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October 3, 2011 :: 11:43am ET
The Cup Waddles Back to Pittsburgh
Regardless of when Sidney Crosby returns to the nest, the Pittsburgh Penguins have the goods to capture their second Cup in four years.

LOS ANGELES -- If you're a Pittsburgh Penguins fan, the day you'll come to regret has come. There has been no Sidney Crosby retirement presser, nor has Evgeni Malkin's surgically repaired knee blown out. What has occurred is certain to seal the fact that the Stanley Cup won't spend its summer by where the Monongahela, Allegheny and Ohio rivers merge.

I'm picking the Penguins to win it all. Given my track record over the past 10 years, one of the other 29 teams will be lifting the most recognizable trophy in hockey come June.

If there was ever a time for me to break my streak, it was last year. The Canucks were a lock, weren't they? They went up two games to nil in the Finals and all they had to do was win a one silly road game in Boston. To say I'm a jinx of sorts wouldn't be such a farfetched notion.

We'll wait to the end of this tale to give you the reasons why the Penguins will, but to start we'll break down why the others won't.

First up are the defenders of the Cup, the Boston Bruins, who showed grit, determination and class in capturing their first Cup since 1972. With all the pieces back in place and championship experience burned into their brains, Boston could repeat and no one would call it a fluke.

But they won't. Stanley Cup champions never do, these days.

To ask Tim Thomas to fashion another glorious season is asking too much; his story was as marvelous a one as there's been in Stanley Cup history. Replicating the trick over another hundred-game marathon just isn't in the cards for the netminder and his mates. Three game-seven victories is part of a storybook ending of the Back Bay magical season, but the difference between the vanquished and the Bruins was just a sliver; a bounce here, a missed save there, and the Bruins could have been eliminated by Carey Price and the Canadiens in Round One. We'll stick with the odds that say that the parity in the League that's prevented a repeat champion since 1997 will stop the Bruins this time.

Eliminating the champs, there's a short list of teams that will emerge in their stead from the Eastern Conference.

The Washington Capitals, the opposite of the Bruins when it comes to clutch playoff performances, are a hip pick to click this season. Those backing the DC bombers say that this season will be one of revenge served cold by Alex Ovechkin, arguably the League's most dynamic force.

A bad wrist all season 'limited' him to mere mortal numbers of 32 goals and 85 points and Capitals head coach Bruce Boudreau's failed dedication to a more defensive style may have muted those numbers as well. A return to the dominating and, yes, at time reckless Ovechkin is a requirement for the Caps to make a playoff run that lasts more than one round.

While revenge is the Great 8's missive, redemption is a term better suited for Nicklas Backstrom, whose paycheck far outdistanced his production. As bad as his regular season was with a 36 point decline, his vanishing act in two rounds of the post-season was far worse. Even if he returns to triple figure production, the doubters will follow until he shows the ability to flourish in the playoff spot light.

Alexander Semin tagged with trade rumors since the final horn blew in the Game 5 loss to Tampa has returned. Now, a season away from unrestricted free agency, Semin's reputation and bank account should provide all the motivation he needs for career numbers.

Washington's strength lies in its defensive corps, thereā€˜s a nice mix of veteran presence and the dual maturation of Karl Alzner and John Carlson. Mike Green recovered from a vicious head injury to appear in eight playoff games and will be a restricted free agent this summer. Once thought to be a future Norris winner, his inability to develop as a stopper on defense has devalued him in the eyes of the front office. So while the Caps can match pound for pound along the forward wall and blue line with the rest of the conference, their fatal flaw still remains between the pipes.

Washington GM George McPhee has scuttled the rookie by committee solution between the pipes and remarkably landed Tomas Vokoun for a meager $1.5 million (he can thank the Czech's netminder former agent for mistiming the goalie market) to be the one to beat a team named other than the New York Rangers in the post-season. While this goalie is more established than Branden Holtby or Michal Neuvirth, he's not Martin Brodeur, either. He's posted decent numbers for less than average teams over a 13 year career (including three 30 win seasons in Nashville), but I'll pass when I look at the line that says '3' next to playoff victories. The man he's supplanting, Neuvirth actually has one more playoff victory and while you can argue that Vokoun has never had a team of this talent level in front of him, the body of work isn't there to support the claim he's a four round net minder.

Tampa Bay is one of those teams that said in mid-June, 'if we'd only scored another goal against the Bruins, we would have won the Cup.' With oodles of offense and dynamic superstars along the forward wall, they're the best watch in the NHL. While offense sells tickets, GM Steve Yzerman knows defense wins championship. He brought in Matt Gilroy and Bruno Gervais to further bolster a defense that was ranked 21st last season.

There's not a better story in the league than 41-year-old goalie Dwayne Roloson defying his chronological age, but lack of quality stoppers in support of his efforts will prevent his tale becoming a Cinderella one.

The Flyers finally got their man in net with the signing of Ilya Bryzgalov, who goes from making $4.5 million while toiling in the relative anonymity of Phoenix to earning $15 million ($10M salary/$5M signing bonus) in the pressure cooker of Philadelphia. Had that been the GM Paul Holmgren's lone move this summer, I'd like their chances a lot better than the machinations he had to perform to bring in the Russian backstop. I can't recall a team making such a radical off-season makeover and winning the Cup in the first season of change. Holmgren traded offense in Mike Richards and Jeff Carter for youth, then signed a 39-year-old Czech first ballot Hall of Famer. While Holmgren would likely be a pretty wicked fantasy league player, he may be facing a nightmare when the Flyers don't get past the first round.

As for the 'dark horse' Buffalo Sabres -- there's an old hockey proverb, 'ain't no dark horse with a payroll of $63 million.' It's a wonderful story in western New York, as new owner Terry Pegula has come in and revitalized the city, much less the franchise with his investment in hockey. With the green flowing GM Darcy Regier upgraded the defense big time with Robyn Regher and Christian Ehrhoff and supplemented the offense with Ville Leino. We question if those moves are enough to take a seven seed to an Eastern Conference title because they may wrest the division title away from the defending champion Bruins, but asking them to make the jump to a multiple round winner is too much.

Delving in the Western Conference, the model of consistency and gold standard for organizations, the Detroit Red Wings are always going to be in the mix. The biggest hit the Wings take is on their advanced age and, at times, frailty of their amazing superstars.

We can debate into the wee hours about who the best forward in the League is, but the image of Pavel Datsyuk throwing that backhander from 30 feet past Antti Niemi in Game 7 in San Jose is enough evidence for me. His skill in tight quarters is still amazing, but the fact remains is that he only appeared in 56 regular season games in 2010-11. He must be at 100 per cent in the spring for this team to have any chance at their first Cup in five years because this is a flawed team.

Despite the dominance of their puck possession game, Wings head coach Mike Babcock has allowed this team to fall into defensive disrepair.

The legacy of the Motown Six have blinded most fans from the realization that the Wings were ranked 23rd in defense last season. The departure of Brian Rafalski was only partially shored up by GM Ken Holland by adding serviceable Ian White and Mike Commodore (who will miss the season start with a bruised MCL). While Jakob Kindl may open some eyes and Nick Lidstrom could win yet another Norris, from the blueline back in Detroit isn't championship caliber.

Even if the defense was to overachieve, the biggest key is the man between the pipes, Jimmy Howard, who is entering a make or break season. With Ty Conklin and Joey MacDonald as netminding options and a highly competitive Central Division race in front of Detroit, Howard could be in upwards of 70 games this season. While he has one year remaining on his contract after this season, his 12-11 post-season record doesn't meet with the annual lofty expectations in Michigan and could be shuttled out if he doesn't have a deep playoff run in him.

In the not breaking news category, the Vancouver Canucks will win the Northwest. Maybe they get pushed a bit more by Calgary with Ryan Kesler and Mason Raymond's early season absence subtracting from Vancouver's point total of last season, but you can slot them in for a top three seed.

But last year was the year.

It was their championship to win and they couldn't close the deal. The loss of Ehrhoff notwithstanding, it's the mental, not the physical aspects of winning a Cup that will prevent this team from winning it all. While GM Mike Gillis tinkered with the roster, he didn't bring in any veteran leadership to a room that is likely still shell shocked from losing the last four out of five in June. The recipe the Bruins cooked up that including the routine shoving of the Sedin twins will be served over and over in the West come playoff time and the lack of muscle and toughness in the lineup will do them in.

In San Jose, GM Doug Wilson had a final four team but suffered from a case of GM ADHD and decided to flip the roster again. At first, I thought the moves of securing Brent Burns and Martin Havlat and shuttling Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi to the State of Hockey would prevent them from winning a fifth consecutive Pacific Division title. The chemistry that was built in the room last season was strong and the reduction of two snipers in favor of players from a non-playoff team regardless of their talent we thought was a recipe for a four seed at best.

Now, I'm not so sure.

Yes, the Kings made some major moves (more on them in a few) and the Ducks have the best top line in the League in Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf and Bobby Ryan. The one fact that just won't go away is that the Sharks just don't beat themselves. Had they not be so battered and bruised by the time they got to the third round against Vancouver, they might have emerged from the West last spring. We feel that's more a measure of the Teal's head man, Todd McLellan, than the talent assembled by his GM. There's not a more driven and knowledgeable coach in the NHL than the former Detroit assistant and if the Sharks don't get to the Finals it won't be from McLellan not getting every ounce of effort from his charges.

While Burns will make the power play better, he needs to show far better consistency in his own zone. Logan Couture, our top vote for the Calder Trophy, might have a challenge getting back to the 30 goal level with everyone looking out for him from the start. While they may not win the Pacific, it would surprise no one if they got to the Conference Finals where they're likely wish they had a couple of more snipers to get them through.

Anticipation hasn't been higher in Los Angeles since 99 patrolled the ice at the Forum. Dean Lombardi has gone all in; the team is in the top five of payroll, he's made acquisitions in Ethan Moreau and Trent Hunter that contenders make, and he made the huge, necessary investment in Drew Doughty after a stressful and intriguing four months.

The acquisition of Mike Richards was unexpected and makes the Kings pound-for-pound as good as any in the pivot. At minimum, they're co-favorite with San Jose to win the Pacific and our pick to win it. Every player in their top-six forward rotation has scored 30 goals in the NHL and Anze Kopitar looks better than ever after suffering a serious ankle injury that cut his season short.

This organization is deep with prospects and Lombardi's staggering of contract expirations will make it easy to replenish departing veteran talent in the short term future. With that said, this roster has yet to win a playoff series and its starting goaltender, the athletic Jonathan Quick, has a post season record of 3-8. It's winning time in Los Angeles, both the players and organization are on the line now as ownership's voice, President Tim Leiweke said, "Let's go win some Cups." But to go from zero to winning at a minimum three playoff rounds in one jump is asking too much.

The Chicago Blackhawks learned the perils of defending a Stanley Cup in the salary cap era. While there are summertime defections from a championship roster in this NHL, the Indian Head was set up to fail from day one and it struggled mightily until the season's final day. With that said, the championship mettle of this team put them in a position to be an overtime goal away from making history and eliminating the Canucks in the opening round.

Hawks GM Stan Bowman has already earned consideration for Executive of the Year in our eyes with the additions of veterans like Andrew Brunette and Sean O'Donnell (courtesy of former Hawk GM Dale Tallon relieving the Brian Campbell payroll tax). The Hawks' healed wings and new feathers make them a deeper, tougher and dangerous team. Corey Crawford emerged as the goaltending solution in the Windy City and fans will see him between the pipes almost every night. Jonathan Toews is Captain Serious As Ever and head coach Joel Quenneville experimenting with Patrick Kane in the middle is quite intriguing. Among the names like Sharp, Hossa and Keith, the X factor in Chicago is Dave Bolland. If you watched this team regularly you witnessed the change in personality with him in the lineup. Their comeback against Vancouver in Round One last season was fashioned because he returned to the ice and if he can go the distance, he completes this roster and earns them a return albeit not winning trip to the Cup Finals.

Now, on to the Champs.

With Sidney Crosby's return uncertain, but close to happening, the convention is that his presence is a requirement for the Penguins to win it all. Pittsburgh looked on the way to a relatively easy Finals berth when Jan. 1 became a very Unhappy New Year at Heinz Field nine months ago. With Crosby sidelined in the midst of career setting production, the Penguins still managed to earn 106 points and lost the Atlantic to the Flyers on a tiebreaker.

A key ingredient in their success is the effervescent coach and surprise star of HBO 24/7, Dan Bylsma. The career NHL fourth liner, best known during his LA playing days for tripping over the blueline while on a receiving end of a Wayne Gretzky pass, is both a great motivator and communicator. When Evgeni Malkin went down with a season-ending injury to make matters grave, Bylsma asked for even more from his remaining troops and they delivered. Though they dropped an excruciating first round Game 7 at home against the Lightning, the effort from both team and coach were heroic.

Things started to gain momentum in the off-season when reports out of Russia told the story of Malkin's monster rehab of a torn right ACL and MCL. Watching him in the preseason, it would be no surprise to find him at the top of my ballot for the Hart Trophy this April. Even if Crosby's return is closer to January than November, Jordan Stall, still another Penguin hit with injury woes last year, should eclipse the 30 goal mark as he enters his prime. While they'll miss the sandpaper that Max Talbot provided, they gain a clutch veteran scorer in Steve Sullivan whose usefulness will be needed more in the post season than the 82 game regular season marathon. James Neal, acquired from Dallas in mid-season, is on a mission to make Pittsburghers say that his two goals in 27 game run was nothing more than an adjustment to getting dealt for the first time in his NHL career. Getting saucer passes from Crosby or Malkin should make him a 30 goal scorer for the first time.

While the Penguins don't have a Shea Weber or Chris Pronger on the back line, they're smart puck movers supporting the massive talent along the forward wall. Kris Letang was a benefactor of Crosby's white hot first half and suffered greatly in his absence, but still put up career numbers. While Paul Martin didn't play like a $5 million per year defenseman, his pairing with Zbynek Michalek creates as good a 3-4 combination as there is in the conference. Ben Lovejoy's continuing development should have fans remembering him for more than just his unfortunate expanding visage during a plane ride on 24/7. Penguins GM Ray Shero felt strongly enough in the unit to keep it intact, only adding spare defenseman Alexandre Picard to the club.

When they drop the puck for real on Thursday, there will be only three starting goaltenders that have won a Stanley Cup clinching game and Marc Andre Fleury is one of them. Bylsma used him wisely last season, getting him in 65 matches with the presence of reliable backup Brent Johnson. Fleury improved his save percentage and lowered his goals-against-average last season. At 26, he enters his prime with a championship and the reputation of coming up big in pressure games.

As the 2010-11 season debuts, the Penguins still don't know when the magic of Crosby will next stride across the ice. They've been smart in not jeopardizing the future and he will only go when he's 100 per cent, whether that's in November, January or March.

Even sans Crosby, a reinvigorated Malkin and a true to form Fleury makes them the favorite to win at all. While a healthy Crosby is still not a lock, we assume 1) a return at some point in the regular season and 2) he'll be at full throttle next spring.

Given those assumptions, the Stanley Cup should be sailing down those three Pennsylvania rivers come June.

Dennis Bernstein is the Senior Writer for The Fourth Period Magazine and a Columnist for TheFourthPeriod.com.
You can also visit Dennis on Twitter.


 

 

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Sep. 28, 2011 Defending the Bad Guy
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