By Matt Popchock
“Reports of [our] death have been premature.”
Dan Bylsma never paraphrased the words of Mark Twain, but now seems like as good a time as any.
After all, it wasn’t that long ago another Pittsburgh coach did so, and it seemed to work out pretty well for his own team (until Sunday).
No gloomy period in local sports history may compare to the Steelers losing the 1972 AFC Championship game at home to eventual world champion Miami, just a few days before the world lost Roberto Clemente…but boy, this past weekend has to be up there.
Twenty-four hours before the Stairway to Seven gave way beneath the Steelers’ feet, the Penguins and their fans learned Evgeni Malkin is likely gone for the rest of what has already been a snake-bitten season for the All-Star forward.
If you blinked at any point during Friday’s game, you missed Geno’s much-anticipated return to the lineup, which lasted until a freak tangle-up with Tyler Myers cost him his “good” knee.
Not to oversimplify my analysis, but sometimes in sports it just isn’t your year. This just hasn’t been Malkin’s year–and that’s quite an understatement–but that doesn’t necessarily mean it won’t be the Penguins’ year.
The topic of whether or not to trade one of the Penguins’ franchise players and take a tremendous leap of faith that the sum of the exchanged parts will somehow be greater than the whole has become hotter than ever around these parts. That topic has been rendered moot, at least for the rest of this campaign, though it bears repeating that I’ve lumped myself in among the folks who worry that Penguin fans won’t know what they have until it’s gone.
God, I hate being right when I say something like that…
One other thing I know I can say without fear of contradiction is that the Penguins have proven they can find ways to keep pace in the Atlantic Division title and Eastern Conference playoff races even without Malkin, and without the other half of the two-headed monster, Sidney Crosby, for the immediate future.
Even after an uninspiring Super Bowl Sunday defeat in Washington, the Pens are still 7-4-1 without the collective heart and soul of their offense at their disposal, and a gnat’s eyelash from owning the best record in the NHL. This is the first time in the post-lockout era this top-heavy scoring bunch has had to play a significant portion of its season without Sid and Geno together, and yet the Pens have scraped together points in 75 percent of those dozen games, managing to grind out a helpful–and very impressive–five-game winning streak in the process.
How has it happened? A lot of it has to do with Disco Dan, who bore the sobering task of breaking news of Malkin’s MCL and ACL tears to the hockey world. Bylsma gives me reason to believe, and so does what’s left of his lineup.
One thing that makes him a good bench boss is his ability to be a player’s coach and get the most out of the guy he’s putting his arm around without kicking that same guy in the rear end or throwing him under the bus the way his predecessor, Michel Therrien, sometimes would. I’ve never had a thing against Therrien, but the Pens have demonstrated their ability to grow and learn without treating every single morning skate like Game 7 of the Finals.
Another thing that leads me to believe Bylsma will guide his Pens through these treacherous waters is the way he has brought and maintained role definition. Part of why the Penguins succeed in the face of such significant manpower losses is their chemistry; each of them goes to the rink every day knowing exactly what his job is. This may not be the best team in hockey without Crosby and/or Malkin, but it is certainly one of the most organized, which is of equal importance to any team with Stanley Cup aspirations.
But what would any coach be without players who aren’t necessarily household names stepping up and making him look that much wiser? Chris Kunitz has found his game. Baby Pens scoring leader Dustin Jeffrey has made a seamless transition to the faster NHL. Jordan Staal, upon his 2010-11 debut in Winter Classic, looked like he hadn’t missed a second of action, and hasn’t looked back. The third and fourth lines continue to bring energy, elbow grease, and one heck of a forecheck when their teammates can’t or won’t do the same.
Most importantly, Marc-Andre Fleury has finally become the goaltender with elite numbers we’ve all been waiting for, and much of that has to do with the way his much-improved defensive corps is playing in front him. We’ve heard the cliche “defense wins championships.” Well, most cliches are cliches for a reason…because they’re true. That group was largely responsible for the aforementioned winning streak, making some slim leads loom larger one night after another. There’s no reason, barring further injuries–heaven forbid–they can’t make it happen again.
Furthermore, the Penguins, like they did during their seminal championship runs, hold an off-the-ice trump card in GM Ray Shero. In the past, he has brought such names to Pittsburgh as Bill Guerin, Gary Roberts, Pascal Dupuis, and Marian Hossa, for little more than a couple of Primantis. None of them had long shelf lives in the ‘Burgh, except for Dupuis, but all have made significant contributions during recent seasons. With Malkin’s $8.7 million salary off the books, Shero will be in a position to rent whatever upcoming unrestricted free agents might be able to help the Pens at minimal cost.
A boring trade deadline? In Pittsburgh? Psshh…no such thing.
And then there’s Sid. Reports of his “death” have been premature too…and don’t let anyone tell you differently. The Wizard of Cros’ will wave his magic wand again in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, if not sooner, I predict. In the meantime, the Penguins have already displayed plenty of character, while laying out a teamwork-oriented blueprint for winning amidst this extreme adversity.
By the time (some of) that adversity disappears altogether, it’ll be time for postseason hockey. Regardless of what the standings say, all bets are off, as long as Fleury and the D-men keep their poise, guys like Staal and Jeffrey keep stepping up, and–Penguin flippers crossed–Sid gets his faculties back in time. The Flyers, who some believe have now been firmly established as the team to beat in the East, certainly know a thing or two about that.
They, and all the rest, had better be ready come April. I don’t doubt these patchwork Penguins will be.
For more of the latest news and views on the Penguins, be sure to tune into “The Penalty Box with Tom Grimm,” Saturday mornings on SportsRadio 93.7 The Fan, and check out the “Puck Talk with Popchock” video blog on 937thefan.com!