Everything is in place.
Crosby is entering his prime. Malkin is entering his prime. Someone dumped Fleury's prime into the Pens' zone and he's trying to stop it behind the net, but may or may not be able to.
Ray Shero worked the phones this summer harder than Naomi Campbell. David Morehouse, who let three members of GTOG into a private party in Washington D.C. with the Stanley Cup two summers ago, ascended to his rightful place as Pens president.
Dan Bylsma has another year under his belt, and whether or not it's true, we declare that he spent the whole summer watching game tape and figuring out how to teach his defensemen not to back in and let Ovechkin unleash wrist shots from the top of the circle.
Mike Rupp is a year older and a year more beastly. Matt Cooke and Aaron Asham are as ugly and as irritating as ever. Tyler Kennedy is playing to prove he has a long-term place in the NHL. Max Talbot stopped basking in the glow of Game 7 and is ready to become a superstar again. Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz are......healthy?
Eric Godard owns this suit.
The defense is rejuvenated with fresh faces and a new energy. Paul Martin brings the discipline of the Devils' shut down style. Zybnek Michalek is going to be great even though if we are honest with ourselves, none of us ever saw him play in Phoenix. Kris Letang knows he has to show that he is capable of being a top-4 defenseman and Alex Goligoski has to prove he's not a smaller, better skating version of Ryan Whitney.
And there's Mario.
As you can tell, almost all signs for the Pens are positive this year. On paper, the roster is almost as good as it was on paper in 2008 with Hossa (with all due respect to the 2009 Cup team, the Pens' roster in the 2008 playoffs was STACKED and the Crosby-era Pens have never played better than they did in the Eastern Conference Playoffs of 2008). But that's just on paper, and paper can't measure the increase in maturity and leadership that the Pens' big guns have now that they are a few years older. So, what isn't there to like about this Pens' team?
Since word broke over the summer that Jordan Staal had an infection in his surgically repaired foot and showed up at the NHL Awards in a walking boot, we've been pessimistic about this injury. As we've noted several times over the past few weeks, when there is only either silence or negative news about an injury like this, it means that there is only bad news.
The Pens admit that there is some uncertainty surrounding Staal's condition, but insist that it is only a "blip" in his season. We hope that's the case, but given that this is an infection and not a more traditional injury, who really knows what the time table is. He hasn't skated since the playoffs, his leg is "withering" and he reveals that he has a long way to go.
What does this all mean for the Pens? Staal is obviously a huge presence on the ice, but his absence has a drastic trickle down effect on the whole roster. It prevents the Sid-Geno combination and assures that each of those guys will be playing with linemates who are, to say the least, not in their stratosphere. It's not good for the penalty killing unit which showed great improvements last year. Just in general, it's not good (Ron Cook just smiled).
We may sound overly worried about an injury that the team insists is not serious, but because the outlook of this team outside of the Staal injury is so rosy, we had to find something to harp on. We hope we're wrong and that the Staal injury is just a blip, because with him at 100% this team will be very, VERY tough to contend with in the East.
Thoughts on how the season will play out from the GTOG Staff, after the jump.
I see the Pens' season playing out as follows. A hot start for the first 10 games because of the energy from the new building and new players (no chance the Pens lose tonight). Then, if Staal doesn't get back, the Pens start to feel the effects of missing him as other teams cash in on the PP at a 20% rate. The season settles down when Staal gets back and the Pens comfortably win about 3 out of every 5 games.
When the HBO cameras come to town, the Pens keep winning at the same pace. Malkin scores the 3rd period winner in the Winter Classic to overcome the Caps and Ovechkin's two goals 4-3. Ted Leonsis blogs, "we've still arrived."
January and February are all about consistency - the Pens perform solidly every night. The team's goals against average is down with the new D pairings and a refocused Fleury, but right around the Super Bowl the annual "scoring winger for Sid" story line develops again.
Ray Shero trades someone away that you weren't expecting (sorry Goligoski and TK). Arriving on the Pens' roster is a decent player, but no Hossa.
The Pens finish with the most points in the league post-trade deadline and edge out the Devils for the division, 106 points to 105 to capture the 2nd seed in the conference.
First up in the playoffs - Philadelphia, as the 4-7 seeds in the East are separated by only 3 points.
Mike Richards crosses the Delaware river on horseback to bring the Flyers to Consol energy center, but it's no help as the Pens eliminate the feisty Flyers in 6.
Next up are the 6th seeded Bruins, who sadly are still without Marc Savard. Wouldn't have mattered. Pens sweep.
Then, we get what the whole season has been building to. Pens/Caps ECF. It's been brewing since the Pens took care of the Caps two years ago in a series the Caps would have won if only the refs had decided to like Leonsis better. I can't say that I know how this matchup would turn out, but I can say that I probably won't get any work done for 2 weeks.
Pens in 7.
Then, it's on to the Finals, hopefully against anyone but Detroit. Fleury lets in only 5 goals in the Pens 4 wins, as Sid & Co. hoist Stanley Cup number 2.
Then Mario drinks a bottle of wine that costs more than your car.
|See you in Mario's pool.|
The total revamping of our defensive corps coupled with the addition of seasoned roll players like Asham and Comrie will hopefully be the declaration necessary to overcome last year's playoff adversity. The Pens will have to build confidence and self assurance this season to conquer their largest mental obstacles. This means shutting down the Capitals offense and penetrating the Devils defense zone and net. No more season series sweeps this year, period. Hopefully Geno, Talbot, Kennedy, and Kunitz will get over last year’s lackluster season and seriously step up their offensive production. Each of these players is capable of playing twice as hard as they did last year, it’s all a matter of motivation and drive. No Stanley Cup hangover or Olympic excuses this year. Nothing is holding Geno back from going head to head with Sid in the points race. Stay out of the box, and focus on sniping nasty top shelf wristers from the high slot and we will be fine.
Additionally, dropping some of our dead weight in the off season including Ponikarovsky, Fedetenko, Guerin, McKee, and Leopold will be a huge benefit to overcoming some of the stagnancy in our game. We’ve got a new building and a lot of new players. This is a refreshing formula that can hopefully allow us break old habits and introduce new winning strategies.
Defensively, the Penguins will have to prove that they can mentally overcome Alex Ovechkin if they intend to win in the playoffs. He is inside the head of every Penguins player, most notably Fleury. Fortunately, Ovechkin is a force that can be shut down, as proven by the Habs performance in last year’s playoffs. No other player in the NHL can rattle the Penguins like Ovechkin, so we need to start addressing this psychological issue head on. Therapy? I don’t know. All it takes is one save (like Fleury’s in Game 7 of the 2009 Series) and our D gets its swagger back. This needs to be a top priority. It can be done and will be done.
On paper, the Pens are certainly Cup contenders. To it all, however, the season comes down to two things: the powerplay and Marc Andre-Fleury. PP success has a ripple effect -- it enables our stars to score and give them tremendous momentum, to takes pressure off of our goalies, and scoring forces the other teams to open up the play which gives the skilled players more space to move. Plus, if it's consistent, other teams' defenses won't be as aggressive with Sid, Geno, etc. And we all know that's good business.
If the PP is in the league's top 5 and Fleury gets to his game all season, the Pens are going places.
It's simple, really.
|Boys, get to our game.|