The Pittsburgh Penguins have raised expectations to the point that anything short of a berth in the Stanley Cup Final, if not another championship, will be considered a failure of some degree.
That’s an unforgiving place to dwell for the Penguins’ players, coaches and executives, but life as a championship favorite doesn’t have to be all pressure and no relief. The team just wrapped its three-day Christmas break as mandated by the new collective bargaining agreement, and I hope the Pens took some time to appreciate all they’ve accomplished in 2013.
The fact that the Penguins even took the ice 11 months ago felt like a victory in itself, as the NHL’s third lockout in 20 years threatened to scuttle the entire 2012-13 season. Once the labor battle was settled, the flightless fowl lost three of their first six games before settling into a comfortable 13-8 by the end of February.
Then came the Pens’ heavenly March to the top of the conference; Pittsburgh reeled off 15 consecutive victories to essentially clinch the East’s top spot with 12 games to go. With new arrivals Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow, Jussi Jokinen and Douglas Murray assimilating into the lineup, the Pens won seven straight in April and finished the regular season at 36-12, an incredible .750 points percentage.
We covered Pittsburgh’s first-round playoff survival against the Islanders in today’s Top 10 Pittsburgh sports moments of 2013, and the Pens’ dismissal of Ottawa in the East semis showed this team’s peak capablities. Still, Boston’s lockdown sweep of Pittsburgh made the entire season seem moot.
It was natural to wonder how the Penguins would respond to their discouraging postseason coda, but they rolled to a 7-1 start this fall as a new season began. The Pens lost six of 10 as October folded into November, but they’ve hit a new stride over the past several weeks, going 18-4-1 leading into their New Year’s Eve matchup with the Devils in New Jersey.
Injury replacements from the AHL have done quite well in keeping Pittsburgh’s level as constant as could be expected under adverse circumstances. Dan Bylsma and his coaching staff deserve immense credit for that as well, thriving without key players like Kris Letang, James Neal, Paul Martin, Rob Scuderi, Brooks Orpik and, more recently, Evgeni Malkin and Pascal Dupuis. Add it all up and the Penguins are 77-30-1 in 2013, including the postseason.
Excepting a fluke broken jaw last spring, Sidney Crosby has proven himself to be past any lingering health issues. The top player in the league has 114 points (37g, 77a) in 77 regular-season games this calendar year, providing needed ballast and consistency for the Penguins following a difficult two-season stretch. At 26, Crosby’s probably never been better, and the same could easily be said about the squad he captains – even if the playoffs still loom.
Today’s game: Penguins (29-11-1, 49 points – 1st Metropolitan) at Devils (16-16-8, 40 points – 5th Metro) at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. Faceoff is set for 1 p.m., with Root Sports Pittsburgh and 105.9 The X handling broadcast duties.