Thursday, October 04, 2007

TSCS's 2007-08 Penguins Preview

With the puck about to drop (okay, I know it officially dropped last night, but for real Pens fans the season doesn't start until the puck drops in front a Pittsburgh Penguin), everyone and his brothers are making their season predictions. I've read countless articles online, and I've been listening to Hockey in the Morning on XM Radio's Home Ice (channel 204). The common thread between the dozens of predictions that I've seen: the Pens are going to be good. No, not just good - AWESOME.

While not everyone agrees how far the Pens will go this year, the general consensus is that the Pens will almost assuredly make it to the playoffs again. The opinions then split pretty evenly after that. One side thinks the Pens' youth and inexperience is an Achilles heel; the other side thinks that the team learned a valuable lesson from Ottawa in their short-lived playoff run last season and now the abundance of young, raw talent on the team has what it takes to go all the way this year. Anyone looking for my opinion, here you go:

I think the Pens have a legitimate chance of winning the Stanley Cup. I'm going on record with my predictions here. I think the Pens will win the Atlantic Division and come in second in the Eastern Conference. [Unfortunately, I think the top spot in the Eastern Conference will go to Ottawa, but this isn't The Dany Heatley Show (← oh, that makes me sick to my stomach), so I'm not even going to go into that.] I'm going to say that the Pens will definitely make it all the way to the semi-finals. From there, I'll say they'll likely make it to the finals and probably go on to win the Cup. To prove I'm not just being biased, the following is an explanation of how I came to this conclusion.

I won't really talk about Saint Sid. He's the best in the league, and that statement needs no justification. We all know he's going to do great things, so it's moot point to go into it any deeper than that. As long as he stays healthy, he'll be golden. He's the best thing to happen to the Penguins since Mario. I'm pretty sure everyone knows that, despite all his health problems later in his career, #66 led the Pens to 2 consecutive Stanley Cup championships. (Imagine how many he could have won if he'd been healthy...)

Even if something GOD FORBID! happens to Sid and an injury sidelines him for a while, the rest of the team is still good enough to keep going in his absence. With players like Evgeni Malkin (33G-52A-85PTS) and Jordan Staal (29G-13A-42PTS), both of whom could realistically crack the 40 goal club this season, the Pens are definitely set. But with a healthy Sid all season long, this trifecta (as FSN Pittsburgh refers to them) is going to be tough to stop.

The young forwards will be complemented with the talents of defensemen Ryan Whitney and Sergei Gonchar (who finds himself splitting alternate captain duties with Gary Roberts and will be wearing an "A" on his sweater this season during home games). Gonch is one of the league's better d-men, proving he's able to help defend the net AND score some serious points with 13G-54A-67PTS in 82 games played last season. For the record, Whitney, who is coming into this season after signing a longterm deal with the Pens in July, isn't far behind with 14G-45A-59PTS in 81 games played.

The young team is no doubt growing up before our very eyes, but they will still definitely benefit from veteran leadership. This season, it will again come from Stanley Cup winners Mark Recchi, an alternate captain for his third consecutive season, and Gary Roberts, who will be sporting the "A" on his jersey during road games. These two guys will be able to show the young stars the kind of discipline it takes to win a Cup.

(Left to right: Sid, Staal, Malkin, Fleury, and Whitney) What a photo. But don't stare at it - prolonged exposure to its awesomeness may cause temporary blindness.

There are, however, a few question marks in the Pens' future that give me pause. The first being the somewhat minor issue of faceoff percentages. As stated yesterday, this is an area where Sid and the rest of the guys needed some serious work. This was especially evident during power plays, where winning the faceoff is crucial. Hopefully this was an area of focus in training camp, but even without any faceoff-winning-fiends on the team last year, the guys had an outstanding season, so it doesn't really have me all that worried.

The other issue that has me a bit more apprehensive is Pittsburgh's goaltender situation. Marc-Andre Fleury is getting better and better every season he plays. Last season he still had some issues with being a tad inconsistent; even so, he's shown he has what it takes to get the job done when it counts by getting an impressive 40 wins last season. He's not the problem. The problem is that MAF doesn't have a strong backup goalie. Without one, if again GOD FORBID! an injury strikes MAF, the entire Pittsburgh season is in jeopardy.

That said, I must admit that I don't know a whole lot about the new back up goalie, Dany Sabourin. What I do know is that he hasn't played many games in the NHL (only 14 regular season games and 2 playoff games) and that he played a couple of times for the Johnstown Chiefs. Last season, the Pens had a fairly reliable backup in Jocelyn Thibault, but he left for what I'm sure he hopes will be greener pastures in Buffalo. With MAF playing in 67 games last year, T-Bo wasn't getting as much of the action as he wanted. (I think T-Bo misses Pittsburgh, though, because throughout this preseason, he wore his Penguins goalie mask.) This season, no one really knows how reliable Sabourin will be.

But don't panic. So far, Pens General Manager Ray Shero has shown that he knows what he's doing. If Shero wanted Sabourin, there must have been a good reason behind his decision to sign him.

I guess all that's left to say now is that it's a GREAT time to be a Pens fan. For those of us who stuck by the Pens through the, um, shall we say "lean" years, these next couple of years are going to be our reward. For new fans, get ready for a great ride - but be warned: it's not going to be easy. There are going to be a lot of 1-goal games. There will be a bunch of blown leads accompanied by heart stopping comebacks. Probably more than a few ties will need to be broken in spectacular overtime shootouts (Erik Christensen, we'll be counting on you!!!). They don't call them the "Cardiac Kids" for nothing, you know!



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