Matt Murray #30 of the Pittsburgh Penguins defends the net against the San Jose Sharks at PPG Paints Arena on January 30, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images)
Very possibly the last word one would use to describe most sports fans, especially fans of perennially successful teams, is “content.”
That’s not a knock on those fans, or a suggestion that they’re being unreasonable. It’s merely the nature of fandom itself. If your team is good, you want it to be better. If your team is the best, you want it to stay that way in perpetuity.
Rooting for a team means being a glutton when things are good. If a team is a two-time defending champion, like the Penguins are, one would assume that its backers would want to see a third in a row. After all, winning it all is difficult, so if your roster is good enough to do it in back-to-back years, why not ask them for even more?
For some Pens fans, that notion seemed ridiculous, especially when the team was struggling early in the year. The refrain was simple: the Penguins were worn out from the grind of two long playoff runs, and they just didn’t have any more gas left in the tank.
Not that people seemed particularly upset. The rationale, seen with some frequency on social media, went something like this: while the team was playing poorly, consecutive titles meant that the Penguins had delivered on their end of the bargain, had brought fans enough happiness, and therefore were off the hook no matter how bad things got the rest of the year.
That school of thought is hogwash, of course. The only acceptable outcome for this Penguins campaign is another Stanley Cup.
“But Chris,” you’re saying, “they’ve played too many games! It’s tough enough to repeat, let alone win three in a row! They could run into a hot goalie!”
It doesn’t matter. Last time I checked, they have Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, Kris Letang and Matt Murray. All five players are healthy. The first three have been very productive, especially lately.
Letang has been wildly inconsistent, but his coach seems to think that his play will uptick very soon. Murray has had a very difficult year on and off the ice thus far, but he’s 2 for 2 in his career when it comes to winning the Stanley Cup.
The Penguins might be starting to play their best hockey, having gone 9-3 in January by virtue of last night’s win over the Sharks.
Long story short, the core of this team is still intact. Jim Rutherford will doubtless make some more trades to bolster the roster. If the Minnesota Wild fall out of the playoff picture, you can expect to see Matt Cullen, one of the key role players on the last two Cup runs, back in black and gold.
Fans only seem to give the Pens this relaxed treatment. The Steelers have arguably the best roster in the league. People were rightly incensed when they were bounced by the Jaguars in humiliating fashion. The Pirates are rightly pilloried for having done virtually nothing to try and improve on a 98-win team after the 2015 season.
The Penguins have won the most titles of any team in town this century. They have the best hockey player in the world, plus a top-10 player on the planet as their second-line center, and a third-line winger who may end up winning the Art Ross Trophy. That should mean that they’re held to a higher standard than any other team in town. Barring injury, there’s nothing that could legitimately be used as an excuse for failure. Heck, they won it all last year without Letang, thought by many to be their most irreplaceable piece.
It’s actually disrespectful to Mike Sullivan and his players to give them a pass on this season. They’re certainly not making excuses for themselves, and they would bristle at the notion that two Cups is good enough. They’re competitors — they always want more.
When you’re considering what would constitute an acceptable result for the Penguins this year, stop for a minute and try to name a team you would take over them in a seven-game series, especially knowing what they’ve done the last two years.
Come up with any teams? Maybe the Tampa Bay Lightning? As good as the Bolts are, I wouldn’t pick them, or any other team, to beat the Penguins. I won’t believe they’ll lose until I see it.
And that is why anything less than another championship will make this year one thing — a disappointment.