Welcome to the Stanley Cup hangover. It's a challenge the Pittsburgh Penguins certainly welcome.
Down 3-2 in the finals against defending champion Detroit, the prospects of winning twice – including Game 7 on the road – didn't appear promising, but that's exactly what the Penguins did, and even though both were by identical 2-1 scores, they did it convincingly.
Pittsburgh earned its third Stanley Cup because of dogged determination. Nothing was easy about this march to the top of the mountain. This was a team that sputtered for half the season and didn't look at all assured of even reaching the postseason.
General manager Ray Shero made the choice to fire Michel Therrien, a move some predicted wouldn't happen because of the loyalty felt between GM and coach. Minor league coach Dan Bylsma stepped behind the Penguins' bench and everything started to fall into place.
Bylsma changed Therrien's defense-based system to allow Pittsburgh's elite offensive stars a little more freedom, and the Penguins responded. Still, nothing was easy. Once in the playoffs, Pittsburgh had to not only rally at the end against Detroit, but also come back from an 0-2 hole in the second round against Washington, which hosted and lost Game 7 to the Penguins, too.
So Sidney Crosby(notes), at age 22, has a Stanley Cup. Three years in the league and only 23, Evgeni Malkin(notes) is a Conn Smythe Trophy winner and has a Stanley Cup. Marc-Andre Fleury(notes) (24), Jordan Staal(notes) (21), Kris Letang(notes) (22) and Maxime Talbot (25) all have been fitted for rings, too.
The Pens just provided a model for how quickly something special can happen. During Crosby's rookie season in 2005-06, the Penguins went 22-46-14. Of course it takes special players to do it, and Pittsburgh had great players available in the draft, but the Penguins also made no mistakes.
Shero should receive a ton of credit for handling contract extensions last offseason, keeping the team on track after a disappointing Cup final loss to Detroit and plugging in the right pieces to make a successful run at it.
No one questions this could be the continuation of something big. Crosby and Malkin are superstars at a very young age. But both appear pretty grounded, focused on adding to their trophy case. Pittsburgh will open a new arena next season. There's no curtailing the enthusiasm and support in this city.
Last season: 45-28-9 (99 points). Second place Atlantic Division, fourth in the Eastern Conference and eighth in the overall standings. The Penguins actually slipped in terms of points with their lowest total in three seasons, but still cruised into the postseason with home-ice advantage for the opening round.
After disposing of Philadelphia in six games to open the run, Pittsburgh fell into an 0-2 hole against Southeast champ Washington before winning three in a row. A 5-4 loss in overtime at home in Game 6 meant the Penguins would have to win a Game 7 on the road, and they did so convincingly, 6-2.
The conference championship proved to be an easy ride after beating Carolina by a goal in Game 1, and the Penguins rolled to wins by margins of three, four and three goals to sweep the series.
The second straight meeting against Detroit in the finals looked daunting after Pittsburgh lost each of the first two games by 3-1 scores in Detroit. The Pens rallied with identical 4-2 wins to even the series, got shut out in Game 5 at Detroit, then refused to lose. Pittsburgh won Game 6 at home and went on the road to become only the third team in history to win Game 7 of the finals on the road, 2-1.
Imports: LW Michael Rupp(notes) (New Jersey), D Jay McKee(notes) (St. Louis), G Brent Johnson(notes) (Washington), D/LW Wade Brookbank(notes) (Carolina), RW Chris Conner(notes) (Dallas) and C Wyatt Smith(notes) (Colorado).
Exports: D Rob Scuderi(notes) (Los Angeles), RW Petr Sykora(notes) (Minnesota), D Hal Gill(notes) (Montreal), LW Chris Minard(notes) (Edmonton), LW Jeff Taffe(notes) (Florida) and G Mathieu Garon(notes) (Columbus).
Salary cap: The Pens are pretty snug against the cap with approximately $55.2 million spent on payroll, leaving them about $1.8M of wiggle room.
Three keys: Basically, because they are a young team and that's where the bulk of their talent lies, the Penguins have to guard against complacency and letting early-career success – both personally and collectively – go to their heads.
Bylsma and Shero will look for those signs early, but having Mario Lemieux around doesn't hurt. Don't forget late-season addition Bill Guerin's presence. He could help temper anything that doesn't look right, much like the mentoring role Gary Roberts(notes) displayed before he retired during the season.
Second, Pittsburgh's best players have to continue to be the best players. Crosby, Malkin and Fleury really don't have to put up monster numbers – even though the two forwards probably will – they just have to play well and play off each other. All three are leaders now, and they will set the tempo.
Third, pacing themselves through the rigors of the regular season will be important. Yes, the Penguins are a team of young legs, but they've played the last game of the year each of the last two seasons. That's only about four months of time off over two years.
And with it being an Olympic year, that throws another batch of high-intensity games into the mix for a number of Pittsburgh's key stars. Once the Pens return from Vancouver, it will be a sprint to the finish and the start of another postseason marathon.
On the hot seat: A shoulder injury limited Sergei Gonchar(notes) to 25 regular-season games last season, and he's nursing a knee injury in the preseason. The team is so much more confident and efficient with Gonchar's presence. He's playing the best hockey of his career, better on the defensive end, than when he was in Washington or Boston.
No team likes to play without its No. 1 defenseman, especially if he's a vital cog on the power play. Gonchar has so many weapons, and without him it's hard to redistribute the responsibilities without putting people in unfamiliar roles. Basically, Gonchar's health is going to be very important this season.
Poised to blossom: Alex Goligoski slipped into 45 games last season when veteran Sergei Gonchar went down with an injury. The offensive-minded blueliner scored six goals and 20 points last year.
The departures of Rob Scuderi and Hal Gill will give opportunities to others, and while Goligoski isn't in the mold of the two vets, he brings an exciting offensive upside that is hard to find in defensemen.
Time has passed: The Penguins have struggled to find the right fit on either side of Sidney Crosby the last couple of seasons, going with different wingers before sometimes losing patience and just pairing Crosby and Malkin together.
With Bill Guerin, the Pens will be tempted to rely on the 38-year-old winger to be Crosby's running mate, but they've got to realize Guerin is going to have to watch his minutes and conserve so he has something left when the season really matters – at the outset of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Prediction: There's no reason to doubt anything about the Penguins' chances. It's just a matter of motivation, avoiding major injuries and staying on course. Teams need both skill and luck to go all the way. There's no lack of skill with this group. Let's see if just a little bit of good fortune is on their side again.
- the Penguins