Repeating as champs daunting task for Pens
Wednesday, April 14, 2010

[IMGR][/IMGR]There is a stark reality facing the Penguins as the Stanley Cup playoffs open tonight at Mellon Arena with Game 1 of a best-of-seven series against the Ottawa Senators. They can do no better than last spring, when they won the Stanley Cup on the strength of clutch performances from their nucleus of young stars and a couple of gut-check Game 7 wins on the road.

In fact, anything but retaining the Cup will garner the Penguins 18 of whom return from last season the dreaded "failure" tag.

"The bar here is pretty high," center Jordan Staal said. "We like it that way."

From in-season performance to historical trends, most signs point toward the Penguins failing to repeat as NHL champions. They went 3-9-2 against the top three Eastern Conference playoff seeds, and no team has reigned as champion in consecutive seasons since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998.

History likely will have no impact on the Penguins. After all, they scoffed at it last season by becoming the first club since the 1984 Edmonton Oilers to win the Final after losing in it a year before. Also, their Game 7 win at Detroit to clinch the Cup on June 12 was the only Game 7 Final win by a road team since 1971.

The trouble for this team is that it has performed at far from the consistent level that is a hallmark of most Cup clubs. Special teams provide a glaring example of their confounding contradiction: A team stacked with two former scoring champions (centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin) failed to score a power-play goal in 41 games, but a defense corps that lost its two best penalty-killing defensemen (Rob Scuderi and Hal Gill) in the offseason finished seventh overall and second in road denials of opposing power plays.

The Penguins have not lost consecutive regulation games since dropping five in a row from Dec. 27-Jan. 3. However, they failed to win back-to-back games in their final 16 contests.

They enter the playoffs as the Eastern Conference's No. 4 seed, same as they did last season, but Bodog has the Penguins listed as the fourth overall favorite to win the Cup ahead of a New Jersey team that limited them to five goals in six regular-season games, all Devils wins.

A good bet is that for the Penguins to win again, Crosby must carry them as he did in an MVP-caliber season that he capped with 51 goals and 109 points.

A better bet is that these four players will play an equally pivotal role if the Cup stays in Pittsburgh this summer:

[HIGH-LIGHT]Winger Ruslan Fedotenko[/HIGH-LIGHT]

He is the rare player whose goals-per-game average improves during the posteason (0.26 from 0.22). Fedotenko finished a disappointing regular season with 11 goals, only four more than he scored in 24 playoff games last spring.

"(Playoffs) bring out a desperation and commitment," he said. "I feel like that for every game, every shift, and every second you are out there, you know what's on the line. You aren't playing for yourself. You are playing for your team, and that helps (with focus)."

Teammates know the playoffs are Fedotenko's "time of year." For the Penguins to win, that must hold true again.

[HIGH-LIGHT]Centers Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal[/HIGH-LIGHT]

These pivots were the Penguins' top performers in the conference and Cup Final series last spring. Malkin bullied the Carolina Hurricanes for six goals and nine points through Games 1-3 of a four-game sweep to the Final, where Staal was described by coach Dan Bylsma as the team's "best player" in winning four of five from Detroit to rally against the Red Wings.

Crosby always draws an opponents' schematic focus, as Detroit coach Mike Babcock proved last season by trying to match his top defensive forwards and No. 1 defense pairing against him. That reality places pressure on the Penguins' "other" star centers to take advantage of favorable matchups.

"Every team has got their own players that make a difference," Staal said. "That's the way it goes."

If those players aren't Staal and Malkin, the Penguins won't go far.

[HIGH-LIGHT]Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury[/HIGH-LIGHT]

Great goaltending wins the Cup, and Fleury was great last season when momentum hung in the balance: Game 3 of Round 1 against Jeff Carter of the Flyers; Game 7 of Round 2 against Alex Ovechkin of the Capitals; Games 6 and 7 against Dan Cleary and Nicklas Lidstrom of the Red Wings.

Four saves for the ages and the four biggest of an oft-maligned career, even though Fleury is one of only two playoff goalies this season with a Cup win on his resume.

"I don't think about it. I just try to make the save, and maybe that's my secret, why I make them," he said. "You realize after the game what you did, if it helped, but in those moments it's just about trying to make a save.

"That's my job: Make a save, keep the score where it is."

The Penguins are trying to do the same thing with the Cup. The odds are long against them, but that was true last spring, too.

This much is certain: It's Cup or bust.

"We know it," Fleury said.