Tuesday, August 19, 2008


Those Other Teams Pt. 3: Pittsburgh

Rounding out our non-Rangers division teams that aren’t the New Jersey Devils are the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Penguins are interesting in the phenomenon of “other teams.” If you’ve only paid attention to hockey since 2006 or so, and there’s nothing wrong with that, you’d think the Penguins are a bunch of smug skaters. What with their Sidney Crosbys and their Evgeni Malkins and their formerly banana-pad clad Marc-Andre Fleurys and their Sergei Gonchars and their terrible car commercials and their enthusiastic fan base. They think they are so awesome with their massive (in terms of hockey) media coverage and that their team is the first in the New NHL to dethrone New Jersey as Atlantic Division champions. They ran it up 7-1 late in the season and soundly beat the Devils at the Rock to help secure that spot. That second seed did help them – even at least a little bit - in their goal to go All the Way™. Just by virtue of being better than New Jersey, it just gnashes your teeth a little bit right?

In all honesty, I haven’t grown to hate the Penguins. While, I can’t pity them, there’s been a lot of flux in Pittsburgh from 1994 onwards. Between lockouts one and two, here’s a set of high and low lights for Penguins fans:

-The Rise of Jaromir Jagr.

-Alexei Kovalev, Martin Straka (when healthy and not having exercise equipment fall on him), and Robert Lang getting together to do somethings and all followed by losing each of them.

-Alexesy Morozov developing his talents of being one of the players to get Martin Brodeur’s number; only to find out he would never use them in a truly important setting.

-The first Penguins selection in the NHL draft from 1995 through 2002. OK, Milan Kraft, Brooks Orpik, Colby Armstrong, and Ryan Whitney all made it to the league in some way – but for a first rounder, you’d want an impact player. Not really a barely mediocre scoring forward, a defenseman who earned his nickname of “Hooks,” a mediocre forward with a big nose, or a pretty good d-man (Whitney is good, but 5th overall good? I don’t think so).

-The Ivan Hlinka coaching experience/fall out. Considering how bad Michel Therrien's English can be, that Lemieux supposedly wasn't happy with Hlinka's communication says a lot. Oof.

-Not having much of a defense through this whole era. I mean, we’re talking about seasons with Janne Laukkenen (a.k.a. The Glass Menagerie) as a first pairing player; seasons where Ian Moran (who is a bad defenseman, who makes bad plays, etc.) had to play significant minutes.

-That one game in 2000 where Randy McKay and John Madden each put up 4 goals on the Penguins. The Devils won 9-0 and it was the first time since 1922 that teammates did so well in one game. (That was totally awesome, but absolutely miserable for a Penguins supporter.) Double oof, right there.

-The Fall of Jaromir Jagr – capped by that Jagr trade netting Kris Beech, Michal Sivek, and Ross Lupaschuk in return. Triple oof.

-To be fair, the 2000 and 2001 seasons were pretty strong, but a run in 2001 was ended by a Devils squad looking to go All the Way™ (and nearly succeeded).

-The emotional return of Mario Lemieux as a player, an owner, and as a player-owner.

-The team nearly going under with fears of relocation and bankruptcy (not at the same time); saved in part by Lemieux’s plan.

-To be fair, the team was pretty horrible from 2002 through 2004 with financial issues and poor personnel decisions, deservedly coming in last in the Atlantic.

-Rico Fata – regular NHL forward!

-Dick Tarnstrom: Leading 2004 scorer with 56 points! (Fun fact! The defenseman led the team in shots as well. Maybe if Ryan Malone shot it more, he’d have more than 22 goals and 11 assists that season).

So earlier in this decade, the Penguins resembled the Islanders in terms of results – two good, playoff making seasons surrounded by failure Though, the Islanders were never in danger of going under or moving to Kansas City or somewhere else (nor did they got as deep as the Pens did). That said, the Penguins rebuilt themselves properly and with a bit of luck by being able to harness the talent of their top picks in this time period – namely, Fleury, Malkin, and Crosby. (No, Whitney doesn’t belong with that group.)

So that’s where it really stands. Since the back-to-back Cups of 1991 and 1992, the Penguins started to trend down from championship contenders to a pretty good team that might make a run to a gutted mess that required them to start over. The selections of Malkin and Crosby – let’s not forget Malkin was drafted in 2004 – gave the team a brand new look, a brand new excitement, and helped make the squad a whole hell of a lot better. If you’re an Islander fan, you’re reading this and probably wishing for someone like them to help take your franchise to heights once before reached. Because the Penguins weren’t so great and mighty – Philadelphia represented more of a challenge to the Devils in the late 90s – and that they were awful in the early part of this decade, it’s hard to have a heated rivalry. It’s not like with the Rangers where they could finish dead last in the league for 20 straight years and it’d still be satisfying for the Devils to wail on them in a game.

Fortunately, as the Penguins become consistent in their greatness – and they likely will with two Hall of Fame talents leading the way – it’ll become a lot easier to hate on the Penguins. Not necessarily out of jealously, but out of wanting to knock a rival out. I’m kind of looking forward to that.

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