It's quite possible the Capitals playoff road will have to run through Pittsburgh again this season. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
There’s been a lot of talk about the difficulty of repeating as Stanley Cup champion. After all, it hasn’t been done in more than a decade (the Red Wings in 1997 and ’98), but that doesn’t mean it’s an impossible feat.
In fact, the Red Wings themselves came within one game of pulling the trick last year and I wouldn’t be surprised if the team that beat them, the Pittsburgh Penguins, pulled off the two-fer this year.
The main knock against repeating is how many ‘extra’ games these elite teams play in a short amount of time. In the case of the Penguins, they’ve played 44 post-season games in the past two years. Add in a full complement of 82-game schedules and that’s a lot of hockey.
But look closer.
Out of a possible 290 games (three regular seasons, two playoff runs), captain Sidney Crosby is on pace to play 255 contests, thanks to injuries. He really hasn’t played that much more than say, Philly’s Mike Richards or New Jersey’s Zach Parise – neither of whom have gone as deep in the post-season.
Now granted, recovering from injuries is hard work, but ask the players themselves and they’re happy to be playing extra games in May and June.
“You don’t think about it,” said Pittsburgh’s Mike Rupp, who won a Cup with the Devils back in 2003. “There’s a lot of times in the playoffs when you’re running on adrenaline and desire.”
Rupp signed with the Penguins in the off-season specifically because he wanted another shot at the Cup.
“You get that hunger to get back there,” he revealed.
And if you want to talk about extra games, key Penguins such as Jordan Staal and Marc-Andre Fleury didn’t play any games during the Olympic break (even though Fleury was on Team Canada’s roster) and new Pens such as Rupp, Alexei Ponikarovsky and Jordan Leopold haven’t been taxed much, or at all, in the post-season recently. Young defenseman Alex Goligoski, who is having his best NHL season yet, was largely a black ace during the 2009 Cup run, suiting up just twice for the Pens.
However, repeating is not going to be a cakewalk. To that end, coach Dan Bylsma has been doing his due diligence to break the ‘Curse of the Champs.’ He’s been talking to members of the New York Islanders 1980s dynasty, as well as past winners from other teams and sports about getting back to the final.
“I sought out a lot of advice in the summer,” Bylsma said. “And I know Mike Babcock (his former coach in Anaheim) did the same when we went to the final in 2003.
“I can tell you there really isn’t a good book on it.”
But if any team can write a few chapters, it’s the Penguins. Their core is young and Crosby isn’t the type of player to take a year off to recoup. While the team may not be the top squad in the East, that certainly didn’t hurt them in the past. Even teams that owned them in the regular season are leery about Pittsburgh.
“I hope they lose in the first round,” said Washington Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau, half-jokingly. “The road has to go through them, they’re the champions and they have the same cast of characters.”
And while a Caps-Pens rematch in the second or third round of the playoffs would be heaven for hockey fans, Boudreau’s probably not the only coach who would rather not face Crosby and crew when the second season begins.
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Monday and Wednesday, his column - The Straight Edge - every Friday, and his prospect feature, The Hot List appears Tuesdays.
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