Though they have only played each other twice since December of 2011, the Pittsburgh Penguins have a lot in common with the reigning Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks.
The two clubs have always stayed hungry despite winning a combined three league championships over the course of the past five years. The Penguins have made the Stanley Cup playoffs every year since the 2005-06 season, while the Blackhawks haven’t missed the postseason since before the 2008-09 campaign.
The squads split the season series in 2013-14, which saw each team pick up a win in its respective barn (in Chicago, they played outside at Soldier Field).
Both teams have proven they are capable of producing strong regular-season records and both have been on top of the league standings for a while now. It still remains to be seen who will dethrone each of them in their respective conferences.
The Penguins mirror the Blackhawks in many ways besides being so dominant in recent years. Let’s take a look at a few ways the Pens and Hawks reflect each other on the ice.
Their Rise to the Top
Before each club became a powerhouse everyone has come to love (or hate), there were some dark times in both the Windy City and the Steel City.
In the mid-2000s, the Penguins were dangerously close to moving out of Pittsburgh. Thanks to some help from club legend Mario Lemieux, the Pens ended up staying and also gained a new home, the Consol Energy Center. The drafting of top-tier prospects Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby certainly helped out, too.
The Penguins’ Stanley Cup win and the Pittsburgh Steelers' Super Bowl victory in 2009 finally regained Pittsburgh the nickname “The City of Champions.”
In the same year the Pens won the Cup, the Blackhawks experienced their own success story.
For the first time since 2002, the 2009 Blackhawks made it to the playoffs and made a pretty surprising run to the Western Conference Final before being defeated by their longtime rivals, the Detroit Red Wings.
The next year, they would avenge that loss and go on to defeat the Penguins' intrastate rival, the Philadelphia Flyers, in the Stanley Cup Final for the franchise’s first championship in 49 years.
It wouldn’t be surprising if these two clubs were to eventually meet for the right to become the NHL’s best in 2014. They actually have once before back in 1991-92, when the Penguins defeated the Blackhawks in a not-so-easy four-game sweep.
Both teams’ recent success in the league began in the draft.
Within two years, the Penguins selected what would become two of the world’s top centers in Evgeni Malkin and captain Sidney Crosby. Both players are the faces of the franchise and have provided leadership and the ability to win during their tenures with the Pens.
Malkin’s finesse and Crosby’s vision were keys to the team's Stanley Cup victory in 2009, and they continue to help advance the franchise in the right direction.
Like the Penguins, the Blackhawks’ road to their two recent championships began within the time span of two years.
Captain Jonathan Toews and superstar goal scorer Patrick Kane were drafted in 2006 and 2007, respectively.
Toews is an excellent leader and two-way hockey player who is proud to have hoisted the Cup twice within four years. Kane, who has slick hands that can make even the best goalie look foolish, has captivated United Center audiences with his puck skills.
These four players became the cores the two front offices built around.
The exceptional scouting done by both clubs looks like it has surely paid off. The thing that makes them scary is that they are all still young and capable of so much more. It is exciting to see what the future holds for these individuals.
Behind Malkin, Crosby, Toews and Kane are some outstanding players who tend to get overshadowed.
In Chicago, the top defensive line of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook is undoubtedly the best in the league. Keith, who is already a Norris Trophy winner, finished the regular season second in points (61) and first in assists (55) among defensemen this year. Seabrook had seven goals and 34 assists for 41 points.
Without Keith, Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson, the Blackhawks would not have gotten very far in the Stanley Cup playoffs during their two recent Cup runs, even with all the firepower on offense. These men are tough and gritty yet still able to dazzle with their shooting and puck-handling skills.
The Penguins’ top defensive pairing of Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik blends big hits and goal scoring that is the perfect complement to their dynamic forwards. Orpik and Rob Scuderi take on workmanlike load for the Pens, while Letang is a dual-threat blueliner who keeps opponents on their feet by being a force in both the offensive and defensive zones.
Just like the Hawks defense, playoff experience has helped the Pens' D-men dominate younger teams who try to pull off the upset. The offensive prowess of this defensive unit is a great asset due to the fact that they can help fill in for the forwards when they are having a slow night.
Keith, Seabrook, Letang and Orpik are four of the NHL’s top defenders. Having these guys back up superstars like Crosby and Kane is absolutely frightening for opposing teams.
Great but Questionable Goaltending
There is no doubt that Marc-Andre Fleury and Corey Crawford have established quite the resumes during their careers. Each netminder has not only earned a Stanley Cup ring but has strung together a series of exceptional regular-season performances.
The thing is, both the Penguins and the Blackhawks have run into trouble with their respective netminders.
Since the Pens’ win in 2009, Fleury has been subject to much criticism over his playoff performance. He has gone 14-16 in postseason matchups since then and has a save percentage of .880 and a 3.18 goals-against average in the past five playoffs.
Last year’s collapse led to him being replaced in the first round by backup goalie Tomas Vokoun. He would only get to see the ice one more time.
While he did lead his team to its second Cup in four years, Corey Crawford received a lot of hate from fans and analysts alike for giving up at least one bad goal a game during the 2013 playoffs. He also was known for having a weak glove side. In Game 4 of the 2013 Stanley Cup Final, Crawford was beaten five times to his glove side in the Blackhawks' 6-5 OT victory over the Bruins.
He played decently enough this regular season with a save percentage of .917, but it seems as if he is just an average goalie playing behind a talented group of skaters.
Both goaltenders deserved their Stanley Cup victories, but to silence their critics, it will be their future endeavors that factor into whether they belong amongst the NHL's elite.