The last time we saw the Penguins on the ice they were shaking hands with the, arch-rival Flyers…
ugh, gross…You know that night in college (or last weekend) when you went a little overboard, and got just a bit out of hand and drank way too much? That night where you wet your pants in front of the whole gala and embarrassed yourself so much that your girlfriend broke up with you? You woke up and wondered if it was a dream, but in the morning you felt so guilty, nervous and disgusting that you knew it couldn’t have been a dream, that you could do nothing but piece together that night with the most god awful taste in your mouth for the next week? Or four? That’s how the Flyers series felt. A two week binge that destroyed the foundation of everything you believed in as a Penguins fan. It was an unmitigated disaster. Your Philly friends from college just destroyed your life on Facebook and you had no comeback because Sidney Crosby was acting like a cry baby and because the MVP of the league was mostly invisible. But now that the summer has all but disappeared and we’ve bleached the inside of our mouths with a surprising Pirate’s season, we can finally begin to look at our team objectively.
Since I just got here, here’s a quick summary of the disgustingly boring off-season so far:
- Shero signed Vokoun for 2 years to back up Fluery. (Which I think we may look back at as the signing of off season. Did we sign anyone else? *sigh* tanner glass…)
- Staal turned down a 10 year, 60 million dollar contract and forced Shero’s hand to trade him specifically to the Hurricanes because that was the only team he was interested in signing with long term. So Staal was traded for Brandon Sutter (who I’m psyched about), and prospects Derrick Pouliot and Brain Dumoulin. And by the way, Staal then signed the exact contract Pittsburgh offered him in Carolina. It’s not you, it’s me!
- Michalek is traded back to Phoenix to basically dump salary to sign Parise, and in a short sentence without reliving the debacle: Parise didn’t seriously consider the Penguins as a destination.
- Then a whole lot of nothing. It looks like that’s how we’ll enter the season. With 5 top 6 forwards and a big question mark for a defense. Doan’t go thinking anyone else is going to show up and save the day.
Let’s take a look at the perception the Flyer’s series left: The Pen’s defense looked horrible, just awful, and there’s no disputing it. The stretch pass totally stabbed us in the kidney over and over again; Et tu PK? The penalty kill followed as the final dagger plunged into an already bleeding heart. In the regular season it was the best in franchise history, finishing 3rd overall in 2011-2012(it had finished 1st in 2010-2011). The Flyers converted on MORE than 50% of their 18 power play chances in a mere six-game series. That’s astronomical! It’s almost unfathomable the effect that can have on a series. Every time it seemed the Penguins had momentum, BAM! the Flyers roared back, often scoring a power play goal that onlookers could almost certainly feel coming… Briere circles, looks, holds, passes cross ice, SCORE! Giroux! Oh man, was that frustrating. It gets me all worked up just thinking about it.
The Penguins, the overwhelming favorite to win the Stanley cup, out after the first round for the second year in a row. At the time, it was a series that couldn’t end quick enough, yet now, in hindsight, feels like it was over unbearably quick. It’s worth noting here that the Flyers were really good. They were the third best team in the conference(although were seeded 5th) and had the 6th best record in the NHL going into the post season. If the Flyers would have beat the Rangers once in six games, maybe in the winter classic, the Penguins would have been the one seed last year and who knows what could have happened, but they didn’t, and they beat the Penguins four out of six games in the playoffs.
So here we are three months later and when hockey season finally starts this will be a new team even if it’s made up of mainly the same pieces. Staal is gone, yes, but Shero was able to get the NHL ready Brendan Sutter, which is amazing considering Staal would have walked to Carolina next year for nothing. Staal had been filling in for Crosby as a top line center going on two years and had changed his mind set. He moved into a scoring center role the whole time Crosby was out, and he filled that role nicely, but it was too much to ask for him to revert back to the defensive third line center role over night when Crosby came back. It showed in the playoffs. Bylsma used Staal as if Staal was the same player he had been when they won the Stanley Cup. He wasn’t that player anymore. Sutter is the player Staal was two years ago. Sutter will be assigned to shut down the other team’s top line like Staal used to, and play defensive hockey first, and he’s more than capable. Add that to the fact that Sutter can score 20 goals, he will be just what the Penguins needed.
The defense, where do I begin? The defense played well all regular season, then Crosby came back with 14 games left in the season and it seemed like everyone just flipped a switch and thought with Crosby back we not only didn’t have to play defense, but we couldn’t lose. Now I know that statement is down playing what a monstrosity the playoffs were, but the playoffs didn’t make any sense. Thirty goals allowed in six games? I watched the entire series and the Penguins looked nothing like the team they had been all year. I didn’t feel great about the Penguins going into the playoffs and certainly not as good as every NHL writer in the country did. You could see it during the last two weeks of the season (the 8-4 Ottawa game, back to back losses to the Islanders), along with the short playoff run; it being scatter-brained defensive play that foreshadowed the collapse to come. The Penguins left Fleury to rot (granted, he didn’t do much to help himself) and the defense, for whatever reason, lost all responsibility.
We have to enter this season with the assumption that the defense will make adjustments and patch up their game to ensure their performance is elevated to the shutdown-defense played prior to the collapse. These are professional hockey players, and they, along with Fleury, were embarrassed last year! But they showed for long stretches of the season that they could play solid defense; I expect them to show that promise again. I have no reason not to believe they will be above average for the most part, and as long as they are, it will allow the system to work to its strengths, which is a potent offense and puck control.
Then there’s prospect of a full season with Sidney Crosby. Do you remember the last time you watched Crosby play before the winter classic? I think people forget how good Crosby really is,especially people outside of Pittsburgh. He is the absolute premier player in the league and that’s why everyone thought the Penguins couldn’t lose last year. With the addition of Crosby to the MVP season Malkin was having, how could they lose? It seemed the Penguins bought into that too. How could they lose? Even if Crosby and Malkin didn’t buy in, the rest of the team sure looked like they did. The defense did. The goalie did. They must have forgotten about losing to an eight seeded Montreal team. They must have forgotten losing to the Red Wings, or Senators, with both Crosby and Malkin on the ice, and in that lies the difference. Looking at this highly skilled Penguins team, the biggest and most important difference is intangible. Now they know they can lose. They know they got blown out of the water by the Flyers. They were reminded that they lost to Montreal. They were reminded they’re not preordained to win anything. They were reminded they have to work for it, AS A TEAM. The Penguins now know they can lose, which makes them all the more likely to win.