will be Wednesday night at PPG Paints Arena, with puck drop scheduled for 7:30 p.m. The Pens will be trying to bump the Blue Jackets from the postseason for the second time in three years. They will have home-ice advantage, which is big considering they are 31-6-4 in Pittsburgh this season.

The Blue Jackets won 16 games in a row this season and still finished behind the Penguins, defying all logic considering how the Pens’ season went. The Jackets finished 23-23 after that win-streak ended.

The Pens ended the season with the NHL’s third-best power play, converting on 22.5-percent of their opportunities with the man advantage. That number jumped to 27.2-percent when playing at the Paint Can. With Brandon Dubinsky and John Tortorella in the mix, anything and everything is possible. If the Pens can find success on the power play, especially early in the series, it may detour the Blue Jackets from their usual extra-circular activities and other attempts play ugly, and dirty, in an effort to frustrate the Pens. Or maybe not.

Here’s when we’ll find out:

DateMatchupTime (ET)Channel
WednesdayColumbus @ Pittsburgh7:30 p.m.USA
FridayColumbus @ Pittsburgh7 p.m.NHL Network
SundayPittsburgh @ Columbus6 p.m.CNBC
Tuesday, April 18Pittsburgh @ Columbus7:30 p.m.CNBC
Thursday, April 20Columbus @ PittsburghTime TBD
Sunday, April 23Pittsburgh @ ColumbusTime TBD
Tuesday, April 25Columbus @ PittsburghTime TBD

Worth noting: The NHL playoff format doesn’t make sense at all. Pittsburgh has 111 points and plays Columbus with 108, but Montreal finishes with 103 and gets the Rangers, while Ottawa has just 98 and gets to play Boston. So essentially, one of the three best teams in the East is assured to be eliminated in the first round.

On the other hand, this is the NHL we’re talking about here, so we should expect the opposite of whatever conventional wisdom tells us is right. That, we know we know.

Never change, NHL.



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