So the Pens got shellacked 8-4 by the Ottawa Senators last night. Overall, the team defense got smoked and Brad Thiessen suffered his first loss in his NHL career, allowing all 8 goals.
Its okay. And there are a number of reasons why this is.
Well I think it goes without saying that these are trying times, not much more than a month ago we as Penguins fans had thought we had finally completed our penance to the hockey gods and that we had been rewarded by the return to the ice of Sidney Crosby, and that we would for the first time see the true glory that was possible from the nearly unquestionable most talented team in the game. But no, it was all for naught. If anything the situation has just gotten worse. Crosby and Letang, the best player in the game and one of the very best defensemen (and the best on the Pens’s roster) both out indefinitely with concussion issues. Add to that Jordan Staal (supported by many as the de facto leader of the team with Crosby out), out at least a month with a knee injury, James Neal (one of the league’s leading scorers), out for “weeks” with a broken foot, and Craig Adams (one of the teams most experienced veterans), out with a freak practice injury, plus countless nagging injuries for guys like Arron Asham, Dustin Jeffrey, and most of the defensive core and it is nearly impossible to even predict who will be in the lineup on a night to night basis for the Penguins.
So where does that leave us as fans? Well let me speak the bad, which might be fairly self-evident. The fate of this year’s team is intrinsically linked to the fate of Sidney Crosby, if by some chance he can get healthy before season’s end, this is still one of the most talented and experienced teams in the league. If he cannot get healthy, then it is the job of the Penguins organization to tell us as fans, because there is no doubt that without Crosby, there will be no deep playoff run for the Pens. It might sound fatalistic but it is undoubtedly true. Trying to imagine the Pens of this year winning a Stanley Cup without Sidney Crosby would be like trying to imagine the Pens of the early nineties winning their Stanley Cups without Mario Lemieux, it just isn’t conceivable. Even if the Pens announce that Crosby won’t return this season, and place him on long term injured reserve, thus freeing up millions of available cap space, the likelihood of making a Stanley Cup run with a group of rental players just doesn’t seem likely. Its also true that the financial situation of the Penguins organization has never been as complex as it is right now. But that I fear is going to take another post at another time.
There is still much to be learned in the coming weeks, and there’s no reason to get down on this current batch of Penguins. Many people in the media have been critical of the Pens’s poor record against the elite teams in the Eastern Conference but I fear that that is nothing more than an inescapable consequence of playing injured all season, if you don’t have your best players in your lineup against the best competition you are not going to win. There’s no doubt that the NHL has good parity, but when looking at the Eastern Conference especially, that parity exists because almost every team has a couple of elite talents, and if you cannot match those talents, then you aren’t going to win. The Pens are still a good team with a good core of young players that can still make the playoffs even with its current injury woes.
There is a lot to learn about some of the players who remain as well. Of principle interest is the fate of Eric Tangradi, he was recalled earlier today and it has to be believed that this will be his “last chance” to prove that he can become a fixture on the Penguins roster. In many ways the Big Dawg has underwhelmed in his other call-ups over the past couple of seasons. Even I, (an admitted Tangradi fan and apologist) was surprised to learn that in 25 career NHL games he has only recorded 3 points, all of which came last year. I truly believe that Tangradi has never really been given the opportunity to prove what he can do, it seems that although everyone views him as a scoring forward and a top-6 type of player, whenever he is playing in the NHL he gets thrown on to the 4th line where he receives minimum minutes and simply does not receive the support from his forwards to make a difference on the ice. A player like Tangradi needs to play with a playmaking forward who can feed him improbable passes and get him the puck down low in order to make a difference, hopefully amidst all of the other injuries we’ve seen Tangradi can finally show what he is capable of doing at the NHL level.
The same can be said about Dustin Jeffrey, he’s shown signs in the past of being a capable scorer in the NHL and assuming he can come back to the lineup soon, which has been reported that he will, we could learn a lot about his future with the team as well.
As I say, these are dark times indeed, but wallowing in self-pity still isn’t going to help. Trust me its hard to get excited for the Pens amidst this current losing streak (of both games and personnel) but there is still lots of reason to care about the team.