I’m pretty sure the Pittsburgh Penguins have been listening to a lot of Ludacris during pre-game warm-ups, because they pushed the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers, predicted by many to be their stiffest competition in the Atlantic Division (and the Eastern Conference in general), all over the ice as they snatched up 4 points this past weekend.
I wouldn’t begin to approach either performance as perfect, and there are certainly aspects of their game that need to be cleaned up and worked out, but I want to be extremely clear about one thing: the Pittsburgh Penguins beat themselves last year, and they won’t do it again this year. If these two games are any indication of what’s to come, this season could be one hell of a ride.
That whole, uhh, “extended offseason” gave folks a lot of time to think about everything that happened in the spring and summer. The lack of discipline, the terrible penalty kill, Marc-Andre Fleury’s inability to track anything smaller than Pierre Maguire’s ego. The death threats against Paul Martin, the salary dump of Zbynek Michalek (I already miss you, boo), the confusion around who would play with James Neal and Evgeni Malkin.
Who would the Penguins be if and when the new season started? This past Saturday and Sunday, the Pittsburgh Penguins were focused, confident, authoritative, and truly didn’t give a fuck. In some ways, I think starting on the road, particularly *that* road in Philadelphia (and MSG, to some extent), was beneficial. Playing hockey on the road requires that extra bit of mental fortitude, keeping you locked into the game and the details of what you’re doing out on the ice.
After the embarrassing end to last season, this kind of strong start is at least a little bit encouraging. Getting the crowd at Madison Square Garden to boo their own team the first time you step into their barn is priceless and will never, ever get old. Ever.
As I said before, though, these were not two perfect performances. Mental lapses, sloppy passing, poor timing – the Penguins will need to work on these things as the days pass, even if some of the sloppiness and timing can be attributed to the understandable amount of rust for some players.
I could do without Geno basically handing the puck to Rick Nash on a platter, and I think it’s going to take Simon Despres some time to find his stride (yeah, um, can people please finally shut up about him being a replacement for Martin, by the way?).
I will be watching the James-Neal-on-the-point power play with a close and skeptical eye. But you have to like some of the things that have come out of games 1 and 2. James Neal is picking up right where he left off, demonstrating his uncanny chemistry with Evgeni Malkin. Paul Martin is playing confident, smart hockey and anchoring a top-2 pairing with Brooks Orpik. Brandon Sutter has made me forget that guy who looked like Big Bird’s hotter and kind of trashy cousin. Marc-Andre Fleury and Tomas Vokoun turned in some solid performances, and I imagine 92 will start around 24 more times.
What I like most, though, is that we’ve got a 4-point lead over two division rivals in a shortened season. The worst thing in the world is having to rely on other teams to lose, and these two games could prove to be huge as the playoffs approach.
The Penguins open at home on 1/23 against the Toronto Maple Leafs, so we can basically be assured that their road dominance will be followed by a puzzling performance at home against a team that should be blown out of the building and into the Allegheny. That could be the cynic in me speaking who’s afraid to believe the hype that I saw with my own two eyes. It could also be me bracing myself for injuries that could derail a team that has the makings of a locomotive (one that can win the whole thing, I mean – sorry, Vancouver and Washington).
I approach the rest of the 2012(ha)-2013 season with cautious optimism. The Penguins basically ran shit against two of the best teams in the league, and Sidney Crosby wasn’t a dominant player in either. When Stella gets her groove back, along with the rest of these flightless birds, one would have to think that things will only get better. Or, to continue with the “Move Bitch” theme, in Mystikal’s words: ”Better not walk in front of their tour bus.”