Why the Pittsburgh Penguins Could Go All the Way in 2015


The playoffs haven’t been kind to the Pittsburgh Penguins lately.

While the Pens have earned a shot in the postseason every year since Sidney Crosby‘s rookie season, the team has adopted a Cup-or-bust mentality, assessing each campaign as a failure if a championship is not attained.

With the team being eliminated in the first or second round in four of the last five seasons, morale isn’t too high among the Pittsburgh fan base these days.

Yet few have recognized the fact that this season presents an entirely new situation for the Penguins, one they haven’t faced since their back-to-back trips to the Stanley Cup finals in 2008 and 2009.

For the first time since that ’09 championship, Pittsburgh enters the playoffs as an underdog, removed of the pressure that comes with contender status.

Make no mistake, this hasn’t been the case for quite a while.

After Pittsburgh took home the hardware in 2009, they spent the next few seasons under the weight of the pressure afforded to recent champions. It’s the same pressure the Los Angeles Kings felt as they tried to claw their way back into a playoff spot, and the pressure fans still put on the Chicago Blackhawks, who won the Cup in 2013 and 2010.

Once the glory of their back-to-back finals runs and first Cup wore off, the Pens remained a contender by capturing back-to-back division titles and loading up with other stars at the deadline (i.e. Jarome Iginla) to position themselves as Cup favourites.

Yet they repeatedly fell short.

It’s no mystery that the pressure of entering the postseason played a key role in Pittsburgh’s shortcomings. Former players like Brooks Orpik have spoken about the city’s state of mind since leaving Pittsburgh, indicating that the game became all business, of the highest stakes, with the understanding that if the team didn’t go all the way, they’d be considered subpar.

But this season has been a different beast for Pittsburgh.

The Pens enter the postseason not as an Eastern powerhouse, but as the last seed in the conference. They didn’t capture a division title, or even come close. Rather, they finished 4th in the Metropolitan – the lowest rank since Crosby’s rookie season.

For all who said that the Penguins needed adversity, that they needed desperation to be able to find playoff success – this is it.

Pittsburgh starts off the postseason against the New York Rangers – the 2015 President’s Trophy winner who has looked dominant all season, in all situations.

To say the Pens will have their hands full is an understatement. With Game One set to go tonight, nearly every NHL analyst has pegged the Rangers as the likely winners, with most assuming the Pens will continue to stumble until they fall right out of the playoffs.

These Penguins aren’t a group that functions like other teams though.

There’s a certain sense of having lightning in a bottle in Pittsburgh. The club houses players like Crosby and Evgeni Malkin who, if released on the opponent in the right way and with the right motivation, can be simply unstoppable, but who also tend to fall short if the pieces around them can’t rise to their level.

Pittsburgh’s subpar regular season has all but evaporated the contender pressure, as they don’t seem anywhere near ready to challenge for a championship this season.

But perhaps that’s just what they need.

With Crosby and Malkin shouldering a seemingly unbearable load over the last few seasons, this year’s postseason could be the remedy needed to break out of their recent trend and launch into an extended run.

The Penguins have played playoff-style for quite a while lately, and while the bounces have not gone their way throughout much of this season, the playoffs are simply an entirely different game.

Entering this series hungry to prove they’re not washed up, and looking to get revenge on the Rangers for their comeback party last postseason, the Pens will have all the motivation they need to go far.

The question now remains, simply, how will they respond?

Sure, the injuries have been significant, but this team still has an elite goaltender, a solid defensive system, and a few of the best forwards in the world. It may not be perfect, but teams have gone far with much less.

The Pens have been handed all they need in the way of adversity and underdog status. Now they must dig deep and see if they have another championship in them.

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