Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Pens Have Not Arrived: Putting A Win Streak In Perspective

By Finesse

The Pittsburgh Penguins are not the Washington Capitals.  In February of last season, Ted Leonsis's Washington Capitals had just won their 11th game in a row and sat atop their division, conference, and the entire NHL.  Alex Ovechkin was leading the league in scoring and the Verizon Center was leading the league in fake scoreboard noise.  On that fateful morning, Ted Leonsis signed onto his AOL account and infamously proclaimed that his team had "arrived," writing:
For just today we have arrived.
We don’t have miles to go before we sleep.
We have arrived. Savor it. Enjoy it.
Please for just one day. I beg of you. No negative emails. No negative vibes.
By contrast, on this past Sunday morning after the Pens unbeaten streak hit 11-0-1 with a demolition of the Columbus Blue Jackets at Consol Energy Center Ohio, Mario Lemieux woke up at an undisclosed location in Southern France, flew on Ron Burkle's private jet to Dubai to play golf with oil barons, then signed on to his email to check his investments and make sure that Crosby wasn't besting his legendary points-per-game pace.  Needless to say, you've heard no proclamations from Le Magnifique that the Pens have arrived in early December.  And nor should you.



After the jump, three positives from the streak, and three reasons to hold the parade.

Positive #1: Sidney Crosby.  
Right now, if the NHL scoring race was a steroid side-effect contest, Sidney Crosby would be Barry Bonds' head.  He's at a 1.64 points per game pace and is on pace to top 60 goals.  Because we are all enormous fans, there is no doubt that we root for his individual accomplishments to exceed those of Ovechkin, Sedin (2x), Stamkos, etc.  But even more important than any hardware Sid may collect at the end of the season is that he is still getting better.  At only 23 years old, that is a scary thought.

Positive #2: The Ceiling.
Last year, the first round of the playoffs broke perfectly for the Pens, as the Eastern Conference favorite Washington Capitals and New Jersey Devils were each eliminated by seemingly inferior teams.  Artistry and I, in a moment of excessive hubris that shall never be repeated, spent the first hour of our work day "basking" (but not "gloating") in the Caps' loss and the presumably easier road for the Pens to get to the finals.  In hindsight, huge mistake, not just because we violated every rule of terrible karma, but because suppressed by our optimism was the fact that the 2009-10 Pens never felt like a great team.

The Pens got the #4 seed in the 2010 playoffs based on muscle memory.  Fleury hadn't been good the entire second half of the year, Malkin was not consistent, Crosby was good but not dominant, the losses of Gil and Scuderi left a gaping hole in the lineup that was never filled, Alexi Ponikarovsky was making us yearn for Chris Bourque, and the sense of urgency and self-confidence that should have been present never materialized.  The result, as we all know, was a devastating loss to an inferior Montreal team.

Miss me?
This season, the Pens have already played several games that have been vastly more impressive than any regular season game last year.  Key contributors -- Crosby, Fleury, Letang, Kunitz, Talbot, Martin, Michalek, etc. -- have all showed marked improvements in their games, that, if it lasts into April and May, give the Pens the potential to click on all cylinders.  At one point in the Columbus game, the Pens were running the triangle offense...on the penalty kill, in their own zone.

Positive #3: Room to Improve.
The Pens torrid pace is being set with significant contributions from only two of the team's Core 4 -- Crosby and Fleury.  With all due respect to Malkin's "increased commitment to defense" -- announcer-speak for "this guy should be scoring more but we get paid by the team so let's say something nice" -- he's been nearly invisible for large stretches of the past 12 games.  And Jordan Staal has been out all season, poking needles into his P.K. Subban voodoo doll (apparently, so are a lot of other guys in the league).  While it is tough to find an example of the Crosby-era  Pens playing better in the regular season than they are now, there is no question that the team can be even better when Staal comes back and Malkin starts burying it.

But, keep that champagne on ice...

Caution #1: It's December.
Be honest with yourself - if the Caps were in the midst of a streak like the Pens were on and Ovechkin was scoring 2-3 goals per game, you'd grumble that it is irrelevant because all that matters is what happens in the playoffs.  And you'd be right.  The Pens are playing great, but they haven't "arrived."  Instead, they have corrected for a slow start and begun to establish a home-ice advantage.  That's it.  So relax.

Caution #2: The Schedule.
The casualties along the side of the road on the Pens' streak are not exactly the 2007-08 Red Wings.  Instead, the streak started with wins over Tampa and the Atlanta Stat Padders, a horrendous overtime loss at home to the Rangers, a Vancouver team at the end of a long east-coast road trip, the murderers row of Carolina, Florida, Buffalo, Ottawa, Calgary, an impressive win at MSG despite skating on a pond of salty tears, then two more easy wins over the Stat Padders and the BJ's.  Is there a game in that stretch that you think the Pens shouldn't have won?  Didn't think so.

Caution #3: The Backstop.
With all due respect to Crosby, who is undoubtedly the league's most valuable player at this point in the season, the Pens' season is as fragile as the confidence of a 26 year-old French Canadian goalie.  Although, now that I think about it, the last time the Pens' destiny was in the hands of a 26-year old French Canadian, this happened:


As good as Fleury is now, he was that bad (if not worse) in his first seven appearances this season.  No one seems to know what his triggers are, but you have to believe that it is possible that he goes into another funk at some point this season (just hopefully not in the playoffs).

We at GTOG are not trying to rain on the Pens' parade.  Instead, we just want to remind everyone that as fun as a hot streak like this can be, they don't give banners for being the best team in the league in December.



3 comments:

  1. Excellent stuff. A must read for every homer in 412.

    In the Pens' 1992-93 season film "A Portrait of Courage" Ron Francis says something like "We were so good that season it wasn't even funny", but what we got out of that season is nothing more a President's Trophy banner that hangs waaaay over on the right side of the rafters, (unlike the Caps' ones, which, as you can see are right over the scoreboard).

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  2. Finesse, you know you've arrived when your readers start picking apart every word you write and make comments like "I loved 1091 words in your blog but I have to take serious exception to 4 words." What this means is your opinion matters and we as readers can't let you get away with anything. We take you too seriously.

    So to my point. The "Atlanta Stat Stuffers"? True for 10 years, 2 months and 9 days but come-on not the last few weeks. (Unless you happen to be named Sidney Crosby).

    So just for the record over the last eight games 7-1-0, Goals For: 27, Goals Against 9. Wins over Washington twice (outscoring them 8-1) Detroit, Chicago, Boston, Colorado and the proudest moment of all - not losing to the Islanders.

    I was actually thinking of taking on the new moniker of "Atlanta Stat Stuffer"(as a positive) but it might make me somewhat vulnerable to an acronym. So I'm thinking of turning that around with something like "Good Old Days" unless you think its too much.

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  3. Unlike the Pens, I, indeed, have arrived.

    A.N., there is no question that the Thrashers have turned things around the past few weeks. I root for the Thrashers, if only because I like to see teams succeed after they lose a player who many (not me) felt was the only reason they were competitive at all.

    The reference to the stat padding was solely based on Malkin and Crosby each getting hat tricks against Atlanta in the past two games, not a comment that the team itself is a pushover. As the Caps have recently discovered, they are anything but.

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