Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Pittsburgh Penguins: A Complete Team

The Pittsburgh Penguins will win the 2008 Stanley Cup.

This will probably sound to most of you like the empty brag of a townie. And it’s always asking for trouble to make guarantees. But, with everyone on the team healthy as the playoffs begin, it’s hard to hold out against that judgment.

Injuries subdued the team at certain points in the season, which is the main reason why the Pens are the #2 seed in the East instead of #1. You don’t have your team captain and your starting goalie out for any length of time and win the Presidents' Trophy.

Judging from Wednesday night’s 4-0 drubbing of Ottawa in the first playoff game, the team is now at full strength and should be unstoppable.

Much has been said over the past three seasons about Sidney Crosby, who has already amassed an amazing number of NHL records for someone who can’t buy beer yet. But the high ankle sprains (a phrase that is fast becoming hockey’s equivalent to “walk-off home run”) to him and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury proved to be blessings in disguise, as this season has seen the Penguins evolve into a complete team.

First, there is Evgeni Malkin. Malkin was the second pick in the 2004 NHL Draft, but until this season, he was more famous for the controversy surrounding his signing with the Penguins than anything he’d done on the ice. His play showed flashes of brilliance (he did score a goal in each of his first six NHL games), but could be inconsistent. With Crosby sidelined for several weeks, Malkin emerged as a team leader.

Fleury’s injury created a void at starting goalie. When Dany Sabourin couldn’t show consistency, the Penguins recalled Ty Conklin from Scranton-Wilkes-Barre. Conklin’s career before that point defined “journeyman,” as he has played for four NHL teams and countless minor and German professional league teams. No one was ready for his contribution. He won his first nine starts and ended the regular season with the second-best save percentage in the NHL. Not bad for a backup.

To complete a team, trades are often necessary, and this was the case with the Penguins, too. The season’s blockbuster trade with the Atlanta Thrashers brought Marian Hossa and Pascal Dupuis to Pittsburgh in exchange for Colby Armstrong, Erik Christensen, Angelo Esposito and a draft pick. This trade gave the Pens the scoring power they needed on the front line in addition to Crosby and Malkin. The trade was criticized because Armstrong and Christensen had made their share of contributions to the team, while Esposito, a first-round pick, was seen by some as a future franchise player. Time will tell if the Pens gave up too much for a serious Stanley Cup run, especially if they aren’t able to re-sign Hossa for next year.

For now, all the important spots are being filled, and the Penguins have emerged as the NHL’s most complete team.

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