Penguins need second-half consistency to emerge as title contenders |

Penguins need second-half consistency to emerge as title contenders

Jonathan Bombulie
The Penguins celebrate after a goal by left wing Tanner Pearson past Ducks goaltender John Gibson during the third period Friday, Jan. 11, 2019. The Penguins won 7-4.

Editor’s note: As the Pittsburgh Penguins hit their bye week, beat writer Jonathan Bombulie looks at four characteristics usually shared by Stanley Cup champions and where this year’s team stacks up in those areas.

As Phil Kessel undoubtedly knows, there’s a motto sometimes repeated by players at the World Series of Poker. No matter how small the stack is in front of them, they have a chance to win the first-place bracelet if they have “a chip and a chair.”

A lot of people talk about the Stanley Cup playoffs in much the same way. As long as a team gets into the 16-team tournament, it has as good a chance to raise the fabled trophy as any other club, right?

Not really.

Instances of lower-seeded teams pulling off a series of upsets to claim a championship have become few and far between in the last decade in the NHL. The last five Stanley Cup champions have finished the regular season with at least 100 points in the standings.

Fans of underdogs like to point to the 2012 Los Angeles Kings for motivation. Coming into the playoffs as the eighth seed in the Western Conference didn’t stop them from winning a championship.

In reality, though, the dark-horse label doesn’t fit them all that well.

They finished with 95 points in the standings, just two points out of first place in their division. That’s way better than the average eighth seed. Second, they were a team with a 21-year-old Drew Doughty, 24-year-old Anze Kopitar and 25-year-old Jonathan Quick just coming into their own.

Far more frequently, the teams that prove themselves the most capable over a long, 82-game regular season have the most success during the two-month playoff grind as well.

Pundits sometimes ascribe the postseason success of those teams to the acquired skill of knowing how to win.

Penguins defenseman Jack Johnson doesn’t have much time for that kind of talk, though.

“I don’t know exactly what people mean by knowing how to win,” he said. “It’s just having confidence. Teams that are good, that’s a confidence in itself. You go into the game, and you expect to win. That’s step one, as opposed to hoping to win. You have to be comfortable in tight games, in one-goal games, and keep making plays and having confidence. I think it’s all a swagger and a confidence that makes teams good.”

Have the Penguins put together a strong enough regular-season track record to be considered a legitimate Stanley Cup contender in the spring?

That jury is still out. Having fashioned a 26-16-6 record before hitting their bye week, the Penguins are on pace to finish the season with 99 points. That should get them into the playoffs relatively comfortably, but it falls a little short of the standard set by the last five champs.

To put it charitably, they still are trying to find championship-level consistency.

“I think learning to play with consistency night in and night out and not taking nights off or having very few of those off games allows those teams to be successful and keep building and play well in the playoffs,” winger Bryan Rust said.

Johnson said he figures the Penguins have enough time left to reach that goal.

“Teams need to peak at the right time,” he said. “It does you no good to peak in November. A team needs to be steadily getting better as the season goes on and peaking in the playoffs. There’s a lot of factors that go into playoff hockey. The hardest thing to win is the Stanley Cup. You’ve got to go through four rounds of seven-game series. You need some luck involved. Injuries are a factor. You can run into a hot goaltender. All those things are factors. There’s a lot of things that go into it.”

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at [email protected] or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.