Is there a way to compare the two best Pittsburgh Penguins teams of all time in an objective, unbiased manner? I am not sure, but this is exactly what I will seek to do. Twenty years have passed since Mario and the ’92-’93 set the record for consecutive victories, but the record lies in the shadow of a phantom Cup. A third consecutive Stanley Cup would have sealed the discussion, but the New York Islanders and David Vocek played spoiler for the perfect season. The Penguins went home to Pittsburgh empty-handed, where the dream team began to be haunted by nightmares of what could have been. The Penguins would not challenge for another Stanley Cup for fifteen years.
The 2007-2008 Penguins entered into the playoffs as the #2 seed in the Eastern Conference behind the Montreal Canadiens. Sidney Crosby led his team to victories over Ottawa, New York, and Philadelphia, but his team could not overcome the President’s Trophy-winning Red Wings. Disappointed, but not despondent, the Penguins carried the momentum into the next year, using the loss as motivation. In the 2009 Finals, the Penguins came back from 2-0 and 3-2 against the defending Champions to claim their first Stanley Cup in a decade and a half.
Some fans were quick to proclaim the beginning of a dynasty, led by Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Marc-Andre Fleury. The Penguins had made a coaching change in the middle of the 2008-2009 season, bringing in Dan Bylsma to replace Michel Therrien. The holes which had prevented the Penguins from achieving ultimate success had been removed, or so it was thought. Unfettered optimism built expectations that the Penguins would struggle to match.
Any fan of hockey history knows how difficult it is to reach the finals three years in a row. Reagan was in the midst of his first term the last time a team accomplished the improbable. The New York Islanders had begun the 1980’s by steaming to four consecutive Stanley Cups, fresh on the heels of four years of domination by the Montreal Canadiens. The Edmonton Oilers put a stop to the Islanders streak in 1984, and added a second Cup in the following year. Unfortunately for Wayne Gretzky and the rest of the Oilers, their chance at three straight final appearances went up in smoke in a game seven loss against the Calgary Flames.
Some teams slip into the playoffs without much difficulty only to be upset in an early round by an eighth seed on a streak. Others lose a key player at an inopportune moment and subsequently collapse. The multitude of things which can go wrong in the playoffs. How each team deals with adversity determines success in the playoffs.
The Penguins would enter the playoffs in each of the following three years confidently, only to be ousted by the Canadiens, Lightning, and Flyers. Disappointment at the early departures began to dent the image of the Penguins as a perennial playoff favorite. Fans began to wonder what had caused the Penguins hype-train to derail. Had they looked at the numbers, a great many concerns would have jumped out at them.
In the ’07-’08 season, the Penguins came into the playoffs with a GF/60( goals-for/60min) of 2.37 and a GA/60 (goals-against/60min) of 2.05 for 10th and 7th in the league respectively. The ’08-’09 Penguins improved their GF/60 of 2.72 and GA/60 to 2.22 for 2nd and 9th (and bringing home the Stanley Cup). The ’09-’10 Penguins entered the post-season with a GF/60 rating of 2.75, tied for second with the eventual champion Chicago Blackhawks, but their was an abysmal 2.57 (25th in the league). In the next season, the Penguin’s GF/60 would drop to 2.34 (14th in the league), while their GA/60 improved to 2.05 (6th). 2011-2012 would see the Penguins would lead the league in GF/60 at 2.9, but their GA/60 rose as well to finalize at 2.47 (25th). This fundamental imbalance did not prevent the Penguins from reaching the playoffs, but it helped secure their early exit in each year.
What do this year’s stats say about the Penguin’s chances? The numbers look good so far. The Penguins finished the season with GF/60 at 2.84 (1st) and GA/60 at 1.96 (7th). Unfortunately, for every time when statistics are useful, there are the times when numbers get in the way. The ’92-’93 Penguins finished their season 2nd in GF and 3rd in GA in the regular season but failed to survive the semis. Can we rely on statistics to indicate the Penguin’s success in the coming playoffs? No, but they do give confidence going into the series against the Islanders on Wednesday.
Game one has come, and the regular season stats have held up much better than in previous years. The additional depth of the 2013 Penguins has helped fill the gaps in the defense that were revealed in last year’s series against the Flyers. The third line, composed of Sutter, Morrow, and Cooke, rendered John Tavares shot-less for the first time in his NHL career. Marc-Andre Fleury came through with a much needed shut-out, providing the confidence boost that has been absent in the past three post seasons. Vokoun is still waiting in the wings, just in case…
In anticipation of game two tonight, I will be taking a look back at this year’s Penguin streaks. Yes, that is plural, as the Penguin’s amassed an eight-win streak to go along with the perfect fifteen in March. Let us begin with the first game, on March 2nd, against the Montreal Canadiens.
The Canadiens entered the game 14-4-2, while the Penguins brought a less-than-stellar 12-8 record. The Penguins had just lost two games on the road and were in no spirit to make it three. Unfortunately, they came close to doing just that in a game that much resembled the high-scoring days of Mario Lemieux and the ’93 crew.
Both goalies for the game, Tomas Vokoun and Carey Price, were in for a tough night in net. The two men allowed a combined thirteen goals on 75 shots, earning save percentages in the low-mid .800’s. The entire burden cannot be laid upon their shoulders, however, as each team’s defense disintegrated in front of their eyes. After giving up a 4-2 and 6-5 lead, the Penguins were able to come away with a win in OT, 7-6. This is the game where a video recap is necessary, so…
Brandon Sutter scored the first and last goal of the night, earning first star honors and further cementing his place in the Penguin’s lineup. Acquired from the Carolina Hurricanes in a trade that reunited Jordan Staal with his brother, Sutter was another valuable addition to an already spectacular team.
The Penguins welcomed the high-scoring Tampa Bay Lightning to Consol Arena on March 4th. The game proved to be close throughout. The Penguins opened the scoring in the first with a Kunitz slap shot set up by a solid Crosby pass. Steven Stamkos and the Lightning surged back in the second period, picking up a solid goal and a flukey bounce to make the score 2-1. No one on the Penguin’s bench had thought of a streak; they simply wanted to win the game. Evgeni Malkin provided the boost his team needed, burying a beautiful shot after deeking out two Lightning defensemen. Sidney would score the go-ahead goal at 7:29 in the third, and James Neal added an empty netter with less than a minute left. The scoring was not over, however, as Stamkos slapped Fleury across the face to bat in a mid-air bounce with eight seconds left in the game. The game would end 4-3. Not a pretty score, but a win nonetheless. The Penguins earned a two-game winning streak with gutsy plays in the third period, but better play would be required to maintain the momentum they had built.
Three days of rest followed the Lightning game, allowing injuries to heal and minds to settle going into a two-game road trip. The first game, on March 7th against the Philadelphia Flyers, tested the Penguins in every facet of the game. Especially tested was Marc-Andre Fleury, who unfortunately gave up 4 goals on 18 shots in the first period alone. A few of the goals could have been referred to as soft, or flukey, but Fleury knew that he should’ve stopped them. With two power-play goals and two even-strength, the Flyers seemed to have the Penguins number by the end of the first twenty minutes. Tomas Vokoun was called in to start the second, and had every right to be nervous coming off his performance in the crazy Montreal game a week prior. Tomas rose above and quashed any anxiety, going 14-14 for the remaining forty minutes, sealing the Penguin’s victory, 5-4. Chris Kunitz scored two goals (the Penguin’s first and last) and Sidney Crosby added three assists to his quickly growing point total. If you are interested in seeing the carnage, here’s a sample to whet your appetite.
Two days later, on March 10th, the Penguins visited the Air Canada Center in Toronto. Another close affair, the Penguins jumped out to a 3-1 lead in the first period before Toronto came back and tied the game late in the third period. Heading into the shootout, the Penguins were faced with the possibility of their streak ending at three. James Neal and Sidney Crosby were not about to let that happen, as each player converted on their attempt. Toronto’s T. Bozak and N. Kadri were both stopped by Fleury, eliminating the need for a third shooter. This is another game which is better seen than described: Video Recap
The fifth Penguins victory would come against a young New York Islanders team, headed by John Tavares. After a slew of close games, the 6-1 came as a shock to the Penguins as much as the Islanders. Vokoun brought his A-game to the table, solidifying the confidence he gained in his relief performance against the Flyers. After a couple of seasons of shaky goal-tending relief, the Penguins found a solid back-up in case of a flustered Fleury. This game had quite a bit in common with Game one of the playoffs; take a look for yourself…