Since the Pittsburgh Penguins raised the cup at Joe Louis Arena three seasons ago, many have speculated that their talent has made them the elite class of the Eastern Conference. Even when Sidney Crosby was still dealing with concussion issues last summer, the majority of sports writers, fans, and critics picked them to be the Stanley Cup champions at the conclusion of the 2011-2012 season.
But, for the third season in a row, the cup went to another team, with two of those playoff seasons ending abruptly; in Pittsburgh, in Game 7.
After a Game 7 loss to the Montreal Canadiens at Mellon Arena's final game, the reaction by many was a simple shrug. It was nothing more than a Stanley Cup hangover, and an ineffective defensive unit that looked halfway out the door by the end of the first period.
GM Ray Shero, elected to reload in the summer of 2010, signing Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek on the blue line and adding Mike Rupp and Arron Asham to provide more toughness. The moves appeared to work, as the Penguins were fighting for the top spot in the NHL three months into the season while possessing a much-improved defense.
Then came the Winter Classic.
Sidney Crosby, who was leading the Penguins on their impressive string of dominance, went down with a concussion a week after the New Year. The league's best player -on pace to be the first to score 140+ points in a season since Mario Lemieux in 1995- would not return for the rest of the season.
Crosby's injury was the tip of the iceberg for the 2010-2011 Penguins. Jordan Staal missed half the season with a foot infection and broken hand, Evgeni Malkin tore his ACL and MCL in February of 2011, missing the rest of the season and the playoffs, while Chris Kunitz, Zbynek Michalek and Paul Martin all missed a significant amount of time.
With the top line featuring Jordan Staal, Alexei Kovalev and Mark Letestu, the Penguins were bounced in the first round by the Tampa Bay Lightning after blowing a 3-1 series lead. The loss in Game 7 was disheartening, but everyone knew the Penguins had virtually no chance of winning the Stanley Cup without their two best players.
Last season, the Penguins entered the season with their top two stars still banged up. Malkin returned and dominated the league after the soreness in his surgically repaired knee subsided, while Sidney Crosby took a little more time to get back on the ice. Nevertheless, the Penguins entered the playoffs with a healthy roster and high hopes of returning to the Stanley Cup Finals.
That didn't happen. Instead, the Penguins were flattened by the Philadelphia Flyers in six games with Crosby and Malkin disappearing, along with the entire defensive unit and goaltender. If there were any excuses, it was that the Penguins had lost their defensive disciplined, relying too heavily on the league's top offense to carry the load.
The loss, coupled with inconclusive contract negotiations, prompted the Penguins to make more changes in the offseason. Shero traded away Jordan Staal for Brandon Sutter and two defensive prospects, as well as Zbynek Michalek in what was essentially a salary dump. The moves freed up a ton of cap space which was originally intended for either Ryan Suter or Zach Parise. Unfortunately, both decided to go to Minnesota.
So where do the Penguins stand now? Are they still the favorites? According to Las Vegas, yes, but should they be favored? Despite losing Jordan Staal, they still possess a solid core of young elite talent and the East seems to have lost some of its luster. And yet, it is evident the New York Rangers have gotten significantly better with the addition of Rick Nash. The Philadelphia Flyers may not have improved, but they do have the Penguins' number.
If the Penguins cannot deliver a Stanley Cup this season, one has to wonder if their reputation significantly changes.