Two consecutive Stanley Cups in hand, the Penguins don’t lack much as they prepare to open the season tonight against St. Louis. As their fifth banner goes up, captain Sidney Crosby and the Penguins cast a formidable shadow over the hopes of 30 rivals.
A one-two punch at center that no one can match, Crosby still the best player on the planet.
The highest-scoring attack in the league, made possible not only by their collective puck skills and creativity but by their pace of play and a devastating power play fed by two defensemen who last season were among the top eight at their position in points-per-game.
The best young goaltender in the NHL.
A general manager and coach who seem locked on the same strategic page and are riding a two-year streak of impeccable decision-making.
History is Painful
But here’s another thing the Penguins aren’t lacking: serious challenges, both external and internal, as they bid for a historic run to a third consecutive championship.
Let’s start with that history. The 2017 Penguins will always be remembered as the first team to repeat in the salary cap era, which was a significant achievement. But winning three or more Stanley Cups in succession is a whole different kind of special. It’s only been done by three teams: the Montreal Canadiens (twice), the Toronto Maple Leafs (twice) and the New York Islanders, the most recent team to accomplish this by winning four straight from 1980-83.
The local history that helps prove the broader point about the difficulty of tying together three Cups is, of course, the story of the 1993 Penguins. You might remember Mario’s incomprehensible late-season surge coming off cancer treatments, or the NHL-record 17-game winning streak that still stands. That Penguins team had arguably the greatest coach in hockey history, five Hall of Famers (I’m counting Jaromir Jagr ahead of time) and was “playing its best hockey at the right time.”
Just two weeks after Mario fired home five goals in a 10-4 demolition of the Rangers at the Garden, a late April 1993 edition of The Hockey News sported a picture of Rick Tocchet under this headline: “The Unbeatable Foe. Pittsburgh prohibitive favorite to win Cup.”
The Pens never made it out of the second round. It can be a brutal game.
The external challenges? Whether a team can do it only for one night during the regular season or over a two-week playoff series next spring, knocking off the Penguins now becomes twice the confidence boost it was last season and twice the prize. So every opponent will have a little bit more added motivation, and the Penguins understand the demands that places on them over another 82-game schedule after another short summer while playing 28 games inside the best division in the league.
Here in October, there look to be several teams capable of conjuring up the kind of playoff performance it would take, most notably Tampa Bay and Columbus in the Eastern Conference and Edmonton and Chicago in the Western Conference. The Lightning, in particular, should Steven Stamkos stay healthy and Andrei Vasilevskiy deliver on his promise, loom as a problematic contender.
That said, this Pittsburgh team looks capable of handling all of them.
The internal challenges, however, are also imposing. Topping that list is every player in that room maintaining the drive that pushed them to titles in each of the past two seasons, and that is where the leadership of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang – among others – comes into play as the counterweight to any complacency. They’ve already proved they understand and can communicate the difference between simply having a bad night and writing it off as such; playing well but being beaten by a good team; and falling into bad habits that soon become serious detriments to success.
Not surprisingly, the Penguins right now have a lot of confidence – in themselves and their approach to the game. It’s one of the things that makes a champion even harder to beat. But it sometimes is a fine line between confidence and over-confidence, and they’ve got to stay on the right side of that line yet again for the next nine months.
One way a coach can help them down that path is by encouraging the internal competition for playing time, something Mike Sullivan has mastered here. Staying in the lineup will mean proving yourself night after night. That means Letang and Justin Schultz vying for top-unit power play time. Chad Ruhwedel aiming to knock one of the top six out of the lineup. And, that means Olli Maatta finding new levels of consistency.
Up front, that means Bryan Rust and Scott Wilson aspiring to a role on the second line instead of the third. That means Greg McKegg trying to prove as quickly as possible that he can help the team – even after it makes a long-awaited move for another center. That means Josh Archibald, Carter Rowney and Tom Kuhnhackl competing for playing time and Matt Hunwick, Ryan Reaves and Antti Niemi showing their new teammates they have something to contribute.
Meanwhile, Zach Aston-Reese, Daniel Sprong, and Teddy Blueger will start the season in the AHL with the idea of perhaps finishing the season in the NHL like Conor Sheary did in 2016 and Jake Guentzel did in 2017.
In the end, it will serve the Penguins well to embrace the history in front of them. It’s possible but unlikely that any member of this team will ever again have the chance to win three straight Cups. The Penguins put together an amazing run last spring to win the second, and while there are zero reasons to believe this will be easier, there’s nothing to suggest the core of this group isn’t capable of writing that history.rve the Penguins well to embrace the history in front of them. It’s possible but unlikely that any member of this team will ever again have the chance to win three straight Cups. The Penguins put together an amazing run last spring to win the second, and while there are zero reasons to believe this will be easier, there’s nothing to suggest the core of this group isn’t capable of writing that history.
It means figuring out not only the challenges coming from opponents but meeting the challenges they put on themselves.
Photo Credit: Did You See That?! Media.