Diligent, focused, tenacious, unrelenting, undaunted, inexplicable…such are the words among many more that describe this season’s Pittsburgh Penguins. If anyone had told anyone at the beginning of this season that Jordan Staal would miss nearly all the first half of it, that Sidney Crosby would be out of it after Christmas and that Evgeni Malkin would not finish it, it would be seen as sheer insanity, a total fiction.
And yet, here they are as the #4 seed with home ice advantage in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. These Penguins have marched in stalwart, stoic, band-of-brothers fashion from Day 1, and the harder the road became, the more persistent their steps.
The trials and tribulations of missed man-games that have been widely and profusely chronicaled in the hockey world are only part of it as almost nightly, fans and sports pundits alike had to keep glancing at the roster to figure out who those boys were in the numerous jerseys with unfamiliar numbers on the back. With half of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s men regularly serving in the NHL, another half were then pulled up from Wheeling to fill the AHL skates in their turn. It elicits yet another word: deep.
And it wasn’t just the decimation due to injury that roadblocked this team. There was the continual controversy over hits to the head that seemed to touch off the powder keg with the hits on Sid that eventually sidelined him. And in that controversy arose the lopsided suspension punishments doled out (or not doled out as the case would sometimes be) throughout the league. Thrown into the mix, just to make it interesting was the most appalling game I have ever witnessed and hope never to witness again embodied in the February match-up of the Penguins and the New York Islanders.
So where has it left this team?
With a coach who has the innate talent for being able to take guys who might, under other circumstances, have been serviceable but not stellar players and drawn out of them another level of ability. And he has taken those with loads of talent and challenged them to rise above complacency to stretch their own limits. Dan Bylsma has tapped what cannot be seen and what surely cannot be measured inside every body in that room, and in response, they achieve beyond even their own wildest dreams.
Coach-of-the Year candidate Dan Bylsma:
- took a struggling Marc-Andre Fleury last fall and through a special brand of tough love, coaxed him to shine;
- pulled a flagging Tyler Kennedy who at the beginning of the season looked like he would not remain a Penguin when that time came, and in his way, Bylsma started a spark that has turned into a thorough joy to watch;
- put Jordan Staal, rust barely off, into the hard traces of front-and-center leadership in the absence of his Big Two, and the rangy center has borne it willingly and well without flinching;
- placed big responsibility on young Kris Letang in the absence of Sergei Gonchar while at the same time unleashing his offensive talents;
- put together a new 3rd line in Talbot, Conner, and Dupuis that has become so volatile in their dash, crash, and whiplash style of speed play that he has more frequently given them the responsibility of opening periods in a furious blitzkrieg that sets opponents on their heels, making them vulnerable;
- kept pushing the envelope with Ben Lovejoy which has progressively revealed a highly skilled defenseman with the ability to carry the play.
Only 4 of the 14 games played in March were outright, regulation losses with no point gain. In April, they won all 4 regular season games, pushing them to obtain points in 14 of those 18 games. They have held the line and the #4 position in spite of themselves, in spite of the numbers on paper, in spite of the predictions that flew week in and week out.
So, knowing what we have learned about this team over the last three seasons…namely, not to underestimate them no matter the cost, why should we lose faith that they could dig yet deeper, march yet harder, game by taxing game in the playoffs toward Lord Stanley? Predictions are that they cannot go further than Round 2 without Sid at least. I say, sure, it’s possible. However, they have been a team of destiny for a long time. They fell to the Red Wings at home only to come back and fell them in Detroit the following season. They fell to Montreal last season only to come back and…[that chapter is yet to be written]…but I wouldn’t be so quick to write them off just yet.
The task in the first round against the Tampa Bay Lightning is daunting because generally the #4 and #5 seed series pits very evenly matched teams as opposed to the #1 and #8 seeds at the other end of the ranking spectrum. In their 4-game regular season series, the Pens and Bolts split 2-2. With Sid in the line-up, the won one game 5-1 and lost one game 5-3. In the last 2 games, with Sid and Geno absent, they split again with the Pens winning a lopsided 8-1 and the Bolts taking a 2-1 win. Already, the Pens and Bolts have split on Pittsburgh’s ice in the opening 2 games. It proves to be an exciting and at times unpredicatable affair. However, if the Penguins weather this test, anything is possible.