People love labels, so it’s natural that “entitled” has been thrown around lately regarding the Pittsburgh Penguins and their pursuit of another Stanley Cup.
It might even be true, at least in some degree. I admit I’ve had that thought as the Pens have eased into two of the first three games of their first-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Arrogance might’ve even come into play in Game 2, when Pittsburgh burst to a 3-1 lead after one period and tried to put on a show in the second, only to watch Columbus take advantage of careless turnovers and penalties to earn a series-tying win.
However, the idea that the Penguins feel they are somehow owed something makes me laugh, because many of the people saying the hockey team is entitled are the ones for whom that label best applies.
This may sound strange coming from someone who picked Pittsburgh to eliminate the Jackets in four games – someone had to have some courage – but the Stanley Cup playoffs aren’t easy. Fans and media members insinuating the Penguins should squash Columbus without much trouble are ignorant of reality.
Not only are the Jackets a worthy foe with a young, improving core, the Pens have been a work-in-progress for much of the season, mostly because of long-term injuries. NHL players are tremendous athletes, but expecting them to plug into the lineup and immediately be in top form is delusional.
It was encouraging to see Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin start to look like themselves in Monday’s comeback win, which only illustrates the gradual process in returning from a multi-week absence. Paul Martin is also regaining his effectiveness, which has assisted in making the Penguins one of the better puck-possession teams in the playoffs so far.
Ah yes, puck possession. Although the Pens trended upwards in the final two weeks, they were 16th of 30 teams in total shot attempts during the regular season. The offensive prowess of Sidney Crosby, Chris Kunitz, James Neal and Malkin helped Pittsburgh counteract the lack of depth on its current roster.
That issue won’t be fixed until the salary cap elevates this offseason, but it reinforces how much the Penguins are depending on big performances from their top two lines and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury to make a long playoff run.
This isn’t the NBA, where a couple of big stars can feasibly carry a team for long stretches. Yet, that’s the impression I get from most fan and media reactions to the Penguins’ uneven play. Their bitterness is born from unreasonable expectations.
I would say that another painful postseason loss would humble some Pens followers and Pittsburgh journalists, but if four in a row didn’t do it, five isn’t going to either.
Tonight’s Game: Penguins vs. Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio
Series Status: Penguins lead 2-1
Faceoff: 7 p.m. ET
TV: Root Sports Pittsburgh (local), NBC Sports Network (national)
Radio: 105.9 The X