Monday, April 18, 2011

A confession of sorts


At the risk of sounding like a spoiled fan - for I know there are a number of fan bases who'd love to trade places with me - I have to admit that I'm not really all that sure if I want the Penguins to advance past the first round of this year's playoffs.

It's not that I'm hoping they lose; I was thrilled after Game 1 and just as pissed off and dejected after Game 2. But I think I have legitimate reasons, justifications even, for as short a playoff run as possible. (As usual, the pocketbook is one.) Here are the rest.

First off, this team cannot win the Stanley Cup without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Nor am I sure they can win without Malkin in the lineup. Even with a healthy and effective Crosby, Pittsburgh becomes a one-line team that opponents will try their best to lock down.

Crosby's continued absence is the bigger reason I'm not anxious for extended spring games. I'm still not convinced - and I'm not sure anything can change my mind - that it's a good idea for Crosby to return to hockey this season. First, I'm a little concerned that for as long as he's been skating in non-contact practices, Crosby has yet to be cleared for contact. I'm trying to remember the timeline Brad Richards went through when he had a concussion and his was much quicker. Of course, everyone recovering from concussions is different.

I don't know if there's a valid comparison point just from skating in non-contact drills to being cleared for contact or not. Part of me wonders if the team is intentionally keeping Crosby out because management also thinks it's a bad idea for him to return, but they also don't want to rule out the hope of a return. Another part of me thinks the first part is as dumb as John Steigerwald.

Considering Crosby has missed over three months, I can't imagine who thinks it'd be a good idea to thrust him into the heat of a playoff series. The current one features noted philanthropist Steve Downie on the other side; a recently-concussed star plus Downie = baaaaad tidings. Anyone the Penguins could face in the second round is likely to be just as unfriendly (Alex Ovechkin, Mike Richards, Chris Pronger, Scott Hartnell, Hal Gill off the top of my head.)

The longer Pittsburgh lasts in the playoffs, the higher the chance of Crosby making a return. Four months rusty. In games where every little inch, every last effort can make or break the season. Being his team's sole source of offense. A target on his back anyway, and an even bigger one with his recent injury. All apologies to Jeremy Roenick, I do not believe teams will take it easy on Crosby. I think they'll go the opposite way and try and pop him in the head even more than normal.

I've said it before and I'll keep saying it. We saw what happened to Marc Savard when he returned to the playoffs against Philadelphia. If the Penguins advance, and that has become a big if, the Flyers are a likely opponent.

I love what the Penguins, under Jack Adams candidate Dan Bylsma, have done this season without their two big guns. But their current style of play is not actually conducive to winning in the playoffs. OK, they're playing great defense and that's how you win, but you have to score sometime. Pittsburgh led the NHL in shootout wins, tied with Los Angeles with 10. It had the third-fewest regulation/overtime wins among the eight Eastern Conference playoff teams. I'm too lazy to look up the numbers before and after Crosby left the lineup, but I'm betting they're even more startling.

(OK, I lied. Here they are: After Crosby's last game on Jan. 5, seven of Pittsburgh's 23 wins were in a shootout, compared to three of 26 wins with Crosby.)

So the Penguins have found ways to win. It's been fun. But at this point, I just want to play it safe with Crosby. I want to hit the Reset button and start anew next year. Get Crosby healthy. Get Malkin healthy. Teach James Neal how to find an open spot in the net. Try again next year.

And hope to hell that the West wins the Cup again, unless Montreal can pull off three miracles in a row.

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