What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
That’s been the Penguins’ motto for the 2010-11 season. A season that started with eternal optimism took a hard left turn with seemingly endless injuries, yet the Penguins never faltered in the standings and continued to find ways to win.
Though the season featured two halves – one part where the Penguins were flying high and breaking records, another part where the team had to battle through adversity to stay near the top of the standings – it certainly never lacked in highlights.
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INAUGURATING A NEW RINK
The 2010-11 campaign began with plenty of promise. With Sidney Crosby
, Evgeni Malkin
and Marc-Andre Fleury
in the lineup and a revamped defensive corps that featured young but experienced additions in Paul Martin
and Zbynek Michalek
, Penguins fans had every reason to believe this team could challenge for another Stanley Cup.
But opening night wasn’t about any of that – it was about the future of hockey in Pittsburgh.
On Oct. 7, Mario Lemieux stood at center ice and christened the shiny new CONSOL Energy Center with water from the ice at the historic Civic Arena, where the Penguins played for their first 43 years of existence.
It took three games before the home team finally earned a victory in the new building, but by season’s end, the Penguins would be one of the best home teams in the NHL.
“It’s fantastic,” Mike Rupp said of the new rink. “We started off slow there, but the fans have been great and we’re used to the building now. I have nothing but great things to say about the arena. It’s a first-class building, and it really treats us well.”
The Penguins concluded their home portion of the 2010-11 schedule tied for the most home victories in the Eastern Conference with a 25-14-2 record at CONSOL Energy Center.
It took a few weeks for the Penguins to hit their stride, as the team needed a little time to develop chemistry with new acquisitions Martin, Michalek and Arron Asham
. But once the Penguins took off, there was no stopping the flightless fowl.
Pittsburgh went on a 12-game winning streak (and a 15-game unbeaten streak) in November and December, the second-best in franchise history. Fleury kick-started the amazing run with an impressive performance against the Tampa Bay Lightning, a 5-1 win on Nov. 12. Pittsburgh never lost a game in regulation again until a 3-2 loss in Philadelphia on Dec. 14.
Crosby led the way during the streak with a streak of his own. The Penguins captain went 25-straight games where he registered at least a point, the 11th best scoring streak in NHL history. He had nearly two full months (from Nov. 3 – Dec. 29) where he scored in every single game. In those 25 games, Crosby tallied 50 points (26G-24A).
“What Sidney is doing right now is like an assault on the game,” Bill Guerin said, who announced that he would retire as a Pittsburgh Penguin on Dec. 6, in the midst of Crosby’s dominance.
The 2010 part of the 2010-11 season was truly remarkable for the Penguins, but adversity struck once the calendar flipped.
THE CLASSIC GOES PRIMETIME
When the league announced that the 2011 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic would be held at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field between the Penguins and the Washington Capitals, many envisioned the snow-globe environment that Pittsburgh and Buffalo played in during the inaugural Winter Classic on New Year’s Day 2008. But in Pittsburgh, the weather is anything but predictable.
After a perfectly sunny day for the alumni game and the open practice on Dec. 31, unseasonably warm temperatures and rain threatened to derail the New Year’s Day matinee between the Penguins and Capitals that was originally scheduled for 1 p.m. So the league pushed the game to 8 p.m. in hopes of avoiding the rainfall.
The primetime game made for an even bigger spectacle, as 68,111 fans filled the football stadium for a 3-1 Capitals victory and a general celebration of hockey.
“The Winter Classic was a highlight for us this year,” Rupp said. “We had some excitement with HBO, too, so it’s been a good year.”
But Crosby suffered a concussion in early January, and the Penguins would have to learn how to win with their best player on the sidelines for an indeterminable amount of time.
INJURIES RAVAGE, FLEURY SAVES
It seemed that Crosby’s concussion opened the floodgates for injuries. Evgeni Malkin
tore both his ACL and MCL in an awkward collision versus Buffalo on Feb. 4, requiring surgery and sidelining him for the entire season.
In addition to that bad news, Asham, Comrie, Mark Letestu, Martin, Brooks Orpik
, Dustin Jeffrey
, Eric Tangradi
and Nick Johnson all missed significant time with injuries.
Yet the Penguins still managed to stay in contention for the top seed in the Eastern Conference, and as of the end of March, Pittsburgh was in a strong position to earn home-ice advantage in the playoffs.
“Considering everything we went through, I think we had a pretty good season,” Michalek said. “Nobody probably expected us to be so high in the standings when all of these guys got hurt. So it’s a lot of credit to everybody in the room and the coaching staff.”
All of the team’s injuries were certainly unfortunate, but the other 29 teams in the league all had injuries of their own to deal with. So the remaining players, as well as the American Hockey League call-ups, needed to buckle down and battle through the season.
“It’s resiliency,” Michalek said. “We believed in everybody in this room, and we knew that every team goes through injuries. We had really bad luck because had so many of them, but it’s part of the game, and I think we handled it pretty well.”
Two main reasons for the Penguins second-half success were Fleury’s brilliance in net and the team’s nearly unstoppable penalty kill.
“Our goalie has been great for us the whole season,” Michalek said. “We rely on him to make those saves, especially on the PK. We just have to make sure we clear the rebounds.”
The Pittsburgh penalty kill unit was ranked No. 1 in the NHL as of April 10, and Fleury has powered his way into the talks for both the Vezina and Hart Trophies, the league awards for best goaltender and MVP, respectively.
After going just 1-6 to start the season, Fleury has earned a 36-20-5 overall record, a .918 save percentage and a 2.32 goals-against average entering the last game of the season.
“In difficult times, he’s been the backbone of our team and the most consistent performer,” head coach Dan Bylsma said. “And that has given our team confidence to win hockey games, no matter what our lineup is, no matter what the score is.”
“If I had to vote for the Hart Trophy, the Hart in my heart would be Flower,” Fleury’s road roommate Maxime Talbot said.