Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Don't plan Penguins parade just yet

By Rob Rossi
February 27, 2018
Image result for penguins 2017 parade
Keith Srakocic/Associated Press
Did you have the Flyers being seeded second in the Eastern Conference the morning after the NHL trade deadline's expiration?
No, you probably didn't.
Nor did you likely awake Tuesday to the fact the Flyers are a serious threat to the Penguins' pursuit of parading the Stanley Cup around Pittsburgh for a third straight summer.
Not saying you should.
However, let's just say it shouldn't shock too many fans if the Cup returns to our commonwealth in June — only on the other (wrong) end. And that says more about the state of the NHL than the Flyers' three-month metamorphosis from dining with bottom feeders to feasting among top eaters in the Metropolitan Division.
As Cup chases go, the upcoming one should be unlike many the NHL has offered in this salary-cap era.
There exist, by any reasonable assessment, as many as seven hockey clubs built to win four consecutive best-of-seven series. There are also at least five other clubs that might have the goods to go all the way, but at the very least do have the stuff to win a couple of rounds.
Do the math.
After the trade deadline, fans of 12 franchises could conceivably consider a deep postseason run by their beloved boys of winter.
This from a league with a two-time defending champion that is one of three franchises to win multiple titles over the past dozen seasons.
Well, before games contested Tuesday, this was the current state of those franchises:
• The Penguins are going to the playoffs
• The Blackhawks are going golfing
• The Kings are one of eight teams going after five seemingly up-for-grab slots in the Western Conference
Translation: this postseason is going to be different.
Or is it?
After all, the Penguins are still, well, the Penguins. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, Kris Letang ... you know the drill.
They won the Cup last season without Letang, and he is only their best defenseman. They just landed reliable postseason performer Derick Brassard to turn a concern at third-line center into a tactical advantage.
Heck, life was so sweet for the Penguins on Tuesday that the latest setback for twice-silver goalie Matt Murray (a concussion) was nearly lost in the news that Brassard had arrived, irreplaceable winger Patric Hornqvist had been inked for the next five seasons, and the New Jersey Devils were at PPG Paints Arena for a meaningful regular-season game.
Live it up, everybody; these truly are great days for hockey in Pittsburgh. From management to the equipment managers, CEO David Morehouse has presided over a turnaround that has rendered foolish his critics.
I was one.
I was wrong.
I was about to pick the Penguins to win the Cup again, too. It's just that I can't shake the nagging feeling that this won't be their season.
Not again.
But not because another club is built better to survive the four-round playoff grind. And not because of any moves that made better the hockey clubs representing Tampa, Las Vegas, Nashville and Winnipeg.
Not because of the three-peat challenge, either.
It's a flimsy argument that these Penguins won't three-peat because no NHL club has managed such magnificence since the Islanders opened the 1980s with four in a row.
Still, are we to ignore that the four back-to-back championship clubs since those Islanders combined to win all of 16 playoff games in their three-peat bids? Should we pay no attention that the men captaining those clubs were Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Mario Lemieux and Steve Yzerman.
Gretzky and Lemieux are inarguably hockey's two greatest players. Messier and Yzerman are indisputably two of hockey's greatest leaders.
If their great hockey clubs couldn't three-peat, can any?
I think we all know by now that betting against Crosby is to invite disappointment. He is better at this hockey thing than anybody who did anything at the Winter Olympics.
However, I think we all need to consider, too, that the present is much more likely than the past to trip up these Penguins on their path toward a historic future.
They might be alone amongst playoff clubs that are deep, skilled, fast, experienced and resilient.
But the Lightning, Bruins and Jets are also really deep. The Predators, Maple Leafs and Wild are also very skilled. The Golden Knights and Devils are also super fast. The Sharks and Capitals are also quite experienced. The Flyers are also unbelievably resilient.
The Flyers are the NHL's best team over the past couple of months.
Doesn't mean they are better than the Penguins. They're not.
The Penguins are still the NHL's only great squad.
They'll need to be greater in the upcoming playoffs than the past couple. A lot more very good hockey clubs will be chasing them this time around.
Rob Rossi is a contributing columnist. Follow him on Twitter @Real_RobRossi.

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