The Pittsburgh Penguins went into the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs riding the recent return of Sidney Crosby and a high-flying offense, and were the consensus favorite to at least reach the Final, if not win the championship.
But there were cracks in the Penguins armor, specifically their ability to prevent goals. Last season, Pittsburgh had a 14-game streak of gaining at least one point in the standings, but after that won just four of eight to finish the season and yielded 37 goals in those eight contests.
The lesson learned from last season -- when the Penguins crashed out of the playoffs in a flurry of goals against Philadelphia in the first round -- is the biggest reason they will claim the Stanley Cup for the fourth time in franchise history.
Sure, the Penguins have the most-talented roster in the League, especially after general manager Ray Shero added Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow, Jussi Jokinen and Douglas Murray before the NHL Trade Deadline. Yes, they won 22 of 24 games to wrap up the top seed in the Eastern Conference and cement their place as clear favorites in what appears to be the weaker conference.
But, it is how the Penguins have finished this season -- with a much greater commitment to supporting their goaltenders -- that has this team in an entirely different place as the postseason begins. Since a two-game wobble shortly after Sidney Crosby was injured (10 goals allowed in two games), the Penguins have allowed more than three goals just once since April 3, and that string of stinginess was accomplished without several key players in the lineup.
Marc-Andre Fleury has bounced back from a nightmare playoff series against the Philadelphia Flyers, and Pittsburgh has one of the top Plan B’s in the NHL in Tomas Vokoun. There have been injuries to nearly all of their star players, but the new guys have filled the void, and the stars are starting to return to good health.
While the Penguins will likely be the pick of most pundits to win the East, they are not the overwhelming favorite to lift the Cup. They might have been had there not been so many injuries, but that could be a blessing in disguise.
This team will do a better job of committing to defense in the playoffs, because obviously there is offensive firepower up and down the lineup and the goals will come. After a disaster in the first round in 2012, the Penguins will reach the pinnacle of the sport again in 2013.