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Penguins: Quo Vadis with that Status Quo?

Apparently, the Pens are going into next season with only a few of the frayed edges different from last year's incarnation. As close to the status quo as one gets in the NHL. No major usable adds at the draft, no big fish caught in the Free Agency pool, no significant trades. They added a grit and grind player in Zolnierczyk who most people would have to Google and a winger in D'Agostino who should be better than he has been for a few seasons.

The Malkin and Letang, Kunitz and Dupuis contracts were big news, but nothing on the ice changes with those - the changes there are for the accountants to worry over.

In fact, they made no changes that will have any major impact on the team's game style or the success with which they play it. The loss of last year's rentals to free agency is but a blip on the radar ... all played their roles well enough but not one of them, except maybe Morrow, distinguished themselves enough to warrant worry over their absence next season.

On the surface, that seems reasonable.  They finished first in their conference, second overall, can boast a bevy of individual best-of statistics, player nominations and all that broke, really, was the end game.

But isn't the end game the point of it all?

Given their roster, are they not in this to win a Stanley Cup? Each and every year? They're not rebuilding and they're not retooling. They're a built team. Or so goes conventional wisdom. Any team that boasts, in addition to a very serviceable host of role players, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Paul Martin and James Neal should be a perennial contender and if they are not, one is forced, by logic and instinct, to conclude that the problem does not lie in the roster in any obvious way.

They gave Bylsma an extension immediately following their ungraceful ejection from the ECF, one presumes to make a point of their loyalty to him. He followed with an immediate, if not perplexing, announcement that Marc Andre Fleury is the franchise goalie. His go-to guy.

And there lies the status quo: the state in which. Except for a few new fixtures, some tightened screws and a spare lightbulb, we will head into next season with nary a change to the team.

Fair enough. One presumes that they have more information than me; a big picture plan that I can only guess at. All I know is what I see when I watch the games and think about them afterwards. Pause, rewind, play, pause, rewind, play. You know the drill.  I must say, nothing that happened all season prepared me in any way for the utter humiliation that was the Bruins series. Nothing. Crosby and Malkin were their usual spectacular selves, Letang was proving a killer talent quarterbacking the power play and even Marc Andre Fleury was looking less like a liability. The Pens were hot. Capital H, hot.  I should have probably starting bracing myself when the Islanders gave the Pens so much trouble and Fleury performed his annual meltdown right on cue, but the quick work we made of the Sens dropped me back into my comfy chair. Vokoun was steady and I breathed easier. After all, we only needed our goalie to not lose games, right? He never had to win any. That's what we have the juggernautish offense for.

Thus the slaughter that we suffered at the hands of the Bruins was particularly gruesome and my response to it particularly vehement.

Losing is not the problem. Losses happen - in the best tradition of Forrest Gump - and in hockey they happen even when they shouldn't. That is why play offs run in series and why there are so many tiers. To account for those anomalous wins or losses while allowing the better team to prevail. And it is my belief that the best team always does. The playoffs separate the paper tigers from the ones that spit and growl for real. 

So the Pens were not the best team. That's not a problem, either. You can't be best every year. Yes, you want to win the Stanley Cup every year, but you understand that you can't.


There's losing and there's getting beat.

There's not being the best team and looking like you came to the wrong rink for four games. The Pens got beat. They didn't lose, they got beat. They didn't spit and growl for real and they didn't ever rise above a sheet of flimsy paper. In boxing there is a phrase that a fighter is punching above his weight - fighting out of his class, hitting better than he should be able to. That's what champions do. That's what the Bruins did and that's what the Hawks did.

The Pens, had no weight class to punch above, they were the nearly undisputed favourites. They only had to be as good as they seemed to be. They did not have to dig deep and pull out the extra gear that would raise them above a team with a roster so top heavy that it was nearly unfair. They never had to go into a series without being the hands down, odds on picks. Maybe that was the problem. It's not quite entitlement, but it's the sort of assurance Ali would have had stepping into the ring with Leonard.

Despite the drama of Fleury's breakdown, the goaltending wasn't the problem. It would be easier, as a fan, to simply chalk it up to crappy defensive play and shaky goal tending, like we have done for the past three years, but that was not what beat us against Boston. If it had been our nemesis again, we could understand it, be angry again and move along. But it wasn't. Vokoun was just this shy of brilliant and he would have had to have a shutout for every game to offset the front end and the second coming of Roy/Brodeur/Belfour and Hasek don't get shutouts for every game in a series. Even with an unbroken string of shutouts, we still would have only won two ... we did, afterall, only score two goals.

I am embarrassed to type that and I am not even on the team. I can't imagine how they feel. 

Yes, the unthinkable happened. The one worry we never once had materialized. The implausible, improbable, impossible happened. We didn't score. The most potent offense in the NHL could not buy, beg, borrow or steal more than two goals ... in FOUR games. It sounds more like the punchline of a bad joke than an actual event, doesn't it?

I will say this, as  a Pens fan I have been subjected to every form of trollish behaviour you can imagine. I have been teased about "Cyndy Crysby" and "Lurch" and "LeTurnover" in every variation possible. I have listened to every "goalie can't stop a beachball" insult ever typed on the internet. But no one ever got to tease me about a lack of goals.

And I liked that. Really, I did. I've been a fan through the years when we did get teased about that and I had gotten quite used to being the fan of an offensive juggernaut. 

TWO goals in FOUR games. One game that contains Crosby and Malkin should have two goals. Four games in which neither scores a goal is ... science fiction. Bad science fiction.

Or should be.

Once the thrashing and screaming is over, once you've said the things I said above you are left with two things. A sort of empty frustration and a couple of inter-related questions.

What happened and how are they going to make sure it doesn't happen again? Quo vadis, Pens, quo vadis?


Part One of Three

Next:                    So, What Did Happen?  

And after that:     Fix It, Dear Liza


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