Buckle up Baby and Enjoy the Ride! by @ExcitedBobErrey




It's that time of the year again where the regular season is winding down and playoff hockey is on the doorstep. The playoff spot is clinched, the division should follow soon enough, and regardless of what happens the next 6 games it seems unlikely that the Penguins will move out of the #2 seed they're currently occupying. While much less certain, it seems likely that Detroit Red Wings will hang onto the #7 seed and set up the rubber match we've been wanting for years, just never expecting in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals.


I'd love to be able to tell you that the Pens have been rounding into top form as we head into the playoffs, but you likely already know that isn't the case. Any momentum that could have been gained from returning 2 Gold Medalists and 2 Bronze Medalists from the Sochi Olympics has been dashed by even more injuries. Pittsburgh has gone 8-8-2 since the break and have lost the top spot in the East that they've held virtually all season long. Paul Martin got injured while overseas, and with Kris Letang still recovering from a stroke the team is down 2 defensemen who could each be counted on to eat up 25 minutes a night on the blueline. While other defensemen have stepped their games up, notably Matt Niskanen and Olli Maatta, the healthy Dmen have had to play a lot more minutes than they've been accustomed to playing, and the fatigue is becoming very noticeable.


Unfortunatley, the injuries aren't just hurting the defense either. Evgeni Malkin has been shutdown with a foot injury, although thankfully the initial prognosis would have him back in time for the playoffs. Joe Vitale and Marcel Goc have also found themselves out with injuries since play started back up at the end of February.
Vitale has been skating with the team and should return soon to provide some much needed speed and depth in the bottom 6, while the initial diagnosis of 3 weeks would somehow allow Goc to return during the 1st round of the playoffs from an injury that looked like it would take months, not weeks, to heal.


It's been a bumpy ride lately, but as the injured players return to the lineup it's likely that they could provide a big boost to a team that's been needing one lately. Getting Malkin back and up to speed would give the Pens two scoring lines that have the potential to be equally deadly for one of the first times all season due to various injuries. Beau Bennett has returned to the ice, and the stick skills he's displayed so far look nothing like what you'd expect from someone who has spent months rehabbing from wrist surgery. Vitale and Goc, and to a lesser extent Chris Conner, will add more depth to a team that needs it, and just having one of Martin or Letang returning would be a huge boost from the defense, both from adding a talented player and allowing others to take roles and minutes they're more able to handle.


This team might not be as well positioned to make a Stanley Cup run as the past couple season, but you know what? Those teams got run out of the playoffs in embarrassing fashion in the first round and ECF. You know which teams weren't expected to make much of an impact? NOBODY expected that 2007-08 team to come anywhere close to the SCF, and even with their late season surge making up for a bad first half to the season in 2008-09 the Penguins weren't expected to tear through the playoffs and win the Stanley Cup either. Hopes were high in 2009-10, in 2011-12, in 2013, and it went nowhere.


Between the injuries and the recent play finishing out the regular season this year's playoffs could take us anywhere. A matchup against one of the league's best coaches in Mike Babcock and a red hot Detroit team is certainly not what you'd want for a coach who has been routinely out-coached, badly, in the postseason. Being able to add back to the lineup a former Art Ross, Hart Trophy, and Conn Smythe Trophy winner, a Norris runner-up last season, and another defensemen who arguably had an even better season could provide an enormous boost to a still talented team.


I'm not going to tell you how to root for the Pens, because that's your right as a fan, but this isn't a year to live and die with each game. They're not the run away favorites, Ray Shero isn't all-in, and if they're not playing deep into June no one would really be too shocked. But you can never count out a team with both Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, and they've played the underdog role well before. With so much uncertainty, it might be difficult, if not impossible, to know how this team stacks up against the opposition until well into a series. There will be ups, there will be downs, but most importantly there will be playoff hockey. It's going to be an unpredictable finish to an unpredictable year, and my only advice is to buckle up and enjoy the ride.
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