PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – The Pittsburgh Penguins begin their defense of the Stanley Cup tonight.
If it seems like the start of the season came up pretty quick, you’re not alone. It kind of feels like the parade was just last week.
But, here we are at the dawn of another season and another quest for Lord Stanley’s Holy Grail.
Before the Penguins raise their fourth championship banner to the rafters at PPG Paints Arena (still getting used to that), here are some intriguing storylines for the upcoming season.
1. Sidney Crosby’s Health
Okay, let’s address the giant elephant in the room right off the bat.
In case you missed it, Crosby was diagnosed with another concussion on Monday. According to the team, he suffered the injury during practice last week.
Since then, he has skated on his own, while taking part in line rushes during Wednesday’s practice. However, he was wearing a no contact jersey.
So, where is he in the recovery process? We don’t know.
You’d like to think that participating in practice is a good thing. Consider that he alternated with Matt Cullen on the top line during line rushes and the news sounds even better.
But, the no contact jersey puts a damper on all of it. There’s a protocol in the NHL and Crosby is following it.
The problem with head injuries is that there is no way to have a definitive timeline for return.
The only thing that matters is that Crosby is not cleared until he is 100 percent ready – Not 90 percent, not 95 percent, not even 99.9 percent.
Let me repeat, he should not suit up on a game night until he is 100 percent ready.
Given NHL protocol and his concussion history, I’m pretty confident every precaution will be taken.
As for the team dealing with his absence? Obviously, his presence will be missed on the ice.
However, this team still employs Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, Kris Letang, etc. At absolute worst, the Penguins will be able to stay afloat in Crosby’s absence. The more likely scenario is that they still win more than they lose and Crosby’s return will solidify the team even more.
2. Goaltending Situation
Prior to the Crosby injury, this was my number one fear going into the season. I’m not worried about the on-ice goaltending situation with the Penguins. I’m just worried that it will be a never-ending discussion all year.
Right now, it’s Marc-Andre Fleury’s crease due to the injury to Matt Murray.
Having to turn to Fleury isn’t exactly a bad thing. As a reminder, Fleury backstopped this team to a Cup in 2009. I have no doubt in my mind that he would have done it again last year had he not been injured.
Again, this isn’t diminishing Murray’s role in the team winning the Cup. Murray came in, took advantage of the opportunity and the rest is history.
Anyway, Fleury was 35-17-6 last year with a 2.29 GAA and a .921 save percentage.
To Fleury’s credit, he was a rock last year, especially when the team stumbled out of the blocks. Without Fleury’s exceptional play during that time, the Penguins realistically could have missed the playoffs.
Now, he’s going to be even more motivated to keep the crease when Murray is back in the fold.
So, for right now, let’s not worry about the looming expansion draft and any potential ramifications. That will sort itself out in time.
Plus, a decision on the goalie of the future may become clearer after the start of the season.
3. Can The Penguins Repeat?
The short answer is, yes.
The problem is that it is so rare for teams to repeat these days, due in part to the salary cap. The last team repeat was the Red Wings in 1997 and 1998.
So, you could argue that it’s long overdue. Plus, it wouldn’t be the first time (or second) that the Penguins have at least gone to the Stanley Cup Final in consecutive seasons.
The Penguins do have a lot working in their favor as they enter the season.
Perhaps the most important thing is that almost everybody is back from the Cup-winning team.
That means the HBK line will be back together again. They, along with Malkin, will look to shoulder the load while Crosby is out.
On defense, Brian Dumoulin’s game rocketed to a new level when Trevor Daley went down in the Conference Finals.
It’s also worth noting that Derrick Pouliot has something to prove this year and will be looking to lock down Lovejoy’s vacant spot.
Combine all that with solid goaltending and the Penguins look primed to make another deep playoff run.
But, in order to play for the Cup, they have to qualify for the playoffs.
The 82-game road to the postseason begins tonight against the Washington Capitals.