The second-most difficult task in professional sports is winning a championship.
There’s many difficult layers and aspects to winning the highly desired prize, and many professional sports franchises are never able to call themselves the cream of the crop, or simply, the best of the world. While many will believe that winning a championship is the most daunting and difficult task for a club to achieve, many underestimate that there is something even more difficult for a team to accomplish: winning multiple championships.
The Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup last year, we all know this. I don’t need to say anymore about that. What I can say, however, is how this team is different. Yes, I understand that the turnover isn’t much different than last years team. As a matter of fact, Ben Lovejoy, Beau Bennett, and Eric Fehr are the only three that have departed since then. Regardless of personnel, this team is still different.
The “HBK” line is almost non-existent. During last years playoff run, the trio of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino, and Phil Kessel was the most dominant line of the playoffs. This year, the line struggled to play like their former selves. Bonino has seen his play elevate in the past month, but Kessel isn’t performing like he should. Kessel, who dominated last year’s playoffs with 10 goals and 22 points in 24 games. This year, Kessel has managed to score 22 goals and 67 points in 79 games which is fair, but he has struggled as of late to put the puck in the back of the net.
Hagelin has been out of commission due to an injury and may not even see play in the first round against Columbus. Taking the role as the speedy left winger, Bryan Rust has slotted next to Bonino and Kessel and this new line has been playing decent hockey. Hagelin, when he returns, will most likely play with Evgeni Malkin and Patric Hornqvist.
Kris Letang will miss the entire playoffs. Ouch. The undisputed best defenseman on the Penguins roster, and arguably the team’s most important player, will not be able to assist the injury-riddled Penguins win another Stanley Cup. Many have argued that the Penguins would not have won the Stanley Cup last year without Letang. Losing Letang was tough, there’s no doubt about it. Without Letang, it is going to be very difficult to win the Stanley Cup.
On the other side, this team is very different from last year (in a positive way). Jake Guentzel surprised everyone and showed how deep the Penguins prospect pool really is. Guentzel has scored 15 goals this season and has helped form one of the best lines in hockey. Did I mention that Guentzel, who was playing College hockey last year, plays next to Sidney Crosby? Who would’ve thought a college player could play on a wing with Sidney Crosby?
Even worse, who would’ve thought that both of Crosby’s wingers were college players. Conor Sheary is slowly turning into an elite player. He has developed and progressed remarkably last year, and this is a player who scored two goals in the Stanley Cup Finals. With 23 goals this year, Sheary has defied the odds and has turned out to be a true gem for the Penguins.
“Sid and the Kids” is this years “HBK.” The team has needed a line to be hot and they got one. If the Penguins hope to win the cup again, “Sid and the Kids” is going to have to guide them there.
As I mentioned before, Letang isn’t going to play in the playoffs. While the loss is devastating, there is somebody that could possibly take his place. Justin Schultz has been tremendous for the Penguins this season. Absolutely tremendous. Who would’ve thought this guy was only traded for a third round pick? I’m not going to talk too much about Schultz as there’s a future story coming up.
The Penguins also added veteran defenseman Ron Hainsey and Mark Streit at the trade deadline, and with Letang now out of commission, these trades are even more valuable now. Chad Ruhwedel has played fairly well for the Penguins, and if another injury occurs, Ruhwedel may very well make the playoff roster.
The Penguins final regular season game and first playoff games may have very different rosters. The games are only a few days apart, but the impact of the two are substantially different. If the Penguins have home ice in the first round by Game 82, I would expect several players to be sitting the game out. Olli Maatta, Malkin, Chris Kunitz, Hagelin, and Tom Sestito are all currently out with injury. I’m expecting Maatta and Malkin to be ready to go by Game 1, but Kunitz and Hagelin may be out a little bit longer (I doubt Sestito sees playoff time).
Regardless of the team’s low turnover rate, this team is much different than last years. Injuries have plagued the team, some younger players have stepped up, and line combinations have been changed. This team is a great team, one of the best in Penguins history. What the deciding factor on how great this team will be, however, is if they’re able to win the Stanley Cup again. Winning a sports championship is hard. Winning a championship again is harder. If this team can win again, they may just be the best in team history.