Consider the Penguins

The Pittsburgh Penguins can be the best team in the NHL at any given moment. That's a heavy weight to carry.
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Consider the Penguins.  Their roster is overstuffed with all-stars, former team captains, elite defensemen, two number-one goalies, and two superstars in their prime. For the second time in two generations, they are a strong annual contender. No NHL franchise sells more merchandise or has higher TV ratings. During their road games, the stands are littered with black and gold jerseys. The Pittsburgh Penguins are doing better than most.

But there is also the matter of the expectations that attend and afflict this team. Enormous, deafening hype arrives every spring, starting the minute the Penguins clinch a playoff spot, if not earlier. It could be said, probably by someone on sports-talk radio, that any team whose season ends without lifting the Stanley Cup can be thought of, in some way, as a failure. This is both less abstract and magnified tenfold in Pittsburgh. The last three springs have a lot to do with this.

Recent postseason failures—of the literal, lost-series-that-shouldn’t-have-been-lost sort—have haunted the Penguins. Since they won the Stanley Cup four years ago, the Pens haven’t entered a playoff series as an underdog. Every opponent has been a lower seed; the first two games of every series have been in Pittsburgh. Their early exits have their own specific disappointments, but the common theme they share is that the Penguins lost when they were expected to win. They are once again a compelling and convincing Stanley Cup contender, already deep into a mostly impressive playoff run. They are also up against all this old stuff, again.

***

In one of those disappointing recent seasons, the Penguins could at least conjure up a reasonable excuse: In 2011, with stars Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby out with injuries, the Pens went up 3-1 in the first round against the Lightning, then managed only four goals total in the next three games, all losses. This breakdown was significantly easier to swallow than the seven-game loss to the upstart, eighth-seeded, goalie-on-fire Canadiens in 2010.

But it was last spring’s implosion against the hated Philadelphia Flyers that finally shook up a precocious bunch, and reminded them that the championship window wasn’t something to be taken for granted. Ten days after the Penguins were christened as 4-1 favorites to win the Cup, they were bounced from the playoffs by their most bitter rival. It was an embarrassing performance, featuring poor play across the board. It was also the first time the Crosby-Malkin Penguins truly lost their composure in the playoffs.

Whether the sting of these losses has fueled the Penguins’ current playoff run is hard to say, or rather easy to guess at and hard to know. The Pens dominated at times in the opening round, but were absent and passive often enough to allow the eighth-seeded Islanders to make it a competitive series. Spurred by a goalie change and some improved defensive play, they righted the ship against the Ottawa Senators in Round Two, playing focused and relaxed while narrowly missing out on a sweep.

For the first time since 2009, they are back in the Eastern Conference Finals. Once again, they are entering a series expected to win. This is not new, and while it’s a great place to be, it’s not entirely comforting.

***

There’s no shortage of venom directed toward the Penguins—chants of Cindy Crosby; conspiracy theories about the 2005 draft lottery; scathing columns about why Marc-Andre Fleury is NOT an elite goalie. But to look beyond that is to find a team that is equally compelling and frustrating to watch.  When they are clicking, their goals come in waves that look more appropriate on a video game screen—two goals in 19 seconds against the Islanders, three in 125 seconds (not to mention six unanswered) against Ottawa. But their breakdowns can be just as epic, especially when they fail to hold leads—something they have done an astounding seven times in their last nine playoff losses. When they’re good, the Penguins are astonishing. When they’re not good, they are not good.

It would have made sense, and certainly wouldn’t have made waves, had the Penguins stood pat at the NHL’s trade deadline. They were healthy, playing well, leading the East by a mile in the standings, and had just ripped off a 15-game winning streak, second-longest in NHL history. And then G.M. Ray Shero steel-plated an already deep and talented roster without losing any player of significance, adding veterans Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow, Doug Murray, and Jussi Jokinen. A team that already looked like a favorite got much better, quickly.

In making these moves, the Pens surely had their eyes on the physical Boston Bruins, the second-best team in the East for much of the regular season despite winding up as a fourth seed in the playoffs. But the moves were also likely made to instill a sense of urgency into a group that had, in recent years, irretrievably lost focus when the regular season ended. Their playoff meltdowns, variously frustrating and unique though they were, mostly came down to a talented team defeating itself. With a host of role players and veterans hitting free agency this summer, the Penguins saw one last opportunity to get out of their own way and take what, in most ways, looked a lot like theirs. They were built to win this year, in short, and built that way because it did not at all seem far-fetched that they might.

And yet the Penguins are still a hard team to figure out at this point, especially based on their postseason play. Their talent and experience has produced wild flashes of dominance. They are averaging 4.3 goals per game, second-best in playoff history behind 1985 Edmonton Oilers. They’ve lost only three games so far in the postseason, but each in maddening fashion. In Game 3 of their series against the Senators, the Pens played their most complete game of the playoffs, then blew a shutout by giving up a last-minute shorthanded goal, eventually losing in overtime. So, that sort of thing.

There won’t be any more games to give away. The Bruins await in an Eastern Conference Finals that has all the makings of an instant classic. Each team has an appropriate villain:  Iginla nixed a trade to the Bruins at the last minute back in March so he could be join the Pens; four days later, the Bruins picked up Jaromir Jagr, one of the Penguins’ all-time greats, and a player who isn’t very popular anymore in Pittsburgh, especially after declining a contract offer two summers ago. The respective fan bases, who remember things like Ulf Samuelsson’s famous/infamous check on Cam Neely back in 1991, already detest each other. The teams have a recent history of violence (See:  Matt Cooke’s 2010 hit on Marc Savard). It’s all a little plot-heavy, but it could be great.

But for the Pengiuns, it’s another series in which they are favored. A loss in this round or the next would be a resounding disappointment for a franchise that has already blown more than its share of opportunities. This may be the best shot for the Crosby-Malkin tandem to win another Cup; they’d do well to play as if it were their last. For many of the veterans, newly acquired and otherwise, it may very well be.

These are, of course, good problems to have. The Penguins are far removed from the dark days of last-place finishes, bankruptcy, and talks of moving to Kansas City. They are now on the other side of that coin: one of the NHL’s marquee teams, a perennial favorite and model franchise, envy of the opposition and recipient of every team’s best shot. A winning team, but a complicated one, and one that hasn’t won quite as much as it should have.

So there’s that. Another elimination means another spring without a parade, another knockout at the hands of an underdog, another loss that had looked like a win. It would be a pity, if there were a way to pity a team that otherwise so demands envy.


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