I’ve seen every Penguins game in the past two years, and most of them over the last 20 years. Soon after Michel Therrien took over last season, real structure began creeping into the Penguins’ game and their work ethic sky-rocketed. By the end of the season I felt they were the hardest working, most disciplined Penguins team I had seen since I became a season ticket holder in 1987. And although Sid’s skills were obvious from the beginning, as last season progressed you could see so much more skill in the organization beyond Sid. A growing self-confidence became evident every time they stepped on the ice. By the end of last season I was already giddy with anticipation about the coming season, like I had never been before. I had no doubt the Pens would make the playoffs and I expected them to make the second round, at least. If their steady improvement from last year continued, I knew there was no limit.
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When Ray Shero took over as General Manager I was glad, but I feared that he might fire Therrien. I was used to relatively undisciplined Penguins teams over the years, even the highly-skilled ones, and I marveled at the job Michel had done with this team. So I was relieved when he was required to keep Therrien, and thrilled when Shero brought players like Ruutu and Eaton. This truly became a team to contend with.
Don’t be fooled by the player’s public pronouncements during training camp that their goal entering this season was to make the playoffs. If you paid close attention, you could read between the lines and tell that there were young leaders on this team who knew how good they were becoming and “just making the playoffs” was never their goal. Early on, when a writer asked Mark Recchi about the future potential of the Pens, Mark told him that this team didn’t care about the future, “these guys want it now.” That comment didn’t generate much talk then, but it confirmed in my own mind what I had been feeling.
During the first part of this season the Pens had a decent record and were competitive nearly every night. But even when their record didn’t really mirror it, you could see the continuing, steady improvement in all facets of their game. By December I began to think they had actually become Cup contenders this year, and told my 16 year-old daughter Juliet, who goes to most of the games with me, that I expected the Penguins to really turn it on after the All-Star break, to keep climbing in the standings and to make a serious run for the Cup (She thought they were still a year away but has finally come around to my thinking.)
I know all the arguments against the Pens: weak defense, unproven goaltender, inexperience and lack of scoring wingers. But after the Pens beat Dallas and Phoenix on the road, right after the All-Star break, I just knew in my bones that they could win it all. I’ve never doubted it since. And if they can avoid key injuries, I’m predicting the Pens WILL win it all. The signings of Laraque and Roberts were great, but they aren’t the pieces that will propel the Pens to the Stanley Cup. Those pieces were already in place. It’s not just what I have seen on the ice, it’s what I see in the character and commitment of the players and the competence of the new management.
What separates the truly great players and teams from the very good ones are drive and commitment. Believe me, this team exudes those qualities in abundance, from every pore. It will all seem so obvious when people look back a few years from now, but it is obvious right now if you just look hard enough. I just hope that this time the final win comes on home ice.
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