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Odds against three-peat for Penguins in 2017-18

So much has to go right, very little wrong over long season, playoffs

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

Asked about the challenge facing the Pittsburgh Penguins, Scotty Bowman answered with a riddle, whether he meant to or not.

"It's not easy to win two in a row, and they've now done it," Bowman said.

Does that mean the Penguins are more likely to win the Stanley Cup three years in a row?

Or less?

The odds favor the field over any individual team in any particular season, and only more so now that the field is 31 teams in an NHL with capped payrolls, spread-out talent, detail-obsessed coaches, year-round-trained players, faster-and-faster games and skate-till-your-cheeks-sink seasons.

So much has to go right to win the Cup; so little has to go wrong not to.

"Something always comes up," said Bowman, who coached the Montreal Canadiens to four straight championships in 1976-79 and the last two teams to attempt three straight: the 1992-93 Penguins and 1998-99 Detroit Red Wings.

The Penguins last season became the first team to repeat since the 1997-98 Red Wings and will raise another banner at their opener against the St. Louis Blues at PPG Paints Arena on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, NHL.TV).

Can they become the first to three-peat since the New York Islanders won four straight championships in 1980-83? They're capable of it. They still have Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Co., and Kris Letang is healthy again.

"They've got enough to challenge for sure," Bowman said. "Letang back is going to be a big boost to them. They're going to have a lot of motivation. Crosby and Malkin have been really good in the playoffs."

Video: Can the Penguins win a third consecutive Stanley Cup

But they will have to overcome the same obstacles again, having lost assistant coach Rick Tocchet; goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury; defensemen Trevor Daley, Ron Hainsey and Mark Streit; and forwards Nick Bonino, Matt Cullen and Chris Kunitz. They will have to sidestep the somethings that always come up.

Consider that the Penguins won a Game 7 three times over the past two Stanley Cup Playoffs. The last one, in the 2017 Eastern Conference Final against the Ottawa Senators, went to double overtime before Kunitz scored for the first time in 36 games.

The Senators mustered four shots on goal in the OTs. Still, had a puck squeaked into the Penguins net somehow they wouldn't have repeated, let alone three-peated.

The Edmonton Oilers won five championships in seven seasons in 1984-90, but never three-peated. Their best chance came in 1985-86, when they won the Presidents' Trophy with a franchise-record-tying 119 points and Wayne Gretzky won the scoring title with a record 215 points. But with the score tied 2-2 in Game 7 of the second round against the Calgary Flames, defenseman Steve Smith attempted a pass, and the puck went off the back of goaltender Grant Fuhr's left leg and into the net. The Oilers lost 3-2.

After winning back-to-back championships, the Penguins felt they had their best team in 1992-93. They won the Presidents' Trophy with a franchise-record 119 points. Mario Lemieux won the scoring title with 160 points even though he missed 24 games. But they went to overtime of Game 7 in the second round, and though they outshot the Islanders 45-20, it was New York forward David Volek, he of eight goals that regular season and none in the playoffs before that night, who finished a 2-on-1 rush with a one-timer from the right circle for his second of the game. The Penguins lost 4-3.


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"One play, you know?" Bowman said. "Any little thing can happen."

The 1998-99 Red Wings' three-peat attempt did not come down to one play. They lost to the Colorado Avalanche in six games in the second round. But you could argue it came down to three or four teams and they had a relatively high-percentage shot at the Cup. The Avalanche, Red Wings and Dallas Stars were the titans of the West at the time, the New Jersey Devils the class of the East. They combined to win each championship for a nine-year period in 1995-2003.

That was before the NHL salary cap.

"Don't you think that they have more parity now?" Bowman said. "Who are the contenders in the East? It's hard to tell now because teams change so much."

Bowman listed the Tampa Bay Lightning, who went to the Final in 2015, went to Game 7 of the conference final in 2016 and have captain Steven Stamkos healthy again; the Florida Panthers, who went to the playoffs in 2016; the Islanders, who defeated the Panthers in the first round of the playoffs in 2016 and looked good in the preseason; and the Carolina Hurricanes, an up-and-coming team.

"These are teams that missed the playoffs [last season], you know?" Bowman said.

Video: Five key questions about the Eastern Conference

Then there are the Toronto Maple Leafs, who made the playoffs last season with young stars Auston Matthews, Mitchell Marner and William Nylander and added Patrick Marleau in the offseason.

And then there are the Canadiens, Senators, Boston Bruins, Columbus Blue Jackets and New York Rangers, who, before you get to any other analysis, have Carey Price, Craig Anderson, Tuukka Rask, Sergei Bobrovsky and Henrik Lundqvist in net, respectively.

"When the goalies are as good as those goalies I mentioned, those teams are definitely contenders, especially in the playoffs," Bowman said.

We haven't even gotten to the West yet.

It's more than not easy to win back-to-back championships, especially in this era. It's crazy hard. So, having done that, what about three in a row? This riddle will take six to eight months to solve.

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