When the Pittsburgh Penguins entered the 2009-10 campaign, it was time to defend Lord Stanley’s Cup. After a thrilling Game Seven victory this past June, the Penguins were Stanley Cup Champions for the third time in franchise history.
Following a much shortened off-season, the Penguins were back in Pittsburgh preparing to defend. A handful of Champions left for free agency however, including the likes of forwards Miroslav Satan and Petr Sykora, along with Defensemen Rob Scuderi and Hal Gill, giving the Penguins somewhat of a new look up front, and undoubtedly on the blue line. Losing free agent role players to other teams following a championship is hardly a new development. One of the toughest challenges winning teams must face is reloading the following season.
Along with the free agent departures, the Penguins were preparing to begin the season without injured forward Maxime Talbot as well, due to off-season shoulder surgery. However, the Penguins did make the necessary roster additions in order to supplement from the free agent departures and the injury to Talbot. They were prepared to not only be as good as last season, but perhaps even better.
The Pittsburgh Penguins welcomed free agent rugged forward Michael Rupp and waiver claim Chris Bourque along with veteran defensemen Jay McKee and Martin Skoula on board as replacements. Vice President and General Manager Ray Shero constructed a 23 man roster to Head Coach Dan Bylma’s liking, and the club was on their way to defend.
Soon after the start of the season, the Penguins found themselves atop the Eastern Conference and first in the National Hockey League with a record of 12-3. Character efforts and strong team performances contributed to the solid start and had many Penguin fans expecting nothing less then a continuation of last spring's magical run.
It would be interrupted unfortunately during a recent stretch of road games, due to a rash of injuries. In a span of one month, the Penguins lost in no particular order, defensemen Sergei Gonchar, Kris Letang and Brooks Orpik and forwards Evgeni Malkin, Chris Kunitz and Tyler Kennedy. As you would expect, their on-ice chemistry was gone and the Penguins were left looking for answers.
The Penguins had no other choice but to quickly re-adjust and move on due to the compressed schedule in the National Hockey League, with the Olympics on the horizon in February. Games are so close to one another, that captain Sidney Crosby was forced to try to carry the team on his back, especially while the other half of the two-headed monster, Evgeni Malkin, was nursing a shoulder injury. It wasn’t getting any easier for the Penguins, and as a result, they recently dropped four straight contests, moving them from the top spot down to 4th in the Eastern Conference.
Blaming injuries on offensive woes and lack of production from a group so talented as the Penguins would obviously be the easiest route to take. Yet Sidney Crosby and assistant Captain Bill Guerin were not satisfied making excuses. They held a players-only meeting last week following nearly three shutout games in a row and were determined to right the ship like true champions so often do.
Case in point, this past Saturday night, with Malkin returning from injury but still a patchwork lineup, the Penguins found themselves trailing the Boston Bruins with merely seconds left in regulation. With the net empty, the Penguins were determined to not let the Bruins escape town with another two points:
It's amazing what a comeback win like that can do for a team's confidence in trying times. Saturday nights performance however, was long overdue.
The cup rings around the dressing room at the Mellon Arena are a constant reminder of what this team can accomplish, even when the critics give them no chance to succeed. Outside of Penguins fans, you'll be hard-pressed to find someone who thought Pittsburgh could win back to back games against the heavily favored Red Wings last spring in the Stanley Cup Finals.
Yet adversity is what defines, and sometimes builds, true champions. When Gonchar went down in the preseason last year, young Kris Letang was thrown into the fire and became a huge part of the team's postseason success. When Crosby missed time at midseason, Evgeni Malkin stepped up and found the confidence to completely take over games. Despite suffering what appears to be another addition to the injury list, Alex Goligoski has emerged in recent weeks as potentially the centerpiece on the Pens blueline for years to come.
[Update: Goligoski will be sidelined 2-3 weeks with lower-body injury.]
It will be a tough few weeks, but few of the Eastern Conference elite are healthy and thriving right now. One thing is for sure, when the trainers room finally clears out, the sky's the limit for Sidney and company.