November 22, 2011
When the hockey world finishes genuflecting at the altar of Sidney Christ — he died for our player safety sins, and rose again once we tightened rules on hits to the head — the conversation will shift to something glaringly obvious in Monday night's 5-0 victory over the New York Islanders:
The Pittsburgh Penguins, as a fully armed and operational team, are the favorites to win the Stanley Cup. There might not be anyone close.
Sure it's just one game for Sidney. Yeah, that win last night was like watching the Globetrotters clown the Washington Generals, if the Washington Generals had an ECHL- level netminder making his debut.
But let's stop kidding ourselves: When healthy, there isn't a better team in the National Hockey League than the Pittsburgh Penguins. That was the case before Sid's eggs were scrambled, and it's the case today.
Sure, all this was against the Islanders, a team that has lost 13 consecutive games in Pittsburgh and is winless on the road this season. But it was also the kind of thorough demolition job that a Cup contender is supposed to apply to a last-place outfit, one led by the captain in a triumphant return that left no doubt Sidney Crosby(notes) still is the best hockey player in the world.
Post-Gazette columnist Ron Cook sometimes takes things to extremes, but he's on point here in his post-Crosby Comeback column:
Coach Dan Bylsma acknowledged "a little different feel on the bench" Monday night because he had Crosby, Malkin and Staal playing together for the first time since Jan. 5 and in just the third game since the 2010 playoff series against the Montreal Canadiens. "It's a feel I hope to get used to for more than just one game," Bylsma said.
What a wonderful thought. For the Penguins and their fans, that is.
What a nightmarish thought for the 29 other NHL clubs.
From Rob Rossi of the Tribune Review, on Marek Vs. Wyshynski yesterday:
I remind people that three days before the Winter Classic — and this is without Jordan Staal(notes), who might be their best overall forward in Crosby's absence, at least this year; and without Evgeni Malkin(notes) performing at a level that's customary — they won 12 games in a row and looked like the best team in hockey.
I talked to Matt Cooke(notes) last night and he said something insightful. I said, "If you're healthy there's no excuses. You're supposed to win championships. Not one." And he said, "I don't know too many examples of core being kept together like ours since the lockout. If this team's healthy, the expectation should be to win the Stanley Cup."
Penguins players view themselves as the team to beat.
It used to be that they had some holes on the blue line, but not now. Kris Letang(notes) is one of the best offensive defensemen in the game, and Brooks Orpik(notes) is among the best stoppers. Ditto Zbynek Michalek(notes). Paul Martin's(notes) struggling right now, but he's got the goods. They don't need Matt Niskanen(notes) and Deryk Engelland(notes) to do much more than they're doing; and if they falter, there's always the trade deadline.
It used to be that Sidney Crosby was on a perpetual search for the right trigger man on his wing; until a few years ago when he decided to just fire the gun himself and score more goals than his linemates. The Penguins don't need to be loaded on the wings, and yet they kind of are: James Neal(notes) has come into his own, Steve Sullivan(notes) is finding his offensive game and they've got a collection of quality grunts.
Marc-Andre Fleury(notes) is like that veteran quarterback in the NFL who just wins as his more famous running back and wide receiver get all the headlines. His GAA is 1.90, his save percentage is .930 and he has two shutouts. Those numbers are entering Tim Thomas(notes) territory.
Bringing it all together is Bylsma, who just seems to know how the pieces should fit and has the right comportment to lead this team. (Not to mention an amazing duster on his upper lip. It's like an Ewok in a hammock.)
Who challenges this team in the East? The Boston Bruins might be the only one with an expectation for victory on the Penguins' level, and they can push them around. But do they have the offense to run with the Penguins?
The Washington Capitals are a soap opera. The Philadelphia Flyers are one Pronger injury away from being average. The Buffalo Sabres have some offensive challenges. Florida and Toronto are wild cards. The New York Rangers present an interesting matchup for the Penguins on several levels, but are going to have to be better than a 12.9-percent conversion rate on the power play to scare them.
In the West, who challenges the Penguins? The Vancouver Canucks, still shaking off the hangover? The Chicago Blackhawks, who can look like the best and worst team in hockey in the span of the same week? Detroit? Minnesota?
Again, operative phrase for the Penguins: "if healthy." Especially for 87.