By Matt Popchock

The day that has been dubbed “Hockey Day in America”–by one rival television network, anyway–has begun.  It’s a long day of national NHL coverage, and fittingly, the featured game pits two teams that have been through a lot of long days recently.

Okay, I know I’m overlooking the first-ever Heritage Classic, but between the unrelenting rain and the sight of our best player getting concussed, I think a lot of us have had our fill of outdoor hockey for one year, don’t you?

Anyway, the Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks meet for a Sunday matinee that, given the absences of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, may have lost some luster in the eyes of those elsewhere in America who don’t have a dog in the fight, but still holds significance for both.

They are the last two Stanley Cup champions, and they are two teams with head coaches who started out as in-season replacements and have proven a great deal to the hockey world on short notice.  More importantly, though, they are two teams that have learned just how doggone hard it is to keep the Cup these days.

It’s true that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone, and both teams, to say nothing of their fan bases, have learned to appreciate what they have, and take nothing for granted.  The Pens have lost manpower, while the Hawks have lost swagger.

The universal financial constraints of the post-lockout NHL hurt the Blackhawks’ title defense entering this season, though the greatest wound was probably self-inflicted.  After Marian Hossa left Pittsburgh for Detroit, only to pull another postseason disappearing act in the Stanley Cup Finals, Chicago rolled the dice by handing out an exorbitant long-term contract to the embattled free agent winger…a gamble that would even make the national Texas Hold ‘Em champion cringe.

Indeed, the Hawks went all in, and with Hossa playing a more dominant role this time, they netted their first Cup in nearly half a century last spring.  However, the pricey deal did not come without a price in and of itself.  Financially-bound Chicago had to get rid of key components Dustin Byfuglien, Kris Versteeg, and goaltender Antti Niemi, and the effects have been quite evident.

Although Conn Smythe Trophy winner Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, the Western Conference equivalent of the Two-Headed Monster, remain, their team enters Sunday’s contest third in an improved Central Division and 11th in the even more improved West.  If the playoffs started today, the Blackhawks would become just the second post-lockout Cup winner to miss them, which would certainly ram home a lesson they’re in the midst of learning–that having world-class skill players doesn’t necessarily translate to championships if they don’t have dependable role players to back them up.  The 1990s Penguins certainly found that out in the long run.

The current Penguins, however, have no shortage of dependable role players.  In fact, that’s about the only thing they have left in what has been a star-crossed journey since the Winter Classic.  Heading into Sunday they certainly don’t have the horses to be what the Blackhawks are, but unlike the Hawks, the Pens have demonstrated they can adapt to their own surroundings and grind out wins with those guys.

Last season the issue with this team was tired bodies.  This season the issue will be bodies, period.  Like Chicago, the Pens got off to a historically strong start, and as long as they could figure out ways to beat Washington and/or New Jersey–which never happened–a third consecutive Eastern Conference title seemed to be Pittsburgh’s for the taking.  But the closer they got to the spring, the more average the Pens looked, especially with a taxing Olympic tournament consuming the time of several key players.

I’m fairly convinced two relatively short offseasons, coupled with the task of playing well over two hundred meaningful hockey games in the span of one-and-a-half calendar years, led to this ultimate wearing-down of the Pens and a premature exit last May 12.  Obviously a grueling schedule, this upcoming week not withstanding, is the least of the Penguins’ worries this time around.

It’s tough to tell which of the last two Stanley Cup champions will do a better job reversing their fortunes come April.  Although Philadelphia has made it abundantly clear that last year’s unlikely run to the Finals was no accident, and Boston has made moves to possibly add themselves to the short list of Eastern Conference contenders, the fourth-place-overall Penguins have still put themselves in a favorable and relatively sturdy playoff position.  Despite some uncommonly rotten luck with injuries, the Penguins are, on paper, in a good place right now–and taking advantage of a “down” year by the dreaded Capitals doesn’t hurt either.

The Hawks, conversely, have been victimized by their own environment.  Last year a red-hot start, combined with an eventual rash of key injuries to reigning conference champion Detroit, firmly established them as the team to beat in the West, if not the entire NHL, and once the puck dropped on playoff action, they did not disappoint.  Now the Wings are healthier and looking like the team of old again, while teams like Dallas, Phoenix, and Los Angeles have enjoyed sudden rises and muddied the Western waters.

But if only the Hawks can somehow find a way to sneak in, I still like their chances as much, if not more, of winning multiple playoff rounds than the Penguins this spring, given the fact that they’re a deeper team than the Penguins right now, they have newfound Stanley Cup experience, and their top line is healthy (“healthy”…gee, what does that word mean?).

At this point the Pens, on the other hand, will go as far as those aforementioned role players–guys like Matt Cooke, Tyler Kennedy, Brett Sterling, and Craig Adams–will take them, and lately they’ve been getting world-class defense and veteran goaltending from Marc-Andre Fleury, which the Blackhawks have not, even though rookie netminder Corey Crawford is on pace for attractive numbers.  Sometimes those two factors alone are enough to carry a team, but without the Penguins’ usual arsenal at hand, I still wonder how long Flower can avoid getting hung out to dry.

Take heart, though, Penguin fans, because I’d wager your boys are more likely to win their next Cup before the Blackhawks do.  Say what you want about Kane and Toews, but by breaking the bank for Hossa, former Chicago general manager Dale Tallon payed a very stiff long-term price for a short-term victory…something Ray Shero will never do.  As long as the Hawks remain handcuffed by that contract, the chances of them becoming the NHL’s next dynasty–if there is such a thing anymore–get smaller and smaller.

Shero has acknowledged his intent to be more aggressive at the trade deadline than originally planned, given his team’s unexpected plight, but he has never made the mistake of mortgaging the future for the present.  In addition, the majority of Pittsburgh’s top guns are under more feasible long-term contracts, the organization has a system into which newcomers like Sterling have no trouble integrating, and the Penguins’ GM has already shown an ability to do more with less. Who knew an unknown commodity like Adams would eventually become such an important role player?

The so-called Stanley Cup hangover has affected both these teams, but at least the Penguins seem to be poised for a long-term recovery, even if we don’t see immediate signs at the end of this tumultuous season.  Besides, I’ve seen too many strange things happen in sports to give up on either the Pens’ or Hawks’ ongoing seasons…which is why I’m looking forward to this “Hockey Day in America,” whether it turns out to be a Finals preview or not.

For more of the latest news and views on the Penguins and the NHL, be sure to tune into “The Penalty Box with Tom Grimm,” Saturday mornings on SportsRadio 93.7 The Fan!

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