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Thursday, January 30, 2014

Managing Expectations by @ExcitedBobErrey

It's funny how far a fanbase can travel in such a short time. 10 years ago, the expectations surrounding the Pittsburgh Penguins were some of the lowest in franchise history. No one expected the team to win games, and the times they did win came with more surprise than joy. The only thing left to look forward to after the regular season was the draft lottery and which players the Pens would pick at the top of the draft. But those top draft picks would soon turn around the franchise's luck, and they won big before the expectations ever had a chance to catch up. The team went from winning a single playoff game in 2007, their first playoff win since 2001, to winning the Eastern Conference Championship in 2008. The Marian Hossa trade helped propel a team viewed by most as a couple years away from serious contention to within 2 wins of the Stanley Cup, but the following season it began to look as if though that Cinderella run was a fluke, and that the team still had some serious growing to do before clearing that last hurdle.

Except, the Penguins fired Michel Therrien in February 2009 while sitting in 10th place in the standings, and the team that had been written off turned red hot, finishing the season on a 18-3-4 tear and cruised through the playoffs to win their 2nd straight Eastern Conference title. The Stanley Cup brought a rematch with the Detroit Red Wings, and despite again finding themselves in a 0-2 hole Pittsburgh was able to comeback and win an evenly matched series in seven games to emerge as the Stanley Cup Champions. With an extremely talented nucleus in their low-mid 20s, Penguins fans began to think dynasty and wonder how many more Stanley Cup parades would be in their future.

Except, the dynasty never materialized. The losses of Hal Gill and Rob Scuderi were a big reason why Montreal was able to shatter the dream of a repeat in 2010, the Crosby and Malkin injuries in 2011 made losing to the Lightning understandable, but the embarrassing losses in 2012 to Philadelphia and 2013 to Boston as Stanley Cup favorites hurt the most. Because despite finishing a point out of first place in the conference in 2011-12 and as the top seed in the East in 2013, the Penguins weren't able to win when it mattered most. The team that had found constant postseason success as the underdog was having trouble finishing out series as the favorite.

In a way, the Pittsburgh Penguins have come full circle over the past 10 years to the point where the regular season is virtually meaningless again. It would have taken an absolute miracle for the 2003-04 Penguins to make the playoffs, just like it would take an absolute disaster for the 2013-14 Penguins to miss the postseason. The outcome was never in doubt 10 years ago, just the draft pick, and the outcome isn't in doubt now, just the seed in the playoffs. But unlike 10 years ago, any given home game features some elite talent, not just the ones featuring certain visiting teams. And while the 2003-04 Penguins would win some unexpected games, this year's team will lose some games they probably shouldn't have as well.

Whether it was the 5-0 loss to Ottawa, the 4-3 OT loss to Edmonton, the 5-1 loss to Florida, or the 3-0 loss to Dallas, Pittsburgh has lost some bad games recently. But the Ottawa loss snapped a 7 game winning streak, the Edmonton loss a 3 game winning streak, and both the Florida and Dallas losses came after winning consecutive games. Despite those losses the Pens have still gone 10-4-1 since the Ottawa loss (a 115 point pace) and are 19-5-1 since the start of December (a 128 point pace). They've had players in and out of the lineup, yet they're still 4th in goals/game, 8th in goals allowed/game, and first on both the power play and the penalty kill.

The problem with high expectations is managing those expectations so they don't become unrealistic. They have a very good team, and their 17-7-1 record against the teams currently in the playoffs would put them at 115 points over the course of an 82 game season. There are going to be nights when nothing seems to go right, when the team looks out of sync, or when the other team simply plays a better game. Being one of the top teams in the league, the Penguins are a measuring stick type game for other teams to see how they match up against the elite. Those games are going to happen, but even with a few happening in a short amount of time it doesn't change the fact that Pittsburgh has a 15 point lead in the division with 2 games in hand and realistically should not be caught. It doesn't change the fact that this team is going to make the playoffs, and it doesn't change the fact that they're going to be one of the favorites to take home the Stanley Cup.

It's the end of January, and while ideally the Pens would bring their A game every night, it's not that important at this time of the year, especially given the Olympic break in this year's schedule. It'd be nice to win every game, but that's not realistic. For a team running away with the division and with basically no chance to miss the playoffs, the regular season just isn't that important. What is important is that this team plays their best hockey in May/June and puts to rest the demons that have haunted them in the playoffs over the past few seasons. Until then, enjoy the world class players that don the skating penguin every night, and when the inevitable bad game does occur, just remember that it's only a small bump in a long road.

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