In-Season Adversity Could Benefit The Pittsburgh Penguins


The Pittsburgh Penguins are on a pretty severe slide as of late, and panic has set in for the fan base and media alike. After a hot start and a dominant first quarter of the season they now find themselves 4-4-2 in their last ten games and chasing the New York Islanders for the division lead. How indicative has the last few weeks been about the team’s true potential? How concerned should we really be about this teams chance at a run for Lord Stanley? 

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Over the last few seasons the Penguins have been riding a regular-season high coming into February. They had no real concern with whether or not they would make the playoffs, and also had high hopes for what they’d do once they arrived there. Injuries aside, Pittsburgh looked unscathed and poised to add a fourth Stanley Cup to their repertoire. However, in each of the last five seasons they were eliminated from playoff contention by what seemed to be a much less-deserving opponent. Stinging series losses to Philadelphia in 2012 and Boston in 2013 are the most memorable of those. We’ve seen Marc-Andre Fleury get shelled repeatedly, as well as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin disappear from the scoring sheet. Our stars encountered punishment unlike what they witnessed in the regular season, and we had no answer for it. So, I ask this of Pittsburgh Penguins fans; could adversity occurring early in the second half of the season be a good thing for this team?

Dec 31, 2014; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin (71) reaches for the puck against the Carolina Hurricanes during the first period at the CONSOL Energy Center. The Penguins won 2-1. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Last season, the LA Kings were a dreary 30-21-6 coming into February and losers in nine of ten games. That was until a 2-1 OT victory against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Feb. 6 that began an eight-game winning streak. Shortly after that, they rattled off another winning streak of six games. Interestingly, all fourteen of those games were decided by two or less goals. Sounds like they started playing some early playoff hockey, right? They went on to win three consecutive seven-game series’ en route to the Stanley Cup Finals and the teams second championship in three years.

Let’s also remember that the Penguins struggled mightily in 2008-09 until mid-February when they fired head coach Michel Therrien. At that point in the season they were 27-25-5 and out of the playoffs. They rallied around a new coach, a new system, and renewed life to post an epic Stanley Cup run and defeat the Detroit Red Wings in a thrilling series for the teams third championship in franchise history. They made a reality out of what most thought would be impossible, and they did it in dramatic fashion having faced the Red Wings one season earlier and watching Captain Niklas Lidstrom hoist the Cup at Mellon Arena. 

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There are noticeable differences between the Stanley Cup team in 2009 and this current team. One of the major differences is leadership. There isn’t a Bill Guerin on the current roster to act as a calming factor in trying times. There isn’t a 2009 version of Rob Scuderi, otherwise known as the “The Piece”, playing alongside Hal Gill to provide an ultimate shutdown pairing that would eventually halt Alexander Ovechkin’s reign of terror that season. And currently, there is no 2009 version of Sidney Crosby who had launched an assault of his own on the NHL that season. Hopefully that is something we can find again over the coming weeks. 

This team has dealt with an abundance of injuries and illnesses. But when you look at this roster, there is plenty of talent up front and on defense to be a well-rounded, successful team. There are definitely holes that could be filled, but what team can’t say that this time of year? And while I mentioned all of the noticeable differences compared to the 2009 championship team, the Penguins also have a lot of positives this season. We’ve seen the emergence of Simon Despres as a very strong two-way defenseman with a nasty side that few knew he possessed. We’ve seen Steve Downie contribute top-6 minutes and surprising point production while still racking up a league-leading 169 penalty minutes. Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang seem to be at the top of their respective games and David Perron has been nothing short of outstanding. And of course, Marc-Andre Fleury, while overshadowed by Pittsburgh’s recent struggles, is having an outstanding season that had him in Vezina discussions earlier in the season.

We need to see more from Sidney Crosby. He is currently sixth in the league with 52 points, which is hardly a bad season, but he doesn’t look like the undisputed best player in the world. He doesn’t even look like the best player in the Metropolitan division, or the best player on this team to be honest.

Adversity can teach a team a lot of things and prepare them for the unpredictability of the playoffs.   The Penguins aren’t in as bad of shape as everyone may feel like they are right now, but they can be soon if things aren’t turned around quickly. We need to see more from Crosby, plain and simple. He is currently sixth in the league with 52 points, which is hardly a bad season, but he doesn’t look like the undisputed best player in the world. He doesn’t even look like the best player in the Metropolitan division, or even on the Penguins roster. He has looked lethargic, and seems gun-shy and unwilling to go to the net, which is where he does the most damage. The Penguins’ skid isn’t solely on the shoulders of the Captain, but he’s a major reason why it doesn’t seem to be improving at the moment.

This is also the time that you want to see a response from your new coaching staff. How will Mike Johnston make his mark on a team with such high expectations that is struggling so bad? February is here, which means the time to figure it out and make your push is here. I believe that when healthy, which they are close to being, Jim Rutherford has given this team the tools it needs to succeed, and he may not be done yet. Time will tell if this team can learn from their mistakes and put it all together over the next four, hopefully five months.

I personally believe that we are going to learn a lot about the players in the locker room, and the coaching staff’s ability to rally the troops. Trying times can bring a team closer together, or it can tear them apart. I believe it’s on the coaches and locker room leaders to step up and make sure that the adversity they are experiencing impacts the team in a positive way down the stretch.  The Penguins will begin a Western Canada road trip beginning Wednesday and some time away from home may be exactly what they need to right the ship.