The Pittsburgh Penguins will win the Stanley Cup this year because they lost out on a chance to play for it last season.
The humiliation from a four-game sweep at the hands of the Boston Bruins in the 2013 Eastern Conference Final hasn’t been forgotten and the pain remains fresh for a team that won three-quarters of its regular-season games in 2012-13 but saw its postseason dreams end in disappointment and recrimination.
Pittsburgh could do nothing right against the Bruins, managing just two goals in the four games, and none from its two superstars: Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
Yet, what is lost in the shock value of being swept away at the third of the four hurdles to be cleared for a championship is how close that series was, minus the 6-1 blowout in Game 2. In each of the other three games, the outcome hung in the balance in the third period with Pittsburgh losing 3-0, 2-1 and 1-0. In the 3-0 game, Boston scored twice in the final 16 minutes.
The Penguins may well be a better team this season, suggesting they are more equipped to give Boston, or whatever team upsets the Bruins along the way, a far more competitive battle.
Last spring, Crosby was rounding back into shape after missing the end of the season and the first playoff game with a broken jaw. This season, he has stayed healthy, playing in every game until he was rested toward the end of the season, and managed a 100-plus point season and the NHL’s scoring title.
Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury became one of the biggest storylines of the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season with his spectacular meltdowns against the New York Islanders in the first round. He has done extensive work to reverse the problems -- both mental and physical -- which led to the breakdown of his game.
Plus, the Penguins are deeper and more battle-tested this time around.
They have looked adversity in the eye all season and refused to blink on their way to a Metropolitan Division title.
Top defenseman Paul Martin broke his hand at the Olympics, yet the Penguins soldiered along. Malkin broke his foot in late March, taking the second-leading scorer out of the mix. Top offensive defenseman Kris Letang suffered a stroke and hasn’t played since Jan. 27. Countless others have been in and out of the lineup, forcing the Penguins to use almost 40 players this season. No team can approach the 500-plus man-games lost to injury by the Penguins.
That adversity, and the ability to prosper in the face of it, has made the Penguins a much more mentally strong club.
One of the primary complaints against the Penguins is that they are not committed to team defense. Yet, Pittsburgh finished in the top-10 in goals-allowed this year and that happened despite Letang and Martin missing extended periods. In fact, the Penguins had only three defensemen play more than 60 regular-season games.
Plus, when healthy, the Penguins possess an attack that features two of the top centers in the game in Crosby and Malkin. It should be noted each averages better than a point per game in the postseason.
So, the Penguins have the pieces in place to be champions. More importantly, they have absorbed the hockey hardships and lessons that more often than not come before the Stanley Cup can be raised.