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Damien Cox: Penguins are showing signs they won’t be overlooked come playoff time

Damien Cox: Penguins are showing signs they won’t be overlooked come playoff time
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Chicago and Los Angeles may have fallen by the wayside, victims of waiting too long before realizing their glory days are over. But the Pittsburgh Penguins are still seriously in the mix and going for it, and as long as Sidney Crosby is there that will almost certainly continue to be the case.

General manager Jim Rutherford made that crystal clear Friday.

Nick Bjugstad, the six-foot-six centre acquired from Florida on Friday, gives Pittsburgh size in the middle behind Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.  (Icon Sportswire / GETTY IMAGES)

Derick Brassard, who was supposed to be the answer down the middle for the Penguins at last winter’s trade deadline but never was, was packaged to disappointing-yet-again Florida in a multi-player deal for towering pivot Nick Bjugstad, once thought of as a Panther untouchable.

In theory, the six-foot-six Bjugstad has all the makings of a No. 1 centre in the NHL. In practice, he’s rarely been healthy enough to prove whether he can be. The Penguins, nearly perfect at Nos. 1 and 2 with Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, are betting he can, and that he will be part of returning them to the winner’s circle this spring after a disappointing ouster at the hands of Washington last spring.

Is the 26-year-old Bjugstad the answer? Will he be better than Brassard? It’s as much a projection as a certainty. But Rutherford wasn’t about to stand still and wait. He never does.

Interestingly, the deal came on the heels of a big victory for the Penguins, a 4-2 triumph at home on Wednesday against league-leading Tampa Bay.

You might have heard about that particular game at the PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, albeit for different reasons. The actual match, as it turned out, was overshadowed as a news event by an intriguing off-ice episode in which veteran hockey analyst Pierre Maguire was criticized for his condescending comments (mansplaining) toward U.S. female hockey star Kendall Coyne Schofield.

Maguire, joined by Coyne Schofield between the benches on a national U.S. broadcast, first told her which end which team was at — imagine doing that to say, Jack Eichel as a rookie broadcaster in the same situation — and then urged the American Olympic star to be an analyst, not a “fan.”

Oh boy.

Well, of course Maguire was patronizing Coyne Schofield. The majority of men in pro hockey look down their noses at the women’s game. I mean, they don’t even fight, right? Thus the widespread “surprise” expressed by NHL players and media at Coyne Schofield’s skating talent in the all-star skills competition last weekend.

All in all, the continent-wide attention the entire kerfuffle attracted probably just goes to show you how meaningful people view NHL results in the dog days of January. The Pens-Lightning game took a back seat.

Still, it was a very welcome triumph for the Penguins, again highlighting the most compelling element of this team as it drops in for a visit to Toronto on Saturday night.

Pittsburgh’s accomplished core group — Crosby, Malkin, Phil Kessel, defenceman Kris Letang and goalie Matt Murray — is as accomplished a foundation as there exists in the sport. The group looked particularly energized and competitive against Tampa Bay. They looked like they missed lifting the big trophy last spring.

All but Murray are in their thirties now, and all have multiple championships. Compare that to Toronto’s much younger group, which is Auston Matthews (21), Mitch Marner (21), John Tavares (28), Morgan Rielly (24) and Freddie Andersen (29). None have a Cup ring. Together they don’t equal Crosby’s total of 160 Stanley Cup playoff games.

The Leafs’ core has looked very good on many occasions. But the playoffs is where this core has to come through. Saturday night, the Leafs’ fivesome gets to prove itself against the best.

Toronto made its big roster move this week by picking up defenceman Jake Muzzin, an addition that should add Cup-level experience and zone-exit skill to the Leaf defence. Now Pittsburgh has made a similarly substantive move to address a vulnerability, and the rest of the East has to be paying attention.

Rutherford has been busy all season. He traded speedster Carl Hagelin to L.A. earlier this season for winger Tanner Pearson, and peddled winger Daniel Sprong to Anaheim for depth defenceman Marcus Petterson. Earlier this week, he dealt defenceman Jamie Oleksiak back to Dallas to free up some salary room.

Bjugstad now gets to fill the hole which Pittsburgh hasn’t been able to fill satisfactorily since Nick Bonino left for Nashville after the Penguins won a second consecutive Cup in 2017. Brassard had been a disappointment in that spot, and Rutherford just wasn’t willing to give the 31-year-old another shot in the playoffs this spring. Instead, the Pens have invested two more years and $8.2 million in Bjugstad hoping he can do what Bonino did.

After having their stab at a three-peat spoiled last spring, it’s just more evidence the Penguins are hungry again.
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