The second most wins in the NHL, the best penalty kill unit in the league, and an MVP candidate in net–sounds like a successful season for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Throw in a brand new barn and the first Winter Classic night game in NHL history, and it is hard to imagine a better campaign.
Now, imagine that Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Jordan Staal missed a total 120 regular season games and still everything mentioned above was achieved. Impossible, right?
The 2010-2011 Penguins season should not be one defined by a game seven loss to a better opponent. Make no mistake, the Tampa Bay Lightning were a more skilled team with a better strategy. Ask the Eastern Conference’s number one seed Washington Capitals what they think of the Lightning.
There are two ways of looking at this years campaign.View number one is to look at the playoff result only. After all, the regular season is only a seeding tournament for the real season–the post-season. When looking at the playoff series, it is easy to claim that the Penguins choked to a lower seeded opponent. You can look at blowing a 3-1 series lead, the 1-35 on the powerplay, and a horrible penalty kill after finishing first in the regular season.
The true bottom line in the series is that the Bolts had a better offense, a hot goaltender, and a system designed to limit an already thin offensive team. Tampa Bay owned the four highest regular season scorers and the three highest goal scorers in the series. The Lightning were also the only 100 point team in the NHL not to claim a top 4 seed. Offensively, the Penguins were no match.
Utilizing a 1-3-1 trap, the Lightning also limited the Penguins’ offensive zone time. Any stretches spent in the Tampa end resulted in long, poor percentage, shots–typically without a rebound.
Through seven games, the Penguins scored only 14 goals. The total was the fewest of any first round team that played a minimum of six games. Half of the 14 Pittsburgh tallies were scored despite a lack of offensive zone pressure. A powerplay, odd-man rush, empty net, and faceoff play each lead to a Penguins goal. Three more goals were a result of Dwayne Roloson mishandles. Extracting these seven goals credits the Penguins with a sad average of one goal-per-game thanks to offensive zone pressure.
The second way of viewing the season is by looking at facts. Over $18 million in Penguins salary watched the playoffs from the press box. That sum totals nearly 30 percent of the entire Pittsburgh salary cap.
Imagine Daniel Briere, Mike Richards, and Jeff Carter sidelined for the Philadelphia Flyers. Consider the Sedin twins, Ryan Kesler, and Raffi Torres scratched for the Vancouver Canucks. What about if Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier, and Dwayne Roloson sat out the first round?
A 30 percent salary cut is a severe handicap to any NHL team. It is even more severe when you consider that much of the Penguins salary cut was a result of injuries to two former scoring champions–including a Conn Smythe winner.
Even with the losses, Pittsburgh pushed a Tampa Bay team, who dismantled the East’s top seed, to the brink of elimination.
Views of this season that should be focused on are the aspects that will effect next season.
Tyler Kennedy was a stretch to make the opening day roster. If not for injuries, the 24-year-old winger was a deadline day throw-in. Fast forward to the end of the season. Kennedy was the Penguins most important offensive weapon.
Tallying a career high 21 goals, TK may have earned a contract for next season–a scenario many felt was far from reality at the beginning of the year. Now, simply dumping Mike Comrie’s contract could provide enough room to sign a 20-goal third line winger.
A perennial underachiever, Chris Kunitz, finally filled the role he was acquired for. Kunitz complimented Crosby perfectly during the first half of the season. Even more encouraging is that Kunitz contributed his final 10 goals without Crosby in the lineup. The former Anaheim Duck played in only 66 games and still netted 23 markers. Based off his impressive 2010-11 season, if he and Crosby both stay healthy next season, 30 goals is not impossible.
Let’s not forget about the emergence of Kris Letang either. Letang, entering his first season as Pittsburgh’s go-to-defensiveman, turned in his finest performance as a pro. The third-round-pick was the mid-season Norris Trophy favorite and finished ninth in scoring among NHL defensemen.
Letang, who led the (healthy) Penguins in points, suffered more than anyone without Crosby. His point production was largely influenced by Crosby’s offensive zone dishes and odd-man break situations–which decreased significantly after Crosby and Malkin disappeared from the lineup. Losing fellow point-man, and powerplay director, Alex Goligoski hurt Letang’s ability to capitalize on the man-advantage.
Even with his decrease in point production, game seven against the Lightning may have been Letang’s finest game all season. Wire-to-wire, the all-star was the Penguins best all-around defenseman. That is no small compliment considering he played on possibly the best defensive unit in the NHL. Perhaps more important was his emergence as a leader this post-season.
Skating 82 games along side Crosby, and a slight decrease in his 24 minutes of ice time per game, will produce a Norris finalist next season.
Speaking of the Penguins defensive core, new comers Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek proved to be valuable off-season acquisitions. After much early season ridicule, the pair helped Pittsburgh achieve the seventh best goals-against-average in the league–a statistic that would have improved drastically if not for injuries.
Not many teams can boast two defensemen, let a alone four, who can shut down the NHL’s best any night. The Penguins core group of blue-liners this season were better than the crop that brought a Stanley Cup to Pittsburgh.
Mark Letestu, Ben Lovejoy, and Deryk Engelland pleasantly surprised as rookies.
Letestu tallied 14 markers while Lovejoy finished the season as the anchor of the third defensive pairing. If Lovejoy was accompanied by a defenseman other than Matt Niskanen, his season would be viewed in a much brighter light.
A combination of smooth hands, a hard shot, and sound faceoff skills led Letestu to the Penguins rookie of the year award. His role as a Pittsburgh’s future third line center was cemented and he is talented enough to break the 20 goal barrier. Penguins fans should be excited about the undrafted free-agent’s future.
Unfortunately, no matter how many positives there are to look at, Pittsburgh’s season will always be defined by the question of ‘what if’.
Crosby was running away with the scoring race at the time of his season ending injury. His 1.61 points per game was .34 higher than any other players final average, and his 32 goals still placed him in the league’s top 20 goal scorers. He was on pace to finish with 132 points, 28 more than Art Ross champion Daniel Sedin and the highest total since Mario Lemieux’s 161 points in 1995-96. Pro-rating his .78 goals-per-game average would have led him to a final mark of 64–14 more goals than Maurice Richard winner Corey Perry.
Crosby may have only played in 41 games this season, but those games were the finest the NHL has seen since the lockout. Penguins fans should not lose sight of exactly what Sid accomplished in his short season.
Finally, we saved the best for last. And without a doubt, the best was Marc-Andre Fleury. After a well documented shaky start, the Flower bounced back to lead the Penguins to their highest point total since the 1992-93 season.
The former number one overall pick finished seventh in the NHL in wins, and was Vezina-Trophy-good for much of the year. He earned the Penguins team MVP, but more importantly, he bounced back from something which many goalies never recover–inadequacy. If Fleury’s 2009-10 season was one to forget, his 2010-11 was one that will define his career.
Choose the view of Pittsburgh’s season you think most accurately resembles the Penguins. Educated, understanding fans will choose the second view–a view which will be appreciated much more after next year’s season.