If you are searching for a team to root for this postseason, you may have found your answer in Pittsburgh. I know I have. As a Sabres fan watching the playoffs carry on without you, some may find it hard to get involved or really latch on to another squad of bearded men in another uniform color. However, watching the Penguins play into the spring has made it easier and easier to get behind them, especially when you look at who they’ve been playing.
My general theory about the Pens is that they have been a year behind the Sabres with regards to development. Last year’s first round exit was a spike in overall excitement for the team, getting causal fans back into the mix and giving young players a taste of the postseason. This year, however, the Penguins were poised to make their run.
It has been a different path than the one the Sabres took, but in a way flying under the radar and not going wire to wire atop the East has benefited the Penguins immensely. They too have had their injury problems, and they too went on long stretches of dominance even while less than 100 percent. However, they did not deal with the pressure of the spotlight, and the general attention was focused on Montreal or Detroit or the collapse of Ottawa. While Buffalo and Anaheim were the focus of last year, the Penguins were only a footnote on the “greatest team ever” argument that was wilting up in Kanata this winter.
However cosmetic the differences have been between 06-07 Buffalo and this year’s Penguins, the main difference is what management did at the trade deadline and how it affected their team for the stretch run. Forget this year’s events for Buffalo, but trading Biron for Conklin and picking up Zubrus for Novotny was in hindsight not enough. Being up against the cap and labeled as a known seller (Biron had to go) handicapped Darcy’s ability to move, but not making a huge splash may have been the difference in how the Sabres sputtered down the stretch.
The exact opposite has happened in Pittsburgh, and what we are watching is the result of that. Ray Shero went big and gambled on Marian Hossa, and that deal has given a whole new ceiling to the Penguins’ expectations this spring. Once the team finally got healthy they went into the playoffs playing their best hockey. A 9-1 record so far this postseason is tough to argue with.
Now, I’m not trying to make a revisionist history argument about the mismanagement of Darcy Regier. Instead, I’m trying to show just how similar these two teams seem to be. While the Sabres certainly have lacked the star power players like Malkin and Crosby bring, it’s hard not to see a bit of Miller in Marc Andre Fleury or even a bit of Hecht in Dupuis. The Penguins are a likeable team from a rust belt city that just overcame a relocation scare. Does any of that ring a bell?
Plus, they have an awesome mascot. Iceburgh is hands down one of the best anthropomorphic penguins to ever be personified by a game day productions intern. Ever.
Sticking with my theory about the Penguins, tonight’s game reminded me of last year’s Game One against the Rangers. There was such an uproar of hype and anticipation revolving around that game. What will Sean Avery do? Will the Sabres live up to the hype? Talking had been done on both sides all week. When the game finally was played the Sabres completely blow them out of the building, causing a complete shift in gameplan by Tom Renney for Game Two. That change made a series out of it, and the Sabres would struggle to win in 6 against a strong Rangers squad led by hot goaltening.
Tonight we saw the Penguins take control at home and completely dismantle the Flyers. Goaltending was good again, the penalty kill was all over, and the Flyers had no defensive gameplan to keep Pittsburg’s stars in check. Much like last year’s East Semifinal against the Rangers, this Game One leaves you with the feeling that this series is over before it starts. However, I think Sunday’s Game Two will see a much different Flyers team, and although they may not win they will start to actually compete with the Pens. It may not look like it now, but this will be a series. Promise.
Okay, let’s talk about Evgeni Malkin. Having Malkin and Crosby on the same team is just unfair. Really, it is. Malkin is such a fantastic talent to watch because he has no fear, and he is just as likely to defend a teammate in the corner after the whistle as he is picking corners flying down the wing with seconds left in the first.
That face says it all. His confidence is just ridiculous, and the angry slap shot from close range should remind us all of a certain Austrian that only shows flashes of that cockiness. To come back down on a breakaway after getting rocked just seconds earlier? Wow. What a sequence, and what an absolute dagger in a team just one shot away from a tie game in the second. Malkin has been everywhere this postseason, and while it is still Sidney’s team, Geno sure has come a long way this year.
Watching a team like this, one so full of talent and potential, is trying at times. As a fan of another team you sometimes are wont to wish bad things on a team with such potential. This year, however, I see the similarities between a team this good now and the team we had the pleasure of watching last year. The Sabres weren’t good enough to finish the job then, and as much as I love the smell of Schadenfreude in the evening, a big part of me wants to see the Pens go the distance, just to prove that it can happen.