May 10, 2011

False hope blinds reality: the 2010-11 Penguins season

(written while I was on a plane home from Jamaica two weeks ago)

Deep down we knew. Way in the back of our collective minds, we knew.

When Sidney Crosby exited the Penguins lineup after his second bruising hit in a week’s time in January, there still was hope.

When Evgeni Malkin tore both his ACL and MCL a few weeks later, with Crosby still having not returned, there was false hope. Hope that Crosby would return and despite Malkin’s absence, Pittsburgh would still be a force in the Eastern Conference.

As time waned on and Crosby’s return was a mix of murky rumors and the flat-out unknown, the fan inside hoped, even as the team on the ice was making a surprise run at the Atlantic Division title.

But we knew.

We knew that as long as 71 and 87 weren’t on Dan Bylsma’s lineup card, the Penguins would not be lifting a second Stanley Cup in three seasons.

But as fans we view things with blinders on at times. Despite the team’s two biggest stars missing and the fact that the team without them was performing so well, and Marc-Andre Fleury was putting up Vezina Trophy numbers, there was a sense that we were witnessing something miraculous. A Stanley Cup run without Sid or Geno? Is that possible? James Neal and a hopefully revitalized Alexei Kovalev coming on board near the trade deadline? And we watched every game with that hope, despite knowing the end goal was far, far from a potential reality.

That’s what makes the 2010-11 season for the Penguins so frustrating. There was the remarkable first half that was highlighted by the 12-game winning streak along with Crosby’s 25-game point streak that had Pittsburgh high on the list of Cup contenders. Then Jan. 1 came and not only did the Penguins lose the Winter Classic to their rivals the Washington Capitals, they lost their captain as well. Maybe not until the game after the loss at Heinz Field, but the hit from David Steckel was the beginning of the end for Crosby’s season as we would soon find out.

The Penguins showed a lot of character in the absence of their two best players. Players like Jordan Staal, Tyler Kennedy and Chris Kunitz stepped up to fill the offensive void. And while Kris Letang took big strides forward in his first year without Sergei Gonchar entering the Norris Trophy discussion at one point; but while he did regress a bit in the second half, his jump forward is a good sign for the future.

This season feels like a robbery and that’s what injuries can do to a team. You’re riding high for a stretch of the season and then the sky comes crashing down from above, and now you have to wait a long six months before going through the emotions all over again.

It also signals the chance for bit of turnover in the lineup. Players like Max Talbot, Pascal Dupuis, Tyler Kennedy, Craig Adams – players vital to their Cup run in 2009 – are due new contracts, along with role players Mike Rupp and Arron Asham. Even with the salary cap rumored to be going up several million dollars for next season, not everyone can be brought back; whether by choice of GM Ray Shero wanting to bring in new talent via free agency or from Wilkes-Barre or because of a lack of cap room.

But In Ray Shero We Trust. He has some tough decisions to make in the summer, but come training camp, the two biggest additions to their roster will be the sight of 71 and 87 back on the ice and ready to reclaim their spot among the elite in the NHL.

Then the hope can start all over again.

Photo credit Justin K. Allen / Getty Images

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