|"This is the closest we've come to winning the Stanley Cup"|
- Bruce Boudreau, Caps Coach, Professional Moron
The Winter Classic marked the return of Jordan Staal from injury, FINALLY. But it also will be known for the David Steckel hit to Sidney Crosby's head. January 1st, the Winter Classic, would be the only time all season that the Penguins had Crosby, Malkin, and Staal in the lineup for a full 60 minutes. The next game started with all 3 centers in the lineup, which equated to an 8-1 rout of Tampa Bay. But by the end, Crosby was out indefinitely with a concussion from taking a 2nd hit to the head on account of a Victor Hedman check. Little did we know the drama and the season that would unfold from that point.
The Penguins lost the next 3 games in January, scoring a combined 3 goals, as people began to panic about where the offense would come from without Crosby. Malkin was still playing his on-again off-again act, and Staal clearly did not have his legs under him yet. But the team rallied back behind the forces of Fleury, Staal, Kunitz, and Kennedy to start putting wins together again. Pittsburgh ended January winning 5 of their last 6 games, demonstrating a remarkable ability to put the puck in the net no matter who was on the ice.
|Kennedy set career highs in goals, points,|
and awful Christmas sweaters.
The team continued their unexpectedly strong play into February, winning their first 3 games, including a February 2nd matchup against the Islanders, where Brent Johnson punched out Rick DiPietro, and a February 4th matchup against Buffalo. That game would put another dagger into the Penguins though, as Evgeni Malkin went down with a knee injury after awkwardly colliding with Tyler Myers in the corner. While we were still unsure about Crosby's prognosis and return (no timetable), we knew the status of Malkin. Torn ACL and MCL, done for the season. The two-headed monster was on the IR and it was only early February. At this point, the Penguins were 34-16-4, and were fighting Philadelphia for the top spot in the conference and the NHL.
|Sadly, one of the highlights of DiPietro's career.|
The following month would be the toughest that Pens fans had seen since Crosby's first year in the league. The Pens went 4-6-4, dropping out of the race for 1st in what turned out to be an eventful month for many reasons. Here are the highlights/lowlights/WTFlights:
- Of the 14 games played between Feb 6th and Mar 5th, 8 of them were decided in overtime.
- Friday, Feb 11th saw the Islanders and Penguins accumulate over 300 penalty minutes, with the league handing out 3 suspensions from the game and fining the Islanders organization. Godard received a 10 game suspension for leaving the bench to fight, and Brent Johnson got into his 2nd fight of the season. The final score was 9-3 Islanders, and the game was considered a travesty to the NHL.
- Matt Cooke received a 4 game suspension for a hit from behind on Fedor Tyutin, leading to all kinds of arguments about how the Penguins could employ Matt Cooke and still complain about the Islanders.
- Chris Kunitz went down with a lower body injury, taking away the Penguins 3rd leading scorer at the time (behind the injured Crosby and Malkin).
Also within that month span, the trade deadline (which seemed to last a month long) shook up a few rosters, including the Penguins'. We said goodbye to Alex Goligoski and welcomed James Neal and Matt Niskanen back in return from the Stars. What a steal! (he said, as he tried to write this without hindsight). We also welcomed back everyone's most frustrating Russian, Alex Kovalev, and for only a 7th round pick. Another steal! (Maybe the issue isn't hindsight is 20/20, but that our foresight sucks). With all of the injuries and trades, many rookies got a look, whether it be short or long. Dustin Jeffrey spent some very productive time with the team and established himself as NHL ready. Eric Tangradi spent time on the team before being concussed in the Islanders brawl. Nick Johnson came up and was concussed as well. We also saw glimpses of Brett Sterling, Joe Vitale, Corey Potter, and other players that I could never pick out of a lineup.
|Tangradi became a casualty of the absurd fact that|
Trevor Gillies is allowed in this league.
Despite all of the roster moves, all of the injuries, the never-ending drama of Crosby's timetable (he's in florida, he's in nova scotia, he's in pittsburgh, where is he, what's he doing, is he working with the US Navy Seals?!?), the Penguins found a way to succeed.
Dan Bylsma, the coach we all grew to love through a Stanley Cup victory and his performance on 24/7, proved to be masterful at getting his team to simplify their game into a defense first (defense only?) system. The Penguins played every team tightly and got themselves on the same page in early March. They went 8-4 through the rest of March, and started making a run at the top spot in the conference again. Kunitz came back and displayed his scoring touch even without Crosby. But as with every return this year, it was met with the loss of Dustin Jeffrey to a knee injury for the season. The Penguins made a habit of not letting any team out of their sights, most notably shown in a 4 game win streak where all 4 games were won in a shootout (NHL Record).
|This man could coach a lineup of bobbleheads to the playoffs.|
Heading into April, Crosby was starting to skate again, the Penguins looked like they could compete no matter who was on the roster, and fans started to get amped for the playoffs. The Penguins had been locked into the #4 spot in the conference for quite a while, but had an outside chance at 2nd or 1st if they could push their luck. They did their best, winning the last 4 games of the regular season in April, but couldn't get enough losses out of the Capitals or Flyers to get out of 4th place. And with that, the season was over. The Penguins finished with a 49-25-8 record, and it was on to the playoffs as the 4th seed, a feat that many thought would be impossible with this injury-decimated team.
Other things lost in the shuffle:
- Kovalev and Neal's complete inability to score
- The powerplay got worse, and worse, and worse, even when you didn't think it could get worse.
- Crosby, Malkin, Letang, and Fleury were all voted into the All-Star game, though only Letang and Fleury were healthy enough to play.
- The Penalty Kill finished #1 in the NHL for the first time in team history.
- Kris Letang's fall from potential Norris Trophy candidate to contributing absolutely nothing without Crosby
I was going to do the playoffs in this post...but I'd rather analyze that in more depth. So TB series in review, coming tomorrow!
|Lightning strikes mores than you think.|