Each time Seth Jones felt like the Columbus Blue Jackets were dominating, the Pittsburgh Penguins went down the ice and scored. The series was over fast.
T.J. Oshie knows the feeling because the Penguins did it to the Washington Capitals often during playoff series the past two years.
"It kind of deflates what we’re doing and it’s hard to trust your game after that," Oshie said.
Opportunistic, well-coached and talented, Pittsburgh has won eight consecutive playoff series to become the NHL’s only back-to-back Stanley Cup champion of the salary-cap era and the first since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998. Now everyone’s trying to figure out how to stop the march of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the Penguins as they go for the three-peat.
"It’s not one thing," Jones said. "There’s not a Crosby stopper. There’s not a Malkin stopper. You can’t put a stop on them. You just have to contain them."
No one has contained them so far. The Penguins mowed through the New York Rangers, Capitals, Tampa Bay Lightning and San Jose Sharks to win the Cup in 2016 and then the Blue Jackets, Capitals, Ottawa Senators and Nashville Predators in 2017, and only three of those series needed seven games.
Patrick Kane acknowledged that while he and the Chicago Blackhawks used to be the standard after winning the Cup in 2010, 2013 and 2015, the Penguins have surpassed them. While the Los Angeles Kings rivaled the Blackhawks during their heyday, the Penguins have shown to be unbeatable when it matters most.
"It seems like they’re on the brink sometimes, and they find their way out of it," Kane said. "Just watching games, it’s almost like you have that feeling that they’re going to win, especially in playoffs. Whether that’s the coaching staff or the players or just that organization, it seems like they have something pretty special going right now."
If there are cracks in Pittsburgh’s armour, they came this off-season with the losses of goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, defenceman Trevor Daley and forwards Nick Bonino, Chris Kunitz and Matt Cullen. But Crosby, Malkin, goalie Matt Murray, winger Phil Kessel, top defenceman Kris Letang and coach Mike Sullivan remain, which explains why the Penguins are favoured to win again and make it three in a row for the first time since the early 1980s New York Islanders dynasty.
"When you get Sid, Geno, Letang on the team, you always have a chance," said Fleury, who went to the Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft. "That’s how I felt every time. When every season started I always felt like we had a chance to do great. I think they’ll be dangerous again."
Usually the grind of playing over 100 games in a season wears on a team. Ryan Getzlaf, whose Anaheim Ducks won the Cup in 2007 and lost in the first round the next year, said a team needs luck and a group that’s able to sustain a high level of game through fatigue the entire next year.
Now that the Penguins have sustained to win twice, no one’s betting against them doing it again.
"They’re a good team, and they’re going to continue to be a good team," Philadelphia Flyers defenceman Shayne Gostisbehere said. "They’re the heavyweight champs right now, and you’ve just got to knock them off."
Easier said than done. Now maybe Murray will struggle with a heavier workload or the depth that Fleury said paved the way to the championships will wear thin.
But if there’s a blueprint to attacking the Penguins, it might be putting pressure on their blue line.
"You have to play a physical style, but also you have to play a skill style, as well," Jones said. "You got to get to them, you got to get to the defencemen, I think and that’s something that teams may focus on."
The Penguins won last spring with a no-name defence while being outshot 794-718, yet they found ways to win. Oshie said any potential Pittsburgh-killer must be more resilient, and Predators defenceman Roman Josi knows there’s a mental aspect to facing a team with so much success.
"Once you win a lot of series, you start to believe more and more and the confidence grows," Josi said. "As an opponent you’ve got to get in there and believe that you can beat them. Obviously it’s tough. They’re a great team. But you got to have that belief."