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30 in 30: Penguins know they have something to prove

by Corey Masisak

In the four seasons since Marc-Andre Fleury flung himself across his crease to deflect one final shot from the Detroit Red Wings and make the Pittsburgh Penguins Stanley Cup champions, his team has won 167 games in the regular season.

The Vancouver Canucks also have won 167 games in the past four seasons, but no NHL team has been victorious more. All of those wins look even more remarkable considering Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have combined to miss 201 games in that span.

Yet the franchise that is tied for the most wins in the League since 2009-10, after winning the Stanley Cup the season before, will enter 2013-14 in a unique place among the 30 NHL teams for an entirely different reason. After four straight seasons of playoff defeats ranging from mild disappointments to massive failures, the Penguins remain loaded with talent but have more to prove than they have in years.

"We're a good team with good players that are entering the prime of their careers," Pittsburgh general manager Ray Shero told "The core of this team, and you talk about Crosby and Malkin and now Kris Letang, there's not a team over the last seven years that has won more games than the Penguins. We’ve been to the Final, we've won the Stanley Cup in that period.

"It has been four years since we've been to the Final and won the Cup. When you have Crosby and Malkin that is the expectation. I go back to the fact that there are good teams. The salary cap has evened the playing field a little bit, but those are the challenges that good teams face. We're one of those teams, I believe."

Losing to the Montreal Canadiens in the second round in 2010 was a shock, but the Penguins had made back-to-back trips to the Stanley Cup Final in 2008 and 2009 and some fatigue could be forgiven. The 2011 playoffs essentially were a throwaway, with Crosby and Malkin unavailable because of injuries; just reaching the postseason was commendable.

But in the past two seasons, things went awry. Crosby returned from his concussion problems near the end of the 2011-12 season and the Penguins were one of the favorites to win the Cup, until the rival Philadelphia Flyers bounced them in a memorably wild first-round series.

The Penguins again were one of the favorites in 2012-13. After adding Jarome Iginla, Brendan Morrow and Douglas Murray before the NHL Trade Deadline, Pittsburgh began to evoke comparisons to some of the juggernaut teams of the past two decades. They reached the Eastern Conference Final, but were dismissed by the Boston Bruins in four games, a defeat as shocking as it was swift.

"We didn't score, and we were not a team that was easy to shut down, but Boston did a good job," Shero said. "Game 1, especially in the first period, we had all kinds of chances that didn't go in for us but they ended up getting the first goal of the game. Game 2, no one really, from our standpoint, can explain what happened in Game 2 and why we played so poorly, but Boston deserved to win the series. Our power play finished fourth in the playoffs, but when we needed to score against Boston at critical times, it didn't do it. It didn't get the job done."

Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said, "It wasn't necessarily a lack of scoring chances or opportunities. We weren't able to solve the goaltender and we weren't able to score. Besides Game 2, where we didn't play well, it was a strong series, a one-goal, one-shot series. We just weren't able to get up on that team or get a power-play goal or a decisive goal late like they did."

By the time the series was over, the questioning of the foundation in Pittsburgh had begun. Whether it was in print, online, on the radio, or in line at the grocery store, opinions about how the Penguins should move forward varied, but nearly all involved removing a key component.

Should the coach take the fall? What about the goaltender who had been poor in back-to-back postseasons? What about breaking up the core for salary-cap reasons, either by trading Malkin or Letang before their next big-ticket contract kicked in?

Shero remained patient, stayed committed to his plan and did none of those things. He extended Bylsma's contract. He locked up Malkin and Letang. He placed his public support with Fleury.

"You can talk about trading some of these guys, but they're good players,” Shero said. "We'll see what the future brings, but certainly in my opinion, we're moving forward with a good group of guys. When we lose like that in four games, you have to ask those questions. They are things I have to make decisions on, but they are great players."

Shero also signed Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis each to a long-term contract. Put those two with Crosby, Malkin, James Neal and someone who can skate backward without falling, and the Penguins have one of the best top-six forward groups in the League.

Not only was Letang retained, but the Penguins welcomed back Rob Scuderi, who was skating around Joe Louis Arena with a big silver trophy the last time he was on the ice in a Pittsburgh uniform. He could provide an extra measure of defensive responsibility, and the Penguins have a wonderful collection of prospects at the position to replenish the blue line as needed in the coming seasons.

Also potentially helping in goal prevention is the addition of assistant coach Jacques Martin, who can add his proven defensive philosophies to Bylsma's offensive attack strategies.

There are some questions about roles among the bottom-six forwards, and if the depth up front can be better than it was. There also is the biggest question in net, where Fleury will try to bounce back, with Tomas Vokoun around again in case he falters.

So what to make of the Penguins? The Bruins lost a couple of key pieces, but again look formidable. Same goes for the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks.

On paper, Pittsburgh looks like a potential champion. If Fleury had proven more trustworthy the past two postseasons, the Penguins might be prohibitive favorites.

After two years of postseason foibles, that isn't likely to be the case. All of those victories in the regular season can be forgotten when the franchise has the highest of expectations to chase.


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