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Sidney Crosby, Penguins Clinch Postseason Berth; Latest 2021 NHL Playoff Picture

Joseph Zucker@@JosephZuckerFeatured ColumnistApril 30, 2021

Pittsburgh Penguins' Jake Guentzel celebrates his goal with Sidney Crosby (87) during the third period of an NHL hockey game against the Boston Bruins in Pittsburgh, Sunday, April 25, 2021. The Penguins won 1-0.(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

The Pittsburgh Penguins clinched a playoff berth with a 5-4 victory over the Washington Capitals.

NHL @NHL

A massive OT winner from Jake Guentzel (@jakenbake20) to send the @penguins to the #StanleyCup Playoffs! NHL x @trulyseltzer https://t.co/5sSTEUxp2H

Pittsburgh joins the Carolina Hurricanes, Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers, Toronto Maple Leafs, Vegas Golden Knight, Colorado Avalanche, Minnesota Wild and Capitals among clubs who have secured their postseason ticket. 

Meanwhile, the East Division draws closer to solidifying its playoff field with the Philadelphia Flyers, New Jersey Devils and Buffalo Sabres eliminated from contention. The New York Rangers, Boston Bruins and New York Islanders continue to battle for the final two postseason slots in the division. 

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LOCKED IN! 🔒 The @penguins have clinched their spot in the 2021 #StanleyCup Playoffs. 🏆 #LetsGoPens https://t.co/E9AVdbHNmd

Pittsburgh failed to make it out of the qualifying round of the NHL's modified playoff format last season. Losing to the 12th-seeded Montreal Canadiens in four games was a bitter pill to swallow.

As long as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are on the roster, the Penguins can't afford to be stagnant. ESPN.com's Emily Kaplan and Greg Wyshynski gave the franchise a B-minus offseason grade, writing how general manager Jim Rutherford was "desperate to squeeze one more run out" and made improvements around the margins.

Rutherford promptly stepped aside in January, temporarily throwing the front office into disarray.

In general, the five-time Stanley Cup champions have largely played to type.

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Crosby has scored 20 goals and assisted on 36 more, while Jake Guentzel is second on the team with 52 points (21 goals, 31 assists). Together, they form a deadly line at the front of Pittsburgh's attack.

The questions start right after that, especially since Malkin has missed an extended period of time due to a lower-body injury. Jason Zucker hasn't played well after making a positive impact during the second half of last year. Jeff Carter provided some depth ahead of the trade deadline, but the compressed schedule leaves little time for him to find a comfort zone before the playoffs are here.

The numbers speak for themselves. The Penguins' 3.34 goals scored per game are fifth-best in the NHL, and they own the second-best record in the East division at 33-15-3. They have an excellent attack, and Tristan Jarry (.911 save percentage and 2.71 goals-against average) isn't a big downgrade from Matt Murray.

Regarding that defense, though, Pittsburgh's 7-6 win over the New Jersey Devils on April 20 might be a warning sign as the team nearly threw away a six-goal lead in the third period.

The problem for the Penguins is that they look like a very good squad on paper but not a great one. Simply put, there are stronger contenders across the league, and some might argue within the East Division alone.

You can talk yourself into Pittsburgh being the last team standing given how well Crosby has played. Perhaps Jarry thrives in his first real playoff run as the guy between the pipes. But you can also envision a scenario in which the Pens are too reliant on Crosby and the goals dry up at the worst possible time. 

Head coach Mike Sullivan should be able to guide the franchise to the second round for the first time since 2018. Achieving something beyond that could be a challenge.

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