PITTSBURGH (93-7 The Fan) - Some characterize the middle of a Major League Baseball season as the "dog days of summer" because players and fans are pushing through the middle of a long season with one eye on hoping to stay healthy and getting to the playoffs.
One could say the Penguins are in a very similar stretch right now in February, where teams have not quite elevated their play for the postseason chase.
NHL Network analyst John MacLean joined "The Fan Morning Show" on Wednesday to discuss the state of the Penguins right now with 26 games left in the regular season.
"Once you get everybody healthy and hitting on all cylinders, you'll see things tighten up for them," said MacLean. "The biggest thing for me is when they have the three centers going as far as Bonino, Crosby and Malkin and then of course, Matt Cullen as the fourth guy, once you get down the middle squared away, everybody healthy hitting on all cylinders, they'll be fine with their 200-foot game."
While the Pens may not be playing at their highest level, MacLean is impressed with the young forwards like Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust and Jake Guentzel (just to name a few) that have emerged over the past year. He credits the Penguins' scouting department for the success.
"Teams that go out and find these guys to say, 'Hey, you know what, maybe he can help us on the third line or he skates well, let's give him a shot, bring him in,' and it all goes hand in hand in the organization. Mike Sullivan has done a tremendous job, the timing for him to take the opportunity in Wilkes-Barre, get those young guys, bring them up at the perfect time, play with Sidney Crosby. Everything works, it's a whole organization of things so you've got to look at their scouting staff that find these diamonds in the rough," he said.
John also said it takes a special kind of player to play with Sidney Crosby, but the Penguins have found them.
"He needed somebody with speed that understood the game, they don't have to be the greatest player in the league, but they have to be able to understand it and they have to be able to play at a high level and get that forecheck started because that's where his super stardom comes from is his forecheck, his drive. So, he found guys to play with him like that that have made him better and then with his own talent, he's great," said MacLean.
As of Wednesday, the Washington Capitals lead Pittsburgh by seven points (84 to 77) atop the Metropolitan Division standings. John says if a playoff series were started today between the two, the Capitals would emerge victorious.
"I think Washington is hitting on all cylinders right now as far as how they are playing and everybody scoring," said MacLean. "You have Crosby and Malkin, tremendous players and had great seasons last year but really, the big difference I thought in the whole series was the third line. Your HBK line was a big difference and I think something Washington has right now that their third line is playing extremely well with [Brett] Connolly and [Andre] Burakovsky. They've won already last year, Pittsburgh, and I think you're going to see them hitting their stride here come March and ratcheting up the pace and the overall play."
In the way the NHL has constructed its playoff format, the Penguins would currently be set to face the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round of the playoffs. But if the Pens slipped down to fourth in their division and made the playoffs as one of the two wild card teams, they would most likely face the winner of the seemingly weaker Atlantic Division (currently Montreal, who just fired former Penguins head coach Michel Therrien in favor of Claude Julien). Would they ever consider losing more games to gain better playoff matchups?
"It becomes so dangerous, you're not trying to finish fourth," said MacLean. "It's going to be a dogfight there, I think for Pittsburgh's sake, Columbus has had a tremendous year, I mean you finish right now and you play Columbus in the first round. Columbus has had such a good year that it's hard to sustain that, I think they're going to be a great team going forward, but I wouldn't shy away from the Pittsburgh-Columbus match-up. It's the [New York] Rangers-Pittsburgh match-up that could be a seven-game war."
John also believes the Penguins will make a move before the deadline to shore things up for the stretch run in the season, although he thinks Fleury will not be traded until after the season.
"Jim [Rutherford] knows talent and he's not afraid to make a deal if it's going to make his club better," MacLean said. "You get a taste of winning and I know Jim likes to win and everybody likes to win. If he has an opportunity to make that team better, I think he's going to do it."
You can hear the entire interview with NHL Network analyst John MacLean on "The Fan Morning Show" below.
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