W2W4: Blackhawks at Penguins
Once upon a time, this was a Cup finals pick
Predictions are a mug's game.
Always have been. Always will be.
Not that it stops us from making them, and I must admit I am always curious about other people's predictions, as well. And I'm sure proud as punch on those rare occasions when a prediction comes true and equally morose when the guesswork fails to produce success.
At the start of this NHL season, as we always do, my colleague Pierre LeBrun and I talked to GMs and coaches and players, consulted ancient scrolls and sifted through tea leaves and may have even sacrificed a small animal or two (just kidding about the animals; at least I am) in the hopes of discerning which two teams might be left standing in late May at the start of the Stanley Cup finals.
Funny how time changes your perspective.
In September, the Penguins seemed like a natural pick.
Although we weren't sure when Sidney Crosby was going to return to action, we felt he would at some time rejoin his teammates.
We liked former scoring champ Evgeni Malkin to have a bounce-back season after knee surgery and figured Jordan Staal to finally return to form after a couple of years of assorted injuries, giving the Penguins that killer depth down the middle that no team in the NHL could match. With Jack Adams Award winner Dan Bylsma and the Penguins' tough-as-nails defense and top-rated penalty-killing unit playing in front of underappreciated netminder Marc-Andre Fleury, the Penguins looked to be ready to return to the big show next spring.
A few short weeks ago, when Crosby did return and defied logic to step back into the superstar stratosphere without missing a beat despite 10-plus months of rehabilitation from a concussion, this Penguins team looked even more formidable than the one that won a Cup in 2009.
In short, we were feeling pretty darned smug about our Penguins Cup pick.
Now, though, the Penguins are once again buried by injury, their lineup looking like grandma's patchwork quilt after the moths had taken to it.
Tuesday night, the Penguins will likely be without pivotal pieces Crosby, Paul Martin, Kris Letang -- who was having the kind of season that had people talking Norris Trophy -- Zbynek Michalek (although he may be back later in the week) and Staal, who will be a game-time decision. It has been customary in recent days for the Penguins to be missing eight or nine regulars as they have accumulated 170 man-games lost to injury and the NHL season isn't even at the halfway point. Starting with the first game missed by Crosby early last January, the Pens have endured 421 man-games lost to injury over 73 games. That averages out to 5.77 man-games lost per game.
Although they remain among the gamest of teams, the Penguins have slipped down the standings and sit in third place in the Atlantic Division behind Philadelphia and the New York Rangers, and are fifth overall in the conference heading into Tuesday's game. They have won just twice in their past six outings and have the appearance of a team that is slowly being ground down by circumstances.
For months, it was "Wait 'til the Pens get healthy." Now you wonder if that will ever happen, if the Pens' reality, and hence their potential for success, is forever going to be mitigated by the doctors' reports.
"This is the league and this is what you have to deal with," GM Ray Shero told ESPN.com on Tuesday. Still, in spite of all of the vacant seats in the Penguins' locker room, the team has never used the injury plague as an excuse, Shero said.
The team has always approached every game as one that can be won, he said.
"That's the kind of mindset you have to have," Shero said. "I think guys take it as a challenge and I think that's the case around the league."
Meanwhile, the tough choice for us back in September -- it only seems like it was a thousand years ago -- was in the Western Conference.
Vancouver? Worthy but tired. Detroit? Maybe. San Jose? That's LeBrun's annual fallback position. So we settled on Chicago in kind of a default and because, well, we'd picked them to return to the '11 final and we're nothing if not stubborn.
We liked Duncan Keith, the 2010 Norris Trophy winner, to rebound after a disappointing 2010-11 season.
We loved the offensive depth and the toughness that GM Stan Bowman had added in the offseason.
We also liked the addition of Ray Emery to back up Corey Crawford, who was so impressive as a rookie last season. We didn't expect Emery would essentially wrest the starting job away from Crawford -- Emery takes a five-game winning streak into Tuesday's tilt against Pittsburgh and is 9-1-2 overall.
The Hawks, likewise, are riding a five-game winning streak and are 9-1-1 in their past 11 as they sit atop the Western Conference standings. They are fifth in goals per game and seventh on the power play.
Are they perfect? Of course not.
The penalty kill, although improving, remains a season-long bugaboo and still ranks 27th.
Still, as the Penguins and Blackhawks cross paths Tuesday night, one wonders whether this will, indeed, be a precursor to a successful Stanley Cup finals prediction or just two ships passing in the season destined for other, lesser, finales.Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.