Freed from the Weight of Expectations, the Penguins Delivered

Trevor Daley, Sidney Crosby
The Associated Press
Washington, DC

In hockey, just like in all other sports, there is only one winner at the end of a season. But that doesn’t mean that just because your team didn’t win the Cup that you don’t end the season feeling good. It’s all about expectations. If you are a Toronto Maple Leafs fan, chances are you aren’t feeling bad about this past season – forget your record. Your team unloaded unwanted salaries, loaded up on draft picks, starting seeing your young guys make it to the big show, and you landed the #1 overall pick in the upcoming draft.

If you are a fan of the Washington Capitals, however, you probably feel pretty demoralized by your second-round exit from the playoffs. This was supposed to be the Caps’ year. They had Ovechkin, a red hot goalie in Braden Holtby, and young offensive weapons. Unfortunately, they ran into the buzz saw that was the Pittsburgh Penguins, and the Capitals and their fans were sent to the offseason disappointed (yet again).

It has been these expectations – expectations of greatness, of multiple championships, of a modern day hockey dynasty – that have hung around the necks of Penguins players and fans for years.

When Sid the Kid lifted the Cup in Detroit in 2009, everyone thought that this was just the first of many Stanley Cup appearances and victories for the Pittsburgh Penguins. In the years that followed the expectations were clear – anything short of winning the Cup would be considered a disappointment for the franchise.

And disappointment, rather than Cups followed. There were injuries – to Crosby, Malkin and Letang – and there were questions about Fleury’s ability to win the big game. There were questionable trades made as the Pens front office tried to go “all in” every year. There was a lack of emphasis put on developing young players in the Pens system.

The Pens ownership got impatient, the Pens fan base got restless, and — frankly — it didn’t look like many of the Pens players were having much fun.

As more distance was put between the present day and the Pens 2009 Cup, more and more people were asking whether or not the window was closing on the Pittsburgh Penguins. Maybe this wasn’t a team of destiny, maybe Crosby wasn’t Lemieux, maybe it was time to break up the Pens core of stars.

Suddenly, the crushing weight of expectations was lifted.

At the beginning of this year, few people in the hockey world thought that the Pittsburgh Penguins were a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. Heck, many believed the Pens wouldn’t even make the playoffs.

In mid-December, expectations got even lower for these Penguins. Struggling to score and in 5th place in the Metropolitan division, the Pens fired second year head coach Mike Johnston and replaced them with their AHL affiliate’s head coach – Mike Sullivan.

A funny thing happened when they lost the expectations — they started winning on the ice. Sullivan brought a fire to the Pens bench that had been missing for years and a commitment to playing younger, faster players (many of whom he had coached in the AHL). General Manager Jim Rutherford, to his credit, bought into the Sullivan approach and gave the coach the tools he needed to play his much faster style of game. Key additions such as Carl Hagelin and Trevor Daley during the season, as well as his additions of Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel in the offseason, helped to transform Pittsburgh from a offensively challenged team to a goal-scoring machine.

Over the last two months of the season, the Pens appeared to be the most complete team in all of hockey. Yet, the pundits (maybe having been burned from picking the Pens for so many years) were still not sold on them.

The Pens went into series against the Rangers, the Capitals, Lightning and the Sharks as the underdog — and they flourished in this new world of low expectations.

Last night, the Penguins finally became that team of destiny. Finally, Sidney Crosby got that second Stanley Cup win. Finally, the Pittsburgh Penguins not only met expectations — but exceeded them.

For the Pittsburgh Penguins and Sidney Crosby — it was destiny delayed, but not denied.