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.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.
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.
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.
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.