It has been almost nine months to the day that the Pittsburgh Penguins last took the ice. Finally, that all changes on Saturday.
A lengthy and mind-numbing lockout finally ended earlier this month. Now, all 30 teams will be thrust into a 48-game sprint to the playoffs.
For Pittsburgh, the mission to erase a meltdown against Philadelphia last spring in the first round, will begin against those same Flyers.
There are some new faces in town this year that figure to play significant roles with the club.
General Manager Ray Shero made a big splash at the NHL Entry Draft by trading Jordan Staal to the Carolina Hurricanes. Part of the return in that deal was center Brandon Sutter.
Sutter figures take Staal’s vacated spot on the third line with Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy. He will also see plenty of time on the penalty kill.
In 82 games with the Hurricanes last year, Sutter had 17 goals and 15 assists. He finished the season with a minus-three rating and only spent 21 minutes in the box.
Another key addition was backup goaltender Tomas Vokoun. Last year, Vokoun was 25-17-2 with a 2.51 GAA and a .917 save percentage in 48 appearances with the Washington Capitals.
Vokoun was brought in to back up Marc-Andre Fleury. However, he’s a proven number one goaltender in the NHL, so if Fleury falters, Vokoun should have no problem stepping in.
The top six forwards will look a little different due to Steve Sullivan’s departure. There was some talk that Beau Bennett could end up filling that gap on the second line with Evgeni Malkin and James Neal.
However, he was sent back to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Thursday, which all but assures that the Penguins will go with Eric Tangradi on that line to start the season.
Tangradi was acquired in the deal that sent Ryan Whitney to Anaheim for Christ Kunitz. However, he has yet to make a lasting impression with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
At 6-feet-4-inches and 221 pounds, Tangradi has the physical attributes to be a solid power forward in the NHL. He has worked on his skating and has racked up 10 goals and eight assists for the Baby Pens this season.
Time may be running out for Tangradi if he hopes to stay at the NHL level with the Penguins. Should he start the season with Malkin and Neal, he’ll have every opportunity to produce. The question remains, will he?
It also looks as if the Penguins will carry eight defensemen into the start of the season. On Thursday, the Penguins put Brian Strait on waivers in an attempt to send him back to the Baby Pens.
However, he was claimed by the New York Islanders on Friday.
That still leaves the Pens with Robert Bortuzzo, Simon Despres, Deryk Engelland, Kris Letang, Ben Lovejoy, Paul Martin, Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik.
Hard to decide which two of those eight you’d sit on a nightly basis, but that’s why Dan Bylsma gets paid the big bucks. This will be an interesting storyline to watch this season though.
Ultimately, it was a lack of team defense that cost the Penguins against the Flyers last year. People are quick to point out that Fleury wasn’t at his best in that series either. While a valid point, it wasn’t the main reason the team made an early exit.
The Penguins were humbled by their cross-state rivals and after three straight seasons of brutal playoff defeats, they appear hungry to reclaim the Stanley Cup.
If there was one good thing to come out of the lockout, it was that it allowed the many injured Penguins plenty of time to heal.
By all accounts, all are hungry, but guys like Crosby and Malkin are frothing at the mouth to get going and prove to the world that the Penguins are back.
If the two-headed monster is healthy and playing with a chip on their shoulder, there’s no reason to think the Pens can’t be considered among the few teams considered to be Stanley Cup contenders.
As long as the team remembers how to play defense, they have enough offensive firepower to win hockey games.
It took almost nine months to get here, but the players are ready and so am I.
Hockey is officially back, now drop the puck.
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