Friday, April 20, 2007

A Candid Look in the Rear View Mirror

It's a blunt pain in the center of your chest. A feeling Penguins fans haven't felt in some time, almost 6 years. Getting dumped from the playoffs is painful, but I suppose it's better than not making it at all. At least they made it, right? Does not winning the Stanley Cup mean the season was not a success? That's the question I posed myself as I reflected over the last half year.

Coming into the season, my expectations were optimistically realistic. Last season the Penguins finished 29th in the league, but they looked like a team that could be on the bubble for the playoffs. After a midnight escape from Russia straight out of a cheap 80s adventure book, Malkin was finally at training camp and signed to an NHL contract. 2006 first round draft pick Jordan Staal surprised all by making it through training camp and onto the NHL roster. 21 year old Marc Andre Fleury was preparing for his first season as a number one goaltender. Sidney Crosby was coming off his rookie season, in which he became the youngest player to ever top 100 pts. Off season acquisitions brought in the talent of Nils Ekman, Mark Eaton, and Jarko Ruutu.

The regular season saw almost all expectations exceeded. The Penguins excelled after the all-star game, going 26-7-3 and finishing just out of the Atlantic Division lead with 105 pts, a 47 pt improvement from last season.

Evgeni Malkin lead all rookies with 33 goals and 52 assists. Jordan Staal scored 29 goals and became an instrumental part of the Penguins penalty kill. Sidney Crosby continued his rise to becoming one of the elite players of the game, winning the scoring title with 120 points, and should be a front runner in the Hart Memorial Trophy voting for league MVP.

Marc Andre Fleury was solid in net, starting 65 games, and winning 40. He posted a 2.83 GAA and a .905 save percentage. With inconsistency an issue with younger goaltenders, Fleury allowed more than 4 goals only 6 times, and had only one losing streak longer than two games.

The pickup of Mark Eaton proved to be a catalyst in the shaky Penguins defense. The team went 25-8-2 when Eaton played, and allowed 2.62 goals in games he played in, 3.14 in those he didn't. Sergei Gonchar and Ryan Whitney were a constant scoring threat from the blue-line, and finished 2nd and 6th in defense scoring. The defensive pairing were second only to the all-star tandem of Neidermayer and Pronger in Anaheim, and became a large part of the Penguins Powerplay that finished 2nd in the Eastern Conference.

The Penguins success should also be credited to role players, the 3rd and 4th liners, who elevated their play. Maxime Talbot and Colby Armstrong were unsung heroes due to their constant hard work and smart play.

Without a doubt, the postseason was a disappointing experience, but at least it was some experience. 16 players on the Penguins came into the series against the Ottawa Senators without any playoff experience. Malkin and Reechi's late season offensive struggles continued into the post season, and the 3rd defensive pairing of Scuderi and Melichar became a liability.

I think it was a mistake to not start defenseman Alan Nasreddine. During the regular season he was +12 in 44 games. And while not an offensive threat, he played smart in the defensive zone, something the Penguins struggled to do in the series.

Crosby played well, picking up 3 goals and 2 assists. Fleury struggled in the first game of the series, but he settled down and preformed well against the Senators onslaught. Ryan Malone couldn't find his place during the season, but played well alongside Gary Roberts in the postseason.

And while the Penguins could have preformed better, this was in no way a series that they turned over to the Senators. Ottawa came into the series with a solid defensive game plan, shutting down the Penguins cycle with smart defensive shifting, and strong offensive pressure. On the few occasions the Senators allowed a legitimate scoring threat, Ray Emery played strong, allowing only 10 goals. The Sabres and Devils may have been the talk of the east as the playoffs began, but with their less than impressive handling of lower seeds, the Senators have been the strongest team in the East.

So now I return to the question, is the season unsuccessful just because the Stanley Cup was not won. And the only answer I can come up with is "Yes". While it's true that the Penguins had many victories on and off the ice (plans are already inaction to build the new arena that has kept the Penguins in Pittsburgh), the season is an improvement, but the main objective, the Stanley Cup, was not accomplished. The best news at this point is the 2007-2008 NHL season kicks off in 5 months, and I think we have a hell of a shot at the Cup.

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