Penguins look to reclaim the Cup

Punctuated by a surprisingly strong training camp for Juuso Riikola, the Pittsburgh Penguins are looking better than ever, ready to chase after their third Stanley Cup in just four years.

To the Penguins, being knocked out of the playoffs in the second round by a familiar foe in the Washington Capitals is a disappointing season. To say that the Pens struggled through the 2017-18 season may be a bit of an overstatement, but there were many games when the team looked outmatched and outmanned. Number one defenseman Kris Letang flipped between looking like the elite D-man Penguins fans have come to expect and looking lost on the ice shift-to-shift, while the forward depth at center left quite a bit to be desired. However, getting bumped out of the playoffs early may have been the best thing to happen to the boys in black and gold, as they’ve come back from their long summer hungry and ready to re-establish themselves as the premier team in the NHL.

In this year’s preseason, we saw some wonderful performances by all of the veterans, with winger Phil Kessel scoring a pair of laser wrist shot goals against the Buffalo Sabres, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin being the players everyone expects them to be and the resurgence of Letang after a full offseason of intensive conditioning. Letang potted two this preseason and has looked like the Tanger we know and love.

In terms of line combinations, Jake Guentzel seems to be a lock, at least initially, to stick with Crosby on the left wing, while Crosby’s right winger will likely be Patric Hornqvist — but look for rookie sniper Daniel Sprong to get some limited action on the top line to see if he can prove himself. Carl Hagelin will likely sit on the left wing with Malkin’s line, where he played most of last season. The rumors of Kessel potentially being traded were obviously false, and he and Malkin look to keep their magic working together.

The bottom six also seems like it has figured itself out. The third line is looking like Dominik Simon, Derrick Brassard, and Bryan Rust. Those three have looked electric in their preseason performances together. Brassard and Rust, in particular, look especially ready to return to the action. Brassard seems both healthy and to have found some real chemistry with his two wingers, and Rust looks like he’s been shot out of a cannon on every shift. That kid doesn’t slow down. The fourth line has also been gelling well, with Riley Sheahan centering veteran Matt Cullen on the left and somebody on the right. It could be Sprong, who is trying desperately to prove that he’s the real deal, or it could be returning youngster Zach Aston-Reese, who struggled in the preseason a bit, but after taking a jaw-breaking hit from the Capitals’ Tom Wilson in the playoffs, it’s to be expected that he isn’t in tip-top shape just yet.

What the Penguins lacked in center depth last season, they have more than made up for.