Age of Adversity
Just a few days ago, the Penguins were flying high. They were winning games left and right, playing whatever style that particular matchup demanded. They were scoring in bunches. Sidney Crosby was reaching rarefied air only he can breathe in hockey today. Ray Shero didn’t just make a splash at the trade deadline; he sent a tsunami through the hockey world, particularly by acquiring a Canadian national treasure in Jarome Iginla.But, as Penguin fans have come to learn, few hockey seasons pass without heavy adversity rearing its ugly head. Crosby took a puck to the face, breaking his jaw and possibly keeping him out until near playoff time. Evgeni Malkin returned from what was believed to be a shoulder injury, but hasn’t been his consistently dynamic self (as several prominent journalists have pointed out). James Neal is concussed. Paul Martin has a broken hand. Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis have come back down to earth without Crosby. The jury is still out on the trade deadline additions, an overall mixed bag so far: Jokinen made a quick splash but is only days removed from being on the waiver wire; Iginla has been fairly solid but is still finding his comfort zone; Murray’s brute physicality is as obvious as his lack of foot speed and puck skills; and Morrow has only 1 point and 7 SOGs in six games and has shown the heavy mileage of his physical game. Dan Bylsma has been forced to mix and match all of his lines.
Despite the Penguins incredible record over the last 18 games (16-2-0), there is a sense of uncertainty in Pens Nation. Foreboding even. Like the injuries will never end. Like the wheels entirely could fall off if the goaltending dips or the penalty kill slumps. Like the great promises unfulfilled in the playoff runs since the Pens lifted the Cup will be repeated once again.
But there is reason for optimism. Optimism in ways that there couldn’t be in previous seasons.
The most important reason for optimism is that the injuries to the superstars, with the possible exception of James Neal, will not prevent them from playing in the playoffs. Crosby has a chance to be back before the end of the regular season. Martin is expected back sometime during the First Round. Letang could play right now, but the team wants his wonky groin and broken toe to heal fully. The severity of Neal’s concussion will not be known anytime soon, but there are whispers around the team that his symptoms are not of an alarming severity. While the injuries seem to have piled up rapidly, there is reason to believe that none are out for the duration and most will return for the lion’s share of a playoff run.
Another reason for optimism is Marc-Andre Fleury has played near the top of his game this season. Byslma has largely stuck to his plan to rest Fleury and give Vokoun starts. Vokoun’s play has run the gamut from dreadful (recently got beat on a wrap-around where he not only got beat to the post, he didn’t even get himself back in the crease) to brilliant. Even when he is playing well, he has a great deal of wasted movement in net and rarely looks smooth and calm. I hesitate to say that I am confident in Vokoun if called upon in the event of an extended absence by Fleury, but he has proven he can be a reliable stopgap. Fleury, on the other hand, has not only looked very calm in net, but his 2.28 GAA this season would be a career best and his SV% of .918 is near his career best. He is rested and ready to ride out the storm.I also would not want to underestimate the calming influence Dan Bylsma provides this team. His cool confidence and rink rat work ethic keep the team on an even keel. He remains committed to his system. He strikes a nice balance between being a player’s coach and a demanding disciplinarian. His line-up decisions leave something to be desired (please just play Despres) at times, his rational for doing so is respectable—he wants young players to earn their time. Calls for him to be fired are just comical. He is as good a coach as there is in the NHL.
Adversity inevitably comes in the playoffs. Good goaltending and an unmitigated resolve to overcome will take a team a long way. Best the Pens learn it now.