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Penguins Perspectives: The depths of a championship team

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Welcome to Penguins Perspectives, a weekly column by KDKA-TV Digital Producer Patrick Damp. Each Monday, Patrick will talk about the week that was, the week to come, what to watch for, and more.

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – The inaugural Penguins Perspectives column last week was just that – perspective.

It was about appreciating what we've got, and understanding that this is truly the golden age for Penguins hockey and that it is much closer to its conclusion than its beginning.

This week, I want to use the past to help inform the present.

Not that it's ever something to despair over, but getting into the depths of a championship, you need just that – depth.

Through five games, Crosby, Malkin, and Letang are humming along and producing or eating up the minutes we absolutely expect them to and as they should for the Penguins to be successful.

We have also seen early contributions from Jason Zucker, Jeff Carter, and Danton Heinen.

Yes, as Crosby, Malkin, and Letang go, so do the Pittsburgh Penguins. However, for this team to find themselves challenging for Lord Stanley's Cup, they can't be the only ones carrying the weight night in and night out.

The three players above as well as Kasperi Kapanen are four players I'm keeping an eye on this year to determine how well the Penguins will do.

As we're all aware, injuries in net derailed the Penguins' championship aspirations last year, falling to the New York Rangers in seven games in the opening round. It wasn't for a lack of firepower as the team scored 29 goals on the Rangers, the most of any of the Rangers' three opponents in the playoffs.

Among those who helped produce those 29 tallies were Jeff Carter and Danton Heinen who combined for seven in total.

With that in mind, I wanted to take a look back on five things: 1991, 1992, 2009, 2016, and 2017.

"But, Patrick, I know what those are, those are Stanley Cup-winning seasons!"

You're correct, humble reader, but more than just the season ending with a parade down the Boulevard of the Allies or at Three Rivers Stadium, and Point State Park, I want to look a little deeper, if you will.

I started with the question: Who were the Penguins' most significant contributors? Obviously, in 1990, 1991, it was Jaromir Jagr, Kevin Stevens, and of course, Mario Lemieux. In 2009, 2016, and 2017, it was Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang.

So that led me to this question: how did the supporting cast do?

Things were a bit different in the 1990s, as this was just before the NHL's "Dead Puck" era began and scoring plummeted. For example, Mario Lemieux scored 16 goals, and 28 assists in 23 games for 44 points in 1991 and again in 1992, Lemieux scored 16 goals, and 18 assists, in 15 games for 34 points.

By comparison, Sidney Crosby's best playoff performance came in in 2009, scoring 15 goals, and 16 assists for 32 points in 24 games. That same year, Evgeni Malkin scored 14 goals, and 22 assists, for 36 points in the same amount of games played.

Needless to say, we're comparing some different eras here, but there is a similarity to be found in the five Stanley Cup championships – and that is the supporting cast was a big part of the franchise's success.

Looking back at the franchise's first back-to-back Stanley Cup, the team got plenty of help outside of Lemieux, Jagr, and Stevens.

1991 and 1992 were case studies in dominance. The Penguins weren't just good, they were an offensive juggernaut.

In 1991, the Penguins scored 95 goals…in 24 games. Good for just under four goals per game. With Tom Barrasso playing at a .919 save percentage, beating the Penguins was a tall task.

The 1991 Penguins got contributions up and down the lineup, Mark Recchi scored 10 goals, and 14 assists for 24 points. Defenseman Larry Murphy added five goals and 18 assists for 23 points. Meanwhile, Joe Mullen and Ron Francis added 17 points, Phil Bourque with 13, and Paul Coffey with 11.

That's nine players with double-digit points throughout the playoffs, a recipe for success.

1992 was more of the same. While only six players recorded double-digit points (Lemieux, Stevens, Francis, Jagr, Rick Tocchet, and Murphy), all had north of 15 in 21 playoff games.

It was a similar pace in 1992 – 83 goals over 21 games, again just a hair short of four goals per game, and Barrasso with a save percentage of .907.

Now, this wouldn't be a fair column if I just focused on the good. So, we're going to take a quick detour from the Stanley Cup years and take a look at what's considered one of the more disappointing losses in the modern, Sidney Crosby era: the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

A quick refresher: the team was decidedly…average. It's hard to say a team with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin is bad, but this was not a great showing. They were bounced in five games by the Rangers and looked lifeless in the process.

Not only did no player eclipse five points (Sidney Crosby led the pack with four points – two goals, two assists), seven players who appeared in all five games didn't record a point.

For comparison, and yes, I understand it was one five-game round, the Rangers only had three players with no points.

That Rangers team went on to lose in the Eastern Conference Final but had five players with double-digit points and 11 with more than five.

While I don't want to skip over two Penguins' championship teams, I do want to highlight the 2016 Stanley Cup-winning team.

The back-to-back champions in 2017 had six players in double digits and the 2009 Penguins had eight.

Meanwhile, in the modern era, the 2016 Penguins were simply a dominant force.

Nine players scored 10 or more points, seven players scored five or more, and the team scored 73 goals over 24 games, good for three goals per game.

This was a team that received contributions up and down the lineup and as a result, found a lot of success in the postseason. 

Especially the fabled "HBK Line" comprised of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino, and Phil Kessel. That trio enjoyed a dominant run, combining 20 goals, 36 assists, and 56 points in those 24 Stanley Cup Playoff games.

Looking to this season, a healthy Jason Zucker, continued production from Carter and Heinen, and a bounce-back year from Kapanen will be crucial for the Penguins to find themselves in the conversation to bring the Stanley Cup back to Pittsburgh.

To make it deep in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the depth needs to be anything but shallow.

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