The champ suffered a knockout. The arch-rival Washington Capitals unceremoniously bounced the Pittsburgh Penguins in Round Two, last May. The mood of the Penguins locker room heading towards defeat and after it finally occurred was one of calm. In retrospect, it was acceptance. There was little raging against the fates. Even the possibility of losing to Washington couldn’t summon the Penguins greatness. They were spent. Perhaps not physically, but the Penguins were mentally drained.
For the first time since 2015, the Penguins offseason began in mid-May. The intense pressure and the taxing grind of the Stanley Cup chase belonged to others. The Penguins players had a chance to unwind, breathe, and prepare for another season.
“Tried to rest a little bit,” is how Penguins goalie Matt Murray described his summer.
“Stayed at home, played a lot of golf, relaxed, tried to prepare for the season” is how defenseman Justin Schultz described his time away from the game.
This season which has not yet begun has a different feeling. It is a far cry from the approach last season when even fans were still reveling in the Stanley Cup party and openly voiced disinterest in the new results well into the season. The Penguins team didn’t openly voice disinterest in the results, but their actions concurred.
Believe it or not, losing may have been the best thing for all involved. The 2018-19 Penguins are itching to get back to hockey. Nearly a full roster showed up a week before training camp to scrimmage and workout together. The players and fans are anxious to get back to hockey. There is genuine interest in the results.
Chicago sportswriter Mark Lazerus spent six years on the Blackhawks beat and covered the Blackhawks’ epic three-year run from 2013 to 2015, which included two Stanley Cups and one bruising seven-game loss to the L.A. Kings in the Western Conference championship. He recently described many of the Blackhawks players as “never the same” after that run. The defensemen Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook had to log huge minutes, and others were simply ground up by the process.
The Blackhawks didn’t escape Round One in the two subsequent seasons and last season didn’t even qualify for the playoffs. Fans turned on the players who lost a step by carrying the team on the extraordinary run. It’s been a painful end to the dynasty.
Could a similar fate have befallen the Penguins had they advanced past the Capitals?
Washington fans are glad the Penguins will never know if one more run would have permanently slowed a few legs and satisfied pangs of hunger. Perhaps Penguins fans can take solace, too.
The Tampa Bay Lightning, after two straight long seasons in 2015 and 2016, including a trip to the Stanley Cup Final and a seven-game loss to the Penguins in the 2016 Eastern Conference Final, missed the playoffs in 2017. Last season, they returned to storm the NHL, post big offensive numbers and were one win away from another Stanley Cup Final before they squandered their opportunity to the Capitals.
One step back, two steps forward.
Penguins General Manager Jim Rutherford added size, physicality, and leadership this offseason. Defensemen Jack Johnson and Jamie Oleksiak will provide the Penguins with more competent physicality than their blue line has boasted in recent memory. Forward Matt Cullen has returned for one more ride into the sunset while providing guidance and leadership, some of which was sorely lacking last season.
Evgeni Malkin may have encapsulated the Penguins feelings best when he told reporters during the NHL media tour last Thursday, “We need [the Cup] back,” he said. “It’s like, who wins? Washington wins. The most hated team in Pittsburgh. Of course, we want it back.”
The Penguins are set. Fresh legs. Fresh motivation. Rested Penguins should be dangerous Penguins.