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Chris Mueller: Penguins' hot streak validates offseason choices

Pittsburgh Penguins' Marcus Pettersson, right, tries to shoot the puck past Philadelphia Flyers' Kevin Hayes during the first period of an NHL hockey game, Friday, Nov. 25, 2022, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
Pittsburgh Penguins' Marcus Pettersson, right, tries to shoot the puck past Philadelphia Flyers' Kevin Hayes during the first period of an NHL hockey game, Friday, Nov. 25, 2022, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

A consequence of focusing too closely on the Pittsburgh Steelers and their rookie quarterback is that other teams in town can fall by the wayside, despite being worthy of discussion.

So it went with the Pittsburgh Penguins, who deserve to be back on your radar if a combination of “seven-game losing streak” and “my goodness it’s only the beginning of November” combined to gin up some good old-fashioned apathy towards the team.

They’re worth your attention now, because if you wrote them off as an old team that should have torn things down and rebuilt, it appears you are being proven wrong yet again. As of this writing, Mike Sullivan and his charges have won five in a row, putting together exactly the kind of streak they needed to in order to nullify that seven-game skid early on.

What’s more, they’re still getting elite production from Sidney Crosby – 28 points, good for seventh in the league – and Evgeni Malkin – 20 points, 52nd in the league but ahead of names like Johnny Gaudreau and Patrice Bergeron, to name a few – as well as “the Other Guys,” the players from whom contributions are desperately needed if this team is going to have any significant success.

Jason Zucker finally looks like the player that Pens fans probably thought they were getting when the team traded for him, and even as I say that I’m finding a piece of wood on which to knock, lest he be lost for two months with some horrible bad-luck injury. Zucker’s 15 points are fourth on the team behind Crosby, Malkin and Jake Guentzel, and he’s providing the sort of rugged, skilled, all-around presence that any good team needs. Rickard Rakell is tied for third on the team with eight goals, and he too is performing like a well-rounded contributor.

You could go on down the list and continue to name contributors, something that’s fun to do when the team is playing well, much less so when they’re mired in a skid, but that’s not the point here. Rather, with the team having found its equilibrium again, it’s useful to point out how ridiculous it was to suggest that they tear the whole operation down and then rebuild around an aging, but still excellent Crosby.

That’s the sort of notion that sounds nice and makes people feel smart when the team is struggling, but it remains one of the more farcical suggestions I’ve heard. As long as the captain still looks like one of the ten best players in the league (he’s probably one of the five best, if we’re being honest) then it makes sense to try and continue to build a winner.

Rebuilds aren’t fun until they start to work, and they’re far from guaranteed. And given this town’s history with bad hockey teams, namely that the fans don’t show up to watch them play, the notion that a new ownership group would want to risk a dramatic drop in attendance (and revenue) for the sake of getting a head start on the next contender was always silly.

This team can still contend now. There’s no need to restart the clock. Are they a longshot to win it all? Of course they are. The NHL’s playoffs are a crapshoot, and even puck-dominant teams get bounced early. Heck, the Penguins looked like the clearly superior team last year against the Rangers, only to be done in by rotten injury luck in goal.

That series should have stood as evidence that even an aging core can still do some serious business against one of the league’s supposed up-and-coming teams. Thankfully, Ron Hextall didn’t overreact and decide to blow it all to pieces.

It’s tempting to want to get ahead of the curve and get rid of marquee players a year too early rather than a year too late, or perhaps two years too late. But who were the Penguins going to get that was better than Malkin or better than Kris Letang for the price? I’ll spare you the time it would take to look it up: no one.

In two seasons, this might look like a nostalgia act, and might be tough to watch. Then again, it might not. And it definitely doesn’t look like one this year, one poor stretch aside. The Penguins would be in the playoffs if the season ended today, and they hardly have the look of a team that’s going to have to scratch and claw to get there. Perhaps I’ll look foolish for saying that in a few months, but I’d still bet on 87, 71, 58 and Sullivan.

And assuming they do get in, and they’re healthy, who’s to say they can’t make some real noise? The talent is still very clearly there. As it does for almost every team, every year, it comes down to goaltending, one of the most random things in any sport. I’ll take my chances with that.

Watching a likely playoff team with a chance to make another run? I don’t know about you, but that certainly makes this past offseason a success in my book.

This article originally appeared on Beaver County Times: Mueller: Penguins' hot streak validates offseason choices