By Matt Popchock
I was this close to selling that Winter Classic t-shirt I got for Christmas.
(Sorry, Mom, nothing personal.)
It was a sobering reminder of an event that was supposed to celebrate everything good about the NHL and the game of hockey in Pittsburgh. Instead, it was a reminder of one catastrophic moment that altered the league as a whole, altered the course of the Penguins' season, and, potentially, could have altered the franchise.
Needless to say, it was a memory I simply didn't want anymore. Now that we have a little bit better idea of what the future holds, now that we see the sweat once again dripping from Sidney Crosby's brow and the twinkle back in his eye, I think I'll keep that shirt after all.
I anticipate a return to glory for the NHL's poster child, and based on what we've seen and heard from him since the beginning of training camp, I anticipate it sooner rather than later. I look for Crosby to play somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 games, and considering he was on pace to put up Mario-esque numbers before being concussed, I expect to easily top the century mark in points and score at least 40 goals, possibly 50.
His return may do wonders for winger James Neal, who became an easy target for his poor productivity, but never got to play a single game on a line with either of the Penguins' top two forwards. Neal has the potential to be a 20-goal scorer if paired with a healthy Crosby, and such an influx could make a world of difference.
That illustrates why fans seething over the Pens' unusually premature exit in April need to keep the 2010-11 campaign in context. Since May 1, 2010, they have had as much as $20 million of talent sitting in the press box instead of on Dan Bylsma's bench. Since that day, the Winter Classic was one of just two games in which Sid, Evgeni Malkin, and Jordan Staal participated simultaneously.
So why do I like the 2011-12 Penguins to capture their third Eastern Conference crown in five years and return to the Stanley Cup Final despite, once again, beginning a new season at less than full health?
Because, said the famous philosopher Nietzsche, what does not kill [them] shall make [them] stronger.
Last season, against the backdrop of one of the most devastating rash of injuries in their 45 years of existence, the Penguins scraped together 49 wins and achieved the second-best regular season point total in franchise history. Only the '92-'93 Pens--perhaps the greatest NHL team not to win the Cup--fared better.
Last season, all of us, including those outside Pittsburgh, learned a great deal about how well-peopled and well-run that organization is, as the Penguins made the playoffs despite how incredibly fate had conspired against them. Those playoffs might not have ended the way we wanted, but in all candor, you'd be hard-pressed to find a team in the NHL that worked harder since New Year's Day to get their postseason ticket punched.
Crosby may not suit up for the late night lid-lifter in Vancouver Thursday night, but his supporting cast does indeed enter 2011-12 a year stronger, and a year wiser. GM Ray Shero wisely rewarded a couple of those worker bees with new contracts over the summer to keep that very important group together.
Tyler Kennedy and Pascal Dupuis, who remain under Pittsburgh control, will each play a pivotal role in controlling the fate of this year's team. Kennedy has come into his own as a sniper--and no, not just into the opposing goaltender's logo, you wise guys--and can contribute 20 goals.
Dupuis, the man who was not the folcrum of the 2008 Marian Hossa trade, and yet continues to play like one of the top under-the-radar forwards in the East, is good for 15, and will contribute more speed and world-class penalty killing alongside whomever he plays.
Jordan Staal, in my mind, is even more unfairly critcized than Marc-Andre Fleury sometimes. He is a shutdown forward whose chief asset is his ability to shadow the other team's top guns, and what he did offensively as a rookie in '06-'07 was probably lightning in a bottle. But that is not to say he can't contribute mightily to the Pens' attack, and seeing him play like his old self after returning from his foot injury gives me faith.
Chris Kunitz is also one who looked like a new man last season after overcoming health issues in '09-'10, and he provided a lot of the grit necessary in Sid and Geno's absences to keep the Penguins afloat. He chipped in 22 goals, his most as a Penguin, and this season, assuming regular linemate Crosby plays more often than not, I wouldn't rule out more.
Furthermore, part of what makes this team special is its role players. Mark Letestu has the growing pains of his first full NHL season behind him. Craig Adams and Arron Asham provide toughness and special teams prowess, and as we have seen during the playoffs, both tend to save their best for last. Newcomer Steve MacIntyre can be an effective watchdog, the Dave Semenko to Crosby's/Malkin's Wayne Gretzky, if you will.
Meanwhile, the Penguins may not boast born-again Christians, but would you settle for a born-again Russian and a born-again Canadian?
Evgeni Malkin looks like the Art Ross and Conn Smythe Trophy winner of two springs ago. He says he's a different player, and his most trusted confidant, former teammate and landlord Sergei Gonchar, says he's a different player, and the proof was on the ice during the preseason. Malkin was moving the puck, taking charge, and scoring the kind of goals he would during the Penguins' most recent Cup run.
I'm predicting the first 50-goal campaign of his NHL career, along with over 100 points, an NHL scoring title, and serious Hart Trophy consideration.
What am I predicting for Matt Cooke? Well, he won't kill anybody, let's just put it that way.
Okay, okay, maybe just one player. Or two. Or five. But he'll do it within the rules.
Although the walking jack-o-lantern may still get left out to dry by the NHL every now and then simply because of his name, Cooke has done nothing thus far to suggest to me he hasn't learned his lesson after an obvious cry for help back in March. Plus, lest we forget, the Pens' top-notch PK regressed without Cooke last season, and he can score you a big goal here and there.
Defensively, the Penguins are poised as can be. They were one of the least scored-upon teams in the NHL last season, and even with Brooks Orpik still on the mend from sports hernia surgery, Kris Letang, Paul Martin, Zbynek Michalek, and Deryk Engelland will still pull their weight on the back end.
By that same token, they have a budding Vezina Trophy candidate in Marc-Andre Fleury, every talk show caller's favorite player (if there were a way to roll my eyes in sarcasm via XHTML, I'd do it right now), and a serviceable backup in Brent Johnson.
This leaves just one glaring question mark, the only thing in Pittsburgh more torturous to watch than a late-season Pirate game: the power play.
Why was it such a feeble joke? For one thing, the Penguins didn't have their best players on it for half the 2010-11 season. For another thing, they didn't have the right ones. This is where free agent Steve Sullivan can hopefully step in and thrive.
So if the Pens are to win the East, who will challenge them? I'm picking the Tampa Bay Lightning.
That's another reason I keep the events of April in perspective. The Penguins were not healthy and were simply beaten by a good team that was. The Bolts are back, and coming off their most successful season since the "dead puck" era, and it was no accident. Steve Stamkos, Marty St. Louis, and Vinny Lecavalier are still one of the most terrific trios in the league, the defensive corps really elevated its game in the postseason, and goaltender Dwayne Rolosson showed me something despite his age.
Philadelphia can also be a contender with Danny Briere, Claude Giroux, and James van Riemsdyk taking the reins from divisive forwards Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, and Chris Pronger leading a very talented group of D-men. But despite Jaromir Jagr's impressive preseason, I'm still waiting for him to revert to his familiar, petulant form at some point, and I'm still waiting to see what happens with goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, who got a huge contract despite being chewed up and spit out by two middle-of-the-road Western Conference teams.
Washington remains a popular pick as well. But to me, the Caps are still the Caps: a stat-mongering outfit that slowly fades into oblivion once the Stanley Cup Playoffs reach their zenith. It's ironic that a team with Alex Ovechkin and other top talent throughout its roster would have so much to prove.
Finally, who will challenge the Pens for the Cup? My dark-horse pick for the Western Conference champion is the Los Angeles Kings. They have great goaltending with Jonathan Bernier and Jonathan Quick between the pipes, and now that the Drew Doughty soap opera is behind them, the Kings are solid on the blue line with him and Rob "The Piece" Scuderi leading the way. Richards, coming from Philly in that controversial deal, should give even more oomph to an offense that is already very balanced.
On second thought, maybe I'll get rid of that Winter Classic t-shirt after all. If I sell it, I can save a couple bucks on a Stanley Cup champions shirt.
Check out Casey Shea's "Shea-ved Ice" blog for more Penguins coverage, including a preview of Thursday's season opener!
(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)
(Follow Casey Shea on Twitter: twitter.com/CaseySheaPens)
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