Thursday night, a new season begins for the Pittsburgh Penguins, one that marks the team’s 50th season. And to begin the 2016-17 season, the team will first celebrate the rising of its fourth Stanley Cup banner. For 50 years, the Penguins have brought their city so many memories — but there are still so many more to be made.
While much of Pittsburgh’s roster remains the same, there is one big chance: the name of the arena. Formerly Consol Energy Center, it was announced recently that the name has been changed to PPG Paints Arena, effective immediately. The arena is already being dubbed “The Paint Can” and is being referred to as the place where the Penguins will white-wash their opponents.
Now, with Sidney Crosby ruled out of Thursday’s season-opener against the Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh head coach Mike Sullivan, who is gearing up for his first full season with the team, will have to get creative.
Crosby’s replacement has yet to be named, and Sullivan will also need to find a replacement for Bryan Rust, who needs more time to heal from an undisclosed injury. Pittsburgh recently claimed goaltender Mike Condon off waivers from Montreal to help facilitate Matt Murray’s absence (out with a broken hand).
Coming off an impressive Stanley Cup win last season, there’s no doubt Pittsburgh wants to hoist the Cup again after this season. But winning the Cup two years in a row nearly impossible. In fact, no team has won back-to-back Stanley Cups since the Detroit Red Wings did it in 1997 and 1998.
With injuries being a big early-season obstacle, the Penguins may struggle a bit out of the gates. If they are able to keep the lineup intact for Crosby’s return, the offense will become much more lethal. This season could come down to a few different factors, injuries being one of them.
Entering the playoffs last year, Pittsburgh was limping, but the Penguins still emerged victorious. That isn’t an ideal strategy, and, while it worked, emphasis this season has been placed on allowing players to recover and limit early doctor visits.
If the Penguins can manage to stay healthy on the ice, the chemistry from last season will spill over and give Pittsburgh a nice boost.
The make-or-break period for the Penguins last year came during March when they went on a tear against division opponents. That will be another key to qualifying for the playoffs — playing well against divisional opponents.
Last year, Pittsburgh won 19 of 30 games against divisional teams. If the Penguins can stay around 19 wins in a division with the Capitals and the New York Rangers in it, Pittsburgh should fair well against much of the NHL.
Lastly, the Penguins need to be aware and disciplined. Fans saw the Penguins shoot themselves in the foot a bit both before and during the playoffs. Luckily, Sullivan’s style helps his squad out in this area, but bad penalties and lack of awareness can cost a team more than just a game or two.
There’s still a large youth movement on this roster, and with youth comes mistakes. But, with Sullivan having a whole off-season to remind his players, discipline should become a strength of the team by the time April hits.
While optimism screams that the Penguins will easily glide to yet another playoff berth, instincts say this season could very well be a high-injury year. The high intensity at which Sullivan expects his players to play exposes them to more injuries. And the fact that two of the biggest reasons for Pittsburgh bringing home a Stanley Cup — Crosby and Murray — are already out at the start of the season with significant injuries puts this team at an early disadvantage.
This isn’t to say the team is not capable of making the playoffs, in fact, they almost certainly will.
Pittsburgh will finish the season slightly better than last year with a 51-24-7, but it won’t be without a sacrifice or two.
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