The Pittsburgh Penguins aren't the betting favorites like the Colorado Avalanche or the two-time defending champs like the Tampa Bay Lightning. And they are not averaging four goals per game like the Florida Panthers.
But the Pens have won 16 of their last 18 games since Dec. 4. Their goal-differential is +33 in that span.
This season, the Penguins overcome injuries to Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and a steady stream of COVID issues to be one of the NHL's most consistent winners.
Sportsnet.ca ranked the Penguins the NHL's 13th-best team in their preseason power rankings. Today they have the league's fifth-best record.
Malkin and Crosby: As long as a team has these two players, it a legitimate contender. It's difficult to find a one-two center combination that has their blend of skill, big-game experience and playoff history. These two players have logged 344 games of postseason experience and they've won most of those games.
The Culture: It's not as if the Penguins are a team learning how to win. They won back-to-back Cups in 2016 and 2017 and have been in the playoffs continuously since 2006. In that span, the Penguins have won 20 playoff series en route to four trips to the Stanley Cup Final and three Stanley Cup championships. This is an organization with several players, an owner and two management figures who know plenty about winning postseason games.
Tristan's Time: Some fans and media members were ready to bail on Tristan Jarry after his poor postseason performance (2-4, 3.18 GAA, .888 save percentage) last spring. At 26, Jarry seems to have pulled his game together. He's much improved over last season. Jarry has had a quality start in 21 of his 31 starts (67.7%) this season and owns a 2.09 goals-against average and .928 save percentage. He still needs to prove his postseason prowess, but looks like a much more confident goalie this season.
Got it all going on: The Penguins have the NHL's second-best goals-against average (2.54) and rank ninth in goals per game (3.34). Their scoring numbers are somewhat misleading because they have been averaging four goals per game over the last 16 games. This team seems to have goaltending, defense, scoring and work ethic. Isn't that the base line criteria for a contender?
Sully Factor: Mike Sullivan knows how to pull the best efforts out of his team. He is masterful at solving problems, plugging holes and keeping everyone moving in the right direction.
This is the second year in a row that the Penguins looked like they might slip just a little Sullivan made sure they were one of the NHL's top five teams.