Life Of A Pittsburgh Fan, And An Outlook On The Penguins chances

Steve O Speak

A Guest Blog by Fanspeak Contributing Writer Jason Mullen:

To me, a lifelong Pittsburgh sports fan, October just can’t arrive fast enough. This is, perhaps, the pinnacle of the sports year. Especially after disappointing seasons or early playoff exits, the summer months are agonizing. But even when the Steelers win the Super Bowl or the Penguins claim Lord Stanley’s Cup, the summer feels a little empty. Until the Pirates can step up and make the summer somewhat interesting, the earliest relief arrives when the Steelers are back on the field. Once the Penguins hit the ice, everything is right again in the sports world. Expectations are high. Optimism abounds. This is “our” year. Pontification and predictions, playing the game on paper, creating mental depth charts, being the GM on the couch – these are the makings of a true sports fanatic. But, in the end, the games have to be played, players will get hurt, mistakes will be made, and sometimes the difference between winning and losing is a half inch or so.

Coming off a forgettable season, the Steelers were going to be challenged early this year. Could they survive the early part of the season without Big Ben for up to six games? Of course, Ben’s replacements, Leftwich and Dixon fell to injury, leaving the consummate professional, Charlie Batch, at the helm. You couldn’t ask much more from your longtime backup quarterback. If not for a few untimely penalties and breakdowns at the end of the Raven’s game, the Steelers were one first down away from a perfect 4 – 0 start. The defense is looking very strong, with Polamalu, Harrison, and Farrior, wreaking havoc as usual. If Ben can focus on football and play like he is capable, the Steelers should be among the strongest contenders this year.

As great as football is, my favorite sport has always been hockey. I suspect this is mostly due to watching Mario Lemieux in the prime of his career, leading the Penguins to back to back Stanley Cups. The Penguins were a dominant team for much of the 90’s, with names like Francis, Stevens, Jagr, Barrasso, Samuelsson, Murphy, Straka, Kovalev, Nedved, and more. In the early 2000’s, the Penguins fell into a funk, on and off the ice. The team was bankrupt and the lack of a salary cap meant the Penguins could not compete with big market teams. They had some dismal years, with relocation becoming a serious consideration. However, through the draft and with a salary cap in place, they were able to rebuild around players like Crosby, Malkin, Fleury, and Staal and for the first time in 17 years, the Penguins won the Stanley Cup for the third time in their history. Now, after closing out the oldest NHL arena with a disappointing loss to Montreal in the second round, the Penguins have their long awaited new home, Consol Energy Center.

Before getting in to my take on their chances for this season, it’s important to look at what went wrong last season. They, like any team, had to battle injuries. At one point early in the season, they had 5 of their 6 regular defensemen out of the lineup. In addition, injuries to some key forwards like Malkin, Talbot, and Kunitz took away from their scoring punch. The powerplay struggled without Sergei Gonchar, who missed considerable time with a shoulder injury. But, once the playoffs arrive, the regular season standings and point totals simply don’t matter. You just have to get in, and then, anything can happen. In the East, this notion proved true as three of the top seeded teams fell in the first round. In the end, the Penguins seemed to be doomed by their lack of shutdown defensemen (the loss of Hal Gill and Rob Scuderi hurt), some inconsistent play from Fleury, and the lack of secondary scoring. The Canadiens keyed on Crosby and Malkin effectively, and none of the other forwards were able to produce much in the way of offense.

This offseason, the Penguins lost a few players to free agency, most notably Gonchar. Gonchar, an excellent powerplay quarterback, was a confident leader and well respected by the team. His absence will be felt, especially on the powerplay. However, Gonchar was also slowing down and given his age, the Penguins decided not to commit to the three year deal that he was after. General manager Ray Shero wasted no time in acquiring some defensemen to fill the gap. Zbynek Michalek and Paul Martin were signed to 5 year deals and will help shore up the Penguins defense. Their top four of Orpik, Michalek, Letang, and Martin is solid. If Alex Goligoski can stabilize his game, along with the development of Ben Lovejoy or Deryk Engelland as the number 6, the Penguins defense is much improved over last year’s squad.

With most of their available cap space used on Martin and Michalek, the Penguins didn’t have a lot to work with to land a scoring winger. Ponikarovsky and Fedetenko were ineffective here and have signed elsewhere. Veteran winger Bill Guerin was not resigned. With only a small amount of money at his disposal, Shero was still able to sign some quality players at bargain prices in Mike Comrie and Arron Asham. These signings, along with some of the AHL players getting a shot to crack the NHL roster, provide some much needed depth, especially with Jordan Staal out indefinitely. Eric Tangradi is a good prospect who is poised to become the power forward the Pens haven’t had since Ryan Malone. When Staal returns, they will have the option of making him the number two center, moving Malkin to wing. The Pens have plenty of quality third and fourth line players in Talbot, Adams, Rupp, Asham, Cooke, and Kennedy. If Kunitz and Dupuis can keep up with Crosby, the Pens shouldn’t have any trouble finding the back of the net.

Ultimately, for the Penguins to succeed, they need Fleury to be at the top of his game, like he was during their run to the Cup in 2009. Last season, he seemed to lack the confidence he had during those playoffs. If he can regain his focus and mental toughness, he can be one of the best in the game.

On paper, it all looks good. The Penguins should once again, be considered among the strongest contenders for the Cup. But, now it’s time to drop the puck and play for real and to that, I can only say… FINALLY!!!


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